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The Wiz, and six more movies

At the movies today — a bum was lost and then gets found, a fancy lad goes to sea, James Taylor and a Beach Boy ride together without singing, dozens of long-dead women go naked, a sci-fi icon returns from being dead, and three short stories from Rod Serling.

THE
NEVERENDING
FILM FESTIVAL

#118

Thursday,
Dec. 8, 2022


Cabin Boy (1994)
Night Gallery (1969)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Star Trek III:
The Search for Spock
(1984)
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Unashamed: A Romance (1938)
The Wiz (1978)

And the greatest of these is The Wiz

More 'arty' but also very good: Paris, Texas and Two-Lane Blacktop.

Also fun: Night Gallery, and Star Trek III.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Cabin Boy (1994)

Christ Elliott was a writer and sometimes performer in skits on David Letterman's show, and some connoisseurs of comedy, including me, found him amusing. Others found him annoying, but fuck 'em.

He starred in the short-lived and beloved-by-me sit-com Get A Life, and when that was cancelled some idiot at 20th Century Fox thought Elliott might be a movie star, so Cabin Boy exists.

Elliott plays Nathaniel Mayweather, a pampered "fancy lad" who's off to join his family's hotel business upon graduation from finishing school. A self-centered man-child full of insults for everyone, he gets misdirected and stows away on a fishing boat with a crew of smelly fishymen.

The jokes are lowbrow, and there's no attempt to make any of the seafaring scenes look realistic, which lends the whole film a hallucinatory presence. It's funny if you want it to be funny, but you'll have to make an effort or smoke a doobie.

There's much absurdity and irreverence, along with a few interesting visual effects. It's a satire of a movie — Captains Courageous, perhaps — more than actually being a movie. 

Written by Elliott and Adam Resnick, directed by Resnick, and produced by Tim Burton. Kooky cameos include Andy Richter, Rikki Lake, Russ Tamblyn, the star's dad Bob Elliott, and of course, Dave Letterman.

"You've been like the drunken, abusive grandfather I never had."

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Night Gallery (1969) 

A few years after The Twilight Zone was taken off the air, Rod Serling came back with another anthology show I liked, Night Gallery. The conceit is that Serling walks through an art museum, showing you eerie paintings one at a time, and each painting kicks off or wraps up a new horror story.

Night Gallery wasn't as ambitious as The Twilight Zone, usually more goose bumps than deep thinking, but it was better than the box it was on.

This is the pilot episode, a movie-length collection of three short stories, all written and introduced by the perpetually dour Mr Serling. I watched this, not for Serling so much as for Steven Spielberg, who directed one of the segments before he was a hotshot moviemaker.

In the first story, Ossie Davis is the butler for a rich old white man who's about to die, and Roddy McDowall is the old man's obnoxious nephew, haunted after his death by a painting that can't be destroyed. It's a small-scale pleasure with a nice twist at the end, and it's directed by Boris Sagal (The Omega Man, Rich Man Poor Man).

In the second story, directed by Spielberg, Joan Crawford is a wealthy woman, blind since birth, and cruel to everyone she knows. "No-one has ever done me justice, beginning with God," she says.

She wants to have an experimental eyeball transplant, which would, at best, give her a few hours of eyesight, and she's willing to pay a bum $9,000 (nine-thousand dollars) to be the donor — and be rendered blind for the rest of his life. Even for 1969, $9K seems a bargain price. Tom Bosley plays the bum, and he's painfully believable. 

Unlike Spielberg's Columbo work, there are a few recognizably Spielbergian moments, and it's a rather elegant little mini-movie. I wish it had been longer; I wanted to see more of Crawford's over-the-top hatefulness, and wondered how Bosley deals with his blindness.

The third story, directed by Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets) is about "a monster who wanted to be a fisherman." He's a Nazi war criminal, hiding in South America, haunted by nightmares so you actually feel some sympathy for the bastard. Then he happens to meet a survivor of the camps (the marvelous Sam Jaffe), who says, "We've met before, haven't we?"

The first two segments of Night Gallery are effective, but that third one is a knockout. Beef it up a little, and it could've been a play, or a movie, and it's far more haunting than the Davis or Crawford pieces.

