Thursday, August 30, 2007

Greetings Program: A Farewell to the Summer of '82

As the last week of summer wraps up, I’m also wrapping up my tribute to the summer films of ’82 with one of the most high profile releases of that year – Steven Lisberger’s TRON. Promoted to the hilt by Disney, TRON was to be the ultimate summer blockbuster. It featured state-of-the-art special effects, talented actors, and a concept that tapped into the country’s obsession with video games. Incredibly, this sure-fire hit fizzled at the box office (grossing a modest $33 million), but has remained a part of the vocabulary of pop culture, and become a sci-fi classic. Perhaps no other film from that summer better serves as a time capsule for the era, as well as a harbinger of things to come.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was a studio trying to redefine itself for a new generation. In the wake of Star Wars, audiences were rabid for the space operas and fantasy films proliferating at the nation’s multiplexes. Furthermore, moviegoers were looking for entertainment that had a little more bite to it than the traditional films Disney was known for. Perhaps this caused a bit of a panic at Disney, because the studio decided to launch its own campaign to win the hearts and minds of teen/adult audiences. The first salvo came in the Christmas season of 1979, in the form of The Black Hole – the first PG-rated Disney film (a point that caused quite a stir). The movie was a blatant effort to cash in on the success of Star Wars, but in many ways it was far more subversive (featuring a climax that actually showed the film’s villain condemned to a pit of fire). The film’s juxtaposition of cute, Disney humor with very dark subject matter (including a graphic death or two) left audiences confused and cold. The end result was a box office failure.

Not to be deterred, the studio soldiered on with a batch of PG-rated films that continued to target older viewers. These included titles such as The Devil and Max Devlin (a religious comedy a la Oh God!), Condorman (a superhero misfire), and The Watcher in the Woods (an appeal to slasher/horror fans). Each of these proved to be unqualified failures (financially and artistically), and by the early 80’s the studio was reeling. So what did they do? They went completely for broke with a mega-budgeted science-fiction film! To really up the ante, it would even employ state-of-the-art, computer generated effects mixed with live-action. Say what you will about the final product, but you have to admire the gutsy individuals who greenlighted such an ambitious project at a perilous moment for the studio.

In the months leading up to its release, there was an outright media blitz promoting TRON. Perhaps most significant among the marketing tools was the initial TRON arcade game (others would follow) that popped up in malls across the country. Players could do everything from drive tanks and fight computerized spiders, to getting behind the wheel(?) of the film’s popular light cycles. Teen arcade dwellers couldn’t get enough, and poured in the quarters (this writer included). What I remember most about the game, was that had an intriguing cabinet with lots of design elements, and the graphics were outstanding in comparison to its competitors. It was rather difficult, and I stank at it, but it certainly was successful at working me into a frenzy to see the movie! There had been a few other game/movie tie-ins up to that point, but TRON was the one that showed how successful the proposition could be . . . at least on the gaming side. As it turned out, the film itself was a financial disappointment.

I remember vividly going to the local twin cinema on a Saturday evening, amidst the crowds, to see TRON on its opening weekend. Truly, I believe I was as psyched about TRON as I have ever been before or since to see a genre movie. The poster was great, the trailers showed off amazing special effects, and as already pointed out, the game had kept the film in my awareness on a near daily basis! Nevertheless, after seeing the final product I couldn’t help but be a bit under whelmed . . .

The problem with TRON, upon that initial experience, was that it did not conform to the sci-fi epic template that was prominent at that time. Movies like Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, etc., were all about larger-than-life heroes and swashbuckling action. TRON on the other hand, while featuring strong performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner, is a more distanced affair. Sure Bridges’ Flynn is cocky, and Boxleitner’s TRON heroic to a fault, but they lack a certain flair possessed by the heroes in the aforementioned films. Part of this has to do with the writing (which doesn’t develop their characters all that well), but I believe the main problem is that they are overwhelmed by the effects.

