Friday, June 24, 2016

Brain of Blood (1971)

Further proof that Al Adamson’s movies are akin to the slime that pools on the floors of movie theaters as beverages and butter congeal with body fluids, Brain of Blood has some moments of unintentional humor simply because it’s so spectacularly stupid, but slogging through 90-ish minutes of schlock is too high price to pay for an occasional chuckle. Title notwithstanding, the plot is best described as brainless. In the fictional country of Khaleed, a ruler named Amir recruits an American surgeon to transplant Amir’s brain from his own dying body into a healthy new one. Inexplicably, the doctor doesn’t bother to line up a fresh body before Amir dies, so he’s forced to deposit the brain into the skull of a hulking murderer. Meanwhile, conspirators try to prevent Amir’s resurrection, Amir’s bimbo girlfriend schemes with the doctor, and the murderer stalks women. Full disclosure: It’s highly probable the preceding description contains inaccuracies, simply because Brain of Blood is so discombobulated and uninteresting that tracking the story is a challenging. Anyway, here are some of the ironic delights that Brain of Blood has to offer. Amir’s body is stored in head-to-toe tinfoil. The disembodied brain looks like (and probably is) a clump of hamburger. The murderer’s post-surgery facial look resembles a cottage-cheese-textured skullcap. Amir’s lover is played by a woman who looks like a retired Las Vegas stripper, thanks to her helmet of bleach-blonde hair and leathery skin. There’s a dwarf assistant who periodically sports a jaunty golf cap. The doctor chases after the murderer while carrying a gadget that resembles a Dustbuster. And so on. Brain of Blood has a couple of extreme moments, notably many closeups of scalpels cutting flesh, but it’s not anywhere near violent enough to thrill fans of gore. But if you’re a fan of bores, then, well, you’re in luck.

Brain of Blood: SQUARE

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Special Delivery (1976)

          Had it been executed with more clarity and sophistication, the crime picture Special Delivery could have become either a clever farce or a tense melodrama. As is, it’s a muddle containing a few elements that are pleasant to watch. The main story hook is pretty good—during his escape following a bank robbery, a crook dumps a bag of cash into a mailbox, then must wait until the evening’s last mail collection for the box to be opened so he can reclaim his cash. Unfortunately for the crook, several people become aware of his plan, meaning that he must battle his way through assorted schemers and villains. Unfortunately for the audience, Special Delivery gets mired in several uninteresting subplots, and even the main action—a romance involving the crook and a beautiful woman who saw him stash the loot—fizzles because the second-rate actors playing these characters lack both individual fire and shared chemistry.
          The picture is murky right from the get-go, because during the very long heist sequence that opens Special Delivery, it takes a few minutes to discern that Jack Murdock (Bo Svenson) is the lead character. Once Jack and his buddies stage their wild escape—it involves a grappling hook and a window-washing platform—director Paul Wendkos unwisely cuts to flashes of Jack’s combat service in Vietnam. Way to keep things light! Then, after the momentous dropping of the loot into the mailbox, the movie cuts to several minutes of action involving a junkie, Graff (Michael C. Gwynne), who saw the drop and imagines scoring a payday. Thanks to this sort of narrative meandering, leading lady Cybill Shepherd, playing the woman who saw the drop from her apartment window, doesn’t show up until half the movie is over.
          And so it goes from there. In one scene, Shepherd and Svenson share bland flirtatious dialogue. In another, Gwynne delivers a gritty and wired performance that belongs in a more serious movie. And by the time everything comes together, it’s as difficult to care about what’s happening as it is to determine whom we’re expected to follow. Will the real protagonist please stand up? Shepherd looks great, coasting through a vapid role as a city girl who wants more from life, but Svenson is serviceable at best, and the flick wastes supporting players including Gerrit Graham, Robert Ito, and Vic Tayback. That said, if you’ve been looking for a movie that includes future Real Housewives star Kim Richards as a kid accusing random men of being perverts—and also features future soap-opera icon Diedre Hall as a scantily clad masseuse—then this Special Delivery is for you.

Special Delivery: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mirrors (1978)

Call them the unwanted children of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973)—various ’70s thrillers, some theatrical releases and some made for TV, about women bedeviled by supernatural forces. Among the least impressive examples is Mirrors, which has a connection to one of the aforementioned blockbusters because Mirrors leading lady Kitty Winn played a supporting role in The Exorcist. Although she’s a capable actress who periodically imbues moments with clarity and sensitivity, there’s a reason why Winn never became an above-the-title name, and that reason is on display throughout Mirrors. She often seems lost, as if she either doesn’t know what the script demands of her at that particular juncture, or knows but isn’t up to the challenge. Part of the blame, of course, must fall on the film’s director, Noel Black, whose career slid into mediocrity after his wonderful debut, Pretty Poison (1968). Black’s direction of Mirrors was unquestionably impeded by a poor script, but no matter the circumstances, his storytelling is borderline inept, and he evinces little flair for rendering jolts and suspense. Anyway, here’s the story. Marianne (Winn) and her husband, Philip (Peter Donat), visit New Orleans. He has asthma. She experiences weird visions, most of which involve mirrors, and she crosses paths with weirdos including an overly solicitous hotel manager. These folks belong to a voodoo cult of some sort. Philip dies, ostensibly of his asthma, but really, Marianne fears, because of her having angered the occult types. Her conspiracy theories land her in an insane asylum. The story never quite starts, instead lugubriously wandering through various suggestive episodes until viewers realize this is as good as it’s going to get, and it never quite ends, instead just sort of stopping, perhaps because Black ran out of ways to photograph mirrors. Actually, scratch that. He exhausts his visual imagination well before the movie sputters to a halt. As goes the direction, so goes this dull and unmemorable movie overall.

