Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Filtering by Category: Everyone Else Is Wrong

Repost - Gotta Strut!

(Another repost! Deal with it!)

I bet if I were to ask even the sharpest of movie freaks to compose a list of performers most closely associated with that glorious enterprise known as the Bad Seventies Musical it would take quite a long while for the name Sylvester Stallone to eventually come up, but the truth is that the Italian Stallion has not one, but two such memorable disasters hidden away amongst the many lunk-headed sequels, misguided comedies and action flops that dominate much of his filmography.  The second of these two, Rhinestone (in which he played a monosyllabic New York cab driver who Dolly Parton bets she can transform into a Country Music star) is the more obvious of the two, since he actually stars in it and is as horrifyingly bad as you would imagine, but the first is far more important since it is the film that marked the true turning point in his career.

Looking back with the gift of hindsight and the knowledge of all the truly terrible films to come (Rhinestone, Rocky IV, Cobra, Over the Top, Rocky V, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot!, Judge Dread and Driven to name just the most purely wretched of a wretched bunch) it seems odd to read Roger Ebert describe the subject of today’s post as “…the first bad film [Stallone has] made,” but people forget that following his star-turning breakout in the Academy Award-winning megahit Rocky, there was a period where Stallone was actually considered a gifted actor and filmmaker (as incredible as it seems he not only had been nominated for Best Screenplay, but Best Actor as well).

After Rocky he co-wrote the screenplay (with the infamous Joe Eszterhas, who made his own contribution to the world of Bad Seventies Musicals with his screenplays for Flashdance and Showgirls) and starred in Norman Jewison’s union drama F*I*S*T, which wasn’t nearly as well received, but kept afloat his reputation as a serious actor and writer who had the potential to be one of the great talents of the decade. The same was true for the period wrestling drama Paradise Alley, which also marked his directorial debut.  Rocky II, which he also directed, proved to be a much bigger hit and though the general consensus was that it was inferior to the original, both critics and audiences seem to agree that it was still a well-made and entertaining film.  After that Rutger Hauer’s villain got most of the attention from Nighthawks and North America’s indifference to soccer kept Victory from being a hit, but the back-to-back smashes of Rocky III (which he wrote and directed) and First Blood (which he did not) truly made it seem like Stallone was a man with the Midas touch.  True, there were some rumblings that he had taken the Rocky franchise into a strangely cartoonish direction that seemed far removed from the sweet, realistic drama of the original, but even this could be deemed excusable when you considered that the first film was about a no-name boxer who dreamed of being the champ and the third was about a champ who had already gotten everything he had ever wanted.
It was a position Stallone could write about from personal experience, having gone from a bit-part actor struggling to pay his rent to a superstar who now had the professional freedom to do whatever he wanted.  And what he wanted to do in 1982 was make the transition towards becoming a pure filmmaker—one who could make the movies he wanted without having to star in them as well.

This was not as simple as it sounds.  Though by this time Clint Eastwood (an actor turned director whose reputation for minimalist performances and cheesy patriotic action movies was at one time almost identical to Stallone’s) had already directed nine films, he had only failed to star in one of them and it, Breezy, remains the most obscure film he has ever made.  Decades earlier, Gene Kelly made three films purely as a director, but the only one people remembered was Hello Dolly, an infamous financial fiasco.  And Jack Lemmon’s sole directorial effort, Kotch, told a tale not unlike the one found in Breezy—with just as memorable results.

At that time Robert Redford had been the only superstar actor to successfully make the transition to non-performing director with his debut Ordinary People.  But unlike Redford, who used his clout to get a downbeat and commercially questionable film made with the actors he wanted (rather than ones he thought would sell tickets), Stallone decided that for his first film completely behind the camera, he would instead craft a sequel to the huge 1977 hit film that had made John Travolta an overnight star and taught the world the glory of the discothèque.

I am, of course, talking about:
John Travolta as Tony
A Struggling Dancer
Cynthia Rhodes as Jackie
Another Struggling Dancer

Finola Hughes as Laura
A Successful Dancer
Sylvester Stallone as Random Asshole On the Street
A Random Asshole On the Street


Frank Stallone as Carl
A Rhythm Guitarist


Back in Brooklyn in 1977, Tony Manero was the king of the disco, but six years later he’s just another out of work dancer in Manhattan, making ends meet teaching classes to untalented wannabes and waiting tables at the kind of club he used to rule.  Thanks to his only slightly more successful friend and occasional bedmate Jackie, he meets Laura, a wealthy British dancer whose moves and “intelligent” accent instantly catches his interest.  When he is cast in the chorus of her new show, Satan’s Alley, he manages to spend half a night in her bed, but quickly learns that she has no interest in a man who can’t do anything for her or her career.  Torn between the bitch who won’t have him and the saintly girl who will, Tony risks ruining his first big break, but when the director decides to take a chance and have him replace the show's male lead, he learns who he really is and is finally able to decide who he really loves.


