Sunday, February 25, 2018

What a Way to Go

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just don't work out. Sometimes, no matter how much money and starpower you put into a movie, it just doesn't turn out. Such is the trouble with What a Way to Go.

Shirley MacLaine is our lead, with Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum AND Paul Newman as her leading men. Screenplay by Comden & Green, costumes by Edith Head, hair by Sydney Guilaroff, jewels by Harry Winston. Yet, somehow, What a Way to Go doesn't quite get there. It wants to be an outrageous, self-mocking comedy, but it's afraid to muss its hair or make any waves. So why watch it then? Well..

Edith Head's career contained many dazzling achievements, from Elizabeth Taylor in a A Place in the Sun to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. In What a Way to Go, Head was, well, given her head--and half a million dollars, which was some serious scratch back in 1964. Shirley MacLaine is attired in a series of fur hats, beaded gowns and marabou pajamas that would knock the most discerning eye out. If you lean back, put some Peggy Lee or Raveonettes on the stereo, pop open a bottle of bubbly and let the fashion show commence, What a Way to Go is far more enjoyable.

So, out opening introduces us to fabulously wealthy widow Shirley, who is trying to give her fortune away to the U.S. government. See, every one of her husbands has gotten rich and then died while she was married to them Since she actually loved her husbands, this is problematic and she thinks she's cursed. We are told the story in flashback as she tells it to a psychiatrist (part of the telling-it-to-your-shrink genre that was popular for a bit.)

Actually, this would be a great film for little girls with all the pink & sparkly & fancy.
Well, little girls who can find the humor in death, anyway.

We start with the young Shirley flouncing around the family home with drawn-on freckles and a giant lollipop. Her mother rants about the importance of "money success money success"--even for what's basically a 90-second role, they got Marx Brother foil Margaret Dumont. We immediately get the heavily parodic tone of the movie, but somehow it feels forced, not funny. Perhaps Frank Tashlin or a Billy Wilder could have gotten it right but, instead, one gets the feeling that What a Way to Go is waiting for a punchline that never comes, which is actually sort of is--it's a comedy with virtually no jokes, just a jokey tone. I mean, if you're already making a comedy predicated on multiple deaths, why are you playing everything else vanilla?

"You turned out real beautiful! You have something to sell!
Take a mother's advice and sell it now!"

(Yes, we're all told this is bad advice. But, frankly, as someone who's been there, I wish i'd sold it when i still looked like a damn Barbie doll. Prince Charming ain't coming, sweet cheeks, and it's better to wind up with something than nothing. If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, it would be this. So i'm telling you in case you can use it. Or, if find yourself back in time and run into me, pass on the message.)

Here we meet Dean Martin as the town rich asshole--Shirl's boyfriend, even though she hates him. We're supposed to hate Dean, but it's hard to hate Dean. We also get Dick Van Dyke as some kind of general store-owning, Thoreau-reading proto-hippie, who becomes Mr. MacLaine #1.

Her time as Van Dyke's bride is rendered as a silent movie with her as Mabel Normand and him as
Buster Keaton. This conceit of rendering each romance in a different style will continue--Paul Newman's New Wave art film, Robert Mitchum's big-budget epic, Gene Kelly's flashy musical--but it never quite lands. It may be because the film never quite abandon's its own 20th Century Fox production values to embrace those of the style it intends to inhabit.

So Dino insults Dick, so Dick decides to make his general store into Wal-Mart and run local scion Dean out of business. Doing so makes him rich, but deprives Shirley of his company and eventually he dies from counting his money too hard or something...

Sad Shirl arrives in Paris, where she meets boorish beatnik Paul Newman, who is weirdly like some kind of post-millennial hipster with his machines that paint and his being a dick to the locals and his beard. But Shirley is happy in her Parisian garret with her bullet bra and Paul Newman. Who wouldn't be?

(Few invoke as much of a universal "I'd hit that" as young Paul Newman. I still recall sitting in Lucy's bar on Avenue A sometime back in the 90s, watching The Long Hot Summer with my friend Denise and Lucy, the little Ukranian babushka who owned the place. When Paul first appeared shirtless and sweaty, Lucy poured us all a shot of whiskey and we drank to his hotness...)

