Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Sweet Creek County War (1979)



          While the threadbare premise of The Sweet Creek County War was never to be the foundation for singular entertainment, the script’s colorful dialogue and earnest characterizations could have become the building blocks for something highly watchable. Alas, J. Frank James elected to direct his own script instead of entrusting it to more capable hands, thus ensuring the end of a screen career that began just a few years earlier with the other low-budget Western that he wrote and directed, The Legend of Earl Durand (1974). James was not without skill as a screenwriter, but he was hopelessly inept as a director, so both of his films squandered their potential. Even the title of The Sweet Creek County War indicates how badly this piece suffers for anemic execution—although the title suggests a sweeping story about frontier conflict, the picture largely depicts varmints laying siege to a single cabin occupied by the three main characters. More like The Sweet Creek County Skirmish.
          As for those characters, they are retired lawman Judd (Richard Egan), aging outlaw George (Albert Salmi), and past-her-prime prostitute Firetop Alice (Nita Talbot). After Judd rescues George from a lynch mob, the men pool their resources to buy a ranch. Later, George drunkenly marries Firetop Alice and brings her back to the ranch, upsetting the dynamic of his friendship with Judd. Meanwhile, vicious developer Lucas (Robert J. Wilke), who wants the land on which the ranch is located, unleashes gunmen to intimidate  Judd and George. Also drifting through the story, somewhat inconsequentially, is a stuttering dope named “Jitters Pippen,” played by Slim Pickens. (Presumably Dub Taylor was unavailable and Strother Martin was too expensive.)
          The basic premise of The Sweet Creek County War appeared in countless previous Western movies and TV shows, so the picture’s only moderately individualistic elements are characterizations and the dialogue—and what these elements lack in originality, they offer in sincerity. James seems committed to exploring both an unusual friendship and the conflicted emotions of people who carry deep regrets. Accordingly, had James worked with a proper director, one imagines he could have minimized the script’s formulaic components and leaned into the poignant ones. In turn, improvements to the script and the participation of a competent filmmaker might have attracted relevant performers, no offence to the blandly competent Egan, Salmi, and Talbot. After all, acting isn’t the problem here. The most amateurish aspect of The Sweet Creek County War is unquestionably James’s artless shooting style.

The Sweet Creek County War: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Death Squad (1974)



          Minor telefilm The Death Squad shouldn’t merit any attention—the story is so compressed that it feels as if pieces are missing, and the basic premise appeared in the previous year’s hit Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. Yet good performances, especially Robert Forster’s emotionally committed turn in the leading role, make The Death Squad watchable. If nothing else, the picture provides a poignant reminder that something was lost when Forster’s career failed to gain momentum in his early years as a screen performer. While it’s true he was prone to robotic performances when saddled with sketchy material, moments in The Death Squad remind viewers what he could do when he tried. He’s more poignant here than the situation demands or deserves.
          Forster plays Eric Benoit, a cop tasked with identifying rogue officers responsible for vigilante killings of crooks who got off on technicalities. Although this setup prompts a handful of chases and shootouts, the main focus of The Death Squad is Benoit wrestling with divided loyalties. How deep a rot will he discover in his department? What happens when he learns that a cop who screwed him over in the past is part of the vigilante group? Will digging into the origins of the vigilante group reveal secrets that hit Benoit even more personally? To their credit, the makers of The Death Squad raise all of these questions—and to their shame, the makers of The Death Squad provide satisfactory answers to only a few of those questions. This is the sort of malnourished narrative in which the nominal female lead, played by Michelle Phillips, could have been excised from the storyline and her absence wouldn’t have been felt.
          Nonetheless, the stuff that works in The Death Squad is entertainingly melodramatic and pulpy. Claude Akins, who plays the heavy, provides a potent mixture of menace and swagger. Character actors including George Murdock, Dennis Patrick, Bert Remsen, and Kenneth Tobey lend color to small roles, while the great Melvyn Douglas classes up the joint by playing Benoit’s mentor in a few brief scenes. On the technical side, the picture benefits from unfussy camerawork and a rubbery jazz/funk score in the Lalo Schifrin mode (more shades of the Dirty Harry movies). Best of all, actors and filmmakers play the lurid material completely straight, so every so often a scene—usually involving Forster—provides a glimmer of the great Roger Corman drive-in thriller The Death Squad should have been. Ah, well. We’ll always have Akins.

The Death Squad: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence (1974)



          The verbose title of this mildly spooky telefilm suggests a supernatural angle, but The Strange and Deadly Occurrence is really a crime thriller with horror-flick flourishes. Approached with the right mindset, the picture provides pleasantly undemanding distraction. Robert Stack, rendering the same sort of blandly American masculinity he brought to countless movie/TV endeavors before diversifying his brand with self-parody in Airplane! (1980), stars as Michael Rhodes, the head of a small family that moves in to a new home. Soon after Michael, his wife Christine (Vera Miles), and their daughter Melissa (Margaret Willock) take occupancy, peculiar things start to happen—power outages, weird noises, etc. The family also receives persistent visits from Dr. Wren (E.A. Sirianni), an odd fellow inexplicably determined to buy their house. Soon Michael grows to believe that Dr. Wren has something nefarious in mind, unaware that a bigger threat exists.
          Whereas slight narratives are often shortcomings in ’70s telefilms, less is more in this case because the focus is on atmosphere rather than intricate storytelling. Director John Llewellen Moxey and writers Sandor Stern and Lane Slate achieve adequate results while generating low-grade tension and dramatizing how the Rhodes family reacts to upsetting circumstances. The filmmakers also succeed in misdirection, allowing a third-act shift in the narrative to land with enjoyable impact. An effectively seedy performance by a familiar character actor is better discovered than described, given that his appearance is key to the third-act twist, but everyone who appears onscreen in The Strange and Deadly Occurrence understood the assignment. Costar L.Q. Jones is suitably condescending as a local lawman, Sirianni twitches well, Miles lends welcome muscle to her role, and Stack, as mentioned earlier, supplies exactly what he was hired to supply.
          Does The Strange and Deadly Occurrence suffer the usual flaws of dubious contrivances and characters who make conveniently stupid decisions? Of course. But if you’ve read this deep into the write-up of a ’70s made-for-TV thriller, then warnings about such flaws are unlikely to diminish your enthusiasm. Have at it.

