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Islands In The Stream: Week Thirteen
by Peter Sobczynski

Well well, a lucky thirteenth week's worth of streaming suggestions to help pass the time. Come back every day for a new suggestion and if you have a suggestion of your own, send it to me at petersob@efilmcritic.com

Although Dick Tracy, the famed crime-fighting comic strip creation of Chester Gould, had already made his way to the big screen in the Thirties and Forties in the form of a handful of serials and low-budget B features, it was during the 1980s, in the wake of the enormous success of "Superman" (1978) that there was a concerted effort to get a new film involving the character up and running--during that time, names like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Richard Benjamin, Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and the Coen Brothers had been mentioned in connection with it. Yet it was Warren Beatty, who had reportedly tried to acquire the rights as early as 1975, who ended up signing on to produce and direct the film, his first time behind the camera since winning the Best Director Oscar for "Reds" (1981). This was big enough news by itself but the hype only increased when Beatty assembled a supporting cast that featured such stars as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvino, Glenne Headly and, in the role of mysterious femme fatale Breathless Mahoney, Madonna, who at that point was perhaps the most famous woman in the world other than Princess Diana. Then, when "Batman" (1989) came out during its production and set boxpoffice records, Disney Studios launched a massive publicity campaign designed to dethrone that film that included a lavish merchandising effort (you could buy your own lemon-yellow Dick Tracy-style coat at Saks Fifth Avenue), publicity gimmicks a-plenty (instead of merely buying a ticket for the midnight premiere screening, one bought a T-shirt that admitted the wearer to the theater and turned them into a walking billboard) and a tie-in album from Madonna that she was promoting on her "Blonde Ambition" tour as the film was inching towards release. And yet, after all the talk and hype, when "Dick Tracy" opened exactly 30 years ago today, it proved to be a hit--it eventually crossed the $100 million rubicon that designated a smash back then--got decent reviews and was nominated for seven Oscars (winning three, tying it with "Black Panther" for the most Oscars for a comic book/strip movie) but because it did not come close to reaching the stratospheric heights of "Batman," either financially or culturally (turns out that few wanted to actually wear those aforementioned coats), it has largely been overlooked, even in a period when comic book movies have come to dominate Hollywood. This is insane because while it was probably never going to become the juggernaut that "Batman" was--the mass audience was not exactly familiar with the character at the time and it is hard to imagine them getting that excited over the fact that the songs were being written by Stephen Sondheim, even if Madonna was performing them)--the film remains one of the most stylish, distinctive and entertaining films in the history of the genre. The look of the film--which employed a visual palate consisting of only seven bold colors, touches of Art Deco and German Expressionism for good measure and elaborately stylized makeup effects to help transform many of the actors into living approximations of Gould's distinctive characters--was genuinely stunning in the way that evoked the primal emotions one felt as a kid reading the Sunday funnies in a way that only Ang Lee's "Hulk" has come close to approximating. Granted, the screenplay is easily the least successful aspect of the film but the cast is clearly having so much fun with the material that it is easy to forgive the shortcomings--Beatty is strangely ideal as the stalwart hero, Pacino gleefully chews the scenery in his Oscar-nominated turn as gangster Big Boy Caprice and whatever Madonna may lack in terms of dramatic heft, she more than makes up for here in terms of sheer screen-melting personality. Best of all, "Dick Tracy" is one of the few films of this particular genre to actually contain a genuine personality--instead of making a soulless blockbuster, Beatty created a film just as offbeat and distinctive as any in his filmography and now that it has been long removed from the hype machine that eventually wound up working against it, one can more easily appreciate it for the one-of-a-kind gem that it has always been. (HBO MAX)

