Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ransom for a Dead Man (1971)

          On its own merits, the made-for-TV crime picture Ransom for a Dead Man is an enjoyable if somewhat far-fetched story about a murderess trapped by the complications of her attempt at committing the perfect crime. The title refers to her main gimmick—killing her husband, then pretending he was kidnapped and using doctored audio recordings to create the illusion of his voice delivering ransom demands while police are present to hear the phone call. Playing the murderess is the highly capable Lee Grant. She conveys nefarious duplicity while her character acts the victim, and she unleashes nastiness when her character pushes a stepdaughter out of the way so the murderess can claim her dead husband’s fortune. Still, Ransom for a Dead Man emphasizes plot over characterization, and the filmmakers never bother to humanize the murderess. So why bother talking about this picture? Because the police officer who finally traps the murderess is none other than Lieutenant Frank Columbo of the LAPD.
          As played by Peter Falk in dozens of TV movies spanning 1971 to 2003, Columbo is one of the most popular crime-fighters in small-screen history, even though he never appeared in a proper weekly series. The reasons for his popularity are plainly evident throughout Ransom for a Dead Man, and, in fact, Grant’s character explicitly describes the investigator’s unique methodology in a monologue, detailing how Columbo disarms suspects by pretending to be absent-minded, gullible, and simple, even though he’s remarkably clever, observant, and shrewd. Ransom for a Dead Man is such a thorough introduction to Columbo that even the character’s famous rumpled raincoat makes its first appearance here. Yet in some ways, Ransom for a Dead Man isn’t the ideal template for the many Columbo adventures that followed, seeing as how the lieutenant employs a civilian to execute a dangerous and legally questionable sting operation as the final trap for snaring the resourceful murderess. To find a pristine example of Columbo’s sleuthing, it’s best to check out the character’s next appearance and the first official episode of the recurring telefilm series, Murder by the Book, which broadcast later in 1971. The pedigree of that one explains why it’s so good: Steven Bochco wrote the script and Steven Spielberg directed.
          Getting back to Ransom for a Dead Man, you’ll note that the phrase “pilot episode” has not yet been used. Like a Columbo mystery, this gets tricky. Originally played by Bert Freed, Columbo first appeared in “Enough Rope,” a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. The episode’s writers, Richard Levinson and William Link, repurposed the character for their play Prescription: Murder, which in turn became a 1968 TV movie with Falk as a less disheveled version of Columbo. Therefore it wasn’t until Ransom for a Dead Man that the version of Columbo beloved by generations of TV fans made his debut, raincoat and all.

Ransom for a Dead Man: FUNKY

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Spider’s Strategem (1970)

          Having made a conscientious exploration of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970s films, I can say with confidence that I’m not impressed. More specifically, while I acknowledge that Bertolucci has a gorgeous visual style and a unique gift for capturing the sensual reality of moments, I find his storytelling consistently murky and pretentious. And even though The Spider’s Strategem lacks some of his usual distracting fetishism (i.e., erotic and scatological elements), the film epitomizes other shortcomings. Adapted from a short story about 1920s Ireland, the movie spins a complex and interesting yarn about the gulf between legacy and reality. As in the source material, a son returns to the town where his revered father was murdered, only to discover that the lore surrounding his father’s heroic demise is largely fabricated, thereby forcing the son to decide whether it’s best to reveal the facts or to leave his father’s inspirational myth intact. There’s enough thematic heft in that premise to support an entire movie, and, indeed, the narrative has shades of John Ford’s classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
          Yet this wasn’t enough for Bertolucci. He transposed the plot to contemporary Italy, morphing the dead father into a famous anti-fascist activist. Fair enough. But then Bertolucci took a further step by integrating a trope of surrealism. Throughout The Spider’s Strategem, the protagonist has weird experiences leading him to question whether he’s dreaming or suffering at the hands of perverse conspirators. As a result, the movie starts and ends with clarity, but the middle of the film is confounding and shapeless. Bertolucci plays silly games like having the same actor play the son and the father, often having both characters appear during the same scene, ostensibly to reflect the protagonist’s tormented state of mind while he wrangles the mysteries of the past. All of this is hugely ambitious, and yet The Spider’s Strategem runs just 100 minutes, making it the shortest of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films. On one level, Bertolucci tried to accomplish too much, changing a linear narrative into something dreamlike and fractured, and on another level, he didn’t try to accomplish enough, because The Spider’s Strategem doesn’t have the epic sprawl that would have been necessary to effectively convey so many different layers of meaning.
          Worse, the picture is infused with heavy symbolism that only the most devoted viewers will bother parsing, as well as tiresome speeches about the nature of fascism. It’s not as if the film is impenetrable, but it’s needlessly dense and elusive. Presented without arthouse affectations, The Spider’s Strategem could have been the equivalent of a great Hitchcock thriller, conveying powerful notions about deception, family obligations, and political machinations. As is, viewers must peer through fog to find those themes. That said, The Spider’s Strategem is greatly elevated—as are all of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films—by the extraordinary cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Employing his signature touches of subtle Rembrant lighting and balletic camera moves, Storaro makes even the most arbitrary and indulgent of Bertolucci’s images seem considered and purposeful.