Mirrors: LAME

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mr. Mean (1977)

Back in the day, Fred Williamson was nothing if not industrious, banging out movies at a rapid pace regardless of whether he had stories worth telling; the guiding principle of his Po’ Boy Productions seemed to be exploiting Williamson’s marginal box-office power as much as possible before the party ended. Hence junk on the order of Mr. Mean, which Williamson reportedly cobbled together during downtime while acting in the Italian-made war picture The Inglorious Bastards (1978), even enlisting that film’s crew for help. Naturally, the pastiche story is not Mr. Mean’s strongest element, although it should be said that one is hard-pressed to identify anything about Mr. Mean that could be appropriately described as “strong.” The gist is that Mr. Mean (Williamson), whom everyone in the picture actually calls by that name, is an American hit man summoned to Italy because a mobster needs another mobster killed, but for political reasons cannot task his own people with the murder. Intrigue of some sort ensues. Almost completely bereft of characterization, emotion, logic, and momentum, Mr. Mean is a sloppy compendium of chase scenes, fights, macho posturing, and shootouts. However, don’t let the preceding list create the impression Mr. Mean is exciting. A typically pointless scene features Williamson, wearing a barely-there banana hammock, jogging in slow motion down a beach alongside a generic Eurobabe. Yes, even though Mr. Mean is ostensibly a thriller about an assassin, much of the picture feels like a keepsake of Williamson’s Mediterranean vacation, or, worse, a narcissistic celebration of beholding the glory that is Fred Williamson. If you dig Fred as much as Fred does, then you might find something to enjoy here. If not, then maybe the repetitive jams that R&B act the Ohio Players composed and recorded for the soundtrack will shake your groove thang.

Mr. Mean: LAME

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Andersonville Trial (1970)

          Calling this made-for-TV production of Saul Levitt’s Broadway play a movie is a bit of a stretch, seeing as how it’s essentially a videotaped recording of a live performance on a soundstage, but the cast is so colorful and the story is so arresting that The Andersonville Trial demands attention. Set four months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Levitt’s play dramatizes the real-life case of Captain Henry Wirz, the Confederate officer who oversaw a massive POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia, where 14,000 inmates died from abuse, deprivation, and exposure. In Levitt’s humanistic telling, Wirz was complicit in the deaths, but he also unfairly received the brunt of the North’s anger against the South following the Civil War, since he was the first Confederate officer tried for war crimes. Staging The Andersonville Trial for television soon after the My Lai massacre was undoubtedly a conscious choice on the part of the producers, because Levitt’s play explores the thorny issue of how conscientious soldiers struggle to reconcile military and moral obligations, a relevant consideration during the Vietnam era.
          George C. Scott, who played the leading role on Broadway, slipped into the director’s chair for this production, and William Shatner somewhat improbably inherited the part. Save for their flamboyance, it’s hard to imagine two actors who are more different. That said, Shatner attacks the part of prosecuting JAG Lt. Col. Norton P. Chipman with ferocity and passion. In fact, The Andersonville Trial may well contain the best visual record of Shatner’s capacity as an actor. Many of Shatner’s excesses are present here, but so, too, are his sometimes underrated gifts—he orates well, mostly eschewing his famous dramatic pauses, and he shifts nimbly from anger to anguish. If not a remarkable performance, it’s certainly a robust one.
          As the title suggests, Levitt’s play tracks several episodes during a long trial, with each act comprising an extended real-time vignette. The defendant, Wirz (Richard Basehart), is an oddity, a physically impaired European immigrant so proud of his blind service to Confederate orders that he finds the whole trial offensive and ridiculous. He represents the familiar notion that following orders absolves a soldier of personal responsibility for atrocities. Conversely, Shipman represents a higher form of justice, since his prosecution asks whether Wirz should have defied orders in the name of mercy.
          Levitt’s exploration of these complicated issues within the framework of an exciting courtroom duel makes for compelling viewing even though The Andersonville Trial runs two and a half hours. It is also to Levitt’s and Scott’s credit that so many mid-level actors deliver excellent work here. Jack Cassidy is smooth as Wirz’s exasperated defense attorney, Cameron Mitchell conveys an interesting mixture of condescension and dignity as the head of the military tribunal, and folks shining in smaller roles include Michael Burns, Buddy Epsen, and Albert Salmi. Attentive viewers will even spot a young Martin Sheen in a glorified walk-on role toward the beginning of the piece.

The Andersonville Trial: GROOVY

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Small Change (1976)

