Thursday, December 8, 2016

Poco . . . Little Dog Lost (1977)

Full disclosure: I’m crazy for dogs. I can lose hours playing with them or watching videos with them, and I admit to getting choked up the first time I saw Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog (1995), even though I was an adult when the movie was released. All of this goes to say that I’m essentially the target audience for Poco . . . Little Dog Lost, and yet the movie did nothing for me. So when I offer remarks to the effect that the picture is dumb and sappy, it’s not as if I resisted the subject matter. Turns out that even with canines involved, there’s only so much stupidity I can take. The independently made family film takes place mostly in the California desert. After young Kimmy (Michelle Ashburn) and her mother have a car accident, Kimmy’s amiable pet, Poco, watches in horror as Kimmy gets loaded into an ambulance and taken away. Poco chases the vehicle but can’t keep up, so he wanders into the desert. When Kimmy regains consciousness, she mopes about her missing pal and persuades her parents to search the desert. Meanwhile, Poco has dangerous adventures, avoiding dirt-bikers and rattlesnakes while receiving food and shelter from folks including a gas-station proprietor and a prospector. The best movies about dogs in the wilderness avoid projecting human pathos onto the animals, instead exploring the gulf between the behavior of household pets and their ingrained survival instincts. The makers of Poco . . . Little Dog Lost opt for schmaltz instead. In a pair of interminable montages, the dog wanders through the desert while a saccharine song and, wait for it, an even more saccharine poem resonate on the soundtrack. Sometimes, the filmmakers get so desperate as to use little Kimmy’s plaintive voice (“Poco, please find your way home”) over shots of the displaced animal. It’s all very clumsy and obvious. That said, online research reveals that some folks who encountered this movie when they were very young have warm memories of the experience. Good for them.

Poco . . . Little Dog Lost: LAME

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Encounter with the Unknown (1973)

Part of the fun of watching pseudoscience docudramas from the ’70s is parsing where the filmmakers cross the line from speculation to outright malarkey, because the best of these movies have just enough rooting in fact to seem persuasive. Conversely, the worst of these movies are so obviously silly as to be pointless. Such is true of Encounter with the Unknown, an anthology of three supernatural stories linked by the framing device of one scientist’s research. Unfortunately, the filmmakers made up the scientist, so Encounter with the Unknown is really just a low-budget pretender to the Twilight Zone crown—which explains why Rod Serling was hired to perform some of the narration. The gimmick, we’re told during an opening text crawl, is that one Dr. Jonathan Rankin traced huge numbers of persons associated with paranormal experiences to a small number of cemeteries, hence “Rankin Clusters” where cursed souls are buried. The first story is an old-fashioned thriller about three young men who cause a friend’s death, then receive a curse from the victim’s mother. The second story is a bit more imaginative, depicting the mystery around a hole in the ground; after a boy’s dog falls into the hole, the boy’s father ventures into the hole, with spooky results. The final yarn is a dull ghost story adapted from an enduring urban legend, something about a pretty young woman who returns from the dead. Nothing of much interest happens in Encounter with the Unknown, because even though each of the three stories has a creepy moment or two, none is sufficiently intriguing to sustain 30 minutes of screen time. Each feels padded and repetitive, a problem exacerbated by the film’s mostly perfunctory acting. And since the filmmakers never make a real connection between the three tales, beyond the sketchy device of Larkin’s research, the whole compendium seems random, as if any other three stories would have served the same purposes.

Encounter with the Unknown: LAME

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Special Day (1977)

          “I don’t think I’m anti-fascist,” the well-dressed man remarks. “If anything, fascism is anti-me.” Those simple words, revealing a world of sociopolitical significance, epitomize what makes the Italian drama A Special Day so resonant. By viewing cataclysmic historical events through the prism of one very specific relationship, the picture brings the past to vivid life while also conveying timeless truths about subjects ranging from compassion to tyranny. A Special Day is also noteworthy as one of the best collaborations between classic Italian stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Whereas many of their celebrated onscreen pairings are romantic comedies, A Special Day uses their easygoing chemistry in a more imaginative way, which nets powerful results.
          Set in 1938, the movie takes place in Rome on the day Adolf Hitler made a state visit to confer with Italy’s fascistic strongman, Benito Mussolini. The action revolves around a huge apartment building with a massive inner courtyard. In the morning, bedraggled housewife Antonietta (Loren) rouses her large family. Her husband, Emanule (John Vernon), is a staunch Mussolini supporter, so he plans to take all their kids to a rally celebrating Hitler’s visit. Given her backbreaking obligations of cleaning and cooking for the big family, Antonietta stays home. Once the apartment building is nearly empty, she happens into a conversation with a neighbor from across the courtyard, Gabriele (Mastroianni). We discover things about Gabriele gradually, learning that he’s a radio announcer recently fired from his position for mysterious reasons, and that just before he encountered Antonietta, he was close to attempting suicide.
          Giving away the other revelations about his character would diminish the experience of watching A Special Day, so broad strokes must suffice—over the course of a long day comprising conversations, flirtations, and intimacies, Antonietta discovers through her new friend a world of emotion and ideas and nonconformity that rocks her existence. By the end of the day, she’s almost a completely different person than the woman who first met Gabriele. And because the things we learn about Gabriele speak directly to the dangers of living under a totalitarian regime, he changes, too, if only in the sense of emerging from shadows by sharing provocative secrets with a friend.
          Directed by the acclaimed Ettore Scola, A Special Day achieves that rare trick in movies, presenting characters who are so fully realized they seem like real people; accordingly, even the most fanciful turns in the movie’s central relationship have credibility and depth. At different times, we experience Antonietta’s fear, loneliness, pride, and warmth, just as we experience Gabriele’s dignity, humor, joy, and sadness. Loren downplays her signature glamour, hewing closer to the earth-mother aspect of her screen persona, while Mastroianni effectively tweaks his urbane image. (Modern viewers may flinch at some aspects of the characterizations, but the portrayals fit the period during which the story takes place.) Also worth noting is the picture’s unique visual style. Scola and cinematographer Pasqualina de Santis employed a desaturated color scheme, putting the look of A Special Day somewhere between black-and-white and color, and while the look is jarring at first, it makes sense after a while; this is a story that exists between the margins of history, so it warrants an offbeat presentation.
          Given the way the horrors of World War II loom just outside the narrative, there’s something fundamentally grim about A Special Day. Surely, not every character we meet is destined to survive the next few years. Yet within the darkness, A Special Day provides much that is bright and uplifting, conveying how real human connection is the only way to bridge divides. Many well-deserved accolades came the film’s way, including two Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Film and for Mastroianni as Best Actor), as well as a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