When our current political crisis finally comes to its long-awaited conclusion, it will no doubt inspire any number of books, movies and other examples of popular culture that will attempt to explain and process everything that happened. Some of these will doubtlessly be good and some will doubtlessly be awful but will anyone of them prove to be as sheerly delightful and entertaining as "Dick" (1999), the film that took the Watergate scandal that rocked the world and toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon and transformed it into a cheerfully giddy teen comedy, albeit one that sailed way over the heads of the majority of its target audience? Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play Betsy and Arlene, two slightly ditzy but otherwise lovable 15-year-old best pals living in Washington D.C. in 1972. One night, while they are over at the apartment Arlene shares with her widowed mother (Teri Garr), they sneak out in order to mail their entries for a contest to win a date with Bobby Sherman, taping the lock on a door so that they can sneak back in. Oops--Arlene lives in the Watergate building and their tape is noticed by a security guard who discovers five men who have broken into Democratic headquarters. The next day, while the girls are on a class trip to the White House, one of the burglars, G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer) notices them and they are soon interrogated by H.R. Haldeman (Dave Foley) and then are introduced Nixon (Dan Hedaya) himself. As a way of buying their silence (even though they are fuzzy on what they are supposed to be silent about), Betsy and Arlene are named official dog walkers and as they begin frequenting the Oval Office as part of their duties, they inadvertently affect the geopolitical situation and learn more and more about the Watergate break-in. Eventually, they decide that he is a mean guy and try to pass their information on to a couple of ambitious Washington Post reporters (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch, whose constantly sniping take on Woodward and Bernstein is probably slightly closer to reality than what was seen in "All the President's Men") as Nixon’s men try to stop them for good, On the surface, "Dick" may sound like the kind of thing that might work as a 10-minute sketch (especially considering the number of "Saturday Night Live" and "Kids in the Hall" alumni in the cast) but would probably drag badly at a feature-length running time. In fact, screenwriters Andrew Fleming (who also directed) and Sheryl Longin manage to take the one-joke premise and develop it in any number of truly inspired ways. In the funniest, Arlene develops a massive crush on Nixon, absent-mindedly writing "Mrs. Arlene Nixon" in her notebook and recording a message confessing her love for him on his office tape recorder, a missive that just happens to run for 18 1/2 minutes. The lunacy is further underscored by the crack team of comedic talents brought in to embody the more famous players in the story—Hedaya steals the show with a take on Nixon that is both wickedly funny and strangely more convincing than most portrayals of the man. The true saving grace of the film, however, are the performances by Dunst and Williams, who correctly do not play their characters as morons but as young women who are sweet and trusting until the lies become too much and they are finally pushed into action. (Coming hot on the heels of her success on "Dawson's Creek," this film was perhaps the first true indication that Michelle Williams could pretty much do anything.) Perhaps inevitably, "Dick" tanked at the box-office when it came out--young audiences in 1999 had little idea of what Watergate was and older viewers who might have appreciated its wit assumed it was just another teen comedy and stayed away as well--but it has aged quite well and is definitely overdue for a reappraisal. If nothing else, once it comes to its hilarious conclusion, you will probably never listen to "You're So Vain" in quite the same way ever again. (Showtime. iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu.)

