Gymkata

November 28, 2010

Sometimes we have to wait all year long for the one movie that distinguishes itself above all others—or is it below all others?—well, at any rate, beyond all others for the honor of being the biggest howler of the year.

We’re not talking about simple bad movies here—they’re a dime a dozen. No, these movies are so wildly (and sometimes imaginatively) mind-boggling in concept, plot and characterization that they earn your respect just by their very existence—because you can’t imagine anyone in his right mind spending money to make them.

In 1984, I think my pet film was Ninja III: The Domination, with its delirious mix of genres and its karate-chopping aerobics instructor heroine.

This year is not half over, but I think we may be able to call the contest closed for ’85. Gymkata is here, and it sweeps all the competition aside.

Here are the unadorned facts: A government agent contacts a gymnast (Olympic medalist Kurt Thomas, in his, uh, acting debut) about a secret mission. He wants the gymnast to go to an imaginary Third World nation called Parmistan and take part in the annual survival games, which involve a brutal obstacle course that sometimes ends in death.

Somehow—and I’m not too clear on this—his victory will help America’s efforts to establish a satellite base in Parmistan from which the “Star Wars” defense system will be run. Well, since every right-minded citizen wants that, we’re behind Kurt all the way.

He’s a little wary, though. “Why don’t we just send in the troops?” he wonders. Who says there are no more Renaissance Men?

Kurt gets trained in the martial arts and falls in love with a princess from Parmistan. Then they’re off to her country to join the games, in which international competitors scale cliffs, shinny across gorges, and make a hair-raising trip through “The Village of Crazies,” where Parmistan’s criminally insane are sent.

It’s pretty incoherent. The film (especially the first third) seems to have been edited with a blunt instrument of some sort—when the scene changes, characters are all but cut off in mid-sentence. This is a blessing, of course.

The emphasis is on the martial arts action, and there’s plenty of it—but with a peculiar gymnastic slant. If there’s a metal bar attached to a wall, you can be sure Thomas wil grab on and go into one of his Olympic routines—except every time he extends his leg, he’s taking out somebody’s face. And it’s all accompanied by those great sound effects from kung fu movies: the unnatural whooshing when Kurt goes somersaulting through the air (which he does a lot) and the thwack! when somebody gets punched. It’s the same thwack! you hear in every Bruce Lee movie, and I sear it’s left over from an old Three Stooges short.

I have only one serious problem with considering Gymkata the goofiest movie of 1985. Oh, it’s stupid enough, but, unlike Ninja III, it’s just not much fun. However, it is fundamentally reassuring. A subtitle at the end tells us that the “Star Wars” satellite station has indeed been established in Parmistan. So, the world can sleep in peace at night—and, presumably, Kurt Thomas can go back to being a gymnast. So we hope.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

There are worse movies and weirder movies (I will post my Ninja III review soon), but somehow Gymkata says “Eighties” in spades. The idea of an SDI outpost being established in Parmistan is perfectly fitting, and “Village of Crazies” could be the title for a website devoted entirely of reviews of 1980s movies. But no, I had to go with “What a Feeling!”

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Vagabond

November 27, 2010

The French director Agnes Varda has jocularly referred to her film Vagabond as Rashomona—a feminization of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which a single story is recounted from a number of different points of view.

Vagabond uses a similar sort of refraction to tell its story. In the opening sequence, a girl is found dead in a ditch. Apparently, she’s died of exposure during the cold night; it is an absurd, pointless, lonely death. The rest of the film consists of loose recollections by the people who knew her—mostly very slightly—during her last weeks.

Her name was Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire, giving the kind of extraordinary performance that does not seem to be a performance at all), a drifting, antagonistic, utterly lost young woman. She hitchhikes, bums cigarettes and food, works odd jobs. She accepts hospitality, is even generously befriended by a few strangers, but rarely repays it.

In her first scene, she’s given a ride by a truck driver who tells her that no one hitchhikes in the winter—nobody’s around. “But I am here,” she says. That statement of existential fact takes the place of any self-revelation: Mona simply exists, and will survive as long as she keeps moving.

Many of the people with whom she comes in contact are envious of her complete freedom. They see her as a Romantic ideal—the vagabond who hits the road, surviving, as the film’s original French title puts it, “Without Roof or Law.” Others are disdainful because she has no responsibilities, lacks courtesy, and even refuses to bathe.

Varda draws no judgments about this, a stance that seems to bother some filmgoers. The film is stubbornly like Mona, both in its editorial rhythms and its attitude. It moves along without imposing itself or telling you anything overt, but it touches you in unexpected, almost unconscious ways.

Varda’s visual scheme is weird and seductive. The French countryside that she captures in winter is both forbidding and poetic. Bony, bare trees and branches crop up everywhere, and abandoned concrete structures and rusted tractors litter the landscape.

That sounds pretty desolate. But Vagabond is a complex film, greater than the sum of its often bleak parts. In mysterious ways, it taps some deep longings about freedom and social behavior and the necessity to, above all, keep moving. The movie does not paint a very happy portrait of those things, but it does explore them in a persuasive, hypnotic way. I will remember this film for a long time.

First published in the Herald, 1986.

Superb movie. Sandrine Bonnaire was mostly unknown at this time, except for A nos amours and Police, but her performance was still something of a shock. Nice to see that Varda’s reputation has been on an upswing in recent years and that this movie hasn’t been forgotten.


Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives

November 27, 2010

In the early going of Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives, there are flickers—flickers, mind you—of self-parodying humor.

