Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lolly-Madonna XXX

God knows, I love me some Kowalski, Super Soul and the nude biker chick who hangs out at Angel's desert pad. I was the underaged kid who needled two different relatives to take me to see Vanishing Point on multiple occasions. I also liked Richard Sarafian's follow up film, the underrated Man in the Wilderness, where Richard Harris almost gets eaten by a bear and John Huston travels overland in a boat Fitzcarraldo-style. That said, neither one of these is my favorite Sarafian film. That would be his following film, 1973's The Lolly-Madonna War (aka Lolly-Madonna XXX).

Based on the Sue Grafton novel, (and if you have a copy, please send it my way, the out-of-print paperback is going for $600 on Amazon) the film tells the story of two feuding hillbilly clans in Tennessee and a traveling girl who becomes an unwilling pawn in their fight.

The story is deceptively complex. On the surface it appears to be simply a feud between two neighbors over an empty meadow. As the story unfolds however, deeper issues and tragedies are revealed. These past tragedies have set up an atmosphere of despair and frustration which in turn provide fertile ground for the resentment between the two neighboring clans to foster. The message that loss and despair breeds self-destructiveness is prevalent throughout the film. There's also a strong anti-war theme here as well. It is nicely woven in, mostly in a subtextual way, and only becomes overt on a few occasions. It never overwhelms the film or becomes preachy.  Nevertheless, it makes a bold statement for a 1973 movie when there were few anti-war films being released.
The star power alone elevates this film to one of Sarafian's best with a cast that includes Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter, Paul Koslo, Gary Busey, Randy Quaid, Kiel Martin and Timothy Scott. It also features the debuts of Season Hubley and Joan Goodfellow. The actors lend a real authenticity to the film, and some subtle but powerful performances. Additionally, there are several surprisingly tender scenes that really give the characters three dimensions and flesh out their relationships. Trying to pick the best performance of the film is tough. Rod Steiger is great as the sweaty, red-faced, tightly-wound Laben, the father of the Feather clan. Jeff Bridges plays the youngest Feather brother, Zack, and has a real nice rapport with Season Hubley's innocent, unworldly character. I can't believe Bridges was this good, this early in his career. Ultimately, I think Scott Wilson puts in the best performance as Thrush, the tortured elder brother who displays both bitterness and compassion very believably. I really bought into his self-destructiveness too.

The Tennessee setting was really nice looking, and made me wish for a better looking print of the film. The houses and costumes looked very authentic and backwoodsy without being stereotypical. The music by Fred Myrow was very good and understated in a haunting kind of way. It always stays in my head a few days after viewing the film.

If you're looking for a serious rural drama like the recent Winter's Bone or Shotgun Stories, check this one out. It's definitely solid across the board, with great performances, an authentic look, and a strong message. It's Safarian's best in my opinion.


Very Cool - Joan Goodfellow would go on to co-star with Jan Michael Vincent in the superb Buster and Billie.

Not So Much - Unfortunately, Goodfellow never achieved the heights her talent merited.

WTF! - The film was never released on VHS, much less DVD. I consider this a crime against humanity. If you're the least bit curious about it, throw a vote on the TCM site to get it released on video:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Who is Smokey Lonesome?

He helped Kowalski evade the cops in Vanishing Point... 

He found the kids a nice place to dance in Footloose... 

He enabled Mary Wilcox to get her necrophiliac kink on in Love Me Deadly... 

He played a cop, a criminal, a cowboy, a hillbilly, a hobo, a biker and a general. He worked with a variety of acclaimed directors including Russ Meyer, Norman Jewison, Sydney Pollack, George Roy Hill and Terrence Malick. Unlike his contemporary, Scott Wilson, who burst onto the scene in the film In Cold Blood and became an immediate recognized talent, or Harry Dean Stanton who slowly gained fame through the sheer volume of quality roles amassed, this actor worked in relative obscurity until his untimely death in 1995 at age 57. 

Timothy Scott

Despite a total of 89 film and television roles, often in high profile, high quality projects like In the Heat of the Night, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Lonesome Dove mini-series, character actor extraordinaire Timothy Scott often performed under the radar with recognition going to his more recognizable costars.  However, Tim Scott deserves to be an inductee in some version of the under-appreciated actors hall of fame, if for no other reason than the sheer diversity in the roles he took on and ably played. An incredibly rangy actor, he went from playing characters such as the likable outlaw News Carver in Butch Cassidy, to chiseling mechanic Mike in Welcome Home, Soldier Boys, to the creepy, sex procuring, pimp-of-the-dead Fred McSweeney in Love Me Deadly. 

