Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dirty Old New York aka Fun City, Part V

This is the conclusion of the Dirty Old New York Subway / aka Fun City series that I started working on nearly two years ago.  I think I've got the obsession--at least in this format--out of my system.

Barbara Streisand ventures out to Fun City in Irvin Kershner's Up the Sandbox.

The video begins with a Rocky-style recap of the previous segments, with new footage inserted to represent some of the motifs explored in the earlier videos.  The effectiveness of this recap is dependent on viewers having seen and remembered Parts I - IV.

In this latest edition, viewers will note my continued pre-occupation with now-obsolete, antiquated, and/or analog technologies--tube televisions (and static), vinyl records and turntables, 3/4" video cassettes, top loading VCRs, etc.

There is some nudity in Part V so it may be NSFW depending on where you work.

Master playlist from Subway thru Fun City I, II, III, IV, & V

A Fine Madness
Aaron Loves Angela
Across 110th Street
After Hours
All That Jazz
American Pop
An Unmarried Woman
The Angel Levine
Author! Author!
Bad Timing
Badge 373
Basket Case
Beat Street
Blank Generation
Born to Win
The Boys in the Band
The Brother From Another Planet
Bye Bye Braverman
Bye Bye Monkey
Contract on Cherry Street
Coogan’s Bluff
Cops and Robbers
Cotton Comes to Harlem
Crazy Joe
David Holzman’s Diary
Death Wish
Desperate Characters
Devil’s Express
Dog Day Afternoon
The Dogs of War
Downtown ‘81
Dressed to Kill
The Driller Killer
The Education of Sonny Carson
Emanuelle Around the World
Emanuelle in America
Exorcist II: The Heretic
The Exorcist
The Exterminator
Eyes of Laura Mars
The Fan
Fear City
The First Deadly Sin
Fort Apache The Bronx
The French Connection
Fritz the Cat
From Corleone to Brooklyn
The Gambler
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
God Told Me To
Going in Style
The Goodbye Girl
Hanky Panky
Harry and Tonto
Heavy Metal
Heavy Traffic
Hell Up in Harlem
Hey Good Lookin’
Hi Mom!
The Hot Rock
The Hunger
I, the Jury
The Incident
John and Mary
King Kong
The King of Comedy
King of the Gypsies
Kiss Me Goodbye
Kramer vs. Kramer
The Landlord
The Last Detail
The Last Horror Film
Law and Disorder
Liquid Sky
Little Murders
Marathon Man
Massage Parlor Murders
Mean Streets
Midnight Cowboy
Ms. 45
New Order's "Confusion" video
New York Ripper
Night Shift
The Odd Couple
One Trick Pony
Oriental Blue
The Panic in Needle Park
The Possession of Joel Delaney
Prince of the City
Putney Swope
Q: The Winged Serpent
Report to the Commissioner
Rich Kids
Rosemary’s Baby
Saturday Night Fever
The Sentinel
The Seven-Ups
So Fine
Staying Alive
The Stone Killer
The Super Cops
Superman II
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3
Taking Off
Taxi Driver
The Telephone Book
They All Laughed
Three Days of the Condor
Three the Hard Way
Times Square
To Find a Man
Up the Down Staircase
Up the Sandbox
The Wanderers
The Warriors
Where's Poppa
Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
Who’s That Knocking at My Door? 
Wild Style
Willie and Phil
Winter Kills
You’re a Big Boy Now

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Road Movie (1974, Joseph Strick)

Joseph Strick's Road Movie turns 40 this year, but you're less likely to hear about that than you are some of the others from the Class of '74 such as Chinatown or The Godfather Part II.  But, make no mistake about it: Strick's film is an American New Wave classic, albeit of the "lost" variety.  This is another of those scaled to actual life-size, downbeat, down and dirty, impolite, depressing, sad, and "sad funny" pictures--with a gut punch of an ending--that you've come to expect from the early to mid-'70s.  It's that era that continues to be a gift that keeps on giving, this time offering up Road Movie to me, seemingly out of the blue, to be discovered all these years later.  It's amazing to me that I didn't know about this film until about a month ago.  I've long been fascinated with truckers and their milieu, and, as such, I've tried to see most films set in that environment.  If you read this blog with any regularity, then you know that I'm obsessively drawn to the small, little-remembered films from the late '60s to the early '80s.  

Road Movie was one of the few films produced and distributed by New York-based Grove Press, much better known for its groundbreaking history in book publishing, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961, later adapted by Joseph Strick for his 1970 film version.

