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Islands In The Stream: Week Five
by Peter Sobczynski

Another week, another collection of streaming suggestions to help kill some time while staying inside and maintaining social distancing during these strange times. 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 petersob@netzero.net 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.

You often hear talk among moviegoers about so-called "guilty pleasures"--films that you know are virtually indefensible by all accepted critical standards but cannot help but love on some basic level. I have never really been a believer in such things--if I like a movie, I will cheerfully do so without any accompanying sense of guilt or shame about doing so. However, if I were to sit down to compose a list of movies that I do have a certain affection for despite clearly realizing that they are garbage, it would almost certainly have to include "Eyes of Laura Mars," an absolutely astonishing 1978 thriller that was lurid, ludicrous and lunatic in equal measure. Faye Dunaway, in her first role since winning the Oscar for "Network" (1976), stars as Laura Mars, a rich, famous and impossibly glamorous fashion photographer who specializes in tableaus of highly stylized sex and violence that have caused controversy among those who dismiss it as gory, sexist crap that is more of a ripoff than anything resembling art.(Her images are suggested by the work of controversial photographer Helmut Newton, who actually did some of the photos that are seen.) Laura begins having bizarre visions in she sees friends and colleagues being brutally murdered by an unknown assailant--in fact, she sees the killings as though she is looking through the eyes of the actual killer. This explanation does not endear her to John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), the cop in charge of the case, and things are further muddied by the fact that some of Laura's past photo shoots resemble pictures of unsolved crime scenes that she could not have possibly seen. As the lists of potential suspects and eventual victims continue to grow, Laura and Neville fall in love but not even this relationship can help prevent a final confrontation between Laura and the killer with whom she shares an inexplicable psychic bond. Originally based on a spec script written by a pre-"Halloween" John Carpenter (which was then heavily rewritten by David Zelag Goodman, leading Carpenter to wash his hands of the whole thing), the film is essentially a slick American studio attempt at making a giallo, the Italian horror-thriller genre popularized by Dario Argento in films like "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (1969) and "Deep Red" (1975). Those films were usually pretty crazy but they almost seem staid compared with the demented dramatic excesses on display here. The story is little more than a collection of brutal killings offset by a supporting cast of characters (played by the likes of Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois and Raul Julia, among others) who all seem determined to make themselves look suspicious throughout and increasingly ridiculous plot twists leading up to one of the dopiest twist endings ever--one that somehow manages to come across as simultaneously obvious and utterly inexplicable. And yet, while the film is never anything more than hot garbage, it is undeniably compelling hot garbage. The film was directed by Irving Kershner, who keeps the lunacy chugging along and finds an interesting visual balance between the glamorous trappings of Laura's world and the griminess that was late-70s New York City. (It was reportedly after watching this film that George Lucas was inspired to hire Kershner to direct "The Empire Strikes Back.") While I presume that neither Dunaway nor Jones would rate this one especially high in their respective filmographies, seeing them apply their intense performance approaches to material so goofy is weirdly fascinating and the supporting cast is certainly colorful. The sequence in which Laura does a shoot in featuring burning cars and catfighting lingerie-clad models in the middle of Columbus Circle is definitely a standout moment in the history of Seventies film fashion--whether it is a peak or a nadir will depend on the viewer, of course. Finally, how many other slasher films can you think of that feature a theme song sung by none other than Barbra Streisand? (She was to play Laura at one point before deciding it was all too weird for her.) I can't say that you will respond to "Eyes of Laura Mars" with the same degree of bemusement that I do--the dumbness surrounding it cannot be denied and anyone expecting a plausible explanation for all the weird stuff will be sorely annoyed--but as cheesy sleaze goes, it does deliver the goods and then some. (The Criterion Channel)