A Special Day: RIGHT ON

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mongo’s Back in Town (1971)

          Telling the story of a hit man who returns to his old neighborhood for a contract job that’s imbued with family issues, the made-for-TV melodrama Mongo’s Back in Town is fairly thoughtful in terms of characterization and themes. Making the piece even more interesting is a noteworthy cast: Joe Don Baker, Charles Cioffi, Sally Field, Anne Francis, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen. Excepting Baker and Field, none of these players has room to do much that’s out of the ordinary, but their collective efforts, in tandem with director Marvin J. Chomsky’s understated storytelling, ensure that Mongo’s Back in Town feels like something more than a typical small-screen crime picture. The murky script has something to do with Mongo Nash (Baker) answering a call from his brother, low-rent gangster Mike Nash (Cioffi), to off someone. Local cop Lt. Pete Tolstad (Savalas) sees Mongo arrive, so he knows what’s up and tries to prevent bloodshed. Meanwhile, Mongo happens across Vikki (Field), a young woman who recently left her home in rural West Virginia to start a new life in the big city. Compelled by a combination of lust and pity, Mongo gives Vikki a place to stay, putting her in the crossfire as the date of the big hit approaches. Also pulled into the drama are a moll (Francis) and Tolstad’s partner (Sheen).
          Although the plot of Mongo’s Back in Town is alternately convoluted and pedestrian, it’s possible to watch the movie just for the acting and character work. On that level, it’s fairly rewarding. Baker gets to carry most of the picture’s dramatic weight, and he does so gracefully. Playing a thug defined by his past choices and the patterns they created, Baker shows glimmers of sensitivity in his scenes with Field, because even though she’s not purely innocent—a wise choice on the filmmakers’ part—she’s redeemable, which may or may not be true of Baker’s character. This unpredictable relationship creates dramatic tension of an emotional sort, which offers an effective complement to the ticking-clock suspense stemming from the contract killing. Yet it’s not as if Baker’s character comes across as some gentle giant in a world of nefarious hoodlums; some of the crimes that Mongo commits are horrendous. Less dimensional are the cop scenes, with Sheen’s character offering by-the-book contrast to his partner’s instinctive style. And to call the material with Francis’ character threadbare would require overstatement.
          Still, the best elements of Mongo’s Back in Town work well enough to make the picture worthwhile. Polished and quiet, Mongo’s Back in Town favors gentle shadings of morality over flamboyant action scenes, so the film’s creative team deserves credit for trying something different within the parameters of a familiar genre. 

Mongo’s Back in Town: FUNKY

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Student Body (1976)

For every movie that scores by mixing genres, it seems many more fail when attempting to do the same thing. Consider The Student Body, a messy hybrid that’s part sexploitation, part sci-fi conspiracy thriller, and part women-in-prison sleaze. Some viewers may be able to groove on the general tawdriness of the piece, even though the T&A quotient is fairly low, and some others may like the way the filmmakers bounce from one lurid topic to the next, creating a sampler of sensationalistic signifiers. For most viewers, however, watching The Student Body will result in boredom, confusion, and, thanks to plentiful scenes featuring the abuse of women, queasiness. The gist of the piece is that ethically challenged scientist Dr. Blalock (Warren Stevens) wants to run an experiment on human aggression, so he recruits three hard-luck cases from a women’s prison, then transplants them to a college campus, assigning each woman a male student as a companion. Blalock claims that he wants to discover whether an intellectually nurturing environment will cause the women to change their ways, but in secret, he’s being paid to give the women a drug that increases their worst tendencies. The women become destructive sex maniacs, leading to catfights, vandalism, and the like. Although the picture unfolds in a fairly smooth fashion, the acting is iffy, the plot never makes much sense, and the way director Gus Trikonis bounces from lighthearted scenes to tragic moments reflects an undisciplined storytelling style. Trikonis also wastes too much time on vignettes of the prison girls making out with their collegiate companions. Some of the starlets are pretty, and there’s some half-decent suspense stuff in the movie’s last half-hour, but none of it adds up to anything special. The central concept is too goofy and murky, the narrative execution is too chaotic, and the performances are too vapid. 

The Student Body: LAME

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Tenth Level (1976)

