Embracing the Melodrama #31: When Time Ran Out (dir by James Goldstone)


If I had been alive in the 70s, I would have been terrified if I had ever found myself in the same general location of Paul Newman, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Jacqueline Bisset, or Burgess Meredith.  Just based on the movies that they spent that decade appearing in, it would appear that disaster followed them everywhere.

Just consider:

Both Paul Newman and William Holden were trapped in The Towering Inferno. 

Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons both ended up taking an unexpected Poseidon Adventure together.

Jacqueline Bisset was a flight attendant in the first Airport and nearly got killed by a mad bomber.

And finally, Burgess Meredith was a passenger on The Hindenburg.

Seriously, that’s a dangerously disaster-prone bunch of thespians!

So imagine how terrifying it must have been on the set of the 1980 film When Time Ran Out when all 6 of those actors — along with a lot of other disaster film veterans — were first gathered in one place.  People were probably running for their lives, both on-screen and off.

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When Time Ran Out takes place on an island in the South Pacific.  Shelby Gilmore (William Holden, playing yet another ruthless but essentially good-hearted businessman) owns a luxury resort that happens to be sitting dangerously close to an active volcano.  Oil rigger Hank Anderson (Paul Newman) is convinced that the volcano is about to erupt but Shelby’s son-in-law, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), refuses to listen and claims that even if the volcano does blow, the resort will be safe.

(As a sidenote, why were William Holden’s son-in-laws always too blame in disaster movies?  First, you had Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno and now, it’s James Franciscus in When Time Ran Out…)

Suspended over a volcano

Suspended over a volcano

You can just look at the film’s title (When Time Ran Out!) and guess that Bob is probably wrong.  However, Bob has other things on his mind.  First off, he’s cheating on his neurotic wife (Veronica Hamel) with a native islander (Barbara Carrera) who happens to be married to the hotel’s general manager, Brian (Edward Albert).  Brian also happens to be Bob’s half-brother and is therefore owed at least half of Bob’s fortune but nobody but Bob realizes that.

And, of course, there are other colorful guests at the hotel who will soon find themselves either fleeing from or drowning in molten lava.  There’s a white-collar criminal (Red Buttons) who is being pursued by a detective from New York (Ernest Borgnine, of course).  There’s also two retired tightrope walkers (Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese) and you better believe that there’s going to be a scene where one of them is going to have to walk across a plank that happens to be suspended over a river a lava…

Told ya!

Told ya!

Eventually, that volcano does erupt and…well, let’s just say that When Time Ran Out is no Towering Inferno as far as the special effects are concerned.  The scene where one random fireball flies out of the volcano and heads for the resort is particularly amusing for all the wrong reasons.  Not only does the volcano apparently have perfect aim but it’s also painfully obvious that the fireball is streaking across a matte painting.  This is the type of film where, when people plunge into a river lava, they do so with heavy lines visible around their flailing bodies.  That, along with the cast’s obvious lack of interest in the material, adds up to make When Time Ran Out a film that is memorable for being so ultimately forgettable.

The Horror!

The Horror!

(It’s odd to consider that this film was directed by the same James Goldstone who directed such memorable films as Rollercoaster and Brother John.)

When Time Ran Out is something of a historical oddity because it was the last of the old 70s all-star disaster films.  (This may have been released in 1980 but it’s a 70s film through and through.)  The movie was such a monumental failure at the box office that it pretty much ended an era of disaster films.

For that reason, it also feels like an appropriate film with which to close out the 70s.  Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1980s.

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Sailor Moon Crystal, Act I: Usagi


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When I heard that the Sailor Moon anime was getting a new treatment for the 20th anniversary, my initial reaction was: “How soon does it start?Whyhasn’titstartedyet?GIVEMENOW.”

