Saturday, May 28, 2016

Smokey and the Hotwire Gang (1979)



Wretched nonsense involving criminals, hookers, and truckers, Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is passable only as the cinematic equivalent of background noise—it contains just enough action, lowbrow humor, and sex to hold the attention of undemanding viewers so long as they’re doing something else while the movie is running. The discombobulated plot seems to have two major elements. In one, amiable rednecks Filbert (Tony Lorea) and Joshua (James Keach) share criminal misadventures, mostly to do with stealing vehicles. In the other major element, a madam nicknamed “Hotwire” (Carla Ziegfeld) augments her skin-trade income by selling stolen cars. There’s also some sleazy business involving two prostitutes who prowl the countryside in a tricked-out, cowboy-themed Winnebego they call “The Westerner” while offering their services to truckers via CB radio and using the handles “Sexy Sadie” and “Sweet Cakes.” Eventually, all of these things coalesce during a shabby attempt at a madcap finale, because Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is supposed to be a comedy. No matter the genre, the picture is chaotic, disoriented, and sloppy. The movie also looks and sounds awful, thanks to grungy cinematography, jumpy editing, and a rotten soundtrack combining bad country tunes with even worse disco songs. Adding insult to injury, the flick is so tame it bears a PG rating, meaning that anyone looking for cheap thrills during the prostitution scenes will be disappointed. About the only fleetingly enjoyable things in Smokey and the Hotwire Gang are snippets of weird dialogue, as when a trucker identifies himself as “Texas Levy, the Kosher Cowboy,” or when a redneck exclaims, “I haven’t seen anything take off like that since that kid put acid on a cat’s ass.”

Smokey and the Hotwire Gang: LAME

Friday, May 27, 2016

Train Ride to Hollywood (1975)



          Countless recording artists have attempted to capitalize on their popularity by appearing in movies, and the success rate for these endeavors is not particularly high. Rare are the projects that deliver exactly what fans want—for every Purple Rain (1984), there’s a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). Hidden between these extremes are oddities such as Train Ride to Hollywood, a cheerful love letter to old movies starring the members of R&B group Bloodstone. The movie is pointless and silly, roughly the equivalent of a sketch one might encounter on a ’70s variety show, only stretched to feature length. As such, it’s harmless, and some sequences are fleetingly entertaining, so Train Ride to Hollywood isn’t an outright misfire. That said, it’s a perplexing movie. Since Bloodstone’s biggest hit was the romantic slow jam “Natural High,” one might expect the band’s movie to be a modern love story. Nope. It’s a broad-as-a-barn farce that sorta-kinda takes place in the past. Even stranger, the band doesn’t perform any of its best-known material, instead crooning several originals written in the style of old-timey tunes. And since none of Bloodstone’s members is a gifted actor, it’s not as if Train Ride to Hollywood showcases hidden talents. The movie is too amiable to get dismissed as a vanity piece, but it represents a bizarre approach to brand management.
          Shot and edited with a fair amount of polish but obviously made on a slender budget, Train Ride to Hollywood begins at a concert, where heavyset Bloodstone vocalist Harry Williams (playing himself) suffers a knock to the head. He dreams that he and his bandmates are scrappy Dead End Kid-type strivers eager to become stars by traveling to California. They disguise themselves as porters and hop onto a train carrying Humphrey Bogart (Guy Marks), Dracula (Jay Robinson), Clark Gable (Jay Lawrence), W.C. Fields (Bill Oberlin), and others. Bloodstone’s Charles Love (also playing himself) gets involved with a harem girl, because one of the other passengers is a sheik with seven women. As the episodic storyline unfurls, viewers encounter light comedy in the Hope/Crosby style, musical numbers showcasing Bloodstone’s stylistic versatility, and fourth-wall-braking gags. Some of the weirder scenes involve the whole cast getting wasted on smoke from the sheik’s hookah, Harry boxing a gorilla, and the search for a killer who suffocates people with his armpits. Yet Train Ride to Hollywood is so brisk, gentle, lively, and weird that it’s hard to hate the movie, even though many sequences are painfully stupid. After all, where else can viewers watch Robinson do a bargain-basement Bela Lugosi imitation while saying, “Hey, Bogie, don’t bogart that joint!” 

Train Ride to Hollywood: FUNKY

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dodes’ka-den (1970)



