|Islands In The Stream: Week Four
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy some more streaming suggestions to help pass the time. Check in every day for a new pick.
What better way to recover from too much ham and too many chocolate eggs than with a fourth week of streaming suggestions to help kill some time while staying inside and maintaining social distancing? Hopefully you will find them helpful and/or entertaining and keep coming back every day until all this lunacy finally ends. If not, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to explain how terrible I am at this or, even better, you could perhaps suggest a title of your own that I could tackle at some point.
For reasons that I could not possibly explain even if you put a gun to my head, I--along with a number of other members of the critical brethren, as it turns out--found myself last Friday watching "Thank God It's Friday," a 1978 comedy that was famously derided by Leonard Maltin as being perhaps the worst film to ever win an Academy Award (though to be fair, he made that statement long before the existence of "Crash" or "Suicide Squad"). Set over the course of one long Friday night, the film follows the misadventures of a group of colorful people who turn up at The Zoo, an elaborate multi-level disco owned by sleazo Tony (Jeff Goldblum) that is that very evening hosting both a dance contest and a live performance by the Commodores. Dave (Mark Lonow) and Sue (Andrea Howard) are a strait-laced couple on their fifth anniversary--she wants to cut loose and have fun but he complains about the sound music and weird people. Frannie (Valerie Landsburg) and Jeannie (a pre-Berlin Terri Nunn) are a pair of underage girls trying to sneak inside in order to win the dance contest and use the prize money to buy KISS tickets. Obnoxious near-sighted nerd Carl (Paul Jabara) is looking for a good time while his friend Ken (John Friedrich) is searching for something more meaningful. New in town Jennifer (Debra Winger in her first major movie role) is guided through the scene by worldly friend Maddy (Robin Menken). Nicole (Donna Summer) is an aspiring singer who brazens her way inside in the hopes of getting her demo record to the club's DJ (Ray Vitte). Not to shatter any illusions you might have been harboring but by practically all accepted critical standards, this film is garbage--while the intention might have been to do a kind of Altmanesque observation of disco culture with a number of intertwining narrative threads instead of one central storyline, the only thing clumsier than Armyan Bernstein's derivative and cliche-filled screenplay--the kind where just the mere mention of drugs or the word "tits" is meant to inspire big laughs and where none of the various plots are substantial enough to serve as the B storyline in an average episode of "Three's Company"--is the borderline oafish direction by Robert Klane, who first made a name for himself with the screenplay for the once-shocking black comedy "Where's Poppa?" and went on to create the "Weekend at Bernies" franchise. And yet, as terrible as the movie is, watching it again did reveal a few genuine pleasures amidst all the polyester-clad dross. The opening gag, in which the statue that serves as the Columbia Pictures logo steps off her pedestal to do a couple of disco moves, is pretty funny. While most of the performers here have slipped into well-deserved obscurity, it is interesting to see the likes of Goldblum and Winger heroically rising above their deeply dubious material entirely through their own considerable (and tragically underutilized) talents. There is a dance sequence in which leather freak Marv (Chick Vennera) busts a move in the parking lot atop the cars that is so energetically executed that you'll wish that it had been done in the service of a better movie. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack--and one could argue that the entire film was little more than an extended commercial for the accompanying album--is loaded with catchy tunes and led by the still-thrilling "Last Dance," the Summer tune that would win the Oscar for Best Song. And if you are a fan of the fashion styles of the disco era, the film encompasses the entire glorious-to-garish gamut in eye-popping detail. As a film, "Thank God It's Friday" is little more than exploitative trash that was clearly rushed into production by a studio that wanted to cash in on the popularity of "Saturday Night Fever" without any real understanding of why that film worked so well for so many people. As an inadvertent time capsule--both of the disco era in general and of the mindset of movie studio executives desperately trying to ride the coattails of a trend in the late 1970s--it does exert a strangely compelling fascination that cannot be entirely denied, even if you cannot entirely forget that it has more Oscars to its name than Debra Winger does. (The Criterion Channel)
