NEXT EPISODE: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD COMMENTARY TRACK!
The Blues Brothers is one of the great all-time overrated “great” ideas (and movies) of all time. Andrew and I wanted to like it, truly we did, but even if the gulf between overhyped expectations and the film itself weren’t so yawningly wide, there’s nothing but sheer scale to recommend – the amount of music, the amount of stunts, the multitudes of wasted cast members – all of which were compiled along the edict of “more is more.” In this way John Landis was somewhat visionary towards the way the film was developing in the new decade of the 80s. The Blues Brothers is the terrible poverty of imagination heralded by “Star Wars,” applied to a non-fantasy film, and to a comedy about “blues men” for heavens’ sake – historically the salt of the Earth. This is a bad live action cartoon before the second dialogue scene has elapsed.
“The Blues Brothers” aren’t real characters; they’re a premise conceived so two white comedians got to do live Karaoke of old music they like. Nothing wrong with that, but expanding that nothing premise into a two-plus hour film is, let’s say, overconfident. This hasn’t stopped any film based on a Saturday Night Live sketch since, which is another grievance to hold against Messrs. Ackroyd, Belushi and Landis. To cover up the lack of content – they don’t even bother developing Elwood and Jake Blues into anything but two dimensional caricatures – there are endless guest stars in every scene, and where there aren’t guest stars, there are explosions and car chases courtesy of Landis, who at this point was still at least two years away from the day his lack of talent killed three.
The wholly superficial nature of the film, with its repeated catchphrases (“We’re on a mission from God” does not does not get any funnier the tenth time), repeated music cues (the Peter Gunn theme is admittedly catchy) and stunts for their own sake are all supposed to be offset by egomaniacal reason behind the film’s creaction: to “re-focus attention” on blues music (as Landis phrased it on the eve of its 25th anniversary.) Ah, the White hipster’s burden; bringing black culture to other, less cool white people than yourself. These delusional jerks actually thought James Brown and Aretha Franklin wouldn’t sell enough white tickets if Landis hadn’t poorly directed cameos for them.
By perpetuating this farce with the lesser (Jim) Belushi after the latter Belushi left this unhip coil, Ackroyd was just as much to blame for the excruciating continuance of the Chicago-deep-dish-style White-guy-“Blues” movement. In the late 90s, after probably his first exhaustively failed attempt to spearhead “Ghostbusters 3”, he resorted to the maybe the feeblest nostalgia cash-in in movie history: Blues Brothers 2000, a 20th anniversary sequel made two years too early and with even less goodwill than if they’d attempted to remake the original film tomorrow. Which, come to think of it, ought to be any day now.
“Blues Brothers 2000” is every bit as pointless, poorly made, and frantically stocked with guest stars and musicians to mask the pointlessness – except Landis and Ackroyd no longer have even the reckless confidence of youth at their backs.
Sacred cows AND dead horses get what’s coming to them in this highly iconoclastic episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.
NEXT EPISODE: GODZILLA SPECIAL! GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956, ISHIRO HONDA & TERRY MORSE) / GODZILLA (1998, ROLAND EMMERICH)
In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast, Andrew and I run wild across the universe with a couple of loose space babes. They both start out a little cold – one of them’s made of metal – but after we shove our opinions down their throats regarding how badly their movies suck, they warm up to us plenty. It’s called “negging,” refer to your pick-up artist manual for a detailed explanation. Then, of course, I take things too far and ask Fonda if she’d tortured any POWs with the pan-and-scan version of Barbarella lately, turning the mood. Stratten also cools down a bit once she remembers she’s been dead and murdered for 30 years.
This is one of those times when our nominally “good” movie is only less worse than the “bad” one, but the pairing of these two broads was too good to resist. It’s a head-slappingly silly mistake, because Barbarella is probably one of the more infamous bombs of the 60s; a seemingly imaginative yet actually highly calculated attempt to cash in on several cultural fads of the time: sci-fi adventure, comic book camp, “free” “love” and Henry Fonda’s acting progeny. You can’t blame Dino De Laurentiis for thinking that these gimmicks would mesh together, and perhaps they would have if the story or script had anything remotely interesting about them. Terry Southern and Roger Vadim have a lot of potentially clever ideas that flitter and flame out within seconds, proving that drugs tend to hamper otherwise good writers more than they help them.
Flash Gordon is practically a masterpiece of production design and witty dialogue by comparison, to give you some idea of how badly Barbarella misfires. At least Dino learned something in the interim. Actually, Flash Gordon actually came out the same year as our second feature of the episode, Galaxina – a title inspired by Barbarella, if not the story. Or lack thereof.