When one thinks about a film like Star Wars for example, memory conjures up strong impressions of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, etc. As a young moviegoer, I wanted to be Han Solo! I took part in numerous discussions about the coolness of these characters, and still have fond memories of those films. And while I thought the effects were amazing (still do), it was the characters that made the films special. That being said, I never found myself daydreaming about being Flynn or TRON. They just didn’t make much of an impression. So, while I was awed by TRON’s images, it failed to connect on an emotional level.

This brings me to my primary point about the film, and perhaps highlights the most important role it would play. TRON, to my knowledge, was the first film to use computer generated images in any significant way. Indeed the film was about computers, so it makes sense that it would highlight effects created by computers. However, because the actors were working primarily on non-descript sets, with no scenery to react to, it could be argued that their performances suffered. In all fairness, it must be pretty difficult to convey the thrill of piloting a light cycle when you’re just sitting on a cardboard box! Furthermore, because of the perfectly clean nature of the effects, they come off looking . . . false. Sure they’re really pretty, but one never feels it’s a “real” world. All of these elements combine to make TRON a visually interesting experience, but one without much depth . . . a problem even more glaring in a summer with thoughtful genre films such as Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, The Thing, etc.

Flash forward to the present, and audiences are now bombarded with blockbusters that feature predominantly computer generated effects. It is all too rare that Hollywood genre pictures utilize old school models and rubber creature effects that gave earlier films such a “realistic” feeling. When watching horror/sci-fi films of the 70’s and 80’s, there’s much more of a connection to the proceedings because viewers know that everything on-screen took place in the real world (albeit through visual trickery). Even when effects appear fake, there’s still something about their tangible nature that makes them more successful. If nothing else, the actors have something to play against, and therefore are more likely to give “natural” performances. One need only look at films like The Phantom Menace to see how acting can be compromised, and characters sidelined, in favor of making things “look pretty.” While I can still appreciate the artistry of these endeavors, they don’t make for films I’m likely to care about a year from now.

So, in the final analysis, what does this mean for TRON? For myself, I’ve come to appreciate the film quite a bit over the years. There’s still an emotional connection missing, but I do enjoy the nostalgia it evokes (mostly the experience of playing the various video games). Additionally, I always love villainous performances from David Warner (and his Sark is great), and there are some exciting moments in the film to be sure (e.g. the light cycles). But TRON had the benefit of being the first out of the gate, making it somewhat special. In the current climate, it would enjoy no such advantage and would likely become lost among the glut of CGI blockbusters. Perhaps my feelings about the film are best expressed by the experience I had the evening I saw it. When we returned home from the theater, there was a sci-fi double-feature on cable of Alien and Outland. I sat up late watching both, and by the end TRON (for the most part) was a fading memory . . .

Friday, August 24, 2007

Smokey is the Bandit?

As I mentioned in my earlier post about Hal Needham’s 1982 cult classic Megaforce, film fans tend to forget that Smokey and the Bandit was the #2 box office champ behind Star Wars in the year 1977. In many ways it was just as influential on the popular culture of the time as was George Lucas’s monster hit. It prompted significant attention to CB radio culture (which would be featured in many other movies to follow), inspired successful television programs (e.g. Dukes of Hazzard), launched musical hits (e.g. Jerry Reed’s East Bound and Down), and of course made the Pontiac Trans-Am a very hot item. Consequently, it was no surprise that Hollywood tried to exploit the franchise for all it was worth. Smokey and the Bandit II followed in 1980 and was an adequate second outing, if not anything special (despite the presence of Dom Deluise and an elephant). However, by the time 1983 rolled around, pop culture had moved on to interests other than these good ol’ boy car chase films, and Smokey and the Bandit 3 would not be welcomed with open arms.

While it would be easy for me to write about the popularity and importance of the first two films, personally I have always found the third one to be the most fascinating. This is not because it is some misunderstood/lost classic, but due to the fact that it is one of THE legendary Hollywood disasters. You know others that belong to this list: Xanadu, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Howard the Duck, Town & Country, Theodore Rex, and even . . . Can’t Stop the Music (forgive me)! These are films that have become synonymous with large scale failure and folly, and therefore are interesting to analyze in terms of where the train left the tracks (although for some it started at the idea level).