Anyhow, What a Way to Go. So, Paul Newman become a famous painter (thus giving Edith Head reason to design Shirley some dope outfits that match his paintings and look great with her Anna Karina wig) but this means he has no time for his lady. We're supposed to be charmed by the fact that Shirley wants a man who spends his every waking minute with her but, frankly, it seems kind of clingy and needy... or maybe she's a nymphomaniac and needs a man who has no job but giving her some D every 20 minutes. Add in the fact that she seems to have no personality characteristic besides a love for pretty clothes and the need to latch onto a man (Hey, it's Jupiter Ascending!) and we have a lead character with no character. Which would be fine if it were obscured by a nonstop barrage of jokes, but it's not. Oh, believe me, it's not...

So, anyway, Newman buys it at the hands (brushes? rollers? poky sticks?) of one of his steampunk painting machines (see, told you he was a hipster) but sales of his paintings have left Shirley, once again, a rich widow....

The widow runs across the Millionaire Playboy, played by Robert Mitchum. As always, Mitchum is a welcome presence and he and MacLaine have a nice chemistry--probably because they had it in real life in the form of a multi-year affair... anyway. He's a fabulously wealthy captain of industry.

The "Lush Budgett Production" joke is funny the first or second time. By use #9 they've pretty much torn it and are you seriously telling me that, with all the drunken, bitter, overeducated screeenwriters in Hollywood, you could only come up with ONE pun on a movie mogul's name. Anyway, we do at least get the most magnificently glamorous costumes. Bow down to Edith Head!


So there's that and then there's Mitch and Shirley repeating "Remind me to tell you that I love you" a few dozen times. It is literally a 20-minute sequence that hangs on two jokes repeated over and over again. A large part of the problem with What a Way to Go is that it is one of the most lazily written films ever made--in scenes like this, you get the feeling that Betty Comden and Adolph Green didn't even finish it. The wit that made Singin' in the Rain and Auntie Mame is nowhere here apparent. But, still, the outfits...

Mitchum dies when they go back to the farm he grew up on--he's been fixated on the cow he had as a boy, Melissa, throughout the film. It makes you sorry they didn't include any if the many bestiality jokes Mitchum must've made off-camera. Especially since he dies trying to milk a bull...

Husband number next is Gene Kelly, a struggling hoofer. We get a nice dance number starring Kelly and MacLaine and then some more non-comedy as Kelly, of course, becomes rich and famous. Since his name is Pinky, he demands that everything be painted pink, which leads to some really great lewks, both is set and in costume, if nothing else (and there is pretty much nothing else)...

But, again, we have our lazy screenwriters who come up with no other joke other than "everything's pink!" Kelly becomes an unbearable stereotype of a narcissistic Hollywood star and comes off as an asshole, not a comedian. Maybe because he doesn't have any funny lines. Everything's pink! Geddit? He's a jerk! Geddit? Anyway, he dies too when his fans swamp him Day of the Locust style. So funny!

Which brings us back to the present, and you can guess whether Shirley decides to go with the psychiatrist, go back to a now-broke Dean Martin or strike out on her own to find her own purpose in life beyond obsessive devotion to a man. Well, I'm sure you can guess which one is not happening...

Apparently the first choice for the lead role in What a Way to Go was Marilyn Monroe and one cannot help but thinks she would have been better--MacLaine was a professional dancer and a skilled comedienne, but somehow she didn't have the aptitude for physical comedy nor the innocent deadpan that Monroe possessed. Few played the straight woman as well as she did and if What a Way to Go had let its male leads go to town with a sort of reverse Lorelei Lee at its center... that might have worked. Or Comden & Green could have just gotten off of their asses and written some jokes.

Still, the costumes--72 of them, if you're counting--are to die for. If you own a hair salon or boutique or a bar that does brisk sales in rosé, you should consider putting What a Way to Go on your screens just for the visuals. Just be sure and turn the sound off. No one wants to hear that "remind me to tell you that I love you" joke again....

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Fastest Guitar Alive

You know those really shitty late Elvis movies? Well, if you ever wondered what a worse one would be like, it might be The Fastest Guitar Alive, Roy Orbison's feeble attempt at movie stardom.

