Film Review: L.A. 2017 (dir by Steven Spielberg)


L.A. 2017 is the Steven Spielberg film about which you’ve probably never heard.

To a certain extent, that’s understandable.  Spielberg was only 24 when, in 1971, he directed L.A. 2017.  It was a film that he directed for television.  In fact, it was only his third directorial assignment.  As opposed to the huge budgets that we tend to associate with a typical Spielberg production, L.A. 2017 was made for about $300,000.  The entire film was shot in about 12 days.  In fact, with a running time of only a scant 69 minutes, L.A. 2017 hardly qualifies as a feature-length film.  L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, making it a true oddity in Spielberg’s filmography.  Despite the fact that Spielberg has credited L.A. 2017 with opening a lot of doors for him, it’s an almost totally forgotten film.

Of course, some of that is because L.A. 2017 really isn’t a film at all.  Instead, it was an episode of a television show called The Name of the Game.  The show was about Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), a magazine publisher, and the reporters who worked for him.  L.A. 2017 was unique in that it was the show’s only excursion into science fiction.  In fact, from everything that I’ve read about the show, it appears that L.A. 2017 was nothing like any of the other episodes of The Name of the Game.  This episode was also unique because Spielberg directed it as if he was making a feature, as opposed to just another installment in a weekly series.  If not for the opening credits (which announce, among other things, that we’re watching a Robert Stack Production), one could easily imagine watching L.A. 2017 in a movie theater, perhaps as a double feature with Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

L.A. 2017 opens with Glenn driving down a mountain road in California.  He’s heading to a pollution summit and, as he drives along, he awkwardly dictates an editorial into a tape recorder.  Glenn worries that society may have already ruined the environment to such an extent that the Earth cannot be saved.  As if to prove his point, Glenn starts to cough as he’s overcome by all of the smog in the air.  His car swerves into a ditch and Glenn is knocked unconscious.

Welcome to the future

When he wakes up, he finds himself being rescued by men wearing wearing protective suits and masks.  The sky is a sickly orange and an ominous wind howls in the background.  Glenn’s rescuers take him to an underground city where he discovers that, somehow, he has traveled through time.  The year is now 2017, which in this film looks a lot like the 70s except that everyone’s now underground and the landline phones are extra bulky.  (Needless to say, watching 1971’s version of 2017 in 2019 is an interesting experience.)  It turns out that the pollution got so bad that the surface of the planet became uninhabitable.  The U.S. is now run by a corporation that is headquartered in Detroit.  (Presumably, the Corporation is a former car company.)  The U.S. is also at war with England, for some reason.  No mention is made about what’s happened to Canada but, if Detroit’s still around, I assume at least some of Canada managed to survive as well.

The …. uh, Future.

Everyone in the future drinks a lot of milk and, when they’re not listening to cheerful announcements, they’re listening to the soothing music that the Corporation provides for them.  Everyone in the future is also very friendly.  We know this because everyone keeps assuring Glenn that he’s surrounded by friends.  In fact, everyone in the future refers to one another by their first name because “it’s friendlier.”  It’s also the law.  It turns out that there’s a lot of laws in the future.  In fact, the underground cities are pretty fascist in the way that they handle things.  There are constant announcements encouraging people to pursue a career in law enforcement and anyone who disagrees with the Corporation ends up in a straight jacket.  Glenn feels that maybe he’s been brought to the future so he can start a new magazine and challenge the status quo.  The Corporation disagrees….

This is what happens when you don’t go underground in the future.

Okay, so there’s nothing subtle about L.A. 2017.  From the villainous corporation to the heavy-handed environmental message, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other sci-fi films.  But the lack of subtlety doesn’t matter, largely because Spielberg directs with so much energy and with such an eye to detail that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the story.  As opposed to the somewhat complacent Spielberg who has recently given us rather bland and safe blockbusters like Lincoln, The BFG, and The Post, the Spielberg who directed L.A. 2017 was young and obviously eager to show off what he could do with even a low budget and that enthusiasm is present in every frame, from the wide-angle shots of Glenn driving his car to the scenes of Glenn looking up at the shadowy executives and scientists who are staring down at him when he’s first brought to the underground city.  As opposed to the sterile vision of so many other future-set films, Spielberg’s future feels as if it’s actually been lived in.  When Glenn finds himself in a new world, it comes across as being a real world as opposed to just a narrative contrivance.

