Film Review: Westworld (dir by Michael Crichton)


“Draw,” says Yul Brynner.

“Whatever,” says a tourist who has spent a lot of money to spend their vacation at the Delos amusement park.

BANG!  Down goes the tourist, as the robot revolution of 1983 begins.

Recently, TCM broadcast the 1973 science fiction thriller, Westworld.  Since I am absolutely obsessed with the more recent HBO revival, there was no way I could resist watching the original film.  It was an interesting experience.  While the film is far more simpler and straight-forward than the television series, they both essentially tell the same story.  A bunch of rich humans pay a lot of money to pretend to be either cowboys or knights or Roman citizens for a week.  Everyone has a great time until, eventually, the robots stop doing what they were supposed to do and instead, begin to fight back.

One thing that the movie and the series definitely shared is a less-than-positive view of humanity.  The movie focuses on two businessmen.  Peter (Richard Benjamin) is the nerdy one.  John (James Brolin) is the hypermasculine one.  Peter is visiting Westworld for the first time.  John is a frequent guest who loves gunning down any robots who looks at him the wrong way.  Neither one of these characters is particularly likable.  Peter starts out as a self-righteous hypocrite who ends up sleeping with a sexbot, despite being married.  John brags about how easy it is to kill the robots, mostly because the robot’s are programmed to not fight back.

Meanwhile, the human engineers who work behind-the-scenes and keep Delos running are all blandly incompetent.  When the robots start to malfunction, the engineers can only shrug and wonder why.  They’re so ineffective that, halfway through the movie, they get sealed up in their own control room, slowly suffocating to death while the park collapses around them.

As opposed to the TV series, the robots in Westworld never achieve any sort of real consciousness.  Even when they malfunction, it doesn’t lead to a true rebellion as much as it just causes them to ignore any previous directives about killing the guests.  When the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) starts stalking Peter and John across the park, it’s not an act of ideology or, for that matter, even revenge.  It’s simply that the Gunslinger has been programmed to be a killer and this is what a killer does.

It all leads to an extended chase sequence involving the Gunslinger and Peter and, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much of a personality, it’s hard not to be on The Gunslinger’s side.  If nothing else, the Gunslinger is at least good at what it does.  Peter, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most incompetent heroes to ever show up in a movie.  After spending the first half of the movie being smug and dealing with robots programmed not to fight back, Peter now has to try to win on an even playing field.

Westworld was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton.  The film’s flaws are largely the flaws that you would expect from a first-time director.  Occasionally, the pacing falters and the first half of the film sometimes moves a bit too slowly.  (There’s one saloon fight that seems to go on forever.)  During the first half of the film, there’s several scenes involving another tourist (played by Dick Van Patten) who seems like he’s going to play a major role in the film but, after the first hour, the character literally vanishes from the film.

Despite those flaws, Westworld remains an exciting mix of suspense and science fiction.  Though his actual screentime is rather limited, Yul Brynner easily dominates the entire film.  In the role of the Gunslinger, Brynner is a relentless killing machine.  What makes the character especially disturbing is that Brynner plays him without a hint of emotion or expression.  The Gunslinger gets no pleasure out of killing nor does he seek to accomplish any sort of identifiable goal.  The Gunslinger simply kills because that’s what he was programmed to do.

While I prefer the HBO series, the original Westworld is still an exciting and entertaining film, one that probably seems a lot more plausible today than when it was first released 46 years ago.  Watch it the next time your home robot gets bored.

Glory Daze: Peter O’Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR (MGM 1982)


cracked rear viewer

The world of 1950’s live TV gets the comic treatment in Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR, a hilarious homage to those golden days of yore. Executive producer Mel Brooks had first-hand knowledge of the era, and much of the hysterical Norman Steinberg/Dennis Palumbo screenplay is based on his experiences, though completely exaggerated and laugh-out-loud funny. The film earned star Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination for his role as Alan Swann, a dissipated movie star based on swashbuckling Errol Flynn .

Swann arrives at NBC’s 30 Rock, scheduled to be the week’s special guest on “Comedy Calvacade”, totally smashed, much to the displeasure of gruff show host Stan ‘King’ Kaiser (Joseph Bologna in a brilliant Sid Caesar parody), who immediately wants to fire him. But young comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, later of TV’s PERFECT STRANGERS), who idolizes the movie great, pleads with Kaiser to give Swann another chance. He…

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A Movie A Day #262: Downtown (1990, directed by Richard Benjamin)


Alex (Anthony Edwards) is a patrolman assigned to the nicest neighborhood in Philadelphia but, after he gets in trouble for pulling over a wealthy businessman (David Clennon), he is told that he can either be suspended or he can take a transfer downtown, to the Diamond Street precinct.  Alex takes the transfer, even though everyone on the force says that “not even the Terminator would go to Diamond Street.”  Alex gets assigned to work with seasoned Sgt. Dennis Curren (Forest Whitaker), who is still emotionally scarred by the death of his former partner and does not want to have to babysit a naive white cop from the suburbs, especially one who is obsessed with the Beach Boys.  At first, Alex struggles with his new assignment and his new partner but, when an old friend is murdered by a notorious hitman (Joe Pantoliano), Alex is determined to crack the case and bring the killer to justice.