It’s an odd reaction, considering that I have never really been regarded as much of an anime fan. In truth, I’m not. There are some that I really enjoy, but for the most part, I’m barely more educated than the lay man about the field of Japanese animation. One very large exception to that generality, however, is in my regard for – and knowledge of – Sailor Moon. Like many other young people, I watched the dub version of Sailor Moon, produced for English audiences by DIC. At the time, I appreciated the complex story involving a kingdom a thousand years vanished, love throughout the ages, and evil back for its revenge. Sailor Moon R, in particular, I really enjoyed – the character of the Wiseman, and his manipulation and inevitable betrayal of his so-called allies was a cool story, especially for a cartoon. I quickly took to taping episodes on VHS for later viewing.

The dub has its limitations, however, and it wasn’t until much later that the Cloverway translation would bring the later chapters of the Sailor Moon story to the English-speaking audiences (and Sailor Stars would never arrive in an official translation). Part of this is because of the so-called sensibilities of a (specifically, the United States) North American audience. Anyone who knows a lot about Sailor Moon knows that it very casually doesn’t give a shit about gender politics or roles. The heroes are girls. They kick ass. Various male characters are deeply intrigued by them, or one another, or whatever. Various female characters too. It’s like the real world, only, you know, in a cartoon. A cartoon that is, whatever some others have claimed over the years, laden with a message of female empowerment.

I could not have been any more excited for Sailor Moon Crystal. Yesterday, I watched the first episode. Now it’s time to write. Unlike, say, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this show is obviously going to be poetry in motion, so I doubt there will be much room for my usual sarcasm. I would appreciate it if you contained your disappointment until the end.

Act I: Usagi opens more or less identically to the original Sailor Moon anime version. But right away, we can see some differences. It is very apparent, especially during the title theme sequence (roughly 23 minutes of montage footage from later in the series, accompanied by some metal) that all of the character designs have been re-done, and are obviously intended to be closer to their original manga counterparts. Subtle changes in colour, in the designs of the character’s eyes, and minor bits of costuming, are all much more like the manga than they were in the first anime production. Sailor Moon Crystal even features a vine-and-rose border on the screen, to highlight the introduction of new characters, while Usagi voices over. It’s a surreal device, but this is anime, isn’t it?

Anyway, the first story is a simple one. Usagi is a bumbling crybaby. She doesn’t apply herself at school. But one day, as she’s sprinting to school – she’s already late, of course – she stumbles across a strange black cat with a crescent symbol on her forehead. She miserably fails an English exam, and is insulted in the streets by a haughty fellow who is, for reasons best left unexplored, wearing a tuxedo in the middle of the afternoon on a random Tokyo street.

A little later, at the end of Usagi’s otherwise miserable day, the black cat reappears at her window. The cat introduces herself as Luna. She can talk. And she’s been searching for Usagi for a while. She teaches Usagi how to transform into the Pretty Guardian, Sailor Moon, a dedicated fighter of evil. Usagi is initially excited by the opportunity to save her best friend Naru-chan from the predations of a monster… until she remembers that she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Fortunately, her new form possesses magical powers, with which she easily dispatches the creature. A shadowy figure watches the battle through a crystal ball, and pronounces himself impressed. He’s obviously the first enemy commander, Jadeite, but true to the manga (rather than the first anime), he is not introduced at all in the first episode, and Queen Beryl does not appear either.

I’ve never enjoyed watching anything with subtitles, but since Sailor Moon Crystal is in Japanese – including Sailor Moon’s original voice actress, reprising her role! – I had to suffer through them. They were the second most onerous part of the episode though – a distant second, actually, beyond Hulu’s commercials – which otherwise really took me back. I’m already committed to watching the whole series, so I might as well write about it as well. A definite recommend to any old-school Sailor Moon fans… it should be extremely interesting to see a new, pretty version of an iconic story.

Embracing the Melodrama #30: The Greek Tycoon (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


Theo and Liz: A Love Story

Theo and Liz: A Love Story

“The characters in this film are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”. — Completely And Totally False Disclaimer From The Greek Tycoon (1978)

In order to appreciate a film like 1978’s The Greek Tycoon, it helps to be a history nerd like me.