Of course, because L.A. 2017 was just one episode in a weekly series, Glenn couldn’t remain in the future and L.A. 2017 returns Glenn to the present in the most contrived and predictable way possible.  Still, L.A. 2017 remains an entertaining example of what a young and talented director can do when he’s determined to be recognized.  Watching the film, it’s easy to draw a straight line from Spielberg doing L.A. 2017 to doing Duel and then subsequently being hired for Jaws.

Incidentally, Joan Crawford is somewhere in this film.  Crawford worked with Spielberg when he directed her in the pilot for Night Gallery and she was one of his first major supporters in Hollywood.  Apparently, in L.A. 2017, she plays one of the people staring down at Glenn when he’s first brought into the underground city.  I haven’t found her yet but she’s apparently there somewhere.

Unfortunately, L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but it is currently available on YouTube.

Horror On TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.9 “The Spanish Moss Murders” (dir by Gordon Hessler)


Tonight, on Kolchak….

People are turning up dead.  Well, what else is new?  That’s pretty much been the plot of every Kolchak episode so far.  However, this time, they’re turning up dead while covered with Spanish moss!

Oh my God, could it be the Cajuns?

Well, as a matter of fact, it is.  As Kolchak discovers when he investigates, all of the dead people were somehow connected to a comatose Cajun….

Richard Kiel, who played the monster in the previous episode of Kolchak, returns here to play yet another monster.

The episode originally aired on December 6th, 1974!

A Movie A Day #251: Cisco Pike (1972, directed by Bill L. Norton)


Yesterday, the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91.   Cisco Pike is not one of Stanton’s best films but it is a film that highlight why Stanton was such a compelling actor and why his unique presence will be missed.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a musician who has fallen on hard time.  After having been busted several times for dealing drugs, Cisco now just wants to spend time with his “old lady” (Karen Black) and plot his comeback as a musician.  However, a corrupt narcotics detective, Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), approaches Cisco with an offer that he cannot refuse.  Holland has come into possession of 100 kilos of marijuana.  He wants Cisco to sell it for him and then Leo plans to take the money and retire.  Cisco has the weekend to sell all of the weed.  If he doesn’t, Holland will arrest him for dealing and sent him back to prison,

About halfway through this loose and improvisational look at dealers, hippies, and squares in 1970s Los Angeles, Harry Dean Stanton shows up in the role of Jesse Dupree, an old friend and former bandmate of Cisco’s.  Jesse is a free-living wanderer, too old to be a hippie but too unconventional to be a member of the establishment.  Unfortunately, Jesse also has a nasty heroin habit.  Jesse Dupree is a prototypical Harry Dean Stanton role.  Like many of Stanton’s best roles, Jesse may be sad and full of regrets but he is not going to let that keep him from enjoying life.  Stanton may not appear in much of the film but he still takes over every scene in which he appears.

Stanton is, by far, the best thing about Cisco Pike.  As always, Gene Hackman is entertaining, playing the inverse of The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and Karen Black is her usual mix of sexy and weird.  The weakest part of the movie is Kris Kristofferson, who was still a few years away from becoming a good actor when he starred in Cisco Pike.  It is interesting to consider how different Cisco Pike would have been if Stanton and Kristofferson had switched roles.  Stanton may not have had Kristofferon’s movie star looks but, unlike Kristofferson, he feels real in everything that he does.  With his air of resignation and his non-Hollywood persona, Stanton brought authenticity to not only Cisco Pike but to every film in which he appeared.

Along with Stanton, several other familiar faces appear in Cisco Pike.  Keep an eye out for Roscoe Lee Browne, Howard Hesseman, Viva, Allan Arbus, and everyone’s favorite spaced-out hippie chick, the one and only Joy Bang.

A Movie A Day #150: Back to School (1986, directed by Alan Metter)


Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) started with nothing but through a combination of hard work and chutzpah, he started a chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores and made a fortune.  Everyone has seen his commercials, the one where he asks his potential customers, “Do you look at the menu and say, ‘Okay?'”  He has a new trophy wife named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) and a chauffeur named Lou (Burt Young).  Thornton never even graduated from high school but he gets respect.

However, his son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t get no respect.  No respect at all.  Jason is a student at a pricey university, where he is bullied by Chas Osborne (William Zabka) and can’t get a date to save his life.  Jason’s only friend is campus weirdo Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Thornton sees that his son isn’t having any fun, he decides to go back to school!