As solid and believable as Scott was in those roles, two of his best came soon after. The first as Skylar, the eldest brother of the Feather family, who's forced to become a reluctant participant in his father's feud with the neighboring Gutshall clan. He brought a real compassion to this role and more than held his own with an all-star character actor cast that included Jeff Bridges, Rod Steiger, Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter and Randy Quaid. The second, which may be his best role, was the very disturbed and paranoid criminal Lon in Macon County Line. His spot-on performance was incredibly chilling and one of the best things about the film.

I don't know who it was that first said "The best music soundtrack is the one you are unaware of," but I think this can also be said about great character actors like Timothy Scott. It's the ones who don't chew scenery, and quietly go about their business and get the job done that ultimately impress. In an era of generic, hammy, pretty boy actors, Scott's understated, but undeniably distinctive and far ranging acting skills are sorely missed.

Top ten films with Tim Scott:

In the Heat of the Night
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Vanishing Point
Love Me Deadly
Lolly-Madonna XXX
Macon County Line
Days of Heaven
Fried Green Tomatoes

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ever Since the World Ended or So Sweet, So Pandemic

In the early 70's, I used to listen to Giants' baseball on KSFO in San Francisco well into the evening. After the game wrapped, the station would play old time radio shows like Suspense, Lights Out and Escape. There was nothing better for an eleven year old kid than listening to a ball game capped off with some late night horror. One evening, the station played an episode of Escape which was a two part adaptation of 
George R Stewart's post apocalyptic novel Earth Abides. 

The main character and narrator of the adaptation was voiced by legendary character actor John Dehner. Dehner's bass baritone was perfect for describing the post apocalyptic landscape of San Francisco, whether it was being besieged by an over abundance of rats or being threatened by a massive fire. Hearing only Dehner's voice, and a few sound effects, my imagination was sparked to such an extent that I could easily think the city that I lived less than an hour away from was completely deserted. I was absolutely mesmerized by the production and the thought of empty cities around the world gave me the chills.

The next day I immediately tracked down Stewart's novel at the local library. The book was naturally a lot more complex with much deeper themes than could be managed in an hour of radio drama. It was partly a hypothetical environmental impact story and partly a treatise on life's meaning and the human condition all wrapped up in one man's tale of survival and his attempt at reconstituting society. If JP Sartre had been an environmentalist, he would have written something like Earth Abides.

Hearing the radio show, reading the book and also seeing The Omega Man and Panic in the Year Zero in the same year, I became a die-hard post apocalyptic fan. There was something fascinating about a world devoid of people. How would they survive and reconstruct the world, and what form would it take, were all questions that fascinated me to no end. But I think the old radio show was the most effective at creating the P/A world, and best of all, it used my own imagination to fuel the story. That's something the P/A genre should excel at, but doesn't always succeed in doing. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that what was once my favorite genre hands down, has fractured into several sub-genres which have other agendas or problems associated with being imaginative or thematically relevant:

a) Mullets and Mohawks - Silly, fun and endlessly entertaining, but that's about all as this type of P/A is almost entirely action based. Any strong themes or imaginative aspects tend to get in the way of the essential action beats of these films. It's why Beyond Thunderdome was a train wreck.

b) Zombie Apocalypse - Romero was about the only director who tried to inject a little theme and imagination into this genre, the rest were mostly just exploitation gore-fests. Zombies aren't interesting, the end of the world is, which is why Dawn of the Dead may never be eclipsed in this genre.

c) Nuclear Annihilation - Easily the second strongest P/A sub-genre. It's thematically limited though to basically one 'don't push The Button' message, but these cautionary films tend to be powerful and very imaginative. The biggest problem of this sub-genre is that with the end of the Cold War, the threat of total nuclear annihilation seems to be fading. Try watching Testament, Threads or The Day After - though quite good, they all seem very dated and part of history now.

d) Pandemic or Natural Disaster -  This sub-genre has ample room for themes whether anthropological, social, environmental of most anything else. It's easier to focus on the big philosophical questions when there's no distractions like zombies or leather clad bikers running around. There are also endless ways to re-imagine the world and how it will evolve if it hasn't been nuked. The imaginative possibilities are what makes the pandemic scenario the most interesting to me and what drew me to Ever Since the World Ended.

Synopsis:  San Francisco, 12 years after the apocalypse

The film is a clever, low budget, faux documentary that is set in and around San Francisco twelve years after a plague has wiped out all but 186 people in the city. Directed by Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle, the film consists primarily of interviews and interaction with the some of the city's inhabitants, along with shots of empty streets, hillsides and beaches. The film is partly powered by the viewer's imagination which may work for some and be problematic for others. There are no cannibals, evil cults, zombies or anything else to distract from the rather ordinary survivors and their stories and thoughts on what has occurred.

