Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

It’s time once again to consider some semi-recent movies!

I decided to expand the posts about “semi-recent” movies to include the 1980s. I think of the Eighties as just last week, but let’s face it, 1989 was 30 (!!!) years ago, so “recent” doesn’t really cut it. Damn, I’m old.

The Guns of Navarone (1961). I’d seen the very end of this movie, but I’d never seen the whole thing, so I sat down and checked it out. It’s a good old-fashioned war movie, and despite both Gregory Peck and David Niven claiming it’s an anti-war movie, that message is very, very muted throughout the entire thing (Peck and Niven even argue about “getting their hands dirty,” as neither wants to but they kind of have to, which isn’t really an anti-war message). It’s not exactly pro-war, either, but it does feature an group of Allied soldiers blowing shit up, so, I mean, yeah. It’s a very good movie, and I suppose the group spending so long among the Greeks on the island of Navarone (which doesn’t exist, in case you were wondering) is supposed to show the human cost of war, but the fact that Anthony Quinn decides to stay and fight on the island because the Nazis are oppressing his countrymen seems to be not quite anti-war, either. Anyway, it’s a tense thriller, the special effects are quite good, and while it’s described as a “suicide mission,” the only people who die are the traitor and two soldiers who act in the stupidest ways possible and therefore get killed. I mean, really, you guys. If you haven’t seen it for a while, it’s time to watch it again!

The Night of the Iguana (1964). You can tell this is based on a play, as once Richard Burton arrives at Ava Gardner’s hilltop hotel in Puerto Vallarta, this becomes very talky. But it’s Tennessee Williams, so the talking is excellent. Burton is a defrocked priest who runs tours in Mexico (Puerto Vallarta was a nothing town before this movie but became a major tourist attraction afterward – I heard about it because the Love Boat used to stop there!), and on one such occasion, he cracks up a little and decides to take the tour (full of stolid midwestern women … and teenager Sue Lyon, who has the hots for Burton) to Gardner’s hotel, as he knows her from previous expeditions and wants to talk to her husband, who always calmed him down. Her husband died, though, so Burton descends into … not exactly madness, but consternation. Lyon keeps trying to fuck him, and he keeps trying to get away from her, and then Deborah Kerr shows up, and Burton doesn’t know how he feels about her, and Gardner is obviously carrying a torch for him … it’s very confusing for poor Dickie B. I love that in the 1960s, stolid midwestern women couldn’t believe that women would have a sex drive, so even though Lyon keeps sneaking into Burton’s rooms, her chaperone keeps blaming Burton. I also love that once Lyon turns her attentions to Skip Ward (who plays Burton’s tour bus driver), her chaperone is fine with that, even though Ward is still years older than Lyon and is closer to Burton’s age than Lyon’s. Weird. The dialogue, as Burton, Kerr, and Gardner discuss deep philosophical issues, is excellent, and the final moments when Kerr’s father finally finishes his poem and she recites it are quite marvelous. It’s a terrific movie, just another classic from John Huston. Dang, that dude could make good movies, couldn’t he?

I just love how trashy she looks!
Ava Gardner doesn’t have time for your shit!

The Fox (1967). (Spoilers ahead!) It seems like this is a well regarded movie, but I’m not sure why. At the time, I suppose audiences and critics would have liked it because it seemed bold, but it hasn’t aged well. Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood are supposed to be lesbians, but it takes a man coming between them for them to show any emotions toward each other, and the movie seems scared to come out and say that they’re lovers. Keir Dullea (right before he starred in 2001) is the man, and it’s not clear what contemporary audiences were supposed to make of him, because he’s pretty much a monster. Dennis and Heywood are trying to farm in rural Canada (I guess; it’s never mentioned in the movie, but it was filmed in Canada, so sure), but the winter has been very hard on them. A fox keeps coming in to steal their chickens, and no, it’s not a subtle metaphor at all. Dullea’s grandfather used to own the farm, and Dullea shows up after spending a long time at sea, which is why he doesn’t know the old man has died. Dennis seems charmed by him, while Heywood, who shows very little emotion early on in the film, doesn’t care about him, even when Dennis suggests he stay with them for the two weeks’ shore leave he has. He begins to fixate on Heywood, though, and eventually asks her to marry him, although it’s more of a demand than a question. Eventually they have sex (Heywood enjoys sex, it seems, as she masturbates earlier in the movie, but she never makes any move toward Dennis, nor her to Heywood), and they tell Dennis they’re going to be married. Dullea has to leave for a week or two to finish his job, and while he’s gone, the two women seem to realize that they love each other – Heywood even sends a letter to Dullea ending things. But then Dullea returns, and weirdly, Dennis sacrifices herself so that Heywood can leave with him. They’re trying to chop down a tree on the property, and Dullea offers to help, and Dennis stands right where she thinks the tree will fall and basically tells him to chop even after he warns her. So of course the tree falls right on top of her, and Heywood goes off with Dullea. The acting is really good in the movie, which is why it’s such a disappointment otherwise. Dullea ignores Heywood’s desires throughout, and although he doesn’t rape or assault her, he does pressure her into agreeing with him. Meanwhile, it seems like the lesbian who wants to live happily with a woman gets punished and the lesbian who’s willing to “change teams” gets rewarded, although her reward is marriage to a fairly horrible man. I figured Dullea would be much more aggressive about marrying Heywood, but he never gets physical with her and he does warn Dennis, so it feels like the movie wants us to consider him a “good guy” because he wants to “save” Heywood. It’s very weird, which isn’t surprising as it apparently follows the D.H. Lawrence novella very closely, and Lawrence was a weirdo, but it’s surprising that even in the Sixties (the story was published in 1922), with its experimenting, a movie like this would enforce such rigid social norms. It’s even more surprising that it still has a pretty good reputation today.

