Spring Breakdown #1: Midnight Express (dir by Alan Parker)


Since it’s currently Spring Break, I figured that I would spend the next two weeks reviewing films about people on vacation.  Some of the films will be about good vacations.  Some of the films will be about bad vacations.  But, in the end, they’ll all be about celebrating those moments that make us yearn for the chance to get away from it all.

Take Midnight Express, for instance.  This 1978 film (which was nominated for six Oscars and won two) tells the story of what happens when a carefree college student named Billy Hayes decides to spend his holiday in Turkey.

When the film begins, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), is at an airport in Turkey.  He’s preparing to return home to the United States.  His girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), informs him that Janis Joplin has just died.  When Billy responds by making a joke, Susan accuses him of not taking anything seriously.  What Susan doesn’t realize is that Billy actually has a lot on his mind.  For one thing, he’s got several bricks of hashish taped around his waist.  He purchased it from a cab driver and he’s planning on selling it to his friends back in the United States.  Unfortunately, Billy’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is.  Because of recent terrorist bombings, the Turkish police are searching everyone before they board their plane.  Billy finds himself standing out in the middle of the runway with his hands up in the air, surrounded by gun-wielding Turkish policemen.

Billy finds himself stranded in a country that he doesn’t understand, being interrogated by men whose language he cannot speak.  An enigmatic American (Bo Hopkins) shows up and assures Billy that he’ll be safe, as long as he identifies the taxi driver who sold him to the drugs.  Billy does so but then makes the mistake of trying to flee from the police.  In the end, it’s the American who captures him and, holding a gun to Billy’s head, tells him not to make another move.

Soon, Billy is an inmate at Sağmalcılar Prison.  He’s beaten when he first arrives and it’s only days later that he’s able to walk and think clearly.  He befriends some of the other prisoners, including a heroin addict named Max (John Hurt) and an idiot named Jimmy (Randy Quaid).  Billy watches as the prisoners are tortured by the fearsome head guard (Paul L. Smith) and listens to the screams of inmates being raped behind closed doors.  After being told that his original four-year sentence has been lengthened to a 30-year sentence, Billy starts to degenerate.  When Susan visits, Billy end up pathetically masturbating in front of her.  When another prisoner taunts Billy, Billy bites out the man’s tongue, an act that we see in both close up and slow motion.  If Billy has any hope of regaining his humanity, he has to escape.  He has to catch what Jimmy calls the “midnight express…..”

Midnight Express is a brutal and rather crude film.  Though it may have been directed by a mainstream director (Alan Parker) and written by a future Oscar-winner (Oliver Stone), Midnight Express is a pure grindhouse film at heart.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film.  The camera lingers over every act of sadism while Giorgio Moroder’s synth-based score pulsates in the background.  When Billy grows more and more feral and brutal in his behavior, it’s hard not to be reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. turning into The Wolf Man.  The film may be incredibly heavy-handed but it’s nightmarishly effective, playing out with the intensity of a fever dream.

As for the cast, Brad Davis wasn’t particularly likable or sympathetic as Billy.  On the one hand, he’s a victim of an unjust system, betrayed by his own country and tortured by another.  On the other hand, Billy was an idiot who apparently thought no one would notice all that hash wrapped around his chest.  That said, Davis’s unlikable screen presence actually worked to the film’s advantage.  If you actually liked Billy, the film would be unbearable to watch.  Before Davis was cast, Dennis Quaid and Mark Hamill were both considered for the role.  If either of those actors has been cast, Midnight Express would be too intense and disturbing to watch.  For instance, it would be depressing to watch Dennis Quaid rip a man’s tongue out of his mouth.  You would be like, “No, Mr. Quaid, you’ll never recover your humanity!”  But when Brad Davis does it, you’re just like, “Eh.  It was bound to happen sometime.”

For more effective are John Hurt and Bo Hopkins.  Hurt and Hopkins both have small roles but they both make a big impression, if just because they’re the only two characters in the film who aren’t either yelling or crying all of the time.  While everyone else is constantly cursing their imprisonment, Hurt is quietly sardonic.  As for Hopkins, we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s with the CIA and he sold out Billy.  But honestly, no one made Billy tape all that hash to his chest.  Finally, you’ve got Randy Quaid and Paul L. Smith, who both glower their way through the film.  Smith is wonderfully evil while Randy Quaid is …. well, he’s Randy Quaid, the loudest American in Turkey.

Midnight Express was such a success at the box office that it caused an international incident.  There’s not a single positive Turkish character to be found in the entire film and it’s impossible not to feel that the film is not only condemning Turkey’s drug policies but that it’s also condemning the entire country as well.  The Turkish prisoners are portrayed as being just as bad as the guards and even Billy’s defense attorney comes across as being greedy and untrustworthy.  Watching the film today can be an awkward experience.  It’s undeniably effective but it’s impossible not to cringe at the way anyone who isn’t from the west is portrayed.  In recent years, everyone from director Alan Parker to screenwriter Oliver Stone to the real-life Billy Hayes has apologized for the way that the Turkish people were portrayed in the film.

Despite the controversy, Midnight Express was a huge box office success and it was nominated for best picture.  It lost to another controversial film about people imprisoned in Asia, The Deer Hunter.

 

Lisa Recommends Fool For Love (dir by Robert Altman)


As the day draws to a close, I’m going to recommend one final film.

It’s not, by any means, a perfect film.  In fact, it’s pretty damn imperfect.  It’s a film that occasionally tries too hard to be profound.  It’s based on a play and it never quite escapes its theatrical origins.  What was undoubtedly exciting on the stage, drags a bit on the screen.  It’s a fairly obscure film.  I just happened to catch it on This TV a month ago and the main reason that I watched it was because of the cast.

But no matter!  I still think you should watch this film if you get a chance.

The name of that film is Fool For Love.

First released in 1985 and based on a play by Sam Shepard, Fool For Love takes place over the course of one long night at a motel in the Southwest.  Staying at the motel is May (Kim Basinger), who is hoping to escape from her past.  Not eager to allow her to escape is her former lover, Eddie (Sam Shepard).  An aging cowboy, Eddie shows up at the motel and tries to convince May to return with him to his ranch.  As they argue, clues are dropped to the terrible secret that haunts their past.  Martin (Randy Quaid), a buffoonish but well-meaning “gentleman caller,” shows up to take May on a date and finds himself sucked into the drama between her and Eddie.

Meanwhile, on the edge of every scene, there’s the Old Man (Harry Dean Stanton).  The Old Man watches Eddie and May and offers up his own frequently sarcastic commentary.  It becomes obvious that he not only knows about the secret in their past but that he’s determined that they not get together.  Is the Old Man really there or is he just a figment of everyone’s imagination or is he something else all together?

As I said earlier, the film never quite escapes its theatrical origins.  As well, while Shepard and Kim Basinger both give authentic and charismatic performance, they don’t quite have the right romantic chemistry to really convince us that Eddie would chase May all the way to that isolated motel.  It’s hard not to feel that if May had been played by Shepard’s then-partner Jessica Lange or his Right Stuff co-star, Barbara Hershey, the film would have worked better.

And yet, even if it never comes together as a whole, Fool For Love is a film that should be seen just for its display of individual talent.  Of the film’s five main creative forces, only Kim Basinger is still with us.  Director Robert Altman died in 2006 while Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton both passed away in 2017.  While Randy Quaid is still alive, it’s doubtful he’ll ever again get the type of roles that earlier established him as one of America’s best character actors.  Whenever I read another snarky article about Quaid hiding out in Vermont and ranting about the “star whackers,” I can’t help but sadly think about the perfect performances that Quaid used to regularly give in imperfect films like this one.

So, definitely track down Fool For Love.  Watch it and pay a little tribute to all of the wonderful talent that we’ve lost over the last 10 or so years.  Watch it for Robert Altman’s ability to turn kitsch into art.  Watch it for the rugged individualism of Sam Shepard and the once-empathetic eccentricity of Randy Quaid.  Watch it for Harry Dean Stanton, the legendary actor who, more than any other performer, seemed to epitomize the southwest and Americana.

Watch it and spare a little thought for all of them.

A Movie A Day #354: Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973, directed by Richard C. Sarafian)


In the backwoods of Hicksville, USA, two families are feuding.  Laban Feather (Rod Steiger, bellowing even more than usual) and Pap Gutshall (Robert Ryan) were once friends but now they are committed rivals.  They claim that the fight started when Pap bought land that once belonged to Laban but it actually goes back farther than that.  Laban and Pap both have a handful of children, all of whom have names like Thrush and Zeb and Ludie and who are all as obsessed with the feud as their parents.  When the Gutshall boys decide to pull a prank on the Feather boys, it leads to the Feathers kidnapping the innocent Roonie (Season Hubley) from a bus stop.  They believe that Roonie is Lolly Madonna, the fictional fiancée of Ludie Gutshall (Kiel Martin).  Zack Feather (Jeff Bridges), who comes the closest of any Feather to actually having common sense, is ordered to watch her while the two families prepare for all-out war.  Zack and Roonie fall in love, though they do not know that another Feather brother has also fallen in love with Gutshall daughter.  It all leads to death, destruction, and freeze frames.