As the lives and philosophies of the survivors are explored, there are three or four story lines also interwoven into the documentary. One of the most interesting involves "Mad Mark", a former emergency service worker who was exiled from the city for arson but has recently returned. This reminded me of a very similar plot complication in Earth Abides, where the fledgling community had to deal with an undesirable who wasn't yet guilty of a crime, but no doubt would be. How the small groups in both stories dealt with this issue was very telling. 

Another aspect of the film that's interesting is the dichotomy of attitudes between the older generation, who have clear memories of pre-apocalyptic times, and the kids, who are teenaged or younger, and have no memory of what life was like before the pandemic. The kids POV is mainly voiced by the character of James, played flawlessly by James Curry, who is both pragmatic about the new world and almost annoyed with the adults' love/hate nostalgic relationship with the old world. Although still very young with his teenage attitude on full display, James character is actually quite mature and is better equipped emotionally to deal with the post-apocalyptic world.

On the negative side, there are minor details that are a distraction to the picture being painted. The primary one is the presence of too much wardrobe and make-up for the post-apocalypse. I didn't expect everyone to walk around in sheep skins and leather chaps, but many of the characters looked like they just left the beauty salon. One teenage survivor had a purple streak in her hair and was wearing facial piercings. Really? That fashion statement is going to survive the apocalypse? A lot of the male characters have beards going, but are still a little too well groomed to be completely believable. I doubt grooming and fashion will be among the priorities in the new world. The acting, does have a few rough spots, but is pretty natural, un-melodramatic and sells the concept for the most part. My main complaint, which is actually a complement, is that I wanted to see more of the characters. There were some characters that were left behind too quickly, and never revisited. The films run time was around 75 minutes, but seemed to zip by even quicker, so there should have been time for some additional content and character development. 

In summary, if you can buy into the establishing imagery and acting performances, Ever Since the World Ended is a modest, intelligent, slice of theater-of-the-mind. 

Very Cool - The Escape two-part episode is available for free on the interwebs! -
Earth Abides part 1

Not So Much - Despite praise at the LA film festival in April 2001, the film wasn't released until 2006.

WTF - Seriously, purple hair? 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Habit or What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Sam's Body?

November 1985 at a Kaiser hospital in southern California -

At some point, I had rolled over in my sleep onto my I.V. tubing and crimped the line for both my antibiotic and potassium drips. My fever, which had been abating, quickly changed direction and shot back up. I had been placed on a gurney and unceremoniously parked in a stockroom closet of the hospital because there were no beds available. I wasn't alone. A man who was easily in his late 90s had been lodged in the same closet on another gurney right next to mine. He was in the last stages of some respiratory illness that caused his labored breathing to become even more intense, and he would emit an unearthly moan every few breaths. At any moment, I kept expecting him to get up NotLD-style, walk over to me and start feasting. Oh by the way, this wasn't the bad part of the story, that came several weeks earlier when I tangled with the vampire who eventually put me in the hospital.

Synopsis: Man + vampire = bad times

There are certain movies that you connect with on a personal level. I don't know if I can call Larry Fessenden's Habit my favorite movie, but it's certainly the one I'm most obsessed by, probably because I feel such a personal connection. When I was younger, I was very much like Sam, the protagonist of Habit, an over-educated underachiever who walks through life with a beer in one hand and a pithy comment on the tip of his tongue. Sam's the type of guy who combs his hair with his fingers, wears an overcoat to cover his fashion faux-pas, and always seems to be carrying a little pick-me-up in a brown paper bag. He's charming, glib and friendly, but not too responsible, ambitious or sober minded. He's also the perfect victim for a vampire.

At the beginning of the film, Sam's father has died, his girlfriend has left him and he's pretty much treading water vocationally speaking. Sam's in a vulnerable state, but he seems fairly oblivious to the fact. At a Halloween party, he meets a young woman named Anna, and begins a relationship with her. She then proceeds to suck the life out of him.

The question of the film is not whether Anna is a vampire, but what kind - literal or figurative. Fessenden throws in all kinds of gothic and vampiric iconography in addition to dream and surreal sequences to cloud the question so the viewer is never quite sure if Sam's going nuts or Anna is indeed a literal vampire. This is the most interesting aspect to the film - unreliable narrator or very reliable vampire? Add to this hand held, cinema verite-style camera work, interesting NYC locations, an unusual red and green color pallet, a brilliant mix of pop, folk and orchestral music, and a stellar, unselfconscious performance by Fessenden in the lead role, and you have an outstanding film. I've seen it upwards of 30 times, and I've yet to tire of it. It is almost as hypnotic and sexy as its female antagonist.

