Monday, December 27, 2010

Hey Beaches!

Since it's the dead of winter, I decided to give the finger to the cold and rainy California weather by watching a bunch of beach movies from the golden era of the late 70's/early 80's. While viewing, I observed certain similarities in the ingredients of the genre. Specifically, I noted the recipe for a beach movie of this era required the following:

  • 2 generic fun-in-the-sun songs that can be replayed endlessly on the soundtrack
  • 1 middle-aged beachcomber with a metal detector to trip over
  • 1 bikini-top stealing dog (or dude)
  • 1 virginal, smoking hot heroine
  • Copious amounts of marijuana
  • 2 or more incompetent law enforcement officials
  • A sprinkling of peepers
  • And add T & A to suit taste

Despite their formulaic nature, I did find each movie was different enough to distinguish it in some way. Even with their predictable dumbness, they're still enjoyable trash, with one actually elevating itself out of the dust bin. In the end, all three brought me out of my winter doldrums and kept me entertained. Thanks low-brow beach movies, mission accomplished.

California Dreaming (1979)

Synopsis: A Chicago boy travels to a small beach community in sunny California and hangs out with its denizens. 

This is the class of the beach movies I viewed, most likely due to the large amount of talent involved. For example, the director, John D. Hancock, did some really underrated films in the 70's including Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly, and Baby Blue Marine. He does a decent, workmanlike job with a few nice touches here and there to make this another underrated, solid effort. The actors were far more impressive than would normally inhabit this genre with the lead role played by Dennis Christopher and a supporting cast of Seymour Cassel(!), Dorothy Tristan, John Calvin, Tanya Roberts, Stacy Nelkin, James Van Patten and with comedy veterans Todd Susman and Alice Playten. Glynnis O'Connor, who played John Travolta's love interest in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, and Billie Joe McCallister's (Robbie Benson) friend in Ode to Billie Joe, seemed an odd choice to play the lead beach bunny, but she does look good in and out of a bikini and is a decent actress. 

The story involves an ensemble of characters and has a surprisingly lucid interwoven plot structure that even gets downright dramatic in a few places. Credit writer Ned Wynn, who also costars, for a script that was much deeper than it had to be. Make no mistake, the film is still a light comedy, but there are some genuine moments of pathos that occur along the way, especially at the end. Actually having a story, and somewhat believable characters, really elevated this film to something above the norm in the genre. There's a lot less exploitive elements, like gratuitous T & A (don't worry, there is still some) that occur, but that's a small price to pay for a better story and characters.

However, the film does have its share of problems. I thought the main one was with Dennis Christopher's character T.T. He begins as a kookie nerd and slowly transforms into…a better dressed, kookie nerd. The look of his character slowly, and believably, evolves from Chicago hipster to California beach boy, but he never stops acting like a goofball as his character arc seems to flatline. He is constantly pulling some kind of bonehead move like tripping, falling, spilling a drink or saying something stupid in every scene. This kind of clumsy dufus humor gets old real quick especially when the rest of the film doesn't resort to cheap slapstick stuff and treats its characters with a little more respect. Had Christopher's character been just a little more mature and believable, the film could have gone from pretty good to very good. Another big flaw is the title song and other original music which is horribly bland, mindless pop and reflects the lazy, uninspired opening credit sequence itself. However, the lame original music does have the unintended benefit of making Burton Cumming's and America's music in the middle of the film sound positively cutting edge. 

I caught this again on Netflix Instant and the print, though flawed, is still the best and most complete incarnation I've seen since I saw its theatrical release. In terms of a quality beach movie, this one rates surprisingly high.

Score 7/10

Malibu Beach (1978)

Synopsis: Two guys and two girls fresh out of school hang out at Malibu beach.

Robert J. Rosenthal, who's only other picture was Zapped!, directed this low budget film that stars James Daughton, Kim Lankford, Steve Oliver and a slew of unknowns. Daughton, who is best known as fratboy president Greg Marmalard in Animal House, stars as the nice, white-bread boy Bobby who hangs out with his wiseacre friend Paul. They meet up with Kim Lankford and Susan Player's characters of Dina and Sally, and the wooing commences. 