If you are, then you probably know that, 5 years after her husband was assassinated in Dallas, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy remarried.  Her new husband was Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate who was 23 years older than her and who had an unsavory reputation.  Onassis was one of the world’s richest men and was known for both his extravagant life style and for being a ruthless operator.  Depending on which books you read, Onassis is portrayed as either being either one of the world’s greatest villains (and, in fact, there’s a whole school of conspiracy theorists who believed that Onassis was somehow involved in John Kennedy’s assassination) or just a casually amoral rich man who treated his new wife like his latest trophy.  Either way, he was not the sort of person who Americans expected to become the second husband of a widowed first lady.

Of course, the Greek Tycoon is not about Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.  It’s about another Greek shipping magnate with a ruthless reputation who shocks the world by marrying the widow of a martyred President.  And, if you stick with the film all the way through the end credits, you’ll even see a disclaimer to prove it!

Anthony Quinn plays Theo Tomasis.  When we first meet him, he’s content to spend his time making crooked business deals and attending parties on a seemingly endless collection of white yachts.  He is grooming his son (Edward Albert) to take over the family business.  He loves both his wife Simi (Camilla Sparv) and his mistress (Marilu Tolo).  In fact, the only problem he has in his life is his business rival, Spyros (Raf Vallone, who played another Greek tycoon in The Other Side of Midnight).  Spyros happens to be Theo’s brother.  But other than that, Theo is content to spend all of his time dancing and breaking plates because, as the film reminds us every chance that it gets, he’s Greek.

However, things change for Theo when he meets Liz Cassidy (Jacqueline Bisset), the wife of young and charismatic Senator James Cassidy (James Franciscus).  Within minutes of meeting her, Theo is hitting on her but Liz loves her husband.  However, Sen. Cassidy soon becomes President Cassidy and this, of course, leads to Cassidy being assassinated while he and Liz are strolling down the beach.

Liz is soon married to the freshly divorced Theo and proving herself to be far more strong-willed than anyone realized.  Despite the anger and efforts of both Theo’s son and the dead President’s brother (Robin Clarke), Liz and Theo’s love endures and soon, they are such a glamorous and famous couple that its surprising that nobody ever suggests making a movie about them.

The Greek Tycoon is a big mess of a movie but it’s enjoyable if you know what inspired it.  (Of course, if you’re not into history and you don’t know anything about Aristotle and Jackie then you’ll probably find The Greek Tycoon to be one of the most boring movies ever made.)  To be honest, the story is never important in a film like this.  Instead, you watch for the clothes and the sets and they’re all properly glamorous in a 1970s sort of way.  Finally, you can watch this movie for Anthony Qunn’s unapologetically over-the-top performance as Theo.  I don’t know if you could necessarily say that Quinn gave a good performance here but, watching the film, it certainly does look like he was having fun.

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Embracing the Melodrama #29: The Other Side of Midnight (dir by Charles Jarrott)


The Other Side of Midnight 1977

First released in 1977, The Other Side of Midnight is one of those film that literally seems to have everything a viewer could want: sex, love, betrayal, sex, war, melodrama, intrigue, sex, expensive clothes, private island, see-through nightgowns, sex, hurricanes, murder, a surprise twist ending that involves a convent, and sex.  Did I mention that this film has sex in it, because it so does.

The film opens in Paris during the years leading up to World War II.  Beautiful Noelle (Marie-France Pisier) meets Larry Douglas (John Beck), a handsome American who is serving with the Canadian Air Force.  Noelle agrees to go out on a date with Larry and they get to have the of the movie’s many falling-in-love montages.  Fortunately, they’re in Paris which has a lot of great scenery in front of which they can pose.  Unfortunately, Larry is ordered back to the United States.  He promises Noelle that he’ll return but he never does.  What Larry doesn’t realize is that Noelle’s pregnant — or at least she is until a harrowing scene where she climbs into a bathtub with a wire hanger.

Montage!