          Akira Kurosawa’s dreamlike ensemble piece Dodes’ka-den is akin to an abstract painting, in that different viewers will interpret the piece in different ways. Rather than delivering one overarching storyline, as was the norm in most of Kurosawa’s films prior to and following this one, Dodes-ka’den uses a single location to connect various subplots and vignettes. Although most of the individual narrative elements are coherent and linear, the cumulative effect of Dodes’ka-den is largely experiential. However, because the film is so long, running nearly two and a half hours, and because the pacing is so meditative, not everyone will have the patience to accompany Kurosawa for the whole journey. Furthermore, the episodic storytelling style creates an inevitable problem: Some threads in this tapestry are more interesting than others, which means that whole stretches of the picture feel like needless intrusions. That said, small rewards await those who accept this film on its offbeat terms, and it’s possible to simply revel in Kurosawa’s compassion and creativity without trying to grasp the big picture that he paints with Dodes’ka-den.
          The setting is a massive trash heap, where dozens of people have created a shantytown rife with the same sorts of gossip and interconnected relationships and melodrama found in any other human community. Given the setting, obviously all of the characters face horrific challenges. Beyond the shared hardship of poverty, some citizens suffer from mental and physical illness, while others endure alcoholism. In one of the film’s typically poetic flourishes, Kurosawa introduces viewers to the world of the trash heap by showing the resident who seems most content with his life. He’s a mentally challenged young man who believes that he has a job operating a train, so every day, he wakes up and climbs into his imaginary trolley, then pantomimes driving the vehicle throughout the trash heap while making sound effects with his voice. (The film’s title stems from the noise he makes when imitating the chugging of a train engine.) Since this young man lives inside the special world of his imagination, he’s insulated from the suffering that surrounds him.
          An older man, who used to be a business executive but tragically lost his family, pleads with the trash heap’s resident doctor for poison with which to kill himself. A sensitive young woman tries to break through the emotional barriers of a mystery man so disconnected from everyone else that he seems like a zombie. An imaginative father regales his young son with stories about the great house he’s going to build for them, even as they both succumb to disease. And so on.
          Kurosawa weaves together the lives of more than a dozen characters, sometimes using minimalistic techniques (conveying relationships through facial expressions and physical proximity), and sometimes using copious amounts of verbiage. Even the notion of what’s meant to be real and what’s meant to be metaphorically representative is fluid. In the father/son storyline, for instance, Kurosawa uses stylized makeup and painted backdrops to create surreal effects, whereas most of the film is realistic. Toro Takemitsu’s musical score is similarly eclectic, ranging from cutesy and sentimental to ethereal and evocative.
          There is, in fact, a great sense of experimentation flowing through Dodes’ka-den, Kurosawa’s first film in color. Certain scenes rely so heavily on shadows that they would have been just as effective in black and white, but the boldest stuff—notably the father/son scenes—anticipates the masterful use of color that distinguished Kurosawa’s films of the ’80s and ’90s. Dodes’ka-den is more uneven than frustrating, for while the picture often feels rudderless, much of what it contains is intimate and touching. There’s also something eerie about watching the suicide storyline, since Kurosawa attempted to take his own life following the commercial failure of this picture. For all its peculiarities, Dodes’ka-den comes across as a deeply personal expression by one of the cinema’s true giants.

Dodes’ka-den: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sweet Revenge (1976)



          Allegedly conceived and marketed as a comedy, Sweet Revenge is instead an über-’70s character study about a woman who supports herself by stealing cars, and who uses myriad fake identities to avoid being captured by authorities. It’s an odd little picture, neither funny enough to work as a comedy nor serious enough to cut very deeply as a drama, but it’s executed at a high level of skill behind and in front of the camera. So even though Sweet Revenge is sluggishly paced, tonally uneven, and generally lacking a clear sense of purpose, the film contains some mildly interesting stuff. That said, Sweet Revenge is only truly recommended for fans of one or more of the key participants, since casual viewers are likely to lose interest fairly quickly.
          Stockard Channing, in one of her few leading roles, plays Vurria Kowsky, an eccentric young woman who lives in a hovel and spends her time hotwiring cars so she can sell them for cash. Her big goal in life is gaining enough wealth to buy a Ferrari. Vurria, who often uses the name “Dandy,” has accumulated a few lowlife friends, especially fellow small-time crook Edmund (Franklyn Ajaye), who drives a pimped-out car that he calls “Sweet Revenge.” Eventually, Vurria gets caught during one of her robberies, so a public defender named Le Clerq (Sam Waterston) is assigned to her case. Much of the film depicts his attempts to help her, even as she pushes him away with pathological dishonesty stemming from her generalized distrust of authority. In a meandering and shapeless way, Sweet Revenge tells the story of an outsider learning how to rejoin society, but viewers are likely to feel the way Le Clerq does, which is moderately sympathetic until Vurria lies about having an abusive background. Put bluntly, she ain’t got no class.
          Had the filmmakers treated this material dramatically, Sweet Revenge could have evolved into a tough little piece about a driven individual creating a private world outside of society’s restrictions, but because the approach is quasi-lighthearted, everything feels  pointless and superficial. After all, a comedy without laughs isn’t really much of anything. Perhaps the strangest aspect of Sweet Revenge is the participation of director Jerry Schatzberg, whose previous films—including The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973)—were gritty dramas. Schatzberg’s collaborator on Scarecrow, masterful cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, shot Sweet Revenge with his signature blend of elegance and moodiness, though his shadowy frames don’t quite suit the flavor of the material.

Sweet Revenge: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Don’t Hang Up (1974)



Exactly as amateurish, dull, and pointless as its director’s first effort, Don’t Look in the Basement a/k/a The Forgotten (1973), this slow-moving shocker, which was later reissued as Don’t Open the Door! (hence the above poster), tells an illogical but linear story cribbing elements from classic horror pictures. There’s a reason why no one has proposed adding S.F. Brownrigg’s name to the pantheon of all-time great genre filmmakers, although he’s not so spectacularly incompetent that he deserves special mention among the worst people ever to make movies. He’s on the very low end of mediocre, which is about as ignoble a stature as one can achieve. Like The Forgotten, this picture has some creepy elements, but they’re all derivative and enervated; moreover, the film’s pacing is so slow and the storytelling is so weak that it’s impossible for Brownrigg to generate much in the way of suspense. Don’t Hang Up looks and feels like a horror movie without being horrifying. The gist of the piece is that young blonde Amanda (Susan Bracken) returns to her hometown in order to care for her ailing grandmother, only to suffer bedevilment at the hands of greedy small-town weirdos. None of this should come as much of a surprise to Amanda, seeing as how her mother was brutally murdered in the small town 13 years ago. Why does she return, knowing what she knows about the place? Why doesn’t she involve authorities once she starts receiving creepy phone calls? Why does she let a doctor and judge, both of whom have obvious ulterior motives, prevent her from transferring her grandmother to a care facility? Why doesn’t she just haul her ass out of town? One gets the impression that Brownrigg doesn’t care about the answers to such questions. His priority is using claustrophobic closeups and garish lighting while pitting Amanda—who, apparently, exists only to be stalked—against oddballs like a cross-dressing mannequin collector. Any resemblance to Psycho (1960) is as intentional as it is pathetic.

