Saturday, January 28, 2023

#2,894. 1941 (1979) - Eddie Deezen Triple Feature


I often describe 1941 as having your head stuck in a pinball machine while somebody is hitting tilt over and over again” – Steven Spielberg

As a follow-up to his box-office hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg tackled the 1979 comedy 1941.

And it fell flat.

It was a major disappointment critically, with Vincent Canby in The New York Times saying “I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed”. And while the film did turn a profit, it took in only $23 million at the North American Box Office, a major step down from Spielberg’s earlier movies.

Critics and patrons be damned, however: 1941 is a funny movie! My father, brother and I fell in love with it on cable TV, so much so that we eventually bought it on VHS (back when tapes were still selling north of $75). I watched 1941 over and over, and it never failed to entertain.

Less than a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine under the command of Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune), and carrying a Nazi observer (Christopher Lee), loses its way (due to a faulty compass) and ends up drifting off the coast of Los Angeles.

Determined to carry out his mission, which is the bombing of Hollywood, Mitamura sends several troops ashore to do some reconnaissance, and while there they capture lumberjack Hollis “Holly” Wood (Slim Pickens), taking him prisoner and demanding he point them in the direction of Hollywood.

Such an attack won’t be easy for Mitamura and his crew. With Pearl Harbor still fresh in everyone’s minds, all of Southern California has been on high alert. Due to the strategic positioning of his Santa Monica house, Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) is asked to store an anti-aircraft ordinance in his front yard by U.S. Army Motor Sergeant Tree (Dan Aykroyd), much to the dismay of Douglas’ gun-hating wife Joan (Lorraine Gary).

Douglas’ daughter Betty (Dianne Kay) and her friend Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) recently signed up to serve as dancers with the USO, something that doesn’t sit well with Betty’s longtime boyfriend Wally (Bobby Di Cicco). Further complicating matters is that Sgt. Tree’s second-in-command Corporal Sitarski (Treat Williams) has the hots for Betty.

At the nearby Santa Monica Ocean Front Amusement Park, Angelo Scioli (Lionel Stander) of the Ground Observer’s Corps puts two volunteers, Claude (Murray Hamilton) and the erratic Herbie (Eddie Deezen), on the Ferris Wheel, handing them a phone and sending them to the top so they can keep an eye out for enemy aircraft.

Meanwhile, the oversexed Capt. Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson), an aide to Gen. Stillwell (Robert Stack), puts the moves on Stillwell’s secretary Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen), knowing full well the only way he’ll get anywhere with her is to get her up in a plane. Also patrolling the skies around Los Angeles is renegade pilot Captain Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi), who believes the Japanese are preparing an invasion.

Everything will come to a head later that evening, when the lost Japanese sub will be spotted by several people, including Ward Douglas and Wild Bill Kelso. Throw in an all-out brawl between servicemen at a USO dance hosted by Sal Stewart (Joe Flaherty) and you have a situation that will almost certainly spiral out of control.

The cast, as you can see, is packed, but even more stars will appear, albeit briefly, throughout the film. Warren Oates turns up as a gung-ho Colonel named “Madman” Maddox, who is stationed in the hills and is demanding that Gen. Stillwell send more troops to fight the Japanese paratroopers he is convinced are out there. John Candy, Frank McRae and a very young Mickey Rourke are also on-hand, as members of Sgt. Tree’s tank crew, and Susan Backline, aka the first victim in Jaws, opens the film with a very funny parody of her famous scene from that 1975 classic.

As for the action, Spielberg cuts back and forth between the various subplots often enough to ensure each will generate laughs. Especially funny are Hamilton and Deezen as the mismatched partners on the Ferris Wheel, who are soon joined by a very unexpected guest (one that’s more attentive than the two of them combined). Belushi is at his manic best as the patriotic Wild Bill, and Aykroyd is one of the film’s few voices of reason. That is until he’s knocked on the head just when his crew needs him most! Even Stack’s General Stillwell gets distracted by a showing of Dumbo on the big screen.