To this day, the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers remains such an unshakable monument in the whole of screen history that it still comes as a shock today to many that Astaire often claimed that his favorite of his onscreen dance partners was actually Rita Hayworth. After all, Astaire and Rogers made seven films together with several of them (including "Flying Down to Rio," "Swing Time" and "Top Hat") often regarded as being among the greatest musicals ever made while he and Hayworth only managed to do two. However, once one takes a look at "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), the second of their two collaborations (following the previous year's "You'll Never Get Rich"), Astaire's remark will no longer seem that strange. Based on the popular 1941 Argentinian musical "Los Mates, Orquideas," the film stars Astaire as Bob Davis, a famous American dancer who loses his shirt betting on the horses in Buenos Aires. Looking for a job, he goes to see wealthy nightclub owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolph Menjou and yeah, I know. . . ) but the man is so consumed with the upcoming marriage of his oldest daughter that he refuses to even see him. However, Bob's friend, bandleader Xavier Cugat (Xavier Cugat) has been hired to play the wedding and he invites Bob to come and perform. While at the reception, Bob unknowingly hits on Eduardo's second-oldest daughter, Maria (Hayworth) but brutally strikes out. As it turns out, Eduardo has decreed that his four daughters can only marry according to their birth order. Alas, Maria has decreed that she will never fall in love or marry--she has felt no romantic feelings for anyone beyond developing a crush on a fictional knight as a girl--a problem since her two younger sisters both have boyfriends and are tired of waiting. In a plan that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, Eduardo begins sending Maria flowers and anonymous love notes to thaw her out--the plan being that he will then find someone suitable to assume the role. In a shocking development, the now-besotted Maria is convinced that Bob is her suitor and the horrified Eduardo makes a deal with him--he will give Bob a contract to perform and he will repel Maria by making her think that he was only interested in her in order to get a job. As you can probably surmise, the film is so lightweight that to refer to it as "frothy" somehow fails to do it justice--to inject even the slightest note of realism into this premise would undoubtedly allow the slightly creepy undercurrents to come to the surface. The screenplay is charming and surprisingly witty in places ("Will you three stop interfering with Maria's life? Leave that to me!") and the entire cast is bright and funny throughout, even Menjou. The songs by Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern, several featuring arrangements by Cugat, are delights, including "Dearly Beloved," "I'm Old Fashioned" and the title tune, and the dances, especially Astaire"s "Audition Dance" and the "Shorty George" routine by Astaire and Hayworth being particular standouts. (Reportedly, the two rehearsed their dances above a funeral parlor and had to stop whenever a service was taking place.) Even when they aren't dancing, the chemistry between the two leads is off the charts--having famously observed of Astaire and Rogers--"He gave her class and she gave him sex appeal"--one can only wonder what Katherine Hepburn might have said after seeing this film. If it weren't for the inexplicable decision on the part of studio boss Harry Cohn to have Hayworth's perfectly fine singing voice redubbed throughout by singer Nan Wynn, I suspect that "You Were Never Lovelier" would enjoy a bigger reputation today than it currently does. Even with the dubbing, the film is still an absolute delight from start to finish and will leave anyone watching it feeling more elated when it is over than they were when it started. (The Criterion Channel)

If you are looking for a book to read during all this downtime that deals with cinema history, I highly recommend Maya Montanez Smukler's "Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema." Although the title might seem a tad ponderous, the book itself is a fascinating and enlightening history that charts the experiences of a handful of women who went against the sexist attitudes that the powers-that-be in Hollywood maintained practically from the moment the film industry began by stepping into the director's chair, a position that was long considered a male-only domain and which only a couple of women (including Dorothy Arzner and Id Lupino) had penetrated at that point. After reading it, you will most likely want to go in search of the films under discussion and one of the best of the bunch is "Girlfriends" (1978), a endearing and wryly amusing low-budget comedy-drama directed and produced by Claudia Weill, who also developed the story with screenwriter Vicki Polon. The film centers on Susan (Melanie Mayron), a photographer who dreams of one day having her own gallery exhibits but who is currently making ends meet doing photos of babies, weddings and bar mitzvahs while sharing an apartment with her longtime best friend, struggling writer Anne (Anita Skinner). Susan's life is soon thrown into upheaval when Anne announces that she is moving out and getting married to her boyfriend (Bob Balaban). After flailing about for a bit, Susan finally manages to get a gallery exhibit and a boyfriend (Christopher Guest) of her own. However, Susan and Anne's new circumstances put a strain on their friendship--Anne is clearly jealous of Susan's personal freedom while Susan is resentful of Anne focusing most of her attention on her marriage and child--and when the day of Susan's gallery opening comes, Anne is nowhere to be found. "Girlfriends," which began as a 30-minute short produced partially under the auspices of the American Film Institute, is a subtle but unabashedly progressive work that is less interested in making big statements about feminism than it is in quietly observing the nature of female relationships in ways that do not revolve around romantic conflicts or other melodramatic concerns. (Both Mayron and Skinner are excellent throughout.) The result is a smart and nuanced work that feels as fresh and relevant today as it must have when it came out more than forty years ago--one can see its influence in Lena Dunham's "Girls" and indeed, Weill would direct an episode of that series years later. Unfortunately, while the film earned a number of good reviews, won prizes at the Lorcano and Toronto film festival, scored Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations and served as an effective launchpad for the career of Mayron, who would find fame a few years later on television with "thirtysomething," it did not lead to much success for Weill--after only one follow-up feature, the Jill Clayburgh-Michael Douglas romantic comedy "It's My Turn" (1980), she would shift to directing for television. Although the fact that Weill was unable to develop her talents further on the big screen is undeniably distressing, at least some people recognized her achievements--in a 1980 interview, no less of a figure than Stanley Kubrick spoke at great length of his admiration for the film and her accomplishments and in 2019, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, where it will hopefully serve as an inspiration for new generations of female filmmakers. Fun fact--Mayron and Guest would again play a couple a few years later in, of all things, the bizarre Andy Kaufman robots-in-love vehicle "Heartbeeps" (1981). (Turner Classic Movies)

