Friday, April 17, 2015

1980 Week: Nine to Five

          Throughout the late ’70s, Jane Fonda performed a remarkable feat of synthesizing her acting and her activism, serving as producer (sometimes uncredited) for the Vietnam-vet drama Coming Home (1978), the nuclear-meltdown thriller The China Syndrome (1979), and this comedy, which brought to light the gender inequity plaguing American workplaces. At first glance, Nine to Five might seem lightweight compared to its predecessors in Fonda’s producing oeuvre, but treating the theme with humor proved a savvy move because it attracted a wide audience. The picture earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office at a time when that was still a rare achievement, and now Nine to Five is considered something of a modern classic. The picture even inspired a TV series, which ran sporadically from 1982 to 1988, as well as a 2009 Broadway musical.
          Cowritten and directed by Colin Higgins, who embellished a previous script by Patricia Resnick, the picture takes place in a midlevel department of fictional firm Consolidated Companies. The department’s boss is Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), whom female employees rightly characterize as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Throughout the picture’s first act, Hart earns the enmity of protagonists Judy Bernly (Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton). Franklin berates new employee Judy for incompetence, showing no sympathy for the fact that her post at Consolidated is the recent divorcée’s first job. He steals work product from Violet and blocks her well-deserved promotion. And he sexually harasses the buxom Doralee, bolstering his macho reputation by fomenting bogus rumors that they’re sleeping together. One evening, the women drown their sorrows and share revenge fantasies, which Higgins stages as elaborate dream sequences. Then a farcical showdown occurs during which Violent (mistakenly) believes that she’s poisoned Franklin.
          A few plot twists later, the women find themselves holding Franklin hostage in his own home while trying to gather evidence that will entrap him and therefore free the women from suspicion.
          As he demonstrated with ’70s hits Foul Play and Silver Streak, Higgins had a unique gift for orchestrating comedies with Swiss-watch storylines. Nine to Five is far-fetched and silly, but everything in the plot is worked out neatly. Ultimately, however, the narrative is merely a vessel for the theme: Nine to Five is a fairy tale for female professionals. Fonda, drifting back to the sort of light comedy she did in many of her earliest films, uses her performance to tell a story about self-actualization, letting her costars take the showier roles. Parton nearly steals the picture with her down-home charm, Tomlin grounds the film with a deadpan approach to jokes, and Coleman makes a great cartoonish villain. Despite its sociopolitical heft Nine to Five is consistently gentle and undemanding. Like the theme song that Parton wrote and recorded during production, which subsequently became a No. 1 pop hit, Nine to Five is a sugar-coated rallying cry.

Nine to Five: GROOVY

Thursday, April 16, 2015

1980 Week: Hopscotch

          So dry that it’s barely a comedy, and yet so irreverent that it’s most definitely not a drama, the winning Hopscotch offers a wry depiction of Cold War-era spycraft. In fact, the most delightful aspect of the movie is the way it treats international espionage as a big business rife with the same sort of bureaucratic inefficiency, professional jealousy, and small-minded vendettas that plague every other industry. Walter Matthau, showcasing the loveable-scamp aspect of his screen persona instead of the rumpled-grouch aspect, plays Miles Kendig, a CIA operative whom we meet on the job in Europe. An old pro who sees all the angles and casually makes deals with his KGB counterpart, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Kendig has become a relic from the era of gentleman spies. Returning to Washington, he’s belittled and demoted by his crude but politically connected superior, Myerson (Ned Beatty). The idea of taking a desk job doesn’t work for Kendig, however, so he discreetly shreds his personnel file, slips out of CIA headquarters, and returns to Europe so he can be with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson), and plot his playful revenge against Myerson.
          Kendig starts writing a tell-all book about his life as a secret agent, sending copies of early chapters to prominent figures in the global intelligence community. As intended, the book makes Kendig a wanted man, so he commences a merry chase around the globe with the goal of humiliating Myerson as utterly as possible. Employing arcane knowledge, fake passports, and old spy-community contacts, Kendig “hops” back and forth between various locations in America and Europe, leaving clues that mock Myerson and other agents for their inability to catch up with a seasoned veteran. Meanwhile, Kendig keeps sending chapters of the book, with new secrets revealed on each page and the threat of the explosive final chapter lingering over everyone involved.
          Deftly written by Bryan Forbes and Bryan Garfield (based on a novel by Garfield), Hopscotch is the sort of lighthearted romp that’s designed to generate perpetual amusement, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarity, so viewers expecting slapstick or verbal fireworks will be disappointed. Similarly, anyone hoping for a replay of the bickering-lovers sparks that Jackson and Matthau struck in House Calls (1978) is due for a letdown, since the actors play characters who are cheerfully conjoined from the beginning of the story to the end. Yet within these diminished expectations, Hopscotch provides a thoroughly pleasurable viewing experience. Director Ronald Neame shoots locations beautifully, the story provides innumerable twists stemming from Kendig’s incredible resourcefulness, and the acting is terrific. Beatty strikes the right balance between buffoonery and competence, Jackson comes across as clever and worldly, Lom is appealingly urbane, Matthau is appropriately rascally, and costar Sam Waterston (as Kendig’s protégé/pursuer) lends a charming quality of conflicted compassion.