There's not much to complain about on the downside. A couple of times, I could hear actors reading lines instead of emoting, and the editing gets a little iffy in a couple of spots, but overall, this is an incredibly well put together low budget film that packs a subtle, intelligent and stylish punch. 

Now if you were like me, and have almost had the life drained out of you by a strange new love interest, and wound up in a hospital closet with a raging fever and a barely breathing man in the adjacent gurney, you would probably feel a personal connection to the film as well and give it a high final score of:

Very cool - Fessenden with his production company Glass Eye Pix has been involved in making some of the best American horror of the past 10 years including House of the Devil, Bitter Feast, I Sell the Dead, Stakeland plus Ti West's upcoming film The Innkeepers.

Not so much - I have the two Just Desserts songs from the Habit soundtrack and would love to have the rest of the music including the haunting orchestral score but it is not available as yet.

Spoilery WTF? Meredith Snaider, who does a very nice job playing the enigmatic Anna, is only listed in the IMDB for this film and no other, which is weird because of what happens to her character in the very last shot of the film.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Handle with Care or The Strange Vice of Mr Napier

It started with just a select group of professionals who used it to network while on the job. Late in the decade, however, it's function was morphed (or warped depending on your POV), and it became a popular tool for social interaction, information dissemination, emergency use and other more nefarious communication purposes. Groups of users, large and small, formed networks often using aliases and their own stylized language to converse with each other. I first gained access to this network in 1977, when I purchased one of these:

Jonathan Demme's 1977 film Handle with Care (aka Citizen's Band) delivers a lighthearted, loving and fairly accurate portrayal of the 70's CB craze. While movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit used CBs as props, Demme used it as the lynch pin and catalyst which effects all the characters in his film. The opening shot of a modulating CB sets it up immediately as the conduit through which all the characters (real or imagined) are drawn and interact. The cacophony of voices coming out of the CB are also a humorous and a fair representation of what one may have heard coming from CB radios back in the 70's.

The stories and characters that come after the opening credits, although played for laughs at times, provide a somewhat more serious subtext about community and family, both real and artificial, and how we fail to communicate with one another despite our fancy technology. The theme is still very relevant in today's culture with all of our advanced communication gadgets. That the CB was an anonymous communication tool that could be used for good or ill echoes today's internet.

Synopsis: A young man in the small midwest town of Union volunteers as a REACT monitor while taking care of his aging father, persuing his ex-girlfriend and trying to clean up the citizen's band.

The strength of the film is in its colorful characters and standout cast which includes Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Bruce McGill, Marcia Rodd, Charles Napier, Roberts Blossom, Alix Elias and Ed Begley Jr. The main protagonist "Spider", played nicely by Paul Le Mat, is a frustrated REACT monitor who is reluctantly breaking up with his gym coach girlfriend, played by Candy Clark, while trying to convince his brother to help out with their aging father played superbly by Roberts Blossom. The dramatic core of the film is the interplay that takes place with these characters who are all quite believable in their roles.

The B-story involves some very amusing female trouble for Charles Napier's trucker character "Chrome Angel". Of all the character's Napier has played, he's said this one was his favorite, and it's easy to see why. At heart, he's a likable, stand-up, blue collar guy, but with a streak of good old American hypocrisy hidden in his pants. In one scene, while visiting his regular prostitute "Hot Coffee" (played perfectly by Alix Elias), he praises his wife for getting the "dirty books" removed from their kid's school while at the same time negotiating what kind of sex act he'll be doing with Hot Coffee.

Between Le Mat's and Napier's story lines, the film moves right along at a comfortable clip, alternating between light comedy with somewhat more serious drama, but still manages an even tone despite the serious subtext. There's a few nice directorial touches by Demme as in the opening credits sequence, but the heart of the film is in its characters, theme and story. At times, some of the ancillary characters get stereotypical to the point of cartoonish, but for the most part, this is a minor distraction. The only real problem with the movie was the too wrapped up ending in which each loose end had a TV-style resolution. It would have been more believable to leave a few loose threads. But Le Mat's and Napier's characters alone make the film a solid watch, and overall, it's an enjoyable love letter to the CB era with themes about community and family and our inability to communicate despite having the tools to do so that still resonate today. Final score:


Very Cool -  Richard Bright, who played Al Neri in The Godfather movies and Burt in Rancho Deluxe, has a small role here as a service station owner named "Smilin' Jack".

Not so much - The twangy, cornball, V/O sign off at the end feels incredibly tacked on and is super cringe inducing. 

WTF! - Apparently, cows do indeed crap sideways!