This movie was made in 1967. On American movie screens you could see The Graduate, Bonnie and ClydeBelle de Jour or this cheap-ass musical/western starring Roy Orbison, a prime example of the kind of crap other films were reacting against. Hell, even Valley of the Dolls is more artful and profound...

Yeah. It's nothing like this poster would lead you to believe.
This movie is a complete product of The Man.

The Fastest Guitar Alive starts out promisingly enough, with the sound of Roy Orbison warbling a tune. We get our first inkling of disaster when we see Sam the Sham listed in the credits and it's not as a musical guest. But here's ol' Roy, pompadour slicked down and flying high, strumming away on his guitar while perched on a medicine show wagon... towing a wagon of maidens behind. By a line that's hanging out the washing, because basically all the women do in this movie is laundry, dancing and a combination move of pouting and stomping their pretty little feet..

Roy Orbison and his wagon and his wimmin are attacked by a bunch of Indians. I can't really say Native Americans, as the "tribe" is quite clearly a bunch of paunchy middle-aged white guys with Jewish vaudeville accents. They also make jokes about Neo-Impressionist warpaint (made even worse by the fact that what they're pointing to as an example is clearly Abstract Expressionism). They "attack," so Orbison presses a button and a rifle barrel emerges from his guitar, he takes a few shots, the Indians flee in terror. The action in The Fastest Guitar Alive will remain at a strictly Wile E. Coyote level.


So, anyway, they take the medicine show to San Francisco, where the ladies do a tepid saloon-girl routine about "doing the snuggle-huggle with you" and the boys make a half-assed attempt at peddling snake oil. It turns out that the whole gang aren't whores and con men at all--good thing too, because they all seem to suck at whoring at conning--they're Confederate spies! And we're supposed to think that's a good thing! In the same year the Supreme Court finally struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage and riots happened in over 150 American cities! And you thought women doing laundry and "the snuggle huggle" in the era of Janis Joplin was some passe wack shit...

Anyway, apparently Roy and his crew are out to steal a shipment of Union gold, in some plan that involves Roy Orbison first giving some local general's daughter "guitar lessons" and then putting on a fake beard. This is as good a time as any, and perhaps I should have said it sooner, to point out that Roy Orbison can't act for shit. Put a guitar in his hands, he's a lord. Put a script in his hands, he's a schmuck. He is not helped by the bad story, the lousy writing, the cheap production values, the lame supporting actors...

At the exact same moment, just a few miles up the California coast,
Hunter S. Thompson was doing acid with the Hells Angels.

So, anyway, Roy Orbison and the nitwits manage to steal the gold, squeezing in a few musical numbers before they go--the one where Roy bets a big "war drum," while the girls wander aimlessly--sorry, dance--around in buckskin bikinis belongs in Las Vegas Hillbillys. Then they head for El Paso to turn over their gold to their commander or whatever, with a few rounds of shenanigans along the way. Some bad dudes from San Francisco follow them, trying to get their ornery mitts on the gold. They run across the Nebbish Americans again. Another bad dude shows up when the girls are showerin' and Roy has to run him off.

But they pull into town only to find folks drinking and cheering and carousing in the street. It seems that the war has ended. The men's response: "The war is over. There's nothing left." The women's response: "We're left." One would like to think this is the sensible response to the end of hostility: Women, with their natural practicality and respect for life, are relived that life will continue. However, given the stance of the rest of The Fastest Guitar Alive, it's more likely that they just mean that they can all get hitched now. Elsewhere in America, it was the height of the protests opposing the Vietnam War...

So, what about the gold blah blah? They boys debate whether to keep it, then they decide to turn it in. In the meantime, various folks try to get the gold, leading to more fourth-rate Wile E. Coyote nonsense along with a few more musical numbers. I'd say the one thing the screenwriters for The Fastest Guitar Alive did right was keep the damn thing to 87 minutes.

Anyway, The Fastest Guitar Alive is an attempt to make 50s entertainment in the 60s  and, well, simply not good. Hell, even Elvis himself was leaving Clambake behind for the 68 Comeback Special by now (lawdy). The only redeeming quality is you get to hear some Roy Orbison songs and, frankly, you could do that better with a stereo.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Driver's Seat

Ah, Elizabeth Taylor, Empress of Batshittery.