When Alfred Hitchcock's immortal "Psycho" debuted sixty years ago, it was a critical and commercial bonanza that would quickly be cemented as one of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time for reasons that I assume I do not need to go into detail on at this time. Therefore, when it was announced more than two decades later that a sequel was being made with Anthony Perkins returning to the role of Norman Bates, the character that immortalized him in the annals of screen history even as it typecast him for the remainder of his career, the very notion of such a thing inspired great consternation among film fans. The result, "Psycho II" (1983), was a perfectly adequate but largely undistinguished bit of product in which an overly busy screenplay and too much reliance on gore coexisted uneasily with a finely nuanced performance by Perkins that was probably better than the film deserved. Although mostly forgotten today, it was successful enough to inspire Universal to commission a second sequel and as a further inducement to Perkins--because how could there be another film without him?--he was also given the chance to make his directorial debut as well. Instead of giving them the rehash of slasher movie tropes that they were presumably hoping for, Perkins spun "Psycho III" (1986) into offbeat new directions and it stands up today as an often fascinating variation on what was by then a very familiar theme. Set roughly a month after the events of the previous film, "Psycho III" starts with Norman running his out-of-the-way motel and keeping the body of Emma Spool, the woman who revealed herself to be his real mother (don't ask), up in his rambling house out back. A journalist from California (Roberta Maxwell) turns up to do a story on Norman and when she learns about the disappearance of Mrs Spool, she begins to dig further, convinced that Norman has begun killing again. Meanwhile, a suicidal nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) turns up as well and when Norman is struck by her resemblance to former victim Marion Crane, he offers her a place to stay in his house. As they begin a tentative romance, the bodies once again begin to pile up--are they the work of Norman or the seedy drifter (Jeff Fahey) that he hired as an assistant manager or is there someone else wreaking bloody havoc? Truth be told, neither Perkins nor screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (who also wrote that summer's big horror hit "The Fly") seem particularly interested in the story per se, perhaps realizing that there is only so much surprise and suspense that can be wrung out of anything with a "III" at the end of its title. Instead, they chose to go in a slightly different direction by emphasizing a grisly sense of dark humor of the kind that Hitchcock used in his film and which had recently been deployed by the Coen Brothers in their acclaimed debut film "Blood Simple" (1984). (Perkins was such an admirer of that film that even hired its composer, Carter Burwell, to score his.) The resulting film manages to come up with a number of big, albeit gruesome, laughs (in the funniest and most notorious sequence, a clueless cop reaches into the motel's ice chest on a hot day without noticing the body inside of the blood on the cubes he is chewing on) without devolving into shameless self-parody, largely thanks to the efforts of Perkins on both sides of the camera. As an actor, his work is fascinating in the way that he continues to find new layers to Norman after more than a quarter-century of living with him. As a director, he demonstrates a distinctive stylistic flair that makes for a far more interesting viewing experience than its relentlessly "meh" predecessor. Sadly, these touches were largely lost on audiences and critics alike--although there would be a not-uninteresting "Psycho IV" four years later, it would be made for cable television. Yes, "Psycho III" is ultimately an unnecessary second sequel to a film that wasn't exactly clamoring for any sort of continuation in the first place. However, it has been made with enough style and wicked humor to help you more or less forget that as you watch it, though doing so may inspire you to start taking your drinks neat for the foreseeable future. (iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu.)

As a movie-mad lad from an early age, I would religiously pore through what seemed like an endless array of "Now Playing" ads in the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune and, perhaps inevitably, I would find myself gravitating towards the more lurid ones that offered up thrills of a slightly sleazier variety than I was likely to experience while watching the likes of "Herbie Goes Bananas" (1980). One that definitely caught my eye was for what would prove to be one of the strangest "Jaws" knockoffs to ever hit theaters, the deeply strange "Blood Beach" (1981). The ad art in question depicted a bikini babe seemingly being sucked down into the sand while the undeniably inspired tag line read "Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water--You Can't Get To It." Needless to say, this was one that I had to see but since the parents were not quite as permissive as hoped, I didn't actually catch up with it for another year or so when it hit cable and when I did, I realized even then that while "Jaws" was clearly the template, writer-director Jeffrey Bloom was also clearly influenced by the cheapo monster movies churned out by the likes of Roger Corman, Sam Arkoff and others back in the day, right down to the way that the ads made wild promises that the final films could not quite keep. As the film opens, hunky harbor cop Harry (David Huffman) is swimming off of Santa Monica Beach when he witness one of his neighbors screaming and then seemingly disappearing into thin air. Naturally, Harry cannot convince anyone of what he saw but before long, the beach is host to a number of strange attacks that leave people dead, missing or injured. As it turns out, there is a mysterious creature lurking under the sand that is doing all the killing and the police rig the area with motion detectors and explosives, leading us to its weirdly abrupt finale. I am probably not going to be shocking too many of you when I reveal the fact that this is not a very good movie--Bloom (who would go on to make the 1987 adaptation of "Flowers in the Attic" that somehow failed to live up to the artistic legacy of one of the dumbest books ever written) has come up with a catchy premise but doesn't really provide much in the way of followthrough, the main characters are as bland as can be and when the creature finally makes its long-delayed appearance (maybe 10 minutes before the end), it is seen so fleetingly and confusingly (presumably the result of a paltry effects budget) that even those who have seen it will be hard-pressed to describe it. And yet, while it is nowhere near as good as such genuinely inspired "Jaws" knockoffs as "Piranha" (1978) and "Alligator" (1980), there are still some elements that fans of trash cinema can embrace--B-movie stalwart John Saxon as the beleaguered police captain, the undeniably memorable moment when a rapist falls down on the beach during a thwarted assault and loses a key part of his anatomy as a result, and a few lines of dialogue that suggest, not that there was too much confusion in this regard, that we are not meant to take much of it seriously. (After finding the eyeball of a victim on the beach, a cop asks "Hey Harry, what color eyes did your stewardess have. . . had?") Best of all, the legendary Burt Young turns up as a cynical cop who has recently transferred from Chicago and offers up a running commentary about how much better things are there--even better, the name of this character is Sgt. Royko, clearly an homage, albeit a strange one, to beloved local journalistic icon Mike Royko. This will probably go down as the least essential movie that I ever cover in these columns but if you are looking for an aggressively dopey genre exercise with a loony premise and cheapjack execution but have too much personal dignity to head over to the SyFy Channel, "Blood Beach" should do the trick. Besides, at some point, someone is going to try to revive this movie by claiming that it was an obvious influence on the cult favorite "Tremors" (1990)--this way, you can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. (YouTube)