Yes, 1941 is bloated. It is loud. It is jumbled. Its characters are over-the-top and even cartoonish. But it is also hilarious, and while some scenes don’t flow together, or go on a bit too long, they are almost always followed by another that will absolutely make you laugh!
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, January 21, 2023

#2,893. The China Syndrome (1979) - Jane Fonda Triple Feature


The moment it was released, The China Syndrome was criticized by the U.S. Nuclear Power industry, who saw it as a direct attack. And there are certainly moments in the film that do this very thing; at this point in 1979, nuclear power was a frightening prospect for a lot of people, who worried what might happen to their communities in the event of an accident.

It didn’t help the industry’s case when, a few days after The China Syndrome hit theaters, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, marking the most significant nuclear accident in U.S. history.

How’s that for free advertising? The China Syndrome went on to make millions at the box office.

While shooting a piece on alternative energy sources in California, reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) witness what appears to be a serious situation in the control room of the Ventana nuclear power plant. Though forbidden to take any shots, Richard keeps his camera rolling as the plant’s shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) and his team, which includes technician Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley), avert a potential meltdown. Fearing backlash, Kimberly is prevented from using any of Richard’s footage by her station manager, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat).

Godell and his company’s top executive Evan McCormack (Richard Herd) put out a cover story, maintaining there was no real danger. But Godell, quite shaken by the incident, launches his own investigation. To his dismay, he finds that corners were cut during the plant’s construction. When his attempts to reveal the truth are met with doubt and even threats, Godell turns to Kimberly and asks that she help him get the word out before a genuine disaster strikes.

Approaching its story from two directions, The China Syndrome is enthralling as both an exposè of investigative journalism (a la All the President’s Men) and a thriller, in which a whistle-blower is harassed by his own organization. Each story works as intended thanks in large part to the performances. Jane Fonda is terrific as the on-air personality who longs to cover a real news story, while Jack Lemmon damn near steals the show as the company man who loses faith in his superiors, and wants to do the right thing. Lemmon would win several awards for his turn as Godell, including Best Actor at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was even nominated for an Oscar (which he lost to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer Vs. Kramer).

In addition to its cast, there are moments throughout the second half of The China Syndrome that will have you on the edge of your seat, like when Godell, while driving, realizes he’s being followed and tries to shake his pursuers by dodging in and out of traffic. Yet the film’s most intense sequence is saved for the end, when both subplots crash together in a way I never anticipated.

Seen today, its message is dated. Nuclear energy is a reality, and has been accepted (for the most part) by a more informed public. Yet, even if time has passed its storyline by, The China Syndrome remains a taut, gripping thriller all the same.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

#2,892. Julia (1977) - Jane Fonda Triple Feature


A period drama directed by the great Fred Zinnemann, 1977’s Julia was a prestige picture for 20th Century Fox, and as such was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three.

Among the Oscars it competed for was Best Film Editing (Walter Murch), Best Original Score (Georges Delerue), and Best Costume Design (Anthea Sylbert). The editing and score are, indeed, strong, but the costumes are especially impressive, and did their part - along with the production design – to bring the time period (early to mid-20th century) convincingly to life.

One of the Oscars that Julia netted was for Alvin Sargent’s adapted screenplay. Based on Lillian (Lilly) Hellman’s 1973 book Pentimento, Julia centers on the friendship between Hellman (here played by Jane Fonda) and Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), and how the wave of Nazism that swept through Europe changed both.

As the movie opens, Lilly is struggling to write her first play. Her lover and harshest critic, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), recommends that she get away for a while to clear her mind, perhaps visit her friend Julia in Vienna. Schooled at Oxford, Julia was continuing her medical training in Vienna, and worked for a time as an apprentice to Sigmund Freud.

Unfortunately, with Hitler’s Socialist party taking power, things have become unstable for Jews in Vienna, and one day Julia is badly beaten by Nazi sympathizers. Lilly rushes to visit her friend, only to spend very little time with her. One morning, Julia is no longer in her hospital bed, and nobody will tell Lilly where she was taken, or her current condition.

