Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Wild in the Streets

For more overlooked films go here.

For most of the 1950s and all of the 1960s American International Pictures served the needs of its youthful audience, giving them a steady diet of beach parties, bikers and monsters.  By the late 60s AIP was ready to move beyond these fantasies and address the very real social change happening in the world at that time in films such as THE TRIP (1967), PSYCH-OUT (1968) and Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS (1968), based on Robert Thom's short story, "The Day It All Happened, Baby."

Congressman John Fergus (Hal Holbrook), in an effort to capture the youth vote, enlists Max Frost (Christopher Jones), the most popular rock star in the world, to appear at a fundraiser. While there, Frost tells his youthful audience that fifty two percent of the population is under the age of 25 and that if Fergus is serious about serving the interests of youth he will enact legislation to lower the voting age to fourteen. Frost organizes a massive demonstration which basically shuts down Los Angeles, leaving Fergus little choice but to give in to Frost's demands. Once the voting age is changed, Frost uses a member of his entourage (Diane Varsi) to run for Congress and change the age requirements for Congress and the Presidency to fourteen. When Frost is elected President (as a Republican) his first official act is to neutralize everyone over the age of 35 by dosing them with LSD and holding them in concentration camps, starting with his shrewish mother (Shelley Winters). 

While at first viewing this seems like a wish fulfilment fantasy for its teenage audience (which is how I read it when I first saw it as a teen), this time around I was struck by how the film stacks the deck against Frost and his cause right from the beginning. He's a spoiled, antisocial jerk from his first scene and so are the people he surrounds himself with. It's clear that they don't deserve the rights that they're asking for and I found myself feeling sorry for Fergus and the unwinnable position he's put in. Clearly, that has something to do with the fact that I'm now closer to Fergus' generation than Frost's but I still think the film is meant to be critical of Frost's actions. I haven't read the source story but I'd be curious to see if this conservatism was present in the original story or was the result of studio changes. After all, this is from the studio that forced Roger Corman to give THE TRIP a downbeat ending so it wouldn't be seen as encouraging drug use.

Still, I'd recommend the film. It's entertaining, moves along at a good clip and Shelley Winter's performance in particular is something to see. It's also got some great music and it's interesting to note that the film's theme song, "The Shape of Things to Come," was resurrected nearly forty years later for a series of commercials for Target stores. Max Frost certainly would not approve.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Winter Kills (1979)

For more overlooked films go here.

I love a good conspiracy thriller and one of the best and most underrated is 1979's WINTER KILLS, based on Richard Condon's novel. Beset with production difficulties (the film was shut down several times due to lack of funds and was partially financed, in cash, by a producer with organized crime connections), the film was met with audience indifference when initially released and was soon pulled altogether by its distributor, Avco Embassy Pictures. Perhaps this is because unlike earlier conspiracy thrillers like Alan Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), WINTER KILLS doesn't just use the still relatively fresh Kennedy assassination as a jumping off point for its own fictional story. Instead, WINTER KILLS is designed to deliberately evoke the assassination at every turn, with events and names disguised thinly enough so that anyone even remotely familiar with the case will have no trouble knowing who real players are. To add insult to injury the film is played as a pitch black comedy, something that audiences might not have been ready for just sixteen years after the actual event.

Jeff Bridges play Nick Kegan, who brother, President Timothy Kegan, was assassinated nineteen years earlier during a motorcade in Philadelphia. When he hears the deathbed confession of a man who claims to have been involved in the murder, Nick travels to Philadelphia and discovers the murder weapon. With the aid of his billionaire father (John Huston) Nick sets about uncovering the facts and exposing the players in the conspiracy. In his search for the truth, Nick encounters dead witnesses, organized crime bosses and crazed intelligence agents. He ultimately finds that the truth may lie closer to home than he thought. 

Like I said, I doubt that people were prepared for such a cynical picture of the Kennedy family in 1979. According to the director commentary on the DVD John Huston was no fan of Joe Kennedy and he plays him like evil personified, terrorizing both his family and politicians in equal measure and enjoying himself every step of the way. Also, the film not only confirms the presence of a conspiracy but suggests that those closest to the President may have been complicit in his murder. Richard Condon later wrote an article suggesting that the reason Avco Embassy buried the film despite strong reviews was because they had money tied up in defense contracts that the Kennedys were also involved in. It's a conspiracy about a film about a conspiracy. 

In any case, now that over thirty years have passed and the film is once again easily available on home video hopefully people will catch up to it. It's thought provoking, a lot of fun and has an amazing supporting cast, including Richard Boone, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune and Elizabeth Taylor. It holds up remarkably well and folks looking for something a little offbeat would do well to seek it out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Face With Two Left Feet (1979)

For more overlooked films go here.
Last weekend, while attending Exhumed Films' (hopefully) first annual eX-Fest exploitation film marathon, I was exposed to this little mindbender of a film that I had no idea even existed. The folks at Exhumed referred to it as Travoltaploitation and indeed that seems to be an accurate representation of its genre. While it's a comedy, there's little, if anything, in it that's intentionally funny. There's lots of music but it's not a musical and the romance in the film is dealt with so quickly as to seem like an afterthought. Yes, this is a movie that got made simply because its star just happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain 1970s film icon.