          Based on controversial experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early ‘60s, The Tenth Level explores the troubling question of why otherwise good and rational people follow orders they know to be morally wrong, simply because the inclination to comply with directions from authority figures is so ingrained into human behavior. Specifically, Milgram created an elaborate scenario involving three participants. Two volunteers flipped coins, with one becoming the teacher and the other becoming the learner. The learner sat in a separate room, out of sight, with electrodes wired to his or her body. The teacher communicated by microphone, reciting a series of phrases and quizzing the learner about the phrases. Each time the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher hit a switch on a control board. The first switch triggered a tiny electric shock. Progressing through 25 levels, each switch zapped the learner with more electricity than the last. All the while, a scientist functioned as the experimenter, sternly urging the teacher to follow the experiment to its conclusion even as the teacher inevitably balked at inflicting pain on the learner.
          The ethics of Milgram’s work were widely debated, even though his findings, which suggested that blind obedience is a common trait, sparked disturbed reactions from a populace still trying to understand, like Milgram, why so many Germans during World War II participated in genocide.
          Shot on video and broadcast on Playhouse 90, The Tenth Level stars William Shatner as Stephen Turner, a stand-in for Milgram. In addition to navigating trite melodramas during scenes outside the laboratory, he struggles to keep his work secret from college officials, lest they shut down him down. Later, he defends himself once a school committee responds to accusations that Turner manipulated test subjects. Predictably, the best scenes involve re-creations and/or re-imaginings of experiment sessions. (The real Milgram consulted on the project.) Fine actors including Mike Kellin and Viveca Lindfors imbue their runs through Turner’s moral obstacle course with palpable anguish. Somewhat less effective is the picture’s second lead, Stephen Macht, who plays an important test subject. (Explaining his relevance would reveal too much of the plot.) Handsome and sincere, Macht gives the sort of one-dimensional performance one might encounter in a soap opera, an effect that’s exaggerated by the movie’s clunky video imagery. Unfortunately, Macht shoulders most of the film’s emotional weight, with Shatner largely relegated to speechifying until the final scene. Also working against the film’s efficacy is the way excellent supporting players including Roscoe Lee Browne and Lindsay Crouse are underused. In sum, The Tenth Level is intense and thought-provoking, but it’s also preachy and wooden.
          FYI, the real-life science explored in this movie has appeared elsewhere in popular culture. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So features a song called “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” and the 2015 film Experimenter stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram.

The Tenth Level: FUNKY

Friday, December 2, 2016

Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

An independently made horror flick shot on location in Louisiana, this one almost works, but the combination of an episodic structure and a lifeless second act turn what should have been an enjoyable diversion into an endurance test. The plot hook is straightforward—a group of college kids travel to a remote cabin during the chilly off-season, then try to spook each other by telling scary stories, which the filmmakers re-create as vignettes. Eventually, the students become uneasy because they suspect the supernatural violence in their stories not only really happened in locations close to where they’re staying. It would have taken a truly deft fantasist, on the order of Richard Matheson, to pull the stories together while also balancing shocks with suspense. Alas, writer Richard H. Wadsack and director James L. Wilson lack inspiration and style. Some vignettes are downright pedestrian, like the one about a woman who kills a would-be rapist or the one about a couple terrorized by what might or might not be a demented little person. Worse, the picture’s cast comprises unknown performers of negligible charisma and skill. Yet the real disappointment of Screams of a Winter Night is that, toward the end of the movie’s running time, Wadsack and Wilson up their game. The final sequence, beginning from when the students make disturbing noises to freak out a friend and continuing through the hellzapoppin climax, has real zing, with sound effects and Don Zimmer’s score forming a spooky cacophony. Too little, too late. That said, it’s easy to imagine that this picture occasionally digs its claws into viewers who encounter Screams of a Winter Night in the right circumstances—late in the evening, with sleep held at bay by onscreen eeriness.

Screams of a Winter Night: LAME

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Redneck (1973)

          Some Eurotrash thrillers of a certain vintage have power almost despite themselves, simply because the connotations of the stories are so disturbing. Such is the case with Redneck, a coproduction of British and Italian companies starring an American, a Brit, and an Italian. On the surface, Redneck is a straightforward crime picture about a child becoming a captive when crooks steal his mother’s car during a getaway. Yet the story eventually grows to include creepy implications about the boy modeling after his captors. Director Silvio Narizzano and his collaborators deserve some kind of credit—or blame—for heading down such a dark path. However, because Redneck is all over the place tonally, and because top-billed star Telly Savalas gives a ridiculous performance, it’s hard to describe Narizzzano’s storytelling as disciplined. More like exactly the opposite. Nonetheless, there’s some interestingly weird stuff in here, alongside stuff that’s weird for no real purpose. As such, it’s likely the only folks who will consider Redneck essential viewing are those who relish off-the-rails filmmaking and unhinged acting.
          The picture opens with a fairly exciting scene during which Memphis (Savalas) and Mosquito (Franco Nero) rob a store. Memphis kills a man during the crime, which shocks Mosquito, who didn’t sign up for homicide. A wild getaway ensues, with the crooks stealing various cars and causing wrecks throughout narrow European streets. Eventually, the crooks realize they have a stowaway, 13-year-old Lennox (Mark Lester). Thereafter, the plot makes very little sense, because it’s not clear whether the crooks want to hold the kid for ransom or simply fear what incriminating information he might provide if released. It’s not as if Memphis has any compunctions against killing innocent bystanders, since he offs another kid (and a dog) over the course of his journey. Mosquito tries to keep Lennox safe even as Memphis becomes more and more deranged, and Lennox vacillates between idolizing the humane Mosquito and worshiping the maniacal Memphis.
          Like so many hopelessly contrived genre pictures, Rednecks throws characters together believably, then loses credibility by failing to explain why they stay together; clearly, the filmmakers reached for some sort of male-bonding intensity that remained forever beyond their grasp. In one sequence, for instance, Mosquito stands naked next to Lennox while shaving, prompting Lennox, a few moments later, to examine his genitals in comparison to his grown-up buddy’s. Anyway, Savalas’ performance is quite a spectacle, and not in a good way. He cries, giggles, rhymes, screams, and sings, sometimes decorating his lines with an annoying approximation of African-American street jive. The operative word is “self-indulgent.” Adventurous viewers may find Redneck’s extremes amusing. Others will find them tiresome and unpleasant, though Redneck is rarely boring.

