The Electric Horseman (1979)

Fondathon 4 Text

Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

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The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However, his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo, he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However, on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However, The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels, Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.

Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II: Electric Boogaloo

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky II picks right off where the first movie ended and with the characters are already established, we can get right into the story. Stallone writes and directs this time, and who knows his own creation better than him?

Rocky II has a much higher budget than the first film and thus doesn’t have the guerrilla filmmaking tactics of the first so while it loses something in that regard it’s still no less a beauty of a film. They can even afford to have a huge crowd of kids following him during the training montage and possibly the cheesiest moment in any Rocky movie. We now get two montages instead of one and the series obsession with them would grow from here. The final fight benefits the most from the higher budget. We actually get to see a large crowd of spectators instead of relying on stock footage and camera angels disguising the lack of extras; while the use of slow-motion captures the pain and barbaric nature of fighting in glorious detail. When Rocky and Apollo both fall to the ground at the end of the fight, the suspense is crazy! The final shot of Rocky’s beat up face as he slurs in classic Stallone fashion is so barbaric; a perfect shot to end the movie on.

In Rocky II we get to see what Rocky does now that he has lots of money for the first time in his life and you really get a sense of the character’s new found happiness. However, he becomes blinded by this happiness and it goes to his head such as when he buys a house without even checking the upstairs. Rocky struggles with his new found fame and can’t even film a simple commercial. Just like how the public turn their back on Rocky, the public turned their back on Stallone after his two follow up films to Rocky bombed; Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. Like how Stallone had to do a sequel to Rocky in order to get by, Rocky has to fight Apollo again to get by and prove that he is not a fluke or a one hit wonder. Apollo’s trainer Duke also has a bigger role here and would continue to be more prevalent in Rocky III and IV; I love this guy and his intense words of inspiration.

Rocky II is easily the funniest movie in the series, from his poor driving skills to his mispronunciation of words when trying to film a commercial (“Smeel mainly”) but my favourite moment is when he tries to a catch a chicken as part of his training (“I feel like a Kentucky Fired Idiot”). I also find it funny the scene in which Apollo is being consumed by hate mail telling him to kill himself; it’s a good thing for him the web doesn’t yet exist. In terms of more twisted humour, Rocky takes Adrian to the zoo and even proposes to her there, because you know, retards like the zoo.

Rocky II was the first film in the series to use synthesizers in its score and the music feels very late 70’s and at times disco inspired (listen to the vocal version of All of My Life, it’s beautiful). Bill Conti’s ‘Redemption’ is by far the best piece of original music in the movie; it makes me want to climb a mountain.
Just a side note: In regards to the Rocky DVDs, only the first movie gets the special edition treatment and the rest are just bare bones releases. I know the first is considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the sequels that they’re just tossed aside on the home video releases.

Rocky II offers everything I could ask for in a sequel, a movie which stays true to the original but offers new elements along the way. It advances the story and adds an extra layer of depth to already complex characters. In 1979 the New Hollywood movement was coming to an end and the age of the blockbuster had begun. In 1976 Rocky lost the final fight but keeping with the newfound optimism in Hollywood movies, in 1979 Rocky wins the fight (although timeline wise its late 1976).

Cactus Jack (1979)

Meep Meep!

Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger did a movie together?! Yeah, I couldn’t believe it at first either. But that’s only the tip the iceberg of bizarreness with Cactus Jack. It’s also live-action Road Runner cartoon! So let’s sum this up: “One of the all-time Hollywood greats and the granddaddy of cheesy action movies team up for a live action road runner cartoon.” How did this movie bypass me for so long?!

Douglas wasn’t as a big a star as he once was by the 70’s so did he take this role due to lack of superior film offerings or was he not ashamed to show that he had a sense of humour about himself. It’s also worth noting the relationship he has with his horse in this movie is very reminiscent of another Kirk Douglas film, Lonely are the Brave. I’m also not sure if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines are intentionally or unintentionally funny. The scene in which he narrates a flashback about when he tried to stop a bunch of horses from injuring woman, children and old men while trying his hardest to emote cracks me up.

The main problem with Cactus Jack is that the jokes are very hit and miss. At 85 minutes it’s already a short movie but even then it could have trimmed down to meet the requirements of its high concept premise. The roadrunner inspired gags are undoubtedly the highlight. By far my favourite gag is the classic painting a tunnel onto the side of a rock. Of course, having this gag in a cartoon is funny itself, however, I find having it played out in live action is even funnier in the sense that I couldn’t believe they were doing a live-action rendition of this joke, having me pondering if that the carriage would really go through that painted tunnel. However is it just me or does the very last gag in the film makes no sense? Why is Kirk Douglas laying a trail of gunpowder into a shed full of dynamite when he’s using this shed as a hideout…oh never mind. On the whole, it’s a flawed film but it is Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a live action cartoon. Do I even need to say anymore? This is the type of film I could watch more than once purely based on its novelty value.