Montage!

This is followed by another montage.  Call this the “Out-of-Love-And-Growing-Bitter” montage.  Noelle survives the German occupation by seducing and using every powerful man that she meets.  Along the way, she becomes one of the most glamorous and famous film stars in all of Europe.  Finally, she becomes the mistress of the wealthy and somewhat shady Constantin Demaris (Raf Vallone, doing his best Anthony Quinn impersonation).

Meanwhile, Larry is back in America and, after going through another falling-in-love montage, has ended up married to innocent Catherine Alexander (Susan Sarandon).  What Larry doesn’t realize is that Noelle has hired a detective to keep track of him.  After the war, Larry gets a job as a commercial airline pilot but Noelle secretly arranges for him to lose that job.  Unemployed and desperate, Larry accepts a job to work as the private pilot for Demaris and his mistress.

Montage!

Montage!

Though it takes him a while to recognize her, Larry eventually does realize that his new boss is his former lover, Noelle.  As Larry starts to truly fall in love with Noelle all over again, Noelle starts to pressure him to do something about his new wife.  As is the case with several Hollywood melodramas, it all ends in a courtroom.  The courtroom scenes may not be exactly exciting but they do feature my favorite image from the entire film: at one point, we see that literally every single character who has appeared in the movie up to this point is sitting in that courtroom, all lined up like a bunch of disparate figures in an Edward Hopper painting.

The Other Side of Midnight is one of those big films where a lot of stuff happens but very little of it really seems to add up to anything.  It has a nearly 3 hour running time but it’s story could have just as easily been told in 90 minutes.  Instead, director Charles Jarrott pads out the running time with endless falling-in-love and falling-out-of-love montages.  This is the type of film that never says anything once that it can say an extra three times.

Montage!

Montage!

Susan Sarandon and Marie-France Pisier both give good performances.  Susan Sarandon is likable, even if her character is unbelievably naive while Marie-France Pisier gives a performance worthy of any good film noir but neither one of them has much chemistry with John Beck.  Fortunately, some of the supporting players — like Raf Vallone and Christian Marquand — take full advantage of every chance that they get to chew every piece of scenery that’s available.  Clu Gulager, the father of horror director John Gulager, pops up as well, playing perhaps the only good male in the entire film.

In the end, The Other Side of Midnight (and what the Hell does that title mean anyway?) is a rather silly movie about a bunch of shallow characters wearing beautiful clothes and wandering through wonderfully baroque locations.  Fortunately, I love elaborately decorated locations and glamorous outfits so I enjoyed The Other Side of Midnight despite myself.

Montage!

Montage!

One final thing about The Other Side of Midnight: 20th Century Fox was so sure that The Other Side of Midnight would be a huge success that they used it to blackmail theater owners into agreeing to show an obscure science fiction film called Star Wars.  Theaters would only be allowed to show The Other Side of Midnight if they also agreed to show Star Wars during the week before Midnight opened.

The end result, of course, is that The Other Side of Midnight was a bomb at the box office and Star Wars is still making money.

Below is a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of The Other Side of Midnight.

Embracing the Melodrama #28: The Towering Inferno (dir by John Guillermin)


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I have a weakness for the old, all-star disaster movies of the 1970s.  It could be because those movies remind me of how fragile life really is and encourage me to make the most of every minute.  Or maybe it’s because I have my phobias and, by watching those movies, I can confront my fears without having to deal with a real-life tornado, hurricane, tidal wave, avalanche, or fire.

Or maybe I just have a weakness of glitz, glamour, and melodrama — especially when it involves a huge cast of stars and character actors.  Yes that’s probably the reason right there.

Case in point: the 1974 best picture nominee, The Towering Inferno. 