Redneck: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

L’Innocente (1976)

          Italian director Luchino Visconti died just months before the premiere of his final film, the grim period melodrama L’Innocente. (Advertising materials in English-speaking territories bore the translated title The Innocent.) In some ways, the picture makes a fitting cinematic epitaph, since it touches on issues of class and morality that infuse Vischonti’s more celebrated films, but in other ways, it’s a comedown from the intellectually ambitious triumphs of The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971), and Conversation Piece (1974). By comparison to those films, L’Innocente is a lurid soap opera without enough thematic weight to support its narrative extremes. The picture also suffers for inconsistent acting among the leading players, because American actress Jennifer O’Neill delivers merely serviceable work. (During post-production, O’Neill’s dialogue was dubbed into Italian by another performer.) Costar Laura Antonelli gives a more impressive performance, though her many nude scenes are distracting; as always, Antonelli’s erotic presence receives more attention than her respectable acting skills. Of the three principal players, only leading man Giancarlo Giannini truly elevates the material, investing his role as a borderline sociopath with real menace.
          Taking place in Italy circa the late 1900s, L’Innocente tells a simple story about lust, pride, and revenge. The marriage of rich Italians Guiliana (Antonelli) and Tullio (Giannini) has gone cold, not least because of Tullio’s open-secret affair with another wealthy aristocrat, Teresa (O’Neill). As tension grows because Teresa finds her position as the other woman more and more untenable, Giuliana begins an affair of her own with Filippo (Marc Porel). He treats Giuliana with respect, and their intimacy burns with a passion long missing from Guiliana’s marriage, hence the extensive bedroom scenes between Filippo and Guitliana. Despite having taken her for granted, Tullio becomes jealous of his wife’s newfound romance, and his jealousy informs the dark events of the movie’s second half.
          Based on a novel by Gabriele d’Annunzio, L’Innocente could easily have been presented as a taut morality tale running perhaps 90 minutes. As directed by Vischonti with his usual stately pacing, the movie loses intensity at regular intervals, even though the final half-hour, which is filled with horrific tragedy, commands attention. The question, of course, is whether the preceding hour and a half is enough to pull viewers along. For some, the answer will be yes, thanks to sumptuous costuming and production design, in addition to Giannini’s performance, the beauty of the leading ladies, and the general tawdriness of the storyline. For others, getting through the film’s slow stretches to reach the climax will require considerable willpower. And if there’s a profound theme buried inside L’Innocente, beyond trite assertions about how selfish men pay terrible costs for living empty lives, it’s not immediately apparent after one viewing.

L’Innocente: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Tormentors (1971)

Answering the question of how many over-the-top plot elements is too many for one bad movie to contain, The Tormentors is a biker movie about neo-Nazis and a would-be Christian messiah, with an orgy and a revenge angle thrown in for good measure. To be fair, this synopsis makes The Tormentors sound like a lost Russ Meyer flick, and, indeed, had Meyer applied his wild energy to the same material, he could have rendered something shamelessly exciting. Alas, director David L. Hewitt (credited as “B. Eagle”) provides lethargy instead of stimulation, so even with an abundance of action, intrigue, sex, and violence, The Tormentors is boring to watch, its scant 88 minutes comprising a cinematic ordeal. The film’s acting, camerawork, dialogue, and pacing are all terrible, and the characters run the depressing gamut from ciphers to clichés. The execution is so overall rotten that Hewitt even manages to make the aforementioned orgy dull. Here’s the setup. After his fiancée is killed by an organization called “The Fourth Reich,” Dan (William Dooley) tells police he wants justice. (Conveniently, cops know the neo-Nazis were responsible but can’t make charges stick.) Dan pretends to be a wannabe Nazi and infiltrates the group, which is some hybrid of a biker gang and a political organization. Meanwhile, “Fourth Reich” leader B. Rockwell Kemp (Bruce Kimball) frets that he can’t win over the local hippie kids because they’re preoccupied with a guy who calls himself “The Messiah.” This dude dresses in robes, wears a beard, and preaches about peace and love. Predictably, Kemp tells Dan to prove his loyalty by killing “The Messiah.” One gets the sense that writer James Gordon White periodically forgot he was writing a revenge picture, getting distracted by assassination schemes, conspiracies, internal squabbles, and even the sorry spectacle of a pain-freak fräulein torturing a distaff traitor. It’s all very random and stupid and ugly, with only the final 20 minutes or so providing the compensatory value of cartoonish excess. 

The Tormentors: LAME

Monday, November 28, 2016

Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971)

          Assembled by activist filmmaker Emile de Antonio partway through Richard Nixon’s first term as U.S. president, Millhouse—the title of which oddly mangles Nixon’s middle name, Milhous—seems peculiar when encountered outside its original context. At the time of its release, the intention was presumably to remind viewers of how crafty and ruthless Nixon could be, thereby galvanizing opposition as the president geared up for his 1972 reelection campaign. In that sense, Millhouse: A White Comedy is something of a precursor to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Yet while Moore’s film endures as a vital record of the left’s reaction to changes in American policies that occurred during George W. Bush’s first term, outlasting its original utility as election-season propaganda, de Antonio’s picture was already obsolete by the time Nixon left office in disgrace. Given the seismic repercussions of the Watergate scandal, the issues explored in Millhouse seem trivial by comparison. Furthermore, while it’s impossible to mistake Millhouse for a loving tribute, the picture is not explicitly damning, so a Nixon fan could easily watch the movie, dismiss a few talking-head criticisms, and revel in Nixon’s resourcefulness.
          As for the subtitle A White Comedy, whatever significance de Antonio saw in those words has been lost with the passage of time, beyond the obvious irony of suggesting that Nixon’s political scheming is a laughing matter.
          In any event, Millhouse provides a succinct compendium of Nixon’s greatest hits prior to his successful 1968 bid for the presidency. Accentuating Nixon’s shiftiness right from the first frames, de Antonio begins with the famous 1962 press conference following Nixon’s loss in a California gubernatorial race, featuring the infamous words, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” This moment showcases Nixon’s persecution complex, his tendency toward grand political gestures, and his unfortunate habit of making statements that later proved disingenuous if not outright dishonest. Thereafter, de Antonio uses newsreel footage and other preexisting material to track Nixon’s ascendance from a law career to the U.S. Senate, his 1953–1961 tenure as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vide president, his failed campaigns of 1960 and 1964, and finally his 1968 election.
          Consuming the largest amount of screen time is the full “Checkers” speech, a notorious TV appearance during which Nixon exhaustively explained his finances while trying to keep his VP run viable. Woven into de Antonio’s film are many tales of Nixon smearing personal enemies as pinkos. For those on de Antonio’s side of the political fence, especially those with knowledge of Nixon’s overall history, this stuff is enough to make the blood boil, or at least simmer. And that, more than anything, is the reason Millhouse has aged so poorly—the filmmaker’s bias renders the picture too one-sided to serve as political history, and yet the lack of a powerful viewpoint makes it feel almost toothless.

