In the late 70's in the Will household, it's obvious, as I previously lamented, to say there was no cable. You get your listings from the paper. A solid week's worth of scheduling on about 4 pages of a "PARADE"--sized publication insert. Don't lose it, or you'll be forced to flip the dial searching for your show until it breaks.
So, it was easy for a little chap like myself to scan the black and white newsprint, hopefully to find out if "White Lightning", "Eat My Dust", "Vanishing Point", or my personal fave, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" were going to be aired anytime that week.
It was more miss than hit, as far as programming goes,(Hey, "Paper Tiger" is on!! Is that a kung-fu movie? Who the hell is David Niven?) but one of the local Milwaukee or Chicago stations would pop one of those redneck classics on more than once a month, giving me a decent reason to scan the publication.
I'm no gearhead now, not even close, but as a boy I loved the car-chase movie. The roar of the engine, the endless action shots of Burt Reynolds, Barry Newman, Ron Howard, or yes, Peter Fonda whipping the steering wheel around like Devo on Acid.
So, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry".....
Who needs plotline. Fonda, (Henry's son) playing Larry, and his partner rip off a grocery store, (in a surprisingly disturbing sequence involving an uncredited Roddy McDowall) to fund their racing career. They pick up an idiotic airhead, Mary, (Melissa George's mom, Susan) along the way, and run for it. Vic Morrow, (Jennifer Jason Leigh's Dad, what the hell is going on here!) some kind of helicopter pursuit expert, is put on the case, and the chase, one that may be the longest ever filmed, ensues. Longest until Tarantino and "Death Proof anyway. In a creepily sad bit of irony, Morrow was killed in real life by a helicopter during the filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie".
Some banter, which makes Adam Roarke the only sympathetic one of the three running from the law, is juvenile and poorly executed. Although there is a nice moment where Roarke befriends Mary, when Fonda's character lets his incredible assholeishness get way out of control and pushes her down. As far as emotional content, that's about as far as this one goes.
I gotta say, I showed this movie to my son earlier this summer, and he disagrees with me on the ending. That's ok, he's entitled. There's a TON of c.b. chatter in the second half of this flick, and a lot of it is dialogue between Morrow and Fonda in the final chase segment. Just when it looks like the rogues have it made, and Morrow appears to be backing off as evidence by the dying of his Oscar-worthy repartee, Fonda's Charger crashes right into a train.
Greatest. Ending. Ever.
I don't remember how many times we and Mr. Will, (that's my Dad. I'm just Rob) watched this one....
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Thursday, February 20, 2014
In the early 80's the fam lived in rural Kenosha county in Southeastern Wisconsin. No HBO, no cable, satellite was in it's infancy. We had no VCR save for the gigantic Quasar Boat Anchor model we borrowed from a friend periodically. The answer: Spectrum, a monthly pay affair, that broadcast uncut first run movies using air time purchased from a VHF Channel in Chicago.
Needless to say, this greatly enhanced my late night viewing. I'll be doing periodic posts about the great and not so great of Spectrum TV, and there's a lot of both.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
It's no secret that this movie is a blatant rip off of the "Jaws" formula, so I'm gonna get the hows out of the way right off the bat.
Locale: State forest in the West, subbing for Amity Beach, being ravaged by unusually aggressive Grizzly bear, is on brink of being closed down for the busiest holiday time of the year. Needless to say, the Superintendent is not thrilled. This is damn near plagiarism so far.
Hero: The Park Ranger (Christopher George, a low rent Roy Scheider, having all the snark and none of the class) who happens to be sick of being muscled by the bureaucrats, is bent on stopping the horrific bear killings.
Grizzled Naturalist: Although, unlike Hooper of "Jaws", he's not a rich kid with lots of high-tech toys, he's still a freakin' weirdo. This particular goofball lays around in strange woodland disguises trying to record information on the local wildlife. Hello, Richard Jaeckel.
Pilot with war stories: Andrew Prine (yes, the future nightime soap hearthrob) plays a helicopter pilot who helps in the search for the bear. He even spins an apparently ad-libbed campfireside yarn about Vietnam bloodbaths, paling in huge comparison to Robert Shaw's lengthy (and also reportedly ad-libbed) USS Indianapolis monologue in "Jaws".
No attempt at a replacement for "Farewell and Adieu, my wee Spanish Ladies"
However, the exploding rampaging creature is replaced.
The whys. To make money. "Grizzly" was the highest grossing independent film of it's year, which I believe was 1976. A surprising amount of blood for a PG-rated movie makes the movie still maintain occasional shock value, but the FX are terrible, and some of the acting is even worse.
Lots of nice scenery though. Gorgeous woodland locales. I stayed up late for this one many times. Therefore it qualifies, it's a true crap classic.
Incidentally, a sequel was made, which finished prinicipal photography, and a workprint even exists. It features a young Charlie Sheen and George Clooney, and was entitled "Grizzy II: The Concert". I wonder why it was never released with that set-up.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Bogan County, Arkansas is a terrible place. It's hot, it's sticky, and it's run by a murderous sherriff. The locals spend a lot of time transporting illegal alcohol, or as they put it, "runnin' licka". So much of this lawless liquor manufacture and transport takes place apparently, that Bobby "Gator" McCluskey (Burt Reynolds) has made himself an arrangement with the feds. Said arrangement is a deal to get out of prison a year early to go undercover, and while he's at it, avenge the murder of his baby brother Donny at the hands of the affore-mentioned crooked sherriff, JC Connors.
Can I get an amen?
This movie represents a high water mark in the career of Burt Reynolds, who plays the lead, Gator, with verve. "White Lightning" is just after "Deliverance" and right before "The Longest Yard", and well before "Smokey & the Bandit" and the careeer derail that followed shortly after. In Burt's canon, his career at this point was, artistically at least, at it's absolute peak, in my opionion. Reynolds is subtle here, pefectly selling his grief over the loss of his brother, but growing a dull cold behind his eyes when it comes to dealing with the sherriff. He is surprisingly effective in just using facial expressions in this film. For example, in a nicely done moment, shortly after his prison release, he gradually unwinds as he discards his tie and suitcoat while simultaneously pressing ever so much harder on the accelerator of his hyper-tuned 1971 Ford Ltd. You can see the stress lift as the pedal goes down. There are other points in the movie as solid as that, which have you wondering at times, What's Gator thinking?
Director Joseph Sargent keeps things brisk, yet tense, with the help of a solid score by Charles Bernstein. The soundtrack veers between schticky banjo jams augmented with jew's harp during the extended car chase scenes, to a downright diabolical sounding blues slide guitar in the movie's heavier moments. As a kid, I would play these tunes in my head while recreating the car chases using matchbox cars. Ah, the whimsy of childhood. All nostalgia aside, the score is great, pulling off being jolly whimsical, and at the right moments, damned ominous.
Sargent also surrounds Reynolds with a fine supporting cast of character actors such as Matt Clark, Bo Hopkins, and the legendary RG Armstrong. Burt is reunited with his "Deliverance" co-star Ned Beatty as the crooked sherriff, JC Connors. (In one scene, Gator references "Deliverance". When he's asked by a young woman what happened to him to cause the bandages covering half of his face, he replies "I was hurt trying to save two of my buddies from being knocked up by a homosexual." He is of course lampooning that obviously nightmarish sequence from John Boorman's classic thriller.)
Beatty manages to pull off the difficult combination of sinister, intelligent, and good ol boy sarcastic all at once. The heated tension in the scenes involving both Beatty and Reynolds is palpable. So palpable, you'd almost believe there was a personal grievance between the two in real life.
The only true weakness to me is Jennifer Billingsley in the female lead role, as she's not a particularly strong actress here, and comes off as more annoying and painfully dumb than anything else.
