Saturday, September 12, 2020

Limbo (1972)

          Early cinematic explorations of the Vietnam War largely focused on military action, draft dodgers, or the emotional lives of returning veterans. Limbo investigates the Vietnam era from a different angle by dramatizing the lives of three women whose husbands are MIA. Mary Kay (Kathleen Nolan) channels her anguish into antiwar activism. Sharon (Katherine Justice) hides behind a shield of unquestioning patriotism. And Sandy (Kate Jackson) finds herself caught between her obligations to an absent husband and the happiness offered by a new lover. In terms of narrative structure, Limbo is schematic to a fault, neatly assigning one set of emotions to each storyline, though there’s a bit of overlap since Mary Kay also takes a lover. Yet this heavy-handedness doesn’t completely obscure the sincerity of the endeavor—so even though Limbo feels like an earnest TV movie, it’s still a poignant take on a worthy subject.
          Notwithstanding a quick framing sequence, the picture begins on an Air Force base in Florida, when Sandy gets the news that her husband is MIA. After meeting Mary Kay and Sharon in a support group, Sandy moves in with the other women. Soap-style plotting ensues as Sandy gets courted by amiable gas-station attendant Alan (Russell Wiggins) and as Mary Kay succumbs to advances from a homely everyman named Phil (Stuart Margolin). The contrast between these storylines is the picture’s strongest element. Coloring the Sandy/Alan scenes is the fact that Sandy’s marriage was rocky before her husband departed for overseas service, so she doesn’t perceive her actions as a romantic betrayal. Conversely, because Mary Kay and Phil are older, their dalliance plays like a pragmatic means to an end—two adults dulling each other’s pain. All the while, Sharon becomes more and more judgmental of her friends, even as she resists acknowledging that the institutions to which she’s pledged herself—not just the Air Force but also the U.S. government—may not deserve her devotion. Running through the whole piece, of course, is profound ambiguity toward America’s involvement in Vietnam.
          Cowriter Joan Micklin Silver, later to become a significant director, based her original script on interviews with wives of MIA soldiers. She was rewritten by the experienced James Bridges, a storyteller whose humanism was often undercut by his perfunctory approach to plotting. The blend of their styles is not ideal; many scenes are so gentle and understated as to feel lifeless, while others awkwardly strive for impact by expressing sociopolitical angst through underwhelming speeches. Also working against the movie’s goals are bland staging by director Mark Robson, an impossibly square musical score, and several pedestrian performances. Nolan has a few believably impassioned moments, Justice connects when her character’s façade cracks, and Margolin’s squirrely energy brightens his scenes. Alas, leading lady Jackson captures the surfaces of her character’s plight but only hints at the depths—note the many shots of Jackson looking into the distance with wide eyes and a gaping mouth, as if she’s as lost in her performance as her character is lost in a sad life.

Limbo: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Explosion (1970)

          The building blocks of a passable draft-dodger melodrama can be found somewhere inside Explosion, an American/Canadian production released stateside in 1970, but flaws ranging from an inept script to a terrible leading performance doom the picture. In the Pacific Northwest during the Vietnam War, college-aged Alan (Gordon Thompson) broods over the recent death of his brother, who had designs on avoiding military service by sneaking into Canada. Even though Alan is protected from the draft by a student deferment, he’s as intent on fleeing to the Great White North as his late brother was. Why? Explosion never provides satisfying answers to such questions. For instance, why does Alan visit his brother’s grieving girlfriend, Doris (Michèle Chiocine), then beat her during an attempted rape? The best answer the movie can conjure is that Alan’s on, like, a heavy emotional trip, man. Eventually, Alan befriends a longhair named Richie (Don Stroud) and they travel to British Columbia, finding work at a lumber operation. Later, when the guys cross paths with a pair of cops while joyriding in a stolen car, Alan shoots the cops dead. Why doesn’t Richie run away? Add that one to the heap of unanswered questions.