As a “behind the scenes” musical, Staying Alive eschews the traditional break-out-into-song-and-dance scenes in favour of the kind of musical montages popularized by the success of Flashdance, but best exemplified by the extraordinary “On Broadway” sequence in Bob’s Fosse’s All That Jazz.  That said, the following scenes certainly do qualify:






Assuming you merely scrolled down past the above list in a hurried attempt to get to this post's chewy, snarky center, I think it would behoove you to quickly look at it one more time and see if you notice an odd pattern forming.  While you take care of that, I'll just insert a jpeg of a magazine cover from this period that does little to downplay the long-held rumours of Travolta's closeted homosexualty:
Ready now?  Okay, then I'm sure you noticed that of the six musical numbers noted above, half feature songs performed by the director's infamously less-successful younger sibling, Frank.  What you probably didn't note--because it's the kind of information no sane person should actually know off the top of their heads--is that the remaining three numbers feature songs that were written by Frank Stallone as well.  This is not insignificant, as it is the clearest example of the level of hubris Stallone possessed as he worked on the project.
Lemme explain.
As iconic as Tony Manero's white suit was, it was three brothers from Australia who were truly responsible for turning a movie about an asshole who likes to dance into something much, much more.  It has become popular now to praise Saturday Night Fever the film as a classic example of how the 70s cinematic pursuit of verisimilitude was able to transform a typical teen dance movie into a major work of art--to the point that it more resembled a work of cultural anthropology than any mere trifling entertainment.  On the other hand, the popular opinion of Saturday Night Fever the record album is that it is one of the archetypal examples of the wretched tastelessness that defined the end of the lamentable me-decade--a craven musical sell out from a group once best known for folky pop songs with memorable harmonies.  What this clearly ignores is that while the film was a popular success, the album was a zeitgeist-changing uber-phenomenon.  By the time they got around to filming Staying Alive (which itself was named after the album's biggest hit) the soundtrack recorded by the brothers Gibb still held the record for best selling LP of all time, having gone platinum 15 times over since its release.  It wouldn't be until a year after Staying Alive bombed that Michael Jackson's Thriller would finally best the Bee-Gee's achievement.
What some folks might not realize is that this was not an accident.  Saturday Night Fever was produced by an Australian gentleman named Robert Stigwood, who at that time was best known as the manager of a group of singing brothers known as--you guessed it--The Bee-Gees.  It should come as no surprise then that his principal interest in the project wasn't in presenting an anthropological study of the social rituals of Brooklyn douchebags, but rather in crafting the perfect comeback vehicle for his biggest meal ticket.  Rather than the album being a fortuitous offshoot of the film, the film was made specifically to justify the creation of the album. 
But that had been over five years ago--a lifetime in the world of music--and The Bee-Gees had become the Celine Dion's of their time, a group no one with even the tiniest iota of taste and/or self-awareness could admit to enjoying.  Because of this Stallone recognized that the group's music would have to be featured in the film, but it could not be allowed to dominate.  Thanks to Stigwood's role as the film's producer, the group received prominent billing in its opening credits, but--with the exception of the use of the title song at the very end--the truth is that their contributions amount to little more than anonymous background filler.  Rather than rely on the music of the group that allowed for the first film's creation and massive cultural success, Stallone chose to ignore it in favour of the questionable efforts of his baby brother, who he also cast in the not-so-crucial role of the guitar player in Jackie's band.
I could spend a good long while discussing the reasons why he would choose to do something so obviously foolish, but in the end the only one that matters is the simplest--because he could.
As reasons justifying disastrous decisions go, "Because he could," is probably responsible for destroying more careers than any other in Hollywood.  As any proper student of cinematic failure can tell you, there are two distinct kinds of Hollywood flop--the corporate folly and the vanity project--and in most cases the ultimate blame for their failures can both be attributed to "Because he could," the only variable being just who the "he" in the equation is.  With the exception of perhaps Eddie Murphy, no other iconic 80s superstar suffered more as a result of his ability to make his decisions without having to justify them to the people signing his massive paychecks.  Unlike Bruce Willis, who could survive and thrive after a "Because he could" flop on the level of Hudson Hawk (a film I am proud to say I actually saw in the theater when it was released), once Stallone started failing, it became impossible for him to stop.  Given the freedom to do whatever he wanted with a project that had nothing to do with Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, he proved that his less-than-stellar vision would lead to him attempting to turn his brother into The Next Big Thing, regardless of whether or not Frank had the talent to justify it.
For this reason Staying Alive is important as the turning point in Stallone's career.  Despite his only appearing onscreen for a couple of seconds, its failure laid the groundwork for all of his other failures to come.
That said, I have to admit that the music provided by Frank Stallone does amount to being the high point of the film, for as cheesy as it may sound, it's downright revolutionary compared to the film's script.
What Stallone and Norman Wexler, Staying Alive's two credited writers, didn't seem to realize is that if you choose to forgo plot in favour of a more intimate character drama, you are then required to create interesting three-dimensional characters who are compelling enough on their own to make you forget the utter lack of story.  Instead they crafted a screenplay inhabited by cyphers whose actions are entirely dependent on what the director wanted to have happen in each scene, rather than what they would actually do in that situation.
But more than that, the screenplay fails because the director is never able to convince us that its logical conclusion is at all valid..  According to the script, we are supposed to come to believe that while Laura is initially compelling, her ambition and self-devotion make her unworthy of Tony's affection, while Jackie's ability to forgive his trespasses and love him for who he is makes her the deserved choice.
This may have flew in 1983, but 25 years later, it reeks of old-fashioned sexism.  Laura's faults are no different than Tony's, but because she's a woman they are deemed unseemly, while Jackie's strange willingness to be continually treated like a doormat is portrayed as her most noble quality, rather than the tragic weakness it is.  It doesn't help Stallone's cause that Finola Hughes is so much more interesting and charismatic than her blond counterpart, Cynthia Rhodes (whose greatest contribution to pop culture remains her performance as the girl whose botched abortion compels Baby to dance with Johnny in Dirty Dancing).  Perhaps Stallone wanted to make a point about how settling for mediocrity is the fate of everyone, even gifted dancers, but if so he does not properly sell this conclusion and instead leaves the viewer hating Tony even more than they already did for settling for someone as challenging as a People magazine crossword puzzle.
What then is there about Stallone's first major folly to make it worthy of the attention of the second Project Kinda-Gay post?  Well, as strange at it may seem, for all of his vanity and undeserved egomania, Stallone was a filmmaker who wanted to stretch beyond the limits of his comfort zone and the proof of this lies in Staying Alive's existence.  And though its failure doomed him to direct only the sequels and "reboots" of his two most profitable franchise, there is something honourable in the attempt--even considering how poorly that attempt ending up being.
Anyone can do what they're good at and continue to succeed, but it takes a brave soul (albeit a brave foolish soul) to try something different and risk embarrassing themselves in the process.  Stallone in this instance was that brave foolish soul and for that he derserves to strut:

Repost - Attack of the Muses

(Hey, I'm BUSY! So, I'm reposting this "classic" from July of 2008. Like you're so great!)

As ridiculous as it may seem announcing a new House of Glib feature during a period where my output can justifiably be called “Pathetic,” I’m going to do so anyway, because that’s just the way this playa plays the game (holla!).  For the past little while I’ve been finding my attention increasingly diverted by what many would consider the worst and most lamentable films in the Bad Movie Pantheon, but in which I have started to find increasing amounts of comfort and solace.  Given the amount of time I’ve been spending with these films, it seems only right to start documenting them for the enjoyment of all of the Googler’s who’ve come here in search of “Superfriends Porn” or “Sophie Simmons Breasts” and since every House of Glib feature needs a slick, fancy name, I have decided to dub this latest venture:

Project Kinda-Gay

That’s right folks, these posts are all about musicals, but not any kind of musicals.  No, we’re talking about the most twisted, terrible, hilarious, wonderful, demented musicals of all time—Bad Seventies Musicals!  But before we can get started let me provide you with this helpful FAQ:

Q) What is a Bad Seventies Musical?

A) A bad musical made in the 1970s, duh.

Q) Is That It?

A) Well, no, it is more complicated than that.

Q) How So?

There’s a special kind of cheesiness that one must achieve to be considered a Bad Seventies Musical.  For example take Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.  It was made in the seventies, is a musical and—to all but a few stubborn contrarians who refuse to accept that El Maestro has ever been capable of an obvious self-indulgent failure—isn’t very good.  Yet despite the fact that it is—technically speaking—a lowercase bad seventies musical it is not an uppercase Bad Seventies Musical, since Scorsese’s skill and natural sense of good taste keep it from achieving the level of pop-culture hilarity that is necessary for it to merit the proper capitalization.


Q) Is There Anything Else?

A) Of course there is.

Q) Like What?

