Movies to End a Pandemic By

I get a lot of questions from folks.  What is your favorite movie?  I don’t have one.  Why do you like bad movies?  I like all movies, but I end up preserving ones that no one cares about and these are sometimes bad.

Everyone has a different taste in movies.  I personally like something different.  A formula B western or gangster picture is boring to me.  I’ll freely admit that I’m usually not up for your modern superhero pictures.  I haven’t seen Batman Vs. Infinity Wars Part 6: A New Beginning.  I don’t intend to.

I got some requests to do mostly older films and a few to mostly newer films.  I am going mid-way and on things that I don’t think many of you have seen.  Things that got swept under the carpet.  Movies that most of you have probably not seen.

Ishtar (1987) OK.  I’m right off with one of the worst movies ever made.  Except it’s not.  It cost way too much, because director Elaine May chose to work in an improvisational style and get as many takes as she could, which doesn’t work when you’re directing expensive mega-stars like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.  While this is sort of a tribute to the Hope/Crosby Road films, it’s also more than that.  It’s a sendup of our long-standing hypocritical Middle East policy.  It’s a salute to those of us who hope we are really talented, but are less so than we’d like to believe.  I often hear the complaint that Beatty and Hoffman are terrible singers, but that’s the point.  Paul Williams has not written bad songs for them, but songs that consistently just miss the mark.  They’re not horrible, but they never quite work.  Another joke is that Hoffman plays the ladies’ man and Beatty is the oafish guy that women dislike—just the opposite of real life.  And Beatty is so good at this that he almost makes us believe it.  Worthy of mention and Academy nominations are Jack Weston as their agent who doesn’t have much faith in them, and especially Charles Grodin as the corrupt government official who lies to everyone.  Ishtar may not be the greatest film ever made, but it’s a very good one, and most people who hate it have never seen it.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) And again, I’ll get brickbats from a lot of people who think this is awful.  They confuse it with the inexcusable Space Jam, which I can’t even watch.  Director Joe Danté manages to infuse this with a lot of movie lover in-jokes that most people would never understand.  For example, Kevin McCarthy (the actor, not the congressman) wanders across the screen carrying a seed pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers while crying “They’re here!  They’re here!”  My favorite is still one in which Brendan Fraser and Daffy Duck run off the ledge of a building into a waiting airbag, thereby interrupting the filming of a Batman film.  The director comes up to them and complains, “Hey!  That airbag cost a lot of money!”  It’s Roger Corman.  Another good one: the climax is in Paris, and if you’re watching, there is a poster for a Jerry Lewis movie on every street corner.  I love attention to detail like this.  If you enjoy film geek jokes like these plus a myriad of cameos, and, oh, yeah, a lot of well-done Looney Tunes thrown in, this movie is a howl.  The only thing I can hold against it is that it derailed production of Mike Schlesinger’s legendary Godzilla film…

The Power (1968) I’m always amazed at the number of people who have never seen this one.  The Hollywood legend is that somehow producer George Pal evaporated after making The Time Machine (1960).  And MGM seems to have wanted to make Pal evaporate, and I’m not sure why.  They didn’t promote this at all), hoping it would tank and they’d get rid of Pal.  It worked.  But if you look just at the cast and crew of this one: director Byron Haskin, composer Miklos Rosza, actors Michael Rennie, Richard Carlson, Nehemiah Persoff, Suzanne Pleshette, Earl Holliman, Arthur O’Connell, and George Hamilton, you might think that this is a can’t-miss picture.  And it doesn’t miss.  It’s kind of a hybrid of The Fury (1978) and North by Northwest (1959).  The basic plot is kinda clever, too.  A top-secret research facility exposes a super-genius so smart that he could cause hallucinations, move objects, and, well, kill people.  The genius then proceeds to bump off everyone who might be able to expose him.  One of my favorite scenes is with Arthur O’Connell going into his office to retrieve some papers.  He turns to leave, and the door to his office seems to be missing, replaced with a half-wall.  O’Connell returns with a ladder to step over the wall, and now it goes to the ceiling.  Suddenly, he realizes he might not be in his office at all.  This film has a great, chilling score, nice cinematography, and some wonderful creepy ideas.  It’s been unjustly neglected.   The bad guy makes you see what he wants you to see, so you’re never sure who he is, and you’ll be guessing until the last moment.  Again, it’s not a perfect film, because there are a few goofy moments that don’t really work.  Arthur O’Connell’s parents seem not much older than he was.  Hamilton’s escape from a firing range seems a little too convenient.  Suzanne Pleshette comes off rather flat and delivers her expository lines at the film’s conclusion in the dullest possible way, a rare misfire in a stellar career.  But those are minor carpings.  There are so many chilling scenes that I forgive it all.  Nehemiah Persoff’s death is just creepy.  The crosswalk changing from DON’T WALK to DON’T RUN is unforgettable.

