The Garbage Pail Kids Movie 1987 (NA– no award)

the-garbage-pail-kids-movie-10A couple of people have asked about the avatar I use, the Venetian plague mask icon, but it’s nothing to do with recent news developments; I chose it way back in 2016. The reasoning was that a critic is, in some way, like a poison taster, letting the public know what is safe to eat. There’s lots of bad criticism, to be sure, but also an illustrious history of essential writing about culture, from James Agee to Clive James, from Lindsay Anderson to Pauline Kael. Critics have a responsibility to educate, to amuse, to share and to chip away at this amorphous entity we call popular culture, to enable us to make the best decisions about what we watch.

Which brings me to 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie. Writer/director Rod Amateau had worked with stars like David Niven and Peter Sellers in the 70’s, and was able to persuade Anthony Newley to star; Newley was a British musical icon in the 1960’s, responsible for the James Bond theme Goldfinger as well as the Oscar-nominated score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Bad choices and worse drinking diminished Newley’s considerable talent, and by 1987, he was a spent force; his performance in The Garbage Pail Kids is limp, rote and unenthusiastic, and yet he’s the best thing in it.

The worst thing in it is the Garbage Pail kids themselves, played by small people with large plastic heads which barely register any expression. Each has a revolting function; one sneezes vicious snot, another has acne and urinates over himself, one farts like a trumpet, one is an alligator (called Ali-Gator) with a foot-fetish, you get the idea. They come from outer space in a garbage pail kept in an urban antiques shop run by Captain Manzini (Newley).

Amateau appears to be aiming for some kind of Rabelaisian humour, blowing a hole in societal norms and emphasising the base-line of humour that in some sense unites humanity. The plot of this movie revolves around Dodger (Mackenzie Astin), a likable scamp who is being bullied; a precocious 15 year old, Dodger has eyes on the bully’s girlfriend Tangerine (Katie Barberi), and decides to win her heart by creating an designing his own range of clothes, which he persuades the Garbage Pail Kids to make. Yes, the garbage-pail kids movie is set in the world of fashion, and climaxes with the kids invading a fashion show, toppling pre-existing codes of beauty and acceptability and striking a blow for the neglected child in us all.

Newley doesn’t sing, in fact, his contribution is minimal; two songs, however, can be referenced as badges of honour for those who choose to sit through this film. ‘You Can Be A Garbage Pail Kid’ takes an Eye of the Tiger aspirational angle, while ‘We Can Do Anything By Working With Each Other’ is a whistle-while-you-work song that the kids sing in their sweatshop. Both, like a sidelong glimpse at a traffic accident, are impossible to forget; like a genie, or the garbage-pail kids themselves, you can’t get them back inside their container.

The Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie has the reputation as one of the worst films ever made; it’s certainly one of the most misguided. Doubling down on the bodily functions, it’s enough to appal parents and children alike, but there’s also a strange sexualisation here that makes for an uncomfortable watch; Dodger is constantly ogling and objectifying women, and Tangerine’s attempts to seduce him don’t sit well given that he’s 15. There are no redeeming moments or qualities in this film, and yet it’s deservedly built up a reputation as a rites of passage for masochists; ‘You can’t change the world by hiding yourself away,’ explains one of the kids in the final scene, a line that lands somewhat ironically given that circa 2020 the world is about to try doing exactly that.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1961 ****

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…is a neat title, because we’re not just talking about one trial here, but several, and these court-room appearances are indeed a trial to Oscar Wilde himself, so exhausting that the great man is a somewhat broken figure by the end. Still, Ken Hughes’s 1961 film is pretty much a success in terms of bring the story of Oscar Wilde to the big screen in the most direct fashion, demonstrating ably how a failed libel on Wilde’s part led him into a trap laid by the authorities.