A) To start off with, in order to be considered a Bad Seventies Musical, a movie doesn’t actually have to be bad or made in the 1970s.

Q) WTF?  Are You Crazy?  That Totally Contradicts Your Answer To The First Freaking Question!

A) No, it’s true.  Take Tommy for example.  It was nominated for a whole bunch of Oscars, got great reviews and is considered by many to be a classic, yet it can also be considered one of the best examples of the form.  No matter how well respected it is, any musical that features a scene of Ann-Margret writhing orgasmically in a sea of baked beans is the epitome of everything a Bad Seventies Musical represents.

Q) And What About Movies Not Made in the Seventies?

A) The term Bad Seventies Musical refers as much to a state of mind as it does to a specific period and by that standard there are many films produced in the 1980s that must be considered Bad Seventies Musicals.  In fact (and I haven’t checked this out, but it certainly seems true) there might actually have been more Bad Seventies Musicals made in the 80s than in the 1970s.

Q) Then Why Don’t You Call Them Bad Eighties Musicals?

A) Because that would be retarded.

Q) You Mentioned That These Movies Are All Inherently Cheesy.  Can You Go Into Any Better Detail Than That?

A) I could, but I think that after the first couple of entries, you’ll start noticing the overall pattern.  It’s probably best to just end this charade and start talking about the movie this post is supposed to be about.

Q) Which Is?

A) A 1980 (see, told ya!) roller disco classic starring the chick who put on tight, slutty leather pants to turn on a greaser, a young Warrior and some old guy who once starred in the greatest musicals ever made, but still somehow ended up in this.

Q) Oh God…You Don’t Mean—?

A) Yes!  It’s:

Michael Beck as Sonny Malone
A Struggling Artist
Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire
A Rich, Old Dude
A Roller-Skating Muse
Sonny, a struggling artist, is walking along Venice Beach when he is randomly kissed by a beautiful, blond, roller-skating muse named Kira.  During his attempts to find the beauty he runs into Danny McGuire, a rich, old dude who spends his time playing the clarinet on the beach, remembering the days when he was a big band leader at his own nightclub in the 1940s (where he too once received the attention of a beautiful, blond muse).  Wanting to relive his glory days, Danny decides to open a new nightclub and asks his new artistic friend to help him find the perfect building for it.  Drawn to a dilapidated old wrestling arena by the muse who kissed him earlier, Sonny convinces Danny it's the perfect place for the nightclub, while he also falls in love with the blond babe in wheeled shoes.  For the first time in her existence, Kira reciprocates an artist's love, even though she knows such feelings are forbidden by her father, Zeus.  Breaking Sonny's heart, she returns to her otherworldly home, where he manages to find her.  Forced back into the mortal realm by Zeus, Sonny arrives at the grand-opening of his and Danny's new roller disco palace, Xanadu, certain he will never know true love again, unaware that the gods work in oh-so mysterious ways.
While in the future there shall be films that test the boundaries of what can be truly considered a Bad Seventies Musical, Xanadu is definitely not one of them.  No, it truly is an archetypal example of the form and from it one can devise a handy checklist by which all other examples can (and will) be judged.
1) Insultingly Simple Plot:
I've gone on record many times as being one of the worst synopsizers in the history of humankind.  Once in an email to a friend, I actually took 750 words to describe a 725 word story I had written (which is actually a fairly admirable achievement if you think about it).  That said, the fact that I could accurately sum up all of the events in Xanadu in the one medium-sized paragraph found above shows you how little story the filmmakers felt they needed to justify this collection of songs and dance numbers.  This simplicity is an essential part of every Bad Seventies Musical--if you actually have to spend any time thinking about the plot, you are watching something else, no matter how bad, how musical or how seventies it may be.
2) Hilariously Tacky Production and Wardrobe Design:
The standard here is not to judge the film's overall design aesthetic by today's modern standards, but instead by the standards of good taste that existed when the film was actually being made.  Even though the 1970s is considered by most people to be the stylistic nadir of the 20th Century (followed closely by the one that came immediately after it), one should be careful not to assume that the tackiness on display in a Bad Seventies Musical was actually considered acceptable when it was produced.  This is especially true of Xanadu, whose crimes against design were just as heinous the day it opened as they are today.  One need only consider the scene where Gene Kelly and the gang go to a "modern" clothing store and his dignity takes such a beating one has to literally close their eyes, cover their ears and repeat "Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, An American in Paris and It's Always Fair Weather," over and over again until it finally ends.
3) Music That Makes You Question Your Own Judgment:
The score of a Bad Seventies Musical must walk a narrow line.  On the one hand, it must be memorable enough that you'll find yourself haunted by at least one of its songs until the day you die, while on the other hand it must be misguided enough that even its most ardent defender wouldn't go so far as to insist that it is genuinely good.  The music of a Bad Seventies Musical sounds as though it might have actually once been good, but has been made much less so as the result of the demands of the production.  Again, few films illustrate this with better clarity than Xanadu.  Days after watching the film, you'll find yourself unconsciously humming the tunes to "I'm Alive", "All Over the World", "The Fall" and "Xanadu" while at the same time wishing you could find Jeff Lynne and give him the ass-kicking your conscious mind tells you he deserves.
4) Annoying Retro Touches:
As a misguided attempt to mitigate its crimes against good taste, a Bad Seventies Musical will often look back to the past for touches of old school glamour.  But rather than elevate the production, these retro touches inevitably serve to only remind the viewer how much better the musicals of the past actually were.  No sequence in the history of the genre better illustrates this than Xanadu's "Dancin" number, in which the worst excesses of the 1940s and 70s are wedged together into a union that only serves to degrade and humiliate them both.  Some films choose to also reach for this nostalgic goodwill through the stunt-casting of celebrities whose best years are famously behind them.  Xanadu takes this approach to the highest possible level by casting one of the genre's two biggest legends (Fred Astaire at that point being too old to even credibly play an old, rich dude), with the result that younger viewers are left wondering why they have to watch Grandpa gliding around on roller skates, while older viewers are reminded that there are certain things a person should not be allowed to do once they've reached their declining years.
5) An Appalling Sense of Waste:
All of the best Bad Seventies Musicals leave the viewer with the impression that what they are watching led (justifiably or not) to the destruction of more than one show business career.  Whether it's a once-promising newcomer who never received the second-chance they deserved or an actual star who never recovered from the damage the film did to their reputation, there should at least be one person involved in the production for whom you feel a tremendous amount of pity, certain that they did not deserve to have their trajectory halted by "this."  In that vein, did you know that the only mainstream Hollywood feature film Olivia Newton-John starred in after Xanadu was the unfortunate John Travolta Grease-reunion project Two of a Kind, which despite featuring many of the key attributes of the genre, cannot be considered a Bad Seventies Musical due to its lack of music?
Now comes the section where I blatantly ignore everything I've previously written in this post, so I can argue that--despite what you may think--your life really isn't truly complete until you've sat down and watched this crappy movie starring the world's blondest faux-Australian (no, really, she was born in England.  Look it up if you don't believe me--I was just as shocked and devastated as any right-thinking person would be), one half of Houston Knights and the legend whose last few roles serve as textbook examples of why celebrities should just enjoy their retirement years like Johnny Carson did--playing tennis and slowly dying of smoking-related emphysema.
Having spent the last year closely dissecting the Roller Disco movie phenomenon that briefly threatened the world during the last throes of the "Me Decade" (that is to say I watched this and Roller Boogie, while dreaming of the day I could get my hands on a copy of Skatetown USA), I wish I could say that in them I have found some grand metaphor for existence that suggests a sub-textual profoundity that rises them above the level of faddish exploitation, but I can't.  Created only as a means to chase a quick buck (foolishly so in the case of Xanadu, which immediately went down in history as one of Hollywood's more infamous financial disasters, despite its spawning a hit soundtrack), these films were not designed to be of the ages, but rather to be immediately consumed and immediately forgotten.  Yet here we are, 28 years later, and we can't get the stupid things out of our heads.
Xanadu like all Bad Seventies Musicals is important because its failure is so impressive it resonates within us long after we have experienced it.   A mere mediocrity can be forever consigned to oblivion, but a true disaster can never really go away--it will always linger and the longer it does, the more we are able to forgive its brazen flaws and appreciate its subtle charms.  The lesson then is obvious--fail modestly and you'll vanish without notice, fail egregiously and you just might achieve cultural immortality.  Don't believe me?  Last year, some folks saw fit to mount a stage version of Xanadu, resulting in a hit Broadway show that was nominated for four Tony Awards and the release of the "Magical Music Edition" DVD that I purchased two weeks ago, spurring me to write this post. 
When Kira appears in mortal form at the film's end, her metamorphosis goes unexplained.  The filmmakers hope that we will  not question her inexplicable appearance because they are giving us the happy ending they correctly assume we desire, and as crass and lazy as this may be, this denouement serves as an ironic counterpoint to the film's ultimate fate.  In choosing love, Kira forgoes immortality and a life spent inspiring artists to create their greatest works, while the producers of Xanadu chose commerce (their every creative choice based not on what felt right, but rather on what they thought would sell) and unwittingly created a lasting work destined to inspire future creators.  And while I'm not necessarily sure this is a good thing, it does allow us the comfort of knowing that it is possible to someday see your past mistakes be, if not redeemed, then at least made to seem  a little less terrible.
In 1984 the film's director, Robert Greenwald, treated us to another infamous movie starring an iconic blond when he made the then-controversial TV movie The Burning Bed, which featured a battered Farrah Fawcett barbecuing an abusive Paul Le Mat on the titular piece of furniture.  Today he is better known as the liberal documentarian behind the muckraking features Outfoxed and Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices.
Choreographer Kenny Ortega gained fame as the man who made Swayze move in Dirty Dancing and parlayed this success into a seemingly mediocre directing career that has suddenly grown hot due to the success of his High School Musical franchise.
Producer Joel Silver went on to earn his fortune making Action Jackson, Road House, Hudson Hawk and Fair Game (as well as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Matrix and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and in so doing tied Robert Evans and Harvey Weinstein's records for most parodied and mocked film producers of all time.
Olivia Newton-John got "Physical" and made one more (previously mentioned above) bad movie before she accepted her destiny of being rediscovered every six years or so by young girls exposed to the questionable glories of Grease.
Michael Beck revisited his famous role of Swan in 2005's video game recreation of The Warriors.
And, finally, Gene Kelly did what all aging celebrities must eventually do--he died ten years after everyone had already assumed he was dead.

