Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '76 - James David Patrick ""

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Underrated '76 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

See his Underrated '86 list here:

I own a lot of unwatched movies on DVD and Blu-ray. I'm a lifelong collector/watcher/student of film and therefore this pile of shame just can't be avoided. Films just aren't as available to rent as they used to be. The last niche or specialty video store in my neighborhood closed down six years ago. Even that was strictly a tiny oasis of broad and bizarre horror offerings. The VHS collection, however, was something to behold. 

So I blind buy a lot of movies with the explicit intent to watch, but life happens and yada yada yada the number of movies I watch rarely exceeds the number that take up residence on my shelves during any given month. With the rental system there were consequences. Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime, stuff on YouTube... these things don't decrease unwatched piles. My wife calls it a disease. I don't disagree, but the tone I'd use to describe this affliction takes on radically different airs. There are far worse diseases to have than a need to be surrounded by movies. And books, too. I'm no heathen.

 As this pertains to Underrated 1976, I've done an intensely scientific survey that concluded I own more unwatched movies from 1976 than any other year. After my definitive selection of three titles, I stared at the my certifiable heap of unwatched '76ers and thought to myself "This must be the biggest of all unwatched heaps." The certifiable heap stared back. Greek horror. Spaghetti westerns. Italian thrillers. Burt Reynolds. Blaxploitation. Fellini. 
J.D.'s Revenge (Arthur Marks, 1976) 
A Blaxploitation film crossed with Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde crossed with a 1940's gangster flick. The elevator pitch for J.D.'s Revenge sold me on this film when I came across it on Amazon Streaming some time ago. Otherwise I'd never heard of it. This is quintessential Blaxploitation: hard-boiled and built for pure entertainment without pretense. 

Glynn Turman and Lou Gossett chew scenery and sell a preposterously high concept through stone-faced commitment to their roles. The actors all appear to enjoy themselves so much that by film's end when everyone just accepts the outlandish events with a laugh and a wink - that an old-timey gangster inherited the body of an otherwise standup law student to hunt down the stool pigeon (who ratted him out to the coppers) - you're laughing and winking right along with them, because these things just happen sometimes, ya know?! 

 The only caveat might be the specific narrative that involves the possessed student (played by Turman) beating and raping his girlfriend (while possessed by the ghost of the 1940's gangster, mind you). I'd wager that your enjoyment of the movie hinges on your ability to contextualize these scenes as part of the horror film contained within this underappreciated Blaxploitation classic. The scenes are uncomfortable, without a doubt, but they're not exploitative or played for thrills. The man possessing Turman is a bad man. And this is a really bad thing that really bad men do in movies to show how bad they really are. 

The Magic Blade (Chor Yuen, 1976) 
 I couldn't decide whether to include this Shaw Brothers' essential. It is indeed a 100% certified classic of the Hong Kong swordplay genre. Still, I rarely hear it discussed. 

The Magic Blade is a movie out of time. The 1970's saw the rise of Shaw Bros. kung fu genre to global importance. Chor Yuen's The Magic Blade, however, strongly recalls King Hu's wuxia films of the 1960's. Filmed on the Shaw Bros' massive sound stages, the stylized set design and costuming coupled with the elaborate fight choreography and weaponry turn this entry in the wuxia genre into an engrossing fever dream of color and shadow. 

Fu Hung-Hsueh (Ti Lung, clad in a Clint Eastwood / Man with No Name poncho) aims to kill a competing swordsman, Yen Nan-Fei (Lo Lieh), but finds himself partnering with his foe to fend off attacks from the all-powerful Lord Yu and his assassins. The non-stop action and conflicts concern something called "the Peacock Dart." Peacock Dart means MacGuffin in Mandarin. I can only assume. The film unfolds with the shifting logic of Alice in Wonderland, but all you really need to know is that Ti Lung is badass. He fights a lot. Also, the movie just looks really slick. 

The Magic Blade is the mystic link between the classic Hong Kong cinema and the mainstream explosion in the 1980's, which played fast and loose with genre convention and pushed technological boundaries. This kind of internal conflict between tradition and progress unfolded in the work of Tsui Hark, for example. For Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Tsui tapped the classic wuxia genre but imported Hollywood technicians to create unprecedented special effects. Maybe The Magic Blade doesn't have the same notoriety because it was the one of the guys in Swingers, going from party to party saying, "This place is dead, anyway," before taking its ass home and waiting for someone to call. Too early for the 1980's genre explosion party and too late for the 1960's wuxia. 

Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1976) 
Who would have thought that Burt Reynolds and Ryan O'Neal would become my new favorite comedic duo of 1976? 

Peter Bogdanovich's ode to silent filmmaking goes down like cinematic comfort food. By using the visual beats and rhythms of silent comedies to pace his film, Bogdanovich creates instant nostalgia for a bygone celluloid - or rather, nitrate - era. While Nickelodeon plays like a screwball farce, the film is also a thinly veiled (perhaps not veiled at all?) skewering of the Hollywood studio machine, a studio machine that perhaps not coincidentally battled him throughout the production of the film. Bogdanovich also claims that the story is based on tales told to him by silent directors Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan. Directors Walsh and Dwan were unavailable for comment. 