The Trails of Oscar Wilde is more than watchable fare today, largely because it carries forward a certain theatrical strength derived from source play The Stringed Lute by John Furnell. Also elevating the action is the casting; Peter Finch is one of the acting greats, and although Network saw him pull out all the stops to ground-breaking effect, he absolutely submerges himself in Wilde, bringing the bon mots into play with great skill, and always making Wilde more than just a quote machine.

John Fraser is a pretty fine Alfred Douglas, and the scandal around their relationship is all the more dramatic because the ‘love that dare not speak it’s name’ is never defined by any action; this is 1961 after all. That evasive quality, missing from Stephen Fry’s Wilde or Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, both excellent films, is centre stage here, and adds greatly to the effect; much as the lack of overt homosexuality pervades Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it makes sense in Hughes’s film that because Wilde’s sexuality is not defined, it makes him vulnerable, a decidedly modern way of seeing it given that Wilde is the clear and unmistakable hero here.

If the lengthy running time is a little too much, it’s hard to know what to cut; Finch dispensing Wildean words is a pure pleasure, and seeing him grandstand in the courtroom opposite James Mason is something of a joy in terms of old-school performances; as Sir Edward Carson, Mason gives a great rendition of a sharp mind of sense blood in the water. Bond duo Albert R Broccoli and production designer Ken Adam do a great job of creating wide-active frames for old-world London, and the whole production is sharp as a tack. Wilde is a great subject for a film, and there’s quite a few notable entries, but The Trials of Oscar Wilde is worth casting to see Finch in full flow, bringing a character to life in a way that reminds you how life knocked the stuffing out of Oscar Wilde.

 

Restoration 1995 ****

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The title has several meanings; this is a period piece, set in the 17th century, at the time of the restoration, the King (Sam Neill) is back on the English throne and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism is on the retreat. But this is a story of a personal restoration, that of Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr), a young medical student who is enlisted by the king to take care of his ailing dog. Merivel excels, and the King sees him as a cure-all for a number of personal maladies, not least, a romantic life that requires some unravelling. Merivel plays along, but it’s soon obvious that the King uses and abuses those he enlists, and Restoration’s action moves away from the royal court to a Quaker sanatorium, where Merivel falls for Katherine (Meg Ryan).

Rose Tremain’s novel is, inevitably, given something of a truncated treatment by Michael Hoffman’s film, which does a stunning job in terms of costumes and sets, but bites off more than anyone could chew in terms of her characters and plot. Nevertheless, Restoration is still a good deal smarter than most period films, taking a picaresque journey with Merivel as he falls out of favour with the King, but discovers a richer kind of lifestyle than he ever imagined.

Robert Downey Jr was always a natural performer, and does a great job in conveying Merivel’s youthful arrogance; he’s aided by a strong cast including David Thewlis has a fellow medic, Ian McKellern as his sidekick, and Hugh Grant as a rather pompous painter who Merivel has genuine contempt for. In fact, there’s a spikey-ness to all the characterisations that makes Restoration something of a pleasure; it may not match up with Tremain’s book, but Merivel’s observation of the corrupt world around him is refreshingly bitter.

Restoration won Oscars for set and costume design, but it’s no slouch when it comes to acting or plot; with a great cast, many of whom would go onto become household names, it’s an accessible period film that deserves to be exhumed; while not perfect, it restores the parts that other period drams simply can’t reach.

 

Callan 1974 ****

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One piece of intellectual property that’s positively begging for rediscovery is Callan, a tv show, a book, a franchise beloved in the UK in the 1970’s, and the jumping-off point for Edward Woodward’s starring role in The Equaliser, which has become a Denzel Washington signature role. Each of these off-shoots is more ridiculous than the next, but boiled down to its origin story, James Mitchell’s kitchen sink spy-craft has a studious zing that would be well-worth recapturing.

Having already launched a popular tv show, Mitchell had adapted the pilot into a novel, A Red File for Callan, and this provides the basis for this 1974 film by Don Sharp. David Callan (Woodward) is a polite and friendly man who has violent tenancies, some of which seem to link to his service in the Malayan war. His handler, Hunter (Eric Porter) offers Callan a wet job, to murder a prominent businessman, but Callan takes his time about this to an almost existential degree, frustrating his bosses as he sources a gun and prepares himself by thrusting his hands into bowls of hot, wet sand.