Today marks the release of "Rough and Rowdy Ways," Bob Dylan's first album of all-new material since 2012 and one of the bolder and more audacious works in a career full of such things--granted, the moody and utterly unique epic "Murder Most Foul" is so memorable that the rest of the songs could have been pure filler and it would still be a must-own and I promise that those other tunes are far better than that. Of course, with the current pandemic, all touring plans have been scrapped--a shame since the combination of fresh material and the focus and power that he demonstrated when he was on the road last fall could have led to something to really remember. In lieu of that, allow me to point you in the direction of one of his more distinctive, and definitely one of the most unexpected, highlights in his career as a live performer. This occurred on March 22, 1984 when Dylan, who only rarely made television appearances, turned up on "Late Night with David Letterman," which had only been on the air for a couple of years at that point and was still more of a cult favorite than anything else, to promote his then current "Infidels" album. Although musical performers on the show generally performed with the show's Paul Shaffer-led band, Dylan brought in his own backing group that consisted of three young guys, two of them members of the punk band the Plugz, for a three-song set consisting of two "Infidels" tracks--"Jokerman" and "License to Kill"--and a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me Talking." It is no secret that Dylan can be somewhat uneven as a live performer, especially when television cameras are involved, but from the very first notes of the latter song, you can tell that this is not one of those occasions. Dylan is in fine voice throughout the performance and he and the band rock out with a raw power and energy that is still jolting to watch today. (Anyone who went out and bought "Infidels" after watching this must have been perplexed by the far less raucous vibe of that album.) The impact is such that even the normally aloof Letterman cannot help but be swept up in the moment--Dylan was by far the biggest musical guest that the show had featured up to that point and he was clearly killing it. These performances can be found on YouTube and in the most significant of these postings, which can be found HERE, the televised performance has been preceded with about 20 minutes of Dylan and the band running through the "Infidels" songs along with a bit of 12-string blues and a cover of Roy Head's "Treat Her Right"--an addition that, despite a few instances of shaky audio and video, offers a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at Dylan's rehearsal process that is as entertaining and memorable in its own right as the official performance. When it is all over, Letterman says perhaps the only thing that can be said in the wake of having seen this kind of television history being made--"Is there any chance you guys could be here every Thursday?" (YouTube)


link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=4250
originally posted: 06/15/20 10:27:27
last updated: 06/19/20 09:41:33
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