The film is episodic and pretty much lacks any kind of story, so it's up to the characters and the almighty T & A to carry it. Kim Lankford conveys a shy, sweetness and was the most likable of the characters, and as an added bonus, looked quite nice in a bikini. Steve Oliver's super dumbass, muscular bully character of Dugan was enjoyable in an almost WWF kind of way. He single-handedly kept the movie from becoming totally bland and forgettable with his awesome douchebaggery, and delivered great lines like "Nobody, I mean nobody, calls Dugie a turd!" Hey, it's not exactly "Nobody puts Baby in a corner", but it's funny. The T & A level is set at medium with gratuitous boobage about every 10 minutes or so just to keep interest up.

Unfortunately, the film is loaded with low budget technical problems including bad lighting, frequent dubbing and a crappy soundtrack that keeps getting recycled. The dialogue is cringe-inducing, and often sounds like two real-life teenagers conversing in a mono-syllabic/sentence fashion - 
They might as well be grunting caveman-style at each other. There are a lot of episodic events that take place, but they all seem to happen in a vacuum and with no relation to each other. Even when characters hook up or fight, it seems almost spontaneously accidental. There is a mandatory Jaws joke near the end which is about as clever and funny as the movie gets.

Despite all the problems and the seemingly minimal effort that went into making the film, it's not horrible. But besides Lankford and Oliver's performances, and what seemed like obligatory T & A shots, there was just the bare minimum to enjoy.

Score 5.5/10

The Beach Girls (1982)

Synopsis: Two girls and a guy invade their friends uncle's beach house to hang out and party. 

This is an all-out exploitation throwback by Bud Townsend, the director of the X-rated Alice in Wonderland and the semi-scandalous Coach. Give the man credit for knowing what is required for a dumb, fun beach movie and shoveling it out in bucketfuls. The movie is an almost non-stop T & A fest with dopey, offensive humor and the thinnest of plots. Nevertheless, there was a freewheeling sense of looniness to the film that the other two seemed to lack. Even though almost all of the humor is incredibly moronic, Townsend quickly and consistently doles it out, along with the naked women, to keep the entertainment coming at a breakneck pace. There's a genuine exploitation feel and even a little sleaziness that is oddly appealing. The biggest strength of the movie is the mega-cute, super sexy and very curvaceous Debra Blee. She's the anchor of the story playing a strait-laced girl who gets sucked into a massive party thrown by her boy-crazy girlfriends. Why Blee didn't get cast in more of this type of 80's fare is a complete mystery. She's got the looks and skills to easily carry any B-level film. James Daughton shows up again as a hunky, zen-like traveler who becomes the romantic interest for Blee's character. Her horned-up girlfriends, Ginger and Ducky (yes Ducky, I don't know why) are played by Val Kline and Jeana Tomasina, both of whom lack Blee's vavoom-ness, but are still naughtily attractive and nude it up quite nicely. Veteran bikesploitation actor Adam Roarke play's Uncle Carl, the owner of the invaded beach house and luckiest man on earth. 

In the pantheon of brainless comedies, this one rates right near the top, but there's no denying its goofy energy. Blee is also quite appealing, and should have been cast in every beach, ski, roller disco and sky diving school movie made in the 80's.

Score 6/10

Of the three beach movies, California Dreaming is the only one I'd recommend watching sober. There's definitely some worthwhile acting performances, characters and storytelling. On the other end of the spectrum, you may want to smoke a Glad bag full of spleef before viewing The Beach Girls for maximum enjoyment. Regardless, if your snowed in, or rained in like me, beach films are the perfect cure for the wintertime blues.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not so Bad Ronald

Robert DeNiro never played a polio-afflicted magician. Al Pacino never played a son coming to terms with his dad's homosexuality. Gene Hackman never played a bad seed with an Oedipus complex. And Clint Eastwood never played a fantasy obsessed nerd who takes refuge behind his mom's pantry. Nope, those guys are all rank amateurs compared to one of my favorite actors of the seventies. His name is Scott Jacoby, and here are five of his best film roles:

Rivals (1971) 

Synopsis: A mother's young, disturbed son and her new, obnoxious, somewhat rapey boyfriend vie for her attention. Bad times ensue.

