4 Shots From 4 Films: Rest in Peace, Sylvia Miles (1924-2019)


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking. Character actress Sylvia Miles passed away today at age 94. Though never a household name, movie lovers knew they were in for a treat whenever Sylvia appeared onscreen, as did her peers, nominating her twice for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In her honor, we present 4 shots from the films of Sylvia Miles.

Midnight Cowboy (1969; D; John Schlesinger)

Andy Warhol’s Heat (1972; D: Paul Morrissey)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975; D: Dick Richards)

The Funhouse (1981; D: Tobe Hooper)

Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Horror Film Review: The Funhouse (dir by Tobe Hooper)


1980’s The Funhouse opens with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the famous shower scene from Psycho, with Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) getting attacked in the shower by a masked, knife-wielding maniac.

The only difference is that there’s no shrieking violins, there’s no blood, and the knife is quickly revealed to be a fake.  It turns out that the “killer” is actually Amy’s younger brother, Joey (Shawn Carson).  Joey loves horror movies.  In fact, he’s pretty much the perfect stand-in for The Funhouse‘s intended audience.  Joey was just playing a rather mean-spirited prank but now, as a result, Amy snaps that she’s not going to take him to the carnival.

Of course, Amy isn’t supposed to be going to the carnival either.  Her parents have strictly forbidden it.  Everyone knows that traveling carnivals are dangerous and, at the last town the carnival visited, two teenagers disappeared!  There’s no proof that the carnival has anything to do with those disappearances, of course.  But still…

Amy does exactly what I would have done in her situation.  She tells her parents that she’s going over to a friend’s house and then she goes to the carnival anyway!  Accompanying her is her boyfriend Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), who is so cool that he has a name like Buzz.  Also along for the ride: Amy’s best friend, Liz (Largo Woodruff), and her boyfriend, Richie (Miles Chapin).  Richie’s kind of a loser but that’s to be expected.  Every group needs at least one idiot who can do something stupid that gets everyone else killed.  We all know how that works.

The carnival turns out to be just as sleazy as Amy’s parents thought it would be.  There’s a fake psychic (Sylvia Miles).  There’s a magician who dresses like Dracula.  There’s a barker (Kevin Conway), whose deep voice is constantly heard in the background.  And, of course, there’s a funhouse!  Still, everyone’s having a good time.  Either that or they’re all just stoned.

For his part, Joey sneaks out of the house and goes to the carnival himself.  He doesn’t have quite as much fun as Amy.  In fact, his experience is pretty scary.  Weird carnival people keep yelling at him.  He keeps getting lost.  Still, things could be worse.  By the time his parents arrive to pick Joey up, Amy and her friends are all trapped in the funhouse.  They’re being pursued by the barker and his deformed son (Wayne Doba).  Needless to say, it’s all pretty much Richie’s fault.

Richie.  What a dumbass.

With its teenage victims and its lengthy chase scenes, The Funhouse is often dismissed as just being another early 80s slasher film.  However, The Funhouse is actually a fairly clever, entertaining, and occasionally even witty horror film.  Much like director Tobe Hooper’s best-known film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Funhouse gets its scares by convincing audiences that they’re actually seeing more than they are.  Hooper emphasizes atmosphere and performances over gore.  While The Funhouse has its share of jump scares, it mostly succeeds by convincing us that anyone could die at any moment.  It’s an intense film, with excellent performances from both Elizabeth Berridge and Kevin Conway.

After kickstaring the slasher genre with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper used The Funhouse to poke a little fun at it.  From the opening shower scene to the electrifying finale, Hooper plays with the genre-savvy expectations of the audiences.  Our four victims even do the smart thing for once — they try to all stay together.  Needless to say, that doesn’t work out too well.

The Funhouse is an entertaining thrill ride and, seen today, it’s more evidence that Tobe Hooper deserved better than he got from the film industry.

 

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Midnight Cowboy (dir by John Schlesinger)


midnight_cowboy

Tonight, I watched the 1969 winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy is a movie about Joe Buck.  Joe Buck is played by an impossibly young and handsome Jon Voight.  Joe Buck — and, to be honest, just calling him Joe seems wrong, he is definitely a Joe Buck — is a well-meaning but somewhat dumb young man.  He lives in Midland, Texas.  He was raised by his grandmother.  He used to go out with Annie (Jennifer Salt) but she eventually ended up being sent to a mental asylum after being raped by all of Joe Buck’s friend.  Joe Buck doesn’t have many prospects.  He washes dishes for a living and styles himself as being a cowboy.  Being a Texan, I’ve known plenty of Joe Bucks.

