Many wonders have I seen – 329 movies in all.
I saw Jack Nicholson front a psychedelic rock group in the Haight-Ashbury melodrama “Psych-Out” (1968), produced by Dick Clark (!), written and directed by the recently passed Richard Rush (“The Stunt Man”), with an early Bruce Dern sighting. I witnessed Carol Burnett dance with Pat McCormick in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978). I set eyes on four great documentaries: “Hal” (2018), Amy Scott’s chronicle of quintessential 70’s filmmaker Hal Ashby; Rob Garver ‘s “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” (2018); “Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary” and “Life After Flash” (2017), two welcome accounts of the production of “Galaxy Quest” (1999) and the 1980 cult classic “Flash Gordon,” and their ongoing reputations in the fanboy community. I observed the Dr. Seuss musical “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” (1953), one of the most surreal bugnuts family films ever made. Must have melted minds back in the day.
There were more classics: “All About Eve” (1950), “Desk Set” (1957), “The Hustler” (1961), “Once Upon a Time In The West” (1969), “The Wild Bunch: Restored Cut” (1969), “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). “All lives matter,” yet Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950) were harsh reminders of racism’s deep roots in the American way.
It wasn’t all good. The 1970s may be the least interesting decade in the Disney filmography: “Gus” (1976) was just a remake of Disney’s “The World’s Greatest Athlete” (1973) …with a field-goal kicking mule. “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” (1979) wasn’t a durn patch on the original and wasted the talents of Tim Conway and Don Knotts. “Hot Lead and Cold Feet” (1978), which I passed up back in the day in favor of “Animal House,” is only of interest for Jim Dale doing a “Dr. Strangelove” by playing three main characters. Despite its grabber title, the would-be noir “An Act of Murder” (1948) was a talky bore, and Jeannot Szwarc’s “Supergirl” (1984) was a crummy chunk of Kryptonite entirely deserving of its lousy reputation in the comic book genre.
Part III of the NTMFF comprised 97 movies. Here are some thoughts on three films that really stuck the landing.
Having finally seen it, I can trace the evolution of Irwin Allen’s star-driven special effects blockbuster “The Towering Inferno” (1974)right through Spielberg and Lucas to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was the state-of-the-art disaster movie of its time, with a $14 million budget shared between two studios.
On the eve of the opening night gala commemorating architect Paul Newman’s latest gargantuan skyscraper, a fire breaks out on a lower floor, and fire chief Steve McQueen shows up to save the day. This and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) comprise the quintessential vision of the Irwin Allen formula: put as many glamorous stars as possible into a dangerous situation that requires lots of special effects, and then watch the audience take bets on who makes it to the end credits.
Not only do Newman and McQueen co-star, sharing a title card, but we also get William Holden and Faye Dunaway two years before “Network,” Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and, unfortunately, O.J. Simpson. The late character actor Gregory Sierra (TV’s “Barney Miller” and 1992’s “Deep Cover”) plays a bartender at the gala, and Dabney Coleman — more on him in a minute — appears as one of McQueen’s firemen.
Dino De Laurentiis’ bicentennial remake of “King Kong” (1976) was the first film I’d seen directed by John Guillermin; clearly, he got that job from his excellent work on this picture. If you’re weary of the insubstantial quality of CGI visual effects, here’s a ‘70s master class in the art of actual giant sets, miniatures, matte paintings and good old fashioned fire and smoke. I’ll admit I was intimidated at first by the film’s 165-minute running time, but “The Towering Inferno” had me in thrall from start to finish.
Ten years after “The Towering Inferno,” in the wake of “E.T. The Extraterrestrial,” Spielberg and everyone else in Hollywood was cranking out kid pictures. Richard Franklin’s “Cloak and Dagger” (1984), written by Tom Holland and based on a Cornell Woolrich story,deftly manages to cross the kid picture with the Hitchcock thriller. Having directed “Psycho II,” Franklin knew how to do the Hitch thing. E.T.’s Henry Thomas plays a smart kid who loves spy lore, computers and video games and ends up witnessing a murder and ends up in possession of a game cartridge embedded with top-secret intel. Robert Altman stock company VIP Michael Murphy plays the ruthless bad guy who’s not above murdering a kid to get that cartridge back.
The ‘80s were also all about Dabney Coleman. I first saw him in “9 to 5” (1980), and he had quite a run playing smarmy authority figures and egotistical jerks in everything from “Tootsie” (1982) and “Modern Problems” (1981) and “On Golden Pond” (1981) to “WarGames” (1983), “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” (1980), “Dragnet” (1987) and “Hot to Trot” (1987). Here, Coleman gets the actor’s dream of playing two roles in the same movie. He does double-duty as Jack Flack, the kid’s favorite spy character. Coleman as Flack gets a great James Bond-style opening sequence that turns surreal when he gets chased by giant, rolling game dice. He also plays the kid’s father, who hates computers and video games and wants his son to play baseball.
I noticed that Coleman’s characters have slightly different mustaches – just one of the many clever touches that distinguish this somewhat overlooked family thriller.
In a previous edition of the NTMFF, I wrote about “Fantasia 2000” (1999), the sequel to “Fantasia” (1940), Walt Disney’s first attempt at a musically-themed anthology. There were others over the years, and I’m going to break format slightly by focusing on just one segment of the otherwise uneven “Make Mine Music” (1946).
“All the Cats Join In,” subtitled “A Caricature,” starts like a few of the funniest Looney Tunes shorts, with the camera moving toward a piece of paper mounted on an artist’s drafting table. A pencil begins sketching in a series of excited teenagers as they chat on the phone, get ready to go out on the town and dance to the jukebox at the local burger joint-hang out spot.
This is a fast-paced, slightly racy romp that jumps and jives to the title tune by Benny Goodman and his orchestra, and depicts the first generation of post-WWII kids. It predates “Rebel Without a Cause,” “American Graffiti” and TV’s “Happy Days.” The short has so much energy and pizazz that when the pencil sketches in some kids riding in a car, the car takes off before it’s been completely rendered, and the pencil has to draw a stop sign to get a moment to finish the details on the jalopy.
“All the Cats Join In” presented me with a real puzzle, in that the film has group listings, making it impossible to figure out who directed individual scenes. I couldn’t find any information in Leonard Maltin’s book “The Disney Films,” so I reached out to film historians in order to track down who the devil made “All the Cats Join In.” Animation historian Jerry Beck disclosed that the director was Jack Kinney, who worked on Disney features like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo,” as well as dozens of shorts, including the classic “The Band Concert.” Thanks to Jerry Beck for the information, and thanks to Jack Kinney for the fine work.