With regard to Bandit 3, there’s nothing mysterious about how this project was initiated. Clearly a winning formula had been established, and continuing to capitalize on the tent pole property was a no-brainer. The only problem was that this time around neither Needham or Reynolds were interested in participating (they were busy working on another misguided effort called Stroker Ace . . . which was still probably better than Bandit 3). With dollar signs in their eyes, the studio execs soldiered on despite the loss of their director and star. They somehow managed to lure Jackie Gleason back, most likely because he would finally become the star of the show. Hence the infamous working title, Smokey is the Bandit!

The film was shot with another standard plot of the Enos Brothers betting the hero he couldn’t successfully accomplish some outrageous task (in this case transporting a model shark from Texas to Miami for a restaurant opening). Only this time, they make the bet with Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason), the nemesis of The Bandit. As such, Smokey and The Bandit are one and the same. This development proved confusing to test audiences, prompting the filmmakers to make a drastic change to the film. In an effort to make the plot more palatable/familiar, The Bandit was reinstated in the form of Cledus (Jerry Reed), the sidekick from the first two films. The imaginative authors of the screenplay attributed this to the fact that the real Bandit was unavailable for the mission. Indeed, Reed dons The Bandit’s signature outfit, complete with fake mustache, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Reed shot his scenes after the film was in the can, and they had to be cut into the existing footage. Not a recipe for success! The end result is a disjointed mess, which must be seen to be believed. And as for Reed . . . well let’s just say he makes a great Cledus.

Needless to say given its problems, the film was an absolute bomb. It grossed well under $6 million at the box office (Smokey and the Bandit II grossed about $70 million), and killed the series (not to mention some acting careers). Reynolds probably had a good laugh about the whole thing, since he appeared for a fleeting (although expensive) cameo ¾ of the way through the film. Of course, the box office returns and effects of Stroker Ace would not see him laughing for long. Although the series had certainly outlived its welcome, it was still a shame to see it go out on such a low note. Leave it to Hollywood to make a sequel so abysmal it actually manages to tarnish the good entries that came before!

Normally, Rob and I would save a film like Bandit 3 for our all-night Schlock-O-Thon, but the opportunity to screen the trilogy was just too tempting. You might think having given such a harsh review to the third entry that there would be nothing to recommend it – nothing could be further from the truth. This isn’t your garden variety bad movie we’re talking about here, this is the stuff of legend! Smokey and the Bandit 3 is outrageous in its awfulness to the point that it induces one’s jaw to drop lower and lower with each passing moment. Witnessing it after seeing the earlier films will provide a rare opportunity to truly appreciate the shocking velocity of the series’ precipitous drop in quality. Actually I don’t even feel comfortable using the word quality in any context when talking about Bandit 3 : )

Nevertheless, don’t let any of my detractions discourage you from experiencing the joyous wonder of what is truly one of the worst films (especially from a respected series) ever made!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fantasmo Episode 29: Smokey and the Bandit Trilogy

It was a while in the making, but Rob and I have finally settled on our theme for the September edition of Fantasmo . . . and I dare say it will be one of our most memorable! Initially, we had planned to do a straight Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds night with Smokey and the Bandit/The Cannonball Run. We later discovered that the latter would not be an option due to technical issues, so we pondered the possibilities for an acceptable substitute. Little did we know a masterstroke was soon to be achieved!

What one has to understand about the Needham/Reynolds films is that they represent near perfect drive-in entertainment (which is where they found their greatest success). The films, not to mention the director and star, are all about spectacle and a devil may care sense of humor. Reynolds is all attitude, and Needham delivers the stunts on a grand scale. You couldn’t ask for more . . . and why would you?