This film had to have set on a shelf for at least a couple of years (for good reason) as Jacoby looks no older than ten or eleven. It's a horribly mangled character study with two surprisingly good acting performances. Jacoby is excellent in his very first film, and Joan Hackett brings her A-game as well playing his mother. Everything else about the movie is terrible, especially the writing. All the stereotypically bad, early 70's film missteps are on full display including psychological flashbacks, a ridiculous Freudian subtext, and a weird quasi-pedophiliac scene. Robert Klein's boyfriend character is a complete jack-ass that no woman would come within a mile of in real life. The fact that Hackett's character falls for him, is only the beginning of numerous unbelievable story developments. Jacoby's character is written as intelligent, precocious and mature beyond his years one moment, than a tantrum throwing manipulator the next. Despite this, he delivers a really good performance especially given his young age and big screen inexperience. The writer/director, Krishna Shah, does a horrible job of shooting New York City, it looks down-right ugly throughout the film. The musical score and songs range from inappropriate to wildly inappropriate. The ending of the movie feels totally forced and contrived and I actually shouted "aw c'mon!" at the screen at one point.

The Jacoby factor - It's a huge credit to both Hackett's and Jacoby's superior acting skills that they could elevate a colossal train wreck like this from the bottom of hell's deepest pit and make it halfway watchable. The rest of the film is dreck, but they somehow pulled out two game-saving performances and that's quite an accomplishment considering the inferior material. 

Overall score 5.5

That Certain Summer (1972)

Synopsis: Gay dad's unaware, naive 14-year old son comes to visit him in Sausalito. Complications ensue.

First off, if your dad lives in Sausalito…….just sayin'. For a film that was made-for-TV in the early 70's, I was surprised at how un-heavyhanded it was. Part of the credit goes to the script by Richard Levinson and William Link which doesn't contain any blatant false notes, and for the most part, stays away from After-School-Special territory. However, there is a "Do you know what the word homosexual means?" speech. It still may seem like a tempest in a teapot by today's standards, but for the time, it was pretty risky material for middle America. 

Hal Holbrook plays the dad in a quiet, un-melodramatic way with a young Scott Jacoby as his son. Martin Sheen puts in the best performance as Holbrook's dignified, perceptive partner, and Hope Lange does a decent job as Holbrook's ex. With all the limitations that the network must certainly have thrown on the movie (and I'd love to see the notes from that meeting), it still came out pretty darned good. As an added bonus, there's a lot of nice on-location shots of San Francisco thrown in that the characters are actually in, rather than the stock establishment shots that are usually used for the Bay Area.

The Jacoby factor - Unfortunately Scott's role was written as a relatively generic kid, so he was limited somewhat by this. He does emote quite nicely toward the end though and picked up an Emmy for best supporting actor.

Overall score 7

Bad Ronald (1974) 

Synopsis  Ronald Wilby is bad and has to hide behind the pantry in his house.

Made-for-TV movie that was one of the best of the seventies. It begins as campy fun, but by the end, it turns into something that is creepily riveting. Kim Hunter is totally believable as the over-protective mom, and Jacoby is top-notch as Ronald. To watch Ronald slowly sink further into his fantasy world of Atranta is chilling, and really fleshes out what could have been a two-dimensional story. Also effective was Ronald's growing, um, funkiness, some of which rubs off on poor Cindy Fisher at one point - a nice little smudged make-up effect that most TV films wouldn't have followed through on. 

The pace is very quick, with the initial set up in the first ten minutes, and the rest briskly playing out in the last hour. Some people have a problem with the quick resolution, but I kind of liked it, as there really wasn't anywhere else to go in the story at that point.