Hopscotch: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

1980 Week: Coal Miner’s Daughter

          Late in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the acclaimed biopic of country-music legend Loretta Lynn, there’s a telling remark about fame: “Gettin’ here is one thing, and bein’ here’s another.” That the line is spoken not by Lynn, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Sissy Spacek, but rather by her husband, Mooney, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, speaks volumes. In this particular story, the rise from dirt-poor roots to extraordinary success is hardest on Mooney, because once his wife’s career takes flight—thanks to years of hard work by both members of the couple—Mooney becomes superfluous in ways he never expected. This insightful take on the rags-to-riches formula that’s usually employed for biopics about music stars is just one of several commendable aspects of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Even though the film is quite ordinary in many ways, from the unavoidably predictable storyline to the way the title character is all but sanctified, delicate nuances of character and regional identity give Coal Miner’s Daughter an appealing sense of authenticity.
          Opening in rural Kentucky circa the late 1940s, the picture introduces Loretta as the dutiful 15-year-old daughter of Ted Webb (played by real-life rock singer Levon Helm), a hardworking coal miner and father of eight kids. Life in the tiny mountain village of Butcher Hollow is hard, so when fast-talking World War II veteran Oliver “Mooney” Lynn woos Loretta with dancing and romance, she’s quickly swept off her feet. Marriage and pregnancy follow. Eventually, Mooney relocates his growing family to the city so he can find work, and he encourages Loretta to develop her singing talents by performing at honky-tonks. Though she misses her people in Butcher Hollow, Loretta realizes she’s got a gift for entertaining audiences, and things start falling into place. Mooney finances a recording session that produces a hit single, Loretta gets invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and reigning country-music queen Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo) becomes Loretta’s best friend, mentor, and touring partner. Despite exhaustion, marital tensions, and tragedies, Lynn soldiers on to become a chart-topping superstar.
          As written by Tom Rickman (from Lynn’s best-selling autobiography) and directed by Michael Apted, a versatile Brit who has spent his career toggling between documentaries and fiction films, Coal Miner’s Daughter feels heartfelt from start to finish. The scenes in Kentucky are especially good, with beautifully constructed accents and costumes and sets used to convey you-are-there verisimilitude. Although material depicting life on the road is pedestrian, the combination of D’Angelo’s sass and Spacek’s fortitude amply demonstrates the indignities and sacrifices that women had to make for music careers in the ’50s. Jones also delivers one of his liveliest performances, mostly suppressing his natural surliness in favor of good-ol’-boy warmth. Underscoring all of this, of course, is the fact that Lynn’s early life really did unfold like a country song—she’s the real deal, and the same can be said of this film about her amazing journey.

Coal Miner’s Daughter: GROOVY

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1980 Week: Breaker Morant

          Beautifully filmed, expertly acted, meticulously directed, and thoughtfully written, Breaker Morant is not only one of the best Australian films ever made, but also one of the finest dramas of its era. Presenting a complex story about courage, cowardice, politics, violence, and war, the picture dramatizes an infamous real-life incident that took place during the early 20th century in what later became South Africa. Amid the storms of the Second Boer War, fought between forces of the British Empire and those resisting British rule, three officers in an Australian regiment serving the UK were accused of killing unarmed combatants, including a German priest, as reprisal for the murder of their commanding officer. Partisans of the accused characterized the legal action that was brought against the Australians as craven political expediency, a maneuver designed by the British to appease German interests and facilitate a peace settlement. Despite strong evidence proving that the Australians were following orders, the officers were executed, and many people perceived the event as a classic miscarriage of justice.
          Cowritten and directed by Bruce Beresford, using Kenneth J. Ross’ play Breaker Morant as a foundation, this elegantly constructed film follows the trial of the Australians and includes flashbacks to key events on the battlefield. A picture emerges of a conflict in which the rules of engagement were murky at best. The leader of the Australians is the sophisticated Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), a horseman and poet who was born in England and therefore understands the duplicities of the British aristocracy better than his Australian-born comrades. In fact, Morant realizes his fate is sealed the minute he meets the attorney assigned to represent the Australians, an inexperienced Aussie named Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson). The lawyer is given only a day to prepare, and all of his motions to buy time are overruled. Yet as the absurdly one-sided military trial commences, Thomas proves more formidable than either the defendants or the jurists expected, sparking hope among the Australians that truth may out. In sad and tragic ways, it does—with little effect on the foregone conclusion.
           Through evidence and testimony, Thomas demonstrates that a no-prisoners policy was in place before the death of the Australians’ commanding officer, thereby demolishing the prosecution’s argument that Morant and the others acted savagely. “The tragedy of war,” Thomas opines, “is that these horrors are committed by normal men, in abnormal circumstances.”
          Beresford shows exquisite restraint in every aspect of filmmaking. The performances are almost perfectly modulated, with anger breaking through decorum at just the right moments, and the camera angles and lighting that Beresford contrives with cinematographer Donald McAlpine heighten tension while also infusing scenes with the immersive texture of remote locales. Woodward is extraordinary in the title role, blending cynicism and romanticism to incarnate a unique individual. Bryan Brown, in his breakout performance, lends roguish charm while playing one of Morant’s co-defendants. And Australian-cinema stalwart Thompson does some of the best work of his career. Best of all, the movie can be watched in close detail by viewers curious about the internecine historical details, and it can also be absorbed viscerally as the story of ordinary men thrown into battle against forces beyond their ken.
          Either way, it’s a masterpiece of dramatic storytelling.