          Others may have different takes on his style, but to my way of thinking, François Truffaut was essentially a novelist who used film frames instead of words, because his best films combine innovative film techniques with traditional literary devices to convey painful and sweet truths about the human condition. As such, Truffaut’s work was often best when he locked into the perspective of a unique protagonist or, as in the case of romantic-triangle stories, an interlocked group of protagonists. Perhaps that’s why Small Change didn’t work for me. In addition to being a gimmick picture, since all the major characters are children, it’s an ensemble movie without a strong overarching storyline. To belabor the analogy to fiction writing, Small Change is like a set of loosely connected stories rather than the unified statement of a novel. Some of the picture’s vignettes are interesting, whether funny or sad or a combination of both sensations, while others make less of an impact. But the lack of truly complicated characters—an occupational hazard when exploring the lives of people whose personalities have not yet fully formed—means that Truffaut can’t really do what he does best. That said, even mediocre Truffaut is better than the finest work lesser filmmakers can render.
          Tracking the loosely connected lives of several children who attend a school in Thiers, France, Small Change—originally titled L’argent de poche, or Pocket Money—has moments of great humanity. The subplot of a poor child hiding the truth about his life in an abusive household is handled with sensitivity, and the subplot of a wide-eyed boy nurturing a crush on his friend’s sexy mom is playful and restrained. Perhaps most interesting scenes are those depicting the adventures of a boy who must aid in his paralyzed father’s caretaking. Yet some moments seem like clips from another movie. In one such scene, an infant climbs onto a windowsill to chase after a cat, and then several bystanders watch in horror from several stories below as the child tumbles from the window. The resolution of the scene makes zero sense dramatically or logically, although it sorta-kinda serves Truffaut’s theme about the resilience of children as compared to the selfishness and stupidity of adults. Small Change isn’t a bad picture by any measure, and some viewers will undoubtedly find it affecting and unique. For me, Small Change came across like a rhythm in search of a melody—I felt too strongly the absence of a distinctive central character, whose journey might have given clarity and focus to the picture’s meandering episodes.

Small Change: FUNKY

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Squeeze Play (1979)

By the low standards set by other films from director Lloyd Kaufman and his bargain-basement production company, Troma, the sports-themed sex comedy Squeeze Play is relatively coherent, telling the story of women forming a softball team in order to compete with their boyfriends, who often ignore the women so they can play ball. By any other standards, Squeeze Play is brainless, exploitive junk, a tiresome compendium of crude puns, dick jokes, topless shots, and, naturally, an epic-length wet T-shirt contest that concludes with a male spectator growing so excited that the contents of the beer bottle in his crotch explode forth in a geyser of white foam. And that’s not even the most vulgar ejaculation reference in the movie—at one point, Kaufman cuts from a scene of a man receiving oral sex to the nozzle of a soft-serve machine spewing vanilla ice cream. You get the idea. None of the actors in Squeeze Play is noteworthy, although some have an easy way with lighthearted comedy, but the lack of great onscreen talent hardly matters, since the characters are largely interchangeable. Similarly, the plot is threadbare. The guys ignore the girls, so the girls decide to beat the men at their own game, even if doing so requires such questionable tactics as employing cheerleaders in cutoff shirts whose gyrations and jiggles distract male athletes from their playing. In that sense, Squeeze Play is a typical example of how male ’70s filmmakers sometimes used quasi-feminist themes while trying to make objectification seem palatable. Even though Kaufman presents Squeeze Play with his characteristically irreverent, upbeat style, it’s hard to stomach a picture with so many closeups of breasts bouncing inside T-shirts, with an all-female team called “The Beaverettes,” and with an announcer remaking that a particular occasion is “a banner day for athletic supporters.”

Squeeze Play: LAME

Friday, June 17, 2016

Contract on Cherry Street (1977)

          Notwithstanding a two-year hiatus from showbiz, legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra spent most of the ’70s on music, letting his Oscar-winning acting career go fallow. That was probably a wise move, given the diminishing returns of such projects as the forgettable comedy Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). By the time Sinatra resumed acting for this TV movie, which runs two and a half hours and was originally broadcast over two consecutive nights, the wiry swinger of yesteryear was gone, replaced by a lethargic, middle-aged fellow wearing an unconvincing gray toupee. Although Sinatra’s performance in Contract on Cherry Street is not as distractingly halfhearted as the one he gave in his final starring role, the theatrical feature The First Deadly Sin (1980), it’s hard to know what might have drawn Sinatra to this project. The material is fine, a grim melodrama about cops working outside the law to gain the upper hand on criminals, but surely Sinatra could have secured a stronger role if his intention was to reboot his presence in Hollywood or to secure his legacy with a respectable elder-statesman performance.
          Based on a novel by Edward Anhalt, the slow-moving picture tracks the adventures of Deputy Inspector Frank Hovannes (Sinatra), the boss of an elite NYPD organized-crime unit. After seeing one too many crooks game the system by paying off the right officials, Frank and his people embrace a dangerous idea—why not murder a crook, frame another crook for the hit, and start a war so the bad guys kill each other? Naturally, this is easier said than done, so the cops face countless obstacles, ranging from sketchy informants to an unstable member of their own team. Plus, it turns out the criminals are more clever than the cops anticipated, so the more the cops push to start their war, the more they risk exposing their own scheme.
          There’s a nasty little potboiler buried inside this storyline, and someone like Sidney Lumet could have made a crackerjack thriller by collapsing the events down to a normal running time and giving the leading character more emotional shading. Unfortunately, bloat and shapelessness keep Contract on Cherry Street mired in mediocrity, and some of the ego-stroking indulgences associated with Sinatra’s participation hurt the movie. It’s one thing for Sinatra to have his own glamorous accent light during closeups, even though he rarely bothers to stand still, which is the trick for keeping such lighting effects subtle. It’s another to burden the movie with various scenes of the protagonist’s wife all but begging him for sex. Sinatra was 62 when the picture was broadcast.
          For all of its flaws, however, Contract on Cherry Street is basically watchable. The extensive location photography throughout New York City grounds the piece in a sense of place, and some of the supporting performances are strong. Reliable players Martin Balsam, Harry Guardino, and Henry Silva play cops, as does fresh-faced Michael Nouri, although Steve Inwood steals the movie as a twitchy informant/junkie. He belongs in the imaginary Lumet-directed version of Contract on Cherry Street, not this so-so slog.