In the annals of screen history, the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson barely even rate a blip these days--even chronicles of film humor tend to either ignore them completely or write them off as a destitute man's Abbott & Costello and one has to scour pretty hard online to find any trace of the handful of movies that they made. This is understandable, I suppose--even in their heyday, their brand of brash, noisy and corny comedy was a love-it-or-hate-it proposition at best and their reliance on topical humor means that a lot of their gags will go over the heads of most contemporary viewers. However, even though they could sometimes be excruciating, their screen career did hit one undeniable peak with a film so wild and so far ahead of its time that it puts most contemporary comedies to shame. That would be "Hellzapoppin" (1941), the adaptation of their 1938 stage production that was the longest-running Broadway musical of its time with over 1404 performances. However, despite those numbers, bringing that show to the screen was not exactly easy since what theatergoers got was a plotless revue filed with musical numbers and surreal jokes that were constantly changing and evolving in order to keep things fresh. Under normal circumstances, translating such bedlam to the screen would have required a screenplay that imposed some kind of theoretically cohesive narrative structure upon the chaos in a misguided effort to broaden the potential appeal--the same reason why the films of the Marx Brothers began to include gooney romantic subplots once they moved to MGM. The genius of the film is that it actually takes this notion and makes it the center of the narrative. Following a wild opening sequence that involves a trip to Hell and an appearance by Shemp Howard as our projectionist, the film's director insists to Olsen & Johnson that they need an actual story for this version and brings on the hapless screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) to recount the new and numbing narrative that he has devised--in which O&J are trying to put on a show while bringing two star-crossed lovebirds (Robert Page and Jane Frazee) together against the usual odds. This serves as a springboard for a collection of fourth wall-shattering gags that subvert the expectations of the cinema in much the same way that the original show presumably did for Broadway shows in a manner that suggests what might have resulted if Charlie Kaufman had been doing programmers for the Ritz Brothers back in the day. These jokes are not subtle--Mel Brooks would be considered subtle in comparison to the stuff here--but many of them are still quite funny and a few are even surprisingly forward-thinking. (Was this the first movie to do a joke based on "Citizen Kane," which had come out only a few months earlier?) You might have to go nearly a half-century into the future to "Gremlins 2" to find a major studio comedy as full-out anarchic as this and indeed, Joe Dante has spoken of that film being a key influence on his (even borrowing a few of the gags in the process). As I said, the two leads are an acquired taste but even those who don't especially spark to their peculiar form of funning will find things to like here--as the other major comedic presence, Martha Raye is really funny in her scenes depicting her pursuit of a fake Russian count (Mischa Auer) and there is a dance sequence featuring the Harlem Congaroos (the only performers besides O&J who appeared in the original show) doing the Lindy Hop (with future jazz great Slim Gaillard as part of the musical accompaniment) that deserves comparison with the "Make Em Laugh" number from "Singin in the Rain" and the jitterbug number from "1941" as one of the most eye-popping pieces of choreography to ever hit the screen. "Hellzapoppin" is that rarest of beasts--an authentic comedy classic that, with the exception of the Lindy Hop sequence (which turns up online a lot) hardly anyone these days has even seen--and those of you with a taste in humor that leans towards pure wackiness should get a real bang out of it. Fun fact--it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song for the tune "Pig Foot Pete" despite the fact that it never actually is heard in the film, though it was featured in the same year's Abbott & Costello film "Keep Em Laughing." (YouTube)
Now that subscribers to the Disney+ streaming channel have had enough time to peruse the higher-profile titles being offered, they may finally be in the mood to check some of the more offbeat items of programming on display. While I could grumble about the lack of such early-80s favorites as the legitimately creepy 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and the 1981 superhero spoof "Condorman" (which at least one 10-year-old viewer appreciated, back in the day particularly during the scenes when Barbara Carrera was on the screen), I give them points for including the studio's virtually unclassifiable 1941 feature "The Reluctant Dragon." Essentially a precursor of the Disney television series that would come along more than a decade later, the film offers viewers a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio's then-new facilities in Burbank, California with comedian Robert Benchley as the guide. The premise is that Benchley's wife (Nana Bryant) has finished reading Kenneth Grahame's "The Reluctant Dragon," a whimsical story of a dragon who would rather read poetry than do typical dragon activities, and has decided that Walt Disney should make an animated film out of it. She harangues Benchley into going to the studio in order to pitch the project to Walt, largely against his will. While trying to find Walt, Benchley winds up stumbling into various areas of the studio and discovers the various processes that go into making an animated film--storyboard and sound effects sessions, the paint department and the elaborate multi-plane camera system devised to create some of the more complicated visuals. Along the way, he even get looks at a couple of cartoons, including "Baby Weems" and the Goofy vehicle "How to Ride a Horse." Finally he comes across Walt, who invites him (and us) to enjoy a preview of his latest work, a film version of "The Reluctant Dragon" that makes up the last big chunk of the film. When this hybrid vehicle of a movie first came out, it was a bit of a disaster--critics and audiences felt cheated that they were not getting the full animated feature suggested by the ads and the cheery and upbeat depiction of life at the studio rang especially hollow as most of the animators were on a highly publicized strike at the exact moment it opened--but it is a fascinating curio to watch today. Although the peek behind the curtain was not quite as authentic as one might be led to believe (the animators Benchley interacts with were actually actors), it is undeniably neat, especially for animation buff, to get a look at the layout and there are even glimpses of production materials from the then-in-production "Dumbo" and "Bambi" as well as early designs for "Peter Pan" and "Lady and the Tramp" from more than a decade before they came out. As for the "Reluctant Dragon" sequence, it is cute and colorful but when it is over, you will be happy that the studio did not try to spin it out into an entire feature. "The Reluctant Dragon" may have been made for the most mercenary of reasons--it was rushed into production as a bit of low-budget filler designed to bring in some much-needed money--but as a cinematic time capsule of a key moment in the history of animated films, it manages to be both educational and entertaining and for kids who are interested in how movies are made (okay, were made), it should serve as an effective primer. (Disney+)
On the surface, "His Kind of Woman" (1951) may look like a standard-issue film noir tale--with the likes of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in the leads, how could it not?--but thanks to a number of bizarre behind-the-scenes machinations, what could have been a standard genre exercise transmogrified into a weirdo work of crackpot genius that has been alternately delighting and confusing viewers since it first came out. Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a professional gambler on the skids who has just received a mysterious offer that will pay him $50,000 to simply go to a Mexican resort and wait around util contacted with further instructions. On the chartered flight down, he starts hitting on the only other passenger, Lenore Brent (Russell), only to discover that she is going to see her married lover, egotistical movie star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Prince). Some complications arrive in the form of Cardigan's wife (Marjorie Reynolds), who did not get a Reno divorce as intended, and his business manager, who fears that a divorce will destroy his career. Meanwhile, Milner is contacted by a man (Tim Holt) who claims that he is with the INS and says that the government suspects that his mysterious benefactor is none other than infamous exiled gangster boss Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), who has a diabolical plan for sneaking back into the country that requires Milner's unwitting help. This may sound straightforward enough but instead of unfolding in the expected ways, the film ends up playing more like a spoof of such films thanks to a storyline that seems to get goofier by the minute, dialogue that often sounds like it is being ad-libbed by the actors (and evidently was, according to Mitchum) and, most significantly, the absolutely hilarious performance by Price as the smarmy screen hero who finds himself thrust into the position of being a real-life hero by leading some Mexican cops and resort guests into battle against assorted gangsters. The film had a notoriously troubled production--after director John Farrow turned in his cut, Hughes demanded reshoots (mostly to expand Price's character) and when he refused, he was fired Richard Fleischer was brought in, initially against his will, to rework the ending and wound up reshooting most of the entire film. (Some of it more than once--after shooting, Hughes decided to replace Lee van Cleef, who originally played Ferraro, with Robert J Wilke and