Back to School is a predictable but good-natured comedy.  It is like almost every other 80s college comedy except, this time, it’s a 65 year-old man throwing raging parties and making the frat boys look stupid instead of Robert Carradine or Curtis Armstrong.  On the stand-up stage, Dangerfield always played the (sometimes) lovable loser but in the movies, Dangerfield was always a winner.  In both Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield played a self-made man who forced his way into high society and showed up all of the snobs.  While Back to School is no Caddyshack, it does feature Rodney at his best.

Rodney may be the funniest thing about Back to School but a close second is Sam Kinison, who owed much of his early success to Rodney Dangerfield’s support.  Kinison plays a history professor, who has some very strongly held views about the Vietnam War and who punctuates his points with a primal screen.

Also, keep an eye out Kurt Vonnegut, playing himself.  Rodney hires him to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut for one of his classes.  The paper gets an F because Rodney’s literature professor (Sally Kellerman) can tell that not only did Rodney not write it but whoever did knows absolutely nothing about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

Shattered Politics #25: The President’s Analyst (dir by Theodore J. Flicker)


Presidents_movieposter “If I was a psychiatrist, which I am, I would say that I was turning into some sort of paranoid personality, which I am!” — Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) in The President’s Analyst (1967)

Let’s just be absolutely honest about something.  Judging from what they regularly get caught saying and from some of the policies that they support, a good deal of politicians could probably use some sort of professional help.  That’s probably especially true of the men who sit in the Oval Office.  It can’t be easy to have to hide so many secrets, tell so many lies, and be constantly aware of how close the government is to actually collapsing.  We’ve had 44 Presidents and I imagine all of them probably could have used someone to talk to.

But here’s the thing.  We spend so much time worrying about the well-being of the President that we often don’t stop to think about the people who have to listen to them speak on a daily basis.  I imagine that being the President’s therapist must be a thankless job.  Not only do you have to spend hours listening to someone who you may not have voted for but, at the same time, you can’t share any of the information that you’ve learned.

That would certainly seem to be what’s happening with Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn), the title character of the wonderfully psychedelic 1967 satire, The President’s Analyst.  At the start of the film, Sidney is a supremely confident psychiatrist.  He can calmly and rationally deal with all of his patients problems and, in order to keep from getting overwhelmed, he has his own analyst (Will Geer).

One of his patients is Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge), an agent for the Central Enquiries Agency (CEA) who is first seen casually murdering a man on the streets of New York.  (When Sidney discovers that Don is an assassin, he’s thrilled and impressed to discover that Don has managed to channel all of his hostility into his job.)  What Sidney doesn’t realize is that Don is testing him to see if he’s up to the job of serving as the President’s analyst.

At first, Sidney is thrilled with his new position but he soon discovers that being the closest confidante of the leader of the free world has its downside.  For one thing, Sidney is viewed by suspicion by Henry Lux (Walter Burke), the head of the Federal Bureau of Regulation (which, in this film, is exclusively staffed by people who are less than 5 feet tall).  Even beyond being targeted by the FBR, Sidney struggles with not being able to see his own therapist and discuss what he’s been told by the President.  Soon, Sidney is becoming paranoid and is even convinced that his girlfriend is a spy.

(And, of course, she is.)

So, Walter does what any sensible and paranoid person would do.  He makes a run for it.  Pursued by the FBR, the CEA, and a Russian assassin (a funny performance from Severn Darden, who also played Kolp, the sadistic torturer in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), Sidney hides out with everyone from a group of hippies to a family of heavily armed, karate-trained, middle class “militant liberals.”

(The father of the militant liberal family is played by William Daniels, who decades later would play Mr. Feeney in Boy Meets World.)

Of course, there’s an even bigger conspiracy at work than even Sidney realizes.  The real threat is the TPC and I’m not going to tell you what that stands for.  You need to see the movie.

And really, The President’s Analyst is a film that you really should see.  What makes this film truly special — beyond the clever dialogue and the excellent performances and the great direction — is that it’s both a product of when it was made and a timeless portrait of power and paranoia.  It’s a time capsule that still feels incredibly relevant.

 

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (dir. by J. Lee Thompson)


And so, we reach the end of the original series of Planet of the Apes films.  Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the cheapest of the Apes films and most critics agree that it’s also the worst.  Sad to say, I happen to agree with them.  If nothing else, Battle For The Planet of the Apes is the only one of the original Apes films that fails to even reach the meager level of quality of Tim Burton’s remake.