Contract on Cherry Street: FUNKY

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

          The notion of an action hero accompanied on his or her adventures by a child has been around for centuries, so it’s not as if Japan’s popular Lone Wolf and Cub franchise, which originated with a graphic novel in 1970, exists in isolation. Still, Lone Wolf and Cub takes the notion to such a bizarre extreme that the franchise is noteworthy for its outrageousness. Set in feudal Japan, the underlying premise of the franchise involves a ronin—a samurai without a master—traveling the countryside accompanied by his infant child, slaughtering enemies with a sword while his sweet little boy watches from inside a pushcart. The combination of bloody violence and fatherly devotion is weirdly effective.
          Lone Wolf and Cub: Spirit of Vengeance was the first live-action iteration, kicking off a five-film series that ran its course by 1974. Three seasons of a Japanese TV show extended the brand to 1976, and subsequent iterations have included a videogame and another TV series in the 2000s, as well as myriad comics. Most U.S. audiences first encountered the franchise via Shogun Assassin (1980), which comprised portions of Sword of Vengeance and its first sequel, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), dubbed into English.
          Watching the first movie in its proper form, it becomes evident that the heart of the franchise is the central character, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who personifies the concept of an individual living by a personal code of honor. Meting out justice in an unjust world, he’s a cousin to Dirty Harry and to the Paul Kersey character in Death Wish (1974), although there’s also something of the counterculture seeker inside Itto’s soul. He pursues an ideal of duty and fairness and responsibility, even though the thirst for revenge drives most of his actions. The setup is a bit convoluted, but here goes. Itto once served as the official executioner for a shogun, but he became a pawn in a conspiracy. His wife was murdered, and an attempt was made on Itto’s life as well as that of his three-year-old son. Itto disavowed loyalty to the shogun, slaughtered his way through guards to gain freedom, and became a ronin. During Sword of Vengeance, Itto settles into his life as a wandering mercenary, even as he systematically kills those responsible for his circumstances. Woven into the narrative is a love story of sorts, since Itto becomes the champion and defender of a beautiful prostitute.
          As directed by Kanji Misumi, Sword of Vengeance is gory and stylish. Battle scenes involve geysers of blood and graphic dismemberment, with the Itto character displaying almost supernatural powers of swordsmanship. (In one scene, he kills two people who approach him from behind without either rising from a sitting position or looking in the attackers’ direction.) Misumi and his collaborators employ some dreamlike effects, amplifying the sense that Lone Wolf and Cub is some dark modern fable, and leading man Wakayama’s stoicism works well. Whether Sword of Vengeance is actually about something, beyond familiar macho themes, is anybody’s guess. However, the movie is consistently interesting and offbeat, offering a funhouse-mirror vision of samurai culture.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Angel Unchained (1970)

          Despite going slack for a while during the middle, Angel Unchained is a fair compendium of late ’60s/early ’70s signifiers thanks a plot that combines a biker gang, hippies living on a desert commune, and nasty rednecks who don’t like either of the preceding social groups. There’s not much in the way of thematic material, beyond the protagonist’s angst when he finds himself torn between the biker and hippie lifestyles, so it’s not as if director Lee Madden and his collaborators tried to reinvent the cycle-flick formula. That said, Angel Unchained has clearly defined characters, a paucity of seedy exploitation elements, and unhurried pacing, so it’s perhaps best described as a biker picture that people who don’t normally like the genre might find palatable. By the same measure, those who groove on wild scenes of scooter freaks unleashing mayhem would do well to get their kicks elsewhere, since Angel Unchained is tame by the genre’s normal standards. There’s a fair amount of brawling and drinking and riding, but the leading character is a thoughtful dude who takes a principled stand, rather than an outlaw who stirs up trouble by antagonizing authorities.
          The picture starts stylishly with a rumble at an amusement park, and then Angel (Don Stroud) says he’s ready to quit the biker-gang scene. He relinquishes leadership of his gang to Pilot (Larry Bishop), then hits the road until he encounters hippie chick Merilee (Tyne Daly). After Angel helps her out during a hassle with rednecks who dislike having a commune near their town, Merilee invites Angel to groove on their back-to-nature trip a while. Later, when the rednecks make serious trouble, Angel recruits his old biker pals for help, leading to an interesting strange-bedfellows passage during which the bikers and the hippies attempt coexistence. Nothing surprising happens in Angel Unchained, but the picture is shot fairly well, and the performances generally hit the right notes, although it’s peculiar to see Luke Askew—who usually played scumbags and thugs in the ’70s—portraying the leader of the hippie commune. That said, the scumbag quotient is more than amply filled by character actor Bill McKinney, who plays a violent biker named Shotgun with his usual gleeful menace.