The story, such as it is, revolves around Johnny, a nebbishy cook in a luxury Italian hotel who spends his spare time at the local disco (subtly named John's Fever) drinking oversized glasses of wine and staring from afar at the club's lovely DJ, Illona (Ilona Staller, aka future porn star and politician Cicciolina). His disco-obsessed friends want Johnny to stop being such a downer and introduce himself to Ilona but his shyness and complete inadequacy on the dancefloor  put a stop to this. At about the film's thirty minute mark Johnny's friends discover what the audience realized after about thirty seconds: that if Johnny shaved his moustache and took off his glasses he'd be a dead ringer for John Travolta. They give Johnny a makeover, buy him a white leisure suit and concoct a story about how Johnny doesn't actually sound like Travolta due to a case of laryngtis (although the actor who performs in the film's English dub does sound quite a bit like him). Soon Johnny is not only strutting his way around John's Fever (complete with faux Bee-Gees music on the soundtrack), but his channeling of the Power of Travolta gives him the confidence to become a disco fiend, thereby allowing him to win if not the heart at least the attention of Ilona. 

As I mentioned to a friend during the screening this is a movie that plays like a feature length Mentos commercial. Characters break into dance for absolutely no reason, play unfunny practical jokes on each other and make stupid faces at the camera. Still, for a one-joke film it has a certain charm. Giuseppe Spezia, in his only film role, certainly looks like a young Travolta even though his performance is a bit wooden. Staller is charming in a relatively small role and the supporting cast tries hard. I wonder if Travolta or his people were aware of this film and if so what their reaction was. While I can't say that this is a good film, it's definitely unique. And while its music and fashions may cause SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER to appear dated today, one only has to look at this film to see an example of its cultural importance. Seeing this film with a large crowd was a lot of fun, certainly more enjoyable than watching it at home on television would be. Many thanks to the great folks at Exhumed Films for resurrecting this cultural artifact and presenting it in the best possible light. 

This is the only YouTube clip I could find from the film. It's missing the big reveal at the end but it does give a good idea of what the film is like.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Never Too Young To Die (1986)

For more overlooked films go here.

When evil hermaphroditic supervillain Velvet Von Ragnar (Gene Simmons) comes up with a plan to poison the water supply of Southern California he doesn't count on the interference of the one man who can stop him: secret agent extraordinaire Drew Stargrove (a cameo from the Forgotten Bond, George Lazenby). Stargrove steals a floppy disc containing the computer codes needed to put his plan into action and in quickly executed by Ragnar for his trouble. Luckily for the world, Stargrove had the foresight to send the disc to the only other man capable of stopping Ragnar: His son Lance (John Stamos), currently a college student on a gymnastics scholarship who knows nothing of his father's secret life. Lance is soon drawn into the hunt for Ragnar, aided by his college roommate (Peter Kwong), a techno-geek genius who supplies him with the gadgets to get the job done, and Danja Deering (Vanity), Stargrove's former partner who's out to avenge his death.

While Stamos and Vanity attack their roles earnestly and both look suitably pretty on screen, neither is much of a actor. This leaves Gene Simmons to walk away with the movie, which he does effortlessly.  He seems to realize that he doesn't really need to depend on this acting thing to survive so he may as well just have fun with it. Dressed up like a roadshow Dr. Frank N. Furter he overacts shamelessly, thereby infusing the movie with the energy level it needs to remain fun to watch. It's a hoot watching him command his minions (who drive dune buggies and are all dressed like ROAD WARRIOR rejects), visibly chewing the scenery and spitting it out all over John Stamos.

For a change it's actually the script's plot holes that make NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE a fun watch and separate it from a hundred over generic '80s action films. When we're first introduced to Lance he's got his own catchy theme song playing over the film's soundtrack even though he hasn't done anything heroic yet (and won't for quite some time). Also, Ragnar states that his plan is to hold the government for ransom so he won't release the deadly toxins in the water supply but he never does this. As soon as he regains control of the computer codes he starts to release the poison. Since Ragnar also lives nearby this might be a bad idea since he never mentions having his own water supply. Likewise, since everyone in the government knows who Ragnar is and that he's behind the plot it couldn't be that hard to find him, especially since he lives in a huge desert compound with hundreds of followers as well as having a job as a singer in a downtown heavy metal bar.

So to sum up: It's stupid, the leads are dull and you could probably write a better script in your sleep. Yet NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE remains a fast paced 93 minutes thanks mostly to the go for broke performance by Gene Simmons. This film has never had a DVD release, probably due to the efforts of its stars to keep it buried. Still, if you can find a copy and are in the mood for some silly fun you could do much worse.