Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '76 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Monday, July 18, 2016

Underrated '76 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson is a dedicated cinephile who can be found writing at The Cinema 4 Pylon:
www.cinema4pylon.blogspot.com
Here are the Underrrated '96 and '86 lista he did for RPS as well:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/03/underrated-rik-tod-johnson.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/06/underrated-rik-tod-johnson.html
He can be found on Twitter @TheCinema4Pylon:
https://twitter.com/thecinema4pylon

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The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
Dir.: John Badham

The Bad News Bears has been a favorite baseball film of mine since I first saw it a couple of years after it first hit theatres. Seeing Bears now, though, after so much has changed in our society -- especially our tolerance of twelve-year-olds spouting racial epithets -- is something of a shocker. But there is another baseball film from 1976 that almost works as a tonic to the more abrasive Bears flick: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. John Badham's directorial debut, Bingo Long relates the adventures of a barnstorming team made up of all-star players who have defected from other Negro League teams in the 1930s and 1940s to travel the country with the extremely charismatic pitcher and manager, Bingo Long (played by Billy Dee Williams, at the top of his game). This film is pure charm, especially if you like baseball, even though the actual baseball played in the film is not all that convincing. The cast is reliably solid; in addition to Williams (whose character is inspired by Satchel Paige), we get Richard Pryor, James Earl Jones (shades of Josh Gibson), Stan Shaw (as a Jackie Robinson type), Mabel King, Ted Ross, Tony Burton, and Ken Foree. Hell, the batboy is even played by Otis Day (sans Knights) of Animal House fame. The focus is on the Globetrotter-style antics of a freewheeling (and fictional) team as they try to win over audiences both black and white across the country. While the tone is outwardly comedic, there are more dramatic issues involving the cruelty and racism they encounter at nearly every stop, Pryor's violent run-in with gangsters (which is actually still pretty shocking) and townie cops, and their struggles financially along the way. While I didn't appreciate these deeper aspects as a kid, the film's build towards the drama helps give Bingo Long an extra bite it wouldn't have had if it went solely for pure laughs. One last note: the team's uniforms remind me of the overly garish ones worn by the Houston Astros around the same time that Bingo Long was filmed. The outfits have never seemed too authentic to the period to me, but I've been unable to verify if other teams of the period ever resorted to such a bright color combination across their jersey fronts. Accurate or not, this is a fun film.

The Big Bus
Dir.: James Frawley

I love Airplane! more than is humanly possible, but there is room for more than just one disaster movie spoof in my heart. The Big Bus almost got to Airplane's hallowed heights a few years earlier -- almost, that is. Considered to be a flop on its release, it's not quite as manic and sharp as the ZAZ film, but The Big Bus nonetheless has made me laugh heartily since I first saw it on television in 1980 (albeit in cut-up form, but most of the jokes were still in there on that CBS showing). Chronicling the adventures of the first nuclear-powered, nonstop bus trek across most of the United States (NYC to Denver), The Big Bus stars Joseph Bologna as a disgraced bus driver ("You eat one lousy foot and they call you a cannibal!") who is pulled back to the job by his former lover (Stockard Channing, who defends him by crying, "Dan's a good man, and he's never eaten a whole person in his entire life!") The rest of the cast deliver the comedic goods sharply: they include Harold Gould (peachy as always), René Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Ruth Gordon, Larry Hagman, Howard Hesseman, Sally Kellerman, Stuart Margolin, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, and Vic Tayback (who yells in a bar fight, "Look out! He's got a broken milk carton!") I especially love José Ferrer, as the megalomaniacal super-villain, Ironman, who delivers orders to his henchmen while lying inside an iron lung (it fits two, you will find out eventually), and Murphy Dunne, as a blissfully unaware lounge pianist who ad-libs inappropriate lyrics for almost any embarrassing situation, and keeps playing through every danger like he's the band on the Titanic. And everyone seems to be on the same page when delivering ridiculous dialogue like "The aerodynamics work! He's breaking wind at 90!" and "You're on the shoulders, Shoulders!" As any legitimate disaster film would allow you, this is the film for you if seeing top '70s character actors deploy their stock in trade is your thing. And "The Big Bus" itself, the Cyclops? Brightly colored, and almost the length of three regular buses, the Cyclops comes with an endless series of odd gimmicks (radiation suit demos from the stewardesses, a self-wash system that spits foam everywhere, a single lane bowling alley, and a too cramped swimming lounge) that keeps treating the viewer to endless sight gags. It seems director James Frawley couldn't get away from buses. His next feature film would be The Muppet Movie.

Leadbelly
Dir.: Gordon Parks

It was largely overshadowed by Hal Ashby and David Carradine's Oscar-winning Bound for Glory, on the life of Woody Guthrie, but Gordon Parks' Leadbelly was an equally marvelous folk music biopic released in 1976. With what should have been a star-making lead role for Roger E. Moseley (he didn't do too bad for himself as T.C. on Magnum P.I. for most of the '80s), Leadbelly is greatly fictionalized (as most movie biopics usually are as a genre) but still gives us a vivid portrait of Huddie Ledbetter, who rambled in and out of trouble and chain gangs for most of his life, while slowly growing his legend as a quite remarkable blues singer and guitarist who would become famous as "Lead Belly" (the artist's preferred styling). A fine ensemble cast including Art Evans (as Blind Lemon Jefferson), Paul Benjamin, Albert Hall, Ernie Hudson, and -- best of all -- Madge Sinclair, gives a solid base to the drama and wanderlust that dominated Ledbetter's life. But best of all is the chance to dive deeply into the wonderful folk blues that would eventually draw music archivists John and Alan Lomax towards Lead Belly. They would record hundreds of his songs, making Lead Belly a huge music and radio star in the process. While Moseley does not do his own singing in this film, it does not really distract from the excellence of the production overall. Highly atmospheric, and giving us a mostly non-anachronistic representation of its time period (mostly Louisiana and Texas in the late 1910s through the 1930s), Leadbelly also gives us a prime example of black filmmaking in the 1970s that wasn't as readily quantifiable as exploitation (though director Parks did give us the first two Shaft films). If there is a 1976 film that I can call truly underrated, it is Leadbelly.