The Spider’s Strategem: FUNKY

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Late Great Planet Earth (1979)

          I’ve made no secret of my boundless affection for ’70s schlockumentaries that use highly questionable pseudoscience as the jumping-off point for creepy “what if?” scenarios, so I freely acknowledge my predisposition toward junk on the order of The Late Great Planet Earth. Even though the film essentially says the world will end in the year 2000, an assertion that most would agree has proven untrue, I still enjoyed watching this irresponsibly provocative compendium of doomsday theories extrapolated from Biblical prophecies. Much credit goes to Orson Welles, who appears onscreen as host and provides voiceover narration. Although this was undoubtedly a quick paycheck gig that meant nothing to Welles, his unique speaking style, all melodic gravitas and poetic timing, makes the malarkey sound magical. Similarly, big props to composer Dana Kaproff, who contributes a hugely dramatic score suitable for a big-budget horror movie. Together, Kaproff and Welles give The Late Great Planet Earth scale and style. Make no mistake, this is a genuinely bad movie, 90 minutes of outrageous bullshit thrown onscreen by way of silly Biblical re-enactments, stock footage, and talking heads. But if you go for this sort of thing, as I do, you’ll find much of The Late Great Planet Earth darkly entertaining. That is, whenever the movie doesn’t slip into one of its periodic, sleep-inducing lulls.
          The dude behind this ridiculous project is self-proclaimed Biblical historian Hal Lindsey, who is the main on-camera interview subject and also the co-author of the successful nonfiction book upon which the film is based. (Originally published in 1970, The Late Great Planet Earth reportedly sold over 25 million copies.) According to Lindsey, the fact that many prophecies expressed in the Bible have come true means that every prophecy in the Bible eventually will come true. The red flags this sort of sketchy logic raises are countless, so it’s best to simply groove on The Late Great Planet Earth as a paranormal thrill ride. Lindsey’s big move involves claiming that the formation of Israel in 1948 was the first in a chain of events foretelling the arrival of the antichrist. He and the filmmakers then create a laundry list of “signs” the end times are a-comin’. Somehow, computers, famine, killer bees, pollution, processed food, and recombinant DNA all meet the criteria, as does the spread of cults, Eastern religion, and Wicca. To illustrate these points, the filmmakers raid the stock-footage vaults, throwing everything from volcanoes to various shots of sunbathing women onscreen. The top of the picture is fun, with creepy Biblical vignettes, and the climax is wonderfully excessive with its Dr. Strangelove-style montage of mushroom clouds. In between is a whole lot of silliness, some of it laughably colorful and some of it laughably drab.

The Late Great Planet Earth: FUNKY

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Golden Rendezvous (1977)

          Adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s pulpy adventure novels emerged regularly throughout the ’70s, though none achieved the stature of The Guns of Navarone (1961), the most successful movie yet derived from a MacLean story. Watching Golden Rendezvous offers a quick reminder of why so many of these pictures failed to generate excitement. An action saga set on the waters of the Caribbean, Golden Rendezvous has a little bit of everything—bombs, double-crosses, fist fights, gambling, gun fights, hijacking, knife fights, murder, sex, and so on. The overarching story makes sense once all the pieces fall into place, but the character work runs the questionable gamut from iffy to one-dimensional, and the gender politics belong to an earlier era. In other words, Golden Rendezvous is regressive macho silliness so determined to avoid depth and substance that whenever it seems like a moment of true human feeling is about to appear onscreen, the filmmakers introduce some element of danger and/or violence. And if there’s any meaning or theme being served here, then it’s only because the filmmakers failed in their efforts to keep such things at bay. Golden Rendezvous is pleasant enough to watch for the action scenes, and the cast is plenty colorful, but you’ll forget having watched the thing before the end credits finish rolling.
          Richard Harris stars as John Carter, first officer on a boat that hauls cargo but also includes a high-end casino. When criminals led by Luis Carreras (John Vernon) hijack the ship, Carter springs into action, forming covert alliances with trustworthy crewmen and passengers while also using sneaky tactics to eliminate thugs one by one. The plot becomes more ridiculous with each passing scene, so by the end of the picture, Golden Rendezvous involves not just the hijacking but also a blackmail scheme and even a nuclear bomb. MacLean was a whiz at generating suspenseful situations, but credibility was never his strong suit. Still, Harris is enjoyable here, all lanky athleticism and roguish charm, and several solid actors support him. Besides Vernon’s reliable villainy, the picture offers, in much smaller roles, John Carradine, David Janssen, and Burgess Meredith. As for leading lady Ann Turkel, one can’t blame Harris for trying to help his then-wife build an acting career—this was the third of four Harris movies in which she costars. As went their marriage, alas, so too did her run in big-budget movies.

Golden Rendezvous: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hometown U.S.A. (1979)

After making a pair of entertaining drive-in pictures about the American south, actor-turned-director Max Baer Jr., of The Beverly Hillbillies fame, inexplicably jumped onto the ’50s-nostalgia bandwagon by making a crude ripoff of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), even though several copycat pictures had already been released. Baer’s contribution to this disreputable tradition, Hometown U.S.A., starts off innocuously enough, shamelessly replicating scenes of teenagers getting into mischief while cruising down Main Street in hot cars. Then the movie degrades into idiotic sex farce, to the point where the climax seems as if belongs in an entirely different film. Nonetheless, some viewers might find the first hour of the picture more or less tolerable as an homage to Lucas’ nostalgic hit. Set in 1957, Hometown U.S.A. tracks the exploits of three teenagers—nerdy Rodney “The Rodent” Duckworth (Gary Springer), smooth T.J. Swackhammer (Brian Kerwin), and tough Recil Calhoun (David Wilson). Also woven into the mix is a blonde dreamgirl named Marilyn (Pat Delaney), whom Rodney sees driving around town at regular intervals. Is this almost exactly the same premise as American Graffiti? See the use of the word “shamelessly” above. Yet while Lucas’ movie is family-friendly, treating adult themes in such a restrained manner that American Graffiti was rated PG, Baer takes the crude route, earning his movie’s R-rating with vulgar sexcapades. Rodney has dreams in which his classmates cheer while he screws Marilyn. Rodney steals a car and adopts the name “Rod Heartbender,” then squires an awkward girl who turns out to be a freak with a thing for public exposure and taunting bikers. And that’s atop the usual vignettes of juvenile delinquency, with kids pranking cops and stealing hubcaps, all to the accompaniment of beloved ’50s pop songs. Hometown U.S.A. follows a sad spiral from harmlessly stupid to painfully stupid, degrading women and destroying viewers’ brain cells as it slinks along from one derivative and/or dopey scene to the next.

Hometown U.S.A.: LAME

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Rolling Man (1972)

          At first glance, the made-for-TV drama Rolling Man might seem like little more than an offbeat mediocrity with an interesting-ish cast. Prolific TV-movie guy Dennis Weaver plays a tow-truck driver who loses custody of his kids while serving a prison term for assault, then struggles to find them upon gaining his release. Supporting him are Donna Mills, Agnes Moorehead, Sheree North, Slim Pickens, Don Stroud, and country singer Jimmy Dean. The story is a bit of a mess, because the leading character tends to stumble in and out of episodes, lingering in places when he should be looking for his kids, so there’s not much in the way of forward momentum until the last 20 minutes or so. Yet the exemplary work of a behind-the-scenes player elevates Rolling Man. By dint of airing about two weeks before another 1972 telefilm, Goodnight, My Love, this picture represents the directorial debut of Peter Hyams, who later became a successful feature-film helmer known for action pictures, conspiracy thrillers, and sci-fi sagas. He does terrific work here, not only by imbuing Rolling Man with a naturalistic pictorial style but also by guiding his actors to render lived-in performances. What’s more, the picture has strong rural atmosphere, from the believable dialects of the characters to the gritty look of low-rent locations including racetracks and trailer parks.
          The movie’s unlucky protagonist is Lonnie (Weaver), a simple guy who enjoys working for mechanic Chuck (Pickens) because the lifestyle allows him to avoid heavy responsibilities. But when Lonnie discovers that his wife is two-timing him with racecar driver Harold (Stroud), Lonnie freaks out, chasing the lovers and running them off the road. After the wife dies in the crash, Lonnie beats the tar out of Harold, blaming him for the tragedy. Years later, after leaving jail, Lonnie discovers that his mother (Moorehead) sent his kids to live with a foster family, so Lonnie embarks on a quest to find the two boys, though he’s periodically derailed by dalliances with pretty women. Eventually, circumstances lead to a showdown between Lonnie and his old nemesis Harold. The script never quite clicks, partially because the bond connecting Lonnie to his sons isn’t established well at the beginning. However, nearly every scene in Rolling Man works as a stand-alone piece. Hyams knew what he was doing, as evidenced by the fact that he graduated to big-screen directing after the near-simultaneous release of his first two made-for-TV efforts.

Rolling Man: FUNKY

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Jesus Trip (1971)

          The virtues of this biker flick are relative. Firstly, the picture gets points for being slow, moody, and understated, since most movies about scooter trash opt for noisy collisions of raucous music and unsavory behavior. Secondly, the film has an unusual look, even by the standards of other low-budget ’70s flicks, because to my eyes, it seems as if virtually no artificial lighting was used. Nearly the entire story takes place outside, often during dawn or dusk, and the few interior scenes involve practical lights, such as candles and overheads. Combined with some imaginative camera angles, this visual approach gives The Jesus Trip an appealingly handmade quality. It’s worth noting that director Russ Mayberry spent most of his long career directing episodic TV, so the style of this movie is about as far away from his work on, say, Ironside or The Partridge Family as one could imagine. The downside to all this praise is that, ultimately, The Jesus Trip is just another biker flick. The title refers to the fact that a biker gang hides out in a church and kidnaps a nun. Otherwise, from the long montages of guys driving their hogs down open highways to the subplot about a humiliated cop stalking bikers so he can exact revenge, the beats of the storyline are as ordinary as the look is unusual.
          Led by Waco (Robert Porter), a gang of bikers cruises through a small town and gets into a hassle with highway patrolman Tarbaro (Billy “Green” Bush). The particulars are murky, but the gist is that the bikers accidentally stole motorcycles filled with heroin, making them targets for both corrupt and legitimate cops. The bikers seek refuge with nuns, and Sister Anna (Tippy Walker) bonds with Waco while nursing him for a gunshot wound. Later, after the bikers abduct Anna during a getaway, she develops romantic feelings for Waco even as Tarbaro, who’s hung up on her, chases the bikers. Many viewers will lose patience with The Jesus Trip, and understandably so—for long stretches, nothing much happens. Those who stay with the picture will encounter some interesting things, notably a horrific scene during which Tarbaro buries people in the sand, leaving just their heads exposed, then leads his buddies in riding their motorcycles past the buried people’s heads with just inches to spare. (Kudos to the stunt players for their fearless work.) The Jesus Trip also gets darker and darker as it goes along, portraying bikers as victims and cops as savages, so it gains a certain crude toughness by the time the grim ending arrives.

The Jesus Trip: FUNKY

Sunday, January 15, 2017

1980 Week: The Hollywood Knights

          The career of writer, producer, and director Floyd Mutrux took another strange turn with The Hollywood Knights, a shameless—and shapeless—imitation of American Graffiti (1973) with none of that picture’s deft characterization and sociopolitical weight. The movie also cops from Animal House (1978) by depicting anarchistic youth-run-wild vulgarity. Whereas Mutrux’s earlier directorial efforts explored such themes as ambition, disconnection, drugs, and music, The Hollywood Knights is an ensemble sex comedy without any recognizable sense of purpose. The movie has endured on cable and home video largely because some its players achieved fame elsewhere, notably Tony Danza (a costar of the sitcom Taxi at the time this film was made) and Michelle Pfeiffer (who found her breakout role three years later in Brian De Palma’s gonzo drug epic Scarface). Yet it says a lot about The Hollywood Knights that the film’s real star is obnoxious standup-comedian-turned-character-actor Robert Wuhl, who made his big-screen debut here. As goes Wuhl’s charmless performance, so goes the rest of the picture.
          Set in 1960s Beverly Hills, the movie tracks the adventures of the Hollywood Knights, a white gang devoted to antagonizing cops, getting laid, and making mischief. The Knights’ principal prankster, Newbomb Turk (Wuhl), takes endless pleasure in doing things like breaking wind to the tune of popular songs or depositing flaming bags of excrement at people’s front doors. You get the idea. Over the course of one chaotic evening, local parents and police officers try to stop the Knights’ last hurrah, since the burger joint that serves as the gang’s HQ is closing and the gang marks the occasion with epic buffoonery. The “highlight” is Turk grabbing the microphone at a school assembly so he can perform “Volare” using flatulence for percussion. The movie also has anemic romantic subplots. In tiresome scenes that exist almost completely separate from the rest of the movie, macho Knight Duke (Danza) struggles to accept that his pretty carhop girlfriend, Suzie Q (Pfeiffer), has dreams of an acting career and might outgrow him. Elsewhere, Newbomb improbably talks Sally (future sitcom star Fran Drescher) into a tryst even though she spends the whole movie whining about how repulsive she finds his antics.
          All of this stuff is brisk and colorful, but none of it is particularly funny. Quite to the contrary, most of the gags sputter or thud. That said, The Hollywood Knights has a lush visual style that it doesn’t deserve, because top-shelf cinematographer William A. Fraker, the six-time Oscar nominee who shot Hollywood classics including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), lensed all five features that Mutrux directed.

The Hollywood Knights: FUNKY

Saturday, January 14, 2017

1980 Week: Bronco Billy

          As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, Clint Eastwood was ready to expand his range as an actor and as a director, often simultaneously. One of his most admirable experiments was this character study of a modern-day cowboy leading a motley group of participants in a Wild West revival show. Although the picture is so hopelessly old-fashioned that it feels like it could have been made in the ’40s with Joel McCrea playing the lead, Eastwood puts the picture over fairly well. In terms of his leading performance, Eastwood mostly suppresses his familiar screen persona, playing an idealistic dreamer instead of a grim avenger. Yet some of Eastwood’s bad directorial habits trip him up; the pacing is sluggish, the reliance on familiar character actors gives certain scenes a mechanical quality, and there’s a distinctive lack of effervescence, which is exactly the quality the movie needs most badly. Still, the script by Dennis Hackin is a charming throwback, the themes embodied by the central character are meaningful, and the inherent parallels between Bronco Billy and the man who portrays him add resonance.
          Set in the American West, the picture introduces viewers to Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show, an enthusiastic but tacky operation featuring clowns, Indians, and—as the main attraction—Bronco Billy’s expert displays of horsemanship, knife-throwing, and sharpshooting. Billy (Eastwood) is also the manager of the traveling show, spewing a steady stream of can-do aphorisms while demanding that his people give their all for the “little pardners” who come out to see them perform. Never mind that the show is perpetually in the red, and that Billy regularly provides free shows to orphanages. In a plot twist straight out of an old Preston Sturges movie, Billy encounters Antoinette (Sondra Locke), a shrewish heiress dumped in the middle of nowhere by her business manager-turned-husband, John (Geoffrey Lewis), who steals all her money. Billy charms Antoinette into joining his show as an assistant participating in dangerous stunts, ostensibly in exchange for transit back to civilization. Opposites-attract sparks of the It Happened One Night mode ensue.
          The romantic aspects of Bronco Billy don’t quite work, perhaps because Eastwood and Locke had done so many movies together by this point. (Plus, quite frankly, Locke lacks the spunk of, say, a Barbara Stanwyck.) The plotting gets turgid after a while, stretching the movie to 116 minutes when a frothy 90-minute span would have suited the material better. What saves Bronco Billy from mediocrity, besides the consummate professionalism of Eastwood’s presentation, is the late-movie reveal about the true nature of Billy and his people. In this case, pulling back the curtain on an illusion adds magic, because the revelations transform Bronco Billy into a celebration of reinvention. Could the picture have done without a few scenes, such as the bit of Eastwood warbling a tune called “Barroom Buddies” as he drives? Sure. But a few indulgences are small prices to pay for watching an iconic performer stretch with largely meritorious results.

Bronco Billy: GROOVY

Friday, January 13, 2017

1980 Week: No Nukes

          In the wake of the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, a gaggle of politically active rock stars formed Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), then presented several massive concerts in the New York City area under the “No Nukes” banner. Beyond the core group, which includes Jackson Browne, John Hall, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt—all of whom have continued to perform anti-nuclear-energy concerts well into the 2010s—the original wave of “No Nukes” concerts gathered luminaries including the Doobie Brothers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and James Taylor. Highlights from various 1979 concerts were released in 1980 as a concert movie and as a live album, though the roster of artists and songs varies wildly between the film and the LP. Speaking only about the film, No Nukes is more effective as a musical experience than it is as a political experience, but that’s the cost of leveraging celebrity participation to raise awareness of social issues.
          In fact, one of the sharpest moments in No Nukes occurs during a brisk opening montage of fans heading into Madison Square Garden for one of the concerts, because someone cynically observes that most people are there for the tunes instead of the cause. It speaks well of the filmmakers and the MUSE team in general that this clip was included, because it reflects the artists’ awareness that building a grassroots movement requires overcoming deeply entrenched apathy. Indeed, it’s perhaps too easy to watch No Nukes today and gloss over the reason the musicians gathered. Even though the movie features impassioned remarks from famed crusader Ralph Nader and a short film-within-a-film about the danger of nuclear energy that was shown to audiences at the Madison Square Garden shows, and even though deeply committed musicians Hall and Nash perform earnest tunes about “atomic poison” and the like, purely musical passages command the viewer’s attention.
          Much of the hype around the time of No Nukes’ release concerned Springsteen’s mini-set of three songs, since No Nukes was the first time the E Street Band’s already-legendary live act was shown in movie theaters. The Boss kills it with “Thunder Road” and one of the first live performances of “The River.” By comparison, the Doobie Brothers’ proficient readings of “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “What a Fool Believes” seem ordinary, and even Browne’s fierce version of “Running on Empty” fails to match the fire of Springsteen’s performance. That said, any concert movie that contains Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonizing on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Raitt ripping through her version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and Taylor channeling his inner bluesman on “Your Smiling Face” is doing something right. One could quibble with the structure of the picture, since the shift from the shadowy intimacy of the Madison Square Garden shows to the sunlit sprawl of a Battery Park concert that drew 200,000 attendees is abrupt. What’s beyond reproach, however, is the generosity of the musicians, the importance of the cause, and the wonder of watching people unite beneath the banner of making the world a safer place.

No Nukes: GROOVY

Thursday, January 12, 2017

1980 Week: The Ninth Configuration

          Scary, strange, surreal, and yet also very funny at times, the offbeat drama/thriller The Ninth Configuration marked the directorial debut of William Peter Blatty, the Oscar-winning novelist and screenwriter of The Exorcist (1973). Blending themes of madness and militarism with a narrative setup suitable for some old-fashioned haunted-house shocker, Blatty adapted the movie from his 1978 novel of the same name, which was in turn extrapolated from one of his earlier books, the 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! Employing an exceptional group of actors, some of whom reconvened for Blatty’s only other directorial endeavor—the underrated sequel The Exorcist III (1990)—The Ninth Configuration uses humor and terror to weave a bizarre tapestry of existentialism, spirituality, and violence. Superficially, it’s about psychiatry, space travel, and Vietnam, and there’s even room for a bar brawl. The Ninth Configuration doesn’t always work, because some scenes are confusing, and because parsing what the whole thing means once it’s over is challenging. Nonetheless, this is a unique piece of work from a wildly creative individual unafraid to tackle the heaviest of subject matter.
          Set in the Pacific Northeast, the picture takes place in a castle that the U.S. government has repurposed as an asylum. (If you’re already have trouble buying that outlandish notion, this movie is not for you.) One stormy night, a fierce-looking Marine officer named Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to join the psychiatric staff at the facility. He encounters a spectrum of bizarre patients. Major Namimak (Moses Gunn) dresses like Superman and believes he has extraordinary powers. Lieutenant Reno (Jason Miller) fancies himself a theater director as he oversees rehearsals for a production of Hamlet featuring dogs instead of humans. The sensitive Captain Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) trained to be an astronaut until he had a nervous breakdown just before takeoff for his moon shot. And so on.
          In its wildest scenes, The Ninth Configuration features the tightly wound Kane walking through the corridors of the castle with absurd behavior happening all around him, suggesting the idea of an emotionally vulnerable individual grasping for pieces of sanity in a world gone mad. The man responsible for all of the chaos is Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), the facility’s chief administrator, who believes letting patients act out fantasies helps the healing process. Another nuance? Fell and Kane are tasked with determining which patients are genuinely ill and which are faking to avoid military service. Yet the most explosive X factor in this fraught environment is Kane, whose frightening capacity for rage has surprising connections to an ugly battlefield incident in the past.
          Working with the great British cinematographer Gerry Fisher, whose images mesh intimacy with grandiosity in clever ways, Blatty generates a one-of-a-kind feel. Since anything can happen, owing to the lunatics-running-the-asylum milieu, The Ninth Configuration is consistently surprising even though it’s rarely believable—or, to be more precise, even though it’s rarely believable in terms of logic. On an emotional level, the movie connects big-time, especially because the acting is so robust. Keach’s signature intensity has terrifying power. Wilson reveals heartbreaking vulnerability. Flanders, Gunn, Miller, Neville Brand, Robert Loggia, Joe Spinell, and others populate the hospital with wounded souls distinguished by amusing eccentricities and/or poignant psychological wounds. Does it all spin out of control toward the end? Somewhat. But does Blatty create dozens of unique moments that radiate beauty and pain and wonderment along the way? Absolutely.
          FYI, the picture was released into theaters twice, once as The Ninth Configuration and once as Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane. Although it flopped both times, subsequent exhibition on home video and television has earned the picture well-deserved status as a minor cult classic.

The Ninth Configuration: GROOVY

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

1980 Week: The Jazz Singer

          A mega-hyped remake of the famous 1927 Al Jolson movie, The Jazz Singer was doomed to derision before it even opened, in part because because reviewers love to diss singers who moonlight as actors. It didnt help that the film’s producers cast the decidedly Gentile Laurence Olivier in the role of an Orthodox Jewish patriarch, despite mixed opinions about Olivier’s performance as a Jewish Nazi hunter in The Boys from Brazil (1978); the actor received an Oscar nomination for that picture but also received a nod from the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Viewed with fresh eyes, The Jazz Singer is a slickly produced mediocrity built around a nonperformance by a nonactor, but the pulpy story chugs along in a kitschy sort of way, and the tunes are memorable. In fact, three of Diamond’s biggest hits (“America,” “Hello Again,” “Love on the Rocks”) emerged from the film’s soundtrack, which enjoyed much more success than the film itself.
          Modernizing the original movie’s story while still remaining so deeply rooted in traditions that the narrative feels hokey, The Jazz Singer follows Yussel Rabinovitch (Diamond), a charismatic young cantor at a New York City synagogue. Although outwardly following in the footsteps of his father, Cantor Rabinovitch (Olivier), Yussel longs to explore the secular side of music. After one too many arguments with his rigid father, Yussel leaves New York—and his wife, Rivka (Catlin Adams)—to become a wandering troubadour. Lots of brooding ensues, as does a romance between Jess Robin (the new name that Yussel adopts) and Los Angeles shiksa Molly Bell (Lucie Arnaz). Wanderlust eventually drives a wedge between Jess and Molly, so he hits the road once more, leading to the odd spectacle of a bearded Diamond wearing a cowboy hat and singing “You Are My Sunshine” in a redneck bar. Can Jess reconcile his new life with his old identity as Yussel? Can he repair the damage to his relationship with his father? Can he reunite with Molly? The answers to these questions are never in doubt, since the point of the 1980 Jazz Singer is to transpose Diamond’s crowd-pleasing persona from the radio to the screen.
          In that regard, the movie is indeed the failure its grim initial reception might suggest; Diamond is false and stilted in nearly every scene, except when he’s onstage, and Olivier is hilariously miscast. The picture also has more than a few tonal catastrophes. Inexplicably, Diamond agreed to participate in a rock-era redux of the original movie’s blackface element. Yes, Diamond wearing an Afro and heavy makeup to pass as an African-American dude while croaking a rock song in a black nightclub is as horrific a spectacle as you can imagine. Similarly, when the filmmakers play “Hello Again” on the soundtrack during a reunion scene, the effect is so on-the-nose literal as to be comical. However, a sense of proportion is required when trying to assess The Jazz Singer. Compared to a pair of truly disastrous movie musicals released the same year—here’s looking at you, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu—Diamond’s movie is positively respectable. By any other measure, of course, The Jazz Singer doesn’t fare quite as well.

The Jazz Singer: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

1980 Week: Little Darlings

          Despite being utterly conventional in terms of storytelling and technical execution, Little Darlings is unusual because it presents a sensationalistic premise without lapsing into vulgarity. Yet the film cannot be described as sophisticated, because the characterizations are one-dimensional and the picture often gets mired in nonsense along the lines of uninspired physical comedy. So perhaps the best way to describe Little Darlings is to say that it’s not nearly as offensive as it could have been, given the confluence of juvenile actors and salacious subject matter. Set at a typical American summer camp for girls, the film revolves around the tense relationship between Angel (Kristy McNichol), the chain-smoking tomboy daughter of a promiscuous single mother, and Ferris (Tatum O’Neal), the na├»ve and pretentious daughter of a wealthy couple undergoing a separation as a prelude to divorce. The instant the young ladies meet each other on the bus headed for camp, they hate each other. Upon their arrival in the woods, both girls inadvertently reveal to bitchy beauty Cinder (Krista Errickson) that they’re virgins, so Cinder takes bets on whether Angel or Ferris will be the first to have sex over the course of the summer.
          Angel happens upon Randy (Matt Dillon), a tough kid attending a nearby boy’s camp, while Ferris sets her sights on Gary (Armand Assante), a grown-up counselor at the girls’ camp. The picture unfolds in a lighthearted manner, with brightly lit scenes set to a thumping pop soundtrack featuring tunes by Blondie and the Cars (among other Top 40 acts of the era) until the climactic scene when one of the girls consummates her flirtation with the man she’s chosen. That sequence is handled with restraint and even a kind of unvarnished reverence, thereby elevating the rest of the otherwise pedestrian movie by association. McNichol, who gained fame on the ’70s TV series Family, and O’Neal, who earned an Oscar for her screen debut in Paper Moon (1973), work on different levels—McNichols’ performance is raw and vulnerable, whereas O’Neal plays a amiable caricature. Assante mostly seems as if he’s struggling to avoid looking embarrassed, and Dillon exhibits the brooding quality that made him a star just a few years later, complementing the fine work he does in another 1980 release, My Bodyguard.

Little Darlings: FUNKY

Monday, January 9, 2017

1980 Week: Raging Bull

          Alongside Nashville (1975), Martin Scorsese’s almost universally revered character study Raging Bull is one of the few “great” American movies that I simply don’t get. To be clear, I have no difficulty appreciating the film’s artistry, craftsmanship, intelligence, and passion—Scorsese obviously bled his soul into the very grain of this picture, letting his visual imagination run wild even as he wrestled with personal demons through the prism of professional boxer Jake LaMotta’s rise and fall. Intellectually, I understand that the movie is a significant accomplishment. Emotionally, the movie leaves me so cold that I get bored every time I try to watch the thing. Perhaps because Scorsese and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader elected not to illustrate the central character’s formative years, I can’t connect to the movie’s version of LaMotta. He comes across like an ignorant thug who surrounds himself with awful people, which means his adventures are unpleasant to watch and not, to my eyes, edifying.
          Robert De Niro’s leading performance is supremely committed, so the pain that LaMotta feels as he stumbles his way through life is palpable. Alas, because the pain is mostly self-inflicted, for reasons that utterly escape me, generating empathy is challenging. Compounded with the excruciating brutality of the boxing scenes and the numbing repetition of coarse language, the opacity of the leading character makes me feel like I’m the one receiving constant jabs and left hooks while the movie unfolds, rather than the onscreen pugilists. The funny thing is that I should love Raging Bull because artistically, chronologically, and thematically, it’s the apex of the grungy loser movies that flowered during the ’70s. Yet there’s a world of difference between the humanity of films along the lines of Fat City (1972), a boxing picture I enjoy much more, and the relentless ugliness of Raging Bull. I take it on faith that Scorsese knows whereof he speaks when depicting the anguished lives of Italian-Americans stuck in the quagmires of male identity and religious guilt, and I freely acknowledge that his various movies about New York underworld types speak to a lived experience far outside my own frame of reference.
          Yet at the same time, I look at the way I’ve made connections with movies about other cultures that are foreign to me, so I feel comfortable saying that the problem with some vintage Scorsese—and specifically with Raging Bull—runs deeper. I believe the right word is fetishism.
          It often seems as if Scorsese simply can’t tear his eyes away from scenes of thick-headed men destroying themselves, mistreating women, and starting pointless battles with enemies and friends alike. There’s more than a little bit of a pain-freak voyeur in Martin Scorsese. In the best of times, this tendency allows him to reveal truths in places other filmmakers find too frightening to explore. And, presumably, that’s what his advocates would say he does throughout Raging Bull. In any event, the unassailable elements of the movie include Michael Chapman’s muscular black-and-white photography, which is energized by Scorsese’s unexpected shifts in frame rates and his wizardly camera moves, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing. Viewed strictly from the perspective of how the filmmakers exploit and manipulate the very medium of film, Raging Bull is extraordinary. So let’s leave it at that.