The Strange and Deadly Occurrence: FUNKY


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Taste of Evil (1971)



          If a barrage of logic-bending plot twists, a handful of familiar actors, and pervasive woman-in-peril atmosphere are sufficient to hold your attention, then you’re the target audience for 1971’s A Taste of Evil, a distasteful but watchable telefilm starring two very different Barbaras, onetime Golden Age star Stanwyck and Peyton Place player Parkins. Rounding out the top-billed cast are Roddy McDowall, Arthur O’Connell, and William Windom, while the behind-the-scenes notables are prolific TV director John Llewellyn Moxey (whose career spanned 1955 to 1991) and writer Jimmy Sangster, best known for the entertainingly lurid Hammer horrors he wrote and/or directed. These folks’ assorted skillsets give A Taste of Evil a smidge more cinematic verve than the average telefilm, even though the picture is most assuredly schlock.
          In a bleak prologue, a 13-year-old girl is sexually assaulted on a sprawling estate. Cut to a decade later, when the now-grown Susan (Parkins) returns home from an overseas mental institution. She’s welcomed by her mother, Miriam (Stanwyck); her alcoholic stepfather, Harold (Windom); and the family’s simple-minded groundskeeper, John (O’Connell). Susan endures several bizarre episodes, seemingly getting chased through woods, discovering a corpse that disappears in the time it takes Susan to get help, and so on. Enter Dr. Lomas (McDowall), whom the family hires to help Susan navigate trauma. Per the Hitchcockian-psychological-thriller playbook, viewers are tasked with guessing whether Susan is unwell or being gaslit—and, if the latter is the case, by whom. To Sangster’s credit, this brief telefilm juggles so many plot elements that it’s possible to overlook major clues, especially because some of the twists, once revealed, are ludicrous. (Incidentally, this was Sangster’s second pass on the same narrative—A Taste of Evil recycles a premise he originated for the 1961 Hammer production Scream of Fear.)
          Stanwyck, ever the consummate professional, does her best to sell this hokum and therefore neither distinguishes nor embarrasses herself. Parkins’s take on PTSD is too glassy-eyed to register emotionally, so she’s more of a delivery device for Sangster’s yarn-spinning than a proper leading lady. And while the film largely squanders McDowall and Windom, O’Connell’s portrayal engenders a bit of empathy. Yet this is ultimately more of a writer’s piece than anything else, so it’s a shame Sangster didn’t bring his A-game; the characterizations are sketchy at best and much of the dialogue is clumsily expositional. Nonetheless, even though everything about A Taste of Evil will quickly evaporate from the viewer’s memory—save perhaps the queasy opening sequence—the flick is just cynical and nasty enough to provide a few kitschy kicks.

A Taste of Evil: FUNKY


Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Force of Evil (1977)



          Network appetites for TV movies in the ’70s were so insatiable that lots of recycled material hit the airwaves, hence this low-budget retread of the 1962 theatrical feature Cape Fear—which was more elaborately remade as a 1991 Scorsese/De Niro thriller. Starring Lloyd Bridges, The Force of Evil adds a vaguely supernatural element to the Cape Fear mix because the telefilm’s villain inexplicably survives multiple fatal attacks. Fans of slasher films might find this element moderately interesting since The Force of Evil predates such “unkillable killer” flicks as the following year’s Halloween, though the gore factor is zero and the intensity never rises above a simmer. It should also be noted that writer Robert Malcolm Young and director Richard Lang both enjoyed long careers generating hours upon hours of disposable television. In other words, expectations should be set appropriately low—but if your taste is such that the basic components of The Force of Evil capture your imagination, then you might find it diverting.
          Originally broadcast as a double-length episode of short-lived anthology series Tales of the Unexpected, this piece borrows the Cape Fear premise of a paroled criminal menacing the fellow whose testimony sent him to jail. (Neither the screenwriter of the 1962 movie nor the author of that film’s source novel is credited.) Specifically, in the bleak landscape of a California desert community, grinning psychopath Teddy Jakes (William Watson) terrorizes physician Yale Carrington (Bridges), who has a wife and two kids. At first, Yale feels confident about his ability to repel Teddy because Yale’s brother, Floyd (John Anderson), is the local sheriff. Alas, as in Cape Fear, the criminal studied law books in jail and therefore knows how far to push without incriminating himself. Nonetheless, things get fairly gruesome even before the first attempt on Teddy’s life—and then The Force of Evil kicks into gear by testing how violent Yale is willing to become in order to protect his family.
          The juxtaposition of Bridges’ somewhat restrained performance and Watson’s menacing swarthiness generates decent tension, as do several Hitchcock-style suspense scenes. Yet the movie’s strongest mojo emanates from dramatic camera angles rendered by cinematographer Paul Lohmann, whose impressive CV include Nashville and Trilogy of Terror (both 1975). Using deep focus and low angles, Lohmann takes Dan Curtis-style claustrophobic framing to almost satirical extremes. Oh, and one last point of interest for fans of a certain age—playing Bridges’ daughter is Eve Plumb, appearing between her tenures as a member of the Brady Bunch.