‘If I close my eyes, I can pretend he’s a woman!’

Walkabout (1971). Walkabout is a weird movie. Many critics consider it a classic, but it’s not really that good, but it is something to see, because it’s so unusual. Technically, it’s excellent, as director Nicolas Roeg shot it very interestingly, with beautiful vistas of the Australian outback and some weird and effective juxtaposition between the natural world and the “human” world, but it’s still a fairly dull movie. The plot is almost non-existent – a man takes his two children to the outback, sets his car on fire, and shoots himself (after trying and failing to kill them), leaving them stranded. They escape into the outback and are saved by an aborigine on his walkabout – when they’re about 16, aborigines go into the wild to survive for several months, and that’s what David Gulpilil is doing in this movie. They manage to convince him to take them back to civilization (he speaks no English – neither did Gulpilil at this time, which is interesting – so they use hand gestures), and he does. The screenplay was only 14 pages long, and you can tell, because so much of the movie is just the kids wandering around not doing or saying much. The reason it’s so weird is that there’s very little emotional heft to it – we have no idea why the father freaks out, we have no idea why the kids don’t stay with the car (they run away because the dad is shooting at them, but the girl – who’s around 16 – knows he’s dead, so there’s no danger and probably a better chance of someone finding them if they stay), and the girl and her brother don’t have much of a relationship, as she’s always trying to preserve some British decorum even in the middle of the desert. No one seems to be looking for them, either – their mother is in Sydney, but after one very short scene at the beginning of the movie, she’s never seen again. At one point they wander by a ranch where white people live, and the woman actually sees them, but doesn’t think it’s odd that two white kids are wandering around the desert with an aborigine, so she just moves on. Even after they reach a town toward the end of the movie, the white dude they meet there doesn’t want to have anything to do with them even after they tell him they were lost. Gulpilil decides he loves the girl and performs a mating dance for her, which freaks her out at first but then, when she realizes he means her no harm, she ignores him. So Gulpilil commits suicide, and neither of the kids he led out of the wilderness seems to care all that much. Roeg loves the idea of contrasting sex with natural nudity, as the aborigines aren’t clothed all that much while the kids wear their school uniforms throughout, but at one point, Jenny Agutter (who plays the girl) swims in a large natural pool and Roeg films her naked far longer than you might think is necessary (Agutter plays a younger teen, but she was 17/18 when it was filmed). In one irrelevant sequence, a group of scientists are tracking weather patterns in the desert and the men keep leering at the one woman and the small gap between her shirt and her skin or the top of her leg where her stockings are attached to her garter belt (yes, a scientist in this movie wears a garter belt and stockings), and we’re supposed to be disgusted by their ugly behavior while admiring the “natural” nudity of the aborigines and Agutter in her Edenic pool. The entire movie is more like a fever dream of haunting and beautiful images and inexplicable behavior, and while it’s gorgeous to look at, it’s enervating to watch. Just a weird movie. (I guess the Australian film industry is tiny, because both Gulpilil and John Meillon – the father – are in Crocodile Dundee 15 years after this.)

The Last of Sheila (1973). A commenter mentioned this movie a while back on the blog (I can’t remember which post, sorry), and it was playing that week on TCM, so I DVRed it. And yes, it took me a while to get to it – I’m woefully slow about watching stuff on the DVR! Anyway, this is a nifty murder mystery, mostly fair-play (I saw a pretty good clue early on, but when it came time to be important, I had forgotten about it), and it’s a somewhat subtle and savage satire of the movie business as well. James Coburn gathers together six of his friends and business associates on a yacht in the Mediterranean a year after his wife, Sheila, is killed by a hit-and-run driver. He believes one of the six killed her, but they don’t know he suspects anything. He plays a week-long game with them that he believes will reveal the killer, and it’s fairly clever. But then someone is killed, and everything gets a bit more serious. I don’t want to give anything else away, except to say that it almost fits together perfectly. Almost. I think I found a plot hole, but I can’t really discuss it without spoiling everything. But it’s probably not a plot hole, and if it is, it’s not that big of one. Anyway, the cast is terrific. Coburn is delightfully evil, gleefully toying with his friends. Richard Benjamin is good as the screenwriter who strives for more than the hack work he’s doing. James Mason is a somewhat washed director who remains calm while things are spiraling around him. Dyan Cannon is great as the brassy agent (she famously gained a good amount of weight for the part, and it makes me wonder how dangerously skinny she was before the movie, because she looks great and not at all heavy). Raquel Welch does good work as the spoiled diva (which, according to the cast, she was on set, so perhaps she wasn’t acting all that much), while Ian McShane is slimy as her huckster husband. Joan Hackett as Benjamin’s wife is kind of the weak link – she’s fine, but she always seems to be reacting to things, so her character just isn’t as interesting. Anyway, as the movie goes along, the satire becomes more pointed, until the really nice ending, where it’s black as pitch. But the mystery is still the driving force, and it’s well done. This was written, weirdly enough, by Stephen Sondheim (who did not do the music for the movie) and Anthony Perkins (his only screenwriting credit), and it’s just a fun, interesting, nasty little murder mystery.

