Saturday, June 9, 2018

Captain Milkshake (1970)



          While the meaning of the film’s title is a mystery, Captain Milkshake is in many other respects a fine time capsule, capturing the mellow textures of the hippie lifestyle, the difficult interpersonal dynamics between Establishment and counterculture types during the Vietnam War, and the confusing experience of a young man who finds himself caught between these worlds. On a stylistic level, the movie brims with hot tunes by Quicksilver Messenger Service and other significant acts of the period, while also beguiling viewers with psychedelic visuals. Some scenes are in black and white, others are in color, many involve trippy superimpositions, and the much of the film unfurls like an extended music video, with rapid-fire edits timed to the beat of energetic rock songs. Sometimes the immersive approach works, creating a vibe almost as intoxicating as the weed that characters often smoke, and sometimes the approach seems enervated and repetitive.
          The problem is that for all of its slick photography and hip gimmicks, Captain Milkshake doesn’t have much of a script.
          Paul (Geoff Gage) is a Marine home from Vietnam on a two-day leave. Living in the shadow of his late father, who was also a Marine, Paul has an attitude that’s partly pacifistic and partly patriotic, so he’s conflicted about his role in the military. Listening to a racist uncle rant about how cool it is that Paul gets to kill Asians doesn’t help matters. Gradually, Paul becomes more and more involved with two hippies he meets by happenstance, fast-talking agitator Thesp (David Korn) and Thesp’s sorta-girlfriend, Melissa (Andrea Cagan). Over the course of his leave, Paul becomes sexually involved with Melissa and, without realizing it, criminally involved with Thesp—Paul tags along for a trip to Mexico, only discovering after the fact that Thesp smuggled dope across the border. Yet not much really happens in Captain Milkshake. There’s a lot of talk about planning a demonstration, for instance, but the demonstration doesn’t amount to much. Accordingly, the “shock” ending feels contrived and inconsequential.
          Still, Captain Milkshake gets lots of points for vibe. Excellent black-and-white photography grounds the picture in cinematic professionalism, providing a strong baseline for freakier visual elements. Some of the editing (credited to costar Korn) is also impressive, especially an exciting montage set to an acid-rock cover of “Who Do You Love?” That one scene, which has enough editorial whiz-bang for an entire episode of The Monkees, encompasses everything from lava lamps to motorcycles to sex. And even if the film’s acting is mostly quite tentative, some scenes land simply because the hippie ethos is conveyed so effectively. In one choice bit, Thesp imitates John Wayne’s voice during a speech while hippie chicks play “America the Beautiful” on kazoos.

Captain Milkshake: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Northern Lights (1978)



          Earnest, humane, and political, indie drama Northern Lights tells the story of how Norwegian-immigrant farmers organized in North Dakota circa 1916 as a means of fighting back against abuse by politically connected businessmen. Codirected by first-timers John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, the picture has a miniscule budget, simplistic black-and-white cinematography, and a general paucity of visual spectacle beyond panoramic shots of wintry North Dakota skylines. Yet as is true of many respectable indies, the limitations of Northern Lights are also virtues. This is a story about small people living on the fringes of civilization, so the rudimentary presentation suits the material. Moreover, Hanson and Nilsson focus on performance, letting the faces of their actors carry the muted emotions of the storyline—another suitable choice, given the stoicism of the population being portrayed. In every important way, the filmmakers strive to put viewers inside the day-to-day grind of a specific population.
          Ray (Robert Behling) is a struggling young farmer eager to marry his sweetheart, Inga (Susan Lynch), but life has a nasty way of interrupting. Work, the death of Inga’s father, bad weather, and the rising conflict between farmers and businessmen all force delays of the couple’s nuptials. Meanwhile, life in general becomes more and more difficult with each passing month for the members of Ray’s community. Ray’s partner, John (Joe Spano), withholds an entire year’s crop of wheat after businessmen artificially depress prices, thereby creating privation on a point of professional pride. Not coincidentally, Ray gets drawn deeper and deeper into labor organization, especially after he watches a bank mercilessly foreclose on a friend’s farm. Northern Lights is partly a catalog of suffering, partly a hero’s journey in which Ray evolves from follower to leader, and partly a tribute to the tenacity of immigrants pulling a living out of rugged terrain. Northern Lights is also a memory piece of sorts, since the movie is framed by sequences of a 94-year-old man discovering Ray’s decades-old journal and transforming that journal into a book (which, ostensibly, provides the story of the movie).
          If all of this makes Northern Lights sound ambitious, that’s not precisely accurate. Although the movie dramatizes a large span of time, its scope is intimate—and that’s the beauty and frustration of the picture. Viewed favorably, Northern Lights wedges an epic story into a manageable shape. Viewed critically, Northern Lights is like a sketch for a never-completed painting. For every single thing the film accomplishes, some other thing is merely implied. This is not to say the movie feels incomplete, because it does not—but rather to say that Northern Lights epitomizes both the strengths and weaknesses of DIY filmmaking. A bigger version of this story wouldn’t feel as personal, but a bigger version would provide a more holistic examination of the historical events depicted onscreen.

Northern Lights: FUNKY

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Jerusalem File (1972)



          Filmed on location in Israel, terrorism-themed thriller The Jerusalem File has enough local color for two movies, familiar professionals in major roles, and a respectable number of action scenes. Accordingly, The Jerusalem File has all the right ingredients for a solid dose of international intrigue. Unfortunately, the filmmakers failed to construct a compelling screenplay populated by dimensional characters. The premise of The Jerusalem File makes sense, but scene-to-scene logic is murky. During several passages, it’s hard to discern what’s happening to whom and why, leaving the viewer with no recourse but to groove on actors glowering menacingly or to passively thrill at scenes of gunplay. Hardly the stuff of a memorable viewing experience.
          David (Bruce Davison) is an American student working on an archaeological dig supervised by Professor Lang (Nicol Williamson). One day, David has coffee with Raschid (Zeev Revah), an Arab militant with whom he is friendly, and representatives of a rival Arab faction commit a drive-by shooting, killing several people but missing their main target, Raschid. This event puts David on the radar of dogged local cop Chief Samuels (Donald Pleasance), who uses David to draw Raschid out of hiding. Before long, David finds himself in the crossfire of various political agendas, so lots of people chase him and shoot at him. Also figuring into the story is Nurit (Daria Halprin), a young Israeli involved in a romantic triangle with David and Lang, and mystery man Barak (Koya Yair Rubin), another participant in the archeological dig.
          Given the lack of depth on the characters, it’s impossible to care much about what happens to them, even though Davison’s mixture of intensity and sincerity creates the illusion that his character has real emotions, if not a fully rounded personality. Williamson is also highly watchable, though it’s never clear where his character’s allegiances lie, and Pleasance sleepwalks through his paper-thin role. (One more note on the cast: This was the last movie role for Halprin, previously seen in just two other movies, 1968’s Revolution and 1970’s Zabriskie Point.) Among this movie’s many wasted opportunities, perhaps none is more glaring than the failure of the filmmakers to meaningfully engage with the fraught politics of the Middle East—seeing as how it’s difficult to understand most of what’s happening onscreen, decoding any messages hidden inside those events is impossible.

The Jerusalem File: FUNKY

Monday, May 28, 2018

Chicago 70 (1970)



          One of the stranger cultural reactions to the notorious “Chicago 7 Trial” was an absurdist theater production blending excerpts from courtroom transcripts with allusions to Alice in Wonderland alongside satirical interjections somewhat in the style of the Marx Brothers. Chicago 70 is a cinematic adaptation of that play. Presumably, the idea behind both versions of the piece was to skewer the absurdity of putting left-wing activists on trial for the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention, even though the real culprits were Chicago’s police department and the city’s mayor, Richard J. Daley. Featuring such iconic characters as Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale, the trial was a flashpoint in the counterculture era, but the story’s insane sprawl has stymied most attempts at reducing the trial to a feature-length narrative. Hence such experimental treatments as this film and Chicago 10 (2007), alongside occasional mainstream piece including Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987). Anyway, there’s not much to say about Chicago 70 beyond the description provided earlier—as written by the unlikely figure of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Chicago 70 is a flimsy gimmick stretched to feature length.
          Performing on a stripped-down set, actors spew transcript excerpts in a rapid-fire style, transforming history into farce. Sometimes actors switch roles, sometimes characters are represented by props instead of people, and sometimes the movie cuts from the court action to silly interludes—after the judge forgets the name of a defendant, for instance, he plays charades until remembering the name. Given its frenetic presentation, Chicago 70 mostly fails as a delivery device for information, so viewers unfamiliar with the real historical events are encouraged to learn facts elsewhere. Even for those who know the story, however, Chicago 70 hasn’t aged well. Stripped of the relevance it presumably had during its original release, the movie now seems childish and noisy, except for an imaginatively rendered and somewhat poignant sequence depicting the moment when Seale was bound and gagged. As for the film’s politics, the lopsided depiction of activists as valiant warriors and court officers as fascist buffoons is unhelpful.

Chicago 70: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)



          Success creates demand for repeat performances, hence this Philip Roth adaptation starring Richard Benjamin, a follow-up to the well-received Goodbye, Columbus (1969), which had the same actor/source material combo. Portnoy’s Complaint did not fare well, as represented by the fact that the picture began and ended the directorial career of Ernest Lehman, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriters. Whereas Goodbye, Columbus leavened its harshest elements with tenderness, Portnoy’s Complaint is unremittingly loud and vulgar. The film is not without its virtues, thanks partly to the psychosexual preoccupations of the source material and partly to the skill of the actors on display, but the picture is as fake and mean-spirited as Goodbye, Columbus is authentic and humane.
          Benjamin plays Alexander Portnoy, a horny civil servant who becomes involved with uninhibited fashion model Mary Jane Reid (Karen Black). Not only is she a Gentile, fulfilling one of self-hating Jew Alexander’s deepest fantasies, but she’s also nicknamed “Monkey” because of her agility in bed. The nearly illiterate Mary Jane is a plaything for Alexander, who gets to feel superior while lecturing her about culture and virile while driving her wild during sex. Yet the more she pushes for a real relationship, the more he cuts at her self-image with sarcasm. Revealing that Alexander eventually drives Mary Jane to suicide doesn’t spoil Portnoy’s Complaint, because the movie is built around a therapy session during which Alexander explores his guilt over the way he treated Mary Jane. He also works through his relationship with his oppressive mother, Sophie (Lee Grant), as well as his addiction to masturbation.
          One must admire Lehman’s commitment to presenting Alexander so unflinchingly—and since Jack Nicholson got away with playing men like this many times, the no-prisoners approach had precedents. Yet very little in Portnoy’s Complaint works. The movie is fast and slick, but it’s neither erotic nor illuminating. Instead, it comes across like a misguided morality tale wrapped inside a dirty joke. Still, Portnoy’s Complaint features a wild array of acting styles. Black has a few supple moments before slipping into harpy mode; the hopelessly miscast Grant plays for the cheap seats; Jill Clayburgh lends fire to a small part as a woman invulnerable to Alexander’s charms; and Jeannie Berlin, best of all, lends humor and pathos to the role of a bedraggled woman whose encounter with Alexander goes awry.

Portnoy’s Complaint: FUNKY

Thursday, May 17, 2018

French Quarter (1978)



          Since the Crown International logo usually heralds low-budget movies that disappoint in predictable ways, it’s worth singling out French Quarter, which disappoints in unpredictable ways. At first, the movie adheres to the familiar little-girl-lost style, tracking a naïve young woman who stumbles into sex work. Then the picture makes a hard turn into period melodrama, with nearly an hour of the 101-minute film set in the 19th century. Nestled into the period material are subplots about a drug-addicted lesbian, a friendship between a white piano player and his black counterpart, and voodoo rituals. Both timelines feature auctions in which bidders compete for the privilege of deflowering a young woman. There’s a lot going on in French Quarter, so even though the movie is thoroughly contrived and silly, none could accuse the filmmakers of playing it safe.
          After her father dies, Christine (Alisha Fontaine) leaves her rural home and becomes an exotic dancer. One day, she’s drugged by a crook who plans to auction off Christine’s virginity. Then, by way of a hallucination or time travel or whatever, Christine becomes Trudy, the newest arrival at a New Orleans brothel. The same crisis ensues, with Trudy’s virginity getting put up for sale. Hope emerges in the form of a romance with Kid Ross (Bruce Davison), the new piano player in the brothel, who also bonds with black musician Jelly Roll (Vernel Bagneris). For reasons that defy understanding, co-writer/director Dennis Kane takes a prismatic approach to the story, exploring the lives of other prostitutes, some of whom have colorful names including “Big Butt Annie,” “Coke-Eyed Laura,” and “Ice Box Josie.” Yet Kane also makes room for lengthy stripping scenes, a Sapphic makeout session, and the aforementioned voodoo rituals. It’s a mess, with one scene attempting sensitive character work and the next presenting grindhouse sleaze, so French Quarter ultimately has little of interest for serious viewers.
          Those who savor bizarre cinema might find French Quarter more palatable. The cast blends starlets including Lindsay Bloom and Ann Michelle with cult-fave actors Bruce Davison and Lance LeGault—plus Virginia Mayo, a 1940s star appearing here in grand-dame mode. It should be noted that every so often, the picture almost gets something right, as in this hard-boiled voiceover: “If there’s one thing I know about New Orleans, anybody who wants something real bad is gonna get it real bad.” Incidentally, French Quarter came out the same year as Pretty Baby, a controversial studio picture with similar subject matter, and actor Don Hood plays minor roles in both films.

French Quarter: FUNKY

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Brotherly Love (1970)



          Adapted by James Kennaway from his play Country Dance (the title under which this British/American coproduction was released in the UK), Brotherly Love features Peter O’Toole at his most gloriously unhinged, with elegant Susannah York providing an effective counterpoint. The movie is long-winded, pretentious, and unpleasant, but in some ways those qualities are virtues—although Brotherly Love lacks true resonance, it has a certain sort of twisted integrity. The gist of the piece is that Sir Charles Ferguson (O’Toole) is a deranged aristocrat who enjoys complicating the relationship between his sister, Hilary (York), and her estranged husband, Douglas (Michael Craig), although none dare name the reason why until the final confrontation. By that point, of course, viewers have gleaned that Sir Charles’ affection for Hilary goes beyond the normal feelings of one sibling for another. Unanswered questions include how aware Hilary is of her brother’s incestuous interest, and how she truly feels about his ardor. In one scene, for instance, she rises from a bathtub so Sir Charles can drape her with a towel before removing his own modest covering and slipping into the bathwater.
          Woven into the storyline is a thread about Sir Charles attempting self-destruction, as when he deliberately fires a shotgun a few inches from his ear, and another thread about Sir Charles devolving into madness. O’Toole plays this psychosexual stuff with his usual mixture of authority and obnoxiousness. In some scenes, he’s remarkably sensitive as he weaves through complex dialogue and intricate behavior—but in other scenes, he simply shouts for emphasis, bludgeoning the already-questionable textures of Kennaway’s script. Not helping matters is the presence behind the camera of director J. Lee Thompson, a man best known for helming violent thrillers. He’s beyond his ken here, incapable of creating or maintaining a consistent tone. Thompson’s emphatic scenes are tiresome, and his quiet scenes are just tired. Only the dexterity of the cast and the visual interest of Scottish locations keep the piece watchable at its most undisciplined. That said, all involved deserve praise for the understated final showdown between Sir Charles, Douglas, and Hilary—that one moment, played in a dark basement, has the grounded anguish missing from the rest of the movie.

Brotherly Love: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Speeding Up Time (1971)



Blaxploitation sludge made on a pathetic budget, Speeding Up Time has something to do with a young writer tracking down the crooks who killed his mother by burning down her house while she was inside. Yet it’s a struggle to parse even that simple premise, given writer/director John Evans’ inept storytelling. Either he ran out of money or simply forgot to collect important footage, but either way, this film comes across as a the rough assembly for perhaps two-thirds of a movie, with zero effort put into creating placeholders or transitions to cover the gaps. The fact that Speeding Up Time found its way not only into theaters but also onto home video speaks more to the ravenous appetites of those exhibition platforms during the ’70s and ’80s than anything else. Anyway, here’s some of the nonsense that happens. Our hero, Marcus (played by the fabulously named Winston Thrash), visits a poet who inspires Marcus to repeat the phrase “I am prepared” several times. Prepared for what? Who knows? Who cares? Later Marcus wakes from a dream (or premonition or whatever) about his mom’s house burning down, then snaps at his mother for suggesting he settle down. After that, Marcus works on his writing in the bathroom until the toilet overflows, ruining his work. Wait, all this time I haven’t stored my only copies of documents on bathroom floors? I knew I was doing something wrong! Eventually, Marcus zooms his vintage car through a drive-in lot during a tepid chase scene, gets it on with a young lady during a crudely shot sex scene, and makes aggressive remarks to gangsters. Oh, and just to create the illusion of political relevance, he also spews some vaguely revolutionary jive.

Speeding Up Time: SQUARE

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Welcome Home Soldier Boys (1971)



          Something of a thematic predecessor to the Sylvester Stallone hit First Blood (1982), this grim melodrama depicts the travails of four Green Berets who return to the U.S. after service in Vietnam, only to discover that their personalities are so fundamentally changed by their harrowing overseas experiences that they no longer fit into normal society. Released amid the first wave of pictures exploring the impact of PTSD on Vietnam vets, writer-director Guerdon Trueblood’s movie has as many problems as it does virtues. The character work is thin, the psychology is dubious, and the story becomes cartoonish toward the end. Yet alongside Trueblood’s countless missteps are several vivid moments, a pervasive sense of melancholy, and a propulsive overall narrative—even though it’s hard to believe a lot of what happens, viewers never doubt that something terrible is imminent.
          Leading the vets is Danny (Joe Don Baker), a hulking country boy enamored of traveling to California with his comrade-in-arms, Kid (Alan Vint), in order to start new lives as farmers. The plan is to raise some hell along the way, accompanied by Fatback (Elliot Street) and Shooter (Paul Koslo). Viewers’ first clue that all is not right with the group occurs when they pick up a sexy hitchhiker, take turns with her, and toss her out of a moving car when she has the temerity to ask for money. The vets share a moment of panic before pressing onward as if they just narrowly escaped a skirmish with enemy combatants. Later, things get even more debauched when a creepy hotel clerk (Geoffrey Lewis) gives the vets the run of his place while also providing a steady supply of booze and women. By the time the group reaches Danny’s childhood home, they’ve crossed some point of no return, morally speaking. Violence becomes inevitable.
          It’s hard to imagine what Trueblood might have done differently to put this thing over, since Welcome Home Soldier Boys operates well outside human reality for much of its running time, and the climax is as outrageous as it is disquietingat some point the picture transitions from metaphorical to silly. Nonetheless, the actors, Baker especially, convey a sense of tragedy, as if the vets don’t realize how deeply years of killing for Uncle Sam scarred their souls. The vets also seem bewildered by the scorn they encounter from civilians. In one scene, Danny reveals to a woman that he’s killed 113 people. She laughs. Small moments like that resonate even when Trueblood’s clumsy attempts at grandiosity don’t.

Welcome Home Soldier Boys: FUNKY

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Bridge in the Jungle (1971)



Here’s one of cinema’s stranger footnotes. More than 20 years after directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), John Huston participated in another adaptation of a novel by B. Traven. Yet this time Huston’s involvement was limited to acting, and that’s where the connections between the two films end, despite claims in online and print sources that The Bridge in the Jungle is a sequel to Sierra Madre. It is not. The Bridge in the Jungle tells two stories that intersect awkwardly. First the picture follows Gales (Charles Robinson), an alcoholic hunter who ventures into more and more dangerous areas to claim valuable crocodile hides. He encounters Sleigh (Huston), an American expat who settled in a small Mexican village, and it emerges that Gales is on a revenge mission. Just when this storyline starts cooking, The Bridge in the Jungle lurches into a separate plot about a young Mexican mother fretting over the disappearance and possible drowning of her son. Huh? Writer, producer, and director Pancho Kohner captures lots of local color, but he’s inhibited by the meandering narrative and by an overreliance on amateurish actors. The latter problem is exacerbated by the presence of old pros Huston and Katy Jurado. Worse, the entertainment value of watching Huston growl crotchety dialogue (“You crocodile hunters are a seedy, ignorant bunch”) wears off once it becomes clear his character is tangential at best. As a result of its myriad storytelling problems, the movie carries an unpleasant aroma of pointlessness, even though the technical execution is fine.

The Bridge in the Jungle: LAME

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Not the End . . .


Exactly seven and a half years after I started this project, today marks the conclusion of daily posting here at Every ’70s Movie—but that doesn’t mean the project is done. Regular readers should think of today as the beginning of a new phase. After all, the subject matter of this blog is finite: There were only so many American-produced feature films released on U.S. screens between January 1, 1970, and December 31, 1979, especially if one excludes hardcore porn. While my parameters also encompass key documentaries and foreign films, as well as a representative sample of made-for-TV movies, it was inevitable that I would hit a wall in terms of getting access to films for review purposes. As of this writing, I have pathways to seeing about a dozen more titles, and I’ll get to those over the course of the next month or so. I might also parachute back into the realm of TV movies and write up a few interesting titles that caught my attention while conducting research. And of course I welcome suggestions from readers about “new” titles—after seven and a half years of investigating this topic, nothing surprises me more than learning about some film that escaped my notice. Generally speaking, however, if a ’70s movie isn’t on this blog (notwithstanding the aforementioned in-progress reviews), it’s because the film isn’t readily available through home video or streaming or a reputable archive. Please contact me if you know of a legitimate video source for an obscure title. Anyway, that’s all for now, but I’ll be back next week to kick off the new phase—occasional reviews as movies become available. Until then, as always, keep on keepin’ on!

Apple Pie (1976)



          Stating that Apple Pie isn’t the weirdest ’70s transmission from Manhattan’s artistic fringe might be accurate, but the remark downplays the films peculiarity. For while Apple Pie mostly lacks the psychosexual perversity one usually associates with grungy 16-millimeter experiments issuing from Alphabet City squats or SoHo lofts, the picture is strange enough to alienate most viewers. Yet after weaving its way through a number of bizarre situations, some of which have a John Waters-esque satirical edge and some of which are merely freeform expressions, writer-director Howard Goldberg’s movie resolves into an epic musical number, resulting in several of the most joyous minutes you’ll encounter in ’70s cinema. On a personal note, that represents what I’ve enjoyed most about this project: making unexpected discoveries through persistent archaeology.
          Goldberg builds Apple Pie around Tony Azito, a Julliard-trained actor/dancer who found most of his success on the stage but also enjoyed a minor screen career in the ’80s and ’90s prior to his death at the age of 46 in 1995. Playing a number of characters, most prominently an eccentric rich kid who occasionally flits around town in a bat costume, Azito is in nearly every scene, and he’s an unlikely leading man. Gangly and very tall, with a gaunt face and a receding hairline, he’s the physical type most directors would cast as a background creep. Azito modulates his voice absurdly, like he’s either channeling psychosis or practicing different cartoon characters. He shimmies his body at random intervals, as if he’s having seizures or indulging sudden urges to boogie. Therefore one of Apple Pie’s most intriguing (or infuriating) aspects is that Goldberg lets Tony be Tony, no matter where the performers singular muse takes him.
          If youre wondering why the plot of the film hasn’t yet been described, it’s because only certain portions of Apple Pie have contiguous narrative. The first scenes involve a gangster of some sort meeting with cronies (one of whom is played by future David Letterman costar Calvert DeForrest). Then the picture shifts into its most heavily plotted sequence, during which Jacques (Azito) fakes his own kidnapping in order to rob his parents. (Playing Jacques’ father is NYC oddball Brother Theodore.) This material transitions into a performance-art/surrealism passage, during which Jacques (in his bat costume) meets a bunch of artists on a rooftop. One of them, played by future TV star Veronica Hamel, wears an outlandish costume and demonstrates her talent: causing her face to disappear. It’s all quite bewildering, especially because of Azito’s goofy dialogue (“I don’t cry when I’m watching porno—I’m into emotional S&M!”). Plus what’s a downtown freakshow without at least one scene of characters smearing each other with food? This stuff goes on and on and on, even though Apple Pie is only 80 minutes long, until Goldberg segues into his final sequence.
          As bright as the rest of the film is dark, the final sequence is a dance number on a city street. Azito strolls onto the block, coaxes kids to start banging out a rhythm with found objects, and starts dancing. Then others join the fun—women exiting a restaurant, locals stepping out of their homes, even a wino climbing up from a pile of garbage. Once it reaches cruising altitude, the scene is a happy explosion, with some dancers on cars and fire escapes, all grooving to the same rhythm. Others have suggested this scene inspired a similar moment in Fame (1980), noting that Irene Cara, who starred in that picture, is one of the dancers in the finale of Apple Pie. Be that as it may, the dance jam is almost reason enough for those who dislike downtown artiness to explore Apple Pie. If nothing else, the dance jam is a great showcase for Azito, who later earned a Tony nomination for a 1980 revival of The Pirates of Penzance. The man could move.

Apple Pie: FREAKY

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Antonio (1973)



          Parallel to his music career, affable Tejano singer Trini Lopez dabbled in acting for movies and TV, notably appearing in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Apparently eager for a starring role, Lopez produced this low-budget comedy, which was shot entirely in Chile. He plays a naïve potter who lives in a small seaside village with his wife and their young son. One day, a boisterous American (Larry Hagman) arrives by boat in the local port and unloads precious cargo—a brand-new Mercedes. When the car malfunctions, Antonio keeps the wayward American company. When Hagman’s character grows impatient with life in a tiny town and makes other travel arrangements, he gives the inoperative car to Antonio. Most of the story dramatizes complications that the illusion of sudden wealth creates for a man who lives among desperately impoverished neighbors. So in essence, this is an old-fashioned fairy tale capped with a twist ending. Alas, many aspects of Antonio are questionable, from the thin story to amateurish supporting performances.
          Characterizations are a special problem, because nearly everyone onscreen is one-dimensional, beginning with the blandly saint-like Antonio. Since the sole exception is Hagman’s character, it’s probable Hagman embellished his scenes—wearing a gaudy fringe jacket and decorating moments with comedic eye-rolls and face-plants, Hagman tears through the movie like a tornado. Yet this is Lopez’s show, and he’s not up to the task. Alternating between a confused grimace and a dopey smile, Antonio seems too childlike to function in the real world, and most of his decisions are foolish—not least the arbitrary choice to drop everything in order to entertain a stranger. That Antonio occasionally picks up a guitar to sing a bouncy song in that familiar Trini Lopez style merely adds to the clumsiness of the film. If Antonio is sophisticated enough to play and sing pop songs, then why . . . ? Pondering these sorts of things is likely beside the point. Antonio is a gentle homily designed for undemanding viewers, and as such it’s basically adequate.

Antonio: FUNKY

Monday, April 9, 2018

French Postcards (1979)



          There’s a tendency among cinemaniacs of a certain age to romanticize the so-called “Film School Mafia” of early ’70s, as if everyone in the Coppola/Lucas orbit was a genius. What, then, to make of husband-and-wife collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz? Most of their showiest jobs have been gifts from Lucas, and even though they helped script American Graffiti (1973), they also made Howard the Duck (1986). Projects that Huyck and Katz put together on their own are unimpressive, as evidenced by the youth comedy French Postcards, the first big-budget movie directed by Huyck. Despite featuring mildly erotic elements, French Postcards bucks the trend of late-’70s college pictures by opting for PG-rated laughs instead of hard-R raunch. Admirable as the film’s restraint might be, however, other aspects of French Postcards are frustrating or worse.
          The setup is straightforward: Three American students spend a year in Paris and have romantic adventures. Generally speaking, the Huyck/Katz script transitions smoothly from one episode to the next, though one of the parallel storylines nearly dies for lack of oxygen (more on that in a minute). Joel (Miles Chapin) is a good student who needs a push to leave his dorm room and explore Paris, but he somehow gets laid on his first date with sexy retail clerk Toni (Valérie Quennessen). Wannabe songwriter Alex (David Marshall Grant) becomes infatuated with the exchange program’s alluring headmistress, Madame Catherine (Marie-France Pisier), who conveniently discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Meanwhile, Laura (Blanche Baker) spends lots of time investigating French historical sites (to the bizarre accompaniment of Raymond Chandler-ish voiceover) until she tumbles into a romantic-triangle situation. The Joel/Toni storyline gets at puritanical American attitudes, since he can’t handle her past promiscuity. The Alex/Catherine storyline is pure bedroom farce. And the Laura business is pointless until she meets the picture’s only memorable character, an obnoxious Persian lothario played by scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin. (The other future star in the cast is Debra Winger, wasted in a tiny supporting role.)
          On a conceptual level, French Postcards is fine. Digging any deeper reveals serious problems. Not only do Huyck and Katz predicate their story on the stereotype that all French people are libertines, but the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether they’re making a broad comedy or a gentle character study. Half the time it seems they’re going for Billy Wilder-esque hilarity and missing the mark. Elsewhere it seems they’re after faux-European ambiguity, somewhat in the Paul Mazursky tradition. Huyck and Katz fare better with that stuff, but too often they undercut nuanced moments with dumb jokes. Similarly, leering shots of Pisier in sexy outfits (or less) nudge the picture into bland male fantasy.
         One last thing: Someone on the filmmaking team gets points for the running joke of Gallic cover songs, because it’s fun decoding the French versions of “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

French Postcards: FUNKY

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Something Evil (1972)



          Fans can argue about which project represents Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length directorial endeavor, since he made a lengthy amateur film in 1964 and helmed a pair of 90-minute TV episodes, including the first regular installment of Columbo, in 1971. Yet the excellent made-for-TV thriller Duel is generally considered his proper cinematic debut because it’s a stand-alone project distinguished by Spielberg’s trademark visual imagination. Three years later, Spielberg graduated to theatrical features with The Sugarland Express (1974), and then came Jaws (1975). Nestled within Spielberg’s filmography, however, are two mostly forgotten telefilms. They represent his sole output for the years between Duel and The Sugarland Express, steps along his path from promising newcomer to certified wunderkind.
          The first of these pictures, Something Evil, is unimpressive. A story about demonic possession with a suspicious resemblance to The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s hit 1971 novel, the picture stars Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as a New York City couple who impulsively move to a house in the country. Written without much subtlety or verve by Robert Clouse (who later found success as a director of action films), Something Evil hits nearly every cliché imaginable. The kooky neighbor warning about evil spirits as he performs weird rituals. The strange noises emanating from various places late at night. The inexplicable changes in people’s behavior. The equally inexplicable denial by rational people that something strange is happening. So while the setup is simple enough and the climax has a small supernatural kick, most of Something Evil is boring—not a word one generally associates with Spielberg.
         Dennis isn’t especially interesting to watch, McGavin gets shoved offscreen for long stretches, and juvenile actor Johnny Whitaker (previously of the TV series Family Affair) is a generic Hollywood kid. There’s also not enough screen time for enjoyable supporting players Ralph Bellamy and Jeff Corey. Thus the only real novelty stems from searching for hints of Spielberg’s prodigious talent. A few scenes in Something Evil are shot well, with dramatic angles and moody lighting, but the whole thing feels so enervated and rushed that it’s hard to believe the same man made magic of out Duel the previous year. Maybe he was tired after rigging all those cool shots of tires and highways.