"Who asked you for a stain-resistant dress!?"

And I say that with absolute love and respect. Elizabeth Taylor is the definitive movie star in many ways: She starred in film classics such as A Place in the Sun and National Velvet and big-budget blowouts like Cleopatra and Giant. Hell, she was denounced by the Vatican and in the United States House of Representatives and she was just like, "Whatever. Me and Richard Burton are going back to our yacht to eat diamonds." La Liz was one of the great film queens gifted with an abundance of beauty and a dearth of fucks to give: Louise Brooks, Kay Francis, Ava Gardner, none of whom cared that much for their careers, but saw glamour as a means to an end, to live, live live! (Usually in a way that involved lots of handsome men and top-shelf liquor and gorgeous clothes and five-star hotels.)

"In her walk, in her look! There was something about her that made you notice her right away. Something unseemly!"

But, anyway, long after Cat in a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--hell, long after Butterfield 8--she made an array of weird-ass 70s movies like Boom! and Hammersmith Is Out and The Only Game in Town (which might have worked if it had been shot in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra as originally planned, rather than faking Vegas in Paris with Warren Beatty). The Driver's Seat, also known as Identikit, is one such odd entry in the filmography.

The Driver's Seat is based on a short novel by Muriel Spark and has a plot best described as "stuff happens." It feels like an improvisational film or at least one made by someone who'd never made movies before--scenes of phone calls, letter writing, scarf buying, etc. go on and on in real time. Choosing a book involves a long, slow pan of paperback mystery novels. When characters go form one place to another, we watch a bunch of scenery go by and a few establishing shots.

"Not a presence, but a lack of absence. That's what it is."

I mean, I don't like spending time waiting for takeoff when I'm on a plane, much less watching someone else wait. Have you ever wanted to be trapped in a car with a guy who can't stop ranting about his macrobiotic diet? Me neither, but you get to in The Driver's Seat. The only time this time-consuming, time-wasting method of filmmaking is at all worthwhile is when we get to watch Taylor do her eye makeup in closeup, which is better than any YouTube tutorial.

"When I diet, I diet. And when I orgasm, I orgasm. I don't believe in mixing the two cultures."

There is a scene where she leaves her apartment in a crazy, mixed-pattern ensemble, looking for all the world like Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon. then, as though the movie can read your mind, a little Italian lady jumps out of the shadows and crows "Are you going to join the CIRCUS in that outfit?!"

"Excuse me, which do you think would be more exciting? More sadomasochistic?"

So she has a shitty plane flight--middle seat, lecherous creep on one side, panic-attacking basket case on the other. Although we are reminded of a more innocent time, when you could buy knives at the airport gift shop and joke with security about having a bomb in your purse. And she lands and some dude gets shot and there's a lot of running and screaming and then Andy Warhol shows up with a white suit and a dubbed British accent to return the paperback she dropped--and, for all the noise made about his appearing in this film, it amount to three 60-second bits with someone else's voice. She carries the paperback everywhere, cover facing out, like a spy meeting a contact or a Tinder date that actually reads books (the former being more likely).

"It was as though something came out of her, some force that all women feel latent within themselves, stifled--a potential for catastrophe!"

At one point she and some weird old lady go to a deserted art deco department store with entire floors of grand pianos. They buy slippers and letter openers, there's a random act of terrorism that makes it hard to get a ride back to the Hilton..

This is not a picture of Divine.
It is a picture of Elizabeth Taylor in The Driver's Seat. For reals.

She spends a of of time smiling vacantly and then yelling at people. It's supposed to be a nervous breakdown, but it looks more like pills. Or perhaps just diva fits. And it seems Interpol is looking for her. Or will be looking for her: We get footage of various people being interrogated about Liz--or Lise, as she is called here--and even a few Rashomon-like revisions, which only add to the intertia and confusion. Also, everyone talks about going to the Hilton like the movie is a damn ad.

"I am an idealist."