Millhouse: A White Comedy: FUNKY

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)

          One of the most fascinating true-crime stories in American history concerns Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old Massachusetts spinster who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892. Her trial, which involved issues of diminished capacity and women’s suffrage, became a topic of nationwide conversation, and Borden’s acquittal was shocking in the face of damning circumstantial evidence. This respectable made-for-TV drama depicts all the key moments from the historical record, then uses creative license to explore Borden’s mind. In this interpretation, which reflects ’70s ideas about feminism and psychology, Borden was an abused woman who struck back in a moment of temporary insanity. Beyond this lurid take on history, two things make The Legend of Lizzie Borden interesting: The film’s straightforward style gives way to horror-flick intensity during the climax, and Elizabeth Montgomery’s performance in the leading role is bold.
          Written by William Bast and directed by the reliable Paul Wendkos, The Legend of Lizzie Borden is divided into chapters with ominous titles, from “The Crime” to “The Accusation” to “The Ordeal,” and so on. Replicating the way the world heard about the killings without context, the movie opens with a housekeeper discovering gruesome crime scenes. Soon Borden stands accused, since she was in her father’s house at the time of the killings and cannot provide an alibi. Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) gets the job of prosecutor. The film then weaves between trial scenes and flashbacks, slowly unveiling the nature of Borden’s twisted relationship with her father, Andrew (Fritz Weaver). A malicious zealot, he berates his adult daughter constantly and, at one point, murders her pet birds seemingly for the pleasure of inflicting pain. The filmmakers also imply incest. Adding intrigue is the presence of housekeeper Bridget Sullivan (Fionula Flanagan), who suspects Borden of committing the murders, and that of Borden’s sister, Emma (Katherine Helmond), who fears the worst but hopes for the best.
          Montgomery, known for her wholesome turn as a domesticated sorceress on the 1964–1972 sitcom Bewitched, commits wholeheartedly to playing Borden. Walking through most scenes with a faraway look in her eyes, Montgomery conveys the sense of a woman uncomfortable in her own skin, her occasional emotional outbursts representing futile attempts to draw pity from an intolerant father. Montgomery’s patrician quality serves the project well, making it hard to distinguish her character’s coldness following the murders from the normal reserve of the upper class. Moreover, Montgomery embraces the perverse eroticism of the story—during the unnerving climax, she strips naked before claiming victims, so blood splatters across her lissome form each time she swings her character’s infamous axe.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden: GROOVY

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Too Hot to Handle (1977)

More sexploitation junk from the husband-and-wife team of filmmaker Don Schain and actress Cheri Caffaro, the folks responsible for three movies about libidinous private detective Ginger McAllister, Too Hot to Handle is a would-be thriller set in the Philippines. Caffaro plays an assassin named Samantha Fox, who lives on a yacht between completing high-priced hits. She often uses sex to lure victims, as when she coaxes a dude into a bedroom before tying him up and covering his head with a plastic bag. In another scene, she woos a lesbian cosmetics magnate into a mud bath, then suffocates the woman with electrodes normally used for skin rejuvenation. Pursuing Samantha from one crime scene to the next is policeman Domingo De La Torres (Aharon Ipalé). Schain tries for James Bond-style banter between Samantha and her dogged pursuer, but Schain’s predilection for sleaze ensures the dialogue never leaves the gutter. (Upon sensing Domingo’s sexual interest, Samantha says, “Promise if you rape me, you’ll work the case.”) While Too Hot to Handle has a coherent storyline and Schain employs extensive location photography to up the production values, there’s nothing here for a self-respecting viewer to enjoy. The martial-arts scenes are terrible, with the frail-looking Caffaro badly miming chops and kicks, and the sex scenes are tacky. Schain’s idea of clever cross-cutting involves juxtaposing Caffaro writhing with shots of a real cockfight. Throughout, Caffaro provides the same strange screen presence she did as Ginger McAllister. Gangly and tan, with bleach-blonde hair, she’s neither curvaceous nor particularly sexy, so her appeal presumably stems from being thin and uninhibited. And even though she tries to fill her line deliveries with badass attitude, she’s hopelessly inept.

Too Hot to Handle: LAME

Friday, November 25, 2016

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)