I Saw This IN THE THEATER! Part Three in a Continuing Series

Hudson Hawk


Brief Explanation

Once again I found myself sitting alone in the Londonderry Theater, and--based on Hawk's infamous B.O.--I just might have been the only person to see it that afternoon. Why was I there? One word: Heathers. Like all alienated teenagers from the period, I'd seen it over a dozen times since it came out three years earlier. Being a movie geek, I naturally knew all about the folks who made it and excitedly waited for their big-budget major Hollywood follow-up effort (the less said about Meet the Applegates the better). And y'know what? I fuckin' liked it! Sure I was just 15, but I was a 15 year old who had seen Annie Hall 20 times, so it's not like I was totally without judgment. I haven't seen it in a decade, so I have no idea how it holds up, but considering it's the biggest and most infamous flop I ever saw during its intial release (with the possible exception of Babe: Pig in the City) I'd probably say I loved it just to be a contrary bastard.


Ever go back to a movie from your youth that you saw 1000 times and loved and thought was awesome and the best thing ever, only to discover that it was worse than the time your dog got rabies and your mom told you to go outside and shoot it, but he didn't die the first time you shot him and he managed to sink his fangs into your leg, necessitating the need for a series of painful shots?

This isn't about that.

This it-happens-when-it-happens series is instead about what happens when you revisit an old movie you used to love and discover that it makes you feel the exact same way you did the last time you watched it as a kid--maybe even a little better. It's a good feeling and not one that gets mentioned on the internet that often.

For my first look at such a movie, I have a film that's yet to make it to DVD, despite being a TV staple after its brief 1979 theatrical run. I must have seen it from beginning to end at least 10 times in the 80s, and was always shocked and thrilled by it's inclusion of a brief scene of nudity I AM NOT ALLOWED to enjoy today.

I am, of course, talking about:

Just You and Me, Kid



Bill Grant used to be a famous Vaudeville comedian, but he's an old man now, living his days as a bachelor in a beautiful house filled with mementos from his past. Kate is a troubled 14 year-old girl who attempts to escape her sad foster home existence by stealing $20,000 from a demented drug dealer named Demesta. But before she can run off to Arizona, he finds her and strips her naked in his apartment. She escapes with nothing but a towel, which she loses along the way. She hides away in the back of an old car, and when she's discovered by the old man who owns it, orders him to take him to her place, which he does. Bill has seen too much of the world to be shocked by the situation and treats his new unwanted houseguest with patience and good humour. Kate, on the other hand, is so desperate to get moving that she jumps out a window and sprains her ankle. Bill tends to her injury, tells jokes she doesn't think are funny, and still makes the appointments that define his life. Kate is slow to appreciate his generosity and regards him and his friends with constant suspicion, but eventually she realizes he's someone she's never met before--a good person. Demesta eventually tracks them down, but Bill's quick thinking makes quick work of them. Having formed a unique family, Bill convinces his worried daughter to adopt Kate, while his beloved friend, Max, breaks his silence and returns to the real world.