Taylor may be having some kind of meltdown but you feel no sympathy for her. Mostly because she's a raging cunt to the help--dress shop salesgirls, hotel doormen, maids, she hollers at them all about stain-treated dresses, unwashed glasses, etc. She snaps her fingers at waiters, when she wants to know what time it is, she just shouts the question until someone answers....

She also keeps hanging out with the macrobiotic MRA creep she met on the plane who keeps talking about his need for a daily orgasm and how he can charge her hotel room "to the company." But, like every other man, she flounces off, shouting about how he's "not my type!" I'd say a good 25% of Taylor's dialogue consists of "Are you my type?" or "You're not my type" or "He wasn't my type." See, what Lise/Liz wants is to find a man who will kill her and the problem of the film is that she's looking for a murderer but she keeps meeting rapists. (Maybe she should asks one of those salesgirls she bitches at to gut her like a flounder. Pretty sure they'd be happy to.)

"I want to go back home, to feel all my loneliness again."

The Driver's Seat makes me think of that incredibly stupid movie with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp wandering around fancy hotels in Venice and running yachts into people. (Which may or may not be worse than the movie with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt wandering around fancy hotels in Malta and sighing a lot.) If you want to see a suicidal, clothing-obsessed diva have a nervous breakdown amidst European scenery, The Scarlet Lady is far more enjoyable. If you want a confusing story about a crazy woman loose in a strange city, Daughter of Horror has more giggles and more panache.

"After you stab, make sure you twist the knife upwards to penetrate deeply enough."

Overall, The Driver's Seat is just a bad movie. But gawd knows it'd be worse without Elizabeth Taylor.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Devil Rides Out

The Devil Rides Out deals in some of the usual Hammer Films tropes, but adds a spin with its roaring 20s setting and by making an actor who is usually the villain into the hero. Also known as The Devil's Bride, the film was based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley.

Christopher Lee usually played a bad guy--hell, the baddest of guys--but he was equally as effective as a hero. He gives the comforting feeling that, whatever evil is coming your way, Christopher Lee knows it well and will shut it down. Oddly, this is kind of accurate: During World War II, Lee was a member of the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare--also known as the Special Operations Executive, an actual unit, dedicated to taking out Nazis by means that were... well, sometimes rather ungentlemanly. He was also six-foot-five and a direct descendant of Charlemagne.

But things kick right off with a set of opening credits that could easily be a heavy metal video if you just swapped out the soundtrack (perhaps one of Lee's own, as he had a late-in-life career as a heavy metal vocalist and was apparently a big Black Sabbath fan). Another twist to The Devil  Rides Out is that it's set in roaring 20s Britain and Satanism is just another lark for upper-class Bright Young Things.

The Duc de Richleau, aka Christopher Lee shows up to visit a friend who is hosting a "meeting" or his "astronomical society." Yeah, you ain't fooling the Duc, who has been around all the blocks, many times. Of course the meeting is actually a congregation of devil worshippers, led by none other than Charles Gray, whom you know from Diamonds Are Forever and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here he is Mocata, the utterly unctuous leader of the local Satanic coven.

"Chickens in a basket, diagrams on a floor. Do these mean something to you?"

Rather like those in The Black Cat, it's one classy, well-dressed group of Satanists--the manor house is gorgeous, the patter is literary and the wine exquisite, and the crowd is strictly black tie and pearls, with the occasional dashiki or sari. But Christopher Lee feels nothing but disdain, as those who are "meddling with black magic" rank about as high in his esteem as Nickelback fans.

Christopher Lee waves off the devil worshippers and carries off his wanabe Satanist pal, but he's going to have to rout this bunch of vermin from the neighborhood. Any gentleman would. Really, it is interesting that The Devil Rides Out chooses as its main combatant against evil, not some radiant creature of pure goodness, but a guy who seems to know exactly what he's up against because he's been there and rolls his eyes at your puerile edgelord nonsense. You think you're a powerful mage summoning Baphomet to do your most vile and stygian bidding, to Christopher Lee you're just a spotty teen playing Marilyn Manson loud until mom makes you a Hot Pocket.

