Seeing as how I was laid up for a short time, I thought maybe it would be a good time to bring back my Movie Diary segments. Maybe not a good idea, but a good time.
This will be a somewhat long one, folks.
I took advantage of some sales last month and put together a large pile of things I had never seen before, including some that I’ve been meaning to catch up on because I’ve been making my way through series or lists. I wanted to make everything I watched 20 years or older, for no particular reason other than the mood I was in at the time.
To start with, I finally knocked the last couple of “Connery-Era” Bond films off my List o’ Shame, in quotation marks because, of course, there’s the singular George Lazenby entry in there, with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever. Having seen them, I have to wonder why ol’ Laz has gotten so much crap over the years, receiving the title of “Worst Bond” from the same kind of philistines who apparently helped keep Roger Moore’s tired antics on the screen for a decade. For me, he was a breath of fresh air in a film that harkened back to the first couple of 007 outings, alike as films which may have moments of camp, but camp that exists because of changing social attitudes rather than a purposeful stylistic decision. The later is what we received from Diamonds and You Only Live Twice.* Lazenby is cocksure and capable without being a superman, which I appreciated. It’s also easy to see why Diana Rigg is the only Bond girl who could coax 007 into matrimony, however short-lived. For a great example of doing this wrong, see Spectre and his leaving at the end with a paper-thin character that he has no reason to care for.
Diamonds are Forever, on the other hand, makes the mistake of jumping into the kind of material that the Batman TV show did so well and almost nobody else. It isn’t a total loss, thanks to Connery’s wasted charms, but he seems to mostly be sleepwalking through the role for his paycheck. It’s no wonder he left for good after this one. And no, we’re not counting Never Say Never Again. A fan has to wonder how different things may have ended up if Lazenby had stuck around, given the uptick in quality and adult themes his film experienced. Given my distaste of the Moore films which followed, and the more or less complete loss of the loose continuity that had previously held them together with the Spectre threat, I haven’t made any plans to continue with my chronological viewing. At some point I may go ahead and finally dig into the Dalton titles and the couple of Brosnans I skipped, but I’m in no hurry.
Another checklist I wanted to put a couple more ticks in is the filmography of John Carpenter. Sure, I’ve seen most of the films considered to be his best, but even his less regarded films from the 70s and 80s are generally considered to be interesting, at the very least. I began with what he considered to be a “work for hire” job, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine. While I can’t claim that it’s a lost classic, I can say that it doesn’t get enough due, because it’s a slick little film that keeps most of the best parts of the novel intact while dropping much of the filler and the eye-rolling plot-points. Instead, we get a lean horror thriller with plenty of signature Carpenter touches; along with some things I wish he’d done more of.
For example, he does a fantastic job of assembling a soundtrack for his film. Given his propensity to score most of his work himself, he didn’t do much in the way of needle drops, but he probably should have let himself play around with that option more often.** For instance, I’ve never been a particular fan of Harlem Nocturne, but Carpenter’s use of it in the film, to score Christine’s regeneration after a brutal beating from a gang of ruthless townies, is absolutely perfect. The effects are also spot-on, using hydraulics and (one assumes) reverse photography to bring the Plymouth Fury to supernatural life. If you’ve avoided the film because he has been dismissive of it or because it doesn’t have the kind of reputation that his masterpieces do, I recommend you give it a shot anyway.
Prince of Darkness is a little tougher to sell. It’s definitely more of a low-budget curiosity. I did enjoy it, and will watch it again, but it’s easy to see why it’s always been more of a cult film, even among his fans. It starts out with the promise of being a bit more of an intellectual horror film. The basic premise posits that the physical embodiment of Satan is a mass of goo kept in the basement of an abandoned church in LA. It goes on to make use of anti-matter, the multi-verse theory, tachyon projection, and even a bit of “Chariots of the Gods” lore in its story, but uses it in service of what ends up essentially being a low-key zombie flick. (Old-school lackey voodoo-style zombies, not Romero-style.) Unfortunately, the different parts of the film are too at odds with each other to truly work the way his best stuff does.
The look of the film is also distinctive, as they used wide-angle lenses with the widescreen composition to create images that often seem to move in and out of focus. I can’t speak to whether it works on the big screen (unfortunately, not many people can, since it wasn’t exactly a huge hit) but again, it doesn’t truly work when I was watching it on blu ray. Maybe the size of the screen makes a big difference. What does work are many of the performances. Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong and a number of his regular stable of actors make appearances in the film and they put forth a wonderful effort.
Oh, and I finally have seen the last of the “canon” Ray Harryhausen films, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of The Valley of Gwangi. I enjoyed the cowboys vs. dinosaurs tale, even as I mourned the loss of each and every giant lizard. Essentially, it’s a King Kong tale which centers around a nearly unreachable valley in Mexico, near where a flailing wild-west show has set up camp. They find what were supposed to be long-extinct animals and, despite a few setbacks, everything would be fine with their plans if not for some south-of-the-border Gypsies who threaten cosmic retribution, but resort to sabotage to prove their superstitions true. As usual, the effects are top-notch with the stop-motion critters making for the best part of the movie. Thanks to the Warner Archive imprint for upping their output with some really interesting stuff. I recently preordered Ride the High Country with Randolph Scott and a promising Z-grade atomic monster feature about a murderous tree. Keep it up, guys! Any chance of Night of the Lepus anytime soon?