Given the drive-in roots of these films, we thought it would be neat to employ an old drive-in marketing ploy by playing an entire series of films – in this case the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy! While we have no hard evidence to support this assertion, we believe this may very well be the first time all three have been screened in succession in a public library (certainly) . . . or elsewhere (probably)! The main reason being that no one in their right mind could make it through the first two, and then withstand the mind-numbing horror of the third entry – Smokey and the Bandit 3: Smokey is the Bandit! However, having observed the fact that you, our loyal Superfans, made it through Gymkata and The Apple with flying colors, we know you’ll join us in achieving what may be a record-breaking feat! (Note: I never miss an opportunity to reference Gymkata : )

So, here’s your Episode 29 lineup:

8:00 P.M. – Smokey and the Bandit (1977) – Rated PG

10:00 P.M. – Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) – Rated PG

12:00 A.M. – Smokey and the Bandit 3 (1983) – Rated PG

So there you have it, another perfect evening of cult movie bliss! I will be blogging on the finer points of Smokey and the Bandit 3 in the next week, but suffice it to say that you absolutely must make it through the third film. Trust me, it is an experience like no other : )

The race is on Saturday, September 15, Chesapeake Central Library, at 8:00 p.m. As an added bonus, free Bandit mustaches will be supplied to the first 50 people through the door! See you there!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Deeds Not Words?

Time for another installment in my tribute to the summer films of 1982! With our upcoming September Fantasmo dedicated to the films of Hal Needham (more info coming soon), I thought it a good time to highlight the film that marked the beginning of the end of his directing career – Megaforce. In a summer that was filled to the brim with classic films, Megaforce was the odd man out . . . an indefensible turkey! Still, I must confess upfront that Megaforce holds a special place in my heart . . .

Given that the only individuals likely to remember Megaforce are those who grew up in the early 80’s, a brief synopsis is probably necessary. In a nutshell, super soldier Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick) leads a top secret, international military team known as Megaforce against worldwide threats to peace. When Ace’s former ally Guerera (Henry Silva) decides to invade a country with his crew of mercenaries, Ace/Megaforce spring into action to put an end to his diabolical plans. Mayhem ensues.

That’s a pretty generic plotline, and in most cases would not make for a very interesting film. Certainly to pit such a film against the likes of Blade Runner, The Thing, Star Trek 2, etc., seems ill-advised (and indeed it was). However, Megaforce defies all odds and is undeniably memorable not for its story, but for its awe-inspiringly horrid execution. Director Needham manages to fill every frame of the picture with tired action clich├ęs, ridiculous dialogue, inappropriate wardrobe, and some of the worst special effects to grace the silver screen. How could such a film be unleashed in the competitive summer season on an unsuspecting public? Deeds not words baby!

Up until Megaforce, Hal Needham (formerly a Hollywood stuntman) had managed to helm a string of highly successful action pictures (several featuring Burt Reynolds) including: Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Villain, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Cannonball Run. In fact, most folks tend to forget that Smokey and the Bandit was the second-highest grossing film of 1977 (right behind Star Wars)! As a result of this success, Needham had generated a good deal of respect from the studios (if not from the critics). With this in mind, putting him in charge of a big summer action movie such as Megaforce was not an unreasonable course of action. Unfortunately, Needham’s luck was about to run out . . . big time.

In and of itself, the plot of the film is standard Needham. Have hero . . . have villain . . . have lots of vehicle stunts and explosions . . . roll credits. Where things go horribly awry begins with the casting. Burt Reynolds was busy making The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, so Needham had to find a new leading man. So who does he choose? Barry Bostwick?!? Not to take anything away from Mr. Bostwick, but he doesn’t exactly scream action hero (except in the comical sense he portrayed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). To make matters worse, Needham outfitted him in a bleach blond hairdo, baby blue headband, and a tight-fitting spandex jumpsuit (standard issue to all members of Megaforce). I don’t know what image you conjure when thinking of the leader of an elite military unit, but that certainly isn't what I'd have in mind. The cast is then rounded out by a team of B-list ne’er do wells including: Michael Beck (Xanadu), Persis Khambatta (Warrior of the Lost World), Edwin Mulhare (Knight Rider), and Henry Silva (Alligator). To be fair, I love all those actors, but their presence does not bode well for creating a summer blockbuster.