Don’t Hang Up: LAME

Monday, May 23, 2016

Ride a Wild Pony (1975)



          Like the following year’s The Littlest Horse Thieves, gentle family picture Ride a Wild Pony is a live-action offering from Walt Disney Productions that’s completely bereft of American idiom. Whereas The Littlest Horse Thieves was made in the UK, Ride a Wild Pony was shot in Australia. Furthermore, the picture was based upon Australian literary material, and nearly all the actors are Aussies. So even though Ride a Wild Pony offers the same sort of animal-centric, feel-good story one normally associates with the Disney brand, the picture is in some respects a foreign film. It is also, unfortunately, not a very good film, although the story is compassionate and harmless and sensible. The problem is that there isn’t very much story, so the exact same set of narrative events could have been put across just as effectively, if not more so, in, say, a one-hour production made for one of Disney’s TV shows. Ride a Wild Pony spins a threadbare yarn about a poor boy’s bond with a willful pony, and the picture doesn’t embellish the core story with much in the way of action, comedy, or suspense.
          Scotty Pine (Robert Bettles) is the son of a poor farmer in New South Wales. He lives so far from the nearest school that his truancy becomes the subject of legal action. Kindhearted lawyer Charles Quayle (John Meillon) arranges a deal by which Scotty gains the use of a wild pony as transportation to and from school. Scotty falls in love with the animal, whom he names “Taffy,” and they share adventures until the day Taffy breaks free from his stall and runs away. Scotty is heartbroken. Meanwhile, a rich girl named Josie Ellison (Eva Griffith) suffers in different ways, because she lost the use of her legs following a bout of infant paralysis. She longs to ride horses, even though it’s unsafe for her to do so. Her father decides to build her a one-person carriage. To pull the cart, Josie selects a spirited pony from a local herd, unaware that it’s actually the long-lost “Taffy.” She renames the horse and revels in riding her new carriage. That is, until Scotty sees the horse and carriage one day and liberates “Taffy.” More legal action ensues.
          Ride a Wild Pony is fine as far as it goes. The child actors are neither especially cute nor especially whiny, the adult actors perform their roles well, and the abundant location photography creates a pleasant sense of place. To its credit, Ride a Wild Pony is a kiddie film that more or less unfolds in the real world of adult social structures, meaning that actions have believable repercussions, and that children aren’t allowed to run wild. That said, the ending is a foregone conclusion, and, in fact, everything that happens in Ride a Wild Pony is predictable.

Ride a Wild Pony: FUNKY

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Clay Pigeon (1971)



Hollywood also-ran Tom Stern must have made a lot of friends or a lot of money, if not both, during the early years of his career as an actor and occasional director—because calling in favors or writing checks seem like the only means by which Stern could have cajoled Burgess Meredith, Telly Savalas, and Robert Vaughan into appearing in Stern’s misbegotten magnum opus, Clay Pigeon. A sloppily constructed story about a dude roped into a convoluted sting operation by government agents, the picture attempts to connect themes related to drugs, hippie culture, police corruption, and Vietnam. Abstract artists and exotic dancers are involved, as well. Even the main character, whom Stern portrays, is confusing: He’s a Vietnam veteran turned flower child, and yet he’s also periodically described as an ex-cop, and he may or may not be a drug addict. (Between the rotten storytelling and the intrusion of trippy drug sequences, it’s hard to tell what’s happening throughout most of the picture.) Stern, who codirected Clay Pigeon with Lane Slate, seems perplexed about what sort of movie he’s trying to make. At various times, Clay Pigeon is an action picture, a heavy drama, and a sexy thriller replete with abundant female nudity. At other times, the movie stops dead for interminable and meaningless discursions, as if Stern felt obligated to use every frame of film he shot. For example, consider the very long scene of Stern and Meredith riding a dune buggy through sandy hills while police vehicles follow, culminating in a slow-mo shot of a police car tumbling down a hill. The shot lingers onscreen so long that it almost qualifies as a subplot. Elsewhere in the movie, Savalas delivers this head-scratcher of a speech: “Quite by accident, we stumbled upon a ding-a-ling with a great deal of ability. I want to use that ability. I want to rouse the conscience of this freakout in order to succeed where you and I have failed, and that's to arrest a malignancy.”

Clay Pigeon: LAME

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Sweet Charlie (1970)