Without knowing the troubled production while viewing, you still get the sense that certain elements seemed to have had gone awry. Bogodanovich and Lazslo Kovacs wanted to shoot Nickelodeon in a high-contrast, grainy black and white style, reminiscent of the era. Kovacs lit everything for black & white cinematography, but Columbia refused because they wanted a broad comedy like What's Up, Doc? Era- specific camera techniques remain, however, like irising in and out of scenes. The studio even outright cancelled the film when Bogdanovich added Tatum O'Neal to the cast on top of the bloated salaries of Ryan O'Neal and Reynolds. British Lion provided additional budget and Bogdanovich sacrificed a share of his salary in order to complete production. 

Counterpoint to all of this: Producer Irwin Winker who'd purchased the original script by W.D. Richter believes it was Bogdanovich who "screwed up a really terrific script." The end result is clearly the sort of muddled mess that would cause a director to semi-retire for a few years to find his center, but it's also fun and scatterbrained and well intended in the tradition of some of Hollywood's finest mistakes. 

Nuts in May (Mike Leigh, 1976) 
Mike Leigh's biting satire on the back-to-nature phenomenon comes off initially as a lark (this camping thing is shite!), but by film's end you start to sense Leigh's seething distaste for the absurd pretensions of the middle class. Nuts in May is actually a passive-aggressive thinkpiece about class wars. And as a result, this seems to be one of the most very British things I've ever seen. 

Made for TV, Nuts in May depicts a horribly grating married couple, Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice Marie (Alison Steadman), on their quest to find the ultimate camping destination. To borrow a phrase from Joe vs. the Volcano, they long to be "away from the things of man" - but their efforts leave only a trail of bourgeois pretense and disillusionment in their wake. They harangue a man at a quarry about fossils and barter for unpasteurized milk. The condescending Keith parades his misguided knowledge about the number of times one must chew a vegetarian meal and lambastes Candice Marie about her particular footwear decisions. He attacks a fellow camper with a tree branch for not respecting nature and then properly loses his gourd when a lower-class couple dares to thoughtlessly have a good time in his vicinity. Keith's good intentions become lost in cold formality and ignorance. 

You'll be singing a tone deaf "I want to see the zoo, she said, I want to see the zoo..." for days after your viewing and slowly, ever so slowly, coming to realize that you even saw a small part of yourself in Keith and Candice Marie. This is Mike Leigh at his most acerbic, but also his most accessible. 

The Ritz (Richard Lester, 1976) 
I wrote about The Ritz some time ago for my Underrated Comedy list on this here website. I stand by my love of The Ritz. In fact, I popped in my Warner Archive disk recently to watch a couple of scenes for this blurb and I'm still surprised that a movie got away with this brand of social comedy. This is the perfect example of why we should embrace the anything-goes filmmaking style of that decade. Porous and ill-defined genre barriers. Daring to offend without fear. 

Upon close inspection, however, this film about a persona non grata (Proclo, played by Jack Warden) using a gay bathhouse as a hideout presents stereotypes from all ends of the spectrum. It isn't offensive unless you only focus on certain eccentric aspects of the production. If you choose to be offended, you will. The gay characters in the film are all far better humans. 

The movie succeeds because of the vivid supporting performances from F. Murray Abraham and Rita Morena as Googy Gomez, D-grade nightclub singer. And then, like the cherry on top of the whole manic sundae, Jerry Stiller runs around ranting and raging for the final thirty minutes (and I ask what else would you have him do?). The movie devolves into a slapstick cacophony residing somewhere between Jack Benny and the finale of Casino Royale (1967). 

As an adaptation of the original Broadway play, I've read that The Ritz suffers. I can't testify to any of that. I can only enjoy what we've got here on the screen. And that's an effective, offbeat farce depicting New York City's grimy and glamorous bathhouse culture of the 1970's from the director that brought you A Hard Day's Night and Superman II. 

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Herbert Ross, 1976) 
How much fun is this movie? Goddamn. Sherlock, Watson and Sigmund Freud solving a kidnapping while Freud aims to cure Sherlock of his cocaine addiction? Fun without being flippant and serious without ever being dour or mired in procedural minutiae. 

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution may have slipped through the cracks for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn't really fall into any one genre. Second, it doesn't treat its famed protagonist with traditional reverence. So the Sherlock purists won't champion Nicol Williamson's portrayal of the detective. Director Herbert Ross embellishes the character's identity as an addict and as an ill-adjusted human unfit for public consumption. It's the interplay between Sherlock and Alan Arkin's Freud that puts this Holmes mystery over the top. When in doubt, cast Alan Arkin. Speaking of casting... this movie features Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Nicol Williamson, Vanessa Redgrave, Joel Gray, Charles Gray and Laurence Olivier. Top that. (That's your cue to pull up the "Top That" clip from Teen Witch.) 

I do want to take a moment here to reflect on the career of director Herbert Ross, a man who quietly, almost anonymously, churned out a 24-film career of highly entertaining movies. Underrated gems like this one, The Last of Sheila, Pennies from Heaven, My Blue Heaven, and Play It Again, Sam... all the way up to Footloose, Steel Magnolias, The Goodbye Girl, The Secret of My Success, and Funny Lady. For the longest time I only knew Ross as the director of Footloose. It wasn't until I first saw The Seven-Per-Cent Solution a few years ago and made the great "Herbert Ross Connection" that I recognized how omnipresent he'd actually been. 

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