Yet another of the main differences between The Devil Rides Out and your typical Satanist horror flick is that it almost entirely dodges the conventional Judeo-Christian angle for a more ego-centered version. When he goes off on the power of his will, it's not hard to hear the distaff Alestier Crowley` philosophy. It's a choice more suitable to the film's 1920s setting as well as the post-hippie/summer of Manson period in which it was released. (I bet Jimmy Page loves this movie.)

According to the Duc de Christopher Lee, "the power of darkness is more than superstition. it is a living force that can be tapped at any given moment of the night." Something like William S. Burroughs' "ugly spirit," that malevolent force that touches some more than others, and which one must struggle to control, regardless of whether one is suppressing or focusing its darkness.

So, anyhow, the deal is that Duc de Christopher Lee's buddy is in love with this girl who's already engaged to the devil--ergo the movie's stateside title, The Devil's Bride--and Charles Gray has to make sure that nothing interferes with getting her to the church--or coven--on time. One of the ways Charles Gray tries to keep his Satanic wedding planner mojo going is by causing a rather groovy car chase with old timey cars: His eyes appear in your review mirror and next thing you know you're driving a perfectly lovely Buick Roadster off the road and getting your cloche all askew.

So Christopher Lee has to disrupt the Satanic baptism--Baptism before wedding because, hey, we're Satanists!--which he seems to be intent upon disrupting not just because it involves sacrificing souls to evil incarnate, but because it's so damned tacky. I swear that as he drives his Hispano Suzia into the center of a group of frolicking devil worshippers, he's not only chanting prayers, but muttering something about "cheap Woodstock knockoff" and "ill-fitting hospital gowns" and various maledictions against those who would drink Captain Morgan's.

"As part of one's initiation, one has to choose the name of some past great practitioner of the occult."
Oooh! Can I be Jayne Mansfield?

"The goat of Mendes! The devil himself!"

Some friends come by to visit for not other apparent reason than to supply the plot with a child to be sacrificed to Satan later--meetings, baptisms, weddings, sacrifices... I can see why one has to be upper-class to belong to this coven. One would have to be independently wealthy to have enough free time--not to mention all of the appropriate outfits--for the many mandatory activities.

Charles Gray stops by to be all shady and mind-control-y. "In magic there is neither good nor evil, there is merely a science. The science of causing change to happen merely through one's will." When his cover his blown, he flounces out, proclaiming, "I shall not be back. But something will." Could be a campy British closet case or an Avon lady, could be a bomb cyclone or a giant spider, who knows...

The climax is when Duc Lee Richleau and his cronies do some kind of magic circle thing in the library to ward of an attack by Macaca that involves wind, lightning, bats and giant spiders. And you know what's worse than giant spiders? The Angel of Death! Okay, maybe nothing is worse than giant spiders, but it's still all kinds of bad stuff...

"Don't look at the eyes!" Lee does a lot of telling people not to look at shit, or not to leave someone alone or not to turn off the light or not to remove the crucifix and they always do. Why? I have no idea: If Christopher Lee tells you to do shit, you fucking do it. Fortunately Christopher Lee can pretty much always shut evil down, since he's a 12th level magic user, as well as a 7th level fighter--and his character in The Devil Rides Out clearly has a number of mystical powers as well...

I'd rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!

This is really the big scene of the film. Sure, everyone rushes over to disrupt the human sacrifice of some woman's daughter and flip off Charles Gray but that's basically a bunch of deus ex machina and an improbable happy ending. Because even more ridiculous than "it was all a dream" is "We time-traveled back to right before all of this happened."

The Devil Rides Out is a relatively short, fast-moving horror film and one wishes it had spent a little more time developing its unorthodox Crowley-esque vision of Satanism and the humanist magic Lee uses to defeat--or at least thwart--it.

And, well, they had Charles Gray and Christopher Lee to put this over. I would sit and watch those two recite the phone book or the dialogue from an Adam Sandler movie--much less act imperious and make dismissive gestures while reciting the names of Egyptian gods and random bits of Latin.

Overall, The Devil Rides Out is a solid horror flick--it may be light on the scares, but it makes up for it with atmosphere, characterization and a unique take on an old topic. Also, it's got Christopher Lee. And, even with 280 entries on the man's IMDB page, there's never enough of that.