          For most of its running time, Orchestra Rehearsal is decidedly restrained, seeing as how it was made by Federico Fellini. Opening as a faux documentary, with the film camera standing in for the viewpoint of a crew making a TV special about the activities of a Roman orchestra, the picture progresses from light comedy to heated labor-themed satire and finally to a dose of Fellini’s signature overwrought symbolism. On one level, the movie is a simple study of group dynamics and a celebration of the intricate process by which orchestras create classical-music performances. It’s a valid endeavor made with intelligence and skill, but some of Fellini’s storytelling choices dull the picture’s impact.
          He spreads the focus around multiple members of the orchestra, with only the conductor receiving a measure of special attention because he’s ostensibly the villain driving the film’s slender excuse for a plot. Therefore, the movie doesn’t have a main character (beyond the collective entity of the orchestra), so the storytelling feels diffuse—each time Fellini lingers on remarks from this musician or that musician, the overall thrust of the piece falters. Even more problematically, at least in terms of generating conventional cinematic momentum, Fellini’s efforts to raise the stakes toward the end of the picture falter because viewers haven’t formed any special connections with the individuals who populate the story. Given its very short running time (the movie is only 70 minutes long), Fellini would have been better served presenting the piece as a slice of life without aspirations to dramatic impact.
          In any event, the action takes place inside the tomb beneath a 13th-century church. As an orchestra workshops several numbers for an upcoming concert, musicians bitch about their ostentatious conductor, debate which instrument is most important, and organize to defend the rights they previously gained through unionization. Some of this stuff is funny, as when two musicians fight about the personal space surrounding their chairs, and some of it is idiosyncratic, as when a male cellist derides the violin as an excessively feminine instrument. The movie sets up its premise fairly efficiently, then bounces from one random episode to the next until resolving into a melodrama once the conflict between the conductor and the musicians explodes. Fellini distributes screen time capriciously, lingering, for instance, on vignettes featuring an attractive female pianist. And once the final act arrives, Fellini succumbs to his customary appetite for cinematic excess, using flamboyant violence, grotesquerie, oversized props, and provocative sexual imagery to make points that could have been articulated more subtly. It’s hard to reconcile this overly stylized material with the talky stuff that came before.

Orchestra Rehearsal: FUNKY

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Gathering (1977)

          A Christmas drama that embraces family-friendly themes but eschews cheap sentimentality, The Gathering concerns a clan brought together by impending tragedy. When bullheaded, self-involved patriarch Adam Thornton (Ed Asner) receives a terminal diagnosis, he decides to visit each of his far-flung adult children one last time. He also resolves to make peace with his wife, from whom he is separated. Adam’s doctor forbids him to travel, so Adam’s wife, Kate (Maureen Stapleton), proposes a gathering at the family home instead. Yet because Adam finds the idea of pity appalling, he insists that his medical condition be kept secret. Kate calls the kids home, somewhat ingeniously letting them entertain fantasies that their parents will reconcile. From there, the drama proceeds methodically but with great speed. Adam’s children initially resist the idea of a gathering, some because they resent the way he treated Kate in the past, and some because they dread arguments. For one of Adam’s children, coming home is fraught with political implications, because Bud (Gregory Harrison) deserted the U.S. for Canada to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, a decision that caused a painful rift between Bud and his staunchly patriotic father. Other subplots are more pedestrian, as with the son-in-law embarrassed because he’s not a good provider and the eldest son embittered by his father’s withholding nature. Still, quite a bit of material gets crammed into 94 minutes.
          As directed by Randal Klesier, whose previous TV-movie successes include The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) and who soon graduated to big-budget features with Grease (1978), The Gathering is like a consolidated version of a soapy miniseries. Most of the characters and conflicts are indicated rather than fully explored, so critical viewers might find the picture superficial and unsatisfying. For those willing to accept the piece on its terms, the reductive approach works quite well. As the title suggests, The Gathering isn’t about the various aspects of tension within the Thornton family so much as it’s about the unique power of holiday get-togethers. For some of the siblings, returning home is about recapturing childhood. For others, it’s about settling scores. And for some, it’s about taking stock and, if possible, building bridges.
          The Gathering says something bittersweet about Christmas and, on a larger level, all the holiday celebrations that make the final months of the calendar emotional. Watching a year fade into the past forces one to ask what’s been gained and what’s been lost with the passage of time, and it reminds one to consider how the future can be made better than the past. Through the simple device of exploring a specific individual’s mortality, this effective telefilm expresses a humane message about impermanence and love. Asner’s performance drives the piece, his character’s warmth struggling to penetrate a gruff exterior, and Stapleton matches him with wounded compassion. Adept supporting players include Bruce Davison, Stephen Pressman, John Randolph, Gail Strickland, and Edward Winter, though the film’s biggest star may be composer John Barry. His exquisite main theme captures everything the picture tries to say about the difficulty people encounter when striving for transcendence. The Gathering received five Emmy nominations, winning one for Outstanding Special, and a sequel, The Gathering, Part II, aired in 1979.

The Gathering: GROOVY

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

         Cowriter/director Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire gets points for taking an unusual approach to bloodsucker mythology, but the film is ultimately too enervated and unsatisfying to merit serious attention. Therefore, it’s a somewhat pleasant change of place for hardcore consumers of creature features, and it’s a fairly restrained dose of sex and violence given that it issued from New World Pictures, Roger Corman’s B-movie factory of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The problem, of course, is that fans of sensationalized drive-in cinema rarely value restraint as a storytelling technique. So even though The Velvet Vampire has killings and topless shots, it’s not nasty enough to qualify as a genuine exploitation picture, and it’s not smart enough to qualify as an arthouse offering. None of this should leave the impression that The Velvet Vampire is awful. The movie has an eerie vibe, and it’s a kick to see a vampire flick in which the main character operates comfortably in daylight. However, the combination of sluggish storytelling and weak acting keeps the movie’s energy level dangerously low.
         Here’s the threadbare storyline. Ancient vampire Diane (Celeste Yarnall) meets an attractive young couple at an art gallery. They’re Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry Miles). Diane invites the couple to visit her house in the desert, the only other resident of which is Diane’s foundling manservant, Juan (Jerry Daniels). Soon after the couple’s arrival, Diane puts the moves on Lee, who sleeps with his sexy hostess. Yet Diane also makes advances on Susan. Wedged between chastely filmed sexual encounters are trippy dream sequences, set to unnerving rock music with a Neil Young flavor, plus assorted murder scenes during which Diane feeds on victims. Had Rothman and her collaborators dug deeper into the material and explored Diane’s psychology, they could have generated something like The Hunger (1983), an erotic drama about a melancholy female vampire. Instead, The Velvet Vampire is drab and superficial. About the best Rothman can conjure is a vaguely kinky scene during which Diane sucks rattlesnake venom from Susan’s thigh. Regarding the film’s acting, Yarnall cuts an attractive figure without conveying much depth, while Blodgett and Miles are as interesting to watch as department-store mannequins.