I’d go on a Mediterranean vacation with her …
… AND with her!

The Late Show (1977). I’m not sure why this movie is called what it is, as it’s not about any late-night television show and a lot of it takes place during the day. Beats me. Anyway, this is what people are talking about when they say they don’t make movies like this anymore – it’s a simple murder mystery that stars solid actors and doesn’t have pretensions to anything else, and it was made by a major studio (Warner Bros.). They still make movies like these, but they’re usually small-time indie things now. Art Carney is terrific as Ira Wells, a gone-to-seed private investigator who takes a case finding Lily Tomlin’s cat, which has been catnapped. She knows who took it and what the guy wants for its return, but she doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Before Carney can do anything about it, the dude has been killed and the case gets a lot more complicated. The cat is a bit of a MacGuffin, because if the catnapper knew how important it was, he wouldn’t have been trying to sell it back to Tomlin, but this plot point is never addressed. There’s a smarmy fence (played with perfect sleaze by Eugene Roche), the fence’s flunkie (played with both hilarity and menace by John Considine), Ira’s ne’er-do-well friend Charlie (Bill Macy), and the fence’s philandering wife (played with smooth sexuality by Joanna Cassidy). Tomlin is also great – she’s kind of daffy, but she has a good heart, and she and Carney form a charming friendship. This is the kind of movie that would be tough to make today, as it’s more about the seediness of “modern” Los Angeles (the 1976 version) and how the glitz of old L.A. has passed. Carney represents an earlier era, one in which people didn’t talk so much and tough guys and wise-cracking dames made L.A. a glamorous town, while Tomlin symbolizes the new era – she dresses in weird pantsuits and sells marijuana occasionally and wants to be a manager because her acting career never took off. A lot of people in the 1970s were around in the 1930s-1950s, so movies like this could tap into that sort of thing before the sheen of the 1980s seemed to break any connection with “old Hollywood.” It’s a slightly melancholy movie in that regard, but there are plenty of very funny moments – Roche keeps trying to buy off Carney with merchandise, and even if the goods he had didn’t sound so outdated 40 years on, it’s still a funny bit, while Considine is very much a clothes horse, which is askew given his thuggish behavior – and the violence, while bloody, feels understated. It’s a nice little movie.

The Wanderers (1979). I’d heard about this movie for years but never seen it, so I figured I probably should. Unfortunately, it’s just not that good. It’s really weird, though – I kept wondering if Philip Kaufman was making a parody of the early 1960s teen culture, but I don’t think he is, he’s just flubbing it badly. All the clichés are there – the odd gangs (all based on real New York gangs, which doesn’t make them less goofy), the boys desperate for sex, the sexual assaults, the latent homosexuality, the casual racism, the gang rivalries – but they don’t seem to matter much or they’re portrayed in such a way to make them just bizarre. One gang comes out of the fog that magically springs up whenever you enter their territory and wreaks havoc on all others, for instance. It would be funny if they weren’t so deadly. There are funny parts of the movie, which is fine, but it still doesn’t feel like Kaufman is doing anything except trying to tell this straight. So we get Ken Wahl as the pretty-boy lead (Wahl isn’t a great actor, although he’s had one great role, and this isn’t it), trying to convince his girlfriend to have sex with him (according to her father, she’s been banging guys for years, but of course she pretends to be a virgin when she’s with Wahl) but not above trying hook up with Karen Allen, whom he meets while he and his boys are “accidentally” bumping into women on the streets and grabbing their boobs “surreptitiously.” We get a gang rivalry settled by a football game, which is weird in itself. We get John Friedrich as Wahl’s best friend seemingly making tentative steps toward coming out of the closet, but who the hell knows, really. The problem with trying to make this more surreal is that the ending doesn’t land as well as it should. The final sequence is brilliant, as Wahl realizes some things about his life and what his future looks like as opposed to some of the characters’, and it would be more devastating if it didn’t come out of nowhere. Kaufman can be a brilliant director (if you haven’t seen Henry & June or Quills, you should), and the final time Wahl sees Karen Allen, he does a wonderful job, but it’s almost too little, too late. It doesn’t help that Wahl can’t carry the movie, and not many of the actors are all that great. Allen is far too formidable for Wahl, so their brief scenes together are weird, as she inhabits Nina far more than he becomes Richie, although it feels like she’s supposed to be playing someone older (she’s three years older than Wahl) and more experienced, so maybe Wahl is actually doing a good job acting like he’s intimidated by her. Allen is a interesting actor – she’s been working steadily since her debut in Animal House, but she never became a big star, and I wonder if she was born too early. She’s kind of like Emma Stone (not only because Stone vaguely resembles her), but Stone was born into an era where directors finally know what to do with women like her. Directors in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t know what to do with Allen – she’s not drop-dead beautiful, so she can’t be that role, but she’s a better actor than Pete Riegert (in Animal House), Wahl, and even, to a degree, Harrison Ford (at least in Raiders), but she certainly couldn’t be allowed to overshadow them! (She’s even better than Bill Murray in Scrooged, but she was still pushed to the background.) She’s in The Wanderers for hardly any time at all (10-15 minutes, I would say), but she lights up the screen when she’s there and absolutely dominates the strip-poker scene that forms the majority of her arc. But, again, Kaufman doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie he’s making, so her more realistic arc is surrounded by strange stuff, and it gets overshadowed. Much like any other good bits of the movie. Too bad.