I opened up the third (and seemingly last) Vincent Price box set from Scream Factory and one of the films I took in was Master of the World, another Roger Corman production with a Richard Matheson screenplay. What’s interesting about this one is that it’s A) not a horror film and B) an entry in the Jules Verne adaptation wave that started in the late ‘50s, which I’d never heard of before now. I still have a little less than half of the set to watch yet, but the thing I’ve surprisingly enjoyed most is an hour-long TV special called An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe. The video toaster graphics can’t disguise how brilliant Price is, as he delivers four monologues based on some first-person works of Poe: The Sphinx, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Cask of Amontillado. Of them, I’d say Heart was the best, but the way he builds most of the pieces to a crescendo is masterful.
Another actor I’m a fan of is Clint Eastwood and, after watching the fantastic Dirty Harry series, I’ve been wanting to check out more of his earlier work. When I read the description of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it sounded up my alley. A caper film with Jeff Bridges and George Kennedy? Sure, count me in. Unfortunately, the whole thing is way too far up its own butt in that way only 70’s auteur films can seem to be. So many people bemoan the rise of the Spielberg/Lucas regime and the way it actually made movies for people to enjoy and it drives me crazy. Especially when I see something like this, made by one of the filmmakers they love, (or at least did until he made Heaven’s Gate and brought the whole thing crashing down.) It’s like a tone poem masquerading as a crime film. That’s not to say there aren’t some genuinely enjoyable moments. Clint’s introduction as a phony priest whose country church gets shot up is one of the best examples. But I found them to be too few and far between. I hate that this makes me sound like one of those people who complain about a movie being boring because there isn’t an explosion every five minutes, but for a lot of its runtime, it just kinda lies there. I suppose I’m not sorry I watched it, but I’ll probably stick to his westerns for the next few films of his I catch.
On the flip side of the 70s-crime-film coin, I also watched The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and loved it. Walter Matthau is good in most anything, of course, and he kills it here as a Transit Authority Cop who manages to be super competent in dealing with a group of criminals who hold a subway car of passengers for ransom, while still being very fallible and human. His humor holds a great deal of the film together, while the smart script and a fantastic performance from Robert Shaw (Cap’n Quint himself) take care of the rest. The way the audience is kept guessing along with Matthau’s character is a good deal of the fun, so it would be a sin to ruin more of the plot. However, before I move on, I will say that the score for the film also deserves to be singled out. You’ll have the theme stuck in your head for the rest of the day thanks to its mix of a little bit of funk and a whole lot of bravado. Just thinking about the movie now has it rolling through my mind again.
Finally, I have gotten a lot of guff for having not seen Empire Records before. Having finally watched it***, I can say that I understand why so many people of my generation (and the subsequent one) attached themselves to it in such a dramatic way. It’s a perfect 90s fantasy; the loose confederation of kids and 20-somethings who seemingly have little in common by suburban white people standards, working in the kind of store that could only exist in the movies, where you can steal a whole day’s take from the register and not get fired. As a person who has worked in both a corporate record store in the late-90s (Hastings, RIP) and an indie store in the 00s, I can say there’s just enough of a ring of truth to the now endangered music-store culture being simulated that it’s understandable how people who have been in that environment will latch onto it. Sort of like I’ve known from fellow people who have worked in chain restaurants and their protectiveness of the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Waiting.
My feelings on the movie? It’s good, not great. The performances are better than the movie itself in many instances. If I’d seen it at the appropriate age, I’d probably have had even more of a thing for Liv Tyler than I did after seeing That Thing You Do. It’s actually fun seeing a handful of actors who went on to bigger things, though it’s super weird to see Renee Zellweger in anything pre-surgery. As an attempted artist, it’s hilarious watching the guy who’s already selling his pieces without any problem worrying about art school. As Mystery Science Theater 3000 put it once, “These are the kind of problems you WANT to have.” I sort of wish I’d seen it back in what the nostalgic call “The Day,” as I would almost assuredly appreciate it more. But I will still probably revisit it in the future now that I’ve broken the seal.
That’s all for now, but I’m sure I’ll be writing more as I head further down the rabbit hole. I’ve got a big stack left over from the Shout and Twilight Time sales (as well as a few items from the Arrow sale on Barnes and Noble) to get to. Let us know what you think of the titles discussed below in the comments section or on Facebook, won’t you?
*The worst of example of which, the scene where they made Bond “Japanese,” does at least have its existence justified with a brilliant parody scene found in Team America: World Police.
** Thankfully, one of the exceptions, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, was readded to The Thing’s soundtrack after years of being replaced on home video formats.
***Thank you for the DVD, Sarah!