Angel Unchained: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cinderella 2000 (1977)

          Usually, the closest thing to enjoyment that one can derive from watching a movie directed by Al Adamson is laughing at something unintentionally funny—a cheap-looking prop, a nonsensical plot twist, a terrible performance, whatever. Whereas the incompetence of some bad filmmakers is charming because they keep trying to achieve something that’s beyond their ability, Adamson’s brand of cinematic awfulness is mostly just tiresome. In that context, it’s almost heartening to discuss Adamson’s bizarre softcore sci-fi musical Cinderella 2000, because while it is unquestionably as schlocky as anything else bearing his name, at least Cinderella 2000 was designed to induce laughter. So even though very few people will actually laugh with the picture, seeing as how it’s stupid and tacky from beginning to end, at least viewers can laugh at the picture with a clear conscience. Any reaction is better than no reaction, right?
          Shot on a meager budget, Cinderella 2000 takes place in the year 2047, where The Controller (Erwin Fuller), a riff on Orwell’s Big Brother, has outlawed sex outside of government-sanctioned encounters. Naturally, this means the citizenry is horny, so folks break the rules whenever possible. Only vaguely related to this premise is a retelling of the Cinderella story. Wholesome-looking blonde Cindy (Catherine Erhardt) lives with The Widow (Renee Harmon), this film’s avatar for the wicked stepmother in the classic Cinderella story. The Widow’s daughters, black Bella (Bhurni Cowans) and white Stella (Adina Ross), won’t share their male lovers with put-upon Cindy, so she’s even hornier than everyone else. Yet because she’s the heroine, she’s more lonely than lustful, the notion being that she’s a potential savior who can reintroduce the concept of romantic love. Or something like that.
          Anyway, Cindy mopes in the forest one day until a spaceship (!) delivers her Fairy Godfather (Jay B. Larson), a singing-and-dancing queen who croons a number called “We All Need Love.” This is where Cinderella 2000 crosses the line from dopey to deranged. As the Fairy Godfather prances around the forest, he summons forest animals to demonstrate copulation. They appear in the form of two extras wearing leotards and creepy-looking bunny heads, and as the song drags along, these two hump while the soundtrack punctuates each thrust with a bouncy sound effect. Later in the number—which goes on forever—more forest creatures emerge, including a pair of extremely disturbing man-sized flowers.
          The musical style of Cinderella 2000 is all over the place, with some numbers sounding like show tunes and others sounding like R&B bump-and-grinds; the country ditty performed by a robot that’s upset about not being able to screw a computer is particularly cringe-inducing. Complementing the peculiar music is a generally cheap visual aesthetic, with characters wearing silly-looking sparkly costumes and garish makeup. Naturally, the acting is terrible, although the ladies who spend most of their screen time completely or partially naked have attractive figures. As for the film’s smut content, viewers should know better than to expect real erotica from Adamson, who had a special gift for draining the vitality from anything he captured on camera. Ladies writhe atop interchangeable studs, but the resulting imagery is about as hot as some National Geographic stag reel of actual stags.
          Nonetheless, Cinderella 2000 stands out among Adamson’s filmography because even though it’s low-budget crap, it’s ambitious low-budget crap. The movie fails at every single thing it tries, but at least Adamson left his comfort zone.

Cinderella 2000: FREAKY

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Whale of a Tale (1976)

          Perhaps because I don’t have children, I occasionally make the mistake of cutting kiddie movies slack if they’re harmless and they espouse positive values. Who am I to say where young viewers draw the line between tolerable and intolerable silliness? Even within that context, however, I’m comfortable saying that A Whale of a Tale is remarkably bad. Not only are the production values flimsy, and not only does the picture basically serve as a feature-length ad for the now-defunct California theme park Marineland of the Pacific, but the storyline involves so many inappropriate and implausible scenes that it’s enough to warp the perceptions of any child exposed to its 90 befuddling minutes.
          Yet in a perverse way, the unrelenting dumbness of A Whale of a Tale is what makes it such prime fodder for ironic viewing by grown-ups who are already so warped, myself included, that exposure to new stimuli can’t make any difference. For, lest this point not receive specific emphasis, A Whale of a Tale costars William Shatner and one of his most absurd hairpieces. Moreover, Shatner bonds with a little boy in vignettes so awkward that they recall the scene in Airplane! (1980) during which Captain Oveur asks Joey if he likes gladiator movies.
          The movie concerns a boy named Joey (Scott C. Kolden), who is obsessed with Marineland. He sneaks into the park so many times, marveling at the dolphin shows and fish tanks, that staffers know him by name. Seeking to cure Joey of his obsession, friendly marine biologist Dr. Jack Fredericks (Shatner) offers Joey a summer job as a part-time trainer, the idea being that Joey will tire of hard work and regular hours. Predictably, the plan backfires, because Joey bonds with Marineland workers and with a captive orca, despite myriad warnings from Fredericks that killer whales are dangerous.
          In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, Joey enjoys a lunch from McDonald’s—the film stops dead for a pointless scene of the kid purchasing his junkfood in real time—while the orca repeatedly leans out of its tank and tries to grab the food in its massive jaws. Or maybe the enormous mammal is trying to grab Joey. Either way, it’s played for laughs, and there are no adults around to protect Joey. Later, Joey’s Marineland friend Louie (Marty Allen), a portly fisherman, invites Joey to participate in a shark-hunting expedition. Naturally, that scene gets juiced with tacky music mimicking John Williams’ famous score for Jaws (1975). The takeaway is that the adults at Marineland are quite possibly the least responsible grown-ups in history, even though they’re portrayed as Joey’s happy-fun-time buddies, educating him with fun fish facts and teaching him the discipline of completing difficult tasks.
          Not every sequence of A Whale of a Tale is fraught with danger. Some are discomforting for a different reason. In one scene, Dr. Fredericks invites Joey to help him manipulate the tentacles of an octopus while the animal is massaged out of a stupor following transportation inside an icepack. The image of Shatner guiding Joey’s hands in the proper technique of stroking slimy suction cups is just as unintentionally suggestive as it sounds, especially since Shatner and young Kolden are the only actors present in the scene. But it’s all okay, apparently, because Dr. Frederick’s only romantic designs are on Joey’s single mom.
          Anyway, the movie wanders into truly uncharted territory during the finale, which makes zero sense. Joey gets the wrong impression that his aunt has come to Marineland with a mind toward removing him from his beloved job, so he steals a boat and flees into the ocean. Dr. Fredericks leads the ensuing search, and he authorizes the use of a trained dolphin to retrieve Joey, even though it’s possible the dolphin may simply swim out to sea and never return. The dolphin finds Joey, lets Joey throw a lasso around its neck, and then leads Joey back to safety. So on top of everything else, the title of this picture is misleading, since the crux of the story isn’t the orca bonding but rather the usual Flipper business of a finny savior. Call it a case of cinematic water on the brain.
          Oh, and here’s a tidbit for trivia buffs: A Whale of a Tale contains the only movie score ever composed by Jonathan Cain, keyboardist of the rock band Journey. Suffice to say there’s nothing here on the order of “Open Arms.”   
A Whale of a Tale: FREAKY