I wonder if that was Serling's deal, for doing Night Gallery? I'll make some light and fluffy spooky stuff for you, if you'll let me make some serious nightmare material for me.

Kinda surprisingly is the credit, Associate Producer: John Badham, who later directed Saturday Night Fever and WarGames.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Paris, Texas (1984)

Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis, a mysterious wanderer who barely speaks, and who's been lost to his family for four years. When he's spotted in Texas, his brother (Dean Stockwell) flies to to find him, and brings him back to Los Angeles, but Travis still has little to say.

Wim Wenders, man.

I saw this movie when it came out, which was before I became me, and all I remembered was that it's a little weird. It's much better than that, and the first third of it feels like a movie made especially for me. It comes spooky close to capturing my own experience as a wandering and missing person, eventually found.

Back in the movie, Travis gets a plot about self-re-discovery and re-connecting with his son and ex-wife Jane, and that's an interesting story, very well-written and performed.

Their son is a movie kid — oh-so-cute when cute is called for, smart or empathetic when that's what the plot demands, but never difficult, disinterested, dirty, disruptive, or in any way like a genuine child. Jane, Travis's wife, is played by Nastassja Kinski, because in movies, any female 'romantic interest' is required to be gorgeous.

You might complain that the movie moves slowly, but only because it moves slowly. It takes its time, like an enjoyable walk and meditation. What, do you have somewhere better to be? No, you don't.

The second half unfolds like a play, set in a private booth at a peep show. Travis & Jane's story is complicated, very personal, and unlike my story nor anyone's I've known, but it's written by Sam Shepard so you'll buy it and believe it. Sparsely scored by Ry Cooder.

Verdict: YES.

This isn't a criticism of the movie, because it's of its time, but folks back then sure were casual about auto safety. Driving down the freeway, father and son unbuckled isn't enough, so they put the kid in the back of a pick-up truck unrestrained, and whizz down the freeway again. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Unlike the first two Trek films, this one is for fans only. To anyone unfamiliar with Star Trekkery, everything about this episode would be baffling. For experienced Trekkers like me, though, it's a good time.

Spock died in the previous film, and Kirk is supposed to be shellacked with grief, but William Shatner can't pull it off, so it's more like Kirk is 'lightly grieving'. That's OK, though — Star Trek worked around Shatner for decades, and this film does it again.

It really can't be Trek without Spock, so Leonard Nimoy, who played the late Mr Spock, directs instead of co-starring, and deftly maneuvers through whatever logical loop-de-loops it takes to bring his character back to life.

It's all for the fans: Marc Lenard is back as Spock's papa, with Dame Judith Anderson as Mom. You got your mind melds, tribbles, pon farr, and another dippy new Vulcan ritual. For the only time in the movies, DeForest Kelley's Dr McCoy is crucial to the plot, and also Uhura gets to do something beyond opening hailing frequencies, Sulu goes all chop socky, and Scotty finally does sabotage instead of repairs. And the anarchist in me loves that Kirk et al are doing what they do despite direct orders not to. 

In most movies he's in — The Addams Family, Back to the Future, Buckaroo Banzai, Clue, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc — Christopher Lloyd's hammy overacting makes the movie worse. Here, though, he's playing a vicious and murderous Klingon, and in that role it's impossible to overact, so this flick overcomes both Shatner and Lloyd.

And the whole thing sets the stage for the much better Star Trek IV, coming in 1986. Get your tickets now, and then idle at impulse power for two years.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

This is a car movie. It's so much a car movie, there's an engine roaring over the Universal logo before the movie starts.

All the main characters get around in souped-up rods, and big chunks of the script are 'car talk' like this:

"Chevy block?"

"Yeah."

"396?"

"454."

"What kind of transmission?"

"Four-speed."

"Dual headers?"

"Yeah."

"How fast will she run?"

"That depends on who's around."

One of the movie's two major cars has a raised chunk of the engine that stands above the hood, seriously blocking the driver's view of the road. I hate cars, hate people who'd drive with an obstructed view like that, and I hate car movies. This one's fun, though.