Raging Bull: GROOVY

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Black Moses of Soul (1973)

          Setting aside the question of whether the world truly needed a full-length concert movie from Isaac Hayes, The Black Moses of Soul makes for pleasant viewing. The movie is all surface, especially because Hayes never takes off his signature dark glasses, and it’s peculiar that the movie doesn’t feature his biggest hit, the Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” even though songs that Hayes recorded after “Theme from Shaft” are included. As for the movie’s visual approach, minimalism is the order of the day, because director Chuck Johnson employs limited camera angles and, very occasionally, trippy solarized superimpositions. For most of the movie’s running time, the screen is occupied solely by Hayes, either in close-up accentuating his bald head and thick beard or in wider shots showcasing his unique costume of a vest made from gold chains. Johnson periodically cuts to Hayes’ funky band or to his trio of female backup singers. But in keeping with the religiosity of the film’s title, the focus is on Hayes’ preacher-like stage persona. Whether he’s maneuvering through a song with his arrestingly deep voice or sliding his way through an extended spoken-word bit, Hayes plays the role of a soul-music messiah bringing messages of love (both carnal and spiritual) to his adoring flock.
          Many of the tunes are pop songs that Hayes famously repurposed on his best-selling albums as sexualized slow jams. “The Look of Love” becomes an epic meditation on romantic connection, and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” transforms into a sort of R&B concerto, with horns and Hayes’ crackling organ sounds mixing into something potent and sensual and wild. Hayes and his supporting players are at their best during instrumental passages, because even though Hayes’ singing has a certain charisma, he’s superlative as an arranger, bandleader, and player, finding grooves within grooves and sounds within sounds. He’s also, to be frank, a somewhat comical figure whenever he buys into his own mythology. Routines at the beginning and end of the movie involving Hayes wearing a cape borrow shamelessly from James Brown’s stage shtick, and Hayes loses himself in the wilds of hep-cat verbiage during the long rap session about infidelity that precedes “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Try to avoid chuckling as Hayes describes himself “sweating profuciously.”

The Black Moses of Soul: FUNKY

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Freedom Road (1979)

          First off, the most interesting thing about this epic-length historical telefilm is the man playing the leading role. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali didn’t act often, and he usually played himself, so Freedom Road represents his only proper dramatic performance. To get the bad news out of the way, he’s not impressive, delivering lines in a listless, mush-mouthed style that makes him seem drunk or tired in most scenes. Ali completely fails to channel his signature physical grace and verbal dexterity into a vivid performance, so even though he has a few sincere moments when the context of intense scenes creates meaning, Ali demonstrates the wisdom of his choice to step away from acting for 20 years following this project. Happily, there’s good news. The novelty of seeing Ali act remains strong even as Freedom Road sprawls across four hours; the storyline about freed slaves trying to enter American political life in the post-Civil War South is interesting; and the folks surrounding Ali, both in front of and behind the camera, deliver smoothly professional work. Therefore, while there’s something inherently false about Freedom Road—which is based upon a novel rather than historical facts—worthy themes prevail.
          Ali plays Gideon Jackson, a slave who left his North Carolina plantation to fight for the Union Army. Emancipation happens while Jackson is still in service, so after the war, he returns home to his wife and children, hopeful that life after slavery will be better. It is, barely. Later, when politicians decree that black citizens should have roles in state government, Jackson gets tapped for a position. He bonds with a new friend, educated Northern black politician Francis Cardoza (Ron O’Neal), and he clashes with a new enemy, dogged racist Stephen Holms (Edward Herrmann), who sizes up Jackson as a potentially formidable enemy and eventually rallies the KKK to combat Jackson’s nascent political movement. Over the course of the eventful story, Jackson forms an unlikely friendship with a white farmer, Abner Lait (Kris Kristofferson), and navigates a fraught relationship with President Ulysses S. Grant (John McLiam) upon becoming a U.S. Senator. Informing Jackson’s journey is his achievement of literacy and his gradual shift from innate cunning to political sophistication.
          Given that Freedom Road began its life as a novel by Howard Fast, who also wrote the book that became Spartacus (1960), it’s no surprise that the story evolves into a full-blown war, with freed slaves under siege by ruthless Southerners. Yet even though Freedom Road would have infinitely more meaning if the story had really happened, the film’s progressive politics feel genuine and heartfelt, and the drama works more often than it doesn’t. Helping the story along is narration spoken by the great Ossie Davis. Still, there are many reasons why Freedom Road failed to make a big splash when it was originally broadcast. Ali disappoints, the story is fake history, and the archetypal rebel-hero structure feels convenient and familiar. Within those diminished parameters, Freedom Road has many exciting, insightful, and thought-provoking moments.

Freedom Road: FUNKY