          Following the cop sequence, the picture cross-cuts between scenes of the guys on the run and scenes of Alan’s shrink, Dr. Neal (Richard Conte), trying to find and rescue his patient. One imagines that cowriter/director Julies Bricken envisioned a parable about young people feeling disconnected from their country, but any hope of nuance died when Bricken characterized Alan as a one-note psychopath. Exacerbating the problem is a laughably stilted performance by Thompson, who later became a mainstay on soaps (notably Dynasty and Sunset Beach). Stroud, always a live-wire actor, does what he can playing a nonsensical role, but he’s not reason enough to watch the picture. Despite a few suspenseful moments, Explosion’s storyline is so erratic that one lighthearted interlude features a pillow fight. Seriously! On the opposite extreme, veteran composer Sol Kaplan’s score is painfully overwrought. And that’s Explosion—too much of everything the movie doesn’t need, too little of everything it does.

Explosion: LAME

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Outside In (1972)

          The draft-dodger drama Outside In starts off strong—first comes a tense border crossing during which Ollie Wilson (Darrell Larson) sneaks back into the U.S. from Canada, and then comes a funeral, during which Ollie barely evades capture by FBI agents while attending his father’s burial. Alas, the picture shifts into slow gear after the opening salvo, and the sedate quality of the storytelling undercuts the intensity of the subject matter. Still, Outside In is an earnest endeavor, and the fact that it was released three different times during the early ‘70s, each time with a different title, indicates that the picture’s backers recognized something exploitable (beyond costar Heather Menzies’ nude scenes, which are prominently teased on the original poster). For the curious, the picture’s other titles are the blunt Draft Dodger and the incrementally more imaginative Red, White and Busted.
          After his escape from FBI agents at the cemetary, Ollie visits old friend Bink (John Bill), who in turn connects Ollie with Chris (Menzies), the owner of a small beach house at which Ollie is given permission to crash while he’s in LA. Over the course of several leisurely days (or weeks—hard to tell), Ollie contemplates his next move. Weighing heavily on his mind are visits with another old friend, Bernard (Dennis Olivieri), who also dodged the draft but got caught and served time behind bars. Now angry, paranoid, and whacked out on pills, Bernard wastes his time working behind the counter at a porno store. Although Ollie finds his fugitive life depressing, Bernard’s example makes facing legal consequences seem horrific. Predictably, Ollie falls in love with Chris, who’s so mellow that she wanders around the house naked and reacts gracefully once she learns the truth about Ollie’s situation.
          Outside In ambles from one adequate scene to the next, losing what little momentum it has during flat romantic passages, and it feels as if some of the most potentially interesting scenes were never even contemplated by the filmmakers, much less attempted. Where’s the big confrontation between Ollie and his mother? And why did the filmmakers bother establishing friction between Ollie and his callous uncle, seeing as how that subplot never goes anywhere? Oh, well. The best material is the stuff with Bernard, because those scenes hit the main theme effectively—and because Oliveri’s performance is as fiery as Larsons is muted. FYI, many sources list character actor G.D. Spradlin as co-director of this picture, but his name appears nowhere on the credits. It’s possible that confusion arose because the same year this picture was released, Spradlin directed something called The Only Way Home, which shares a writer with Outside In.

Outside In: FUNKY

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Title List Updated

Greetings from the world of Every ’70s Movie with a brief housekeeping update. The lengthy title list that runs down the right side of this blog’s layout was recently updated, fixing a nettlesome issue that began a few years back when the listing functionality started behaving unpredictably. Hundreds of titles have been added to the list, so for those of you who enjoy checking the list to see what’s missing—or scanning the list for titles you’d like to investigate—the list should now include every movie that’s been reviewed on the blog. If you happen to encounter any broken links or discover a title thats been reviewed on the site but is somehow missing from the title list, please let me know and Ill try to address the issue ASAP. (Some general streamlining of the blog layout was also completed as part of the same updating process, though only the most obsessive of readers is likely to notice the changes.) Anyway, that’s it for the update, so now it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming—as has been the case since regular daily posting ended, watch for occasional new posts as previously unavailable titles cross my path and as time becomes available for me to write about them. Meantime, keep on keepin’ on!