Joe Buck, however, has a plan.  He knows that he’s handsome.  He’s convinced that all women love cowboys.  So, why shouldn’t he hop on a bus, travel to New York City, and make a living having sex with rich women?

Of course, once he arrives in the city, Joe Buck discovers that New York City is not quite as inviting as he thought it would be.  He lives in a tiny and dirty apartment.  He can barely afford to eat.  Walking around the city dressed like a cowboy (and remember, this was long before the Naked Cowboy became one of the most annoying celebrities of all time) and randomly asking every rich woman that he sees whether or not she can tell him where he can find the Statue of Liberty, Joe Buck is a joke.  Even when he does get a customer (played, quite well, by Sylvia Miles), she claims not to have any money and Joe Buck feels so sorry for her that he ends up giving her his money.

midnight3crowd

As I watched the first part of the movie, it stuck me that the main theme of Midnight Cowboy appeared to be that, in 1969, New York City was literally Hell on Earth.  But then Joe Buck has flashbacks to his childhood and his relationship with Annie and it quickly became apparent that Midland, Texas was Hell on Earth as well.  Towards the end of the film, it’s suggested that Miami might be paradise but not enough to keep someone from dying on a bus.

Seriously, this is a dark movie.

Joe Buck eventually meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).  Ratso’s real name is Enrico but, after taking one look at him, you can’t help but feel that he’s a perfect Ratso.  Ratso is a con man.  Ratso is a petty thief.  Ratso knows how to survive on the streets but New York City is still killing him.  As a child, Ratso had polio and now he walks with a permanent limp.  He coughs constantly, perhaps because he has TB.  Ratso becomes Joe Buck’s manager and roommate (and, depending on how you to interpret certain scenes and lines, perhaps more) but only after attempting to steal all of his money.

Unfortunately, Ratso is not much of a manager.  Then again, Joe Buck is not much of a hustler.  Most of his customers are men (including a student played by a young but recongizable Bob Balaban), but Joe Buck’s own sexual preference remaining ambiguous.  Joe Buck is so quick to loudly say that he’s not, as Ratso calls him, a “fag” and that cowboys can’t be gay because John Wayne was a cowboy, that you can’t help but suspect that he’s in denial.  When he’s picked up by a socialite played by Brenda Vaccaro, Joe Buck is impotent until she teases him about being gay.  In the end, though, Joe Buck seems to view sex as mostly being a way to make money.  As for Ratso, he appears to almost be asexual.  His only concern, from day to day, is survival.

Did I mention this is a dark movie?

And yet, as dark as it is, there are moments of humor.  Joe Buck is incredibly dense, especially in the first part of the movie.  (During the second half of the film, Joe Buck is no longer as naive and no longer as funny.  It’s possible that he even kills a man, though the film is, I think, deliberately unclear on this point.)  Ratso has a way with words and it’s impossible not to smile when he shouts out his famous “I’m walking here!” at a taxi.  And, as desperate as Joe Buck and Ratso eventually become, you’re happy that they’ve found each other.  They may be doomed but at least they’re doomed together.

warhols-party

There’s a lengthy party scene, one that features several members of Andy Warhol’s entourage.  I was a bit disappointed that my favorite 60s icon, Edie Sedgwick, was nowhere to be seen.  (But be sure to check out Ciao Manhattan, if you want to see what Edie was doing while Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo were trying not to starve.)  But, as I watched the party scene, I was reminded that Midnight Cowboy is definitely a film of the 60s.  That’s both a good and a bad thing.  On the positive side, the late 60s and 70s were a time when filmmakers were willing to take risks.  Midnight Cowboy could only have been made in 1969.  At the same time, there’s a few moments when director John Schlesinger, in the style of many 60s filmmakers, was obviously trying a bit too hard to be profound.  Some of the flashbacks and fantasy sequences veer towards the pretentious.

Fortunately, the performances of Voight and Hoffman have aged better than Schlesinger’s direction.  Hoffman has the more flamboyant role (and totally throws himself into it) but it really is Voight who carries the film.  Considering that he’s playing a borderline ludicrous character, the poignancy of Voight’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.

Midnight Cowboy was the first and only X-rated film to win best picture.  By today’s standards, it’s a PG-13.