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Cold Night’s Death (1973)

          Like so many of the creepy supernatural thrillers that were made for television in the ’70s, A Cold Night’s Death is roughly equivalent to an extended Twilight Zone episode in that it’s all about the elaborate setup for a freaky twist ending. Two inherent problems: 1) If the audience guesses the twist prematurely, it’s slow going from that point forward, and 2) There’s nowhere for the story to go once the business of setting up the premise has been completed. Sure enough, A Cold Night’s Death lags quite badly in the middle, even though it’s only 74 minutes long. Happily, the combination of an intelligent script, dense visual atmospherics, solid acting, and a weird electronic score compensate for the enervated narrative. Nothing in this picture is jump-out-of-your-skin scary, but A Cold Night’s Death is enjoyably eerie from start to finish. Frank (Eli Wallach) and Robert (Robert Culp) are researchers tasked with operating a laboratory installation that’s positioned atop a mountain. The brutal elevation? 14,000 feet. They’re rushed to the location ahead of schedule by helicopter, because ground-level administrators lose contact with the lab’s previous occupant. Upon arrival, Frank and Robert discover that their predecessor froze to death, leaving windows open so the various primates in laboratory cages nearly died from exposure, as well. Therefore, in addition to performing normal research, the scientists must solve the mystery of why their predecessor died.
          A Cold Night’s Death takes the slow-but-steady approach to suspense. The film’s palette is carefully controlled, mostly blues and grays to complement the massive show drifts outside the laboratory, and lots of scenes take place at night, with just one character awake and prowling through empty halls while trying to identify the sources of peculiar sounds. Culp and Wallach personify extremes effectively—Culp plays a deeply curious man open to the possibilities of the unexplained, whereas Wallach sketches a fellow who is rational to a fault. This, of course, leads to tension as the situation worsens, but it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t follow the obvious path of putting these two characters at each other’s throats on a regular basis. Instead, the scientists duel intellectually until circumstances force a confrontation. Through it all, the bleeps and chirps and twangs of Gil Melle’s otherworldly electronic score jangle the viewer’s nerves appropriately. And if the twist ending is so far-fetched as to be a little bit goofy, well, that’s an occupational hazard for storytellers operating in the realm that Rod Serling charted.

A Cold Night’s Death: FUNKY

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Nasty Habits (1977)

          Time has diminished much of the charm that the UK/US coproduction Nasty Habits might have possessed during its original release, because the satirical analogy the film draws between its storyline and the events of the Watergate scandal now feels contrived and tenuous. After all, the picture depicts the dirty tricks that an ambitious nun uses to win election to the office of abbess in a Philadelphia convent, and her nefarious techniques include an elaborate bugging system. In the late ’70s, when the details of Nixon’s White House bugging system were still fresh, the humor of Nasty Habits could have seemed pointed and sly. Seen today, the film thrives on its own merits, rather than as a commentary on current events, and those merits are slight.
          The picture’s main character is shrewd Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson), who leads a contingent of older, conservative nuns. Her rival for the abbess position is Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon), a pretty young blonde having a sexual affair with a Jesuit priest. Alexandra tasks her underlings with gaining incriminating evidence, so they obtain tape recordings of Felicity defying church doctrine and fomenting sedition. Not only does Alexandra win the election, but she also ejects Felicity from the convent. Upon resuming civilian life, however, Felicity launches public attacks against Alexandra, eventually becoming a folk hero for challenging a powerful institution. This turn of events triggers the movie’s closest parallels to Nixon, because reporters demand to hear Alexandra’s secret recordings, and her defiance to release them imperils her status.
          Polished in most technical regards and populated with fine actors, Nasty Habits goes down smoothly whenever the focus is Alexandra’s machinations. Jackson purrs complicated dialogue with mesmerizing authority. Complementing her are Anne Meara and Geraldine Page, who play Alexandra’s main co-conspirators. Less effective is Sandy Dennis, who plays a bumbling nun tasked with performing goofy undercover work. As for the bits with Penhaligon as Felicity, indifference seems the appropriate response. She’s spunky but unmemorable, and her character isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to energize the story. Moreover, the whole Nixon allusion is questionable because Alexandra isn’t an unhinged paranoiac like Nixon, but rather a smooth operator—so when Alexandra caps the movie by paraphrasing one of Nixon’s most famous quotes, the intended satirical flourish doesn’t quite connect. And that insufferably chirpy musical score by John Cameron? No thanks.