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

American Tickler (1977)

In the years before and after Saturday Night Live’s debut, a number of low-budget movies either anticipated or mimicked the show’s format of comedy sketches satirizing mainstream media as well as society at large. Among the least of these endeavors is American Tickler, one of several raunchy comedies that Chuck Vincent directed while moonlighting from his day job as a pornographer. As always, the fact that Vincent demonstrates nominal skill makes watching American Tickler frustrating, because one senses that he could have occasionally rendered passable entertainment if he didn’t pander so shamelessly to the lowest common denominator. In any event, American Tickler combines a trivial recurring story with a whole bunch of throwaway gags. The recurring story involves several groups of people chasing after a treasure chest, and this element of the movie is exactly is forgettable as it sounds. Some of the sketches are truly vulgar, such as the one about New York being terrorized by a giant monster called “King Dong,” which is thankfully never shown. Equally dopey sketches include “The Happy Cooker,” about the erotic culinary adventures of one “Xaviera Collander,” and a PSA for “The National Pervert Foundation.” As did other comedy pieces of the same vintage, American Tickler also tries to make light of senseless murder, hence the bit in which a pre-SNL Joe Piscopo provides color commentary for a contest involving crazed snipers. Probably the best American Tickler has to offer is the game-show parody in which contestants wager the lives of their loved ones against mystery prizes, because at least that bit says something, however trite, about greed. There’s nothing special here, but as junk sketch comedy goes, the most watchable bits in American Tickler are roughly equivalent to the worst stuff SNL ever aired, so set your expectations appropriately.

American Tickler: LAME

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

          Easily one of the most famous unfinished movies in world-cinema history, Orson Welles’ elusive The Other Side of the Wind—filming for which spanned 1970 to 1976—finally entered public view, more or less, when producer Frank Marshall supervised assembly and post-production of Welles’ decades-old footage, leading to a 2018 debut at the Venice International Film Festival. (Marshall was also part of the original Wind crew.) While not exactly a proper completion of the project, since Welles died in 1985 without finishing so much as a rough cut, the Marshall-supervised approximation of Wind is now available for examination by any cinematic explorer with a Netflix password.
          Though it seems rather crass to discuss this unique artifact in such mundane terms, the question of whether Wind is worth watching depends entirely on who is asking. Those eager to discover some lost addition to Welles’ mainstream canon should pass without a moment’s hesistation. Those willing to burrow into the madness of a guess at the final form of an experimental film made in an improvisational manner by an artist prone to abandoning projects for reasons that confounded his collaborators should have a better idea of what to expect.
          First, the plot, such as it is. John Huston plays J.J. Hannaford, an aging director in the tough-guy mode eager to make a hip new picture full of intense sexual content and youthful angst. One evening, Hannaford assembles his social circle, plus lots of groupies and sycophants, for a work-in-progress screening. Welles shoots the Hannaford scenes with myriad angles, as if everyone at the party has a camera, and he occasionally cuts to more polished footage comprising Hannaford’s picture, the plot of which falls somewhere between cryptic and nonexistent. Sloshing through this soup of intriguing, lofty, and/or pretentious concepts are performances by Peter Bogdanovich, whose character has a twisted apprentice/mentor relationship with Hannfaord (shades of Bogdanovich’s real-life bond with Welles); Susan Strasberg, as a Pauline Kael-esque critic; Norman Foster, as a has-been actor reduced to serving as Hannfaord’s errand boy; and Oja Kodar, Welles’ real-life mistress, as the actress who stars in Hannford’s movie.
          As should be apparent by now, this is a whole lot to process, especially since Welles largely eschews conventional plotting mechanisms, forcing viewers to piece the “plot” together. It’s relatively easy to follow the broad strokes, but tracking subplots and the interrelationships of supporting characters is quite challenging. The Other Side of the Wind is so overstuffed that it’s hard for the viewer to separate what the film is trying to be from what the film actually is—the piece demands but only occasionally rewards close scrutiny.
          Every so often, a random character will drop a great line, as when someone explains to Hannaford that several acolytes fled: “Five of our best biographers just went over to Preminger!” Just as intermittently, the film locks into a spellbinding stretch—best of all, perhaps, is a long erotic sequence from the film within a film, permeated with so many psychedelic visual effects that it’s both a full-on freakout and a study in meticulous technique. The relationship between the Huston and Bogdanovich characters is poignant and weird, rendered effectively by both actor/directors. (One almost wishes Welles nixed his overbearing visual gimmickry during the characters’ sad falling-out scene.)
          Situated dead center in this whole bizarre enterprise is Kodar, who never delivers a line of dialogue and frequently performs without the encumberance of garments. Not only is there something unseemly about Welles crafting arty nude shots of his decades-younger girlfriend, but Kodar is not an especially compelling presence. Her centrality thus provides an apt metaphor representing the way in which Welles misdirected his attentions. His innate talents are evident throughout The Other Side of the Wind, but artistic discipline is wholly absent. In one scene, studio boss Max (Geoffrey Land) views some of Hannaford’s footage, then asks Billy—the errand boy played by Foster—what happens next. Billy’s sheepish reply? “I’m not really sure, Max.” And so it goes throughout this only fleetingly exhilarating glimpse into Welles’ voluptuous creativity.
          FYI, Netflix commissioned a feature-length documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of Welles’ movie. Although it leaves many key mysteries unsolved, the imaginatively assembled doc is essential viewing after experiencing The Other Side of the Wind.

