(Incidentally, mi hermano has taken up the task again, in a less-stressworthy weekly format. Do check it out.)
Stir Crazy was an enormous hit on its initial release, pulling in $110 million to become the third-most-popular movie of 1980 (behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5). This success can be credited almost wholly to the talents of the two co-leads, who manage to transcend the schematic farcicality of humorist Bruce Jay Friedman’s screenplay and Sidney Poitier’s serviceable but somewhat ramshackle direction until they get trapped in the gears of the plot machinery of the picture’s second half.
For you see, the prison’s corrupt, corpulent warden (Barry Corbin) holds a prison rodeo every year, its profits ostensibly going to the prison population but really – spoiler alert – winding up lining his oversized pockets. And city-boy Skip turns out to be an unexpected natural at bronco-busting (it’s a 1980 film, so of course there’s a mechanical bull in the warden’s office). So, he gets coerced and bullied into becoming the rodeo’s star attraction, which inspires he and Harry to devise a clever escape plan.
And this is where the whole thing deflates. It’s hardly uncommon for a comedy to lose steam in the last act—otherwise classic films like M*A*S*H and Stripes famously failed to stick their respective landings—but the endless, repetitive denouement here strands its stars and squanders their comedic gifts. Still, there’s enough peak-level comic fizz in Stir Crazy’s best moments, and enough goodwill generated by the sadly departed duo at its center, to make up for the fact that it ultimately goes flat.
The 1973 film’s maltreatment at the hands of original distributor British Lion Films is legendary-unto-infamous: chopped up, rearranged, sent out into the world to die a quick death at the bottom of a double-bill. Longstanding rumor has it that the original negative wound up as landfill underneath the M3 motorway; factually apocryphal, perhaps, but metaphorically spot-on.
Even after its resurrection, the result of the tireless detective work and cheerleading of several key members of the production, hurdles continued to be thrown in its path: lifelong enmity between screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy, claims of plagiarism, the absence of a "definitive" cut of the film, and the notoriously misbegotten 2006 remake. Yet The Wicker Man perseveres, with a devoted cult following and a growing reputation as one of the greatest British horror films of all time.
It would be unsporting to give too much of the story away (if you somehow come to TWM unspoiled, so much the better). So, briefly then: the film follows West Highlands policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) as he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle. Once there, what he finds disturbs him. The locals all claim, unconvincingly, not to know the child, or even that she exists.
Even more troubling to devout churchgoer Howie: this isolated community seems to have rejected Christianity altogether in favor of the “old gods” – paganism, in other words. Schoolgirls dance naked around bonfires. Couples, um, couple in the open air. And it seems that Summerisle’s famed apple harvest failed the previous year, and with May Day festivities on the horizon, the old gods are going to need appeasement...
But its flaws are handily compensated for by its virtues. Shaffer’s screenplay is magnificent, combining a love of game-playing reminiscent of his 1970 stage play Sleuth; a wry, almost surrealist sense of wit; and an unusually intelligent take on comparative religion and blind faith embodied in the performances of his two male leads. Christopher Lee considered his role as island patriarch Lord Summerisle the best of his career, and it’s hard to disagree.
It’s Edward Woodward who pulls off the trickiest achievement. His ability to weave in touches of comic haplessness and subtle shades of vulnerability keep the audience on his side right up to his bravura turn in the film’s unforgettable final act. (And it would be remiss of me not to lavish all available praise on the music of the late Paul Giovanni that runs throughout. This film is as much a musical as anything else.)
By the time The Wicker Man fades out on one of the most chillingly beautiful final shots in all of cinema, its signal accomplishment is clear. This is strange cinematic fruit, every bit as unlikely as the apples brought forth from the volcanic soil of its setting, and all the more delicious for it.
In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)
It’s the curious paradox of cinematic satire – take the darkest, most horrific and repugnant subjects, and ramp them up as far as they can go, and in the right hands, it’s exhilarating. The gold standard remains Dr. Strangelove, where the threat of nuclear annihilation was rendered giddily hilarious, even to audiences for whom mutually assured destruction was a very real possibility. Which is just my way of suggesting that while you may be exhausted, nauseated, and crazed from watching our democratic process reduced to a clown car with its brakes cut rolling toward the abyss, you shouldn’t be dissuaded from seeing In The Loop, one of the very few filmic satires of recent vintage worthy of mention alongside the Kubrick classic. In fact, it may be just the catharsis we need.
This won’t be news to anyone familiar with director/co-writer Armando Iannucci’s brilliant series The Thick of It and Veep, both of which In The Loop resembles closely with its jittery, handheld pseudo-documentary camerawork and the participation of certain key cast members (Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison from the former, Anna Chlumsky from the latter). His milieu is not the idealistic, Sorkinesque realm of high-minded wonks dedicated to doing the right thing for the common good. This is a collection of mid-level dysfunctionaries blundering down the corridors of power and trying all the doorknobs.