James Taylor — yeah, singer of "You've Got a Friend" and "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved by You" — is one of the hot rodders, known only as "The Driver." His low-key nemesis is Warren Oates, whose character is named GTO, for his car.  Also along for the ride is "The Mechanic" (Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys), and "The Girl."

The Driver and GTO are racing across the country with "pinks" (pink slips) on the line, but this is not a Cannonball Run. There's not that much screen-time spent driving, and most of the driving doesn't involve screeching tires.

The movie is more about the testosterone head games these dudes play against each other between their 'car talk' conversations, which is much more interesting than their cars anyway.

What's it mean, really? Well, before a race, The Driver and The Mechanic strip their car down, removing all the excess parts to reduce the weight, and the movie is nicely stripped-down too. I'm taking it as an allegory for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or it might be simply a movie about men driving cars.

Directed by Monte Hellman (Cockfighter, Ride in the Whirlwind).

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Unashamed: A Romance (1932)

This is an early exploitation film. I came for the titties, and the movie delivers, but there's also more than a fig leaf of story here.

Rae is a stunningly beautiful woman who looks ever-so-slightly "like an Indian or something," as co-workers say. She's insecure about her gorgeousness, and thinks her vaguely ethnic appearance might be preventing her boss from falling in love with her, so Rae asks the company doctor to recommend that her boss visit a nudist colony where Rae is a member.

She figures, seeing her naked might get his attention, but can you see the lack of logic in this plan? Surrounded by a great many naked women, Rae's boss might have even less interest in her than he did when she was clothed.

Really, of course, this is a movie about pretty naked women beside the pool, throwing a ball and jumping around. Despite the motto posted at the front gate — "There is beauty in every unencumbered human body from the cradle to bent old age" — the woman at Olympic Fields Nudist Camp seem to all be between the ages of 20 and 30, none are overweight, and ladies outnumber gentlemen by about 3:1. 

It's called Unashamed: A Romance, but there's no romance. I don't remember anyone kissing, nor even a meaningful glance. And perhaps from fear of theaters being raided by police, the camera captures nary a glimpse of anyone's genitals or even pubes.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Wiz (1978)

This is the all-black Wizard of Oz. Diana Ross is Dorothy, Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow, Nipsy Russell is the Tin Man, Ted Ross is the Cowardly Lion, and Richard Pryor is The Wiz. The twister strikes in Brooklyn, and even Oz looks a little like a stylized slum.

Quincy Jones did the musical arrangements, borrowed of course from the Broadway play, itself borrowed from the works of L Frank Baum. Screenplay by Joel Schumacher (who wrote Car Wash, but was better known as director of The Lost Boys, and Batman & Robin) and directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Running on Empty).

Makeup maestro Stan Winston — Starman, Galaxy Quest, T2, etc — did the mask work, which is amazing, making the Cowardly Lion look just real enough to be believed but not so real as to be freaky.

As I recall, the key criticism when this came out was that in the book and play, Dorothy is a young girl, and Diana Ross isn't. Makes no never mind to me. Ms Ross completely rocks it, and her finale at the end is one of the great moments of musical cinema.

And she has a supporting cast, too. Jackson is so lovable I temporarily forgot about all the little boys he diddled. Nipsy Russell was a comedian, not a singer, but he sure tries to sing and you have to respect the effort. Ted Ross — never heard of him — roars grandly here.

Most of the songs are melodic, catchy tunes with clever lyrics, and there are several beautiful ballads, too. I'll be whistling for weeks.

The tunes are accompanied by amazing dancing, which every good musical must have but some don't. I could watch an endless loop of those four crows marvelously twirling and spinning in front of crucified Jackson.

There's one song that almost doesn't work for me, and that's Lena Horne's number near the end. She's the Good Witch, and her song starts so treacly I thought it was the movie's first big blunder — but it's emphatically not. That sugary start builds and builds, and Ms Horne makes it a showstopper.

This is what a big-budget movie musical should do — great story, great songs, and the songs aren't an interruption, they're part of the story.

When The Wiz first came out, I was mesmerized, walked out of the Coliseum Theater in downtown Seattle in a daze — and I came back to see it again the next day. 45 years later, I love it no less.