The Other Side of the Wind: FUNKY

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dark August (1976)

          Clumsily rendered and woefully deficient in terms of actual thrills, rural horror picture Dark August nonetheless has primitive magnetism. Even as the juxtaposition of amateurish and professional performances generates weird tension, the interplay between restrained dramaturgy and sketchy technical execution lends Dark August a handmade quality. Every so often, a scene vibrates with persuasive naturalism, as when an encounter in the center of a small town gets captured by a meandering camera during a long take. Yet just as frequently, something misses the mark so badly as to approach camp, as when a witch recites line after laughable line of an interminable incantation. Even when it’s dull and/or silly, however, Dark August retains a consistently ominous vibe, because in lieu of big shocks, the picture submerges viewers into the troubled emotional state of the leading character. For that reason alone, Dark August withstands scrutiny better than most low-budget regional frightfests—whatever its shortcomings, the movie has thoughtful aspirations.
          J.J. Barry, a doughy character actor who slogged out a minor Hollywood career from 1969 to 1990, stars as Sal Devito, a big-city transplant trying to make a new life as an artist in tiny Stowe, Vermont. He has a loving girlfriend and some friends, but Sal is haunted because soon after his arrival in Stowe, he accidentally struck and killed a little girl with his car. Beset by nightmares, seizures, and visions, Sal becomes convinced that the little girl’s grandfather is bedeviling him, so Sal seeks help from a local mystic, Adrianna (Kim Hunter). Her quasi-Wiccan endeavors to aid Sal inadvertently make the situation worse. There are long stretches of inactivity in Dark August, and Barry is not an arresting presence, so the picture requires more patience than it should. Yet the use of real locations, the avoidance of obvious shock tactics, and the focus on Sal’s unraveling combines to create something like sincerity. Barry cowrote the script with his wife, Carolyne Barry (who costars under the pseudonym Carole Shelyne), and with Martin Goldman (who directs), so one gets the impression of filmmakers with limited talent putting forth their best efforts to make something worthwhile. They don’t get there, but they deserve praise for trying. An anxious score by William S. Fischer helps make the picture palatable, as does the professionalism of veteran performer Hunter, who has the thankless chore of reciting that lengthy incantation.

Dark August: FUNKY

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Pyramid (1976)