At the Earth's Core
Dir.: Kevin Connor

It is easy to dismiss Kevin Connor's series of mid-70s science fiction adventure films as pure cheese and mere children's entertainments, as many do, but that would entirely discount just how pleasing At the Earth's Core still is to one who was a mere child when it first came out in theatres in 1976. And to one who has retained his love for the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs all these years as well, revisiting this film and the other Connor/ERB films (The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot) is a simple pleasure of which I will never tire. At the Earth's Core might not give me David Innes as described by Burroughs, but Doug McClure worked for me as a kid, even if I find him kind of a clod by comparison today. (It is interesting to note that, in my eyes, I thought of him as one of the biggest motion picture stars in the world in the late '70s because I kept ending up mainly at his films as a kid.) For the Hammer movie fan, Peter Cushing plays the dotty professor who creates the giant drilling vehicle that takes our heroes to mysterious Pellucidar, and he tackles the role in a quite humorously bumbling vein miles away from his Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein portrayals. Seeing him in this and then Star Wars the next year, while first seeing his Hammer films on late night TV at the same time, made me believe he was one of the great actors of the world. Silly, shambling monsters played quite obviously by men in suits dominate the world of this underground fear factory, but I squarely loved them as a kid, and they still work for me within the overall atmosphere of the piece. It's bright and loud and grungy and nothing looks like it isn't an obvious movie set, but to hell with it! This is still a fun kid's picture, but at the heart of everything, there is the gorgeous Caroline Munro as the woman over whom much of the conflict between the men, including Innes, in the picture occurs. I was enamored of her in several pictures during that period, and she served as one of my early screen crushes. And the evil Mahars in the film -- meant to be flying reptiles of the species Rhamphorhynchus, but of course never really approximating what they actually looked like -- gave me weird nightmares for a few years. If that doesn't make a film stick with you, beyond Caroline Munro,nothing will.

Swashbuckler
Dir.: James Goldstone

I am not even sure Swashbuckler could get close to qualifying as a "good" film in my mind as I approach it today, and it might be that my continued enjoyment of it recently was deeply tied into my love of the film as a kid. My mother took us to this film when it played in theatres in 1976, and it remained one of my favorite pirate movies, after Captain Blood and The Crimson Pirate, for several years. Especially after our local NBC affiliate starting playing it regularly after the 11:00 p.m. George Michael Sports Machine on Sunday nights for several years. I was shocked years later to hear that critics hated the film and that it was a financial flop, because it all seemed pretty swell to me. Then I grew up and saw it again, and realized that, well, maybe they were right after all, but that didn't stop me from loving it anyway. Chiefly, it was the camaraderie amongst the pirates, led by Robert Shaw as Captain Ned Lynch and James Earl Jones as his first mate and best pal Nick Debrett. In this motley crew, too, are B-movie stalwart Sid Haig, Doritos spokesman (and a favorite comic of mine at the time) Avery Schreiber, and Tom Clancy, not the novelist but a sweetly crooning member of the famous Clancy Brothers group. On the villainous side is a very sweaty Peter Boyle as the slimy and completely odious Lord Durant, who brings with him Beau Bridges as an upwardly ambitious toady, and an exceedingly creepy lute player with razor-tipped fingers played by Mark Baker. And somewhere on the island as a rebel leader is Cudjo, played by deep-voiced 7-Up pitchman Geoffrey Holder, most memorable as a voodoo villain in Live or Let Die. I think Holder is equally captivating here, at least visually, with a dozen knives or so strapped to his chest and sides, which he wields with deadly accuracy against Durant and his regimental minions. At the heart of the plot is the daughter of an imprisoned nobleman, played by Genevieve Bujold, young and cute and French, who is as deadly with a sword as the pirate captain with whom she shall soon fall in love. Until I found out she had a body double, her moonlight dive off the pirate ship to go skinny-dipping was pretty much all the porn that I needed at the time. It's all fairly broad and unbelievable, but who wants a believable pirate movie? It would be nothing but rape and murder and pillaging and no one but the pirates would have a good time. And most of them would probably have syphilis, so really, very few would come out happy then. Really, enjoy this film as an over-the-top, impossible comedy-adventure, and gasp in astonishment at the scenes where the hard-drinking Shaw has to run really, really hard, his face so puffed and red from sheer exhaustion, you can't believe he didn't have a heart attack then and there. (He would have a fatal one two years after this picture came out, which adds to the astonishment.)
Here is a list of my favorite films of 1976: Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network, Carrie, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Marathon Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bound for Glory, Silver Streak, The Bad News Bears, Assault on Precinct 13, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Logan's Run, The Tenant, The Front, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Murder by Death, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, The First Nudie Musical, Car Wash, and Allegro Non Troppo.

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