The Force of Evil: FUNKY


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Death of Me Yet (1971)



          Exploring a zippy premise from offbeat narrative angles, telefilm The Death of Me Yet is more a compendium of promising ideas than a fully realized dramatic statement, but an engaging leading performance and solid supporting turns help make the piece as palatable as it is befuddling. The movie is about a KGB sleeper agent living a seemingly normal life in California until circumstances cause him to question his allegiance to Mother Russia. While much the plot comprises the twisty thriller machinations one might expect, The Death of Me Yet dubiously centers a love story involving the sleeper agent and his unsuspecting American wife. The picture churns through narrative elements at an alarming pace, thus depriving major plot components of sufficient oxygen—so while The Death of Me Yet doesn’t quite work as either a thriller or a love story, it’s moderately watchable as an awkward mixture of these genres, especially because leading man Doug McClure does a respectable job of selling both styles.
          The movie opens with an attention-grabbing scene at a KGB facsimile of an average American town, which effectively dramatizes the notion of prepping sleepers. Then the protagonist, who goes by various names including Paul Towers (McClure), gets an assignment from his handler, Barnes (Richard Basehart), so it’s off to America. Cut to several years later, once Towers has established himself as a newspaper publisher married to an American woman (Rosemary Forsyth). Through convoluted circumstances, Towers takes a job working at a defense contractor, which lands him in the crosshairs of an FBI agent (Darren McGavin). Then, once it becomes clear the Soviets consider Towers a security risk, hes forced to consider switching sides.
          Based on a novel by Whit Masterson (the pen name for two writers who cranked out decades of pulpy books), The Death of Me Yet has enough story for a sprawling miniseries, so tracking every plot twist is more trouble than it’s worth. Yet many scenes within this briskly paced telefilm are potent, and McClure is casually compelling throughout. While hardly an adventurous or nuanced performer, he’s so comfortable onscreen that he gives even the most ridiculous story developments a veneer of credibility. It’s also effective that McGavin, as the FBI guy, conveys a far more menacing presence than Basehart, who plays his Russian counterpart—hardly the conventional approach.

The Death of Me Yet: FUNKY

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Death Takes a Holiday (1971)



          If the title of this telefilm seems familiar, it’s because the play upon which this picture was based also provided source material for the Frederic March melodrama Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and the Brad Pitt romance Meet Joe Black (1998). In all iterations of the story, Death briefly assumes human form in order to investigate why humans cling so dearly to life, only to fall in love with a woman while spending time among the living. While not as impressive as the other Hollywood adaptations, the 1971 version on Death Takes a Holiday is palatable because the underlying storyline is so intriguing and because supporting performances elevate the experience. Also worth mentioning is the florid but sensitive script by veteran TV script Rita Lakin—even though her style tends toward soapy breathlessness intermingled with ornate speechifying, she connects with a handful of poignant moments. Sometimes neutralizing her work is graceless direction by Robert Butler, a three-time Emmy winner who did better work elsewhere; one assumes Butler was constrained by a meager budget and schedule.
          In the waters off a private island, Peggy Chapman (Yvette Mimieux) seemingly drowns, only to wake on shore alongside mysterious David Smith (Monte Markham), whom she assumes saved her life. Peggy invites David to her family’s nearby compound, where the large clan has gathered for a celebration. Some of the Chapmans welcome David warmly, but Peggy’s aging father, retired judge Earl (Melvyn Douglas), senses danger. As David and Peggy become more enamored of each other, Earl learns about something bizarre happening on the mainland—since the time of David’s arrival, no one on Earth has died. This causes Earl to realize that he’s seen David before during near-death experiences. Thus begins a strangely compelling cycle of philosophical discussions on the place mortality occupies in the universe, leading eventually to Earl’s attempts at changing his family’s destiny. Without Douglas and Myrna Loy (who plays his character’s wife), Death Takes a Holiday would be nearly disposable because Markham and Mimieux are, respectively, mannered and shallow. (Rendering equally perfunctory work is costar Bert Convy, whose character competes with David for Peggy’s affections.) Nonetheless, Douglas and Loy lend so much gravitas that their scenes cast a regal glow across the entire movie.