          Regional productions comprise a fascinating subsection of ’70s cinema, because these may well be the most truly independent narrative features of the era. After all, making a movie untethered to traditional distribution channels gives filmmakers license to express themselves as freely as their budgets, schedules, and talents will allow. It is in this context that one can most generously consider The Pyramid, a peculiar exploration of hippie-era spirituality created by writer/director Gary Kent. (His other credits, scattered across American cinema from the 1950s to the present, include such highlights as portraying “Rapist #1” in Al Adamson’s 1972 schlockfest Angels’ Wild Women.)
          Competently if not dazzingly photographed, The Pyramid concerns a Dallas-based TV reporter who embarks on an existential odyssey. After witnessing one tragedy too many and getting fired for mouthing off to his boss (and wasting company resources on personal projects not suitable for broadcast), the reporter turns inward, exploring group therapy, the healing qualities of making it with a sexy vegetarian babe, and the magical powers of objects shaped like pyramids. Kent’s meandering movie also manages to address Kirlian photography, telepathic messages transmitted from space, and a Hollywood starlet who wants you to understand that she just filmed a nude scene, thank you very much, not a sex scene.
          Clearly, Kent had a lot on his mind—some of it quite interesting, some of it less so—but just as clearly, he lacked the discipline required to distill his thoughts into a propulsive story. As a result, protagonist Chris Lowe (C.W. Brown) wanders aimlessly from one episode to the next, raging at the machine whenever he encounters proof that the system is rigged against freethinkers or underdogs or whomever else he decides to champion. Meanwhile, Chris’ buddy LaMoine Peabody (Ira Hawkins), an ambitious on-air personality, rises through the ranks at a local TV station even though, in his private life, he abuses his girlfriend and harbors self-destructive impulses. What do all of these things have to do with each other? If Kent had a good answer to that question, he didn’t embed it into The Pyramid.
          Every so often, Kent hits a nice groove, whether it’s with a gentle scene of characters getting in touch with their feelings or a satirical scene about the film industry. (In one lively bit, Chris tries to sell an earnest documentary to an exhibitor who only wants pictures with “broads and music.”) Yet the lack of any discernible narrative plan makes it hard to hook into Chris’ story or, for that matter, any other aspect of The Pyramid excepting a few vivid sequences. Still, The Pyramid seems sincere, even when it traffics in such clichés as the bearded mystic who intones profundities (e.g., “You must die before you live”). So, while The Pyramid is nowhere near the transcendent experience that Kent presumably envisioned, it has some truthful moments, and it presents a few ideas worth pondering.

The Pyramid: FUNKY

Saturday, November 2, 2019

4.5 Million Page Views!

Once again, salutations from the world beyond Every ’70s Movie! Although the pace of posts has greatly slowed in recent months, primarily because it’s getting more and more difficult to lay my eyeballs on content I haven’t seen before, it is mightily gratifying that readers continue to check out the blog. Yesterday, viewership reached another big milestone: Every ’70s Movie has now received more than 4.5 million page views. Thank you! As always, if you know how to track down films that have not yet appeared on the blog, please share your information with me. (Use the direct-message function if the video source needs to remain private.) To remind everyone of the parameters, the main focus of the blog is American produced (or co-produced) narrative movies that were commercially released in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1979. I also occasionally review notable documentaries, foreign films, and telefilms, but the goal in this late stage of the project is to focus on theatrical features that have thus far escaped my grasp. To check whether a movie has appeared on the blog, I recommend using the search box located in the upper left-hand side of the home page, because the title list running along the right-hand side of the home page is overdue for an update. (If all goes well, I will tackle that project during the coming holiday season.) Thanks for reading, thanks in advance for your help finding missing titles, and keep on keepin’ on!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Glass Houses (1972)

          Offering a scandalous twist on the already-lurid genre of cross-generational love stories, Glass Houses imagines a scenario wherein a middle-aged patriarch’s infidelity arouses the sexual curiosity of his 19-year-old daughter. Although Glass Houses doesn’t follow this premise to its logical conclusion, the clear implication is that something highly inappropriate may soon happen. This naturally raises the question of why the filmmakers felt compelled to tell this story. Did they mean to suggest that a man who sleeps with a woman young enough to be his daughter may also be tempted to sleep with his actual daughter? And since the adulterer’s wife eventually takes a lover of her own, do the filmmakers mean to say that a man who starts down the road of violating sexual propriety should not be surprised when others in his household do the same? Glass Houses is too shallow to provide satisfying answers to these questions, but it’s not accurate to describe the picture as mere sensationalistic provocation. Some measure of thought went into the film, as did some measure of cinematic craftsmanship.
          Victor (Bernard Barrow) runs a board-game company with his business partner, Ted (Phillip Pine). Victor is married to Adele (Ann Summers), and their daughter is Kim (Deirdre Lenihan). Victor’s mistress is a beautiful young model named Jean (Jennifer O’Neill). Kim is hip to Victor’s dalliances, but she doesn’t know the specifics until one fateful weekend. At Jean’s behest, Victor accompanies her to the “Institute of Encounter Awareness,” which is just as hippy-dippy as it sounds. While there, Victor stumbles across his business partner, Ted, who brought his own much-younger lover to the Institute. She is Kim, Victor’s daughter. (Side note: A lengthy sex scene with Ted and Kim is both the movies most perceptive vignette and its most unpleasant.) Although neither Kim nor Jean freak out upon discovering the seedy connections between characters, squaresville Victor has trouble processing everything.
          Not much else happens in Glass Houses, excepting Adele’s unglamorous tryst with a lecherous author, so most of the drama hangs on shots of Barrow and/or Pine looking perplexed about modern attitudes toward sex. (Adultery? Fine! Progressive morality? Hey, just a minute!) Directed and co-written by prolific TV director Alexander Singer, Glass Houses reflects the hypocricy of its male characters, inasmuch as the camera often lingers on young female flesh. That being said, Singer and his collaborators seem legitimately concerned with examining societal changes, even if they fall short of providing fresh insights. The same is true of the picture’s artistic elements, because the tricky cross-cutting used in certain scenes feels awfully familiar given how prevalent that style was in social dramas of the late ’60s.   

