The Car (1977, Elliot Silverstein)

Sitting and watching The Car in 2006, it was amusing to know what Universal studio executives were saying about the film some thirty years ago… “It’s like Jaws, but with a car.” At first, I thought the movie was some kind of Duel remake, but then the Jaws comparisons became obvious, but not obvious in any sort of interesting way, not any sort of amusing way. Instead–in between scenes of the demonic (literally) car–the movie’s filled with some really lame melodrama and some really lame performances. R.G. Armstrong, who I thought was good for some reason, is terrible as a wife-beating husband. The only amusing role he plays in the film is when it turns around and heroizes him. John Marley is laughably bad, Ronny Cox is on the lousy side of mediocre, and lead James Brolin’s most interesting contribution is his unmoving hair helmet. John Rubinstein is good in his one scene and Kathleen Lloyd–who I watched the movie for in the first place–varies in degree, getting quite appealing at some points… usually when she isn’t acting alongside Brolin.

The film’s almost indescribable to those who haven’t seen it and I wonder if it didn’t sustain my interest just as a relic. Universal pictures from the 1970s have some distinct common elements and I kept recognizing them throughout The Car. Not the bad acting or the visually stymied direction from Elliot Silverstein, but the setpieces. Somehow, they were all familiar, like Universal had gotten a formula from The Birds and just kept on using it. The writing is horrendous too, with the aforementioned bad melodrama, but also the stupidity of the film’s situation. I kept waiting for it to get freaky or interesting (like what if someone got in the driver-less, devil car or what if the guy who kept Clark Kenting during the car’s appearances had something to do with it), but it never did. The resolution, which looks like it was filmed on someone’s front lawn in parts, is ludicrous. It’s unbelievable it passed studio muster, though the film might have just been a B-picture, though I always thought Brolin was actually a movie star in the late 1970s. I’m most upset about Kathleen Lloyd, who’s only been in a handful of movies and one of them had to be this piece of–somehow perplexing enough to be watchable–crap.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Elliot Silverstein; written by Lane Slate, Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, from a story by Butler and Shyrack; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by Michael McCroskey; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Silverstein and Marvin Birdt; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Brolin (Wade Parent), Kathleen Lloyd (Lauren), John Marley (Everett), R.G. Armstrong (Amos), John Rubinstein (John Morris) and Ronny Cox (Luke).


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This is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)

To be fair, I haven’t seen Spinal Tap in fifteen years, so when I say I remember it being funnier… well, I’m sure I used to think Caddyshack was funnier too. Funny even.

Spinal Tap achieved, in the late 1990s, a mythic reputation among film and DVD geeks for a couple reasons. First, I suppose, was Waiting for Guffman. Second, and more specific, was the Criterion Collection DVD release, which became rare as many of those early Criterion DVDs became rare. I didn’t have the Criterion–though, at one point, I think I might have had a copy of the in-character audio commentary–and I never watched it during this period. Getting around to it now was because the fiancée had never seen it and, like I said, I remembered it being funnier.

The film’s greatest deficit, both acting-wise and creatively, is obviously Rob Reiner. His direction is insipid, which–from the technical angle–could be explained by his character’s lack of talent, but the direction of actors isn’t any good either, so that excuse is out. His acting is something even worse and he weighs down every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, Reiner’s not the only problem. While Spinal Tap is really funny during the first half hour or so, once the film gets itself a narrative, it crumbles. Long, unfunny scenes, meant to tell a story, make the film feel like it’s three hours instead of eighty-two minutes.

Some of the cameos are incredibly successful–Bruno Kirby’s for instance–but others are just too short. Fred Willard needed a few more seconds. Spinal Tap is almost a success, stressing the ‘almost.’ The rest of the fault has to fall on the band focus. Christopher Guest is the best, but doesn’t get as much screen-time as Michael McKean, who is the worst. June Chadwick, as McKean’s girlfriend, is boring and predictable (both her performance and the character). Harry Shearer isn’t in the film anywhere near enough and it never feels like he has a relationship with the other band members.

In short, it works as a joke, not a movie.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; director of photography, Peter Smokler; edited by Robert Leighton, Kent Beyda and Kim Secrist; music and lyrics by Guest, McKean, Shearer and Reiner; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Rob Reiner (Marty DiBerti), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (Ian Faith), Bruno Kirby (Tommy Pischedda) and June Chadwick (Jeanine Pettibone).


