April 29th, 2008

KING OF THE GYPSIES (1978) *** ½

 

You may not know it to look at me, but I come from Gypsy blood.  My ancestors (on my father’s side) were all gypsies.  I’m a little too far removed from that whole culture to verify for this flick’s authenticity, but a lot of what I’ve heard from my family is in this film (fortune telling, breaking eggs, burying money, etc.).  Since I’m a big Eric Roberts fan, and this is his screen debut, it seemed like fate that I should check this movie out.  Turns out this flick is pretty great.  It ranks right up there with Snatch and Traveller as one of the finest examples of gypsy cinema ever made. 

 

In fact, I’d go so far as to call this The Godfather of Gypsy Movies.  Like that film, it’s a methodically paced, wonderfully textured look into a family operating outside the law, and features excellent performances by several up and coming actors.

 

Many people dis on my boy Eric Roberts and favor his more famous sibling Julia, but I gotta say this to them:  Watch him in The Pope of Greenwich Village.  His performance is miles beyond anything his multi-billion dollar sister’s ever done.  Check out Roberts in Best of the Best.  It’s better than Sleeping with the Enemy any day.  And if anyone thought Julia was good in Pretty Woman, they haven’t seen shit.  I got three letters for you, people:  DOA.  The scene where Eric Roberts stole all the other fighter’s powers and used it against them?  Well that’s the kind of thing that cinema is all about. 

 

But I digress. 

 

Roberts stars as a gypsy who turns his back on his family at the age of twelve to live a life as a pickpocket and scam artist.  When his grandfather, “The King of the Gypsies” (Sterling Hayden) is on his deathbed, he names Roberts as his successor.  This royally pisses off Roberts’ father, played by Judd Hirsch; who is next in line to be King, but also happens to be a complete and hopeless loser.  Hirsch tries to have Roberts killed and inadvertently murders his sister (Brooke Shields) instead, so Roberts has to grab a shotgun and go out for some gypsy justice.

 

Even though the first half of the film (which takes place in “the old days”) is a lot more involving than Roberts’ quest for revenge, King of the Gypsies is still immensely absorbing all the way through.  Director Frank (A Star is Born) Pierson evocatively captured the gypsy lifestyle and some of the scams they pulled on people were pretty awesome.  (I especially liked having the kid swallow a diamond and shit it out.) 

 

The performances are uniformly great all around.  Roberts had a burning intensity that he rarely got to show in his later direct to DVD days, and he really stands out here.  Susan Sarandon is also aces as his long suffering mother (she even shows off her breast at one point) and Hirsch makes the audience hate his despicable character with ease.  Hayden was obviously having fun chewing the scenery and Shields did a memorable job with her limited screen time as well.

 

To pre-order your King of the Gypsies DVD, or any others from Legend’s new line of DVD’s (all licensed from Paramount Pictures), check out www.legendfilms.net.   

STUDENT BODIES (1981) ***

 

Ah yes, good ol’ 1981.  That year saw so many Halloween and Friday the 13th rip-offs; it would make your (decapitated) head spin.  The Burning, Eyes of a Stranger, The Funhouse, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night, The Prowler, etc., etc., etc.  Heck even the SEQUELS to both Friday the 13th AND Halloween came out in ’81; truly a watershed year for the slasher genre.  It was only a matter of time before an Airplane style parody of the so-called Dead Teenager Movies came out in the form of Student Bodies. 

 

Yes if you thought Scary Movie was the first all out parody of slasher movies, well… you’re wrong. 

 

The opening credits say:  “26 horror movies were released last year.  None of them lost money.”

 

I guess since Friday the 13th made a mint for Paramount Pictures, the least they could do is poke a little fun at their own expense. 

 

There’s a psychotic killer known only as “The Breather” who stalks and kills teenagers and gets off on making heavy breathing phone calls.  His murders are committed using paper clips, Hefty Bags, a wooden horse head, an eggplant, and chalkboard erasers.  In the end, we learn it was all a dream, but there’s also a well done Carrie inspired final scare to make up for it.

 

The gags are all expectedly uneven, but there are some pretty big laughs sprinkled throughout.  There’s an on screen body count to help you keep track of how many teens have bought the farm and written indicators of dangers the kids are ignoring like “Unlocked Doors”, “Open Windows”, “Clues”, and “Suspect” pop up occasionally.  The football game is a mini-classic as the high school players are a bunch of Pee Wee Leaguers going up against a bunch of muscular black players.  But the funniest gag in the film is the producer interrupting the movie about halfway through and apologizing for the lack of nudity and graphic violence, so he says, “Fuck you” in order to get an R rating.        

 

The writer and director, Mickey Rose (who used to be the ex-writing partner of Woody Allen) gets about as much mileage from the gags as about anybody could’ve and keeps things moving along at a steady clip.  Since the film was made during the writer’s strike, producer Michael (Fletch) Ritchie used the Allen Smithee pseudonym, and the voice of The Breather is credited as “Richard Brando”, but it’s really Richard Belzer.

 

An idiot boyfriend gets the movie’s best line when he says, “You’re not responding to my maleness!”

 

To get your copy of this long out of print film, or any others from Legend Films’ new line of DVD’s (all licensed from Paramount Pictures), check out www.legendfilms.net.   

JEKYLL AND HYDE… TOGETHER AGAIN (1982) **

 

Remember comedian Mark Blankfield?  Didn’t think so.  

 

Anyway, he stars as Dr. Jekyll, a brilliant surgeon who gives up operating on people to find a cocaine-like drug that will separate man from his “animal instincts”.   When he inadvertently sniffs some of it, he turns into a wild haired, coke snorting, gold chain wearing swinger named Hyde who lusts after a sexy prostitute/punk rock singer named Ivy (Krista Errickson).   

 

There are some good gags here and there (like the “foreign object” lodged in a woman’s vagina, a punk band named The Shitty Rainbows, and a boob job gone hideously wrong), but for the most part, this flick isn’t all that funny.  Blankfield is sporadically amusing as Jekyll (the way he tries to win his fiancée back by RUNNING through a steeplechase is inspired) but he tries way too hard as Hyde.  Blankfield thoroughly embarrasses himself while donning his ridiculous Hyde get-up and his performance reeks of desperation.  The similarly themed Doctor Detroit (released the next year) is a much better (and funnier) examination of a repressed guy dressing up as an uninhibited psycho.   

 

Having said that; the film actually gets better as it goes along and it includes a snappy musical number, “I’ve Got Nothing to Hyde.”  But easily the best part of this uneven mess is the final reel.  During the rooftop chase, the film switches to black and white and director Jerry Belson effectively captures a moody atmosphere reminiscent of the old Universal monster movies.  Belson also saved the best gag for last as we see Robert Louis Stevenson’s corpse literally rolling in his grave at the film’s conclusion!  Had the rest of the movie contained the same amount of spunk as the final 15 minutes, Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again could’ve worked.

 

The supporting cast is game and makes sitting through some of the patchier sections of the movie bearable.  Bess Armstrong plays Jekyll’s prissy fiancée and Tim (Rhinestone) Thomerson has fun playing a cross dressing plastic surgeon, but it’s Errikson who gives the best performance of the film as the object of Hyde’s affections.  B Movie buffs will also have fun spotting Cassandra Peterson (AKA:  Elvira) in a small role as the “busty nurse”. 

 

Although Blankfield’s humor is a little hit or miss, he still gets the best line of the movie when he says, “I’m a drug crazed beast with a giant erection that won’t go away!”

 

Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again will be released on June 3rd by the good folks at Legend Films who are now in charge of releasing some of Paramount Pictures more obscure titles on DVD.  For more info on this and future releases from Legend, check out their website at www.legendfilms.net.

SOME KIND OF HERO (1982) ***

 

A lot of critics usually denounce Richard Pryor’s films for not containing the rawness that he embodied in his stand-up act.  I dunno.  As a kid, I always liked him in The Toy and especially in Superman 3, but that’s because I was too young to fully appreciate his stand-up work.  I admit his films and his stand-up are as different as night and day, but if you can set aside your memories of his foul mouthed incendiary persona and just accept him as a comedic “actor” they go down a lot smoother. 