The Black Hole (1979). I’d never seen this movie, although when I was young I owned an abridged book with photo stills from the film, so I’ve known the entire plot for years. I just wanted to see it, because I knew all about it but hadn’t actually watched it. It’s not bad, but not great – it’s regarded as a flop partly because its budget was fairly high and because it didn’t have the cultural impact of Star Wars, which paved the way for a new wave of science fiction. It’s still not bad, though – the special effects, for the most part, are terrific, which helps a great deal. The cast should be better, but none of them really commit to the parts, with Maximilian Schell perhaps doing the best job and Robert Forster trying as well. The rest, however – Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms, and Ernest Borgnine – seem only engaged about half the time, which is too bad. Some things, I think, really hold the movie back. First of all, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B., the robots that are there solely because of Star Wars, are really off. They both look unbelievably cheap (weird because Maximilian, the “evil” robot, looks quite good), and while Roddy McDowall is okay as the voice of V.I.N.CENT, for some reason they cast Slim Pickens as the voice of B.O.B., and a Southern accent coming out of a robot is just bizarre. A second thing is that the final battle takes place between two robots, so there’s not much drama, which is a shame. At the end, the laws of physics seem to go out the window, as no one appears to have a problem breathing in the vacuum of space. Finally, the music is totally wrong. During the rescue and flight of the stars, when they get in a laser fight with the sentries, the music is really weird – it sounds perfect for a 1960s epic like Lawrence of Arabia but completely wrong for what should be a tense, science fiction thriller. It really does mess up the mood, and it feels like it’s one reason why the movie doesn’t have a better reputation, as the music makes it feel old-fashioned even though the effects are, as I noted, quite good. It’s a fun movie, and it’s not a bad way to spend 100 minutes or so.

Heaven’s Gate (1980). A few years ago, I read Steven Bach’s Final Cut, which is about the disaster of moviemaking that is Heaven’s Gate, but I had never seen the actual movie. So now I have! Despite revisionism about the movie in recent years, it’s really not that good, which is a shame because Michael Cimino obviously knows how to make a movie, but it seems like he’s always getting in his own way. Heaven’s Gate (which is nominally about the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming) is utterly gorgeous, but it’s also extremely enervating, which seems counter-intuitive in a movie about a conflict between big business and salt-of-the-earth pioneers. Cimino shoots so many scenes wonderfully, like when John Hurt sits on his horse next to a train that steams away (believe me, it’s amazing) or when Kris Kristofferson and Hurt dance (not together, though) at Harvard. That second scene is one of the many problems with the movie – the entire graduation from Harvard sequence that begins the movie is absolutely gorgeous and completely unnecessary. It drags on and adds nothing. Cimino cuts scenes off almost in mid-sentence, so there’s no flow to the story. The big business dudes, led by an unctuous Sam Waterston, are cartoon villains, while Kristofferson and Isabelle Huppert are shot in gauzy, angelic light, in case we forget who the good guys are. Only Hurt, as the dissolute drunken businessman who tries and fails to keep Waterston in check; Christopher Walken, horribly miscast but still able to bring some of his magnetism to the screen; and Jeff Bridges, as the town’s hustler/bartender/agitator, bring any verve to their roles. Kristofferson sleepwalks through the movie, and Huppert’s role is awful, as she bounces between Kristofferson and Walken, unable to choose one and seemingly having no real idea about which one is better. And the ending is terrible – it seems that Cimino simply couldn’t let anyone be happy, so he just tacks on a downer ending for no reason. It’s sad, because it’s clear Cimino has talent, but this is one case where the studio (United Artists, which almost fell apart because of the movie) gave someone with a giant ego far too much power and it came back to bite them. Heaven’s Gate is very nice to look at, but it’s still a mess. But hey, some interesting actors show up in it – Joseph Cotten, Brad Dourif, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn (with hair!), Geoffrey Lewis, Tom Noonan, and frickin’ Mickey Rourke are in this movie. It might have wrecked Cimino’s career, but it’s kind of fascinating to watch.

The Hand (1981). This is a ridiculous horror movie if we take it completely at face value (although according to my wife, it scared the hell out of her when she saw it in the movie theater when she was 13), as Michael Caine’s hand comes to life after it’s severed in a freak accident and starts killing people. The sight of a slightly moldy hand strangling people will never not be funny, but if you delve into the movie a bit more, it becomes more of a psychological thriller. Caine (his presence in the movie isn’t too surprising, given that he’s very candid about wanting to make a lot of money in the 1970s and 1980s, so he took a lot of roles in terrible but lucrative movies) is a cartoonist who can’t work after his hand is cut off when he’s in a car accident. His wife (Andrea Marcovicci) is already thinking about leaving him, and the accident occurs partially because they’re arguing about moving to New York, which she wants to do, or staying in Vermont, which he wants to do. He “works with his hands,” not in the classic American sense, but it’s still important, because his hand is his livelihood, and without it he begins to spiral. A replacement artist doesn’t work because he wants to delve too much into the psyche of Caine’s creation, a Conan-esque character who simply does what he wants without any introspection. Caine gets angry about this new direction and gets fired. His wife wants him to go to therapy, but of course he won’t hear of it because he’s a tough guy who doesn’t think too much about his feelings. His wife starts hanging around with a yoga teacher, who of course isn’t a tough guy but is more in touch with his feelings. Caine moves to northern California to teach cartooning, leaving his wife behind for a time, and he befriends Bruce McGill, a smarmy psychology teacher, and he hooks up with his student, Annie McEnroe, whom McGill also wants to have sex with. The hand kills a few people, and it’s not clear if Caine is controlling it with his mind to act out his fantasies, fantasies that a modern man can’t indulge in because society tells him he can’t, or if the hand is simply tapping into his unconscious without him knowing it (the solution is fairly obvious, but there’s a twist at the end that throws that into some doubt). Caine used the comic strip to act out his fantasies, and once that was taken away from him, he needed a different outlet, and the hand, it seems, has become that. It’s simplistic but far more deep than a schlocky horror movie usually gets. Perhaps that’s because the screenplay adapter (from a novel) and director is Oliver Motherfuckin’ Stone, who has his own weird ideas about women but is also very interested in the psychology of his characters. This is Stone’s second directorial effort (seven years after his first) and his last before he turned to more serious movies, but you can tell that a person who knows what he’s doing is helming this, as some of the scenes are really beautifully composed even though, you know, there’s a disembodied hand crawling around a lot of the movie. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s far more fascinating than it has any right to be, as Caine is weirdly sympathetic and Stone knows how to make a movie. (I correctly guessed that Caine’s strip was drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith; yay for comics!!!)