Lolly-Madonna XXX is a strange film.  It starts out as a typical hicksploitation flick before briefly becoming a backwoods Romeo and Juliet and finally ending up as a heavy-handed metaphor for both the Vietnam War and the social upheaval at home.  Along with all the backwoods drama, there is a fantasy sequence where Hawk Feather (Ed Lauter) briefly imagines himself as an Elvis-style performer.  (Hawk also dresses up in Roonie’s underwear.)  Probably the most interesting thing about Lolly-Madonna XXX is the collection of actors who show up playing Feathers and Gutshalls.  Along with Steiger, Ryan, Martin, Bridges, and Lauter, everyone from Randy Quaid to Paul Koslo to Scott Wilson to Gary Busey has a role to play in the feud.  Lolly-Madonna XXX is too uneven and disjointed to really be considered a good movie but I can say that I have never seen anything else like it.

One final note: Lolly-Madonna XXX was directed by Richard Sarafian, who is best known for another early 70s cult classic, Vanishing Point.

A Movie A Day #351: Moonshine Highway (1996, directed by Andy Armstrong)


The time is the 1950s.  The place is the backwoods of Tennessee.  Everyone is obsessed with three things: cars, sex, and moonshine.  Jud Muldoon (Kyle MacLachlan) served his country in World War II and now he just wants to make a living.  He is the best moonshine runner in Appalachia.  When he gets behind the wheel of a car, no one can outrun him.  As long as he gets his cut, Sheriff Wendell Miller (Randy Quaid) has no problem with looking the other way when it comes to the moonshiners in his county.  Or at least he doesn’t until the feds show up and start breathing down his neck about all the money they’re losing through non-taxed liquor sales.  Complicating matters even more is that when Jud isn’t running moonshine, he’s sleeping with Ethel (Maria del Mar), who just happens to be married to the sheriff.

Though Canada fills in unconvincingly for Tennessee and the movie is full of more  corn-prone clichés than you can shake a stick at, Moonshine Highway is still a fairly entertaining tribute to old drive-in movies like Thunder Road and Moonrunners.  Kyle MacLachlan is surprisingly convincing as a backwoods driver and Randy Quaid was always at his best when playing corrupt Southern law enforcement.  (This was filmed before Quaid’s infamous meltdown.)  This was the only film directed by famed stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong and he does a good job capturing all of the vehicular mayhem.  Moonshine Highway was originally made for Showtime and it is not the easiest movie to find.  It’s available on VHS and on DVD in Argentina.

If you do see the movie, keep an eye out for director David Cronenberg in a small role.

A Movie A Day #245: The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn)


After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch.  Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen.  One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons.  Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.

A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance.  Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene.  (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.)  Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.

I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie.  For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour.  The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work.  While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast.  Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them.  Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back.   The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.

Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)


cracked rear viewer

Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary…

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A Movie A Day #119: Dead Solid Perfect (1988, directed by Bobby Roth)


Based on a novel by veteran sports writer Dan Jenkins, Dead Solid Perfect takes an episodic look at a year on the PGA tour.  Kenny Lee (Randy Quaid) is a good but aging golfer who wants to finally have his time in the spotlight.  His sponsor (Jack Warden) is an eccentric old racist.  His girlfriend (Corinne Bohrer, who has a lengthy scene where she walks naked down hotel hallway while carrying an ice bucket) isn’t looking for a commitment while his wife (Kathryn Harrold) is getting sick of his emotional immaturity.  Kenny Lee just wants to hit the perfect shot.

An early HBO production, Dead Solid Perfect is one of the best movies ever made about pro golfers, not that there is really much competition.  Eschewing the pretentious blathering that has marred other golf films (like The Legend of Bagger Vance), Dead Solid Perfect focuses on the day-to-day life of aging athletes who have never had to grow up.  This was Dan Jenkins’s specialty and Dead Solid Perfect feels authentic in a way that many other sports film, like Bagger Vance, do not.  Randy Quaid, long before he had his widely publicized breakdown and started making videos about the “star whackers,” is perfectly cast as Kenny.  Sadly, Dead Solid Perfect has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but it will entertain any golf fan who owns an operational VCR.

Of course, the best movie about golf is still Caddyshack.