The film begins a decade after the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  A nuclear war has destroyed what was left of human society.  It’s never made clear if that war was between apes and human or between humans and humans.  All that is clear is that the Apes are now firmly in charge of the world.  Caesar (Roddy McDowall) leads the Apes civilization.  Humans, while clearly second class citizens, are treated relatively well by the Apes.  Early on in the film, Caesar views archival footage of his parents and learns of what the future holds.  He immediately makes move to try to prevent that future from occurring.

However, all is not well.  Gorilla general Aldo (Claude Akins) hates humans and is secretly plotting a military coup to overthrow Caesar.  Meanwhile, over in the Forbidden City (a.k.a. New York), there’s a tribe of radiation-scarred humans who are being led by Kolp (Severn Darden), the sadistic torturer from Conquest of The Planet of the Apes.  Driven mad by the ravages of war, Kolp and his followers are plotting to launch their own last-ditch attack on Caesar and the apes.

So much of this film can be legitimately criticized, from the cheap look (the apes are no longer characters but instead just actors in rubber masks) to the predictable storyline.  So, instead of focusing on what’s wrong with this film, I’m going to highlight the handful things that actually did work.  While few of the performers make any effort to invest their characters with any sort of life, both McDowall and Darden give strong performances.  Darden, in particular, makes a great villain and it’s a shame that he didn’t get a better film in which to show off.  Predictable as the film is, there’s a few memorable touches, my favorite being Kolp and his followers converting a bunch of school busses into armored attack vehicules.

As well, Battle for the Planet of the Apes may ultimately feel like an unnecessary chapter in the whole Planet of the Apes saga but the film, at the very least, makes the effort to provide some sort of continuity with the other films in the series.  Kolp and his followers are obviously meant to be the ancestors of the bomb-worshipping mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes and, in one of my favorite little touches, Kolp’s assistant is named Mendez.  If you’ll remember, the leader of the mutants in Beneath was named Mendez the Tenth. 

It’s those little touches that show that the filmmakers, at the very least, respected their viewers enough to maintain the continuity of the series.  As bad a film as Battle is (and it’s definitely not very good), it can still teach a valuable lesson to today’s filmmakers.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (dir. by J. Lee Thompson)


(WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW)

Released in 1972, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was the fourth film in the original Planet of the Apes saga.  Taking place two decades after the end of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest details how Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, eventually rallies his fellow apes to overthrow humanity.   Caesar, in this film, is played by Roddy McDowall and Conquest features what is probably his best performance of the series.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is definitely the most radical film of the series and it’s probably one of the most radical films of the 1970s.  Once you peel away the sci-fi/fantasy wrapping, you’re left with one of the few “mainstream” studio films to ever promote the idea of overthrowing society with a violent revolution.  Even when viewed today, it’s odd to consider that this violent and rather dark film was actually given the same G rating that was otherwise exclusively given to children’s films.  Obviously, the poor critical reputation of the Planet of the Apes series kept the Hollywood censors from really paying attention to what they were watching.

Director J. Lee Thompson goes for a far different direction from the previous more television-orientated directors involved with the series.  Thompson emphasizes that savage, totalitarian aspect of future human civilization.  This is a film in which the most sympathetic human character (the circus owner played by Ricardo Montalban) is graphically tortured and murdered within the first few minutes of the film.  This is followed by Caesar being given electro-shocked treatment by the cheerful torturer Kolp (Severn Darden, who is a chilling villain) and finally, Caesar and his fellow apes violently overthrowing society while the futuristic city burns in the background. 

Director Thompson reportedly based the ape uprising on contemporary news reports about the Black Panthers and it brings a real sense of urgency to the film.  What sets this film apart is that director Thompson is clearly on the side of the Apes and by the end of the film, so is the audience.  McDowall’s passionate performance is neatly contrasted with an equally impassioned performance from Don Murray (who plays Breck, the racist leader of the humans) and the audience is firmly on McDowall’s side by the end of the film, cheering as their own civilization is destroyed.

Originally, Thompson wanted to end the film with McDowall giving a fiery speech announcing that the time of man was finished.  However, this finally proved to be too much for the film’s producers and, at the last minute, the scene was clumsily redubbed to allow Caesar to suddenly — out of nowhere — have a change of heart and call for a peaceful co-existence.  This revised ending — though it did leave things open for yet another sequel — is an undeniable weakness.  It just doesn’t feel right.

With that in mind, here’s Thompson’s original, unseen ending, in which Caesar watches as his apes followers murder Don Murray.  It gives you a feeling of the type of film that Thompson was going for: