The 1978 Project: Part VI

The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the movies of a single year (guess which one!) As of right now, I’ve seen 66 movies made in 1978 (and am now caught up in reviewing each one). I keep discovering new pockets of films I want to watch, so there’s still a solid 10-20 left to go, but here’s the last 7 I’ve watched:

  • Convoy – A group of truckers led by the inimitable Rubber Ducky (all the truckers have goofy names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty) run afoul of an abusive sheriff and form a mile long “convoy” in order to escape the forces aligned against them. Director Sam Peckinpah, in need of a success, basically took on this Smokey & the Bandit ripoff mostly because he didn’t really have any other options left at that point in his career. It falls pretty squarely into the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the 70s and while Peckinpah was able to add some of his own flavor to the proceedings, it’s ultimately just as cheesy and goofy as the other trucker-sploitation flicks that this imitates. You could certainly map traditional Western genre tropes to these trucker movies, which might have been the draw for Peckinpah. The truckers are the noble outlaws, the Sheriffs are corrupt lawmen, trucks are horses, and so on. I suspect Peckinpah’s big contribution was to incorporate the subplot about a politician who attempts to co-opt the convoy’s popularity for his own purposes, which does add a dark note to an otherwise silly story. Peckinpah’s visual preferences are also well represented here, particularly the cramped, sweaty environs of the truck cabins and general gritty tone. This film has its moments and it’s a diverting enough affair, but it’s nothing particularly special unless you’re a huge fan of trucker/C.B. cinema or a Peckinpah completest (which, to be fair, are both worthy pursuits, though not necessarily mine). **1/2
  • Slave of the Cannibal God (aka Mountain of the Cannibal God) – Sergio Martino‘s take on the jungle cannibal jamboree, it’s the standard tale. A woman charters a trip into the nefarious jungle to find her missing husband. Naturally, the jungle is filled with cannibals and it’s not long before star Ursula Andress (most famous for being the first Bond girl, but she has a long list of grindhouse credits) is strapped up on the chopping block. Look, it’s not delicate, subtle cinema, but it’s pretty entertaining.

    Slave of the Cannibal God

    Andress is always fun and it’s nice to see larval Stacy Keach (bordering on unrecognizable) as the experienced woodsman. I’m not an expert on the sub-genre, but this seems like a decent take on the Italian cannibal flick that is perhaps understandably overshadowed by the more controversial entries like Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s got some twists towards the end that sorta recall the nonsensical turns in Giallo flicks and I kinda like that. Apparently this was the highest budgeted Italian Cannibal movie and the only one to have internationally recognizable stars. It’s also one of the few that wasn’t outright banned in most countries, and thus is more accessible these days (Is it thus missing a badge of honor? Eh, probably not…) It’s still gorey as all get out, and while I’m sure we could come up with some sort of grand pretension about these types of films, it’s mostly about the gore and prurient interests, and Martino’s visual prowess pulls it off in fine style. **1/2
  • Heaven Can Wait – Not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait, the 1943 comedy of errors about a man who dies and tries to convince the devil that he belongs in hell (I really enjoyed that Ernst Lubitsch movie, watched as part of the 50 Under 50 project). This 1978 movie also deals with the afterlife, but is otherwise completely different. An overanxious angel accidentally sends a quarterback to heaven, only to realize that the quarterback wasn’t supposed to die yet. To make up for his mistake, the angel finds another body for the quarterback to inhabit, that of a recently murdered millionaire.