Casting note of interest - Both real-life Eilbacher sisters, Lisa and Cindy, play the two older sisters of the family that move into the Wilby place. Dabney Coleman plays the dad.

The Jacoby factor - If you doubt the Prince of Atranta's acting ability's, watch this back to back with The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane - Jacoby goes from a completely creepy, pathetic nerd, to an amiable guy who can charm Jody Foster. I doubt most actors have the range to go from believable heel to believable hero at this young an age.

Overall Score 8.0

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Synopsis: A young teenage girl vows to remain independent at all costs.

This is an all-time favorite of mine because it's so low key and thematically strong. Even though I was a teenage boy when I first saw it, I related a lot to Rynn and her desire not to "play their game". The movie is a very, very subdued mystery thriller that focuses mostly on the three main characters. Jodie Foster is incredibly good as Rynn and is well matched by Jacoby's likable Mario. Martin Sheen gives a mega-creepy but subdued performance as the town predator Frank Hallet. 

The script was written by the books author, Laird Keonig, who did a spot-on adaptation. Unfortunately, the film looks like it was shot on the cheap, which is too bad because their are some really nice New England location shots. The classical Chopin music on the soundtrack works great, but it occasionally dips into a crappily generic 70's synth funk sound which clashes mightily and dates the film. The other components are so high quality though, that the flaws can be ignored for the most part. 

The Jacoby factor - When an actor can share the stage with Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen, and not get outclassed, it's very impressive. Jacoby's charm and charisma really help sell the whole story quite well.

Overall Score 8.5

Our Winning Season (1978)   

Synopsis: A  high school track star hangs out with his pals, gets a girl and attempts to win the big race.

Above average coming-of-age story set in the mid-sixties with Jacoby in the lead role and Dennis Quaid, Joe Penny, Jan Smithers and PJ Soles in supporting roles. Also stars a '65 Corvette, a '57 Bel Air and a '67 Mustang. Better than most films of its genre and has a poignant side as well. Contains the obligatory montage training scene in which Jacoby does more running than Franka Potente, but its a pretty decent teen underdog flick. 

Overall score 6.5

Additional Note: I wanted to re-watch Baxter! which features another strong performance by Jacoby, but I couldn't track it down anywhere. I still want to throw it out there as a recommendation because he's excellent in it as well. 

If you're a fan of seventies TV and film, you're probably already aware of Scott Jacoby. If not, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and Bad Ronald are essential films of the decade to check out that have the added benefit of seeing a great young actor at work.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Swedish Mad Max

It's odd how some films stay with you. I saw the Swedish film, The Night Visitor, just once at the theater upon its release back in 1971. Its dark, disturbing, understated quality made such an indelible impression, I've been seeking out films like it ever since. I just saw it again last week for the first time in forty years. With little gore, no jump scares, and a reverse engineered mystery, The Night Visitor still packs a haunting punch.

Synopsis:  Committed Swedish farmer Salem gets himself some payback.  

The film opens with a lone man running through the snowy Swedish countryside at night, wearing only his underwear. In the background, a large, dark, ominous building on the top of a hillside looms over him. He eventually arrives at a house where a family is involved in a heated argument downstairs. The man sneaks upstairs and selects a suit tie out of a bunch of others in the the bedroom closet. When he hears someone approaching, he jams the ties in a doctor's bag and leaves.

The questions raised by the opening are soon answered, although some are answered more quickly and definitively than others. The biggest mystery revolves around how the man is able to get out to execute his plans. This mystery, along with the man's identity, and the reason for his nocturnal visits, are organically explained within the context of events as they unfold rather than with large exposition drops. This makes the film quite lean, pacey and engaging. But it also means the film can't be watched casually. There are minor, but important details, that are passed along throughout the story that are crucial to understanding what's going on. Also, the fantastic, low key ending is set up cleverly, in a matter of fact manner, much earlier in the film.