"White Lightning" has a definite southern feel, as it was shot on location in Arkansas. It comes across like a piece of rebel Americana as everybody appears to be coated in a layer of perspiration and living in a haze of humidity. It looks every bit like the deep south it was shot in.
This is little more than a cult film now, (one of Quentin Tarantino's faves, he even lifted one of Gators lines, "I'm only afraid of two things: women and the police", to which he gave no credit, in an interview with Jay Leno, as well as passages of the score used later by Quentin in "Kill Bill" and "Inglourious Basterds". It was cause for celebration on those late 70's summer nightson TV 18 WVTV in Milwaukee, or WFLD 32 out of Chicago. My Dad would pop a quarter ton of popcorn, bust out the Sparco soda bottles, and it was "White Lightning" time.
Watch for further "Stay up Lates" inspired by my late Pops, "Vanishing Point" & "Freebie & The Bean", as well as "Bedrock for relationship" flicks hearkening back to my early days with my Stepdad, "Silent Rage" & "The Lords of Discipline".
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Milwaukee's own Tom Laughlin who died in December of cancer at age 82. He wrote, directed and starred in "Billy Jack" and it's subsequent films, and proved that you could head out west with little more than a belief system and launch a franchise.
This one is a pure classic in almost every sense of the Late Night word. In the later 70's and early 80's this one was constantly being aired on UHF, VHF, monthly pay, and some sporadic signals being picked up from other solar systems. I saw it many times, one because I was so heavily exposed to it, between repeat broadcasts, and two because my siblings dug it so much.
But why did I love it so much in my pre-adolescent mind? It wasn't the political messaging, which was hamfisted, because I wasn't ready for that yet. It wasn't the special effects, because there were none. It wasn't completely the martial arts scenes, though that helped.
It was the bullying.
As a kid I attended several elementary schools, one parochial, and it seemed like someone was always geared up to knock me off whatever good mood I may have been fortunate enough to wake up in that day. It got to the point of ridiculousness, and made me not want to go to school some days. Now I know being bullied is nothing new to many, but maybe that's why "Billy Jack" was so big with a lot of folks, not just the political views subscribed to by "dirty hippies" that were so much of the film's focus.
Billy Jack was the voice of pent up outrage at those who feel they are in control, and have to force that fact down the throats of everybody else. Tom Laughlin played Billy as a half-breed green beret Vietnam vet who wanders his Arizona locales becoming one with various natures, and protected the put-upon refugees from everyday life that comprise the student body of the "Freedom School", which is operated by Billy's friend, Jean. A local land baron, Posner, rapes the natural resources of the countryside for profit, while his spoiled rich son rapes the women of "Freedom School". It's a recipe for disaster.
It's Billy as vigilante that was the selling point for me. For a character that has the ultimate goal of peace for all mankind however, he does spend more than enough time whipping ass. As a bullied kid, that appealed to me. I was sold the moment Billy lands that vicious reverse crescent kick (terminology gleaned myself from two years of Tae Kwon Do study) to the smirking jowl of Mr. Posner, and leaves him laying in the grass of the town square, an embarassed, beaten (and fat) soul.
The film however lingers far too much on the school and it's inhabitants, and those sequences can seem to drag on forever. Despite the presence of a young Howard Hesseman (looking a lot like Foghat's "Lonesome Dave" Peverett, It doesn't help the story. "Billy Jack" himself as a character wasn't what it could have been, either. He could have been more a sledgehammer than a ball peen variety. I'm not saying Laughlin had to engage in a kung fu battle every 8 minutes, but the run time overall could have been trimmed to streamline the film into a more flowing narrative, giving it a brisker pace. The characterizations are there, but it seems like experimentation at times.
Nevertheless, a legend was born with the unexpected box office success and public endearment for the character, and there is a heavy nostalgia factor in it for me, as it is a leader in the MISULF (Movies I Stayed Up Late For) lexicon. It makes the Late Night Hall of fame. It's many flaws aside, I still have warm feelings for "Billy Jack".
Thanks to my sister Linda, for staying up with me to watch it.