As a kid I was sucker for anything that was corny and/or sentimental. If it could make me cry (and it was--and still is--very easy to make me cry) then I loved it. Watching Just You and Me, Kid at the age of 8, 9, and 10, I always choked up at the moment when Bill ran into his house thrilled to be able to tell Kate that her advice worked and his friend Max had spoken to him for the first time in years. What moved me wasn't the news itself, but the obvious joy he had in having someone to share it with, and then the painful realization that she was no longer there and possibly out of his life forever.

That shit killed me, then. Turns out, it still kills me now.

There's no doubt this is a flawed movie. Roger Ebert's two-star review gets it mostly right. The film does bungle the part of Demesta, making him truly terrifying in the beginning, only to have him turn into a chickenshit dope at the end. It isn't hard to understand how this happened--there's only so much you can do action-wise when your heroes are a geriatric old man and a 14 year-old girl. The screenwriters wrote themselves into a corner and simply couldn't think of a better way to get out of it.

But I can't begrudge them their error. Even Mr. Ebert admits that the film had to have started out as a great script, since there is so much treasure to be found in its barely-TV-movie-level production values. That said the greatness begins and ends with George Burns, whose performance here--I feel--is actually superior to the one in The Sunshine Boys that won him his Oscar and completely resurrected his moribund career. It's easy to say that Grant is merely a version of himself, but that ignores the wonderful, thrilling joy of it. This is a man who can't help himself from singing aloud as he performs the little chores that keep him feeling active and vital, whose wits have not been the slightest bit dulled with age or lack of an audience, who truly LOVES show business in a way very few people can understand. It's a small, unassuming film whose existence is based only on the amusing juxtaposition of 1979's oldest and youngest superstars, but that doesn't negate the fact that in it, Burns gives one of my all-time favourite performances and creates a character I genuinely and sincerely love.

Perhaps the thing I love the most is how it allows Burns to have fun, be smart, and maintain his dignity. I HATE it when anyone attempts to wring laughs by having seniors behave like children. I don't find it cute or endearing--it's rude, disrespectful, and only made possible by exploiting those whose time in the spotlight has long past its expiration date. Just You and Me, Kid respects its elders and I approve whole-heartedly.

Where I do disagree with Mr. Ebert is in his description of the roteness of Brooke Shields' character, Kate, which suggests that her arc feels manufactured, rather than genuine. To my mind, her fear, suspicion and hostility make perfect sense, given her past. I also like how the script allows her to be canny enough to have genuine insight into her situation--allowing her to at one point accuse Bill of keeping her in the house because he needs an audience. It's presented as a throwaway moment, an accusation made in a peak of frustration, but it indicates that her character actually does pay attention and understand the world around her.

I was initially concerned that the film would sexualize Shields, as Pretty Baby had a year earlier and The Blue Lagoon would a year later. This seemed confirmed when she loses her towel and is shown running--naked from the back--down some stairs. To a present-day viewer the moment seems gratuitous and gross, but I remember that back in the 80s it wasn't even edited out of the TV version. Times have changed. Luckily, though, the script quickly realizes that Kate is a child and allows her to be treated as such--with only a few "she's a pretty girl" comments from some characters to remind us that Shields is playing the part.

I also appreciated how the script even allowed the film's non-drug-dealing villain--Bill's daughter--a moment of sympathy, giving her a chance to suggest ways in which her beloved father might not have always been a great dad. Her short speech gives the film the added depth of allowing us to understand that as happy as Bill appears, his life has been far from perfect. I was especially moved by her suggestion of an attempted comeback that was met with utter indifference. What's sadder than someone who needs to perform who can no longer find an audience?

So that's why, for all its flaws and flimsiness, my revisiting this classic film from my youth wasn't an experience in torture or self-recrimination. No one else may consider it a great movie, but I do--and it's these kind of personally fulfilling movies that matter more than most.

B-MOVIE BULLSH*T - Part Fourteen "The (Ape) Butler Did It"

B-Movie Bullsh*t

Part Fourteen




Jane Chase, a young American woman going to school in England, convinces anthropology professor Dr. Steven Phillip to take her on as his assistant. When she arrives at his country estate, she finds that it is inhabited by three primates. They include an aging female chimp named Voodoo, a young male chimp named Imp, and an old performing orangutan named Link, who dresses in a butler’s outfit, enjoys lighting his own cigars, and is clearly taken in by the new beautiful blonde in his midst. Unbeknownst to Jane, Dr. Phillip is planning on having Link put down, but the intelligent primate figures this out and decides to take some pre-emptive action. He kills the professor and contrives to keep Jane to himself by disconnecting the phone and pushing their only car off a cliff. Unable to get to town by foot because of the local packs of feral dogs, Jane is forced to confront Link as his behaviour grows more and more uncivilized.