 

With Some Kind of Hero, Pryor did something a little bit different.  In it, he mixed the laughs with a more believable dramatic story and was able to infuse his character with occasional flashes of his trademark humor his fans know and love.  Now he had done straight-up dramas before (check him out in Paul Schrader’s excellent Blue Collar), but in Some Kind of Hero, Pryor walks the tightrope between comedy and drama and while the film isn’t entirely successful, it hits home more often than not. 

 

Pryor plays an American soldier who gets captured by the Viet Kong while trying to take a shit in the jungle.  He’s placed in a POW camp and when he comes home to the US six years later, he has to readjust to a world that has changed dramatically.  When the Army won’t give him the money he’s entitled to, he turns to a life of crime to get the dollars needed to keep his invalid mother in a nursing home, while trying to find love with a high class prostitute (Margot Kidder).   

 

Some Kind of Hero may not be as well known as some of Pryor’s other films, but he has some of his best moments of his entire career in this movie.  Consider the scene where he learns for the first time that he has a daughter.  I’m not much into sappy sentimentalism, but even I got choked up at the tenderness and outright joy Pryor projected in that scene.  Or his tearful reunion with his wife and his subsequent enragement upon learning she has found a new lover.  Or his heart wrenching speech he gives during his homecoming press conference.  These are just some of the dramatic highlights featured within the film.  Compared to the more realistic elements in the film, the comedy seems a tad inconsistent, but the movie still contains some hearty laughs, particularly during the POW camp portion of the film.  

 

Some Kind of Hero may peter out towards the end when it succumbs into needless clichés, but Pryor fans wanting to see another dimension to the gifted comedian’s persona will definitely want to check it out.  The cast is well rounded, with Kidder and Ronny (Robocop) Cox lending fine support.

 

Director Michael Pressman balances the laughs and the downbeat aspects of the film and makes them work more often than not.  Pressman had a highly erratic career, directing everything from low comedies like Doctor Detroit to utter dreck like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2:  The Secret of the Ooze. 

 

For more information regarding the upcoming DVD release of Some Kind of Hero, as well as Legend Films’ other forthcoming movies, go to www.legendfilms.net.  

VILLA RIDES (1968) **

 

Yul Brynner (with hair!) stars as Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in this wearisome western written by Robert (Chinatown) Towne and Sam (The Wild Bunch) Peckinpah and directed by Buzz (The Hunter) Kulik.  Villa coerces a gringo pilot (Robert Mitchum) into helping with the revolution by ordering him to drop dynamite from his airplane onto Mexican soldiers. 

 

You know for a movie called Villa Rides, Villa doesn’t really spend a lot of time riding.  Heck we don’t actually see him on his damn horse until the movie’s about halfway over and even then, he’s not riding the horse, just sitting on it watching the action unfold.  In fact, too much of the movie focuses on Mitchum’s character as Villa doesn’t even show up till about 25 minutes into the movie. 

 

If you’re looking for a history lesson about the Mexican Revolution, forget it.  All the historical facts are muddled as all get out as we really never learn who Villa is rebelling against or why.  What we do get is a moderately entertaining but instantly forgettable oater. 

 

Charles Bronson has the best moments of the film as Villa’s trigger happy right hand man (I especially liked the scene where he lined up three Mexican soldiers back to back so he could save on bullets), but the two leads are rather lackluster and don’t have much chemistry together.  Brynner is his usual stoic self, but he doesn’t even bother speaking with a Mexican accent until the movie’s almost over!  What’s up with that Yul?

 

If anything, this movie’s at least worth watching for the rare sight of Brynner without his patented chrome dome.

 

Bronson gets the best line of the film after he shoots a belligerent man in a bar and says, “Go outside and die!  Where are your manners?”

 

This film along with several others will be released on DVD for the first time this June by Legend Films.  For more information regarding this DVD, visit www.legendfilms.net.