As is the case with most of the classic disaster films, The Towering Inferno is a long and big movie but it has a very simple plot.  The world’s tallest building — known as the Glass Tower — has been built in San Francisco.  On the night of the grand opening, a fire breaks out, trapping all the rich and famous guests on the 135th floor.  Now, it’s up to the fire department to put out the fire while the trapped guests simply try to survive long enough to be rescued.  Some will live, some will die but one thing is certain — every member of the all-star cast will get at least 15 minutes of screen time and at least one chance to scream in the face of the film’s still effective special effects.

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As for the people trapped by the towering inferno, we don’t really get to know them or their motivations.  (Add to that, once the fire breaks out, everyone pretty much only has one motivation and that’s to not die.)  As a result, we don’t so much react to them as characters as we do to personas of the actors who are playing them.

Steve-McQueen-in-The-Towe-001

For instance, we know that Fire Chief O’Halloran is a fearless badass and a natural leader because he’s played by Steve McQueen.  McQueen brings a certain blue collar arrogance to this role and it’s a lot of fun to watch as he gets progressively more and more annoyed with the rich people that he’s been tasked with rescuing.

We know that architect Doug Roberts is a good guy because he’s played by Paul Newman.  Reportedly, Newman and McQueen were very competitive and, in this movie, we literally get to see them go-head-to-head.  And, as charismatic as Newman is, McQueen pretty much wins the movie.  That’s because there’s never a moment that O’Halloran isn’t in charge.  Doug, meanwhile, spends most of the movie begging everyone else in the tower to exercise the common sense necessary to not die.  (Unfortunately, despite the fact that he looks and sounds just like Paul Newman, nobody in the tower feels like listening to Doug.  If Towering Inferno proves anything, it’s that most people are too stupid to survive a disaster.)

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The tower’s owner, James Duncan, is played by William Holden so we know that Duncan may be a ruthless businessman but that ultimately he’s one of the good guys.  Holden gets one of the best scenes in the film when, after being told that people in the building are catching on fire, he replies, “I think you’re overreacting.”

Roger Simmons is Duncan’s son-in-law and we know that he’s ultimately to blame for the fire because he’s played by Richard Chamberlain.  Roger might as well have a sign on his back that reads “Doomed.”  The same can be said of publicity executive Dan (Robert Wagner) and his girlfriend, Lorrie (Susan Flannery).

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Faye Dunway is Susan.  She is Doug’s fiancée and she really doesn’t do much but she does get to wear a really pretty dress.  The same can be said of Susan Blakely, who plays Roger’s dissatisfied wife, and Jennifer Jones, who plays a recluse.  And good for them because if you’re going to be stuck in an inferno without much to do, you can at least take some comfort in looking good.

Then there’s Fred Astaire, who does not dance in this film.  Instead, he plays a kind-hearted con artist who ends up falling in love with Jennifer Jones.  Fred Astaire received his only Oscar nomination for his brief but likable performance in The Towering Inferno.

And finally, there’s the building’s head of security, Jernigan.  We know that he’s a murderer because he’s played by O.J. Simpson and … oh wait.  Jernigan is actually probably the second nicest guy in the whole film.  The only person nicer than Jernigan is Carlos, the bartender played by Gregory Sierra.

OJ

The real star of the film, of course, is the fire.  In the 40 years since The Towering Inferno was produced, there’s been a lot of advances in CGI and I imagine that if the film was made today, we’d be watching the fire in 3D and it would be so realistic that we’d probably feel the heat in the theater.  That said, the fire effects in The Towering Inferno are still pretty effective.  Now, I have to admit that I have a phobia (and frequent nightmares) about being trapped in a fire so, obviously, this is a film that’s specifically designed to work itself into my subconscious.  But that said, the scenes with various extras thrashing about in the flames are still difficult to watch.  There’s a scene where Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery find themselves trapped in a blazing reception area and it is pure nightmare fuel.

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The Towering Inferno is an undeniably effective disaster film.  At the same time, when one looks at the 1974 Oscar nominees, it’s odd to see The Towering Inferno nominated for best picture along with The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, and The Conversation.  Unlike those three, The Towering Inferno is hardly a great film.

But it is definitely an entertaining one.

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