Callan took The Ipcress File’s drab riposte to James Bond and took it a stage further; although there’s a Range-Rover chase and some cinematic action, it’s the tiny details of trade-craft that work best here, like the casual way the government sweeper-ups are disguised as ambulance-men. If you’re expecting Mission Impossible-style stunts, look elsewhere; Callan stealing a postman’s bicycle outside a High Street John Menzies is the limit of the athleticism here. And fans of 70’s dowdiness will enjoy the large cardboard boxes of Ryvita that form a backdrop to a dramatic scene.

Marked by an excellent performance by Woodward, no brooding Rambo but a well-disciplined man with still waters running deep in his psyche. The way his shunning of alcohol hardens his resolve is one of the details that give Callan such strength; espionage rarely goes out of fashion, but Callan is one forgotten name that really deserves to be brought back from the dead. And Dave Prowse, sporting an unfamiliar moustache, has a brief but memorable bit as a heavy who is no match for our hero’s dour strength.

 

Hussy 1980 ****

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Post Star Wars, there was a brief period where there remained a vogue for adult film; not pornography, but serious-minded dramas which reflected the seedy side of life. Saint Jack, Atlantic City, Tales of Ordinary Madness are all quality films that followed on from the mainstream success of Emmanuelle, and reflected a desire to see believable characters on the screen depicted with a new sexual frankness. Matthew Chapman’s debut film Hussy, like most of the above mentioned films, was rapidly forgotten about post 1980, but now resurfaces to demonstrate that it’s something of a neglected classic, not least because it features brilliant performances, not just from Helen Mirren in the titular role, but from the whole ensemble cast.

Mirren plays Beaty Simons, a call girl who hangs around a bin-juice encrusted urban nightclub with other prostitutes, oblivious to regular, grand performances by disco pioneer Patti Boulaye, who seems to be previewing material for the Royal Variety Performance. Beaty has a past and a child, but still finds idealism enough to fall for chauffeur Emory (John Shea), who seeks to take her away from the squalor she lives in and share the similar squalor that he lives in. After some fairly raunchy sex scenes, the plot takes over as Emory fends off Max (Murray Salem) an outrageous gay criminal with a plan, while she bristles at the intrusion of her old pimp Alex (Paul Angelis) who moves in with them. Both Salem and Angelis give extraordinary, larger-than-life performances here, barely giving the leads any space to work. Indeed, the second half of the film hardly features Mirren at all, but focuses on a deal gone wrong that leads Max and Alex into a bloody mess.

Hussy is something of a blot in Mirren’s esteemed copybook, regarded by many as a crummy sex-movie that’s borderline exploitation. And yet, if you’re broadminded enough, it’s also a very good film indeed, and catching Chapman on his way up (a descendent of Charles Darwin, he later wrote Color of Night and Runaway Jury) while also giving Salem something substantial to do; he later wrote the screenplay for Kindergarten Cop. Shea has proved to be a dependable actor as well, making Hussy something of a hothouse for talent. If you can ignore the hideous 70’s décor, music and attitudes, it’s a powerful little B movie that’s worth braving the ignominy of having Hussy on your search history.

One More Time 1970 ***

One More Time‘We know what turns you on’ says the opening song in One More Time, but if stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Junior actually do know what turns us on, there’s little evidence of it in this slapdash comedy. Writer by the brother of Dr Who’s Jon Pertwee, Bill, and directed by Jerry Lewis, it’s a sequel of sorts to 1968’s Salt and Pepper, but is mainly designed as a showcase of the talents, resistible as displayed here, of Davis Junior.