Galaxina is just as vacuous and lazy in terms of actual content, but with far less talent involved. Robots learning to love is one of science fiction’s oldest tropes, so Sachs (who wrote as well as directed) wasn’t necessarily in a bind to begin with. You’d think if the star of your film was Playboy Playmate of the Year 1980 Dorothy Stratten and she’s the robot who learns to love, you kind of have your work cut out for you and can simply enjoy peppering the dialogue with double entendres and concocting sexy scenes of awkward robolove between man and machine. Yes, you’d think. Apparently Sachs felt that such material was beneath him, and basically ignores Stratten for the first half of the film while he establishes, re-establishes and re-re-establishes a trio of bumbling space jockeys in what feels like a failed pilot written by someone who couldn’t get a job on Saturday Night Live even after Lorne Michaels left.
The infuriating catch to this lack of Stratten-sleaze is that when she finally makes the scene, we don’t get so much as a side boob and the proto-Spaceballs parodies are only getting worse. The cleverest thing in the whole waste of celluloid is an alien hooker with three boobs, strongly suggesting that at least one person who worked on Total Recall has seen Galaxina. Given how clumsy and rote the predictable parody scene of Alien is, it probably wasn’t Dan O’Bannon’s idea to include an homage in kind. Who did Sachs think he was, not delivering on the tagline that in the 31st century, man finally created a machine…with feelings!(?) This bozo wrote and directed The Incredible Melting Man. If you’re going to make an exploitation film, know your audience.
Galaxina “introduces” Dorothy Stratten as per the opening credits, even though she’d starred in the softcore lesbian erotic thriller Autumn Born, a film which undoubtedly featured her in the nude and was probably better written as well. Stratten belongs to that unfortunate club of actors and actresses more famous in death than life, and will go down in movie history only for this and Star 80 – the 1983 biopic depicting her murder, in which she’s played by Muriel Hemingway. Pairing that with Galaxina as the good-movie counterpoint would’ve been smart, but hey, we’re not all that smart sometimes.
NEXT EPISODE: BLUES BROTHERS SPECIAL! THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980, JOHN LANDIS) / BLUES BROTHERS 2000 (1998, JOHN LANDIS)
The Alien – capital T, capital A “Alien” – has been the Mickey Mouse of sci-fi horror for over 30 years now. That’s because there wasn’t really a recognized hybrid genre of “Sci-Fi Horror” before screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and his partner Ronald Shusett conceived a version of O’Bannon’s early sci-fi comedy Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter) in which the goofy beach ball-looking alien would be a terrifying monster and another crew of astronauts would be stuck in the black void of the cosmos with nowhere to run. The famous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” said it all. Selling the audience on both a realistic spaceship and a seemingly real, unprecedentedly bizarre looking space monster helped change the standards by which space movies were judged. The same can be said of Star Wars, which similarly combined a lot of endearing features from an escapist fantasy genre and portrayed their spaceships and aliens so vividly with state-of-the-art special effects that all around the world, the mainstream was reintroduced to those charms as adults.
The fun hypothetical question to ask of both films is, what if the sequels and multi-media franchise empires had never followed? Just one self-contained Star Wars adventure and one Alien? The impact on the rest of the movie business actually would have remained much the same. Mickey Mouse would have remained in the dark shadows of our imagination, that’s for certain. The most prominent features of Ridley Scott’s original film, compared to the later sequels of James Cameron, David Fincher et all, are the slow pace of the story and the way the alien is shown as little as possible. This was not a case of the effects being unconvincing and necessitating minimal view as with the shark in Jaws, but simply Scott’s preference as the director. He did not consider himself a horror film maker after all, and under the harsh light of a horror movie fan’s experience, the film really ceases to be suspenseful or scary after the first viewing lets you know when the monster is going to suddenly emerge. Coupled with loud noises on the soundtrack when said jack-in-the-box “jump” moments occur, the overall effect of Alien on the horror end of the equation is ultimately rather lacking. No wonder the sequels barely bothered trying to be scary after people had seen the Alien in full view by the end of Scott’s movie – a view which practically reveals the zipper running up it’s back. Whoops. So close.
The residual strength of Alien is ultimately in the science fiction department. While unmistakably drawn from the late 1970s, the film’s cast of characters live and work in their spaceship as if they were born there. Their descent onto the alien planet and discovery of an alien ship containing alien eggs is a masterpiece of wonder in the face of the unknown, a creation of mood helped by Jerry Goldsmith’s awe inspiring score. The methodical arguments between Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm and Tom Skerritt over what actions to take grounds all the fantastic elements down to a practical level and makes the future seem all the more real. Culminating in the unforgettable sight of the mysterious alien “facehugger” wrapped around one of the astronauts, the first act of Alien is as engrossing and impressive an introduction to a possible future as Kubrick’s 2001.
Being a big studio, high profile, new post-Star Wars Summer blockbuster event picture, Alien contained a massive amount of gloss and polish which not every “Sci-Fi Horror” film produced in its wake could compete with when trying the experience. These Alien influenced horror films could, however, afford to imitate the most talked-about grossout moment of the movie: the infamous “Chestburster” scene where a penile hand puppet with teeth explodes out of John Hurt’s belly. Thus in the immediate wake of that infamous demise came a whole spate of fake heads and torsos being busted open from within by ugly sock puppets. Probably the worst among these is Alien 2: On Earth.
Alien 2: On Earth exists in the company of many other Italian knockoffs and unofficial sequels to American genre movies, such as 1983’s Escape From New York cash-in 2019: After the Fall of New York, previously featured on this very podcast. But where 2019 had some resources behind the production and ideas to add to the initial premise stolen from John Carpenter, Alien 2: On Earth appears to have been made for a handful of lira and adds absolutely nothing creative as a fake sequel to Alien. Following a team of modern day geologists on a doomed excursion into some Californian caves, the film does include blobby alien hatchlings which cling to and burst out of faces, but nothing else which could be confused for the original. The sole defense you could make of this film is that its producers did what fans of the real Alien movies waited decades to see – the aliens “on Earth” – but the incompetence of the filmmakers on every level makes any viewing an endurance test of pain.
Only sheer obscurity has kept 20th Century Fox from suing over the title, even after the recent Blu-Ray release by Midnight Legacy – who, like the film’s creators, are probably banking on the title and not the abominable film itself.
NEXT WEEK: NAZI HUNTING SPECIAL! BLACK BOOK (2006, PAUL VERHOEVEN) & BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH (2010, UWE BOLL)
King Features Syndicate is a print syndication company owned by The Hearst Corporation. They distribute about 150 comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly 5000 of the dying print medium known as “newspapers.” They own a heck of a lot of famous cartoon characters, many of whom started out as newspaper comic strips. Two of these are Popeye and Flash Gordon. After the monumental success of Superman (1978, Richard Donner) they must have been flustered over who owned their most famous characters and whom they could still sell off.
Flash Gordon was already owned for a long time by De Laurentiis, who produced the film version in his idiosyncratic style. Popeye’s film was a Paramount-Disney co-production, yet also very eccentric thanks to producer Robert Evans giving director Robert Altman virtual free reign to make whatever he wanted of the beloved icon. How did two films about such different matinee heroes get made so similarly by such different hands, resulting in two films both rather infamous for falling short of their critical and box office expectations? We do our best to summarize the good and bad from each oddball romp, one of which is mostly good and the other mostly not so good in this, our “King Features Syndicate” episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.
Flash Gordon opens with an ominous villain finding out the name of our planet Earth, then pushing a button marked “EARTH QUAKE” to attack us. The rest of the movie is a lot like that: archly theatrical in manners of comic book prose, but also distractingly stupid. The combination of Las Vegas pageantry and low fi special effects has its share of admirers, including famed Marvel Comics illustrator Alex Ross, whom on the special edition DVD recollects being blown away by a child in 1980 and wondering why Star Wars couldn’t be more like it. If only there had been several million more children like him; imbued at a young age with the tastes of grown men who still love ogling women in ridiculous costumes as the males in ridiculous costumes ham it up.
The target audience of Flash Gordon would probably be the same people whose favorite season of the Batman TV show was the final one where they added Batgirl and made her ride around on a motorcycle wearing purple lycra. The screenplay was written by a frequent scribe of that very show, Lorenzo Semple Jr, and he never misses a chance to include innuendos about “teaming up” or the pleasures of torture. Sometimes he just goes ahead and lets Flash remark that some girl really turning him on. There’s also language like “damn you” and “go to hell” and even “you lying bitch!” to tick off parents and titillate the film’s true audience; the adult degenerates enjoying all the scantily clad one name Euromodel-actresses populating the throne room of Ming the Merciless.
Flash Gordon has some amazing sets and costumes, corny special effects which nonetheless jibe with the art direction, and even some decent cast who can deliver lines like “NO!!! NOT THE BORE WORMS!!!” with conviction. Unfortunately the director Mike Hodges doesn’t seem remotely interested in his own movie and the decision to let the special effects look fake feels more like a lack of effort than a purposeful refutation of the new realism in effects introduced by George Lucas. There’s also no surprises to be had after the movie gets going – just more of the same cheese over and over for nearly two hours, the two-dimensional nature of everything becoming more and more of a liability. The only component of the movie with a dramatic arc is the famous soundtrack by Queen. Too slow for children and too silly for adults, Flash Gordon finds a way to disappoint everyone.