Glass Houses: FUNKY

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Cherry Hill High (1977)

I will leave to someone else the task of determining which movie was the first to feature a plot about groups of teenagers competing to be the first to lose their virginity. Suffice to say that’s the storyline of Cherry Hill High, in which the competitors are five sexy high-school girls on a summertime bike trip supervised by an adult female chaperone with a permissive attitude toward teen sexuality. (She also digs getting it on in a vat of grapes, but never mind that.) Allegedly a comedy, Cherry Hill High creates one elaborate deflowering vignette for each of the teenagers. Some of these vignettes are mildly imaginative, some are grotesque, and some are both. And while the picture is photographed in a more or less competent manner, the combination of crude dialogue, tacky situations, and weak acting affirms the picture’s status as medium-grade softcore. In other words, it’s all about lingering looks at young female flesh, presented in the context of a male fantasy about sex-crazed girls. Not only do the ladies in the movie spend nearly all their shared onscreen time talking about how horny they are, but the picture even features a girl-on-girl scene designed very much for the male gaze. None of this is surprising or unusual given the climate of late-’70s teen-sex movies, but then again, nothing about Cherry Hill High is surprising or unusual. The picture is brisk and watchable (depending upon one’s tolerance for sleaze), and it delivers exactly what it promises. So if you dig the idea of one girl losing it underwater while a nearby shark goes crazy when her body releases blood, or the idea of another girl making it with a guy in a chicken suit on a Price Is Right-type game show, then this is the low-budget smutfest you never knew you wanted to see.

Cherry Hill High: LAME

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Help Me . . . I’m Possessed (1974)

This low-budget shocker’s working title, Nightmare at Blood Castle, suits the mysoginistic content better than the moniker used during a brief theatrical release, since demonic possession may well be the only horror cliché not on display here. Presented somewhat in the Herschell Gordon Lewis style, only with slightly more competent camerawork, Help Me . . . I’m Possessed tells the unbelievable and uninteresting story of a mad doctor, Arthur Blackwood (Bill Greer), performing vile experiments in the dungeon of his castle. Assisting Dr. Blackwood is the requisite thuggish hunchback, Karl (Pierre Agostino). It’s never completely clear what Dr. Blackwood hopes to accomplish, how he finances his activities, or how he has thus far escaped close scrutiny from law enforccment. After all, Dr. Blackwood kills so many “patients” that Karl has a method of dismembering bodies so they can fit into small trunks for disposal. The flick also includes standard-issue subplots about the doctor’s mentally challenged sister, Melanie (Lynne Marta), and a cop (Pepper Davis) who snoops ineptly despite obvious clues of wrongdoing being visible everywhere. Still, Help Me . . . I’m Possessed has a certain watchability (by psychotronic-cinema standards), thanks to florid quasi-Biblical speeches, vigorous bad acting, and extreme vignettes (e.g., a woman getting locked into a coffin with a poisonous snake). Help Me . . . I’m Possessed is bottom-feeding crap, but compared to myriad other execrable films fitting that same description, this one is relatively brisk and eventful.