Dreamscape (1984). Holy cow, what a movie this is. Dennis Quaid stars as a dissolute psychic who uses his powers to bet on horse races (poorly, it seems, as he owes some thugs money), but he’s brought back into the orbit of Max von Sydow, a scientist who studied him years earlier. Von Sydow and Kate Capshaw are running a program that allows some people to go into others’ dreams and interact with them, presumably (in their minds) to help them get over nightmares. Of course, Christopher Plummer, playing a shadowy government agent, has other ideas, but he does claim he wants to use Quaid to help the president with his bad dreams, said president played by – wait for it – Eddie Freakin’ Albert. Why von Sydow and Capshaw need psychics isn’t explained (I guess they’re more “sensitive”?), but it allows Quaid to develop a rivalry with David Patrick Kelly, the other psychic in the experiment (Kelly, of course, is famous for playing weaselly douchebags, from Luther in The Warriors to … hey, Luther in 48 Hours to his classic role as Sully in Commando and then to T-Bird in The Crow, although he’s freakin’ hilarious in Flirting With Disaster). The story is fairly predictable, right down to poor Capshaw being somewhat relegated to “love interest” even though she’s supposed to be a respected scientist, but it’s not terrible. The actors are fine, although what the hell both von Sydow and Plummer are doing in this movie is beyond me, and the special effects are cheesy but not awful. I’m actually a bit surprised that no one has remade this, because it’s not like the actors are so associated with the roles and the special effects could look a lot better. It’s a bad movie, but it’s kind of fun. Plus, Peter Jason, who’s probably most famous as the bartender who offers Eddie Murphy a Black Russian in 48 Hours, is in it, so there’s that.

Blue Velvet (1986). It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve seen Blue Velvet, and time hasn’t changed my opinion of it too much – it’s … fine. It’s not as good as a lot of people say it is, but it’s not bad. It’s Lynch being weird on purpose, just to be weird, possibly to cover up what is a fairly standard plot. I mean, I haven’t seen too many Lynch films, and I never watched Twin Peaks, so I can’t say how weird it is in comparison to many of his movies, but I will say at least it’s not Eraserhead, which is awful. (Just so you know that I’m not one of those people who can’t handle weird shit, I love Wild at Heart, which is kind of like Blue Velvet even more ramped up, if that’s possible.) I mean, Blue Velvet is fine, and it’s anchored by Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, but Kyle McLachlan is his usual distant self (McLachlan’s best role might be The Hidden, because his weird detachment works in his favor) and Laura Dern, while dazzling, is there to be the virginal weepy girl that McLachlan can work his way back to. The plot is simplistic and never makes complete sense (why is Hopper in disguise at certain times, and who even is Hopper?), but it’s still a fun movie, because Rossellini’s sexual urges are so weird and Hopper is having a blast (he’s the only one to say “fuck” in the movie except for the one time Dean Stockwell says it, at Hopper’s maniacal urging). Lynch is a terrific filmmaker, sure, but he still tries too hard to be bizarre, and that doesn’t always work for him.

I usually like to stop at ten movies, but I went a bit overboard! I’m still watching pre-1960 and post-1990 movies, so those will be coming up soon!


  1. “…the movie seems scared to come out and say that they’re lovers.”

    Most likely they were. The ratings system in the US didn’t take effect until 1968, and even though the Hays Office was effectively neutered, there were several other organizations including the Catholic church issuing movie guidelines. ‘The Fox’ was retroactively rated R, though it would most likely be PG today. Any explicit mention of lesbianism would have gotten it an instant X rating, which would most likely have cost it its distributor and many theater bookings. Home video did not exist, and this movie was never going to go to television, so theater distribution was its only chance to make a buck. Given that it was based on a novel by D.H. Lawrence, an author whose work was almost entirely banned for obscenity, and at least one of his books became synonymous with pornography for decades (“Lady Chatterly’s Lover”), the producers were certainly going to tread carefully.