          In some ways more relevant than ever, the made-for-TV drama My Sweet Charlie pairs the plight of unwed mothers with the struggles of black men caught up in racial violence. To its great credit, the picture eschews the histrionic approach one might expect considering the subject matter. My Sweet Charlie is a sensitive story about tolerance and tragedy, somewhat in the vein of Harper Lee’s enduring 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its famous 1962 film adaptation. While My Sweet Charlie is nowhere near as ambitious, as moving, or as poetic as the Lee novel or the 1962 film, My Sweet Charlie can be experienced as a continuation of the conversations about humanism, ignorance, race, and the twisted path of justice that Lee’s novel sparked. In both projects, a good man’s survival depends on the ability of a Southern community to surmount ingrained prejudice, and a naïve young woman learns painful lessons about the world by watching that good man contemplate the possibility of premature mortality.
          Based on a novel and play by David Westheimer, My Sweet Charlie takes place on the Gulf coast of Texas. Unsophisticated teenager Marlene Chambers (Patty Duke) arrives in a tiny town, breaking into an empty vacation home and using it as a refuge. The backstory is that she ran away from home after her unforgiving father discovered she was pregnant. Marlene isn’t sure what to do, occasionally succumbing to the magical-thinking notion that she can somehow will her pregnancy out of existence. One night, another individual breaks into the same house. He’s Charlie Roberts (Al Freeman Jr.), and to Marlene’s horror, he’s black. Yet Charlie is infinitely worldlier than Marlene. He’s a New York lawyer who travelled to the South to participate in a Civil Rights protest, only to stumble into a tragic situation when a brawl with white bigots spiraled out of control. His options are as limited and unappealing as Marlene’s. Charlie’s erudition wears down Marlene’s resistance, as does her recognition that they can benefit from each other’s help. An unlikely friendship forms, but even though the setup is contrived, the character dynamics feel believable and organic.
          My Sweet Charlie is a story from a different time, treating the notion that blacks and whites can overcome their differences if they embrace their commonalities like something groundbreaking, but there’s a certain toughness to the piece that keeps My Sweet Charlie from feeling preachy or schematic. Both characters are treated with respect, so neither Marlene’s pregnancy nor Charlie’s situation is oversimplified. Moreover, a painful truth about American race relations underscores the whole story, because everyone onscreen knows that authorities won’t shoot Marlene for her infraction of social codes, whereas Charlie cannot expect the same leniency. Duke, who earned one of this film’s three Emmys for her performance, taps the same depths that won her an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1963), while Freeman, who was nominated for an Emmy, infuses his performance with a complex mixture of amusement, bitterness, pride, and wistfulness. Under the sure hand of director Lamont Johnson, Duke and Freeman paint a delicate picture of human connection to the accompaniment of Gil Melle’s emotive musical scoring.

My Sweet Charlie: GROOVY

Friday, May 20, 2016

Doomsday Machine (1972)



Rare is the film lacking any redeeming values, but Doomsday Machine fits the bill—only those determined to see all of the worst movies ever made need to experience this space junk. A sci-fi saga about the crew of an interstellar mission tasked with restarting the human race after Red China inexplicably triggers a nuclear apocalypse, Doomsday Machine was mostly filmed in 1967, and then haphazardly completed five years later with a replacement cast. The 1967 footage, which comprises the bulk of the picture, is brainless and cheap and dull, so leaving the project unfinished would have been the better move. Spaceship interiors from the 1967 footage look ridiculous, as if a few handmade gadgets and some brightly colored lighting gels are sufficient for creating otherworldly atmosphere; even the folks behind the worst episodes of the original Star Trek series put more effort into creating illusions. As for the spaceship exteriors, they’re even worse. The only reason the ignominious fate of Doomsday Machine might seem disappointing is if the acting was interesting, with actors striving to elevate terrible material. Not so. Despite the fleeting presence of Mike Farrell and Casey Kasem in tiny roles, the folks responsible for the heavy dramatic lifting in Doomsday Voyage are D-listers rendering indifferent work. By the time this dud reaches its idiotic climax, which involves a conversation between astronauts and a telepathic voice representing the total population of the planet Venus, Doomsday Voyage has managed to make things like the apocalypse, attempted space rape, bleeding eyeballs, and even international espionage boring.

Doomsday Machine: SQUARE

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Touch (1971)



          For American audiences, one of the challenges inherent to watching Ingmar Bergman’s extraordinary psychological dramas is reading past the subtitles—Bergman wrote such dense dialogue in his native Swedish language that one must assume something was lost in translation. Therefore, whenever something sounds arch or false in, say, the American-release version of Wild Strawberries (1957), it’s easy to imagine that the words sounded more natural in their original rendering. All of this is a long way of saying that the tricky issue of Bergman’s verbal style is unavoidable when discussing The Touch, one of only two features the director made in English. Although the film has all of Bergman’s customary gravitas, intensity, nuance, and sensitivity, it also contains stiff dialogue that sounds more like a series of clinical psychiatric diagnoses than actual words that actual humans might say to each other. Strange as it might sound to fault a great filmmaker for infusing his work with erudition and intelligence, The Touch is an especially frosty piece of business.
          Bergman regular Bibi Andersson plays Karin Vergerus, a pretty Swedish housewife and mother whose world starts to unravel when her own mother dies. Immediately after receiving the bad news, she encounters David Kovac (Elliot Gould), an American archaeologist visiting Sweden. He’s professionally acquainted with Karin’s husband, Andreas (played, of course, by Max von Sydow), so Karin soon finds herself sitting across a dinner table from the man she saw at her lowest moment. David surprises Karin by saying that he fell in love with her at first sight, and even though that should have been a red flag—the fact that he was turned on by her pain correctly indicates that David has issues—Karin commences an affair with David. Per his rarefied narrative approach, Bergman is only marginally interested in soap-opera complications, such as how the lovers conceal their trysts, because he’s after a referendum on marriage and personhood. What was missing from Karin’s union that she finds by spending time with David? Did Andreas’ condescension push his wife away? How did Karin recognize that David was compatible in the sense of being just as emotionally troubled as her? It says a lot that at one point, Anna describes herself and David as being “painfully united.”
          Had The Touch been made by anyone except Bergman, it might have seemed groundbreaking and revelatory, an adultery story that asks deep questions about whether it’s truly possible for people to connect with each other. Yet Bergman had already spent decades probing the human psyche prior to making The Touch, so the film seems like a minor entry in his magnificent filmography. The Touch has incisive moments, notably the scene when Karin catalogs her own physical flaws after revealing herself to David for the first time, so it’s not as if Bergman’s gifts suddenly evaporated. Nonetheless, the transition to English removed less than it added, and Gould’s greatest attribute as a performer—his rumpled naturalism—is inhibited by the requirement to deliver reams of artistically structured dialogue. Combined with the picture’s almost unrelentingly humorless tone and a somewhat pointless ending, all of these shortcomings make The Touch unmemorable.