Breaker Morant: RIGHT ON

Monday, April 13, 2015

1980 Week: Flash Gordon

          For many geeks of a certain age, Flash Gordon conjures warm memories of seeing the film in theaters, listening endlessly to the soundtrack LP featuring original songs by Queen, and revisiting the picture during its regular airings on cable. Over the years, the movie has generated not only a large cult following but also plentiful ancillary material—action figures, DVD reissues, a loving tribute nestled inside the comedy blockbuster Ted (2012), directed by Flash Gordon superfan Seth McFarlane. That’s quite an afterlife for a flick that producer Dino Di Laurentiis extrapolated from on old Saturday-matinee serial in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars (1977). Even though Di Laurentiis spent lavishly on costumes, sets, and special effects, Flash Gordon originally seemed destined for oblivion after its lukewarm box-office reception. Many critics and fans embraced the picture as a kitschy delight, but others merely rolled their eyes at the silliness of the enterprise.
          After all, it’s hard to take a movie seriously when it includes corny dialogue, one-dimensional characterizations, and a terrible leading performance by former Playgirl model Sam J. Jones. But then again, that’s the weird fun of Flash Gordon—the movie embraces its own goofiness, in essence presenting an outer-space adventure while simultaneously satirizing outer-space adventures.
          Flash Gordon’s plot recycles narrative elements from the original serials, so the story begins when outer-space tyrant Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) rains catastrophic ruin onto Earth for sport. Through convoluted circumstances, eccentric scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) kidnaps New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Jones) and stewardess Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) for a trip to space, because Hans plans to confront Earth’s tormentor. Upon reaching the planet Mongo, which comprises several distinct realms (each with its own climate), Flash pisses off Ming but wins the favor of Ming’s slutty daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti). She frees Flash from Ming’s prison even as Ming prepares to marry Dale, with whom he’s become smitten. After several death-defying adventures, Flash rallies several “princes of Mongo,” including the Robin Hood-like Barin (Timothy Dalton), for a revolution against Ming’s oppressive rule.
          The filmmakers’ tongue-in-cheek approach doesn’t always work, but Flash Gordon has a vibe uniquely its own. The juxtaposition of ’30s-style production design with ’70s-style arena rock is bizarre, the clash between bombastic supporting performance by classical actors and inept work by Anderson and Jones is jarring, and the presence of the great Von Sydow lends something like credibility to certain scenes. Plus, to give credit where it’s due, some of the movie’s ridiculous action scenes are genuinely exciting, such as a mano-a-mano duel that takes place on a giant revolving disk filled with spikes and an epic air battle involving flying “bird men,” souped-up “rocket cycles,” and phallic-looking spaceships. Best of all, perhaps, is the movie’s opulent color scheme, since Di Laurentiis went to the same pop-art well from which he drew the look of Barbarella (1968).
          Ace screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who earned nerd-culture immortality by writing the pilot for the 1966 Batman TV series and thus creating she show’s campy style, brings a playful sensibility to his script for Flash Gordon. The plotting is deliberately adolescent, with heavy play given to the boy-friendly themes of heroism and lust. Semple also jams the script full of jokes, some cringe-worthy and some sly. Meanwhile, director Mike Hodges—a hell of a long way from the gritty noir of Get Carter (1971)—mostly tries to mimic the way George Lucas mimicked serials while shooting Star Wars.

Flash Gordon: FUNKY

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Revengers (1972)