    1. Greg Burgas

      True enough, and that’s probably it. They do, however, show nudity while Heywood and Dullea are getting it on, and Heywood very clearly masturbates (we don’t see anything, but it’s very obvious what she’s doing), so I doubt if the Catholic Church was going to like this movie anyway! It’s just weird because they want it to be a love triangle and then try to de-emphasize the female-female romance, even though it’s obvious. So just go all the way and damn the (phallic) torpedoes!

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Guns of Navarone could make the case for being anti-war in that it is about how dirty war really is, instead of portraying things as some grand, glorious crusade, full of valor and heroism. Compared to a lot of 60s and earlier war films, it’s far more realistic. The 50s had a lot of gung ho films, all about our brave, heroic soldiers, kickin’ butt and taking names, with the exception of Sam Fuller’s stuff, because he lived the real thing. Guns has these guys get their hands very dirty, showing they are willing to kill in cold blood, and that they carry the scars of their battles, mentally, if not physically. So, you could say it is anti-war, by not sugar-coating it.

    The problem with the film as anti-war is that it is based on Alistair McLean’s thriller, and it is pure adventure fiction, with a high stakes mission, a high body count (for such a small team) and some noble sacrifices. Director J Lee Thompson was a great hand at this kind of stuff and also directed Conquest of and Battle For the Planet of the Apes.

    It’s still the best ticking clock, special mission film.

    Black Hole I found to mostly just be dull. As you say, most of the cast seems to feel they are above this kind of thing and don’t seem very committed. Disney was hardly a prestige studio, for actors of this caliber and wasn’t in great shape, in this period. It looks fine, special effects wise (when Disney actually spent the money, they made it look great); but, yeah, it’s no Star Wars or 2001. Still beats The Shape of Things to Come, though. Woof!

    I always liked Dreamscape. it’s a nice B-movie, sci-fi thriller, with a good cast. This one at least commits to things, while you wonder why they are doing this film. It keeps you interested,even when the story gets a bit dodgy.

    Never quite understood the acclaim for David Lynch. Outside of The Elephant Man, and parts of Dune, I have never seems what the big deal was all about. I watched Blue Velvet and mostly wondered what kind of drugs everyone was on. He has interesting visuals, I’ll give him that.

    Late Show sounds a bit more up my alley, though I have never seen it.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Jeff: Ah, good point about Navarone. That’s certainly true that they show the killing up close and don’t sugar-coat it. I guess I’m so used to that sort of thing that I didn’t really appreciate how unusual it would have been in 1961.

  3. I’m not sure if I was the one who brought up Last of Sheila, but I certainly seconded the recommendation if someone else did.
    I don’t think I rated Walkabout as low as you did (it’s been a lot of years) but I didn’t think much of it. I remember reaching the end and wondering what, that’s it?

  4. Edo Bosnar

    I saw part of Heaven’s Gate on TV some years ago – and then checked out after about 45 minutes. Yes, there’s some nice cinematography, but it just bored me. In fact, many of your criticisms of this one also apply to The Deer Hunter, which most people seem to love. I liked it most of it, but thought it could have been much, much shorter – and frankly I don’t think it needed the whole – controversial but now iconic – Russian roulette sequence. But I’m veering off on a tangent…

    Dreamscape: watched it twice during its initial theatrical release (different sets of friends in high school wanted to see it). I only sort of liked it then, and when I caught part of it again much later, sometime in the 1990s, I found it mostly cringeworthy.

    I agree with Jeff about Lynch: don’t see what the fuss is all about. One of his few movies I’ve mostly liked, and watched more than once, is Dune. I remember how apeshit everybody was about Blue Velvet back when it was released; maybe if I had saw it then, I would have a different perspective, but as it is, I first watched it sometime in the latter half of the 1990s and thought it was downright bad. Didn’t think much of Wild at Heart, either.

    Anyway, nice reviews. I now want to see The Last of Sheila and The Late Show.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Edo: I think the big difference between Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate is the cast. In the former, you have DeNiro, Streep, and a well-cast Walken. In the latter you have Kristofferson, Huppert, and an ill-cast Walken. Good actors can very much elevate the material, and that’s why Deer Hunter works. The criticisms ARE similar, but because the actors are better, it’s a better movie. At least in my opinion.

  5. Mark.Rouleau

    I always thought Black Hole was a prime candidate for a remake, especially given the trippy sci-fi horror movie that seemed to lurk beneath the surface. Seriously, dump the stupid robots and you have some serious Grand Guignol stuff going on: zombie crew, murderous androids (how cool is Anthony Perkin’s death?), and an operatic, if nonsensical, ending.

    Of course, with my luck, if Disney made a remake, they’d probably try to emphasize the silly robots and hackneyed action sequences instead.

  6. fit2print

    Random Thoughts (with apologies to Mr Nevett)

    *The Guns of Navarone is a winner alright. Sadly, The Guns of Navarone sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (which followed, somewhat inexplicably, nearly 20 years later, and stars, again somewhat inexplicably, the likes of Harrison Ford, Carl Weathers and Barbara Bach) is instantly forgettable. That said, it does feature a scene where a character literally loses his head so unexpectedly that it is fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve watched it more than once for the perverse pleasure of that scene alone…

    *It’s pretty remarkable how many really good Tennessee Williams movie adaptations there are, even beyond Night of the Iguana – Streetcar, of course, but also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth (Thank you, Paul Newman) … Sure, Williams is in the top-tier of American playwrights but productions for the stage don’t always transfer well to the big screen, except maybe in his case. I wish more great American plays were made into films. Speaking of which, if you’ve never seen the 80s adaptation of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Story, check it out, It’s pretty close to a masterpiece, due in no small part to the talents of the late, great Howard Rollins.

