Old Reviews, Volume #4
The Exterminator is a low-budget, exploitation-violence movie; however, it’s only low-budget because writer/director James Glickenhaus is a low-budget guy, not because he didn’t have the money. Technically, the film looks very nice with good photography and terrific explosion effects. Thematically, however, the movie’s over in twenty minutes.
The Exterminator’s black friend, whom he fought with in Viet Nam, is mugged by some ghetto punks and is beaten until he’s a vegetable. The Exterminator takes an M-16 rifle and goes to get them. He sticks the gun in the face of the lead punk who says, “But he was only a nigger, man.” The Exterminator replies, “That nigger was my best friend, motherfucker!” then doesn’t blow his head off. Instead, he ties them up, we see a close-up of a rat and the next day we hear a cop say, “Man, half his face was eaten off.” Not only is it cheap and dramatically unsatisfactory, there is now no place further for the film to go. New villains now have to be introduced and it becomes a tedious bore very fast.
None of the action is staged very well, nor is it filmed very well and there are stupid mistakes that no one deserves even in a low-budget, exploitation-violence movie.
We see The Exterminator drill out the heads of his .44 Magnum bullets and fill them with mercury so that they explode (a scene stolen directly from Day of the Jackal), yet only one of the six bullets explode and only when fired at a car. The cop (Christopher George), who goes after The Exterminator, opens a case, loads and assembles a strange, futuristic-looking weapon that he never fires. There’s no reason for things like that.
Had James Glickenhaus been able to write at all, The Exterminator could have been good, violent fun. As it is it’s just an infuriating bore.
Aside from the fact that there is ninety minutes of totally convoluted, exceptionally boring narrative to be waded through, Chuck Norris has to be the least appealing screen personality since Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Norris looks like he has in excess of a hundred teeth that are all fighting to get out of his head. Throughout most of the film he plays stone-face and keeps his mouth shut and looks like a concerted effort on his part to keep his lips together. Chuck Norris may actually be a great Karate and Kung-fu fighter, however on film he is totally flat-footed. Bruce Lee was certainly not much of an actor and seemed to have quite a bit of trouble with his L’s and R’s, but when it came to fighting, he was an artist. He was also steaming with energy. Chuck Norris, on the other hand, looks like he’s always on the verge of passing out.
After watching The Octagon it is easy to see why Bruce Lee’s films never stop playing.
Sam Marlow, Private Eye
AKA The Man With Bogart’s Face
If nothing else, this film can easily boast having the worst theme song of 1980. The song is called The Man With Bogart’s Face, which was the original title of the film, and about all that Robert Sacchi has in common with Humphrey Bogart. He certainly doesn’t have Bogart’s appeal, charisma or screen-presence.
Sam Marlow, Private Eye is quite a bit like Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective, which was also a terrible film, but at least it was a classy production with a lot of big stars. The biggest star in Sam Marlow, Private Eye is George Raft, who obviously so impressed Robert Sacchi that when they’re on screen together Sacchi unconsciously mouths all of Raft’s lines.
It’s bad enough having to watch an unfunny comedy with a story stolen from twenty old films, but watching Robert Sacchi do phony Bogart facial twitches for two hours is very close to repulsive.
There are at least a dozen directors working today that could have made a great horror film out of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. That being the case, there is absolutely no question that Stanley Kubrick could have made an even greater horror film from the novel—but he is the best and that wouldn’t have been any challenge. A filmmaker of Kubrick’s caliber can not go into a project entirely assured of success, that would be pointless and ungratifying. So Kubrick has instead created a film to prove a point; while you are sitting in the theater watching his movie, Stanley Kubrick is God.
Kubrick is the most intense manipulator to ever work in films. For every other director it is almost asking too much to succeed on any single level: to make a comedy funny or a horror film scary is assuredly the most anyone else could ever hope for. Kubrick no longer needs to prove himself and simple objectives of this sort don’t seem to interest him in the least. It is not enough for him to just make us laugh, or just make us scared, or just make us anything. Kubrick now wants to put everyone through a metamorphosis.
Kubrick has begun his mass manipulation before we ever enter the theater. The Shining is based on the best novel by the largest selling horror writer in the world, Stephen King. Kubrick then spends three years shooting the film, just happens to release it in the midst of the biggest rush of horror films that has ever happened and advertises it as “A Masterpiece of Horror.” Combine this with Jack Nicholson starring in it and Kubrick has our expectations running in hyper-drive. The credits of the film begin and it is totally breath-taking aerial photography of a car driving through the Rocky Mountains. There isn’t a single person left who doesn’t believe that they are in for the most horrifying experience of their life. Very slowly, he obliterates these hopes with some insanely boring and redundant dialog scenes that are filmed just like a T.V. show, only the acting isn’t as good. Then there is more fantastically filmed footage and our hopes renew, but he follows that with more poorly delivered, boring dialog and plummets our hopes again. This keeps up for a solid hour, up and down and up and down and when the story finally begins to start moving he has successfully decimated our defenses—and then he really goes wild. He will begin building up a suspenseful scene and when it’s getting tremendously intense he will let it all drop and go to something else, like the most beautiful tracking shot you’ve ever seen in your life that means absolutely nothing to the story, and when that’s over he’ll kick in the suspense again. This goes on for another hour. By this time Jack Nicholson is stark raving mad and chasing his wife and son around with an ax and Kubrick goes overboard. There is absolutely no question that now things must build to a walloping conclusion and once again they don’t.