then when those scenes were almost done, he decided to fire Wilke and redo those scenes with Burr.) Not surprisingly, it flopped at the box-office but, like John Huston's "Beat the Devil" (1953), another offbeat noir spoof that is probably that closest thing that it can be compared to in terms of its mixture of tones, it would go on to become a cult favorite over time with viewers willing to accept the oddness in exchange for the crazy plot, snappy dialogue ("If you do get killed, I'll make sure you get a first-rate funeral in Hollywood at Grauman's Chinese Theatre." "I've already had it. My last picture died there.), the incredible chemistry between Mitchum and Russell (who would do only one other film together, the equally troubled "Macao" (1952) and, best of all, Price in arguably the most entertaining non-horror turn of his career. Listening to him tear into such lines as "This place is dangerous. The time right deadly. The drinks are on me, my buck!" or going into real life-or-death battle for the first time and discovering that he likes it, he is an absolute hoot, much like the film as a whole. (Turner Classic Movies)
When the tributes began pouring in yesterday upon the announcement of the passing of veteran character actor Brian Dennehy, a career that spanned the stage, screen and television and saw him winning multiple awards, including Best Actor Tony Awards for his performances in productions of "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," was essentially reduced, at least according to the headlines, to having appeared in "First Blood" (1982) and "Tommy Boy" (1995). Yes, he was appropriately menacing as the small-town sheriff who pushes John Rambo too far in that often-underrated thriller and he was probably the best thing about the otherwise dire Chris Farley comedy. However, as a simple perusal of his credits will reveal, the man turned in so many good performances throughout his film career--the sympathetic bartender in "10" (1979), the avuncular alien in "Cocoon" (1985), the garrulous bad guy at the center of the sprawling Western "Silverado" (1985), the cynical police detective in the quirky thriller "F/X" (1986), a leading role as a tormented architect in Peter Greenaway's powerful drama "The Belly of an Architect" (1987) and the voice of Remy's father in "Ratatouille" (2007) to name just a few--that picking just one to highlight here is an almost impossible task. That said, if you are looking for a film that is perhaps not quite as familiar as some of those that I have cited but which still shows him in all his glory, you could hardly do better than "Best Seller," an inspired 1987 thriller/buddy film that found him teaming up with none other than James Woods. Dennehy plays Dennis Meechum, a cop who, not unlike the real-life Joseph Wambaugh, has managed to transform his exploits on the force into a series of best-selling books on the side. Unfortunately, between mourning his late wife and trying to raise their daughter (Alison Balson), he has developed a seemingly insurmountable case of writer's block. While pursuing a suspect, a man named Cleve (Woods) joins in the chase and kills the suspect when he gets the drop on Meechum before disappearing. He turns up again, this time with a proposal. He claims that he has been working for years as a hired killer employed by a huge corporation and wants to spill all of his secrets about his employers--he will tell Meechum his story, Meechum will write it up and the two will split the millions that such a book will presumably earn. When Meechum dismisses Cleve as a crackpot, Cleve offers to take him on a tour of the locations of his past kills to prove that he is telling the truth and as they go off on their journey, it turns out that not only are there people who will do anything to keep such a book from being published, there seems to be an unexpected past connection between Cleve and Meechum as well. As with most films originating from a screenplay by the late, great Larry Cohen, "Best Seller" has an undeniably nifty premise, even if the ensuing script never quite does it full justice. (Director John Flynn has claimed that he actually rewrote much of it.) And yet, while it may not be a classic by any stretch of the imagination, it nevertheless works as a lean and effective B movie and this is largely due to the inspired chemistry that develops between the two leads. Watching the live-wire Woods and the no-nonsense Dennehy working off of each other is a genuine delight and elevates what might have been a dull programmer into one of those quirky little gems that may have slipped through the cracks when it first came out but which has clearly held up a lot better than any number of more overtly successful films that came out at the same time. And when you are done watching it, feel free to peruse the rest of Dennehy's filmography--I can pretty much guarantee that you will be glad that you did. (Amazon Prime, Hitz)
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originally posted: 04/13/20 11:39:18
last updated: 04/17/20 07:54:34