    *Sue Lyon looks remarkably like Juliette Lewis in that shot from Iguana

    *As I’m sure you know, the 70s was a golden age of mystery-crime thrillers along the lines of The Last of Sheila and The Late Show, both of which I love. If you’re on the hunt for more, try $ (Dollars), The Long Goodbye, The Last American Hero, The Hot Rock, Electra Glide in Blue, Prime Cut, California Split, Assault on Precinct 13, The Big Fix, The Last Embrace, The Driver, Thief, The Silent Partner, Straight Time, The Great Train Robbery, Juggernaut, The Taking of Pelham 123, Night Moves, The Anderson Tapes…. I’ll stop now. As you may have guessed, I’m something of a fan(atic) of crime films of the era. They certainly don’t make ’em like that anymore but fortunately most of the ones they did make bear repeat viewings.

    *As I’ve discovered and, again, you probably knew already, many of the crime comics of the past decade or so have also picked up where the 70s crime film auteurs left off. Brubaker, Azzarello and Jason Aaron are, of course, the highest profile creators of 70s crime film-influenced comics but there are also books like Ed Brisson’s Murder Book and The Violent, Rick Remender’s Last Days of American Crime, Kirkman’s Thief of Thieves, Greg Rucka’s Stumptown, John Wagner’s A History of Violence and many, many more. The two decades or so since Frank Miller pretty much single-handedly revived the crime comic genre have been great for those of us willing to set aside cape-and-cowl books for awhile and indulge in some true(r)-to-life crimefighting…

    1. Greg Burgas

      fit2print: I have Force 10 on my DVR, so I’ll be able to see soon enough! For some reason, I thought I had seen Force 10, but I can’t remember it (it would have been when I was 9 or 10, though, so that could have something to do with it). Maybe it will be familiar when I watch it. I do think the fact that it’s a sequel is very weird …

      I also have A Soldier’s Story on the DVR, so I’ll get to that eventually!

      I’ve seen a few of the 1970s movies you mentioned, but definitely not a lot of them. I also dig crime movies, especially the ones from the 1970s, but I haven’t seen enough of them!

    2. If you like Tennessee Williams, try to find the 1987 version of Glass Menagerie. Directed by Paul Newman, with Joanne Woodward, John Malkovitch, and Karen Allen. Critics hated it, it vanished quickly, and has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray, but the performances were way better than the critics claimed. Malkovitch in particular was incredible, and Karen Allen was perfect as Laura.

  7. fit2print

    *Yes, The Wanderers is one of those movies whose legend far exceeds its actual worthiness as entertainment. I remember literally going out of my way to see that one at a then far-distant arthouse years ago, on the strength of its reputation and Phil Kaufman’s direction of bona fide classics like The Right Stuff and The White Dawn and being sorely disappointed. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken into account the fact that Kaufman was also the man behind the awful Wesley Snipes cop film Rising Sun. When even Sean Connery’s presence can’t save a movie, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

    *I’ve never seen The Black Hole but by the sounds of things, your “poor-man’s Star Wars” comparison is pretty apt. The thing that jumped out at me though, especially given that image of Michael C Hall… I mean, Joseph Bottoms in those Nostromo Executive Officer-esque whites was the fact it came out in the same year as Alien. I can imagine that with a large segment of the SF moviegoing public, it suffered rather catastrophically by comparison.

    *As for Heaven’s Gate, I knew it’s bad reputation going in and still, well, went in. And damned if it didn’t live down to its reputation. Sometimes the critics do get ti right.

    *I am possibly among the world’s biggest Oliver Stone fans — yes, I acknowledge his excesses but say what you will about the guy, his movies are always uncompromising, beautifully shot and distinctively his own — but I have never been able to bring myself to watch The Hand. Nothing you wrote about it makes me regret that decision one bit.

    *I’ve never seen Dreamscape but it has always looked like such an obvious Raiders knockoff that I’m surprised it’s any good. In fact, I’m still not sold.

    *I’ve seen Blue Velvet a few times because… Laura Dern. Do I need a second reason? But seriously, I know it’s not your whole point but I’m not sure it’s fair to judge any Lynch film (or TV series) or whether or not it makes complete sense as I highly doubt Lynch has ever given plot coherence so much as a passing thought. It’s true that Hopper chews even more scenery in this one than usual (calling this his best film isn’t really a high compliment given the fact his list of credits is beyond dire) and that McLachlan is as robotic as ever (his best role is, in fact, Twin Peaks but again, that’s not saying much) but, to me, this movie is up there with, among others, Pan’s Labyrinth, the original Oldboy and Donnie Darko on the list of the most truly, weirdly, unforgettably unsettling movies ever made. That this movie even saw the light of day in the Reagan-era 80s is nearly as remarkable as the film itself.

    *Damn, This is a really long comment

    1. Greg Burgas

      Rising Sun isn’t great, certainly, but at least it’s coherent! The Wanderers just seemed disjointed – I know it’s taken from a bunch of short stories, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have worked harder to make it more seamless.

      I hadn’t made the Michael C. Hall connection, but now that you did, I can’t unsee it! While I watching it, it was bugging me who Bottoms looked like, so thanks!