Warren Beatty has made so many outstanding movies throughout his career, ranging from established classics like "Bonnie & Clyde," "McCabe & Mrs Miller," "Shampoo" and "Reds" to underrated efforts like "Mickey One," "Ishtar," "Dick Tracy" and "Rules Don't Apply" (all of which you should watch/rewatch at your earliest convenience), that it seems almost perverse to highlight one of the least essential works in his filmography as something for you to watch. And yet, I have always had a strange fondness for "Kaleidescope," a cheerfully innocuous 1966 caper comedy that proved to be his last film before the artistic breakthrough of "Bonnie & Clyde." Beatty plays Barney Lincoln, a wealthy American who arrives in London determined to score big at the card tables of casinos both there and on the Riviera. His plan is not based on his skill at poker and chemic de fer but because he has created an elaborate scheme--the plots in the various permutations of "Ocean's Eleven" are downright plausible by comparison--to mark the cards while they are being printed and before they are shipped off to the casinos. Alas, his foolproof scheme is uncovered by Scotland Yard's Inspector McGinnis (Clive Revill), who also happens to be the father of Angel (Susannah York), the woman he had been squiring around when he first arrived and who presents Barney with an offer that he really cannot refuse. He wants Barney to use his card game skills to bring down Harry Dominion (Eric Porter), an international drug dealer and inveterate gambler who is current in a shaky financial position that could destroy him entirely if he loses big. The movie is absolute nonsense from start to finish--the capering in the first half is quite silly and the second half has a tendency to bog down as the movie offers lengthy explanations regarding the intricacies of poker--and there are times when it feels likes a bizarre fusion of "What's New, Pussycat?," the 1965 romantic farce that Beatty was originally supposed to star in, and the James Bond novel "Casino Royale." And yet, as silly as it often is, it is the kind of no-brainer film that can still come across and enjoyable as long as one doesn't go into it with lofty expectations. Beatty, having just come off arguably the dumbest film of his career with "Promise Her Anything" (1966), is clearly coasting here but radiates the kind of raw screen magnetism that cannot be denied. Susannah York doesn't really have much to do other than look beautiful but she and Beatty are charming enough in their scenes together to make them work. (If York is not enough, the film also features an appearance by Jane Birkin, who is billed as, I kid you not, "Exquisite Thing.") Jack Smight, whose directorial career would take him from modestly ambitious works like "No Way to Treat a Lady" (1968) and "The Illustrated Man" (1969) to lumbering cut-rate epics like "Airport 1975" (1974) and "Midway" (1976), keeps thing humming along at a nice clip and even manages to generate a little bit of genuine suspense during the final poker sequence. There are better Warren Beatty films out there to watch than "Kaleidoscope" and there are better caper films as well. However, as a bit of cinematic junk food with nothing more on its mind than painlessly providing viewers with 105 of tasty-if-empty cinematic calories, it gets the job done much in the manner of its hero--with a lot of style and a minimum of fuss. (iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu)

After watching "Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time: Volume 1," the first of a series of three feature-length documentaries examining the long and rich history of offbeat cinema, most viewers are going to want to immediately watch or rewatch as many of the films it offers up for consideration as possible. One of the more shamelessly entertaining of those titles is "Coffy," the 1973 blaxploitation classic that proved to be the big breakthrough for one of the most dynamic new screen personalities of the era, the one and only Pam Grier. In it, she plays Coffy, a nurse who witnesses the horrors of drugs and inner-city violence every day on the job but has it truly hit home for her when her younger sister becomes a victim herself. Although Coffy is dating Howard (Booker Bradshaw), a city councilman who plans to use his work with the community as a launching pad for a run for Congress, she prefers to take matters into her own hands by hitting the streets posing as a junkie prostitute and killing drug pushers and other members of the criminal element. She begins working her way up the ladder and eventually targets big time pimp King George (Robert DoQui) and Mafia boss Arturo Vittroni (Allan Arbus), using her smarts, fighting skills and sex appeal to bring the bad guys down, even in the face of one "shocking" plot development. Rushed into production by American-International Pictures in order to beat "Cleopatra Jones," another female-centered blaxploitation item that they were supposed to make until the producer pulled out of the deal in order to make it for a major studio, into theaters, "Coffy" could have easily been nothing more than forgettable exploitation trash but it turned out to be one of those weirdly charmed projects where everything somehow went right. The film was written and directed by B-movie vet Jack Hill and while fulfilling all the needs for the grindhouse crowd in terms of sex and violence, he produced a story that was fairly groundbreaking for the time in its use of a strong black woman as the driving force of the narrative and not simply as an appendage for the usual heroic stud. Granted, one might hesitate to use the word "feminist" to describe a film that includes rape and a lengthy and violent all-prostitute catfight but both the film and the character were startlingly progressive and enormously entertaining to boot. Of course, the real secret to the film's appeal is the astonishing presence of Grier, who Hill had worked with on a couple of women-in-prison epics and who clearly recognized that she could carry a film all by herself. Although the film is undeniably trashy and occasionally cartoonish, her presence lends a certain weight to the proceedings that set it apart from other films of its type--some of the situations might have been unbelievable but she never was. Needless to say, the film was a hit and over the next few years, Grier would play similar characters in such films as "Foxy Brown," "Friday Foster" and "Sheba Baby" and while those were all entertaining to some degree, "Coffy" remains the one that still packs a hell of a punch to this day. (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)


link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4234
originally posted: 04/20/20 11:20:19
last updated: 04/24/20 12:01:25
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