Strick's film apparently lasted only a week at the Plaza Theatre on 58th and Madison.  Canby was also taken with Baff's performance and the Columbia University critic also had mostly good things to say about the film, particularly in comparison to Zardoz, which it was up against that week.

Yet, even given all that, I was completely unaware of Road Movie until I saw Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?  What's the connection?  It's a "who": Regina Baff.  "Who?"  I didn't know who she was, either, until I saw her in the earlier film opposite Dustin Hoffman.  I thought her scenes were probably the best in a deeply flawed film, better than those of the Oscar-nominated Barbara Harris.  When I looked her up, I found a short filmography that pretty much ended over thirty years ago.  She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1974, but left acting for a career in psychology in the 1980s.  Which is just as well because if '70s cinema was, in large part, about unconventional-looking people--i.e. "character people," i.e. Regina Baff--becoming leading players and stars, the '80s...wasn't.  So, Regina Baff vanished from the public life of a movie actress, but not before she left an indelible mark as Janice, a truck stop prostitute, who makes a mess of the lives of the two independent truckers--Robert Drivas and Barry Bostwick--who pick her up at the start of the film.  

Bostwick and Drivas, as the independents who will come to regret adding an extra passenger at the Arena Diner in South Kearny.  Drivas' primary impact was on the stage, but film audiences will remember him from Cool Hand Luke and The Illustrated Man.  He died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1986.  Bostwick originated the role of Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway in 1972, made The Rocky Horror Picture Show a year after Road Movie, made dozens of tv appearances, and starred in Megaforce.
Director Strick spent time as a long haul trucker as a young man and this unique experience gives the film an authenticity and authority that it surely would not have had, had he been a complete outsider. Still, even with that on his resume, Strick took the then-progressive step of hiring a young female writer, Judith Rascoe, to write the script; she was teaching writing at Yale and had no film credits at the time.  Perhaps I make too much of it, but in the heavily masculine world of trucking, and given the trucker film's history as fodder for "exploitation" or grindhouse pictures, a woman writing the screenplay for such a film seems an unconventional and commendable thing.  No doubt, Rascoe provided a needed counterbalance and perspective to a scenario that could otherwise become, or be accused of being, misogynistic.  

Truck stop hooker Janice makes her entrance.  I recognized this spot from my many times driving on Routes 1 & 9 in NJ over the years.  I don't think this diner's been open for business for a long time.   Diner staff look on, entertained by the workers showing their wares in the parking lot.
The opening sequence is pretty remarkable to me for its use of montage--lots of impressive footage of truckers doing what they do on the road--and appropriate use of song (by Joan Armatrading, I think), with bluesy, squealing horns standing in for the undoubtedly loud argument between Baff and the john who throws her out of his car at the start of the film.

Heart of gold or road poison?  Treat her right and she'll do right by you.  Break one of her arms and she'll break both of yours.  
Regina Baff.  A face you won't forget.  She is up to the challenge of playing all the complexities of this role: from "real tough chick" to sad, pitiable creature to vengeful maniac, and everything in between.  She's been on the road so long, she's got no more "neutral," only 1st gear and overdrive.
I don't want to say too much more about the film, so as to avoid spoilers, except that I admire its portrayal of the ugliness and decrepitude of middle American backroads and highways, while resisting the urge to make something beautiful out of this ugliness. It also can't be ignored that Road Movie came decades before the ruins photography movement really took hold, aka "ruin porn," the now-cliche movement to photograph urban and rural decay and blight.  I think of Road Movie as one of those films, books, or LPs that many subsequent filmmakers, writers, or musicians owe a debt to without realizing it.

Some proto-ruin porn.
The movie is surprisingly available on DVD and has been for well over a decade.  It's a non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation, which, unfortunately, does not fully do justice to longtime documentary d.p. Don Lenzer's appropriately gritty cinematography.  It is one of those "best available source" deals, in this case being an actual release print, complete with the expected scratches, dirt, and occasional missing frames or soundtrack hiccups.  The score is by veteran British composer Stanley Myers, whose music for Douglas Hickox's Sitting Target is one of my most prized and loved soundtrack LPs; his music is here is alternately bluesy, jazzy, haunting, and spare, performed by an impressive line-up of English session players.

Other memorable faces to look out for in Road Movie include Barton Heyman, David Bauer, Martin Kove (who later acted in another trucker classic: White Line Fever), and a very, very young Joe Pantoliano.