          A passable Western with a few meritorious elements, including a lively supporting performance by Ernest Borgnine and a zippy musical score by Pino Colvi that borrows textures from the work of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, The Revengers represents a milquetoast response to the cinema of Sam Peckinpah. Whereas Peckinpah’s Westerns upended the genre by accentuating gritty realism and moral ambiguity, The Revengers has the feel and look of an old-school cowboy movie, even though the broad strokes of the story are quite grim. Had the filmmakers taken their endeavor to its logical conclusion by emulating Peckinpah’s gutsy style instead of simply copping a few of his narrative tropes, The Revengers could have been something special. As is, the movie provides about 90 minutes of so-so entertainment during the course of a bloated 106-minute running time.
          William Holden, giving a phoned-in but still authoritative performance, plays John Benedict, a former Union solider now living quietly on a Colorado ranch with his family. A band of rogue Indians led by a white man raids the ranch one day while John is away hunting, so he returns to find his family slaughtered and his livestock stolen. John ventures into he wilderness in order to find and kill the guilty parties, eventually tracking them across the border to a hideout in Mexico. Realizing he needs extra guns, John manipulates the warden of a Mexican prison into loaning the services of several convicts, among them Americans Job (Woody Strode), a runaway slave, and Hoop (Borgnine), a fast-talking varmint. Adventures and betrayals ensue.
          The Revengers moves along at a good clip, except for a dreary interlude during which John spends time with frontier woman Elizabeth (Susan Hayward), and even though there aren’t many full-out action scenes, the bits of John and his outlaw gang living on the trail have color. Borgnine easily steals the picture by playing a two-faced creep prone to vulgar aphorisms (“That one-eyed rooster got away cleaner than a fart in a high wind!”). And while Holden’s gritted-teeth intensity suits the material well, his boredom during much of the picture is evident. Worse, director Daniel Mann’s periodic attempts at comic relief are punctuated with cringe-inducing musical stings, a sure sign the filmmakers lacked confidence in their own work. Fans of south-of-the-border Westerns should find The Revengers sufficiently distracting, though anyone expecting a proper follow-up to the previous Borgnine/Holden oater will be disappointed—instead of The Wild Bunch (1969), this is more like The Mild Bunch.

The Revengers: FUNKY

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Schlock (1973)

          Filmmaker John Landis’ twin preoccupations of campy horror tropes and rebellious juvenile humor permeate his first feature, Schlock, which he made when he was only 21. A one-joke spoof that sputters well before its brief 80-minute running time has elapsed, Schlock is nonetheless endearing—it’s a love letter to the movies from a lifelong fan, and it never takes itself seriously. Although the story is really just a makeshift framework on which Landis hangs innumerable one-liners and sight gags, Schlock tells the “story” of the Schlockthropus, a missing-link monster that emerges from centuries of hibernation and goes on a rampage until falling in love with a teenage girl. Landis, who wrote and directed the picture in addition to playing the title role from inside an ape suit created by future movie-makeup legend Rick Baker, borrows from Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), and about a zillion other shock-cinema favorites, even including footage from The Blob (1958) at one point. Parts of the movie are presented mockumentary-style, with reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison) speaking directly to the camera and/or interviewing experts and victims. Other sequences are presented as straightforward narrative, though Landis (in his capacity as an actor) occasionally breaks the illusion by mugging for the camera.
          Schlock is completely silly, but Landis’ deadpan approach to sophomoric humor was already fully formed at this early stage of his career. Clues at murder sites are banana peels. Looney Tunes-style gags occur regularly, such as the bit during which a cigarette lighter that won’t ignite for the longest time suddenly produces a huge jet of flame. Stock characters lampoon stock lines—for instance, a professor proclaims, “I believe we’re on the brink of the greatest scientific breakthrough in the last eight or nine weeks.” Sometimes, this stuff works in a groan-inducing sort of way, and sometimes it doesn’t. The scene of the Schlockthropus participating in a Bronx-cheer contest with a little kid goes on too long, but the bit when the Schlcoktropus uses a throw pillow as a weapon is casually amusing. Throughout the picture, Landis’ camerawork is clean and confident. Editor George Folsey Jr., who subsequently cut most of Landis’ hit comedies, energizes the director’s footage with his customary zippy pacing, thereby ensuring that Schlock has momentum even when it isn’t going anywhere.

Schlock: FUNKY

Friday, April 10, 2015

Punishment Park (1971)

          Offering an outsiders’ view on the sociopolitical problems causing friction in America during the counterculture era, this film by British experimentalist Peter Watkins mashes together references to the antiwar movement, the trial of the Chicago 7, and widespread paranoia about the growth of a police state, among other hot topics. Holding everything together is a pair of bold contrivances. On a narrative level, writer-director Watkins invents the notion of American concentration camps for rebellious youth. And on a stylistic level, as he did in many other films, Watkins uses a documentary aesthetic even though the events depicted onscreen are wholly fictional. Punishment Park is ultimately a bit too obvious and scruffy to generate much excitement—this is sledgehammer satire delivered by way of undisciplined improvisation from nonactors. Nonetheless, Punishment Park is very much a product of its time, meaning that it possesses more historical interest than it does dramatic interest.
          Set in the California desert, the movie imagines a place where members of the Establishment put “seditious” young people on trial for political activism. Those found guilty are given a choice between long prison terms and entrance to something called Punishment Park. The park comprises 50 miles of brutal desert terrain, and the participants are told that if they can successfully traverse the distance without being given food or water, they will be released. Throughout the movie, Watkins intercuts the trial of a new set of antiwar protestors with the ordeal of the previous set, now struggling for survival in Punishment Park. Borrowing a trope from the nihilistic sci-fi movies of the same era, Watkins soon reveals the dark secret of Punishment Park: National Guardsmen patrol the terrain, contriving excuses to murder the participants. In other words, Punishment Park is a death sentence. Had Watkins made the movie in a straightforward dramatic fashion, with proper characterizations and real actors, Punishment Park could have become one of the definitive pieces in the youth-culture canon. As is, the movie suffers from the awkwardness and stridency of a student film. It also recalls the shambolic agitprop of Medium Cool (1969), only without that seminal film’s close tethers to reality.
          At its worst, Punishment Park simply mimics important historical moments—when a black activist in Punishment Park gets bound and gagged in a courtroom, it’s a tacky nod to a real-life incident involving black-power activist Bobby Seale. At its best, the movie allows the spirited young people playing activists to speak their truth through the prism of the movie’s story. For example, the “goal” of participants in Punishment Park is to reach an American flag at the end of the terrain, symbolizing their return to proper U.S. society. But, as one participant crows, “I wouldn’t walk around the goddamned fucking corner for the American flag, let alone the desert.” Watkins captured something here, though he didn’t capture it with quite enough artistry.

Punishment Park: FUNKY

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Naked Ape (1973)

          Based on a nonfiction book about the development of human behavior as compared to that of other primates, this wildly uneven pastiche uses animated vignettes, dream sequences, narrative scenes, and supposedly comedic sketches to illustrate the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. In particular, the movie is preoccupied with sexuality, which should come as no surprise seeing as how Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Films produced the picture. Yet the promise of naughty content is slightly misleading. Although both of the leading actors display their bodies and participate in sex scenes, the movie also gets heavily into war. Additionally, much of the sex stuff is conveyed via cartoons or dialogue, so The Naked Ape is a relatively serious-minded endeavor that simply contains a few discreetly filmed physical encounters. Alas, the picture’s half-hearted approach to sex is indicative of other problems. One gets the sense that writer-director Donald Driver wanted The Naked Ape to be about something important and meaningful. Because he failed to shape a distinctive aesthetic, however, he simply made a freeform mess reflecting hip counterculture attitudes—with nothing of substance behind the posturing.
          The movie opens in a silly way. Wearing a business suit, Lee (Johnny Crawford) walks through a museum exhibit looking at cases that contain life-sized figures representing the different stages of man’s evolution. Upon reaching the last case, which is empty, Lee strips off his closes and enters the case, thereby representing modern man. The camera then studies his body in detail while credits are superimposed over the images. This scene has a certain perversity to it because leading man Crawford initially found fame as a child actor on the 1958-1963 TV series The Rifleman. Publicity for The Naked Ape made a big fuss over the fact that this young man showed his rifle, as it were. Similarly, leading lady Victoria Principal, who plays Lee’s girlfriend, did a nude layout in Playboy to promote the movie—another indicator of the low intentions dragging the piece down.
          Even though it’s only 85 minutes, The Naked Ape feels much longer, since it’s episodic and uneven. One animated sequence about the evolution of clothes has Gilliam-esque style and wit, but most of the ’toons are tepid, and the live-action scenes aren’t much better. Occasionally, Driver simply runs out of gas, as when he burns several minutes on pointless footage of gymnasts giving an exhibition. While Crawford and Principal are both attractive specimens, neither contributes anything memorable in terms of performance. And although the behind-the-scenes participation of the great songwriter Jimmy Webb is noteworthy, since he’s only composed scores for a handful of films, he doesn’t excel here, either, though the music he contributes to a war montage is powerful.

The Naked Ape: LAME

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

          “Why is everything so hard for me?” That simple question epitomizes the poignant impact of The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, a drama from German writer-director Werner Herzog that’s also known as Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Based on the true story of a mysterious youth who appeared in a Bavarian village during the 19th century claiming to have spent his entire life locked in a basement—hence his inability to speak or even to perform basic life skills—the picture unfolds like a sad fairy tale. Shot in a minimalistic style but energized with artful compositions and lighting, the movie opens in a grim dungeon, where Kaspar (Bruno S.) is chained to the floor. Capable only of eating and playing with simple toys, Kaspar is perplexed when his guardian frees him, carries him outside for quick lessons in how to walk and how to speak an introductory sentence, and then delivers him to a small village.
          The residents of the village discover Kaspar soon afterward, standing in a courtyard with a bewildered expression on his face and a bizarre handwritten letter from his guardian held in his hand. According to the letter, Kaspar was given to the guardian when Ksapar was an infant, but the guardian was too poor and too preoccupied with his own children to raise the boy properly. The villagers accept Kaspar as a ward of the state, teaching him hygiene and manners. The most melancholy and provocative scenes in the film depict Kaspar’s reactions when people try to explain religion. Beyond his inability to grasp abstract concepts, Kaspar cannot fathom the notion of almighty being who could tolerate the kind of loneliness and suffering that characterizes Kaspar’s life. Equally maddening is a scene of a university professor “testing” Kaspar’s ability to exercise logic: Kaspar proves clever and thoughtful, but because he cannot articulate his notions via the accepted vernacular of the intelligentsia, he’s deemed an idiot by default. As Kaspar says in a moment of existential despair, “I am so far away from everything.”
          Throughout his career, Herzog has displayed a special ability for discovering obscure true-life stories that are suitable for conveying his singular worldview. Like the grim fictional feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and the harrowing documentary Grizzly Man (2005), among many others, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is filled with questions about the meaning of life. In Herzog’s best films, existence is portrayed a grind of hardship and suffering redeemed only by fleeting moments of compassion and transcendence. That’s why Herzog’s casting of Bruno S. in the lead role works so well, even though on many levels the casting is bonkers. In addition to being a nonactor, Bruno S. was in his 40s when he made Kaspar Hauser; the real Kaspar was a teenager when he first appeared. A former mental patient who worked as a laborer and a street musician, Bruno S. seems just as detached from the normal world as the real Kaspar must have been.
          Since Herzog maintains a tight focus on the principal storyline, instead of venturing off into the tangents that dilute many of his films, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is one of the director’s strongest efforts. Like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a profound examination of society’s unwillingness to embrace those who are truly different. As seen through the unusual prism of Herzog’s directorial perspective, Kaspar comes across as a being so closely connected to the basic rhythms of the universe that his otherness is a living condemnation of the walls society builds to protect itself from natural forces.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

O Lucky Man! (1973)

          Throughout film history, noteworthy actor/director collaborations have produced fascinating results. Ford and Wayne. Fellini and Mastroianni. Scorsese and De Niro. Then there are collaborations on the order of a three-film cycle that British director Lindsay Anderson made with Malcolm McDowell. In if . . . (1968), O Lucky Man!, and Brittania Hospital (1982), McDowell plays a character named Mick Travis, although the films are not linked by narrative continuity. The character is more of a concept representing something about the identity of the average UK citizen, and Anderson drops the concept into whatever scenario each movie explores. Whereas the first and last films in the cycle are relatively straightforward allegories about specific institutions (namely boarding schools and hospitals), O Lucky Man is the cinematic equivalent of a sprawling absurdist novel. By turns, the picture is a comedy, a drama, a fantasy, a musical, a satire, and an impossible-to-classify experiment.
          The movie doesn’t work in any conventional sense, and it’s laughably overlong at nearly three hours. Yet O Lucky Man! is skillfully made on a scene-to-scene basis, and the gonzo extremes of the storytelling produce a few memorable moments. Trying to parse what it all means, however, seems a sure path to madness.
          The movie opens with a black-and-white prologue presented like a short silent film—wearing heavy makeup and a cartoonish moustache, McDowell plays a South American laborer who gets caught stealing beans from a coffee farm and has his hands amputated. Next, Anderson cuts to a recording studio, where real-life British musician Alan Price (formerly of blues-rock band the Animals) leads his group through an on-camera performance of the film’s ironic theme song. And then the story proper begins, with Mick Travis graduating from a training program to become a coffee salesman. By this point, the basic mode of the film is set. Anderson uses vignettes of Price singing tunes in order to bridge episodes of Mick experiencing peculiar adventures, and the tone of the movie shifts, often quite shockingly, from episode to episode.
          Running throughout the piece is a generalized quality of social satire, since people in the movie don’t act like normal human beings. Adding yet another layer to the overall artificiality is Anderson’s trope of cutting to black not only between scenes but also during scenes. In many ways, O Lucky Man! feels like the sort of thing a first-year student at film school might make before realizing that resonant content usually delivers stronger results than insouciant affectations. That said, there’s something admirable about the youthful zest in Anderson’s experimentation, though his camerawork and dramaturgy are conventional. At times, the movie seems at war with itself from a stylistic perspective, but it’s just as possible that Anderson envisioned chaos as his guiding aesthetic. For instance, several actors—including the great Sir Ralph Richardson—appear throughout the movie playing multiple roles, even though McDowell only interacts with them as Mick Travis.
          Listing some of the random images in the picture should give a sense of its bizarre sprawl. On one of his sales stops, Mick attends a stag party where cheerful attendees demand to see the “chocolate sandwich,” an onstage sexual encounter between a black man and two white ladies. Mick volunteers for a medical experiment, only to flee when he discovers that the head of a fellow volunteer has been grafted onto the body of a sheep. Mick stumbles onto a military installation, where he’s violently interrogated while a vendor casually sells tea to his torturers. Mick romances a young woman (Helen Mirren) whose father (Richardson) is a super-wealthy businessman, and a job opening emerges at the father’s company when an executive jumps through an office window to his death dozens of stories below. Other items in O Lucky Man! include a blackface sequence, a conspiracy to obliterate African rebels with nerve gas, a judge who enjoys S&M, and a bit during which the lyrics to one of Price’s songs appear onscreen in multiple languages.
          O Lucky Man! is a colossally weird film, but at the same time it’s so deliberate and formal that it lacks the abandon of, say, a proper Ken Russell phantasmagoria. It’s simultaneously insane and tame. FYI, McDowell receives onscreen credit for coming up with the idea for O Lucky Man! One can only imagine how such an idea might have been articulated.