Back in America, Lilly finishes her play, and it is a Broadway smash. Now the toast of the town, she enjoys her success, though never forgets about Julia, who, at this point, she has not heard from in years.

During a trip to Moscow to see the Russian theater, Lilly stops for a time in London, reuniting with old friends Alan (Hal Holbrook) and Dottie (Rosemary Murphy). One morning, Lilly is approached by Johann (Maximillian Schell), who brings to her a message from Julia. Julia has asked that Lilly alter her travel plans to stop for a short time in Berlin, so that she can help smuggle $50,000 in cash to a group that is working against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s a dangerous request, and Johann tells Lilly that both he and Julia will understand if she refuses. But Lilly agrees to act as courier, setting in motion a chain of events that will affect not only her life, but Julia’s as well.

Along with the Oscar nominations (and wins) already mentioned, Julia was up for Best Picture, having the misfortune to face off against Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (which won) and George Lucas’s juggernaut sci-fi adventure Star Wars. Fred Zinneman also got a nod for Best Director, and he does a fine job keeping the story flowing along, taking what is, for the most part, a dialogue-heavy costume drama and introducing moments of tension and excitement in the final act that will have you on pins and needles; Lilly’s train ride into Germany, where her nerves often get the better of her, is gripping stuff

Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography was nominated as well, and rightly so. There are moments of utter beauty, from the opening image of a woman fishing in a rowboat on a lonely lake to the various flashbacks of Lilly and Julia as children (played by Susan Jones and Lisa Pellikan, respectively), which are exquisite and refined. One scene in particular, where the two youngsters attend a dinner party for Julia’s grandmother, was so awash in the color red that it could have been lifted from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.

Still, even with all its technical achievements and fine storytelling, Julia would have been nothing without its superior cast, which garnered four nominations and two wins at that year’s Oscar ceremony.

X Despite a very brief appearance, Maximillian Schell received a Best Supporting Actor nod, playing a character who, in a single day, reminds Lilly there is more going on in the world than stage plays and society functions. Winning the award for supporting performance, however, was Jason Robards as the enigmatic Dashiell Hammett, whose career advice to Lilly could sometimes be brutal, yet exactly what she needs to hear. Robards plays Hammett close to the vest. We the audience are never quite sure what he’s thinking at any given moment, or even if he has feelings for Lilly. Yet she remains devoted to him all the same, and his presence in her life is indispensable.

Also winning an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress, was Vanessa Redgrave as the noble, long suffering Julia. Despite playing the title character, Redgrave appears in only a handful of scenes, yet manages to shine in every one, including a late meeting between her character and Lilly in a Berlin pub.

Jane Fonda would lose the Best Actress honors that year to Diane Keaton for Annie Hall, but is remarkable as Lilly, a writer who achieves fame and fortune and is then pulled into a world of chaos. Fonda captures all of her character’s ever-changing personalities: angry and frustrated when her writing hits a snag; concerned and loving while sitting at the injured Julia’s bedside; and frantic when she crosses into Berlin, carrying a box of money that, if discovered, could very well land her in a Nazi prison or even a concentration camp (Lilly is also Jewish, which makes the risk she is taking in Berlin all the more perilous). In a movie that features an amazing cast, Jane Fonda stands above them all, delivering what may be her finest performance.

Costume dramas can, at times, feel bloated and pretentious, or, even more egregiously, designed solely to net their studios a plethora of awards and nominations. Julia, at its most basic, is such a movie. Yet with so many skilled artisans coming together for its production, and despite a few missteps along the way (though it doesn’t detract from their scenes together, Lilly’s and Julia’s friendship isn’t clearly established or well-defined in the flashback scenes), Julia is a costume drama that grabs your attention right out of the gate and never loosens its grip.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, January 13, 2023

#2,891. Cat Ballou (1965) - Jane Fonda Triple Feature


Jane Fonda played the title character but the big winner was Lee Marvin, who walked off with an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Bafta award for his portrayal of not one, but two western gunslingers in this ‘60s western spoof.

