Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Film Review: IN GOD WE TRU$T (1980)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 43

IN GOD WE TRU$T (1980 Universal) Starring Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Louise Lasser, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Wilfrid Hyde-White.  Directed and written by Marty Feldman.

Feldman is a sheltered monk who is sent into the outside world for the first time in his life at the request of abbot Hyde-White.  The monastery is $5,000 in debt on the mortgage(!) and Feldman is to travel to Los Angeles on foot to make a personal appeal to rich televangelist Kaufman (as Armageddon T. Thunderbird--A.T.T. for short).  The naive monk ends up broke in L.A.'s red light district after losing his travel money to "mobile church" propieter Boyle, but soon finds a place to stay after helping grateful prostitute Lasser avoid a police raid.  After much difficulty getting in the door to see the heartless, power-obsessed Kaufman, he suddenly finds gainful employment with the minister after Pryor's "God" shows Kaufman the profitability of a frontman with sincerity and wide-eyed innocence.

There's a potentially great religious satire with this premise and cast, and IN GOD WE TRU$T contains a number of inspired moments, such as Boyle's marketing of "Lazarus dolls" and Feldman's initial "real world" job: making crucifixes. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is too heavy handed and cartoonish to take seriously, and too slow and serious to provide real belly laughs.

Part of the film's box office failure was simply bad timing: with Monty Python's uproarious LIFE OF BRIAN still fresh on the minds of filmgoers, the bar for religion-tweaking humor had been raised considerably at the time IN GOD WE TRU$T made its way to theatres in September 1980.  In addition, Feldman's film was competing with then-recent memories of the highly acclaimed BEING THERE, also about the corruption of a middle-aged innocent.  IN GOD WE TRU$T is much closer in spirit to the latter, but suffers in comparison to either.

Feldman's story indicates a desire to make a serious statement with humor and heart, similar to Mel Brooks' later LIFE STINKS.  But, as was the case with that lesser Brooks effort, Feldman the director lacks confidence in his vision, continually punching things up with very silly and often pointless slapstick, such as the needless scene in which Boyle has a bangup on the road with one of Lasser's clients (who is running for office after attempting to rough Lasser up). Lasser's patron disappears from the film afterward, the rich comic possibilities of a politician being caught with a prostitute and being involved in a wreck with Boyle's mobile church completely unexplored.

As was the case with LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE, Feldman assembles a terrific oddball cast here, but he completely wastes Pryor, who as God is given even less to do here than in THE WIZKaufman playing a megalomaniacal televangelist sounds like it can't miss, but while he's funny onstage, he can't sell us on the overdone finale, in which all subtlety goes out the window long before yet another chase scene.  Kaufman includes "K.K.K." while reveling in the power of three letter acronyms and leads his flock in a chant uncomfortably close to a Nazi salute---seeing African-American churchgoers fervently following along is a leap to say the least.   Boyle gives his best to an underwritten role: a traveling, cut-rate version of Kaufman who steals Feldman's money at the outset but ends up hiring him and moving in with Lasser and Feldman(!).

Feldman the actor is a plus, appealing and sweetly disarming as the most unconventional of leading men, particularly in his scenes with Lasser.  If his work behind the camera had matched his performance in front of it, IN GOD WE TRU$T might have kicked into a higher gear.  Sadly, Feldman's second effort as writer-director-star ended up being his last, as the chain-smoking comedian died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 49.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

A heartfelt, but flat effort that fails to establish a reality to twist, IN GOD WE TRU$T isn't funny enough to succeed at farce and is too exaggerated for a satire.  The film failed at the box office and was lost in the shuffle after making its initial cable rounds in the early 1980's.

Why it should be on DVD:

Like Feldman, the amazing Andy Kaufman died way too young (at age 35 in 1984) and this film does have Kaufman's best screen role, for what it's worth...unfortunately, his only other feature was the little-seen bomb HEARTBEEPS.  As a side note, it's a real shame the mind bending script for THE TONY CLIFTON STORY was never put into production.

Not a good film, but prescient, given the televangelism scandals that would follow in the 1980's and the political power that would soon be sought by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.  Just 8 short years after Kaufman's Armageddon T. Thunderbird made his right-wing political aspirations known, Pat Robertson was running for the Republican nomination for President.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Film Review: DEEP END (1971)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 42

DEEP END (1971 Paramount) Starring Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Christopher Sanford, Diana Dors, Karl Michael Vogler, Louise Martini, Anita Lochner.  Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

Moulder-Brown drops out of school at age 15 and gets a job at a London bath house to help provide for his financially distressed family.  Once there, the teen learns from older, provocative co-worker Asher that gratuities are offered by male and female customers for sexual favors.  Moulder-Brown fails to fully grasp these duties, partly because of his shyness, but mostly because he only has eyes for the alluring Asher.  Despite her usually condescending attitude towards him, he pursues his fantasy.  Moulder-Brown isn't deterred even after learning that she is engaged to the rich, older Sanford.  She is also no angel despite his image of her.  She's cheating on Sanford with even older Vogler (the lad's former swim coach), attending both porn flicks and swingers clubs with her fiancee, and may be working as a stripper.  While Asher shows occasional physical interest from afar, he is still a kid to her, and Moulder-Brown doesn't help his cause with his immature reaction to each new revelation.

Skolimowski, a one-time collaborater of Roman Polanski's, again explores the theme of obsession he tackled in his previous film THE DEPARTURE.   In that case, a young man's obsession with a Porsche was the topic: this time, it's a boy's growing obsession with an unattainable but tantalizing "older woman".   You can count the number of coming of age comedies with an unhappy ending on one hand, and DEEP END doesn't add to this short list. Despite numerous funny scenes, DEEP END really isn't a comedy, and Skolimowski makes this apparent right away as film opens with a single drop of blood red paint while Cat Stevens' angst-filled "But I Might Die Tonight" plays over the credits.  There's plenty of humor, but virtually all of it induces cringes and laughs in equal measure: Dors and Vogler's unsubtle come-ons to underage teens, Moulder-Brown's meeting with a temporarily disabled hooker, and his childish, increasingly destructive pranks while making the effort to gain Asher's attention.

Moulder-Brown slowly gets in over his head: he's clearly not ready for the seedy aspects of his new job, yet he plunges even further into the London's adult world in his irrational pursuit.  But he's not the only youngster being flung into the DEEP END; the teenage girls get very personalized attention in the lecherous Vogler's class.  

Asher, who is only slightly older, is self-assured, but her confidence is misplaced: she's also biting off more than she can chew.   She's a constant tease, leading Moulder-Brown on (i.e. by kissing him behind her fiance's back at the adult theatre after the lad boldly sneaks in to stalk her), eating ice cream in front of a dieting co-worker and finessing Vogler into loaning her his expensive car.  Her major error is thinking that boy Moulder-Brown can be manipulated just like any man, not taking into account that with his immaturity comes an unpredictability she isn't used to in dealing with her older (but not necessarily mature) suitors.  She ignores the red flags, such as the scene made by Moulder-Brown on the evening train and the "coincidence" of him being in the same trashy area of town in the first place.

Skolimowski maintains an uneasy, increasingly out of control tone using occasional surrealistic flashes (i.e. Moulder-Brown thinking he sees Asher naked underwater) and with abrupt edits to his interior scenes without establishing shots.   Set in London, but filmed in Germany, and unrelentingly portraying the seediest side of the city with the then-swingin' image.  Though Skolimowski might well be better known as an actor in the U.S. (WHITE NIGHTS, MARS ATTACKS!) he is a talented and unconventional writer-director whose early work is worthy of rediscovery on these shores, and that should start with this unsettling but fascinating, thoroughly unique coming-of-age film. 

So.....why isn't this on DVD  yet?

DEEP END was badly mismarketed by Paramount in America (with a poster more worthy of a slasher film) and the film virtually disappeared after its initial release here.  Amazingly, it's never even been released on VHS in the U.S.   If not for Danny Peary's enthusiastic recommendation in his books CULT MOVIES and GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC, it would be even more obscure on these shores.
It shares with fellow 1971 M.I.A.'s on DVD (and prior Horn Section reviews) BLOOD AND LACE and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW the very uncomfortable theme of adults who see nothing wrong with seeking gratification with teenagers.

Why it should be on DVD:

A one of a kind take on unrequited "puppy love" that is cringe-inducing due to the tension created by Moulder-Brown and Asher, both of them clueless on different but equally devastating levels.

A fine performance from Moulder-Brown and a flawless one from Asher, who is unfortunately best known as Paul McCartney's girlfriend (pre-Linda). 

One of the most sought after cult films, and many avid Peary readers have waited nearly a quarter century just to see DEEP END.  The recent TCM airing was the very first time I'd ever even seen it scheduled on cable.  While that print didn't reflect it, the film has reportedly been recently remastered, all the more reason to get it out on DVD.