Death Takes a Holiday: FUNKY

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Togetherness (1970)



A dreary attempt at romantic farce that employs such hackneyed conceits as cartoonishly exaggerated class differences, wholly unconvincing fake personas, and a crass wager between would-be seducers, Togetherness teams C-listers George Hamilton and Peter Lawford with European beauties Giorgia Moll and Olga Schoberová. Yawn. Even the film’s Mediterranean locations fail to impress because the movie’s photography is so flat and unimaginative. In fact, nearly everything in Togetherness lands with a thud, so the picture represented a shaky transition to features for writer-director Arthur Marks, who previously helmed episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. (He followed this rotten movie with more low-budget flicks, including a handful of energetic blaxploitation movies, before returning to episodic television.) The interminable first half of Togetherness concerns horny jet-setter Jack DuPont (Hamilton) trying to bed voluptuous Yugoslavian athlete Nina (Schoberová) after they meet in Greece. Because Nina is a stalwart communist, Jack pretends to be a poor journalist instead of a rich playboy, but the courtship storyline makes Nina seem like a hopeless idiot because Jack’s ruse is so transparent. Eventually, Togetherness gets around to its real storyline when Jack and Nina take a boat trip with Jack’s friend, Solomon (Lawford), a European prince whose beautiful companion, Josee (Moll), pretends to tolerate Solomon’s infidelity. Solomon and Josee bet each other they can woo Nina and Jack, respectively. Hilarity does not ensue. To get a sense of how desperately Togetherness reaches for laughs, the most prominent supporting character is “Hipolitas Mollnar,” a boisterous Eastern European painter played by John Banner, best known as Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. Even by the pathetic standards of this movie, Banner’s relentless mugging is excruciating. Sluggish, tacky, and unfunny, Togetherness is so inert that Marks would have been better served executing the piece as a sex comedy. Lively and sleazy would have been preferable to dull and smarmy.


Togetherness: LAME


Monday, May 2, 2022

Hangup (1974)



          Painfully generic blaxploitation melodrama Hangup provides a minor footnote within film history because it was the last picture helmed by Golden Age stalwart Henry Hathaway, once a reliable director of action movies and Westerns. Exactly none of his former ability is on display here—Hangup has all the momentum and style of a bad TV episode. To be fair, the version screened for this blog is an abbreviated cut that was re-released as Super DudeStill, nothing suggests a few extra moments of character development could possibly elevate Hangup into anything meritorious, especially because the leading performances by William Elliott and Marki Bey are lifeless. He plays a college student training to be a cop (who somehow snags an undercover gig on a narcotics squad) and she plays his high-school dream girl, now lost in a spiral of drug addiction and sex work. The threadbare plot involves Ken (Elliott) pumping Julie (Bey) for information he can use to nail a big-time supplier named Richards (Michael Lerner). Predictably, close proximity causes Ken and Julie to fall in love. Tragedy ensues.

          Shot in grungy pockets of Los Angeles on a minuscule budget, Hangup plods along at a dreary pace exacerbated by Bey’s and Elliott’s wooden acting. In their defense, it would take a special class of thespian to animate lines such as this one: “I’m hooked on her the same way she was hooked on smack!” Yet at least for its first hour, Hangup is moderately watchable because the hackneyed contrivance of a narc falling for a junkie has inherent drama. Alas, that strength leads to Hangup’s biggest weakness. When there are still more than 20 minutes left to go, the movie wraps up the love story, a glitch made worse because the main villain has also been sidelined. These narrative choices slow the pace nearly to the point of inertia. And then there’s the sleaze factor—or, rather, the lack thereof. Notwithstanding a few topless scenes, Hangup feels restrained in comparison to, say, Jack Hill’s gonzo blaxploitation joints. So while an easily offended viewer might find Hangup more palatable than other films from the same genre, serious Blaxploitation fans will be left jonesing for a fix of something rougher.


Hangup: FUNKY


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Every Eagles Song Podcast Interview



We will return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly. In the meantime, please indulge some hype for my other blog, Every Eagles Song. Thank you to the folks at Jacked Up Review Show podcast for inviting me to chat about all things Eagles. Although the interview mostly gets into facts and figures about band history, the conversation also includes thoughts about why the group and their music have lasted. As a bonus, the chat vividly demonstrates why I should never be put in proximity to math. At one point I note the Eagles have been together much longer as a heritage touring band than they originally were together as an active recording entity, but I say the current span is approaching 20 years when of course I should have said 30 years because the reunion began in 1994. (Arithmetic, forever my mortal enemy.) Anyway, click the link to hear the podcast, which runs a little over one hour: 
Jacked Up Eagles Podcast.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Wild in the Sky (1972)



          A youth-culture riff on Dr. Strangelove (1964), Wild in the Sky has elements that might have cohered under stronger artistic leadership, but there’s a reason you’ve never heard of director William T. Naud, who also cowrote the picture. His storytelling wobbles between haphazard and inept, so he was not the guy to integrate dark sociopolitical commentary with wannabe-poignant character arcs and goofy physical comedy. It doesn’t help that the movie’s performances are all over the place, from Keenan Wynn’s blustery villainy to Brandon de Wilde’s quiet sensitivity; similarly, it doesn’t help that the picture was made on such a meager budget that all of its shots of airplanes in flight are grainy stock footage. To appreciate the picture’s meager virtues, the charitable viewer must overlook a lot of glaring flaws.
          After three young activists escape a prison-transport vehicle, they flee to an Air Force base and sneak into the belly of a B-52. Once the plane takes flight with a nuclear payload, the activists hijack the aircraft, thus causing havoc among military officials, some of whom are worried the crisis will expose a scheme involving misappropriated defense funds. Among the film’s characters are an uptight pilot hiding the fact that he’s gay, a radio operator who makes dirty phone calls, and a debauched flyer who suggests the hijackers aim the plane toward Hamburg so he can party in that city’s red-light district. Theoretically, any of these characterizations is workable for satirical purposes, but the movie also includes overly cartoonish characterizations, such as the U.S. president who spends his downtime zooming around in a dune buggy.
          The film’s eclectic cast includes many actors familiar to viewers of ’60s/’70s TV: Georg Stanford Brown, Bernie Kopell, Robert Lansing, Tim O’Connor, etc. Yet much of the screen time gets consumed by Wynn (not coincidentally a holdover from Dr. Strangelove), and his shouting gets tiresome. Plus, in a sign of true desperation, the filmmakers enlisted Dub Taylor to unleash his angry-redneck shtick during a few scenes. Arguably, the standout performance is given by Dick Gautier (of Get Smart and many other things) because his rendition of the debauched flyer achieves Lebowski levels of chill. Alas, too much of the picture gets mired in comedy bits that don’t connect. In one scene, characters play hot potato with a grenade; in another, an officer demands that an injured soldier set aside his crutches to salute, causing the injured soldier to pratfall. FYI, Wild in the Sky was re-released as Black Jack, so don’t be fooled by the Blaxploitation-style poster emphasizing Brown after his breakout success on TV show The Rookies.

Wild in the Sky: FUNKY

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Dark Sunday (1976)



          One can’t question the consistency of Earl Owensby’s earliest cinematic efforts. After scoring hits on the drive-in circuit by playing a righteous avenger in Challenge and its sequel The Brass Ring (both released in 1974), actor-producer Owensby went back to the well for Dark Sunday, in which he portrays a preacher who seeks vengeance after drug dealers assault his family. All three flicks are shameless rip-offs of Walking Tall (1973), so those seeking depth, nuance, or originality should look elsewhere. However, if the red meat of an aggrieved everyman wiping out scumbags stimulates your appetite, then consider Dark Sunday the equivalent of a fast-food mealif you know it’s bad for you but you eat it anyway, then you have no one to blame but yourself for the indigestion you experience afterward. Crudely made in Owensby’s home base of North Carolina, Dark Sunday was nominally directed by Jimmy Huston, who helmed several projects for the actor-producer, and it was nominally written by Thom McIntyre, another E.O. Studios veteran, but every frame bears the crass fingerprints of the project’s main man, who built a fortune by peddling cinematic junk.
          Lest we forget, Owensby is among the most unlikely screen personas of the ’70s—despite regularly casting himself as a fierce man of action, Owensby was at the time of his box-office success doughy and middle-aged. To quote Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king!
          In Dark Sunday, Owensby plays Reverend James Lowery, whose flock includes young people mired in drugs. When one of these youths dies of an overdose, Lowery vows to clean up the streets. This puts him in the crosshairs of drug lord Herbert Trexler (Martin Beck), who sends thugs to take out Lowery and his family. The reverend’s wife and one of his sons are killed, another son is paralyzed, and Lowery is rendered mute with a bum leg. Upon leaving the hospital, Lowery cruises a grungy downtown area until he finds drug dealers, then starts killing them until he discovers the identity of the man pulling the strings. And so on. Name a cliché you might imagine fitting this framework and you’ll find it in Dark Sunday. Lowery befriends a noble hooker and a blind street preacher. He beats up a black drug dealer named “Candyman.” Lowery exhibits superhuman stamina, enjoys absurd good luck, and somehow also manages to inconvenience a corrupt cop. All of this leads to a laugh-out-loud climax that won’t be spoiled here; suffice to say that Owensby and co. took a big swing and missed spectacularly. This unintentionally hilarious misstep is a perfect capper for 99 minutes of grindhouse sludge.

Dark Sunday: FUNKY

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Brother on the Run (1973)



          Minor blaxploitation melodrama Brother on the Run doesn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling the promise of its fantastic title, and the reasons why begin with the premise. After an attempted robbery goes awry, leaving a shopkeeper dead, small-time crooks Billy (Kyle Johnson) and Frank (Gary Rist) become the targets of a police dragnet. For story reasons, it’s important to note that Billy is black. In scenes intercut with the robbery storyline, Brother on the Run sets up that college professor Grant (Terry Carter), who is also black, lives next door to a hooker named Maud (Gwenn Mitchell), with whom he’s casually acquainted. Maud is Billy’s older sister, so the fugitives try hiding at her place until the police come knocking. Grant gets hip to what’s going on, so he meets the crooks and becomes sympathetic to their plight. Then, once the manhunt resumes, Grant promises Maud that he’ll try to find Billy before the cops. All of this raises questions. Since Billy is guilty of at least being an accomplice, why does Grant get involved? Since Billy makes it clear at Maud’s place that he’s against surrendering to the cops, what is Grant’s plan once he tracks Billy down? And why does Grant stop in the middle of his search for Billy to service a horny white lady?
           One assumes the filmmakers neither thought these questions through nor expected theatergoers to do so—more likely, the goal was to generate cheap thrills by exploiting the provocative notion that any black suspect running from white cops has a target on his back. Several passable blaxploitation flicks arose from that same notion, so the failure of Brother on the Run to generate excitement seems attributable to behind-the-camera carelessness as well as shortfalls in production resources. Cowritten and codirected by veteran TV guys Edward J. Lasko and Herbert L. Strock, the movie feels choppy, rushed, and under-budgeted; characterizations are laughably thin, the storyline is riddled with dopey coincidences, and the movie’s attempts at sociopolitical messaging are pathetic. (If only the filmmakers had leaned into bizarro moments such as the bit during which Maud provides gentle BDSM fun for a cross-dressing client.)
          Offering marginal interest is the presence of actors better known for work they later did on the small screen. Playing the lead is Terry Carter, subsequently a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica series, and playing the main cop is James B. Sikking, who eventually found minor fame on Hill Street Blues. Even with a handful of watchable elements, however, Brother on the Run adds little to the blaxploitation experience.