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Falling Down (1993, Joel Schumacher)

When the film started, I sort of marveled at how absurd it was–Joel Schumacher and Michael Douglas making a subversive movie, then I quickly realized Falling Down isn’t subversive… it’s “controversial.” Obviously, Schumacher doesn’t have a controversial bone in his body–and neither does Douglas–so Falling Down gets repetitive and boring before too long. I suppose one can enjoy watching Douglas only hurt bad people in his “everyman” gone psycho role. Everyman is in quotes because I’m sure they used it in the promotional material for the film.

Douglas is terrible, playing Michael Douglas playing a psycho (a really, really stupid one–my fiancée asked if he was mentally ill, before we started the film and I told her no, but watching it, it’s obvious Douglas’s character has the mental processes of a nine-year old. A dumb one). Schumacher’s direction is also pretty bad, both of his actors and just composition-wise. He has this whole LA in orange smug thing going for Falling Down and it makes the film ugly, not realistic.

There are a handful of good things about Falling Down, however–though certainly not the music. I can’t forget the music. The film is, again, supposed to be mainstream gone indie, pre-Miramax, and James Newton Howard contributes the score to a Predator movie, possibly even lifting some of the themes. It’s laughable.

Anyway, good things about the film. I’d like to say Tuesday Weld, but the script runs her in such a dumb direction, I don’t get to say it. However, Robert Duvall’s fantastic. Wonderful in fact. His part is poorly written, but seeing Duvall act in such a big role is still a treat. Barbara Hershey’s also all right, so is Lois Smith (in the film’s second or third worst role). Frederic Forrest is terrible in his role, easily the film’s worst.

The terrible script was written by Ebbe Roe Smith. I’d actually list his other screenwriting credits to let you know what to avoid, but I’ll just assume anyone would avoid Car 54, Where Are You? on his or her own.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Ebbe Roe Smith; director of photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Arnold Kopelson, Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Douglas (D-Fens), Robert Duvall (Prendergast), Barbara Hershey (Beth), Rachel Ticotin (Sandra), Tuesday Weld (Mrs. Prendergast), Frederic Forrest (Surplus Store Owner), Lois Smith (D-Fens’s Mother), Joey Hope Singer (Adele), Ebbe Roe Smith (Guy on Freeway) and Michael Paul Chan (Mr. Lee).


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A Good Man in Africa (1994, Bruce Beresford)

A Good Man in Africa is about the British practicing a modified form of the age-old British diplomacy in Africa (duh) in modernity. As such, when I saw John Lithgow’s name in the credits, I did not expect him to be playing a Brit. However, Lithgow does play one and he does so quite poorly. Lithgow doesn’t really create a character in Good Man, he just creates a posture. He’s annoying but not really in the film often enough to hurt it. Unfortunately, the film’s made with the same approach. Colin Friels’s philandering, hard-drinking assistant to the diplomat (Lithgow) is not a likable character, certainly not one the audience can identify with. Friels’s performance is likable–and good–but it’s a losing battle. Watching A Good Man in Africa is like watching a long, drawn-out error. It misfires immediately and never recovers, nor makes any attempt to do so.

The film’s based on a novel and the novelist wrote the film. I’m not a fan of such behavior because it usually doesn’t work right. I have no idea if A Good Man in Africa is a good novel, but after seeing the movie, I’ll never know. The film toys with having Friels narrate it, but appears to have inserted that narration as an afterthought. If it were going the whole way through, it might work better. Friels is barely the film’s protagonist, since all of the scenes are about other people.

As for the other people, while Lithgow is easily the worst, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is pretty awful too. The titular Good Man is actually Sean Connery, who gives a better performance than usual, but again, it’s certainly not anything of note. The film’s most underused resource was Diana Rigg and I spent the last act wishing she and Friels would run off together so I’d at least get to see fifteen minutes of good acting and chemistry.

I only watch Good Man because of Friels and knew, given Bruce Beresford directed it, the film would be severely lacking. Maybe that lack of any expectation dulled me to the film’s more obvious deficiencies. Or maybe they were just too dull to care about.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bruce Beresford; screenplay by William Boyd, based on his novel; director of photography, Andrezj Bartkowiak; edited by Jim Clark; music by John du Prez; production designer, Herbert Pinter; produced by John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Colin Friels (Leafy), Sean Connery (Murray), John Lithgow (Fanshawe), Diana Rigg (Chloe Fanshawe), Sarah-Jane Fenton (Priscilla Fanshawe), Louis Gossett Jr. (Adekunle), Maynard Eziashi (Friday) and Joanne Whalley (Celia).


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