The Velvet Vampire: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

          Apparently this movie helped inspire Robert Redford to become a champion for independent cinema, and, indeed, there’s much about The Whole Shootin’ Match that epitomizes the anti-Hollywood ethos. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film with a slight budget near Austin, Texas, the picture eschews modalities that make big-studio projects feel false and manipulative. Tracking the adventures of two rural losers as they bounce from one failed get-rich scheme to another, the film never leaves the confines of the characters’ small world, and it never introduces wild contrivances that radically transform the characters’ circumstances. Put bluntly, the story never goes anywhere, in the sense of advancing the protagonists from one level of being to the next; although the dudes in The Whole Shootin’ Match end the picture with a deepened friendship, they don’t evolve much, and they don’t learn valuable life lessons. Both would have happened in a Hollywood treatment of similar material. Yet The Whole Shootin’ Match should not be misconstrued as some vital chapter in the history of American independent cinema, except perhaps because of its impact on Redford’s attitudes. The two main characters are essentially rough-hewn versions of “types” viewers have encountered in countless other stories. They’re cousins to, say, the scamps played by Lee Marvin and Paul Newman in Pocket Money (1972). Additionally, because filmmaker Eagle Pennell employs a jokey style and favors tidy conclusions at the ends of scenes, The Whole Shootin’ Match has more Hollywood in its DNA than might seem apparent at first glance.
          Frank (Sonny Carl Davis) and Lloyd (Lou Perryman) are uneducated guys staring down the barrel of middle age with little to show for their time on Earth. They run a light-hauling business in between failed entrepreneurial endeavors. Frank is married to Paulette (Doris Hargrave), though that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with every compliant woman he encounters. In some ways, his friendship with Lloyd is the most important relationship in his life—they keep each other alive, spiritually speaking, by convincing each other that their next scheme will pull them from poverty, no matter how many previous attempts have ended in disaster. Emboldened by the advice he reads in a self-help book, Frank persuades Lloyd the trick to wealth is “getting your mind right,” so they apply their newfound philosophy to a polyurethane roofing business. Typically, this goes poorly, because neither man has the tactical or technical knowhow, much less the operating capital, necessary for making the business soar. And so on. Open-minded viewers can find things to like here, since the acting and locations have authenticity, as does the Texan vernacular (“I’m so dry I can’t even spit!”). Nonetheless, this is a matter of low risk and low rewards. Pennelll’s filmmaking lacks ambition, beyond the inherent challenge of making a movie from nothing, and the insights his story presents are neither new nor profound. 

The Whole Shootin’ Match: FUNKY

Monday, November 21, 2016

Funny Car Summer (1974)

          It’s a shame so few ’70s trends were the subjects of full-length documentaries, because it would be thrilling to explore definitive vintage docs on, say, disco, est, pet rocks, roller derby, and other wild subjects. Hell, even two of the most commercialized pop-culture phenomena of the ’70s, daredevil Evel Knievel and rock band Kiss, lack full-length nonfiction explorations from back in the day. The reason for this preamble is to set appropriate expectations for the sports-themed doc Funny Car Summer. Had every ’70s fad earned an in-depth exploration, Funny Car Summer would be disposable. Things being as they are, those eager to explore as many facets of the ’70s as possible make do with what’s available. In that context, Funny Car Summer is okay. It’s got some period flavor, and the slice-of-life scenes capture a bit of what it must have felt like to live in Squaresville, USA, during the longhair era.
          That said, how much you’ll dig this picture ultimately depends on how interesting you find drag racing. And, frankly, even the film’s treatment of its main subject might not be enough to hold your attention. As some disgruntled viewers note on IMDb, they saw this picture as car-crazy kids and were bitterly disappointed that racing footage comprises only a small portion of the picture’s running time. In lieu of shots on the track, most of the film concerns the day-to-day existence of professional drag racer Jim Dunn and his family. In a word, he’s boring, a dad with a colorful hobby. Documentarian Ron Phillips obviously spent a lot of time tracking Dunn’s competitive activities and family life, but Phillips was not rewarded for his investment. In the picture’s most absurd sequence, which is also the one revealing how little slam-bang material Phillips collected, the picture cuts between Dunn shaving and his wife, Pat, doing housework. Set to a cornball ballad with lyrics to the effect of “where would you be without me,” the scene trudges along for several pointless minutes.
          Not everything in Funny Car Summer is quite so dispiriting. While insufficient for purposes of entertainment, the racetrack shots are pretty good, especially when Phillips turns his camera onto fans and novelty vehicles. And though juicing crash shots with melodramatic music was unnecessary, the appearance of dynamic visuals helps rouse the movie from its stupor. Some perverse rep-house programmer would be wise to screen Funny Car Summer in tandem with the equally low-energy Derby (1971), about roller derby, just to see how many attendees could make it through both movies without falling asleep.