Brother on the Run: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

L.A. 2017 (1971)



          While the 1971 telefilm Duel was the first standalone feature-length project that Steven Spielberg made as a professional, he directed two other pieces with commensurate running times the same year, namely the first weekly episode of the long-running detective series Columbo and this installment of a series called The Name of the Game. Given how central science fiction subsequently became in Spielberg’s work, L.A. 2017 is of particular interest. Additionally, L.A. 2017 plays like standalone piece because its only narrative connection to The Name of the Game is protagonist Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), who time-travels away from the series’ modern-day milieu for the duration of this adventure.

          While driving through smoggy canyons in Los Angeles, socially conscious magazine publisher Glenn succumbs to noxious fumes and crashes his car. Emergency personnel wearing gas masks and protective suits extract Glenn from his vehicle and drive him to a sprawling underground campus. Through interactions with psychiatrist/policeman Cameron (Severn Darden) and high-powered politician Bigelow (Barry Sullivan), Glenn learns that he’s in the Los Angeles of the future, and that civilization has been driven underground by environmental degradation. Per the talky script by Philip Wylie, what ensues has more exposition than excitement. In this grim future, America functions as a corporation with totalitarian control over citizens. People exchange math equations instead of jokes, much of the population is sterile, and everyone is under constant surveillance. Given Glenn’s unique status as a man out of time, Bigelow asks him to become a propogandist for the government, but he rebels—with the assistance of Sandrelle (Sharon Farrell), an attractive woman assigned to be Glenn’s consort.

          Watching L.A. 2017, it’s possible to discern why the piece, in tandem with Spielberg’s other 1971 work, helped raise his profile—the director does a lot with a little. Frenetic movement and tight angles make scenes in underground tunnels feel appropriately claustrophobic, and Spielberg guides actors portraying villains to underplay, which adds to the general air of menace. Moreover, the piece’s biggest shortcomings (flat scripting, meager budget) originated above the young director’s pay grade. While nowhere near as revelatory as Duel, this piece demonstrates that even in his earliest efforts, Spielberg had a formidable skillset. No wonder he graduated to theatrical features after a relatively short run as a Universal Television worker bee.


L.A. 2017: FUNKY


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Linda Lovelace for President (1975)



Any hopes that Linda Lovelace for President might realize the satirical possibilities of its title disappear the instant the movie starts, because everything about this low-budget embarrassment is crude and inane. The first shot features Lovelace, the notorious actress from Deep Throat (1972), wearing just a helmet and a pistol belt in front of an American flag, evoking Patton (1970)—but instead of a pithy speech, the movie offers superimposed text: “This picture is intended to offend everybody.” If only. At a festival presented by offbeat special-interest groups (KKK, AAA, AA, “Suicide for Fun Committee,” etc.), leaders jokingly select Lovelace as their predidential candidate. Once Lovelace (who plays herself) gets told about the idea, she requests permission from her Uncle Sam (Robert Symonds), a patriotically dressed sleazebag obsessed with his niece’s breasts. After receiving Sam’s endorsement, Lovelace participates in a barnstorming tour that comprises most of the slapdash movie’s running time. Predictably, she pauses at regular intervals for sex. In one of many cringe-inducing sequences, Lovelace and her people visit a hillbilly compound. When Lovelace wanders into the nearby woods to bathe in a waterfall, she’s spotted by redneck tree dweller “Tarbo” and his pet chimp. Then, while Lovelace screws Tarbo, the chimp makes lascivious remarks by way of dubbed lines from a comedian. In the same sequence, Lovelace’s flamboyantly gay advisor Bruce (Danny Goldman) makes out with two yokels in an outhouse until the outhouse gets tipped over, causing three gay characters to get swathed in excrement. Ugh. (By my count, the movie has exactly one good joke—after Bruce raises campaign money by turning tricks at a frat house, he says, “I turned a rich fraternity into a poor sorority.”) Eventually, people threatened by Lovelace’s popularity recruit “The Assassinator,” a hit man played by comedian Chuck McCann, whose idiotic mugging is excruciating to watch. This movies script is a hyperactive barrage of unfunny gags, the direction is mindless, Lovelace can’t act, and the comedy professionals surrounding her demean themselves by participating. (Also appearing are Micky Dolenz, of the Monkees, and Scatman Crothers.) FYI, this movie was released in X- and R-rated versions, but both are softcore.


Linda Lovelace for President: LAME


Monday, January 3, 2022

Another Blog? Yes, Another Blog!



Taking advantage of the unexpected downtime we’ve all had in the last couple of years, I recently completed a musical adventure by revisiting the catalog of my favorite band, the Eagles. As the blog you’re reading right now demonstrates, my investigation of random subjects that that I find engaging often enters the realm of OCD excess, so listening to the Eagles prompted me to write about them—hence my new blog, Every Eagles Songwhich I’m publishing this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the band’s first album. (Visit the blog here.) If you’re also a fan, head over to the new blog to read my musical musings, then feel free to share your reactions via the comments. (If you dig what you find over there, spread the word!) The new blog won’t have anywhere near the scope of this one; all the currently planned posts will publish within two months. Nonetheless, this project should be a fun ride for like-minded souls. And with that, it’s back to our regularly scheduled Every ’70s Movie programming. As always, keep on keepin’ on!