Help Me . . . I’m Possessed: LAME

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Embassy (1972)

          Watching the political thriller Embassy is frustrating not just because the picture is mediocre, but also because it wouldn’t have taken much to elevate the piece above mediocrity. The source material for this British production, a novel by Stephen Coulter, provides a solid premise—the arrival of a Russian defector at the U.S. embassy in Beirut sparks an international incident. As scripted by William Fairchild and directed by Gordon Hessler, Embassy is blandly photographed, drably paced, and filled with performances as uninspired as the corresponding characterizations are unimaginative. Yet it’s easy to imagine a crackerjack version of the same basic storyline with, say, Sidney Lumet at the helm, abetted by an edgier screenwriter. Even without that level of behind-the-scenes firepower, Embassy has a few credible moments, mostly thanks to leading man Richard Roundtree (appearing in one of his first projects after becoming a star with 1971’s Shaft) and supporting player Max von Sydow, who portrays the defector. Roundtree’s appealing swagger smooths over some of the movie’s rough spots, and von Sydow gives a genuinely multidimensional performance.
          Alas, too much time gets wasted on nonsense. Roundtree plays a mid-level diplomat who shares responsibility for the safety of von Sydow’s character, but the movie also gives Roundtree a drab romantic subplot that adds nothing. Similarly, perfunctory acting by Ray Milland (as the pragmatic ambassador), Broderick Crawford (as a security officer at the embassy), and Chuck Connors (as a KGB enforcer) diminishes the experience. Especially when combined with Hessler’s lifeless shooting style, watching actors who are past their best days give paycheck performances makes Embassy feel like a disposable TV movie, notwithstanding impressive production values acquired while shooting on location in the Middle East. As to the question of whether Embassy has anything meaningful to say, the answer is sorta-yes and sorta-no. The movie isn’t a completely vacuous potboiler, but most of its cynical assertions about the morality of political expediency are trite. Embassy only really sparks when von Sydow’s character talks about his reasons for defecting, and when the same character snaps after too many days in captivity.

Embassy: FUNKY

Thursday, May 23, 2019

My Brother Has Bad Dreams (1972)

Set in Florida, this dull low-budget horror flick tracks Karl (Nick Kleinholz III), a twisted young man who lives with his older sister, Anna (Marlena Lustik). Fifteen years previous, Karl saw Dad murder Mom, and he’s never been the same. Today, he drifts in and out of reality, sometimes believing that his mother is still alive, and he indulges problematic fetishes, such as sleeping with store-display mannequins and pleasuring himself whever he catches a glimpse of his sister naked. Inexplicably, Anna refuses to have Karl institutionalized, even though he has violent outbursts, as when he demolishes a mannequin with a fireplace poker. Enter Tony (Paul Vincent), a motorcycle-riding drifter whom Karl meets one day at a secluded beach. After skinny-dipping together (don’t bother reading into this scene, since subtext is far beyond writer-director Robert J. Emery’s grasp), the men return to Karl’s home, where, predictably, Tony gets it on with Anna. Just as predictably, this sends Karl over the edge. Whatever. It’s all quite boring and trite until the final scene. (Is it necessary to provide a spoiler alert for a movie very few people will ever want to see?) Following the inevitable bloodbath, Karl drives Tony’s motorcycle down a bridge while wearing a mannequin strapped to his back. Then he parks the bike, tosses the mannequin into the water, slashes his wrist, and dives into the water—at which point several sharks (!!!) appear to chomp on Karl in bloody freeze-frames during the closing credits. If you’re willing to slog through 90 minutes of bilge for a few moments of almost-memorable weirdness, add this to your watchlist. Incidentally, this film was originally released as Scream Bloody Murder, which is also the most common title of an unrelated low-budget horror picture released the following year.