The Touch: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Noon Sunday (1970)



Cheap-looking, humorless, murky, and slow-moving, Noon Sunday is ostensibly a thriller about a political assassination, but it’s really a turgid action picture noteworthy only for its location photography, since it was the first movie made in the island nation of Guam. Any expectations of a glamorous travelogue should be dispelled, however, since the filming style of Noon Sunday is ugly and unimaginative, so Noon Sunday looks very much like the myriad exploitation flicks that were made in the Philippines throughout the ’70s, only without the gonzo storytelling that distinguished those pictures. C-list Hollywood actors Mark Lenard and john Russell play mercenaries who travel to Guam in order to kill one Colonel Oong. To the accompaniment of old-fashioned music that sounds like it was cribbed from some hokey 1940s flick, the mercenaries exploit locals by using their homes for hiding places, kill underlings without hesitation, and navigate their way through armed compounds and dense jungles. There’s also a nasty bit during which Lenard’s character sleeps with a random American babe; after they screw, she stabs him and he strangles her. But he’s an okay sort of a fellow, you see, because he hesitates when compelled to detonate a bomb inside a church filled with kids and nuns. Whatever. Noon Sunday is enervated and schlocky from its confusing opening scenes to its predictable bummer ending, and even the presence of quasi-familiar actors generates little interest. TV fans of a certain age will recognize Lenard from his work in the Star Trek franchise as Mr. Spock’s dad, though he brings none of the elegance of that characterization to his perfunctory tough-guy work here. Similarly, Keye Luke’s turn as Oong bears little resemblance to his memorable work on the ’70s series Kung Fu. As for Russell, he was the star of the ’60s small-screen Western Lawman, but his impressively burly moustache is the most interesting thing about his presence in Noon Sunday.

Noon Sunday: LAME

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)



          Adapted by celebrated literary figure Kurt Vonnegut Jr. from his own play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a laborious farce with elements of absurdity, social satire, and tragedy, tackling themes ranging from male ego to the pointlessness of big-game hunting. Yet Happy Birthday, Wanda June is more effective as a conversation piece than as an entertainment experience. The characterizations are silly, the integration of fantasy elements is awkward, and the tonal shifts feel unearned, as if Vonnegut meant to beguile audiences with rapid-fire jokes before sandbagging them with heaviosity about dead children, Nagasaki, suicide, and the Third Reich. There’s something admirable about the sheer audacity of the storyline, and Vonnegut was unquestionably a hip cat, but, man, this thing jumps all over the place. Rod Steiger’s shouty performance in the leading role doesn’t help, because while the main character was likely envisioned as having animalistic charm, Steiger can’t muster the complexity or gravitas of, say, a Sterling Hayden or a George C. Scott.
          The picture is primarily set in the New York City apartment occupied by Penelope Ryan (Susannah York) and her young son, Paul (Steven Paul). Seven years ago, Penelope’s larger-than-life husband, big-game hunter Harold (Steiger), disappeared while on safari. He’s been presumed dead ever since. Nonetheless, Paul entertains fantasies of a homecoming, fetishizing all the animal heads and skins that decorate the Ryan household. One night, Harold returns, accompanied by his bizarre little friend Looseleaf Harper (William Hickey), one of the pilots responsible for dropping an A-bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Much of the film concerns light romantic farce, since Penelope has moved on and is now courting two different men, whom Harold predictably berates and intimidates. Another thread concerns Paul’s change of attitude toward his father, from hero worship to something far less flattering. And then there’s the absurd stuff. The film regularly cuts to Heaven, where a little girl named Wanda June (Pamelyn Ferdin) cavorts with Nazis and other unlikely occupants of the afterlife. (This stuff more or less makes sense in context, but it’s too convoluted to explain here.)
          Demonstrating his special skill for blending comedy and tragedy to create offbeat social commentary, Vonnegut writes Wanda as an upbeat ambassador for mortality who says that death was the best part of her life, or words to that effect. In some way that never quite connects, Wanda’s remarks are meant to complement copious amounts of dialogue exploring the nature of Harold’s big-game hunting. Imagine a lot of angst about killing for the sake of killing, and you’re headed down the right track. While most of the performances in Happy Birthday, Wanda June are energetic, York and costar George Grizzard strive to ground the goofy goings-on in some semblance of recognizable human emotion. Unfortunately, this creates dissonance: Is Happy Birthday, Wanda June a fever dream, or is it a realistic piece with exaggerated flourishes? Thanks to flat direction by Hollywood veteran Mark Robson, best known for action pictures and soapy melodramas, it’s hard to tell.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June: FUNKY

Monday, May 16, 2016

Maurie (1973)