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Adventures of Frontier Fremont (1975)



          A year after they scored a box-office hit with The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, star Dan Haggerty and the same behind-the-scenes team reconvened for The Adventures of Frontier Fremont, which rehashes elements from the previous film. Once again, the story concerns a man who ventures into the wilderness of the American West circa the mid-1800s, and once again, the narrative focuses on the main character’s special relationships with animals. As always, Haggerty seems as if he was born for playing this type of role, not only because he cuts a formidable figure with his bulky frame and glorious mane of golden hair, but because he began his film career as an animal handler. Few actors look as comfortable interacting with frontier critters as Haggerty did. Where Frontier Fremont differs from Grizzly Adams is that it’s closer to being a proper movie. Grizzly Adams didn’t feature synchronized dialogue, so the piece was awkwardly smothered with folksy voiceover. In Frontier Fremont, viewers actually get to hear Haggerty and his fellow cast members speak. The presentation of conventional scenes makes Frontier Fremont flow more smoothly than its predecessor, even though the filmmakers can’t help but include folksy voiceover here and there.
         To call the movie’s story slight would require exaggeration. Jacob Fremont (Haggerty) departs civilization because living in the wilderness promises new experiences. On his way to the frontier, he meets a grumpy mountain man (Denver Pyle), who subsequently becomes a minor recurring character and also provides the aforementioned narration. Jacob’s odyssey follows a predictable course. He loses his supplies in an accident, so he must learn to live off the land. He befriends various animals, including a bear cub and a wolf cub, thus becoming a surrogate parent to furry foundlings. He clashes with hunters who encroach upon terrain that Jacob becomes determined to protect. Over time, Jacob evolves from an adventurer to a woodland messiah, inspiring awed reactions from white men and Native Americans alike.
          All of this is cloying hogwash, of course. Pyle’s character says things like “Holy jumpin’ squirrel fish!” and “Well, I’ll be kicked and dragged through a bucket of lard!” Haggerty and Pyle sing a cutesy song during a cabin-building montage. Adorable baby animals frolic. Panoramic shots capture magnificent scenery. It’s the same formula that made the Grizzly Adams movie a hit, and it’s the same formula that permeated the ensuing Grizzly Adams TV series (again starring Haggerty), which ran from early 1977 to late 1978. If you like ogling nature and don’t mind cornpone sentimentality, all of this stuff works for you. If not, none of it does.

The Adventures of Frontier Fremont: FUNKY

Monday, December 20, 2021

Memory of Us (1974)



          The quintessential figure of a woman who has everything and yet has nothing, Betty (Ellen Geer) is a housewife with a successful husband, Brad (Jon Cypher), healthy kids, and a spacious home. Alas, Betty knows that Brad has a mistress, which makes Betty feel so unmoored that she rents a hotel room in which she can privately explore hobbies, such as photography. It’s Betty’s way of starting a new life without destroying her old one. Meanwhile, voicever reveals what’s going through Betty’s mind, such as questions she wishes she could ask her husband: “Why can’t we look at each other anymore? Why can’t we be tender? Do you tell as many lies to me as I do to you?” All of this should indicate the overly earnest vibe of Memory of Us, a low-budget character study starring and written by Ellen Geer, daughter of familiar movie/TV actor Will Geer. Although Memory of Us speaks to issues that were important in the mid-’70s zeitgeist, such as shifting family dynamics during the time of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, the movie is so plainspoken and unambitious that it feels like a slight telefilm rather than a theatrical feature.

          One problem is that while Ellen Geer is unquestionably a serious actress, she lacks magnetism. Another problem is the aforementioned voiceover, which functions as a narrative crutch—rather than providing insights that viewers wouldn’t be able to glean from dramatic context, the voiceover affirms things viewers already know, thereby giving the whole enterprise a plodding quality. Only two elements of the storyline have any real inventiveness. The business of renting a hotel room as a private getaway lends metaphorical interest, and a sequence in which Betty hires a hitchhiker to pose as her lover suggests dangerous possibilities. Predictably, however, those possibilities never lead to anything. And that’s the biggest problem with this well-meaning but wholly forgettable movie—the storyline is forever on the verge of going somewhere powerful, but it always pumps the brakes before things get heavy. To paraphrase the title of another women’s picture released the same year, Memory of Us might as well have been titled Betty Is Thinking of Not Living Here Anymore.

          Incidentally, Memory of Us was the second Ellen Geer-scripted feature issued by small-time distributor Cinema Financial in 1974—the family film Silence, with Will Geer in the leading role, came out a month earlier. To date, these are the only two films Ellen Geer has written.