What's to complain about? Hardly nuthin'. Sure, on my third consecutive re-watch here in the recliner, I fast-forwarded through the green-red-gold songs, but still I was bawling at the end. This is a wonderful visit to an urban Oz. Not sheer perfection, but near perfection.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions:

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
The Driver (1978)
Masterminds (1997)
The Psychology of Dream Analysis (2002)
Soylent Green (1973)
The Swimmer (1968)
Wonder Women (1973)

 12/8/2022  

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.   

 

5 comments:

  1. Wenders is an interesting director. Not as extreme or subversive as his cohorts Herzog and Fassbinder, but something else... a little more classic Hollywood, more subtle. He's my least favorite of the three, but he's still great.

    And many of his films are "road" movies or stories that take people on journeys. Until The End Of The World is an interesting sci-fi take on that genre, the most American genre of all after the western. Be sure to see the long version if you watch it. The American Friend is fantastic, maybe the best Patricia Highsmith adaptation, along with Carol. Pina is a wonderful dance documentary/performance, engaging and inspiring even if you're not into dance.

    Speaking of road films: Harry Dean Stanton shows up in David Lynch's The Straight Story, one of his sweetest and most moving films. And there's a fantastic UK film called Radio On, like a post-apocalyptic Wim Wenders channeling JG Ballard.

    "so they put the kid in the back of a pick-up truck unrestrained" - Maybe they didn't do that in Seattle in the 70s, but I grew up in a sizable city in the midwest, and EVERYONE did that, kids, pets, adults, all the time, any weather. Been years since I've seen someone in the bed of a truck, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Claude Blah Blah Blah ReignsDecember 9, 2022 at 1:10 PM

      At least one of Herzog's flicks is in my top ten (Stroszek) and half a dozen others in my top 100. Lessons of Darkness, Aguirre, Heart Of Glass, Kaspar Hauser, etc. He hasn't really made a good film this century, though, and his coasting on his "persona" the last few years has been tiresome.

      Fassbinder is thornier, but again I'd put several of his in my top 100. World On A Wire is in my top ten sci-fi. Berlin Alexanderplatz, Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, In A Year Of 13 Moons, so many others.

      Check out Straight story, it's worth it. It's a truly lovely film. All the clichéd attributes attached to so many shit films - like "heartwarming," "family friendly," "inspirational" and so on - are genuinely presented and earned here, by the person you might least expect to convey them. But like It's A Wonderful Life, which is an 89-minute horror film with a tacked-on 1 minute "happy" ending, this film contains profound depths of sadness and feeling. All the art school goth weirdos that adore Lynch but never saw The Elephant Man or this have no idea what they're doing. EM and SS are more literally and compassionately about outsiders than any of his other films. Anyway, Richard Farnsworth's face should be on Mt. Rushmore.

      I'd rank Lynch as follows:

      1. Mullholland Drive
      2. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) (hate the original show and Fire Walk With Me, but love this)
      3. Inland Empire
      4. Eraserhead
      5. Blue Velvet
      6. Straight Story
      7. Elephant Man
      8. Lost Highway
      9. Dune
      10. Fire Walk With Me
      11. Wild At Heart

      Delete
    2. I clicked Mulholland Drive off midway through, and I feel like I'm over David Lynch — but it's possible I missed something marvelous. It happens. I'll give it another look, but I'm skeptical.

      And Straight Story.

      I watched and liked his original Twin Peaks on TV, 6-8 episodes in I realized all he was doing was making it weirder and weirder but with no path toward explaining things. So I haven't watched any of the latter TP stiff.

      Delete
  2. >In most movies he's in — The Addams Family, Back to the Future, Buckaroo Banzai, Clue, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc — Christopher Lloyd's hammy overacting makes the movie worse.

    Wow, we could not disagree more. BTTF, Clue, and Roger Rabbit were all enhanced by Lloyd's performances, IMO. The other movies, I either haven't seen or haven't seen in decades.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Obviously, mine is a minority opinion, or Mr Lloyd wouldn't have had such a long Hollywood career. I just never liked his 'zany' act on screen. He was mostly why I never watched Taxi, too.

      Delete

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