          Offering a faint echo of the moving telefilm Brian’s Song (1971), this formulaic but moderately effective picture is another male tearjerker based upon the tragic circumstances of a real-life professional athlete, with the bromance between two players front and center. In this case, the real-life figures depicted onscreen are Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman, two NBA stars who played for the Royals during the period when the team switched its home base from Rochester to Cincinnati. Stokes, who was black, emerged as a top power forward during the 1955–1956 season (his professional debut), only to suffer a debilitating health crisis two years later. A blow to the head put Stokes in a coma, and when he emerged, he was completely paralyzed. Twyman, a white player who was merely a casual friend of Stokes’ until the accident, stepped up to oversee Stokes’ care and to raise money for Stokes’ astronomical medical bills, eventually becoming his former teammate’s legal guardian. Maurie tells the story of the bond these two men formed while Stokes battled his way back to limited mobility, although the movie ends before Stokes’ death at age 36.
          The best thing Maurie has going for it is Bernie Casey’s performance in the leading role. Not only is Casey uniquely suited for playing athletes, having been a wide receiver in the NFL for several years, but he’s also a sensitive player with good dramatic instincts and wry comic timing. He maximizes every opportunity for creating connections with the audience, even when his character is confined to a hospital bed. Playing Twyman, Bo Svenson does adequate work, though he never quite overcomes the inherent acting problem of playing a one-dimensional saint, even though, in Svenson’s defense, that’s as much a problem of storytelling as it is of performance. And storytelling, really, is where Maurie underwhelms. The film starts awkwardly, intercutting the evening when Stokes fell into his coma with episodes from his life beforehand. The implication that Stokes’ life flashed before his eyes—as if he knew what was about to happen—is questionable. Later, once the picture segues to a long series of hospital scenes, the filmmakers generate a bit more dramatic momentum, though they struggle to invest the storyline with conflict.
          The major source of friction is Stokes’ relationship with Dorothy (Janet MacLachlan), a woman he was courting before his medical troubles. He resists her support out of pride and shame, castigates her for pitying him, and then plays matchmaker between Dorothy and various teammates. As with the Twyman characterization, it’s the saint problem again. Other noticeable flaws include the film’s unimaginative visual style and its cloying undeerscore. (In the original release prints, Frank Sinatra sang the closing-credits theme song, “Winners,” though video versions feature a Sinatra soundalike.) Ultimately, however, the story of Stokes’ and Twyman’s friendship is so heartening and uplifting that it compensates for the film’s weaker elements, and Casey anchors the movie with his amiability, sincerity, and toughness.

Maurie: FUNKY

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Journey Through the Past (1974)



When reports surfaced that Kevin Costner was shooting unprecedented amounts of film while making his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves (1990), wags coined an alternate title for the project: Plays With Camera. Yet it’s unlikely that any actor-turned-director ever approached the levels of self-indulgence unique to rock stars experimenting with cinema. Just as Frank Zappa did beforehand and Bob Dylan did afterward, Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young used his directorial debut to create a phantasmagoria blending dream sequences, performance footage, and shapeless narrative vignettes. Despite a title that promises a chronological rundown of his musical adventures, or at least an informative biographical sketch, Journey Through the Past is an irritating movie that starts out like a straight rock doc—backstage antics and concert clips—before degrading into the sort of pretentious silliness one normally associates with first-year film students. Toward the end of its brief running time, Journey Through the Past stops dead for an interminably long slow-motion shot featuring black-robed KKK riders driving their horses along a beach. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, and considering how much weed Young smokes onscreen during the picture, it’s possible he didn’t know, either. That said, Journey Through the Past isn’t as aggressively dumb as Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971) or as maddeningly vague as Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara (1978). The simple stuff in Journey Through the Past is fine, especially Youngs onstage guitar duels with Buffalo Springfield/CSNY partner Stephen Stills. Watching CSNY’s David Crosby engage in a pot-fueled rant against The Man is entertaining, as well, although Young seems determined to reveal things about everyone except himself. That is, unless viewers are meant to parse something meaningful from the recurring motif of a scruffy college graduate wandering the world—because, like, there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. Heavy, man.

Journey Through the Past: LAME

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Stranger Within (1974)



          Celebrated fantasy author Richard Matheson was banging out TV scripts seemingly by the gross during the early ’70s, notching such indelible hits as Duel (1971), The Night Stalker (1972), and Trilogy of Terror (1975), so it’s understandable that not all of his projects were winners. Some, like The Stranger Within, are trifles containing interesting ideas and passable suspense sequences, even if they’re forgettable and somewhat pointless. In The Stranger Within, a woman becomes pregnant under mysterious circumstances—her husband had a vasectomy years earlier, and she swears she’s been faithful—then experiences bizarre changes in personality and physiology as the child inside her develops at an abnormal rate. Any resemblances to the theatrical blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are strictly unintentional, although Matheson keeps an ace up his sleeve to ensure that The Stranger Within doesn’t rehash the demonic denouement of Rosemary’s Baby.
          Whenever the movie is really cooking, albeit never at more than low heat, it’s fun to ponder the story’s inherent mysteries and to sympathize with the anger, confusion, and fear experienced by the protagonist’s husband while his wife transforms. Given the constraints of a 74-minute running time, there’s only so deep into emotional terrain Matheson can take this material, and he seems more concerned with giving viewers the heebie-jeebies, anyway. That being the case, think of The Stranger Within as a Twilight Zone episode stretched to a longer-than-necessary length, and you get the idea.
          As for the specifics, Barbara Eden, the onetime I Dream of Jeannie starlet who does nothing here to erase her reputation as an ornamental actress, plays a housewife married to a college professor. When her doctor reveals that she’s pregnant, the professor (George Grizzard) tries to respond with compassion and pragmatism, despite the unavoidable implication of betrayal. As the housewife’s behavior gets weirder and weirder—an endless appetite for salt, scars that appear and then magically disappear—worries about infidelity give way to worries about the true nature of the unborn child. The Stranger Within is mildly entertaining, and it’s fun to see future Charlie’s Angels sidekick David Doyle playing a serious role as a friend of the unlucky family. Nonetheless, only those with deep affection for Eden, Matheson, or ’70s sci-fi TV should bother tracking this one down, and even those folks should lower expectations accordingly.