Similarly confusing to audiences then and now is Robert Altman’s Popeye, which at least has the benefit of, you know, being directed by Robert Altman. Fans of this film actually have a good case to make for it being one of the most artistically accomplished comic book films ever made: the script by Jules Feiffer incorporates as many characters as possible from the original E.C. Segar Thimble Theater newspaper strips and Robert Altman supplies a roster great character actors like Ray Walston, Richard Libertini and Paul Dooley to bring them to life. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were famously cast as Popeye and Olive Oyl, and they’re perfectly qualified. Altman’s choice of songwriter, Harry Nilsson, composes some rambling amble tunes which honor the laconic wit of the old comic strip splendidly, awkwardly as they are placed into the story. In an amazing coincidence, Nilsson actually took a break from recording an album titled “Flash Harry” to work on Popeye. Wolf Kroeger’s production design should have won an Oscar; he literally created an island town where in Malta, Spain where there was once a bunch of rocks and the dang place is still standing to this day as “Popeye Village,” a functioning theme park.
Altman directing musical sequences is something to behold for his fans. Seeing him have a go at slapstick is also something behold and not in a good way. Popeye has problems to be sure, some in common with Flash Gordon: the rambling, the repetitive feeling, the palpable confusion as to whom the film is meant for. On the other hand, Altman is a genius and even the lesser works of a genius are unique visions worth seeing.
It’s a tragedy that comic book movies today don’t have the freedom to fizzle out as spectacularly as Flash Gordon or display as much offbeat charm as Popeye. Of course, the super hero movie is what’s synonymous with “comic book movie” and the rare non-super hero comic book movie is a lonely subgenre rife with experimentation for good or ill.
NEXT EPISODE: AIRPLANE! SPECIAL! AIRPLANE! (1980, JIM ABRAHAMS & DAVID ZUCKER & JERRY ZUCKER) & AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL (1982, KEN FINKLEMAN)
This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast, we apparently continue our Queer Film Studies program with the most notorious and most quickly forgotten Hollywood movie ever made about gay men, and a not-very-gay movie which nonetheless contains jokes about homophobia and lesbians decades before it was fashionable.
The cult classic Slap Shot has essentially endured solely by word of mouth amongst Hockey fans since 1977. We’re now at the point where most people have at least heard of it, as evidenced by the recent straight-to-bargain-dvd-bin releases of Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ice starring Stephen Baldwin, and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League starring a bunch of adorable urchins and Leslie Nielsen, getting in some last minute slumming before death. Both these follow ups feature the original film’s most indelibly iconic characters, the lovably dumb and merciless Hanson brothers, still doing their quasi-retarded shtick well into their 40s.
All comedy fans owe it to themselves to check this one out, besides the Hansons there’s the brilliant script (written by a chick, no less), the genial Paul Newman under direction from George Roy Hill of previous work like Butch Cassidy, the prerequisite various goony team members, and for Twin Peaks fans a stirring performance by young Sheriff Truman himself, Michael Ontkean. Oh, and the lesbianism.
Then, we delve into the seedy underbelly of New York gay bars circa 1979 for a serial killer thriller that no one asked for, no one watched, and few will ever defend. William Friedkin must have considered himself quite the progressive for setting what would otherwise be a competently directed potboiler in a subculture whose mainstream counterparts in male homosexual America were barely gaining acceptance on The Match Game and Hollywood Squares. There’s also a really cheap and stupid ending which completely contradicts the film’s mealy opening disclaimer:
This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.
Besides protesting too much-eth, this warning actually tricks one into thinking William Friedkin had something to say about what the newly legal, pre-AIDS gay bar scene meant about the condition of homosexuality in our society. No, he seems to have simply thought gay bars to be the perfect setting for an undercover police thriller. This exploitative approach might have been forgivable had Friedkin embraced it, but the feigned compassion and stupid twist ending make Cruising probably the most off-handedly homophobic movie ever. Pacino has never looked more like Eric Bogosian.
NEXT WEEK: BARTON FINK (1991, JOEL & ETHAN COEN) & COPS & ROBBERSONS (1994, MICHAEL RITCHIE)
On the premiere episode, Matthew and Andrew discuss the first part of John Carpenter’s career–from The Resurrection of Broncho Billy to The Thing.
The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970), Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Halloween (1978), Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), Elvis (1979), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Halloween II (1982), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and The Thing (1982).