Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em (1988)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, most post-apocalypse themed movies tend to focus on the downside of the event. After all, it's hard to depict nuclear war without spending at least some time on radiation sickness, starvation and nuclear winter, making most of these films something of a downer. Not so Ray Boseley's SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM, an energetic piece of ozzploitation which tries to look at the positive side of armegeddon, namely that it's the perfect excuse for one last kickass party.

This short (48 minutes), nearly plotless film focuses on three survivors of a nuclear strike on Melbourne, Australia. One day, while scavenging the blasted countryside for supplies they stumble across a bomb shelter containing some forty survivors and a year's supply of food and alcohol. The group decide to forgo any attempt at adapting to the nuclear wasteland. Instead they'll throw a farewell bash, blowing through their supplies in a few days (after which most of them will be dead from radiation poisoning anyway) and then go out with a literal blast. They even somehow acquire a live band (the Aussie band Blue Ruin) in order to help make the party memorable, even though no one is expected to survive. The majority of the film shows the party in progress, with the revelers drinking to excess and basically just partying like it's 1999.

The most surprising thing about the film is how poignant it manages to be despite it's anarchic tone. Relationships are made, goodbyes are expressed and a good time is had by all, yet the promise of death is never far from anyone's minds. Maybe the reason why the film manages to ultimately be so touching is because their fates are treated in such a matter of fact manner. These characters are doomed from the very first frame of the film and they all know it. Their determination to at least go out on their own terms increases their likability quotient a good bit and gives them an advantage over more pretentious post-nuke movies such as THE DAY AFTER. SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM is a pleasant surprise, both funny and touching, while at the same time prodding the viewer into examining how he or she would act under the same circumstances.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Du-beat-e-o (1984)

In 1979 the pioneering rock band The Runaways planned to make their movie debut in a film titled WE'RE ALL CRAZY NOW, a Beatles-esque romp about a typical (and fictional) day in the life of The Runaways. Plans changed when the notoriously contentious band imploded and parted ways for the last time, leaving the producers with no band to make a movie about. Founding Runaways member Joan Jett stayed with the project however and with the help of three actresses hired to play "fake" Runaways (including '70s cult movie goddess Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith as the band's drummer), production continued. About fifty minutes of usable footage were shot before the project ran out of money and was abandoned. Flash forward to 1984 when the mostly forgotten footage suddenly became a hot commodity due to Jett's successful solo career. Alan Sacks (best known for producing the sitcoms CHICO AND THE MAN and WELCOME BACK KOTTER) along with actor turned sitcom writer Marc Sheffler (the doomed, herion-addicted son in Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) were hired to come up with a film that could be used around the Jett footage, making it feature length. That production  also ran into financing problems and the finished film had to be fleshed out using newsreel footage and Polaroid stills of everything from family members to pornography to roadkill. This, ladies and gentlemen, is DU-BEAT-E-O.

The story that Sacks came up with revolves around a strung-out film director named Du-beat-e-o (real name: Alan Shapiro), whose greedy financier gives him a deadline of thirty one hours to finish editing his movie about Joan Jett. So for the rest of the film we follow Du-beat-e-o as he holes up in his apartment with his cough syrup-addicted editor (Derf Scratch, bassist for the punk band Fear) and a random woman who just happened to walk through the wrong doorway (Nora Gaye) as he struggles to put his film together. Along the way we're treated to stream of consciousness ramblings and panic attacks while the Jett footage plays on monitors in the background. In addition, Sacks and some buddies can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the film, making inane comments as they watch the finished product. It's like a DVD commentary track that can't be turned off.

As is usually the case with this kind of patchwork moviemaking, DU-BEAT-E-O is an incomprehensible mess of a film but it's also fascinating to see the lengths that Sacks and crew have gone in order to salvage a few minutes of commercially viable footage. The Joan Jett footage is great but it's too bad it's been relegated to the background of so many scenes (often with Sacks and company making disparaging comments at Jett's expense while she's onscreen). After all, that footage is the reason why the movie exists in the first place. The same can be said of Sharkey's performance. Sharkey was an actor who never did anything halfway and it's obvious that's he's at least trying to do something worthwhile here. I would have loved to see his reaction when he discovered that much of his performance had been rendered unintelligible by his own director. Sacks has since admitted that he was going through a particularly nihilistic period in his life while DU-BEAT-E-O was being made and it shows since it's the film's sense of meanspiritness that makes it a chore to watch more than anything else. DU-BEAT-E-O played at film festivals worldwide but has received only very limited distribution since, which may be why Jett never sued over the insulting way she's treated here. As it stands, DU-BEAT-E-O will never be confused with a good film but it's still essential viewing for Jett completists and weird movie aficionados. It truly is a one of a kind experience.

For more forgotten film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: S*P*Y*S (1974)

In 1974 Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, hoping to recapture their success two years previously in M*A*S*H, reunited for director Irvin Kershner's  S*P*Y*S. The result was a counterculture spy spoof that tunes the counterculture elements way down to the point where it most closely resembles a Hope/Crosby ROAD movie with more car chases and explosions.

Sutherland and Gould play Bruland and Griff, two not very bright CIA field agents. When they botch the defection of a Russian gymnast, resulting in the deaths of two Russian operatives, it instigates a new international agreement among the world's intelligence agencies demanding "a corpse for a corpse." Finding themselves marked for death by the CIA as well as the KGB,  Griff and Bruland, along with a beautiful French anarchist (Zouzou), flee through Europe to escape their former employers.

It's easy to see why audiences didn't respond to this film when it was released in 1974.  When inevitably compared to M*A*S*H it becomes obvious that S*P*Y*S is a much lesser film. It's cartoonish and relies much too heavily on slapstick. In fact, the whole thing feels rather like a television sitcom, which isn't surprising since its screenwriters, Lawrence Cohen and Fred Freeman, are both sitcom veterans who returned to TV shortly after writing this film. However, the film has one thing that saves it from being a waste of time: the chemistry between Sutherland and Gould. The actors are obviously friends and clearing are enjoying riffing off each other and that enjoyment is contagious. If they had wanted to, they could have been a great comedy team and it's a shame that the critical reaction to this film probably discouraged them from teaming up again.

Anyone who rents the DVD of S*P*Y*S would do well to check out the supplements on the disc including an informative featurette on the making of the film. Gould especially is very candid about his dislike of the script and how Sutherland talked him into doing the film. Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff discuss the genesis of the project, originally titled WET STUFF (intelligence agency slang for blood, apparently) and their difficulties getting the project financed even after the two stars became attached. They then talk about selling the film to 20th Century Fox who, against the wishes of everyone involved in the making of the film, changed the title and marketed the film to more directly play up the connection to M*A*S*H.

Time has been kind to S*P*Y*S.  Without the specter of M*A*S*H looming over it, S*P*Y*S has a lot less to live up to.  Also the absence of a lot of political content has kept the film from becoming too dated. It may fail as political satire but it's good-natured enough to be a pleasant way to spend 87 minutes and sometimes that's enough.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.