Nasty Habits: FUNKY

Friday, June 10, 2016

Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue (1974)

          The only feature directed by Dennis McGuire, whose sole Hollywood credit outside this project was cowriting the bizarre insane-asylum picture End of the Road (1970), this obscure drama somewhat anticipates the notorious Rodney King incident, because the plot concerns a young man capturing an episode of police brutality on film. Unfortunately, McGuire—who adapted the script from a novel by Paul Tyner—can’t quite figure out where to go from his incendiary jumping-off point. Instead of taking the obvious path by creating a thriller wherein the police officer tries to prevent evidence from surfacing, or even the more challenging path of exploring the societal repercussions after the evidence is released, McGuire opts for a two-pronged character study.
          Most of the scenes depict the bad cop in his everyday environment, carousing and drinking in between bouts of Catholic guilt and self-loathing. A smaller number of scenes depict the person who shot the incriminating footage, a young, African-American film student. Neither of these characters is put across in a satisfying way, and it doesn’t help that idiosyncratic actor Michael Moriarty plays the leading role—he’s alternately somnambulistic and weird, conveying the surface of the cop without providing much psychological insight.
          The film starts on an interesting note, setting up the possibilities and problems of McGuire’s ambiguous approach. Beat cop Herby (Moriarty) gets caught taking a bribe in exchange for not writing a traffic ticket, so he’s briefly suspended. Meanwhile, young Lamont (Eric Laneuville) spends his time filming a praying mantis for an experimental film project. One day, their lives collide. Back on the beat, Herby casually murders a suspect in an alleyway, and Lamont films the altercation from his apartment window several stories overhead. Then, once Herby is suspended again while the investigation grinds along, the lawyer (Paul Sorvino) representing the dead man’s widow finds Lamont and arranges for him to be a surprise witness at Herby’s trial. Yet much of the picture concerns tangential stuff, like Herby’s debauched exploits with fellow sleazebag Garrity (Earl Hindman).
          McGuire tracks and resolves the story in an awkward manner, largely ignoring obvious and worthwhile possibilities for expanding the narrative’s sociological impact. Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue contains intimate and strange details, but it also contains lots of pointless filler. So by the time the picture reaches its fashionably cynical finale, McGuire has lost most of his authorial credibility.

Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue: FUNKY

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Matter of Time (1976)

          As talented as he was versatile, Vincente Minnelli directed a handful of great films, plus quite a few that were merely respectable, before his career started to lose momentum in the late ’60s. Anyone would be proud of a legacy including Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Gigi (1958). Minnelli also lived long enough to watch Liza Minnelli, his daughter with Judy Garland, blossom into a dynamic and award-winning entertainer. The wise move after the moderate success of his Barbra Streisand vehicle On a Clear Day you Can See Forever (1970) might have been to retire gracefully. Unfortunately, showbiz professionals often need to get yanked off the stage, and that’s what happened when Minnelli made his final film, A Matter of Time.
          Convincing Liza to play the leading role presumably trumped any concerns that producers might have had about Minnelli’s old-fashioned style, since she was a hot commodity at the time, and Papa Minnelli recruited another big name, Ingrid Bergman, for the film’s main supporting role. Things didn’t go so well past that point. Minnelli was fired for going overbudget and overschedule. Then distributor American International gutted his footage to generate a 97-minute version of what Minnelli originally intended to be a three-hour epic. Ouch.
          Watching the released cut of A Matter of Time, it doesn’t seem as if Minnelli’s ouster represents a loss to cinema history. Telling the fairy-tale-like story of a maid who rose to fame and fortune by learning from an eccentric old woman how to seduce powerful men, A Matter of Time is overproduced, tone-deaf, and unseemly. After a present-day prologue, the film flashes back to Rome during some undetermined stage of the postwar era, where 15-year-old Nina (Liza) arrives at the decaying hotel where her cousin works as a maid. (Yes, Liza, who was pushing 30 when this film was released, plays her character as a teenager.) Nina befriends the strange Contessa Sanziani (Bergman), who wears a flamboyant cloak with leopard-skin trim and sports ghastly black makeup rings around her eyes. Back in the day, the Contessa played muse to great artists and thinkers, so she passes along her philosophy of, put bluntly, using sex to help men realize their potential even if the woman gets nothing in return. Nina thinks this lifestyle sounds terrific, so she does the Contessa one better by trading sex for wealth and notoriety.
          All of this icky stuff plays out in stilted dialogue scenes, and the gaudy production design gives a more spirited performance than any of the actors. Oh, and about halfway through its running time, the movie suddenly becomes a musical, with Liza howling a few forgettable numbers. Need we even mention the scene in which Mina forgives a would-be rapist for assaulting her because he’s upset about writer’s block? Ultimately, the saddest and strangest thing about A Matter of Time isn’t watching a venerable director derail his career and legacy—Minnelli never made another movie—but the notion that he roped his Oscar-winning daughter into playing an opportunistic whore. Not the best “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” in Hollywood history. Having said that, nepotism worked out better for Bergman, because her daughter Isabella Rossellini made her screen debut in A Matter of Time, playing the small role of a nun.