If you happened to have read the book then you know Kubrick is having extra fun. He will follow Stephen King’s story for a while, and just when you’re sure what’s going to happen next, he’ll have something entirely inexplicable happen. There are explanations for actions that make perfect sense in the book and Kubrick will use the actions, but fail to give the explanations. Even if he’s changing and deleting things, he is still staying at least somewhat close to the same storyline for most of the film — until the end, that is, then Stephen King’s story is thrown away completely. Stanley Kubrick simply used the novel as a foundation for an experiment in manipulative filmmaking. The book The Shining is a great horror story, the film The Shining is the biggest ego-trip in film history. And yet, Stanley Kubrick is the best. Technically, The Shining is beyond compare. The photography and lighting are awe-inspiring, the performances are all terrific (once he lets them get going) and the sets are amazing. If he so desperately wants to show off his filmmaking prowess and play emotional spine-twister for two and a half hours, well hell, I’ll watch, but I certainly think his immense talents could be put to much more gratifying use.
The Empire Strikes Back
George Lucas, writer and director of Star Wars, was able to imbue the film with a childish joy that was infective enough to make it the largest grossing film in history. He honestly seemed to love his material, his characters and all of the special effects. The world whole-heartedly agreed.
Three years after the original release of Star Wars, with about ten other space movies having come out in the interim, George Lucas now presents the second film in the Star Wars Saga, The Empire Strikes Back, which is based on his story (and he served as executive producer) but was neither written nor directed by him. It shows, too.
The Empire Strikes Back isn’t half the fun of Star Wars with twice its budget, the same cast and literally non-stop special effects. It is better than all the films that came between it and the original (with the exception of Alien); however, all of the enchantment is gone.
George Lucas has said that he hired director Irvin Kershner because he is adept at dealing with characters’ relationships (this is something I completely disbelieve having seen quite a few of Kershner’s past films), but that is exactly the problem with The Empire Strikes Back: the characters no longer mean anything. That was one of the truly amazing things about Star Wars: not only were the humans real characters, but so were the droids and the aliens. I cared more about R2-D2 when he went through the valley of the Sand People and was letting out those little electronic moans in the first one then I cared for all of The Empire Strikes Back. The only character that means anything at all in the film is Yoda, the Jedi master, who is constantly preaching about The Force. Quite frankly I liked it a lot better not knowing too much about The Force, it seemed kind of mystical. Admittedly, Yoda is a mystical little hobbit, but everything he preaches is fortune cookie philosophy. Yoda is a neat alien, it’s just too bad he won’t shut his mouth.
The Empire Strikes Back may work infinitely better when it is finally seen in its proper context as the middle of a trilogy. There are more actual “star wars” in Empire than there are in Star Wars and as the middle of a story that makes perfect sense. As a film on its own, however, it’s just a lot of rather dry special effects (albeit beautiful ones) that rapidly inter-cut and never go anywhere.
It is a sad state of affairs when a charismatic young actor like John Travolta, who has recently made two of the biggest money-makers in history and then one stinker, has to make a come back film. It’s sadder still that his come back film is Urban Cowboy.
Travolta has screen presence, there is no denying it; however, Urban Cowboy does next to nothing to exploit it. His character, Bud Davis, is something of an unlikable moron who works in a Houston chemical factory and enjoys riding a mechanical bucking bronco at the local bar. Bud is a fake cowboy, which the mechanical bronco exemplifies, who marries a fake cowgirl (Debra Winger) whom he doesn’t particularly get along with. With just about no more story than that, Urban Cowboy drags on and on for two hours and fifteen minutes leading up to a lousy mechanical bucking bronco contest, which is about as exciting as watching someone play pin-ball.
Beside Travolta, the entire cast is astoundingly drab, particularly Debra Winger and the bad guy, played by Scott Glenn. To quote Dorothy Parker, Winger's and Glenn’s acting abilities run the gamut of emotions from A to B. Director James Bridges (The China Syndrome) and Aaron Latham’s screenplay begin with a concept about saying something about these fake, urban cowboys, but quickly degenerate into the most tired old clichés and incredibly trite plot twists that very, very slowly play themselves out.
The fact that John Travolta turned down Days of Heaven and American Gigolo and took Urban Cowboy is just unbelievable. Aside from the fact that Travolta is a magnetic performer, there is absolutely nothing to recommend this film.
Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy
I actually had some slight hopes that this might be a funny movie before seeing it. The film was directed by Robert Downey who made a film called Putney Swope which, as I recall, was a fairly original and funny movie (it’s been ten years since I’ve seen it, so I’m not entirely sure). Also, even though I gave up reading Mad Magazine in junior high, I was avidly devoted for years (I still have a huge stack of old issues in my closet), and every now and then I’ll still glance at it in the bookstore.
Anyway, Up the Academy is a piece of shit and it’s not even Mad’s kind of humor. Some terrifically bright person obviously surmised, “If National Lampoon can make a movie about school life and gross mega-millions, certainly Mad Magazine can also make a movie about school life and gross mega-millions, right?” This same terrifically bright person must have also thought, “This picture’s aimed at the kids, right? Kids love rock and roll, right? Well let’s put it real loud over every scene, that’s bound to get ‘em in the theaters.”
To borrow a line from Herman Mankiewicz (co-writer of Citizen Kane), if the makers of Up the Academy really wanted to get the people into the theaters all they would have to do is show the film in the streets, that would drive everyone into the theaters.
Raise the Titanic
Why? For the sake of the story we are informed that there is an extremely valuable, mega-powerful mineral called Byzanium, that is apparently stronger than Plutonium, in the cargo hold of the sunken Titanic and that’s why the U.S. government wants to raise it. Pretty flimsy, but narratively it is a reason. But, there is still a more important question: why do we, the general ticket-buying public, want to see the Titanic raised? The makers of this film obviously never even considered that question because there is nothing in this $40-million extravaganza of even fleeting interest.
Since the Titanic is supposed to be deeper than two miles beneath the ocean, when it was raised it could have been chock full of weird, white-eyed denizens of the deep, not to mention the hundreds of corpses of all the people who went down. But alas, in these days of inflation, $40-million will only buy water and dirt. So, why would they trouble themselves with raising the damn thing if it’s nothing but a big can full of mud? They couldn’t have believed that the Byzanium meant anything to anyone because it’s barely mentioned after the first half hour of the film.
It’s not even a matter of why bother to see this movie; why would anyone ever bother to make it?
Dressed to Kill
The story of Dressed to Kill is about 50% Psycho, 20% Carrie and the rest is a potpourri of Hitchcock films enmeshed with writer/director Brian DePalma’s erotic fantasies. To call Dressed to Kill a rip-off is such an understatement that it entirely misses the point. DePalma doesn’t care where the story comes from, it’s just a vehicle for him to display his aboundingly outrageous directorial talents.
Most filmmakers seem to be strictly concerned with the overall effect of a movie, or at least each separate scene. DePalma is only concerned with the effect of each individual shot. This was also a major concern of Alfred Hitchcock (obviously DePalma’s God), but as meticulous as he was, he rarely lost sight of the totality. Brian DePalma no longer seems to care what the parts add up to, his films are momentary visceral experiences that are extremely effective as long as they are being watched. When the movie's over—that’s all there is.
With this in mind, Dressed to Kill is a lot of fun. Quite a few shots are absolutely stunning. Many of these terrific shots actually form some fairly good scenes and never once does any of it become boring.
Nevertheless, when there is so little cohesiveness to a story, as in Dressed to Kill with so many individual parts appearing so complete in themselves, the whole experience ends up being somewhat torturous. Brian DePalma may not follow the standard procedures of story-telling, but he certainly seems to have his own set of guidelines. In one light he may seem like an insane rip-off, whereas in another he is working in a field all by himself.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Special Edition
Since the original release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Steven Spielberg’s career has been slowly plummeting. He produced the film I Wanna Hold Your Hand (written and directed by Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis) which bombed very fast, then directed 1941 (written by Zemeckis and Gale) which cost $30-million and barely played two weeks, then he produced Used Cars (once again written and directed by the talentless team of Zemeckis and Gale) which is assuredly in the top five of the most awful films of 1980.
With the re-release of Close Encounters in its newly edited Special Edition, Spielberg may go back to making some money (at least he ought to). It’s not as though his career is over if he doesn’t (he’s already in production on his next film), but he certainly seems to have lost touch with the public’s taste.
Close Encounters, Special Edition is definitely a better version than the old one, but time has not been kind to this film. With twenty minutes of footage removed and twenty minutes added, the first hour & a half is now much faster and more cohesive. Unfortunately, the ending, with all its super-duper special effects, has almost no impact left, even with a couple of minutes of interior spaceship footage (which looks quite a bit like the exterior of the spaceship).
Steven Spielberg is a very talented director, but, like so many before him, he seems to have lost his bearings in the wake of success. He did improve Close Encounters though, which was already a pretty good film, so there certainly is hope. Now if he’ll just dump Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis he could be heading back in the right direction.