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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, October 03, 2015

 
Saturday Night at the Movies

Sultans of shock, moguls of schlock, & masters of rock: A trio of docs


By Dennis Hartley

















Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon ***


Not that anyone asked (or gives a rat’s ass), but if pressed to name the Holy Trinity of influences on my work over the years as a radio personality, stand-up comic and writer, I would cite The Firesign Theatre, Monty Python and The National Lampoon (gee…can you tell that my formative years were the late 60s thru the mid-70s?). If there is one thing the Trinity has in common, it’s a strict adherence to the #1 rule of comedy: Nothing is Sacred. It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned flourished concurrently, in the early to mid-70s; if they were coming on the scene only now with original comic sensibilities intact, the P.C. police would have them all sitting on Death Row within a matter of hours.


Long before YouTube, we pawed through things called “humor magazines” for a laugh fix. They were made from trees, printed with ink, and purchased from comically tiny brick and mortar stores called “newsstands”. If I saw something really funny in the magazine that I had to share with my friends, I would have to literally share the magazine with my friends. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn that the publishers of The National Lampoon developed the following formula to determine readership: the number of subscribers, x 12 (the number of people an average subscriber shared their copy with).


This is one of the fun facts in Douglas Tirola’s breezy documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. After a perfunctory preface about roots in the venerable Harvard Lampoon, Tirola devotes most of his film profiling the magazine’s original gang of editors and writers, which included Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, Chris Miller, Tony Hendra, and (future screenwriter/film director) John Hughes. He does a nice job of tracing how the magazine’s subversive mashup of highbrow Ivy League irony and lowbrow frat boy vulgarity begat Saturday Night Live (many of that show’s first batch of writers and performers were recruited from Lampoon’s magazine, LPs and stage productions), which in turn begat Animal House; precipitating a paradigm shift in a generation’s comic id that resonates to this day. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on your sense of humor.


(Currently in limited release and available on VOD).

















Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films **1/2


In dissecting the “art” of cinema, one can very easily bang on all day about narrative construct, auteur theory, lighting, camera angles, tracking shots, meow meow, woof woof…but you know what “they” say: all that artifice and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee. Let’s get real for a moment. At the end of the day, it’s still show business. And business is all about making money…amirite, boychick? And movies are basically about make-believe, right? So bottom line, what we really need here is ideas, bubbeleh, ideas! Ideas that sell tickets, and put asses in seats! With that in mind, here’s a crystalline distillation of all film theory, from one of the interviewees in Mark Hartley’s uneven but generally engaging Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films: “[Producer Menahem Golan] would make shit up…and then we’d film it.” See? Simple!


Mr. Golan and his cousin, Yoram Globus were two movie nuts who grew up in their native Israel dreaming about one day moving to America and becoming Hollywood moguls (which they in fact ended up doing…sort of). Golan directed several films in the late 70s, including one genuine cult item that (depending on who you ask) occasionally threatens to unseat Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space as “Worst Movie of All Time”…the 1979 sci-fi disco musical, The Apple (oy!). Hartley’s film primarily focuses on Golan and Globus’ joint tenure as the honchos of Cannon Films from 1979 until 1989.


During that period, the pair gained a rep for crankin’ ‘em out fast and cheap; as someone in the film observes, “[the money] was all up there on the screen.” That doesn’t necessarily guarantee that what ended up on that screen was eminently watchable, but it was product. And apparently somebody was buying tickets, because they had a “golden period” once they perfected their formula (mostly involving profitable overseas sales).


One thing I had forgotten is that Cannon accidentally made some good films during that period: Love Streams, The Company of Wolves, Runaway Train, Otello, 52 Pick-Up, Street Smart, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Barfly, Powaqqatsi, and A Cry in the Dark. But again, that’s a relative handful among hundreds like The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, Hospital Massacre, Revenge of the Ninja, Bolero, Hercules, Sahara, Death Wish 3 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Not to mention Cannon’s culpability in jumpstarting the careers of Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme (j’accuse!).


While Cannon’s Golan-Globus era indeed makes for quite a “wild story”, it unfortunately morphs from “untold” into “retold one too many times” early on. About halfway through I began to tire of yet one more anecdote from a former associate that illustrates how flinty and eccentric the cousins were (we get it, already!). On the plus side, you can always elect to turn off your brain and revel in the guilty pleasure of all those campy film clips.


(Now available on Warner Home Video DVD)

















The Jam: About the Young Idea ***1/2


When former British PM Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, Digby did a great post about how the populist backlash against Thatcherism provided fertile ground for the Agit Punk movement in the UK (I wrote a companion piece on Thatcherism’s likewise effect on film makers). One of the best bands of that era was The Jam. Formed in 1976, the three lads from Woking (guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Weller, bassist/vocalist Bruce Foxton, and drummer Rick Buckler) exploded onto the scene with their seminal album, In the City. The eponymous single became their signature tune and remains a punk pop anthem. While initially lumped in with contemporaries like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the band was operating in a different sphere; specifically regarding their musical influences.


What set Weller and his bandmates apart was their open adulation of The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and the Motown sound. At the time, this was heresy; as astutely pointed out in The Jam: About the Young Idea (a rockumentary that premiered on Showtime this week), you had to dismiss any music released prior to 1976, if you wished to retain your punk cred. In the film, Weller recalls having a conversation with Joe Strummer of The Clash, who told him (in effect) that all of Chuck Berry’s music was crap.  “Oh Joe…you don’t really mean that,” Weller replies rhetorically into the camera.


Also on hand are Foxton and Buckler, who still register palpable sadness while recalling their reaction to Weller’s unexpected announcement to them in 1982 (at the height of their greatest chart success) that he was quitting the band to pursue new musical avenues. Weller is philosophical; he argues it’s always best to go out on top (as Neil Young said, it’s better to burn out than fade away). Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) does a marvelous job telling the band’s story, sustaining a positive energy throughout by mixing in a generous helping of vintage performance clips. This is a must-see for fans.


(Playing this month on Showtime; check your local listings)


Peruse more reviews at Den of Cinema (my new website!)



--Dennis Hartley