Hopscotch (1980) Walter Matthau had a nose for strong screenplays.  Twice he appeared in great Peter Stone films (Charade [1963] and The Taking of Pelham 123 [1974]).  This time around, he was working with Brian Garfield, best remembered for his novel Death Wish.  Garfield wasn’t particularly enamored with the violent 1974 film version, so he challenged himself to write a chase story in which no one is hurt, but there’s still tension and a sense of danger.  Oh, and it’s funny, too.  The plot is simple: A CIA man (Matthau) is unfairly railroaded by his snotty boss (Ned Beatty) and decides to quit.  Except he doesn’t tell anyone he’s quit, and he goes on a merry chase, writing a tell-all exposé of all the stupid tales of his career.  The CIA wants him stopped, and the Russians agree.  It’s a complete delight as Matthau tours Europe, always a step ahead of the people who want to kill him, taunting them with a new chapter in every new locale. With a great supporting cast, including Sam Waterston, Glenda Jackson, Herbert Lom, and two of Matthau’s kids, this is a closet classic.  Apparently, it’s been tied up with legal issues, which is a real shame.  In my opinion, it’s superior to the previous Matthau/Jackson teaming, House Calls (1978).

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) Billy Wilder is a somewhat controversial figure these days.  A lot of his films bear a certain cynicism that many find somewhat off-putting, and Scott Eyman has shown that it increased through his career.  Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of his “greatest” film, Some Like It Hot (1959), which I consider too long and too slow.  So of course I’d love a movie that’s even longer and slower.  This one was once much longer, and was shorn of about 30 minutes of introduction.  Sherlock Holmes was always, in the books and in the films, a complex plot device to solve crimes.  His interactions with other people seemed a little forced to me, because he seemed to exist only to move the plot along.  That doesn’t mean he’s not a great character, because he has a lot of writer-friendly, usable quirks.  So Wilder’s twist on this is irresistible to me.  Let’s delve into Holmes’ personal life.  Was Sherlock gay?  That’s the first part of the subplots here.  Could he fall in love?  That’s the longer story.  I won’t spoil this for you, because most of the fun of the film is watching it unfold and being just a hair ahead of Sherlock as you figure it out.  The movie isn’t perfect: a plot point involving Loch Ness requires it to be salt water, which it isn’t.  Another twist involving Queen Victoria is marred by a performance that is too comedic and over-the-top.  But there are so many other pleasures here.  Christopher Lee makes a great non-canon Mycroft Holmes, and the scene in which he slowly dresses Sherlock down for being stupid is one of his finest career moments.  He’s wonderful in this scene, and of course Mycroft gets his own comeuppance soon after.  But the culmination of Sherlock’s romance is truly heartbreaking.  For the first time, we feel for him as a person, and it’s amazing.  Some of Wilder’s films do nothing for me, including the later The Front Page (1974), which managed to waste Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett by rewriting too much of the nearly perfect original play.  (Of course, the play was murdered once again by its much-worse remake, Switching Channels [1988]). As much as it pains me to agree with him, Michael Schlesinger is probably right that One, Two, Three (1961) is another underrated gem from Wilder, whose work is hit-and-miss for me. 

Real Genius (1985) This is a film that got doubly lost in a morass of too many other pictures.  In a summer where we had Weird Science and My Science Project, both of which were lousy, this movie appeared, and it was actually funny and fresh.  Real Genius also lost because of too many “horny teenager” pictures in the 1980s.  The reason that this one is different is that it’s got a tight script, zippy direction, and a fine cast.  A gifted freshman (Gabe Jarret) is recruited to a top college, rooming with an eccentric genius (Val Kilmer) as they work on an advanced laser.  Along the way they interact with an even more eccentric genius (Jon Gries) who lives in the university’s steam tunnels, and a hyperkinetic mechanical engineer (Michelle Meyrink) who seems to be working at all hours of the day and night.  The plot twists around their duplicitous professor (William Atherton, at the peak of his sleaziness) who has pre-sold their laser research to the military for nefarious uses.  This movie marks a change in the treatment of geniuses in movies.  In the 40s, we had the strange, insanely driven mad doctors. In the 50s, we had amoral scientists but also manly Richard Carlson-like folks.  After that, we had socially awkward geeks who couldn’t function at all, becoming the focus of derision (see Eddie Deezen in War Games for an example of this sort of character).  Real Genius moves the pendulum back in the right direction, with some social awkwardness, but a lot of moral ability and cleverness thrown back in.  This is one of my favorite films of the 80s, and one that holds up on repeated viewings.  I wish there’d been a sequel… maybe there still can be.  Martha Coolidge does a marvelous job directing this picture.  I wish she worked more often.  Like Michael Curtiz, Coolidge, so they tell me, can be… unpleasant… but wow, she can make good pictures.