The most outrageous flicker is a parody of the James Bond opening, in which, seen in profile through an iris, 007 shoots at the camera. This time the mad killer of the Friday the 13th sagas, the indestructible Jason, strides across the screen, brandishing his machete. What would Ian Fleming think?

Then there’s the gravedigger who frowns at Jason’s empty grave. “Why did they have to go dig up Jason?” he wonders. Then, looking at the camera, he says, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.”

Well, yes. Considering that this utterly worthless series of films is clocking in with its sixth installment, and more promised by the he’s-not-quite-dead-yet ending, we can assume that a significant portion of the moviegoing audience does indeed have a strange idea of entertainment. At least writer-director Tom McLoughlin tips his hat to the inexplicable appeal of the series.

McLoughlin displays a trifle more wit than the previous interpreters of the formula, which isn’t saying much. Halfway through, even the occasional throwaway gags disappear, as Jason goes on his bloody quest to puree as many campers as he can.

As you will recall from the previous installments, ol’ Jason Voorhees, who favors a hockey mask over his decomposed puss, has been killed off a bunch of times. Jason’s dead again at the opening of Part VI, but a stupid teenager (though that’s a redundancy in these films) digs up his grave. There’s Jason, his face crawling with maggots, incontestably dead.

This kid may have seen a Dracula movie, because he grabs an iron fencepost and rams it through Jason’s chest. However, the kid has obviously never seen a Frankenstein movie, or else he’d know that the thunderstorm raging above is going to send a bolt of lightning down to hit the iron post, thus reanimating (and considerably peeving) the already-disagreeable Jason.

After that, Jason does his thing, much in the manner of an aging vaudevillian running through his familiar routines. Except, of course, that Jason’s routine involves spilling buckets of anonymous campers’ blood. Happily enough—for Jason, that is—he happens upon a machete and a hockey mask, in the course of his forest rambles.

That’s all, except that one sleeping camper reads Sartre’s No Exit; the hero calls Jason “maggot-head” when he wants to get his attention; and director McLoughlin once played the mutant grizzly bear in John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy—a performance roughly as important as his authorial work here.

First published in the Herald, 1986.

I don’t know how many Friday the 13thmovies I reviewed—just around half, probably. They all stink, and they look horrible (when I reviewed a box set for Amazon.com, I was struck by the way the DVDs looked much better than the movies ever had, just by virtue of being crisped up with a digital dusting). The fact that the early-Eighties horror era is now looked back on as a credible period for the genre (and even seen as the good old days for some) is truly bizarre, because at the time, a horror fan was very aware of living through the worst phase of horror-movie history, the first installments of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street very much excepted.


Give My Regards to Broad Street

November 27, 2010

“So Bad,”  the title of one of Paul McCartney’s best songs in years, perfectly describes the new film he’s made. The most financially successful composer in history has written and stars in Give My Regards to Broad Street, a vanity production that represents Paul’s most misbegotten artistic decision since he first invited his wife Linda to play in his band.

McCartney portrays himself, a musician whose master tapes for a just-completed album are suddenly discovered missing. But this small plot is a lame excuse to throw together a bunch of songs and big production numbers.

This in itself is not offensive: If the imagination behind the set pieces were interesting or provocative, the film might be a diverting jumble. But there is nothing interesting about McCartney’s fantasies; he’s become so middle-of-the-road that the zany doings – like the punked-out “Silly Love Songs” or the grandiose “Ballroom Dancing” – just seem staid.

This is a far cry from the supremely pixillated Beatles films of the 1960s. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had a beautiful looniness, cultivated by director Richard Lester, that caught the essence of the four lads from Liverpool. They were anarchic, sarcastic, impossibly quick and bright. Anything could happen. Anything was possible.

Give My Regards to Broad Street should not be mentioned in the same breath as those films. It does recall the Beatles’ first fiasco, the Magical Mystery Tour film, which was a similarly self-indulgent mess.

In Broad Street, McCartney relies on a bunch of Beatles songs, as well as newer material. Half are performed in simple studio settings – the lovely “So Bad” benefits from a straightforward performance.

The other half have elaborate presentations – none more elaborate than “Eleanor Rigby.” Now, despite the approval of sociologists in 1966, “Eleanor Rigby” was never really that great a song, and here it’s stretched out in to a 10-minute minidrama that involves McCartney and friends boating around a serene lake in old-style period costumes.

If that sounds like an excruciating home movie, that’s precisely the way it plays. After a while, numbness sets in. You wait for something to come and puncture the sense of self-satisfaction.

For instance, comic Tracey Ullman might have injected a little life into the proceedings, but she walks in, appears glum, and walks out a while later. The great Ralph Richardson, whose last film this was, does a five-minute cameo looking appropriately quizzical.

The other actors play themselves: Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, record producer George Martin, and Linda McCartney, of course.

Early in the film, there’s a recording session in which McCartney sings a medley of old hits. He lapses into “Here, There and Everywhere,” one of his most beautiful Beatles tunes. It’s just Paul and a guitar, with some horns in the background. That lilting melody and the ultra-simple words work their magic; suddenly you’re jarred into remembering what a gifted man this is, and it makes the failure of the film that much more maddening. McCartney’s obvious gifts may have induced a laziness that can’t be shaken off easily. He needs something to challenge his talent. Making a movie with people who are going to agree to his every whim is not the way to do it.

Originally published October 28, 1984, in the Herald.

Well, that last bit sounds like conventional wisdom, about Paul needing his ass kicked – how ever true it might be. I sound a little smug about “Eleanor Rigby,” too. I mean it is what it is. But the film is really godawful. None of which touches McCartney’s greatness – I mean who really cares if he makes a bad movie; he could’ve stopped in 1965 and been in the pantheon.