The film is a good companion piece to Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy, published a year later.
Not unlike the effect used for the Rain People one-sheet.
So, if you're looking for the truly unsung, prototypical "'70s movie" (or, "road movie," take your pick) which almost nobody ever mentions or even knows...Road Movie is your man movie.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trailer on the MOD DVD: Boulevard Nights (1979, Michael Pressman)

Michael Pressman's Boulevard Nights gets lost in the 1979 gang movie shuffle that also includes The Warriors, The Wanderers, Over the Edge, and Walk Proud, but it's an effective and sobering drama which is worthy of reconsideration.  It was initially lambasted by critics and special interest groups in the wake of violence in theaters where it and The Warriors screened.  The film was criticized for being a routine drama that resorted to Mexican-American stereotypes.  In the years since, it's become a cult film in the Latino community, particularly for its portrayal of lowrider culture, and while the narrative is not exactly fresh or all that surprising, the good performances, particularly lead Richard Yniguez, and period, cultural details make it better than it might sound on paper.  The relationship drama between Yniguez, his longtime girlfriend Marta DuBois, and his troubled younger brother Danny De La Paz, is predictable for the most part...the difference is, at least in 1979, we still hadn't seen too many, if any, versions of this story with Latinos in the lead roles.  

I'd have liked to see the filmmakers concentrate more on the relationship of Yniguez and DuBois, but I suspect that the studio and moneymen pushed the gang content and requisite revenge plot. Yniguez plays the part of a former gang member turned hard-working auto mechanic.  His girlfriend works an office job in a white collar environment and wants Yniguez to follow suit, but part of him still wants to be king of the Boulevard, showing off his souped-up wheels and taking part in lowrider car-hopping contests.  His younger brother is constantly in trouble and getting more deeply involved in the neighborhood gang, VGV.  It is a not so thinly veiled Latino variation on Saturday Night Fever, with the Boulevard, of course, taking the place of the 2001 Odyssey, and the car-hopping reminiscent of Manero's dance contests or the mechanical bull at Gilley's.  Yniguez and DuBois play well off each other and are an attractive couple and I was more interested in the possibilities of the drama surrounding their relationship, rather than Yniguez' futile efforts to get his younger brother out of the gang.  

Here's a good interview with Yniguez, who, unfortunately, did not get many opportunities outside of Latino-specific roles.  He can also be seen in the lead role in the 1976 telefilm, The Deadly Tower, also available from the WA.

The above trailer is quite effective, mixing evocative still frames with a propulsive Latin beat courtesy of maestro Lalo Schifrin, and good, dramatic voiceover from a Latin-American-accented v.o. artist. This trailer is available on the DVD-R from Warner Archive, which features a film-like, unrestored 16X9 transfer complete with original Saul Bass red and black WB logo.

The film was lensed by top-notch cinematographer John Bailey, who was fresh off of operating camera on Days of Heaven, and who would move onto a decidedly more upscale end of town with his next film, Paul Schrader's American Gigolo.  Check out Bailey's blog on the ASC website.

The "VGV" graffiti scrawled on this Warriors display in Gigolo is an inside joke seemingly perpetrated by d.p. John Bailey.  It is the graffiti tag of Danny De La Paz's gang in Boulevard Nights.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Independence Day (1983, Robert Mandel)

Robert Mandel's Independence Day is a film that probably would have remained off of my personal grid for awhile longer had I not been so won over by its lead actor in another film I just watched.  It's pretty hard to keep one's eyes off of Kathleen Quinlan in Lifeguard...and, this led me to seek out Independence Day, which stars Quinlan, David KeithDianne Wiest, Cliff De Young, Frances Sternhagen, and Josef Sommer.  The narrative focuses on the lives of several of Mercury, Texas' inhabitants through a short but turbulent time period, mixing some conventional drama with endearingly oddball characters and tonal shifts, resulting in a small gem, which should be better known than it is. That its title will mean that it's forever overshadowed by the completely unrelated 1996 blockbuster of the same name is unfortunate.

I was familiar with the film, but had not actively sought it out even though it's the type of piece that fits firmly in my wheelhouse: a little-remembered, early '80s, low-budget American drama with a cast of accomplished character players.

It's never been on DVD, however, and the Warner Archive, unfortunately, reports that there are currently no plans to add it to the collection, something which would help rescue the film from its current obscurity.

As soon as I re-familiarized myself with the basics of Independence Day, I thought it might be included in a couple of my longtime "go-to" cinema books--Produced and Abandoned and Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic.  I was surprised to find that there was no entry in the former, but my instincts were correct about Peary, who lists the film in the back of his book and calls it an "S" (sleeper) and "PR" (personal recommendation).