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) I’ve long disliked the movies of Spike Lee, because they just seem so precious and preachy to me that I expect him to pass the offertory plate before the third act starts.  I recently had to watch Minstrel Show and I thought it was too obvious and strained.  Same for many of his other films.  So before you #cancel me for being racist, let me recommend this picture, by another, I think superior, African-American director.  Again, it’s one of my favorites of the 80s.  Robert Townsend, in his first picture, does something I’ve never seen Lee do: he simply presents his reality, spoofing it somewhat, and lets us make up our own minds.  Townsend’s visual style is straightforward, but his real gift is with screenwriting and handling actors.  Like Bill Cosby (#cancelledAgain), Townsend has turned his experience as an African American actor into something universal that we can all relate to.  His character works at a dead-end job at a hot dog stand called Winky Dinky Dog, and he hates it.  I identified with it so much that I used his boss’ speech (extolling the virtues of Winky Dinky Dog) as my computer start-up sound until my real-life boss saw this film and made me take the sound off.  The legend is that Townsend needed to sell the film to a studio before the end of the month because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to pay off his credit cards.  You’ve gotta love him for that.  I also love him for some of his other films, including the wildly underrated Meteor Man (1993).  Townsend is one of my favorite living directors.  Cancel me for that, buckaroos.

Avanti! (1971) Yes, another Billy Wilder, and yes, another one you haven’t seen.  I’m not big on any of Wilder’s Lemmon/Matthau films, although (as you can see) I love both Lemmon and Matthau.  Wilder seemed to become more and more hostile toward most of humanity as he progressed in life, and this movie is an example of that.  It does destroy some films like Buddy Buddy, but for whatever reason, there’s still some redeeming humanity in this one.  A lot of it comes from the transformation of Lemmon’s character, which works, and some comes from great support from Clive Revill, who makes his second appearance on this list, with a third to show up.  Even better is Juliet Mills, who is supposed to be playing an unattractive fat woman, and manages only to be charming, while being neither unattractive nor fat.  Wilder’s sexism is on display here, with Mills being referred to as “fat ass,” which is insulting to everyone, especially the audience.  However, getting past that, there’s a nice story here, with a nervous exec (Lemmon) being forced to visit an Italian resort to pick up the body of his father, who was killed in an unfortunate accident.  Mills is there to pick up her mother, also killed in an accident.  As the story progresses, we discover that it was the same accident that killed both people and that they were together having a once-a-year affair.  Of course, this is beyond bearable for Lemmon, whose father was a family man, and the endless red tape that the Italians put in the way maddens him.  Lemmon manages to build a giddy intensity that reminds me a little of One, Two, Three without losing the effect of the slow-paced local charm and lovely photography on the island.  It’s a great contrast, and it works very well in this unusual film.  I’m not quite sure why this never got a bigger audience.  It’s very funny and holds up well despite the sexist material that we get concerning Mills.  The ending is predictable, but it’s cute enough.  I wish Mills had been a bigger star.  She’s every bit as good as her more famous sister.  Acting talent runs in that family.  

Zorro the Gay Blade (1981) Everyone remembers Love at First Bite (1979), but this one was by a lot of the same people and it, alas, had distribution problems.  It’s a pity, because it’s really a much better picture.  A rich California plantation owner dies and leaves his secret to his son, Diego (George Hamilton).  Turns out the old man was actually Zorro, and now Diego must wear the mask to battle the new Alcalde (Ron Liebman).  Diego breaks his foot in an ill-timed jump… but that’s OK, because his identical twin brother (also Hamilton) shows up to claim his inheritance, and he, too, can be Zorro.  However, the brother, Ramon, is gay, and he has a great deal of trouble impersonating his straight brother.  Now, before I get #cancelled 100 times, this movie isn’t homophobic.  Yes, the bad guys in it make gay jokes, but most of them are dispatched by the end of the picture.  Ramon is treated respectfully by all of the heroes, including lovely Charlotte Taylor Wilson (Lauren Hutton), who has fallen for the straight Zorro and is unaware of the switch.  Hamilton has a reputation of being something of an acting lightweight, but he takes on heavy duties here.  Not only is he the two brothers, but he also plays Ramon imitating Diego, Ramon posing as their lost sister, and a mysterious priest who steals the Alcalde’s horse.  He’s marvelous.  Also marvelous is the support from his mute servant Paco (Donovan Scott), and the Alcalde’s conniving wife (Brenda Vaccaro).  Hutton leaves a little something to be desired, but she’s passable.  This is a grand film in he old Hollywood tradition, best described as Bob Hope by way of Mel Brooks.  It’s also somewhat in the Michael Curtiz swashbuckler tradition, and it steals a great bit from a Curtiz picture: the score is largely borrowed from the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), which was written by Max Steiner.  It’s been enhanced and rearranged, but the guts of it are still there.  That makes this film feel all the more like an authentic Hollywood Zorro picture.  It’s worth seeking out on DVD if you can find it.  Apparently, the new owners, Disney, have been wanting to cancel this one for a long time.