Downtown is a combination of other, better cop films: Alex’s situation is Beverly Hills Cop in reverse and his partnership with Dennis is lifted straight from Lethal Weapon.  Art Evans is the captain who is always yelling at Alex and Dennis and telling them to drop the case and the character is so familiar that I had to check to make sure that Evans had not played the same role in Lethal Weapon.  As the bad guys, Clennon and Pantoliano could just have easily been replaced by Beverly Hills Cop‘s Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks and no one would have noticed.  The only real difference is that Downtown is neither as exciting nor as funny as those two films.  Downtown was directed by Richard Benjamin, who will never be known as a particularly versatile filmmaker and who struggles to balance the fish-out-of-water comedy with some surprisingly brutal violence.  Beverly Hills Cops had Eddie Murphy and Lethal Weapon had Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.  Downtown has Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker, who are both good actors but who both seem to be woefully miscast here.  (If Downtown were made today, Whitaker could play Dennis but, in 1990, he was too young to be the cop who was “too old for this shit.”)    Of the many Lethal Weapon ripoffs that came out in late 80s and early 90s, Downtown is one of the most forgettable.

 

A Movie A Day #114: Scavenger Hunt (1979, directed by Michael Schultz)


When game designer Milton Parker (Vincent Price) dies, all of his greedy relatives and his servants gather for the reading of his will.  Parker’s lawyer, Benstein (Robert Morley), explains that Parker is leaving behind a $200 million dollar estate to whoever can win an elaborate scavenger hunt.  Dividing into five teams, the beneficiaries head out to track down as many items as they can by five o’clock that evening.  Among the items that they have to find: a toilet, a cash register, an ostrich, a microscope, and an obese person.  Hardy har har.

The five teams are made up of a who’s who of sitcom and television actors who had time to kill in 1979.  The Odd Couple‘s Tony Randall is Henry Motely, who is Parker’s son-in-law and who works with his four children.  Soap‘s Richard Mulligan plays a blue-collar taxi driver named Marvin Dummitz (because funny names are funny) who teams up with his friend, Merle (Stephen Furst).  The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Cloris Leachman (an Oscar winner, no less) gets stuck with the role of Milton’s greedy sister, Mildred.  She works with her conniving lawyer (Richard Benjamin) and her stupid son (Richard Masur).  Maureen Teefy plays Milton’s niece while his nephews are played by Willie Aames and Dirk Benedict.  Cleavon Little, James Coco, Roddy McDowall, and Stephanie Faracy play the servants.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  Avery Schreiber plays a zookeeper.  Meat Loaf plays a biker who beats up Richard Benjamin.  Ruth Gordon, Stuart Pankin, Pat McCormick, and Scatman Crothers all have cameos.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance as a gym instructor who knocks Tony Randall out of a second story window.

There are a lot of famous people in Scavenger Hunt.  It’s just too bad that the movie itself is barely watchable and not at all funny.  It tries to go for the zaniness of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but, unless watching Willie Aames steal a clown head from Jack in the Box is your idea of hilarity, the film never comes close to succeeding.  Michael Schultz directed some classic films (like Car Wash) during the 1970s but, unfortunately, he also directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and this.

Scavenger Hunt used to show up on a late night television, where it was always advertised as starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (He barely has five minutes of screentime.)  It was released on DVD/Blu-ray earlier this year but watching for the cameos is the only reason to take part in this Scavenger Hunt.

A Movie A Day #20: First Family (1980, directed by Buck Henry)


first-familyLike any newly inaugurated President, Manfred Link (Bob Newhart) faces many new challenges.  The biggest challenge, though, is keeping control of his family and his White House staff.  His wife (Madeline Kahn) is an alcoholic.  His 28 year-old daughter (Gilda Radner) is so desperate to finally lose her virginity that she is constantly trying to sneak out of the White House.  General Dumpson (Rip Torn) wants to start a war.  Press Secretary Bunthorne (Richard Benjamin), Ambassador Spender (Harvey Korman), and Presidential Assistant Feebleman (Fred Willard) struggle and often fail to convince everyone that all is well.

President Link needs to form an alliance with the African country of Upper Gorm, a country that speaks a language that only one man in America, Prof. Alexaner Grade (Austin Pendleton), can understand.  The President of Upper Gorm (John Hancock) orders that the kidnapping of Link’s daughter.  Holding her hostage, he demands that Link send him several white Americans so that the citizens of Upper Gorm can know what it is like to have a minority to oppress.

First Family not only featured a cast of comedy all-stars but it was also directed by one of the funniest men in history, Buck Henry.  So, why isn’t First Family funnier?  There are a few amusing scenes and Newhart can make a pause hilarious but, for the most part, First Family feels like an episode from one of Saturday Night Live‘s lesser seasons.  Reportedly, Henry’s first cut of First Family tested badly and Warner Bros. demanded that certain scenes, including the ending, be reshot.  Perhaps that explains why First Family feels more like a sitcom than a satire conceived by the man who wrote the script for The Graduate and whose off-center perspective made him one of the most popular hosts during Saturday Night Live‘s first five seasons.  Famously, during one SNL hosting gig, Henry’s head was accidentally sliced open by John Belushi’s samurai sword.  Without missing a beat, Henry finished up the sketch and performed the rest of the show with a band-aid prominently displayed on his forehead.  Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that Buck Henry in First Family.

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