      The problem I have with Blue Velvet is that the unsettling parts felt forced, much like they do in Eraserhead. The reason I like Wild at Heart better is because the weirdness feels more organic to the characters, while Isabella Rossellini, for instance, seems like she’s just weird in this movie because Lynch wants her to be. She does a good job, but there’s too much artifice for me. In bizarre movies I like more (not just Lynch’s movies), the weirdness always feels more a part of the characters rather than something they “put on” to be weird. If that makes sense.

  8. fit2print

    Additional comment on a couple of the comments… I’m pretty sure the moviegoing public could be neatly divided into those, like me, who consider Blue Velvet Lynch’s best film and Dune his worst and those who see things precisely the opposite way. Funny that…

    P.S. To each his or her own, of course, but no one can convince me The Deer Hunter isn’t an all-time great movie. As for supposedly iconic films of the same era like A Clockwork Orange, Patton and, yes, I said it, The Exorcist … we’re gonna have to agree to disagree

    1. Greg Burgas

      I think Deer Hunter is brilliant, too, but it does show some the excesses of Heaven’s Gate, but I think the cast helps rescue it. I think it also goes to show that some filmmakers need guidance, because Cimino was on his own on Heaven’s Gate, and he went a bit wild!

      I’ve never seen Patton or The Exorcist (I know, shocking), but I hate A Clockwork Orange.

  9. fit2print, I can’t blame Kaufman for Rising Sun. Crichton’s book was a racist mess with an insanely tangled conspiracy plotline, so he didn’t have a lot to work with.

    That said casting Wesley Snipes and balancing the “white guy explains everything to black guy” element that created with “gratuitous trip to the hood to show black guy knows at least some things”

  10. Regarding The Last of Sheila, Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins used to organise elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends, which is where the idea for the film came from.

    Stephen Fry writes in The Fry Chronicles about how he got involved with one of these in the early eighties. He owned an fax machine before they were commonplace items and Sondheim got him as a provider of a clue via fax.

  11. Andrew Collins

    I have soft spot for The Black Hole because I loved it as a kid, even though it scared the heck out of me. The obviously crazy Schell, the menacing Maximillian robot, and the horrific reveal about who the “robot crew” actually were all gave me nightmares when I was little.

    Watching it as an adult, I agree it’s a little boring when compared to Star Wars (but action-packed when compared to its contemporary Star Trek: The Motion Picture!) But that creepy vibe is still there for me, and so many of the movie’s story elements, like the building tension and claustrophobic settings still draw me into it.

    A few years ago, I tracked down the Whitman Comics adaption that was released around the time of the film. Well, most of the adaption. Issues #1-3 are easy to come by, but issue #4 was apparently poorly distributed and ridiculously overpriced on the back issue market. Anyway, what’s interesting about the comic is that issues #1-2 adapt the movie, but #3-4 actually continue the story. The survivors go through the black hole and come out the other side to find…a mirror universe of our own. Including another version of Schell’s warped scientist character. Only so much you could do with that premise I guess…

    I also finally watched Heaven’s Gate and was pretty much of the same mind as your review. It wasn’t the terrible mess I had always read about, but it wasn’t a good movie either. Just meandering and overly ambitious. For me, the neatest scene was the roller skating intro with the whirling camera shots and the fiddle music. As indulgent as anything else in the film, but enjoyable nonetheless.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Andrew: Yeah, the robot crew thing, even though I knew it was coming, was pretty good. I get annoyed with movies that are close to being really good but something holds them back. It’s very frustrating, and I think The Black Hole falls into that category.

      The roller skating scene in Heaven’s Gate was pretty cool, but yes, indulgent. I’m sure defenders of it will point to the ascent of modernism in contrast to the old way of doing things or some such crap, but it does feel simply like Cimino wanted to film a scene like that. Maybe the five-hour cut of the movie explains it! 🙂

  12. Jeff Nettleton

    I enjoy Force 10, for what it is. MacLean’s novel isn’t that great and the film doesn’t really use much of it, anyway. Harrison Ford is the weakest element, if you ask me. Carl Weathers is at least interesting, if over-the-top. Ford sounds like he is sleepwalking through most of it. The film has some bad ADR work, too. However, there is a decent basic plot (blow up a bridge to stop a German attack on Partisan positions, which is scrubbed in favor of blowing up a dam, to wash out the bridges). There is some underhanded treachery going on, and a bit of the rivalry between the Partisans and Chetniks. There was a real rivalry; but, the film portrays the Chetniks as collaborators (which was more Partisan propaganda, though there was some collusion, in certain areas) and the Partisans as the noble ones. The Partisans were communists and the Chetniks opposed them, as much as the Germans (much like the Chinese Nationalists and Maoists, and the French Maquis and the Communists). Robert Shaw is good, as is Edward Fox. The rest vary.

    Hot Rock is a good caper film, with Robert Redford, from Donald Westlake’s Dortmund novels, which have a sense of humor to them. Great Train Robbery is Michael Crichton’s film, from his novel. Connery and Sutherland are great. Thief is a brilliant piece of work, from Michael Mann. James Caan is a professional safecracker who is working with a retirement plan, then gets sucked into a mobster’s sphere of influence (Robert Prosser, of Hill Street Blues) and finds his world crashing around him. Dennis farina was still a Chicago cop, when he did this and Joe Santucci was a real safecracker, who plays a crooked cop; and, according to the commentary, pulled a job during filming (not on or near the set; just while he was employed on the film). Also features Jim Belushi and Willie Nelson.

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