Schoolteacher Catherine “Cat” Ballou (Fonda) returns home to Wolf City, Wyoming, bringing with her a pair of outlaws, Clay Boone (Michael Callan), and Clay’s Uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), both of whom she “met” on a train.

But all is not well on the Ballou homestead. The Wolf City Development Association is trying to steal the family ranch out from under Cat’s dad, Frankie (John Marley), and sent notorious outlaw Tim Strawn (Marvin) – who has a tin nose where his real one used to be – to run them off.

Anxious to save her family’s ranch, and not sure she can rely on Clay, Jed, or native American ranch-hand Jackson (Tom Nardini) for help, Cat writes to legendary gunslinger Kid Shelleen (Marvin, again), begging for his assistance.

Unfortunately, when Shelleen arrives, he is drunk and barely able to stand!

A tragedy occurs, at which point Cat and her compatriots, including the always-drunk Shelleen, ride into the hills, with an angry Cat anxious to have her revenge on all of Wolf City.

But does she and the others have what it takes to defeat an entire town?

Cat Ballou is a wild, crazy western comedy, with over-the-top characters, lots of action, and a toe-tapping soundtrack delivered by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, both of whom perform on-screen throughout the movie. Their best number is the title song, “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, which was also nominated for an Academy Award. Honestly, though, there isn’t a bad tune in the bunch!

Fonda is likable as the overzealous Cat, willing to take on all of Wolf City by herself, while Marvin shines as both the inebriated Shelleen and the frightening Strawn.

Marley, Callan, Hockman, and Nardini are also solid in support, as is Reginald Denny as Sir Harry Percival (whose money is funding Wolf City’s rejuvenation) and Jay C. Flippen as the shifty Sheriff Cardigan, who is more interested in bringing money into Wolf City than he is law and order. There are also a handful of exciting scenes, including a daring train robbery conceived by Cat and inspired by a tale from one of the many books recounting Kid Shelleen’s exploits. I also loved the scene where Kid finally “sobers up” and pays a visit to his old “pal” Strawn.

But while the story and characters do their part to make Cat Ballou a rollicking good time, it’s Nat King Cole’s and Stubby Kaye’s musical interludes that steal the show!
Rating: 8 out of 10

Monday, January 9, 2023

#2,890. Skateboard (1978) - Leif Garrett Triple Feature


A 1978 sports drama directed by George Gage, Skateboard kind of sneaks up on you.

Not that it’s a great film, or at times even a good one. The story is simple and occasionally predictable, and some of the performances leave a lot to be desired. But its glimpse into the world of skateboarding in the 1970s, coupled with a spirited turn by veteran Allen Garfield, do their part to make Skateboard a lot more fun than it has any right being.

Hollywood agent Manny Bloom (Garfield) owes money to just about everyone, including his longtime financial backer Sol (Antony Carbone). Desperate for an idea that will make him some fast cash, Manny recruits a group of teen skateboarders to join a newly-formed skate team. Lured in by the promise of fame and fortune, the kids, including Brad (Leif Garrett), Tony (Tony Alva), Jason (Richard Van Der Wyk), and Jenny (Ellen O’Neal), jump at the opportunity

With his team assembled, and with the help of professional nurse Millicent Broderick (Kathleen Lloyd), Manny’s L.A. Racers hits the road. But when Sol orders Manny to pay him back sooner than later, Manny turns up the pressure on the kids, a move that could ultimately jeopardize their chances of winning an upcoming championship, the top prize of which is $20,000.

A lifetime character actor / supporting player, Allen Garfield takes center stage in Skateboard, and does a fine job as Manny, one of life’s losers who accidentally stumbles upon a good idea. When we first meet him, he’s climbing into his beat-up Datsun, begging it to climb the steep hill in front of his house “just one more time” so that he can get to the unemployment office. An overweight, balding gambler who hasn’t paid his ex-wife’s alimony in months, Manny Bloom isn’t your typical movie lead.