    Heaven Can Wait

    The millionaire’s wife and accountant, who were the attempted murderers, are naturally confused by this development. The become even more so when the millionaire decides to buy the LA Rams and become their quarterback, just in time for the Super Bowl. It’s certainly got some silly screwball tendencies, but there’s a more sophisticated core at work here, a balancing act that I’d attribute to writer Elaine May, even though Warren Beatty made this movie happen. It’s got some nice comedic touches, and I love the way Beatty interacts with his would-be murderers in ways that confound them, but it eventually settles into a more dramatic story that I found genuinely involving and pleasantly surprising. I didn’t realize this was nominated for an Oscar, a rare comedy to be recognized in that way, and it makes for a fun change of pace to the more somber, dramatic nominees in 1978 (which we’ll cover in more depth soon enough). ***
  • Koko: A Talking Gorilla – A documentary about Dr. Penny Patterson and her work with Koko, a gorilla who has been taught sign-language. It consists of standard talking-head interviews where people discuss the complexities of Koko’s use of language, and actual footage of Patterson interacting and speaking with Koko. There’s lots of interesting ideas about language and consciousness that are thought provoking. The interactions captured on film are great, if repetitive (especially in the middle of the film), but it’s hard not to fall in love with Koko and it’s nice to see the way Koko and Patterson develop a relationship. It’s not formally inventive or anything, but it’s great subject matter and well worth checking out. ***
  • Foul Play – Goldie Hawn gets caught up in a criminal scheme involving albinos, dwarves, and a plot to assassinate the Pope. Along the way, she has the help of Chevy Chase as the bumbling but competent detective, Burgess Meredith as the lovable landlord, and Dudley Moore as a… pervert. As a romantic-comedy-action-thriller-mystery, it’s completely serviceable, even if it doesn’t manage to do any of those genres justice. Apparently a big success at the time, having Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as leads helps a lot. Not a lot of chemistry there, to be sure, but they’re pretty charismatic on their own, I guess. Everything’s just a hair off here. The convoluted assassination plot involving dwarves and albinos and the Pope has the potential to reach madcap proportions, but it never quite pulls together for what should be a cascading series of revelations and confrontations. Instead, it just sorta limps to the finish line. The comedy never quite gels either, and the action/thriller components are sorta undercut by the other elements (the car chase towards the end of the film, for instance, is a total drag and it goes on forever). It sounds like a blast, so I did find it a little disappointing, but it’s ultimately just fine. **1/2
  • Someone’s Watching Me! – John Carpenter’s made-for-TV movie about a woman being stalked by a stalking stalker. Carpenter would go on to direct Halloween not long after this, and you can see his craft evolving here. It’s got more of a Hitchcockian feel to it than Carpenter’s other work, and the reliance on the telephone as an element of suspense recall Mario Bava and Bob Clark. Lauren Hutton does good work as the lead, and Carpenter puts her through the paces well enough. It’s clearly a limited production, but as 70s TV movies go, it’s a pretty solid line drive. Ultimately, it’s probably more for Carpenter completists than anyone else, but there are worse things to be (this is kind of a theme in this recap). **1/2
  • Coming Home – A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam begins work in a VA hospital and falls in love with a paralyzed veteran. Jane Fonda plays the woman at the center of the love triangle and she’s a fine actress, I guess, but her infamously outspoken anti-Vietnam activism always kept me at arms length from this movie. There’s a lot to respect about it, a distinctly more feminine perspective on the vietnam war (it contrasts nicely with 1978’s other Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter), but I also tend to prefer later takes on the war (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t far off, but Stone and Kubrick’s efforts had the benefit of perspective, I think). No one element felt overbaked (even the love triangle, which isn’t nearly as cliched as you might expect) and the performances are all excellent, but it never really gelled together for me when you collect all these elements together. It’s worth stressing the performances. Fonda does good work, but Jon Voight really stands out as the paraplegic vet (his closing monologue is a highlight of the film) and while Bruce Dern doesn’t get as much time as the husband, he really turns up the juice when he comes back from the war with a nervous, wiry energy that I don’t think could be duplicated by anyone else. Unfortunately, big performance showpieces like this often don’t work as much for me. I have similar issues with the aforementioned Deer Hunter, which also has great performances but is otherwise pretty plodding, with the exception of one masterful scene. It probably deserves a better place in the Vietnam war movie canon, but it didn’t particularly work on me. I’m glad I watched it though, and I’m clearly in the minority on this one. **

This brings me up to date on my progress so far. Things have slowed a bit as the most accessible movies have been watched at this point, and now I’m trying to scrape up copies of out-of-print movies or I’m starting to tackle some things I want to watch, but which seem to have difficult subject matter, etc… Again, I still have a solid 10-20 more 1978 movies I want to catch up with before doing the traditional awards/top 10 &c.

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