Davis and Lawford are Charles Salt and Chris Pepper, two hipster nightclub owners who fall foul of the law in some kind of Merrie England as featured in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Lawford plays a double role, Pepper and his twin brother Sydney, who is murdered with a deadly dart and replaced by his brother, swapping the dead body for his living one to investigate the crime. Although the two are supposedly best buds and partners in crime, Chris Pepper doesn’t tell Charles Salt, and allows his friend to think that he’d dead.

This means a good hour or so of Sammy Davis Junior wandering around an English country house vaguely synching to some incredibly maudlin tunes; a sequence in which Davis descends a staircase singing Where Do I Go Now? seems to last for weeks. The personable Lawford is stranded with some character comedy, which isn’t his strongest suit; Lawford can barely be bothered playing a thinly veiled version of himself, so playing another variation on the same person is something of a strain to watch. Meanwhile Lewis indulges himself with some strange set-pieces, including snorting snuff and a lengthy parody of the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001 as Davis reacts to a country-house bedroom with the same awe that Kier Dullea reacts to the Monolith. It’s an odd, vaguely racist scene which fits with the general indignities that Davis goes through here, having drinks thrown over him, called a ‘chocolate dandy’ and generally side-lined in a way that constantly has him breaking the fourth wall to complain.

One More Time is probably best remembered for one single scene, seemingly improvised without reason, in which Salt finds a hidden doorway that leads to a cellar where Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) are working; the gag seems to be that Gothic horror lies beneath traditional British values. Otherwise, when the words ‘that’s it’ appear instead of “the end’, One More Time must have had even the most hipster-cat audiences begging for it to stop; with Lewis directing Davis Junior well beyond excess, it’s the audience who must truly have felt mugged. As a side-note, One More Time offers a good argument against smoking; everyone quaffs fags like their lives depend on it, and there’s even huge close-ups of full ashtrays to present bona-fide testimony to the performers’ enthusiasm for cigarettes.

 

Flashpoint 1984 ***

flash1When is a movie not a movie? When it’s made for home entertainment? These are the arguments that no-one was asking when HBO opened up their theatrical release account way back in 1984 with Flashpoint, an adaptation of a novel by George LaFountaine. Truth by told, Flashpoint is a cut above most tv movies and fully deserved to be seen theatrically; it’s also gained a certain post-JFK notoriety by chiming in with the themes of Oliver Stone’s celebrated conspiracy pic.

Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams play Bobby Logan and Ernie Wyatt, two Texas border patrolmen who start to question their roles; there’s a prescient discussion where a dropped-in suit (Kurtwood Smith) suggests that if there wasn’t a migrant problem, it would be necessary to create a crisis in order to justify the US government spending on border fortification. That seems like quite an accurate prediction of 2019’s fake news and national emergency, but such allusions are not Flashpoint’s main line of enquiry. The patrolmen find a jeep buried in the sand with skeletons, a high-powered gun, and a stack of money which they trace back to early 1960’s Dallas; could they have stumbled on part of a cover-up directly related to the assassination of president John F Kennedy?

Director William Tannen’s thriller doesn’t deviate too much from conventional thriller mechanics, but there’s lots for genre fans to enjoy here, starting with another amazing Tangerine Dream score. Smith, Rip Torn and Miguel Ferrer all add gritty support turns, and the film certainly explores border politics in a thorough way.

The zeitgeist moved towards slicker, flashier, Miami Vice-type investigations, leaving Flashpoint high and dry and the box office, but it deserves to gain a little more recognition for packaging politics and thrills together effectively. If nothing else, Williams and Kristofferson are pretty much convincing as the cops, frequently stripped to the waist, tanned, sporting sunglasses, and driving nifty looking jeeps that bounce around the desert with not a drop of CGI in sight.

Love at First Bite 1979 ***

After sampling the reputedly toxic, morally corrosive substances emitted by the Joker movie, the immediate consequences involved watching a short season of George Hamilton comedies, something worth holding the film-makers of Joker directly responsible for. Having followed up on their quote of Zorro The Gay Blade, it seemed natural to look back a couple of years to the film that Hamilton was attempting to recapture the magic of; Love at First Bite.