And, for that matter, Garfield isn’t your typical star. But he wins us over, dedicating his every waking moment to making the L.A. Racers a legitimate team. He’s a nervous guy, always kind of jittery, yet he takes care of the kids, and even pays them their portion of the prize money every time they win a competition, or show off their skills to a paying crowd.

Even when Manny is pressuring the kids unmercifully, which starts the day after Sol’s bodyguard, played by Sylvester Words, visits Manny in his hotel room and gives him a black eye, we at least understand him, and there isn’t a time when we’re not rooting for this character to get out of this pickle.

Kathleen Lloyd’s Millicent does what she can to talk some sense into Manny, and their scenes together are quite good. When it comes to the kids, the performances are more miss than hit, but most of them were professional skaters, not actors. Tony Alva, an original member of the Zephyr skate team and one of the key personalities featured in the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z Boys, fares a bit better than Van Der Wyk, whose Jason is the star of the L.A. Racers. The exception is a young Leif Garrett, whose Brad ends up in the spotlight for the film’s finale (Garrett was one of the few teens who had acting experience, and was cast because he could also skate).

There really isn’t much to it story-wise. Skateboard hits all of the standard beats. It’s the scenes in which the skaters are front and center, showing off what they can do, that give the film its energy.

With an assist by Garfield, of course, who in this movie shows that he should have been given a few more shots at being a leading man.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, January 5, 2023

#2,889. Devil Times Five (1974) - Leif Garrett Triple Feature


You need a scorecard to keep up with all the different titles for this 1974 horror film. Released as Devil Times Five, it was also called People Toys, The Horrible House on the Hill, and on UK home video it was known as Tantrums. But whichever title you see it under, this is a low budget winner, a slasher movie about a group of murderous kids who lay siege to a vacation chalet in the snowy mountains of California.

A van carrying a bunch of troubled kids to a children’s psychiatric facility crashes in the snow, killing the driver and the adult supervisors. Left on their own, five children: Susan (Tia Thompson), David (Leif Garrett), Brian (Tierre Turner), Moe (Dawn Lyn), and Hannah (Gail Smale), who dresses in a nun’s outfit and poses as a sister, hike through the snow until they come to the vacation home of business tycoon Papa Doc (Gene Evans), who is enjoying a weekend getaway.

With Papa Doc on his brief vacation are his young wife Lovely (Carolyn Stellar); business associate Harvey Beckman (Sorrell Booke) and Harvey’s alcoholic wife Ruth (Shelley Morrison); as well as Papa Doc’s daughter Julie (Joan McCall), whose argumentative boyfriend Rick (Taylor Lacher) has turned down several offers to work for Papa Doc. Feeling sorry for the kids, the adults do what they can to make them feel comfortable until help arrives.

But strange things begin to happen. The phone lines are suddenly dead, meaning the police cannot be called. Also, someone has been messing with the generator. And to top it off, Papa Doc’s dim-witted handyman Ralph (John Durren) meets a gruesome end (which may or may not have been suicide).

Before long, the group realizes these youngsters may not be as innocent, or as harmless, as they seem.

The cast of Devil Times Five does a decent enough job, especially Sorrell Booke as the mild-mannered Harvey, who has a problem standing up to either Papa Doc or his wife; while Gene Evans makes for an unlikable host, a bully who is used to getting his way (those moments when Rick challenges him are pretty satisfying).

Led by Leif Garrett, who at this point in the ‘70s had already appeared in a number of movies, the kids also hold their own. Garrett is especially good as the unpredictable David. A scene where he and Harvey play a game of chess serves as a precursor to one of the film’s more memorable kills.

And it’s the kills where Devil Times Five truly distinguishes itself. The first to fall victim to these psychotic kiddies is Dr. Brown (Henry Beckman), the lone adult to survive the van crash, who woke up and followed the children’s snowy footprints to the house. Playing out in gruesome slow motion, Dr. Brown is beaten with hammers and stabbed with a pitchfork.