Next on the list of problems is the script. Even for the director of The Cannonball Run this is some truly amazing stuff. It’s hard to completely fault the actors when they are given such mercilessly cheesy dialogue to spout. If you enjoy endless discussion of blatantly implausible military tactics, dead on arrival jokes, and largely non-amusing repartee, prepare to be blown away. The only moments that have any life are when Beck hams it up as a country bumpkin, and a couple of lively interchanges between Bostwick and Silva. Otherwise it’s a train wreck of epic proportions. Here are a few samples:

#1 - Dallas (Michael Beck) is insulted by Megaforce’s resident genius Egg (George Furth):

Egg: Dallas, if a person doesn’t have less on, they have . . .

Dallas: More on.

Egg: Exactly.

#2 – Dallas tries to comfort Ace (Bostwick) before a combat drop:

Dallas: You love 'em in blue, and you love 'em in red, but most of all you love 'em in blue.

Ace: That’s totally inapplicable to anything that’s going on here, and it’s dumb. Who told you that?

Dallas: You did.

Ace: But it’s very wise.

#3 – Perhaps the greatest line of the film comes when Ace faces off against Guerera (Silva) after his team escapes a trap:

Ace: Oh Duke, I just thought I’d remind you that the good guys always win . . . even in the 80’s! (Personal note: I like to drop this line in casual conversation frequently).

Imagine a film filled with this sort of writing and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Perhaps the most egregious error on the part of Needham is what should be his greatest strength – the action and effects. Specializing in stunt work, Needham is mysteriously asleep at the wheel here. He does manage to assemble an impressive number of cool-looking vehicles, but then puts them through rather uninspired chases and battles. While watching the film, there are really no stunts that stand out as interesting or memorable, with the exception perhaps of Ace Hunter’s introduction in the beginning of the film (which is more due to Bostwick’s silly appearance than the stunt itself). Furthermore, the effects work is perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a major studio release (and I’ve seen a lot in my time). Blue screens are the order of the day, and Needham uses them with a vengeance. A scene featuring a skydiving tryst between Bostwick and Khambatta, and a rocket cycle escape by Ace in the finale are perhaps the most uncalled for blue screen sequences in the history of the cinema!

I have to believe that if in fact there was a test screening process (or at least a screening for the studio execs), Megaforce would not have received the high profile release bestowed upon it. No right thinking individual could possibly come to the conclusion that this film could compete in the summer season, or any other for that matter. It is so inept at every juncture, that the only possible assessment of its chances at financial success was imminent misfortune. Either way, Megaforce was launched with a publicity campaign to end all publicity campaigns. You literally could not pick up a genre magazine or comic book that summer without seeing Ace Hunter’s smiling visage staring back at you from the back cover, beneath a banner proclaiming “deeds not words.” And of course there was an obligatory toy line and Atari 2600 video game, not to mention an official Megaforce fan club (talk about overconfidence)!

Despite the forceful marketing push, nothing could save Megaforce from a bevy of critical derision and audience aversion. Bowing on June 25, 1982, the film was skewered and disappeared quickly, practically killing the careers of all involved. Only Bostwick managed to keep his head above water, but he never became an A-lister. Michael Beck and Persis Khambatta, both promising talents, were relegated to obscurity. Hal Needham, incredibly, was given a reprieve with the following summer’s high profile action/comedy Stroker Ace (again starring Burt Reynolds). If it was possible to outdo the horror of Megaforce, Needham succeeded with flying colors (in the process also destroying Reynold’s reputation). While he would get a few more chances to direct studio films (including the ill-fated Cannonball Run II), his decline was a mostly a foregone conclusion.