My Brother Has Bad Dreams: LAME

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The California Kid (1974)

          Never mind that the “kid” of the title is played by a 34-year-old Martin Sheen, because if that kind of logical disconnect ruins your viewing experiences, then you probably don’t have much of an appetite for dopey TV movies from the ’70s, and The California Kid will strike you as a non-starter. Flip side, if you’re willing to lower your standards in order to enjoy 74 minutes of formulaic escapism, then prepare yourself for an enjoyable fast-food snack brimming with empty calories. Hot-rod driver Michael McCord (Sheen) blows into the small town of Clarksberg, where Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) is so mad for speed-limit enforcement that he occasionally pushes reckless drivers’ cars over a cliff in treacherous canyon terrain. One of Sheriff Roy’s victims was Michael’s kid brother, so Michael has come to Clarksberg in search of truth and, if necessary, frontier justice. That’s the entire plot, notwithstanding an anemic love story pairing Michael with seen-it-all waitress Maggie (played by lissome singer-turned-actress Michelle Phillips).
          Written and directed, respectively, by longtime TV professionals Richard Compton and Richard T. Heffron, The California Kid is competent but graceless, and the movie’s lack of character development is laughable, especially when the filmmakers try for angsty gravitas in the final act. Had the project not landed so many interesting actors (Stuart Margolin and Nick Nolte show up in supporting roles), it’s safe to assume that The California Kid would have been unbearably vapid. As is, the thing moves along at a more sluggish pace than you might imagine, given the high-octane subject matter, but Sheen is consistently watchable. He’s particularly compelling in moments when he glares at Morrow, the heat of his character’s rage smoldering from beneath a menacingly scrunched brow. And just when it seems that Morrow has phoned in a one-dimensional portrayal, the revelation of his character’s backstory—combined with a single scene in a dusty backyard—adds something like nuance. So even though one can’t help but wish this thing grew up to become the Roger Corman-esque thrill ride it so clearly wants to, The California Kid has its simplistic charms.

The California Kid: FUNKY

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Steel Arena (1973)

The debut films of prolific directors have a certain innate appeal, because it’s always interesting to see where a noteworthy filmmaker’s journey began. In the case of Mark L. Lester, whose subsequent affronts to cinematic quality include Roller Boogie (1979) and Firestarter (1984), watching his first feature-length project, Steel Arena, is illuminating albeit unsurprising. Very quickly, one notes baseline technical competence and even occasional evidence of visual style. Yet just as quickly, one marvels at laughable ineptitude with regard to acting, characterization, logic, and storytelling. Lester, who began his film career making documentaries, apparently befriended a group of low-rent daredevils who toured the south, then persuaded the daredevils to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Never mind that none of them could act, or that the “story” Lester imposed upon them is a flimsy frame connecting lengthy vignettes of demolition-derby carnage. One can almost feel the film straining every time Lester tries to add dramatic weight with a tragic moment, especially because most of the film is utterly bereft of interpersonal conflict. Nonetheless, Steel Arena offers plenty of guilty-pleasure signifiers common to vintage southern drive-in schlock—there’s a corpulent redneck sheriff, a car chase involving moonshine, a busty waitress with a thirst for adventure, and a hilariously overlong sequence in which people bitch about mosquito bites. Through it all, leading man Dusty Russell, sort of playing himself, manages to avoid forming a single facial expression. The cars he crashes give more convincing performances.

Steel Arena: LAME

Thursday, September 27, 2018

4 Million Page Views!

Greetings from the wilderness beyond the wonderful world of Every ’70s Movie! Although I’ve been enjoying a much-needed reprieve after more than seven years of daily posting, I hope to resume tracking down missing titles in the near future, so, as promised when last we spoke, the conclusion of regular daily posting in April did not represent the end of this blog. The reason for checking in today is to report that despite the paucity of recent posts, Web traffic over the last couple of months has advanced the blog’s lifetime readership past another impressive milestone—as of this writing, Every ’70s Movie has received more than 4 million page views. Thank you! We’ll be together again soon. Until then, feel free to reach out via the comments function with suggestions of titles you don’t yet see on the blog. Some movies have effectively disappeared from public view, but it’s my hope to eventually lay my retinas on every relevant title I can possibly find. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Captain Milkshake (1970)

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

Captain Milkshake: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Northern Lights (1978)

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

Northern Lights: FUNKY

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Jerusalem File (1972)

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

The Jerusalem File: FUNKY

Monday, May 28, 2018

Chicago 70 (1970)

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

Chicago 70: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)

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

Portnoy’s Complaint: FUNKY

Thursday, May 17, 2018

French Quarter (1978)

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

French Quarter: FUNKY