Based on what will happen to a few others, though, Dr. Brown got off easy! Everything from axes to rifles, fire to spears are used to dispatch the unsuspecting adults. Though for my money, it’s the piranhas (yes, piranhas) as well as the film’s final scene that stand apart from the rest.

You wouldn’t think a movie about killer kids would be as effective as Devil Times Five, but it works. And in a big way. A gritty, down-and-dirty horror film, it’s become a grindhouse classic!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, January 1, 2023

#2,888. Walking Tall (1973) - Leif Garrett Triple Feature


Between 1964 and 1970, Buford Hayse Pusser served as the sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee. He made it his personal mission to clean up the area, eliminating all moonshine, gambling and prostitution that fell within his jurisdiction.

This made him some powerful enemies, and there were several attempts on Pusser’s life over the years. According to reports, he was stabbed eight times and shot as many as nine, yet always returned, as determined as ever to rid his community of crime.

Released in 1973, Walking Tall is an oft-bloody look at Pusser’s career in law enforcement, from the events that led him to run for sheriff to those that cost him everything he held dear.

At the urging of his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) retires from professional wrestling and moves back home to Tennessee, where he and his father (Noah Beery Jr) intend to start up a logging business.

Warned by his mother (Lurene Tuttle) that things have changed in McNairy County, Buford gets a glimpse at just how bad it has gotten when he accompanies an old pal to a gambling house. After catching the house cheating, Buford tries to get his friend’s money back, only to be beaten and left for dead by the side of the road.

Committed to driving the criminals out of McNairy, and to making it a better place for his son Mike (Leif Garrett) and daughter Dwana (Dawn Lyn), Buford runs for sheriff. The current Sheriff (Red West), who has been bought by the gambling houses and turns a blind eye, is none too pleased, and harasses Buford every chance he gets. Following a tragedy, Buford is elected, and sets to work carrying through on his campaign promises.

The gamblers and moonshiners do their best to eliminate Buford, who has taken to carrying a 4-foot-long club instead of a gun. Ambushed, beaten, and shot several times, Buford always recovers, and carries on with his life’s work.

That is, until one tragic Easter morning, when he suffers a loss greater than any he ever imagined.

Directed by Phil Karlson, Walking Tall is unrelenting in its depiction of violence, both against Buford and by him. When he recovers from his first beating, Buford returns to the gambling house and knocks everyone around with a baseball bat.

The brutality is often difficult to sit through, yet Baker’s solid, unwavering performance holds our attention throughout, even when it looks as if he’s down for the count (and this happens several times throughout the picture). Also strong are those sequences where we eavesdrop on meetings between the gamblers, pimps, and moonshiners as they come up with a series of plans to eliminate Buford, a few of which damn near succeed.

But it’s those moments where Buford and his deputies are taking the fight to the criminals, frustrating the hell out of them time and again, that are most satisfying. In the film’s most shocking scene, Buford rescues a prostitute who is being tortured because the criminals believe she has been tipping off the cops.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Walking Tall is that, while building Buford Pusser’s reputation as a vigilante, it also delves into his weaknesses and imperfections. After becoming sheriff, Buford and his newest deputy Obra (Felton Perry) raid a moonshine camp and arrest everyone, only to have the case thrown out of court because he didn’t first obtain a search warrant. Buford also lets his temper get the better of him, and sometimes loses his cool. This is especially noticeable in a scene where he confronts a deputy of his who had been tipping off the gamblers.

Yet, for me, the stupidest thing Buford Pusser does in this movie is allow someone to ride along with him to check on an anonymous tip. What happened as a result was as much his fault as anyone's. I was literally screaming at my TV during this sequence, asking what was he thinking?

That said, Walking Tall, with its grindhouse approach to telling its story, is an effective, harrowing look at a lawman who never backed down. It is an unforgettable motion picture.
Rating: 8 out of 10