With three Swedish film icons plus Trevor Howard, the acting performances are all top notch. The mighty Max von Sydow plays the lead character Salem as a quiet, enigmatic, clever man who enjoys mind games. Trevor Howard plays the smart, experienced police inspector who takes nothing at face value and refuses to get manipulated by Salem. Liv Ullmann is very good playing against type as the cold and calculating sister of Salem, but it's Per Oscarsson as her husband, who gives the best performance. Oscarsson, last seen in The Girl Who Played With Fire, is outstanding as the weak doctor who slowly starts to come undone under Salem's mechanizations. 

The gloomy, oppressive and somewhat off kilter atmosphere of the film is accomplished by the unusual cinematography which uses a dark green and grey color pallet. The often discordant soundtrack by Henry Mancini, who is known for much lighter fare, also adds very effectively to the disturbing atmosphere.

The film doesn't really have any major weaknesses. Although the direction is quite perfunctory, and not at all stylized, it gets the job done quite nicely. The story moves right along with only one or two spots where it slows unnecessarily. The film is low budget, but the low production value looks decent, and any cracks in the veneer are not that noticeable.

When I first saw the film at age 10, I enjoyed the thriller aspects and creepy atmosphere. This time I was blown away by the great acting and story intricacies. Despite the understated, subtle nature of the film, I was completely sucked in at both viewings. 

Overall score

Very cool - Max von Sydow running through snow in his underwear.

Not so much - Seeing von Sydow in his underwear.

WTF! Christopher Lee was the first choice to play Salem? No way, von Sydow's the man!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Two Dates at the Le Brea Tar Pits

Due mostly to an unfriendly economic and political climate, on-location filming in Los Angeles has virtually disappeared. It's sad, because even the most boring of LA locations can provide interesting sets for films. Case in point, 1989's Miracle Mile opens with Anthony Edward's character romancing Mare Winningham's at the Le Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. And in 2007's The Hammer, another couple of movie characters have a romantic rendezvous at the tar pits. Well, not exactly the tar pits, but the George C Page museum adjacent to the tar pits:

Yes, it's as exciting as it looks. It is after all, a museum that celebrates a pit of tar and old bones. But it is interesting how two completely unrelated films, that couldn't be more different, use a place as mundane as the tar pits extraordinarily well - one comically, one thematically.

The Hammer (2007) 
Like all good romantic comedies, the setting becomes an integral character in the film. Such is the case with LA in The Hammer. An unabashed comedy vehicle for Adam Carolla that belies his usual low brow humor approach in TV shows like The Man Show and Crank Yankers. Carolla plays Jerry Ferro, a carpenter/boxing instructor who unexpectedly gets a second chance for the Olympic tryouts. At the same time, he begins a romantic relationship with one of his boxing students who is a public defender played by Heather Juergensen.

Even though Carolla plays Ferro as a tired, put upon sad-sack, the film is rather upbeat and cheery for the most part. This is due largely to the sunny LA locations, the humorously smart script, the music tracks from bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bad Religion, The Jayhawks and a very nice cast of characters surrounding the lead.

Juergensen is very good as Ferro's smart, but athletically-challenged love interest Lindsay. Castillo is funny as his English-challenged best friend Ozzie, and the great Jane Lynch makes an uncredited but hilarious appearance as a not-to-be-challenged hardware shopper. The scenes between Carolla and Juergensen are the funniest and sweetest in the film, especially the Le Brea tar pit scenes where Jerry constantly complains, and Lindsay happily points out displays like "What it's like to be stuck in tar." There are some genuinely human moments between them that are nicely under-played, one in particular where Jerry is trying to let her out of his damaged pick up.

I only have two problems with the film. One is the low energy emoting that Carolla often brings to his character. His acting feels like a mandated Christmas gift in that it conveys the sentiment, but there seems to be no real emotion behind it. It's like a smile that doesn't quite touch the eyes. The second issue is with the unoriginal boxing story which is fairly standard Rocky/Karate Kid stuff with an ending bout that stretches all credibility in trying to be unique. It is nice to see in Carolla, a real athlete who knows how to box, but it would have been better to put that to some use in the ring instead of showing tired montage-type K.O. scenes. Actually, I wouldn't have missed this story line at all, and would have been happy with a stand alone, lovable loser romance. But for fans of underdog athlete plots, here's another one of those.