There are hints of military intervention in the Middle East by the US and the UK; the nature and even the location of said invasion remain unspecified. The only bloodshed comes from the gingivitic gums of one character, the only victim of violence an innocent fax machine. The military is represented by a single, anti-war general (the late James Gandolfini), the government by individuals with unwieldy titles like Minister for International Development and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy and their various aides and assistants. And the path to war is paved with tiny slips of the tongue, petty interpersonal score-settling, and frantically improvised scheming.
So where does the catharsis come in? From some of the most beautifully profane, gloriously mean-spirited dialogue you’re ever likely to come across. With the national discourse now firmly wedged in the gutter and fear and loathing running well into toxic levels, the relentless powerwash of beautifully-constructed obscenity that runs through In The Loop has a surprisingly cleansing effect, making it the perfect film for our terrible times.
Consequently, his films tend to be unfailingly intelligent but grim character studies of tormented souls futilely struggling against seemingly predetermined fates, claustrophobic familial bonds and carnal desires so bent, clogged and frustrated that the only release possible is the catharsis of violence. Why producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Universal Pictures considered him the right man to remake Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 creature feature Cat People remains a mystery, but they may have been onto something. Schrader may not be the first guy you turn to for genre exercises, but then again, from a certain angle, all of his films are horror pictures.
If this all sounds a little ridiculous - well, it is. It doesn't help that, having laid out this premise, Cat People violates its own internal logic repeatedly. Nor that the main supporting cast are mostly functional: Ruby Dee’s there to provide a touch of ill-defined gris-gris, Annette O’Toole to bring non-feline sex appeal, and Ed Begley, Jr. to get his arm ripped out of its damn socket.
The leads fare better, especially Kinski, mesmerizingly projecting a kind of feral innocence that overrides the sillier contortions the screenplay forces her into. This hypnotic aspect extends to the visual schema designed by the great Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Giorgio Moroder's pulsing, minimalist electronics, all in service of Schrader, whose ascetic approach and storied lack of levity wind up serving the material well.
The sanguinary sexuality of eroticized horror turns out to be an unusually powerful delivery system for his pet themes. In fact, by the time you reach the film's climax - one of the tensest, most bizarre sex scenes you’re likely to encounter in American cinema - it's hard to escape the notion that Cat People is one of Schrader's most personal films. And that may be the scariest thing about it.
There are few films whose name alone is synonymous with “disaster” quite like Ishtar. Well before its release, rumors and gossip filled the entertainment press casting aspersions on the profligate excesses of the production, infighting among the stars and director, and lack of creative focus from the top down. A lengthy, allegedly contentious editing process and several release-date delays only added fuel to the fire.
And sure enough, once Ishtar finally reached theaters in the spring of 1987, it was gleefully savaged by the critics and died an ignominious death at the box office, effectively destroying the career of its (female) writer-director, though its (male) co-leads - one of whom, as producer, was responsible for getting it off the ground in the first place - somehow escaped the wreckage basically unscathed. Forever after, to speak the name of Ishtar was to invoke a combination punchline/curse, all that is wasteful, blinkered and out-of-touch inside the Hollywood bubble boiled down to two contemptuous syllables.
If, as is fairly likely, your knowledge of Ishtar consists mainly of some combination of the above, uncomplicated by actually having viewed the work in question, allow me to submit a dissenting opinion. No, it’s not a perfect picture. Yes, its reach exceeds its grasp. And yes, for all her comic brilliance, Elaine May never matched the directorial ease of her ex-partner Mike Nichols.
But, at a three-decade remove, it’s hard to make the case that Ishtar is one of “the worst movies ever made.” (In fact, it’s not the even the worst attempt at combining a modernized take on the Hope/Crosby Road pictures with geopolitical satire from the mid-eighties. Track down a copy of Spies Like Us and get back to me.) For all its flaws, Ishtar deserves consideration as one of the smarter and, yes, funnier artifacts of its era.
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, two middle-aged would-be songwriters as determined as they are untalented. (Most of their brilliantly mediocre repertoire was composed by Paul Williams.) They bumble into a (barely) paying gig in Morocco, but get embroiled almost immediately in a standoff between the CIA-backed government of the (fictitious) titular country (represented by Charles Grodin as an unctuous operative) and a group of leftist insurgents (led by Isabelle Adjani).
The plot is, admittedly, a touch convoluted - a mysterious map, a band of gunrunners and a blind camel all figure into the proceedings somehow - but May’s gift for the cerebrally ridiculous and the central performances carry the day. (Beatty, playing against his public persona as a sexually inexperienced naif, may never have been funnier.) Far from the cinematic catastrophe of legend, Ishtar deserves a clear-eyed viewing to belatedly honor one of the more unique sensibilities to slip, however briefly, through the studio gates.