Stan Dragosi’s comedy was a breakout hit in 1979, but has since fallen by the wayside, partly because of some hideous stereotyping; black characters are little more than cheerful thieves in the Manhattan that Count Dracula visits. Copyright issues involving a featured Alicia Bridges song have also muted re-release plans. Dracula goes disco’ would be a better title for this film, in which the Count faces a fish-out-of-water culture clash as he encounters nightclubs, modelling shoots, psychiatry and various other late 70’s touchstones. Along the way, a shrink who is related to nemesis Van Helsing (Richard Benjamin) gets wind of the count’s plans and a duel of wits follows.

Love at First Bite is a more interesting film that a rather sketchy reputation might suggest; this isn’t quite Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the count can shoot steam jets from his mouth, bend metal with his stare, transform himself into a dog and control a horse and cart with his mind. The world he encounters is recognisably 1970’s, but it’s odd how some characters recognise the Dracula brand, and others don’t; Love at First Bite is so keen to get laughs it can’t maintain a consistent universe.

That said, Hamilton is a laugh here, playing straight and with great style in the way he’s constantly undercutting of his own gravity. Arte Johnson does well as his cockroach-loving sidekick Renfield, and there’s a few wierdly caustic lines like a psychiatrist saying ‘If you don’t pay for it, it won’t get better’ or a conquest who excuses her messy apartment by saying ‘I hate housework, it killed my mother’. The time-frame jokes are many and varied, but the best scene, a hypnosis duel, is timeless and a great moment; sure, Love at First Bite may have a few regrettable scenes, but there’s plenty of comedy meat on these often gnawed bones.

Zorro The Gay Blade 1981 ***

It is becoming something of a ‘thing’ for film-makers to point out their inspirations by having a movie theatre prominently placed within their work. That’s fine if, as in It Chapter 1, the point is to pin down in time the specific summer that Derry’s local cinema is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2.  The device feels a bit more laboured when Zack Snyder pans over a 1981 cinema showing Excalibur in Batman Vs Superman, or Todd Phillips recreates the marquee signage from the same year of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in Joker.

Equally prominent in the same shot is Peter Medak’s Zorro The Gay Blade, a rather more neglected text that De Palma’s much frothed-over if effective thriller. Given Joker’s rejection of laughter, from clowns to Chaplin, is the suggestion that George Hamilton’s ‘zany, zexy, spectacular’ parody of the much loved swordsman signifies the death of comedy? Or could Arthur Fleck have been diverted from his murderous purpose if he’d just let a little spray-tanned self-deprecation into his life? The bottom line is that while real-world movies seem to exist in both DC and Marvel universes, it’s kind of hard to see how Zorro The Gay Blade exists in the miserablist world of Joker.

Zorro The Gay Blade certainly delivers on its title; Hamilton plays Diego, a athletic ladies man who doubles up as Zorro. An injury causes him to shirk his duties, and his flamboyantly camp brother Bunny Wrigglesworth (also Hamilton)  takes his place. Wrigglesworth prefers a whip to a sword and constructs a suit and cape combo in gold lame rather than black as he attempts to personalise the classic style of the Zorro brand.

Medak, who made The Ruling Class and has been touring with his Ghost of Peter Sellers film, was quite a craftsman, and assembles some great suppor for Hamiltont, from Ron Liebman’s shouty villain to Lauren Hutton and Brenda Vaccarro, plus some well-staged action scenes. The stereotypes are larger than life, but not exactly crude; in fact, for 1981, they’re positively progressive.

Hamilton’s brief period as a bankable movie lead post his big Love At First Bite success ended with the muted reception for this film, but he’s in his element here, sending up his good looks and throwing himself into drag; it’s an anything for a laugh film. At a time when comic-book characters are getting so serious, it’s nice to see such an amiable, lightweight comedy, although what the over-analytical Joker fanboys will make of this as a reference to pore over is anyone’s guess.

Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.