The Stranger Within: FUNKY

Friday, May 13, 2016

Cancel My Reservation (1972)



Funnyman Bob Hope played his last big-screen leading role in this limp, old-fashioned farce about a cowardly smartass who stumbles onto intrigue while vacationing near Native American land in Arizona. Written and photographed in roughly the same style that had been employed for Hope’s comedies since the World War II era, Cancel My Reservation uses a contrived and silly plot as a delivery device for rapid-fire jokes, and the wheezy gags take unkind jabs at everything from indigenous peoples to women’s rights. The ages of the leading actors are distracting, as well. Despite being nearly 70 years old when he made this picture, Hope is put across as the virile center of a love triangle, with the character’s wife (played by 48-year-old Eva Marie Saint) and a sexy squaw (played by 25-year-old Anne Archer, decidedly not of Native American heritage) competing for his affections. Hope’s ability to land zingers remained sharp his entire life, so forgiving viewers might be able to chuckle a few times during Cancel My Reservation. Most folks, however, will find the piece irritatingly artificial and moderately distasteful. Here’s the setup. After fighting with his wife/cohost Sheila (Saint) one too many times, Dan (Hope) takes a trip to his ranch out west, only to find a dead body in his house. The body disappears, but not before Dan gets into a hassle with the local constabulary. Later, he finds a live body in his house—naked and willing “Crazy” (Archer). This doesn’t sit well with Sheila, who arrives unexpectedly and discovers Dan with “Crazy.” Together, these three solve a mystery involving land grabs and police corruption. In a typically dumb scene, Dan and Sheila seek advice from Indian mystic “Old Bear” (Chief Dan George), who looks at his visitors and says the following via subtitles: “This chick is out of sight—and I wish he was!”  Familiar players Ralph Bellamy, Keenan Wynn, Henry Darrow, and Forrest Tucker round out the supporting cast, while Johnny Carson, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, and Flip Wilson all cameo in a dream sequence. 

Cancel My Reservation: LAME

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Groovin' With Gilbert and Frank!




Thanks to comedy pros and fellow film obsessives Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre for hyping my blog on their great podcast: Check out "Mini-Episode #59: Every 70's Movie" of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast! As Frank just wrote: "Love the movies of the 1970s? Of course you do. Give a listen to this week's GGACP Mini-Episode to hear Gilbert and I discuss/dissect (mostly) forgotten films like "A New Leaf," "Billy Jack," "Don't Look Now," "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," "Duck, You Sucker" and last, but certainly least, "The Devil's Rain." Also: if you have a few hundred hours to spare, check out the exhaustive and TOTALLY engrossing blog that inspired this episode, Peter Hanson's EVERY '70s MOVIE. And while you're at it, tell us YOUR fave movie from what many people consider "Hollywood's Last Golden Age."

Song of Norway (1970)



          A lavish widescreen musical romance set in the mountains of Europe, Song of Norway was plainly envisioned as a successor to The Sound of Music (1965), but Song of Norway contains exactly none of the charm and wit that made The Sound of Music one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time. Like the earlier picture, Song of Norway was adapted from a successful Broadway musical. Unlike the earlier picture, Song of Norway was adapted badly—from material that was probably questionable in the first place. Norwegian star Torlav Maursted, a capable singer and dancer but merely a serviceable actor, stars as Edvard Grieg, the real-life Norwegian composer who overcame early struggles to become an important voice on the international music scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Awful songs interrupt the narrative at regular intervals, thereby pushing the film to undeserved epic length. (The stage show added insipid lyrics to Grieg’s melodies.)
          To understand how cloying and milquetoast this movie gets during its worst moments, one need only note that the picture’s female lead is Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson. Soullessly directed by Andrew L. Stone, Song of Norway bludgeons viewers with suffocating optimism during the first hour and a half, then returns after an intermission for a final act containing weak attempts at heavy drama. The gist is that young Edvard Grieg finds himself torn between his first love, Therese (Christina Schollin), and his first cousin, Nina (Henderson). Even after he marries his cousin, Edvard accepts patronage from the wealthy Therese. Meanwhile, Edvard makes grand plans with his best friend, Richard (Frank Porretta), the composer of Norway’s national anthem, only to disappoint Richard at a crucial moment. If Song of Norway is any indication, Edvard was a bit of a jerk.
          Costars Robert Morley and Edward G. Robinson—each of whom seems as believably Norwegian as Henderson—try to enliven their scenes, but the sheer weight of the movie’s happy-shiny bloat defeats them. Everything in Song of Norway is so false and sickly-sweet, right down to the partially animated scene with evil giants (!), that the high point is probably the moment when Edvard hits a petulant young piano student. For a few seconds, believable human behavior breaks the tra-la-la tedium.

Song of Norway: LAME

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Death Promise (1977)



A rotten martial-arts revenge flick set in the urban jungles of New York City, Death Promise concerns a young man who vows payback after someone kills his father. As an indication of how dopey this movie is, the young man cobbles together a list of suspects and then kills each suspect one at a time. Yet during the film’s climax, he learns that none of the folks he murdered was directly responsible for his father’s death, meaning that he killed a bunch of bad people, but for the wrong reason. Anything in the name of justice, right? Whatever. Charles Bonet, a skilled athlete but a not-so-skilled actor, stars as Charley Roman, a martial-arts student who lives with his father, Louis (Bob O’Connell). Together with his fellow martial-arts student Speedy (Speedy Leacock), Charley and Louis repel goons sent by slumlords to force the Romans and their neighbors out of their decaying apartment building. Turns out the slumlords, including corrupt Judge Engstrom (David Kirk), want to raze the building and make way for a lucrative development project. When Charley comes home one day to find Louis dead, he decides the developers are responsible—and then leaves town for six months to study deadly techniques with a martial-arts guru. Huh? After completing his training, Charley reconnects with Speedy and begins his rampage. (Death Promise takes place in an alternate universe where there are no police and where people like Charley don’t need jobs in order to live.) Shot in a haphazard fashion with a meager budget, Death Promise looks and sounds cheap from beginning to end. Every so often, there’s a glimmer of imagination—like the bit in which Charley ties a victim to the back of an archery target, ensuring that the man is mistakenly killed by his own underling. However, most of the movie comprises silly martial-arts fights during which participants scream so much they sound ridiculous. Again, whatever. Oh, and it sure looks as if comic-book legend Neal Adams drew the poster art. Not his best work.