A Matter of Time: LAME

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

          Like a novelist practicing with short stories before attempting the grand statement of a first novel, the singular German filmmaker Werner Herzog made a number of documentaries and short-subject fiction films before mounting his first two fictional features, Signs of Life (1968) and this strange picture. Yet because he followed up these intimate projects with the ambitious Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), it’s tempting to look at early projects including Even Dwarfts Stated Small as the byproducts of apprenticeship. For while Even Dwarfs Started Small contains some of Herzog’s signature themes and is suffused with his idiosyncratic style, it’s trifling compared to the powerful allegories he made later.
          Plus, truth be told, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a gimmick picture, because it’s a black-and-white oddity featuring only little people. The limitations of gimmickry become evident as Even Dwafts Started Small trudges along: It’s hard to get emotionally invested in a fictional feature populated exclusively by nonprofessional actors playing interchangeable roles. There’s something bold about the way Herzog asks viewers to plunge into the deepest waters of his imagination, but boldness only goes so far.
          Set on a remote island off the northern coast of Africa, the picture depicts a rebel uprising at an asylum or some other sort of institution. The gist is that the inmates/patients/residents dislike the way they’re treated, so they cut off communication with the outside world and lay siege to administrators until chaos reigns. Despite copious amounts of dialogue, much of which is deliberately cryptic and/or peculiar, so it’s never especially clear just what’s happening, though the film seems to take an antiauthoritarian stance. (For instance, rebels toss rocks at an administrator while he speaks to them from a high rooftop.)
          Mostly, the threadbare plot provides Herzog with an excuse to capture weird images. A camel too groggy or ill to stand on its forelegs. Rebels shoving a car down a seemingly bottomless hole in the ground. A driverless vehicle spinning in circles. A man holding a tube of cream over his crotch and spurting the cream onto a nearby woman. And so much giggling. At times, it feels like half this film’s screen time is devoted to shots of characters laughing idiotically. Herzog has never been afraid to stop a story dead so he can linger on some odd tangent, but Even Dwarfts Started Small is nothing but tangents, and the lack of a larger purpose renders the whole enterprise somewhat pointless, beyond the inherent value of putting onscreen people whose life experiences are rarely explored in popular culture.

Even Dwarfs Started Small: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Moonchild (1974)

One of a handful of ’70s features that began as film-school thesis projects, writer-director Alan Gadney’s Moonchild is ambitious to a fault. Not only did Gadney secure impressive locations and the participation of Hollywood actors, but he also attempted to tell an intricately allegorical story about existential and metaphysical subjects. Had Gadney been able to pull this one off, it would have been such a miraculous achievement that we’d still be talking about his audacity today, because Moonchild would have launched a singular filmmaking career. Alas, Gadney botched things so badly that Moonchild was his last directorial endeavor as well as his first. The murky storyline goes something like this: A young artist (Mark Travis) realizes that he’s been reincarnated in some otherworldly realm, where supernatural figures including the Maitre’D (Victor Buono) battle for control of his soul while an impartial observer called Mr. Walker (John Carradine) both comments upon and observes the momentous events. At first, the scenario unfolds like the setup for a horror movie, with the leading character trapped inside a weird playground for godlike lunatics. Later, once Gadney indulges himself with religious imagery, the story veers into a kangaroo-court situation with spiritual implications. (“If death is a dream," Buono coos, "then what is life? Is life God or Man?”) Some of what happens in Moonchild is borderline interesting, but the movie’s style is insufferable, particularly the hyperactive editing. Worse, the blurring of hallucinations and reality creates long stretches of incoherence. Eventually, it’s all way too much, so the viewer’s inevitable reaction is best summarized by an exclamation the protagonist makes somewhere around the 33-minute mark: “What is this? What are you people talking about?” Exactly.

Moonchild: LAME

Monday, June 6, 2016

Demons of the Mind (1972)

          Featuring plot elements culled from the historical era just prior to Sigmund Freud’s ascension, a time when the study of the human psyche carried associations of heresy and mysticism, the Hammer production Demons of the Mind has some highly commendable elements, such as a grim depiction of savage medical techniques and a sincere attempt at sketching a complex psychological profile for a family plagued by hereditary mental illness. Unfortunately, these strong attributes are married to lurid and sluggish storytelling, problems made worse by leading actors who attack their roles like hungry dogs ravaging pieces of raw meat. What might have been one of Hammer’s most sophisticated movies devolves somewhat, but not completely, into dull sensationalism. Those gravitating toward the picture’s intelligent aspects will be disappointed by all the gore and nudity, while those seeking only cheap thrills will likely get bored with long dialogue scenes.
          In Europe circa the early 19th century, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his two adult children captive in their rooms because he’s terrified they will manifest the problems that drove their mother to suicide. Although the Baron is not without reason for worrying about Elizabeth (Gillian Hills) and Emil (Shane Briant), seeing as how they have demonstrated incestuous desires for each other, the cure is worse than the disease. Captivity pushes the siblings to emotional and mental extremes, and their aunt/caretaker practices such gruesome rituals as bloodletting to control their symptoms. Once controversial mental-health specialist Dr. Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) arrives to experiment with potions and transfusions and other macabre techniques, things spiral out of control because a series of murders in the neighboring village leads superstitious locals to suspect that someone at the baron’s castle is the culprit. Meanwhile, a crazed priest (Michael Hordern) stalks the local forests, inciting people with religious fearmongering.
          Despite being presented with Hammer’s usual high style (atmospheric sets, lush costumes, sexy starlets), Demons of the Mind is neither as clear nor as original as it should be. Sometimes the film gets stuck in the mud of its own convoluted plotting, because director Peter Sykes and his collaborators try to cloud the identity of the killer for as long as they can. Sometimes the film is simply boring, especially when Hardy and Magee share scenes in which they try to out-scream each other, veins pulsing on their foreheads as they fabricate overly theatrical intensity. (Hordern does a fair amount of yelling, too.) At its least imaginative, Demons of the Mind summons that trusty old cliché, the image of angry villagers storming toward a castle with pitchforks and torches, and at its most grotesque, the picture concludes with one of the bloodiest murders in the entire Hammer canon. 

Demons of the Mind: FUNKY