So why does Megaforce hold such a special place in my heart given its admittedly poor characteristics? Because it is the most gleefully awful film I have ever seen. I think everyone has that one guilty pleasure film that for whatever reason they love and defend to the death. My guilty pleasure was born in a cruddy mall cinema in the summer of ‘82, as I watched the dreadful spectacle that is Megaforce unfold. Even then I knew I had been sold a bill of goods that bore no resemblance to the promised experience. Nevertheless, it was fun to laugh at Megaforce that afternoon and during countless HBO screenings throughout the early 80’s (for some reason it was played on a regular basis for years).

It’s a bit hard to find now on video (having been released years ago on VHS and CED disc), but if you love bad cinema (and are a summer of '82 completist) it’s required viewing. There is even a widescreen DVD import from Japan that is worth investing in if you’re crazy like me (deeds not words). After all, to truly appreciate the visual grandeur of Needham’s canvas, you absolutely must witness Ace Hunter’s feats of derring-do in the original theatrical aspect ratio. Anything less would be uncivilized : )

On a closing note, you can see Megaforce star Michael Beck in action at 10:00 p.m. tonight (8/9) at The Boot in Norfolk, as Klaxar’s Focus Group screens another notorious 80’s flick . . . Xanadu! Admission is $3.00. For more info contact Klaxar regular George Booker at:
Bookergwbook@hotmail.com.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

By The Power Of Ragsdale

Following my previous entry discussing Michael Pare, I thought it only appropriate to do a quick piece on Fright Night star William Ragsdale (especially for you folks coming out to see him on the big screen tomorrow night). Much like Pare, Ragsdale made a big splash in his first film. Fright Night was a late summer release (actually opened theaters August 2, 1985), and really came out of nowhere to be a surprise hit. I remember going to see it with zero expectations, and leaving the theater in absolute awe. It featured great performances across the board, imaginative special effects from master Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Die Hard, etc.), and a very clever script. Ragsdale portrayed the main character Charley Brewster in such a way that he was likable, sympathetic, and very real. Additionally, his onscreen relationships with partner Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) and nemesis Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) were pitch perfect. In my opinion, he made a far better debut than Pare (and many others of his ilk), worthy of attention.

After Fright Night, Ragsdale had a small part in the film Smooth Talk (also 1985) before reprising his role as Charley Brewster in 1988’s Fright Night Part 2. Essentially, the man went without film work for 3 years! Fright Night Part 2, while not a bad film, just didn’t live up to the promise of the original (although the chemistry between Ragsdale and McDowall was still great). Consequently, it came and went quickly in theaters before consignment to the video wasteland. Sadly, Ragsdale was then cast in the horrid sequel Mannequin 2: On the Move, which doomed his big screen career (sequels were just not kind to him). He caught a brief reprieve as the star of the cult sitcom Herman’s Head, which ran on Fox for 71 episodes in the early 90’s. Ultimately though, his future as an A-list star was finished.

I did some checking and was surprised to find that Ragsdale has been working steadily over the years in supporting roles on television series, and has also appeared in schlocky films such as Road House 2 and The Reaping. Glad that he’s getting jobs, but such a waste that they’re no better than a sequel to Road House . . . and just what is the deal with him appearing in second installments to bad movies?!? My theory is that he was at a disadvantage having such great co-stars in his debut film. His fine performance is often overlooked due to the performances of McDowall and Sarandon (who really hit career highs with Fright Night in many respects). As such, Ragsdale’s solid turn as Charley isn’t given the proper credit. In my mind, Fright Night Part 2 only proves this point. With Sarandon gone, the film really rides on the chemistry of Ragsdale and McDowall, which is still as terrific as it was in the first installment. In fact, as my friend John lamented a few months ago when we discussed Part 2, it was a major missed opportunity. Based on the wonderful chemistry of the lead actors, Fright Night could have become a dynamic series with Brewster and Vincent chasing down new monsters in each outing. Oh what could have been . . .

But all is not lost! You can still come out tomorrow night and see Ragsdale, McDowall, and Sarandon at their best in one of the great horror films of all time. Hope to see you there!