Every fan of “bad” movies will eventually have the experience I had when I sat down to watch Link just a few hours ago. I’ve had it more times than I can count, so I should be used to it, but it still surprises me every single time. What I’m talking about is the shock that comes from finding out that the supposedly terrible film you are watching is actually nowhere near as awful as its supposed to be. In this case, Link is pretty damn good if you ignore one obvious, but not fatal flaw.

Ever since I read Leonard Maltin’s “Bomb” rating in his book of capsule reviews years ago I assumed the worst about Link—an assumption that wasn’t dissuaded by the subsequent reviews I read from genre critics who should have been much more open to the material than the notoriously horror-adverse Maltin.

How then to explain the disconnect between the terrible film they reviewed and the enjoyable film I’ve just seen? I think it comes down to one significant factor—Elisabeth Shue.

I say this because Shue is one of those actresses whose appeal does not seem to cross over generational divides. To Baby Boomers no Oscar nomination will ever eclipse the fact that she shall always be the young frivolous blond cipher who starred in Adventures in Babysitting, while to folks my age (Generation X represent!) no Oscar nomination will ever eclipse the fact that she shall always be the hot, gorgeous awesome blond who made us feel funny in our pants when she starred in Adventures in Babysitting.

Link pre-dates her most famous starring role, but my inherent affection for her allowed me to sympathize with her character to a far larger degree than L.A. Morse, for example, who suggested in a short review from his classic Video Trash & Treasures that her performance is easily outshined by that of her orangutan co-star. (In the same review Morse also accuses the film of mistakenly referring to Link as being a chimp, but if any such reference in the film actually occurs, I missed it).

Morse also accuses the film of merely replicating the standard hot-girl-threatened-by-a-maniac premise rather than transcending it, which is another explanation why I enjoyed the film far more than its past critics. I’m perfectly happy watching the ritual of horror clichés followed with religious fervor, so long as the results are entertaining.

Another major factor for my appreciation of Link is one I touched upon in my review of Sssssss from a few weeks ago. Horror movies about animals are only ever as creepy as our own personal distaste for the animals they feature allow. In my case, I am genuinely unnerved by primates. Whenever I see one in a scene with a human actor I feel genuine tension, not because of what is happening onscreen, but because I know that if that “adorable” animal suddenly wanted to, it could seriously injure it’s co-stars in a matter of seconds. This terrifying reality is perfectly expressed in an anecdote the professor shares with Jane during dinner:

Part of Link‘s overall theme is how easy it is to forget how truly unpredictable and fiercely dangerous primates are, simply because of how much they remind us of ourselves. But once you know the truth—like the fact that their adorable “smiles” are actually fear grimaces whose bared teeth are meant to frighten you away rather than indicate you should go in for a hug—its hard to see the cuteness. (I especially love the film’s ending, in which Jane and her injured boyfriend drive away from the burned out husk of an estate and drive by baby chimp, Imp, along the way. Jane’s boyfriend understandably doesn’t want the animal anywhere near him after what he’s just been though, but Jane insists that, “He’s just a baby,” and therefore completely safe. Her delusion is made evident as the camera films the car driving away and reveals a field filled with freshly slaughtered sheep.)

Link worked as well as it did for me because its whole premise is built upon upending the likes of Every Which Way But Loose and Going Ape! or any other film based on presenting apes as just another pet. It helps that it was directed by Richard Franklin, the late Australian Hitchcock acolyte who previously collaborated with screenwriter Everett De Roche on the Ozploitation classics Patrick and Road Games. Watching the film today, much of the fun comes from Franklin’s inventive camera moves and clever shots, which do make you think about what his mentor might have done with similarly loopy material. (It's probably not a coincidence that my favourite scene in the film is the one where Link creeps Jane out by taking off his suit and staring at her while she attempts to have a bath--its overtly sexual overtones are so perverse its clear Hitchcock would have loved it.)

That said, there is a major aspect of Link that does keep it from being better than it is, and that’s Jerry Goldsmith’s terrible score. While it makes sense to play on the comic cuteness of the apes early on in the picture, Goldsmith refuses to drop the comic motif once the cuteness is revealed to be a façade. Rather than give us the kind of classic horror score these scenes deserve, he instead gives us something better suited for the likes of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice or a comic mystery like Jonathan Lynn’s Clue. Were I not more invested in the film, I could easily see myself being taken out of it for this reason.

I suspect I might be overselling the film, since mine is so clearly the minority view, but Link is nowhere near the disaster its reputation suggests it is. Replace the orangutan with a human assailant and I believe it would still make for an entertaining 100 minutes. The fact that it’s got an ape in a butler suit instead just makes it that much better.