Funny Car Summer: FUNKY

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Kirlian Witness (1979)

Among the wilder branches of pseudoscience to gain popularity during the ‘70s was Kirlian photography, which supposedly allowed researchers to document emotional reactions from plants during exposure to stimuli. The folks behind The Kirlian Witness saw an opportunity to create an unusual thriller, so the hook of their movie is that the only entity present during a murder besides the killer and the victim is a potted plant, putting the onus on the victim’s sister to extract incriminating information from the leafy “witness.” This wacky idea might have made for an offbeat episode of some ’70s detective show, with Columbo or McCloud offering snide commentary until a surprising turn of events challenges skepticism. Taken to feature length, the concept falls apart, especially because the execution of The Kirlian Witness is lifeless. A low-budget indie shot in New York City, the picture has an attractive photographic style—very high-fashion telephoto—but the acting is inert, the pacing is deadly, the plotting is muddy, and the climax features a wannabe-serious scene of a young woman staring at a potted plant to the accompaniment of atmospheric piano music. Here’s the setup. Laurie (Nancy Boykin) operates an NYC plant shop with the help of a weird assistant, Dusty (Ted Le Plat). Both believe in communicating with plants. Laurie’s sister, Rilla (Nancy Snyder) doesn’t share her belief, and neither does Rilla’s tempestuous husband, Robert (Joel Colodener). One evening, someone attacks and kills Laurie. The police rule the death an accident, but Rilla believes otherwise, so she explores every aspect of her late sister’s life. This prompts her to discover a copy of The Secret Life of Plants, the 1973 nonfiction book that helped popularize the idea of talking to flora. Eventually, her investigation catches the attention of the killer, sparking new danger. Despite some okay scoring by Henry Mandredini, the movie is so flat that it often drifts into the realm of accidental self-parody.

The Kirlian Witness: LAME

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Catholics (1973)

          An intriguing look at the debate between progress and tradition within an organized-religion community, the made-for-TV drama Catholics benefits from a terrific leading performance by Trevor Howard, excellent supporting work from Martin Sheen, and immersive location photography that gives a strong sense of place for a story set on a remote island off the Irish coast. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, the story concerns a centuries-old abbey where monks under the leadership of the Abbot (Howard) make waves by reverting to old ways. They perform masses in Latin and, more controversially, embrace classical teachings of Christ as purely divine. Progressive priest Father Kinsella (Sheen) arrives from Rome with orders to pull the monks into the 20th century by adopting English-language masses and integrating the notion of Christ’s dual nature, neither purely divine nor purely mortal. Kinsella makes analogies to a similar resurgence of traditionalism in Lourdes, France, circa 1858, when Catholics claimed to behold visions of the Virgin Mary. Giving the story scope and urgency is the popularization of the abbey’s old-school practices, because Catholics devoted to the old ways make pilgrimages to the island, thereby setting off alarm bells in the Vatican.
          Catholics is a simple story, and of course it will be of special interest to those who adhere to the faith named in the title. Even for secular viewers, however, the movie has dramatic heft and intellectual dynamism.
          Howard, whose Irish brogue wavers periodically, delivers a characterization encompassing authority, defiance, doubt, and self-loathing. (Explaining how some of these qualities emerge would reveal the story’s most important turn.) His performance neatly embodies the narrative’s overall tension by presenting an individual caught in a theological crisis. Some of the actors playing monks under his command sketch distinct characterizations, as well, though they are brushstrokes in the painting for which Howard’s role provides the dominant color. Sheen, whose real-life devotion to Catholicism became widely known in the years following the initial broadcast of Catholics, is perfectly cast in many ways. Handsome and young, he’s a stark visual contrast to the craggy old men of the monastery, and his gift for making every line feel fresh and sincere ensures that his character never comes across as an automaton sent from Rome to squash rebellion. Accordingly, Catholics has neither a clear hero nor a clear villain, so the battle driving the story is a fair fight between men of differing perspectives, with the fate of one troubled soul in the balance. Later broadcast in the UK, under the alternate title Conflict, this picture is small—a title card on the American version humbly identifies the project as Catholics: A Fable—but it casts a large thematic shadow.

Catholics: GROOVY

Friday, November 18, 2016

Honky (1971)

          Race-relations melodrama Honky is an indie production with all the slickness of a Hollywood feature, including a sprightly score by Quincy Jones. The movie starts out innocently enough, tenderly depicting the unexpected romance between a white high-school athlete, Wayne (John Neilson), and his sexy black classmate, Sheila (Brenda Sykes). Very quickly, however, Will Chaney’s script—adapted from a novel by Gunard Solberg—takes a weird left turn. Eager to make quick cash dealing grass, Sheila announces to her new boyfriend that she needs money to buy a supply of weed. In a long scene that’s staged like the climax of a heist movie, Wayne uses a forged signature to get the money from his small trust account at a local bank. More crimes follow, including breaking and entering and grand theft auto, so eventually the couple decides to leave their small New Jersey town for California. During their travels, they become victims of crime instead of perpetrators. By the time it’s over, Honky peppers its dubious storyline with stereotypical portrayals of blacks, conservatives, gays, and transvestites. Try finding another picture that features a gentle interracial love scene, violent rednecks, and the startling vision of future Happy Days mom Marion Ross complaining about “coons.”
          Like so many clumsy pictures about race from the ’60s and ’70s, Honky tries so hard to convey progressive attitudes that it ends up becoming inadvertently offensive. It’s defeated by its own aspirations to significance. The way the movie derails is a shame, because in many ways, Honky is impressive. Director William A. Graham and his collaborators give the picture a glossy look and, when the plot isn’t wandering off on pointless detours, a zippy pace. Leading lady Sykes is beguiling, though she was already in her 20s when she made the picture. Supporting players including John Fiedler, Lincoln Kilpatrick, and William Marshall deliver strong work in tiny roles, while Matt Clark lends his reliable brand of rural villainy to the climax. What’s more, that Jones music is pretty sweet. Alas, the central relationship stretches credibility just as much as the plot does, a problem exacerbated by the filmmakers’ tenuous grasp on with-it lingo. For example, Honky contains the following exchange. “Don’t get hung up on my hangup.” “I’m getting caught in your hangup?” “Your ego is.” Wow. Honky is alternately exciting, involving, and sexy, but, seeing as how the crux of the picture involves a white guy learning about the black experience, it’s hard to reconcile the film’s meritorious elements with the filmmakers’ backwards-looking portrayal of African-American characters as criminals, freaks, Uncle Toms, victims, and vixens.

Honky: LAME