I first picked those books up when I was in high school and, and aside from my own personal tastes, I must credit them for pointing out so many of the weird, off-the-beaten-path, unfairly neglected works--often those aforementioned dramas--that I've held close to my heart for the past couple of decades.  All of this is to say that Independence Day is similar to a number of my favorite films, but it's passed me by for one reason or another all these years.  I "checked off" most of those Peary Fanatic and Cult Movies titles long ago, so it was satisfying to circle back and experience one of them for the first time now.

Independence Day is set in the small town of Mercury, Texas.  It seems like it comes from a novel or a series of novels that take place in the same town and this makes some sense since screenwriter Alice Hoffman is primarily a novelist; this, though, is a completely original screenplay rather than an adaptation.  Mercury diner waitress Mary Ann (Quinlan) holds onto her dream of attending art school in Los Angeles to study photography, while race car-obsessed Jack (Keith) has just returned to town after failing to stick in an unspecified school or program (it's almost as if his character from An Officer and a Gentleman did not kill himself after quitting officer's training and has instead come home).  They meet cute and begin a courtship whose longterm status will be tested by Mary Ann's aspirations to get out of town and Jack's to stay there and fix and race cars.  The chemistry between the actors and the quirks that Hoffman has written into their characters insures that this relationship rises above standard issue drama.

For Mercury, Mary Ann is unconventional, sexually worldly, and, as a woman, unusually outspoken and comfortable in her own skin.  For anywhere, she is an enormously talented, promising photographer (this is verified by renowned photographer / professor Burt Remsen when he visits her family's home to offer her a scholarship).  And, so I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who finds Jack incredibly lucky when Mary Ann shows interest in him, which is not to say that Hoffman does not also imbue him with appealing and surprising qualities.  He has an innocence and a gallantry about him that is very refreshing. His loyalty to his sister (Wiest) and the tenderness he shows her is quite beautiful.

In fact, what's most interesting about Mary Ann and Jack's dynamic is the way in which Hoffman has reversed the usual gender roles in the relationship: Mary Ann goes after Jack, she is more sexually experienced and more enlightened than Jack, and she won't hesitate to drop Jack if he tries to persuade her to scrap her school plans and stay in Mercury.  She's always got either a stiff drink or one of those long, brown cigarettes in her hand, while Jack drinks only Cokes. Keith and Quinlan are both so good here and I'd have loved to see them get more leading opportunities in feature films.

On the other side of town, we have the film's other primary couple: Jack's sister Nancy (Wiest) and her abusive husband Les (De Young). Mandel and Hoffman deserve credit for depicting this abuse in all its forms and not shying away from some pretty tough material, as do the actors, for playing it honestly and without flinching at the most brutal scenes.  No one can accuse De Young of being unwilling to play unrepentant sons of bitches without any sort of vanity (see: Reckless, F/X, Harry and Tonto, etc.) and Wiest gets my maximum praise for her three-dimensional characterization, which goes beyond stereotypes into some unexpected places.  The less known about this going into the film, the better.  Wiest also has some of the best scenes of the film in her one on one time with both Keith (they actually look like they could be brother and sister) and Quinlan.

Equally good in less expansive roles are Sternhagen and Sommer as Mary Ann's supportive and loving parents.  The film threatens to get a little maudlin, as Sternhagen's character is dying of cancer, but Sternhagen's strong, heartfelt performance in her key scene with Quinlan nullifies that for me.  Same goes for Sommer in his father / daughter moment with Quinlan towards the end of the film.

The late Richard Farnsworth appears in a few scenes as Jack's boss at the garage, but does not have much to do.  Longtime character player and Texan Noble Willingham plays Jack's father and Brooke Alderson, who was well-utilized by James Bridges in Urban Cowboy and Mike's Murder, appears as a fellow waitress in the family diner where Mary Ann works.  D.p. Charles Rosher Jr. doesn't have a huge filmography, but among his credits is recent Obscure One-Sheet favorite The Baby Maker.

Although both Mandel and Hoffman are northerners, this is not a film that portrays the South or southerners in a pejorative or condescending way, at least to my northern eyes.  In addition, the characters and situations are convincingly working-class, something that stands out more and more as the years go on, and working-class characters and scenarios become essentially extinct in major studio films.  Hopefully, this Independence Day will become more accessible sometime soon--Warner Archive, please--and get that second chance that so many other worthy titles have received in the DVD and Blu-ray age.

Director Robert Mandel on set.  Mandel's subsequent film F/X is a much different beast, though it shares with Independence Day excellent, well-drawn performances across the board, including that of Cliff De Young.