Something Evil: FUNKY

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sunset Cove (1978)



Teen-sex comedy Sunset Cove has a serviceable premise, because it depicts horny adolescents from different cliques joining forces to protect a stretch of California coastline from avaricious developers. Yet learning that the film was directed by Al Adamson should give an indication of the many ways the picture squanders its potential. Although Sunset Cove is coherent by Adamson standards, inasmuch as the movie never gets lost in nonsensical subplots, everything is substandard. The acting is weak, the camerawork is rushed, the storytelling is sloppy, and the tone is all over the place. Many scenes aim for light comedy, as when kids jump into hang-gliders so they can buzz a splashy party thrown by the developers, but at one point Adamson stops the movie dead for an endless sex scene set inside a van, complete with repetitious shots of a buxom girl shoving her breasts into a dude’s face and rubbing her hand across the front of his shorts. For an interminable three minutes or so, Sunset Cove morphs from brainless comedy to sleazy softcore. Making bad movies worse was Adamson’s special gift. Notwithstanding a brief appearance by John Carradine as a retired judge, nobody familiar appears in the cast, and several of the one-dimensional characters have nicknames including “Bubbles,” “Chubby,” and “Moose.” As for the nominal protagonist, he’s ostensibly a straight-arrow nerd, as evidenced by his eyeglasses. His inexplicable transformation into a drunken streaker who propositions a girl after inadvertently seeing her naked is par for the course.

Sunset Cove: LAME

Friday, April 6, 2018

Starbird and Sweet William (1973)



The polite way to characterize low-budget family film Starbird and Sweet William is to say that it’s a harmless story about a young Native American learning to bond with nature. Yet that description cuts Starbird and Sweet William too much slack. Not only is the movie cloying and dull, but the leading actor is Latino, so the film’s portrayal of race is about as authentic as the notion of a man forming a surrogate family with a bear, a crow, and a raccoon. Everything about Starbird and Sweet William is fake, right down to the ridiculous ending during which a brand-new character appears just in time to rescue the protagonist from mortal danger. At the beginning of the film, Starbird (A. Martinez), whose tribal affiliation is never specified, leaves his reservation and takes a job as an airplane mechanic. One day, he steals a small plane for a joyride, then crashes in the Southwestern wilderness. Despite a broken arm and a shortage of supplies, Starbird survives long enough to bond with the aforementioned critters; the “Sweet William” of the title is an orphaned bear cub with whom Starbird frolics in syrupy musical montages. For most of its running time, the film has virtually no plot, instead presenting an outdoor travelogue buttressed by folksy narration courtesy of Rex Allen. (Sample: “Seeing the baby foxes and the deer, Starbird had a warm feeling of kinship with his brothers, the animals—something he’d never really felt before.”) When the filmmakers finally introduce conflict through the arrival of hunters late in the second act, it’s abrupt, clumsy, and woefully insufficient for sparking dramatic interest.

Starbird and Sweet William: LAME

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Once in Paris . . . (1978)



          Figuring out why the intelligent comedy Once in Paris . . . failed to score at the box office doesn’t take much work. After alienating fans by leaving the hit sitcom M*A*S*H in 1975 and then floundering through inconsequential TV projects, Wayne Rogers didn’t bring much goodwill to his first big-screen starring role. Leading lady Gayle Hunnicut wasn’t a major draw, either. And the folks tasked with selling the picture faced a daunting challenge: Despite containing a storyline about a sexual affair, Once in Paris . . . is primarily a bromance pairing Rogers with Gallic charmer Jack Lenoir. All in all, it’s amazing the picture got made. Nonetheless,  those willing to accept the film on its own terms might enjoy what they discover.
          Michael Moore (Rogers) is an American screenwriter summoned to Paris for a rewrite job. He’s met at the airport by chauffeur Jean-Paul (Lenoir), who personifies joie de vivre. To Jean-Paul, every traffic jam is an adventure, every beautiful woman is a miracle, and every new day is an opportunity for drinking and gambling and laughter. First Michael keeps Jean-Paul at arm’s length, opting to focus on work. But once it becomes clear the rewrite won’t take much effort, Michael accepts Jean-Paul’s invitation to see the real Paris: playing petanque in parks with old men, placing wagers at a horse track, visiting the restaurant that Jean-Paul’s mistress owns, and so on. Eventually, Michael’s new friendship creates problems. When the lonely screenwriter becomes preoccupied with Susan (Hunnicut), an aristocratic beauty staying in the same hotel, Michael heeds Jean-Paul’s advice to pursue a tryst, even though Michael has a wife and children back in Los Angeles. And so it goes from there.
          Flaws plague this film. Michael is condescending, fragile, reckless, and self-involved, with retrograde attitudes toward women. Moreover, Susan is portrayed as a vapid slut despite Gilroy’s weak attempts at rounding out her characterization. By current cultural standards, Once in Paris . . . is offensive. Viewed through the prism of its time, however, the movie has personality and soulfulness, even if one suspects that Gilroy would have preferred Jack Lemmon in the lead rather than the bland Rogers. Finally, it’s worth noting that Gilroy notched a WGA Award nomination for his script, because his peers likely reacted to the film’s strongest element: the delightful rendering of Jean-Paul as an amiable rake whom a straightlaced family man might dream of someday befriending.

Once in Paris . . . : FUNKY