Overall, The Hammer is a quickly paced, fairly short film (80+ minutes) with some decent, humorous, believable characters, a nice romance, and an entertaining, if unoriginal, sports story with good use of LA as a backdrop.

Final Score 7/10

Miracle Mile (1989)
Although there are no obvious spoilers in this review, if you've never seen the movie, I advise seeing it completely on the blind for maximum enjoyment. So skip this for now, and fire up the Netflix Instant Watch where the film is currently available. This one is highly recommended.

In Miracle Mile, the film actually opens and closes at the Le Brea tar pits. I'm a complete sucker for the bookend device whether in film or literature, and it works very well here as a thematic statement. The tar pits serve as the perfect symbolic location for the beginning and the end. As in The Hammer, many other real LA locations, mostly around the Wilshire area are used to great effect. The viewer not only gets an idea of how unnecessarily spread out everything is in LA, but also the cockeyed, badly planned, non-sensical beauty of it all.

At the start of the film, Anthony Edward's character spots Mare Winningham's at the tar pits and becomes smitten. The next twenty minutes are right out of an 80's romantic comedy - 'Boy gets girl, boys loses girl'. It's the last hour of 'boy getting girl back' that is an absolute tension-filled thrill ride played out in near real time. It's like a leisurely stroll in the park that turns into an all out terrified sprint for your life. The pacing, which is never slow even in the early part of the film, moves so quickly that the 80+ minute film seems over all to quickly.

One of the smartest story aspects of the movie is the uncertainty of whether an upcoming event is actually happening at all. Has the main character caused mass panic or is an actual calamity approaching? The film does ultimately answer the question, but not knowing just adds another layer of suspense. Also the plot and tone are so cleverly deceptive, that one is left with a horrified smile halfway through, not quite knowing what to feel beyond the exhilaration. 

Steve De Jarnatt wrote and directed the film which stars Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham and a cast of character actor all-stars that include Mykel T Williamson (Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving buddy Bubba), Denise Crobsy (security chief Tasha Yar from Star Trek TNG), Brian Thompson (the alien bounty hunter from The X-Files), Jenette Goldstein (the tough soldier from Aliens and Diamondback from Near Dark), not to mention B-movie HoF icon John Agar. Almost every other cast member is recognizable as well. 

While Edwards is not the world's greatest actor, and Winningham (who is great) gets wasted in a standard girlfriend role, they both give performances that are good enough to buy into and don't distract from the story. Three actors that were particularly good in small roles were Crosby as a no-nonsense business woman, Kurt Fuller as her whiny, ever complaining assistant, and Williamson as a car stereo thief. Fuller has a scene near the end of the film that is absolutely bone chilling.

The Tangerine Dream score for the film is truly sublime and helps set the tone perfectly throughout. I think its the best score they've done for any film including Risky Business. It is undoubtedly the most valuable thing in the film.

On the downside, the film was made in the 80's, and it is readily apparent by the hair, make-up and wardrobe. Narrow lapels, spiky hair and headbands are all grotesquely present. Winningham's hair is a faux punk disaster. Even Williamson's character has some horrifyingly, hard-core jerry curl action going. The outdated fashions unfortunately turn the film into a time capsule which becomes somewhat distracting. However, even this major flaw can be forgiven as the film is so compelling otherwise. 

Overall, Miracle Mile is an excellent, lightening fast paced, gripping film, with some nice LA set locations. Had it been made ten years earlier, or ten years later, I've no doubt the film would have been a classic. However, it does get penalized for being made in the 80's due to the horrible aesthetic of that decade.

Final score 8/10

It's regrettable that Los Angeles has all but ceased being used as a filming location. Even places as dull as the Le Brea tar pits can be effective and integral parts of films. Maybe someday LA will wise up like other international cities, and make it easier to once again make movies there. Until then, at least we have two films like these to serve as a nice postcard from LA.