O Lucky Man!: FREAKY

Monday, April 6, 2015

Private Duty Nurses (1971)

          The second in a loose series of sexy-nurse flicks made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, this pointless but nearly respectable drama was the directorial debut of George Armitage, who later found his niche with such gonzo projects as Vigilante Force (1975) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). Throughout Private Duty Nurses, one can feel Armitage struggling to integrate substantial topics, and to his credit the exploitive bits of the movie pass quickly. However, Private Duty Nurses ends up failing on two levels—it’s neither the eroticized romp promised by lurid marketing materials nor a serious drama with sociopolitical heft. In trying to serve two masters, Armitage ended up making something formless and forgettable.
          As per the norm of the sexy-nurse cycle, Private Duty Nurses follows the personal and professional lives of a group of attractive young RNs. Lola (Pegi Boucher) is an African-American woman who dates a black doctor campaigning against racist hiring practices at their hospital. Lynn (Pegi Boucher) romances an ecological activist who investigates connections between mysterious deaths and oceanic pollution. And bleeding-heart blonde Spring (Kathy Cannon) tries to coax a tormented Vietnam vet into health with sex and TLC. There’s also a meandering subplot about the girls’ landlord, Dewey (Paul Hampton), a creepy would-be stud who seduces one of the ladies back to his bachelor pad, only to prove virtually impotent. And, naturally, one of the girls gets raped, because apparently no ’70s exploitation movie was considered complete without sexual assault.
          Within individual scenes, Armitage generates fleeting moments of credible drama. He’s at his best depicting the weird dissonance between Dewey’s come-on routines and the man’s shoddy bedroom performance. Armitage does weird well—but weird is not the coin of this particular realm, and Armitage (who also wrote and produced the picture) displays zero interest in delivering a straight-up skin show. Although he manages to get each of his leading actresses topless at some point, the director’s boredom with such B-movie bits as extended scenes of dirt-bike racing is evident. It doesn’t help that the cast lacks any standouts. (Minor exception: Hampton’s oily turn as Dewey.) The leading actresses are attractive and some of them are more competent performers than others. Meanwhile, jobbing actors including Paul Gleason, Herbert Jefferson Jr., and Robert F. Simon deliver work that’s merely adequate.
          Nonetheless, proving that one should never underestimate the power of salacious marketing, Private Duty Nurses did well enough to justify a continuation of the sexy-nurse cycle. Three more movies followed.

Private Duty Nurses: FUNKY

Sunday, April 5, 2015

1.5 Million Page Views!

Once again, it’s time to thank the readers of Every ’70s Movie for their continued support—as of yesterday, the blog has received over 1.5 million page views. In fact, hitting the 2-million mark before the blog runs its course seems almost certain to happen at the current rate, which is an incredible validation for this endeavor. Thank you! For those of you who visit the blog once in a while, and especially for those of of you who read regularly, please consider making a donation to help support the project. Based on a master list of all titles that meet the blog’s criteria, the three-quarter mark is visible on the horizon, which means that tangible costs will soon be incurred in the process of tracking down the most obscure ’70s movies. No donation amount is too big or too small to make a difference. The more everyone helps, the greater the possibility this blog’s title will become a complete reality. Meantime, keep chiming in via the comments section, and hopefully you will continue to learn about interesting new (or should that be old?) movies every day. Thanks again!

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

          Along with the conspiracy thriller and the downbeat character study, the road movie is among the genres that are most crucial to the story of American cinema during the ’70s. The concept of rootless nobodies forming surrogate families while traveling through the heartland says volumes about disaffected national identity in the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate. That’s why it’s tempting to cut a lot of slack for a picture along the lines of Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, even though the most objective critical assessment reveals Rafferty to be a travelogue of uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. The dignity and novelty of Rafferty and pieces of the same ilk can be found in the humdrum foibles of the unsophisticated characters. After all, some of the best New Hollywood movies broke new ground by giving voices to the voiceless. In other words, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins contains many small pleasures for fans of a certain type of scruffy ’70s movie—while those seeking big laughs, heroic characters, and a memorable storyline should look elsewhere.
          Alan Arkin, working at the apex of his chilly oddness, stars as Rafferty, a former USMC gunnery sergeant now working a pointless job at a DMV office in Hollywood. Drinking heavily, living in squalor, treating his job contemptuously, and wallowing in regret after years of being a passenger in his own life, Rafferty is ready for a change. While on a lunch break one afternoon, he’s kidnapped at gunpoint by two drifters—grown-up Mac (Sally Kellerman) and teenaged Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips). The ladies demand that Rafferty drive them to New Orleans. Rafferty manages to escape, but he soon realizes that he doesn’t want to resume his old life, so he rejoins the women as a willing traveling companion. Escapades ensue. Most of what happens in Rafferty is contrived in the extreme, even though some moments of gentle character work reflect sensitivity and thoughtfulness on the part of the filmmakers. A long sequence set in Mac’s hometown, for instance, feels credible thanks to the parade of rural dreamers and schemers who interact with the protagonists.
          Unfortunately, Arkin’s character never quite clicks as a believable human being, while Kellerman’s drifts in and out of realistic behavior. Grotesques played by Alex Rocco, Charles Martin Smith, and Harry Dean Stanton (who is especially wonderful here) resonate more strongly, perhaps because the filmmakers simply parachute into the lives of these low-rent fools for quick, purposeful vignettes. As for Phillips’ character, picture a second-rate version of the many precocious girls Jodie Foster played in ’70s movies, and you’re almost there—Phillips plays a one-note role well. From start to finish, writer John Kaye and director Dick Richards struggle to fill the movie’s slight 91-minute running time with a sufficient number of events, occasionally resorting to such filler as a chase scene and a musical number. Like the precious powder in its title, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins is so wispy that its forever at risk of blowing away.

Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins: FUNKY

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cannibal Girls (1973)

Seeing as how Ivan Reitman has spent most of his career directing family-friendly comedies, it’s odd to realize that the Canadian filmmaker was heavy into horror during his early years. In fact, his first project to gain a stateside release was his sophomore directorial effort, the shabby gorefest Cannibal Girls. Generously described in some quarters as a spoof of horror flicks, the movie plays straight simply because neither the characterizations nor the storyline has sufficient wit to produce reactions other than boredom. The only reason Cannibal Girls isn’t a total snooze is that Reitman periodically displays blood or breasts (if not both simultaneously). There’s also some novelty value stemming from Reitman’s involvement and the presence of future comedy stars Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin, whose roles are only quasi-comedic in nature. However, Cannibal Girls is perhaps best characterized as an embarrassing rite of passage that each of the participants had to endure on the way to better things. Set in rural Ontario, the picture follows young lovers Clifford (Levy) and Gloria (Martin), who stumble into a small town where three young women are reputed to be cannibals. Meanwhile, Reitman depicts the adventures of the young women, who woo men back to their remote home, kill the men, and eat their flesh. The women are under the thrall of Reverend Alex St. John (Ronald Ulrich), a loon who spews nonsense about extending life by consuming people. Eventually, Clifford and Gloria end up in the killers’ lair, with nasty results. Cheap-looking, clumsily edited, and filled with forgettable performances, Cannibal Girls probably spends too much time on dialogue scenes to keep gore mavens interested, and it offers nothing to beguile general viewers. In sum, Cannibal Girls offers scant evidence that just one decade later, Reitman would masterfully blend comedy and horror in Ghostbusters (1984).

Cannibal Girls: LAME

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fata Morgana (1971)

          Challenging, enigmatic, and strange, the quasi-documentary Fata Morgana was among the iconoclastic German director Werner Herzog’s earliest feature-length projects. Working with a tiny crew, Herzog filmed weird images in the Sahara Desert, most of which illustrate the titular optical phenomenon of hazy sights playing against a flat horizon. Additionally, Herzog filmed such random things as decaying animal carcasses, impoverished laborers doing miserable work in punishing heat, and the wreckage from a plane crash. Fusing all of this material together in the editing room, Herzog married the footage with gloomy music (including several songs by Mr. Sunshine himself, Canadian tunesmith Leonard Cohen) and then layered ponderous narration atop the singular mix. In the first section of the movie, titled “The Creation,” Herzog engages questions about the beginning of the world. “Invisible was the face of the Earth,” the narrator drones. “There was only nothingness.” Some of this material is interesting in an abstract sort of way, but the fact that the picture begins with about a dozen repetitious shots of planes landing indicates Herzog’s utter disinterest in creating anything that could be characterized as entertainment. This is Art with a capital “A,” complete with all the positive and negative connotations that statement suggests.
          Eventually, the movie segues into its second section, “The Paradise,” which seems to convey Herzog’s signature philosophy that man is a toxic influence on the planet, and that the planet is inherently destructive and hostile, anyway. Herzog shares a few truly compelling images, then empowers them in his distinctive way by lingering on the images until they become hypnotic—as with a menacingly beautiful shot of flame (presumably from a burning oil deposit) rumbling against a perfect blue sky. Occasionally, Herzog’s fancy leads him toward images that seem trivial by comparison, such as a long vignette of a young boy proudly displaying his pet cat while flies buzz around the boy and the cat. By the time the picture reaches its brief final segment, “The Golden Age,” the viewer’s patience has been mightily tested. During this last segment, Herzog fixates on the kitschy sight of a singing drummer belting out tunes through an awful PA system while a stocky woman accompanies him on piano. “In the Golden Age, man and wife live in harmony,” the narrator says as the musicians play. “Now, for example, they appear before the lens of the camera, death in their eyes, a smile on their faces, a finger in the pie.” In his strongest films, Herzog presents existential mysteries that demand deeper investigation. In Fata Morgana, he merely presents things that are, at best, puzzling.

Fata Morgana: FUNKY