Death Promise: LAME

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Rich Kids (1979)



          A tender character study about two children from entitled families reacting in different ways to the breakups of their respective families, Rich Kids does a lot with a little. The story is microscopic in scale, and the stakes are as small as the 12-year-old hearts that get broken when two households implode. Rich Kids is akin to same year’s Kramer vs. Kramer, but while Kramer made a serious statement about the impact of shifting gender roles on the nature of the American family, Rich Kids approaches the subject matter from a more lighthearted perspective. Perhaps that’s why the film, despite its convincing you-are-there textures, its endearing characterizations, and its wonderful acting, sometimes drags: Rich Kids is a piffle about a weighty topic.
          The film’s protagonist is Franny Phillips (Trini Alvarado), a wise-beyond-her-years preadolescent living in New York City’s tony Upper West Side. Her parents, Paul (John Lithgow) and Madeline (Kathryn Walker), have been separated for weeks, but they endeavor to hide that fact from their only child—for instance, Paul sneaks into the house around six o’clock every morning to create the illusion he’s waking up there, even though he resides elsewhere. Yet Franny has pieced clues together, so she shares her discoveries with Jamie Harris (Jeremy Levy), the new kid at school. Because his parents recently divorced, Jamie tells Franny what to expect, becoming Virgil for her travels through an emotional inferno. Almost inevitably, Franny and Jamie develop romantic feelings for each other, eventually creating a fake “marriage” with the idea of coupling more successfully than their parents.
          Directed by the sensitive Robert M. Young and overseen by Robert Altman, whose company produced the film, Rich Kids is filled with believable characters. Lithgow personifies a man struggling to reconcile his selfish qualities (he ditches his wife for a younger woman) with his selfless ones (he doesn’t want his daughter to become another sad victim of a broken home). Conversely, Terry Kiser—who plays Jamie’s dad—represents a midlife crisis in full bloom, right down to the bimbo girlfriend, the fast car, and the tricked-out bachelor pad. However, it’s the kids who truly resonate. Alvarado and Levy give fully realized performances, conveying depth and dimension without any hints of cloying cuteness. Rich Kids is far from perfect. Writer Judith Ross pulls her punches at regular intervals, just as she fails to deliver laugh-out-loud comic highlights; the movie is mildly amusing and mildly moving. That said, better to strive for those lofty sensations and nearly achieve them than not to try at all.

Rich Kids: GROOVY

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)



          Released a year before The Exorcist (1973), this intense thriller offers a much different approach to similar subject matter. Virtually no special effects were used for The Possession of Joel Delaney, and the spirit inhabiting the title character belongs not to a demon but to a person. Elegantly photographed, intelligently written, and filled with credible performances, The Possession of Joel Delaney treats its outlandish storyline with respect—so even though the film isn’t especially frightening, it makes for an immersive viewing experience. And while The Possession of Joel Delaney is not up to The Exorcist’s level, it’s still fun to play the contrast-and-compare game. The earlier picture is insinuating and restrained, while the latter is confrontational and spectacular. What both films share the deeply frightening notion of losing control over one’s soul.
          Set in New York City, The Possession of Joel Delaney revolves, as does The Exorcist, around a woman who watches in terror as a loved one succumbs to possession. In this case, the woman is Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine), an affluent mother of two. (The children’s father doesn’t figure into the story.) Norah worries about her younger brother, Joel Delaney (Perry King), a handsome twentysomething who seems adrift in his life. Then an incident reveals that she has reason to worry—after Joel is arrested for attacking a man, Joel claims he has no memory of committing the crime. Norah arranges to get Joel freed from jail so long as he sees a therapist, but Joel insists he’s fine. Later, when a woman of his acquaintance is murdered, clues suggest an unhinged Joel was the killer. However, clues also point to an at-large Cuban immigrant. Conveniently, Norah has a Cuban maid, so the maid introduces Norah to the world of Santería and the possibility that the Cuban immigrant’s spirit entered Joel’s body.
           The Possession of Joel Delaney takes its time during the investigative phase of the narrative, allowing ambiguity to seep into the storytelling. MacLaine thrives here, showing how her character struggles to comprehend things way behind her normal experience. She’s also fierce and understandably terrified during the film’s creepy finale. King, appearing in his first movie, does well playing a willful young man whose first manifestations of possession seem like mere petulance to those around him. If there’s a big flaw to the film, besides some sketchy gore effects, it’s that neither King nor the filmmakers create much empathy for the Joel character—a greater sense of what is lost by the corruption of Joel’s soul would have deepened the film’s emotional impact. As is, the picture is tense and unnerving, but it lacks the pathos that made The Exorcist work. That said, The Possession of Joel Delaney is among the rare horror pictures that take themselves seriously without seeming ridiculous for doing so.

The Possession of Joel Delaney: GROOVY