Memory of Us: FUNKY


Monday, December 13, 2021

Delirium (1979)



Is Delirium a conspiracy thriller disguished as a slasher flick? Or is it a provocative story about PTSD and vigilante justice rendered inert by clumsy execution? Or is it just a hot mess resulting from filmmakers jamming as many genre-movie signifiers as possible into one production? The answer to each of these questions is “yes,” but Delirium is less than the sum of its parts. An amateurish low-budget endeavor filmed in St. Louis, Delirium toggles between craven exploitation-flick sleaze and laughable attempts at thematic heaviosity. It’s possible to follow what’s happening, and the picture rarely wants for narrative events, so it’s not unwatchable. However there’s no good reason for most viewers to endure the movie’s 85 minutes—those eager to find hidden pulp-fiction gems should try digging elsewhere. Nonetheless, here are the details for bold souls who can’t be dissuaded. After a young woman is impaled in her apartment, stalwart policeman Larry (Terry TenBroek) questions the victim’s pretty roommate, Susan (Debi Chaney), for clues about the killer’s identity. Concurrently, the film tracks the killer, Charlie (Nick Panouzis), as his rampage continues. Viewers learn that Charlie is an unhinged Vietnam vet associated with a cabal that kills criminals who get off on technicalities. Realizing that Charlie has gone rogue by murdering innocents, the conspriators try to neutralize him before he leads cops to their lair. In competent hands, some of this material might have worked (see 1983’s The Star Chamber), but everything about Delirium is rushed and sloppy, from the anemic acting to the ridiculous use of St. Louis as stand-in for Vietnam during flashbacks. Worse, the presence of grindhouse extremes—unpleasnant scenes of women getting slaughtered—makes the movie’s nods to postwar anguish feel like crass add-ons.

Delirium: LAME

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Astrologer (1975)



          It’s time to leave the real world behind and venture into the alternate universe created by a gentleman named Craig Denney, whose single contribution to the history of cinema is a mesmerizingly terrible paranormal parable called The Astrologer, of which he was both director and star. In this movie, Denney—perhaps best described as George Hamilton’s doughy little brother—plays a man whose adventures captivate the entire world, and whose mystical abilities far surpass those of normal people. Yes, The Astrologer is a cinematic ego trip of spectacular proportions. Denney’s moviemaking suggests the desperate groping of a film student who thinks he’s a once-in-a-lifetime genius even though he has trouble grasping fundamentals. Yet what really distinguishes The Astrologer is the insane ambition of the narrative, credited to screenwriter Dorothy June Pidgeon. (Like Denney, she never did anything else in the picture business.) Despite running less than 90 minutes, The Astrologer packs enough plot for a David Lean epic.
          This movie goes terribly wrong right from the start, after which problems metastasize at a staggering pace. Running through some high points should give a sense of The Astrologer’s deep weirdness. In a prologue, we meet the title character as a youth picking pockets in Long Beach, California, until he’s jailed for vandalizing police cars. (Establishing the movie’s nonsensical pattern, no reason is ever given for why he committed the crime.) Cut to a few years later, when grown-up Craig (Denney) has become as a bogus psychic. He gives a Zodiacal reading to a woman named Darrien (Darrien Earle), during which he pronounces “Libra” as lie-bra, not lee-bra. (Apparently referencing a dictionary was beyond Denney’s powers.) Craig shacks up with Darrien, but she leaves because he can’t generate steady income, so, naturally, Craig befriends an oil executive who wants to get into the diamond-smuggling business. Cut to Craig in a Kenyan prison after getting caught smuggling. Random violence ensues—such as a shooting punctuated by cartoon blood dripping down the screen—before viewers get treated to a snake-attack sequence set to thundering classical music by Gustav Holst.
         Next comes a vignette of someone drowning in quicksand, followed by a lengthy sequence of Craig working on a sailing vessel to the accompaniment of the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon.” (As in nearly the whole eight-minute song.) Craig lands in the tropics, where he arranges to sell diamonds to Dietrich (Joe Kaye). Who’s Dietrich, you ask? He’s the corrupt cop who abused Craig in Kenya, obviously. Stop asking silly questions! (Important sidenote: Kaye’s performance is endearingly terrible, especially when he describes a nettlesome female character by saying, “Basically she’s just another guttersnipe—I’ll deal with her accordingly.”) Enriched with $2 million from the diamond sale, Craig returns to California and makes a film titled The Astrologer starring himself. It’s at this point Denney’s movie enters metatextual-freakout territory. The film-within-a-film is a huge success, turning Craig into both a media mogul and a celebrity spiritualist, so he simultaneously produces TV shows and helps the U.S. military by making psychic predictions. In his spare time, Craig tracks down his old girlfriend Darrien, which triggers florid melodrama straight out of a daytime soap.
          Appraised conventionally, The Astrologer is such an amateurish endeavor that it doesn’t merit a moment’s thought. Viewed through the proper psychotronic prism, however, The Astrologer is ceaselessly delightful. The acting is wooden. The writing is clueless. The directing is even more so. The production values are hilariously cheap. And in scene after scene, storytelling choices are totally confounding. During a trippy sex-club vignette, the camera repeatedly cuts to a shot of a urinal. During a crucial conversation sequence, the soundtrack omits dialogue in favor of a bombastic Procul Harum song. And in a final grace note, the credits announce that The Astrologer was filmed in—wait for it—Astravision. Perhaps that’s as good a word as any for how disoriented you’ll feel after absorbing the singular experience that is The Astrologer.
          It’s not a movie, man. It’s a vision. An astravision.

The Astrologer: FREAKY


Saturday, November 6, 2021

Mon oncle Antoine (1971)



          Set in rural Quebec during the 1940s, Mon oncle Antoine is mostly the intimate character study of a teenager experiencing formative experiences over a Christmas holiday. Strongly evoking the work of François Truffaut (albeit without the master’s discipline or whimsy), Mon oncle Antoine explores several major themes simultaneously. Most effective is the coming-of-age material. Nearly as potent are scenes investigating the dynamics of a group that functions like a family. Least impactful, alas, are efforts at tethering this small story to a larger narrative about looming social change in French-speaking Canada. That said, one must admire the ambition of the piece, especially because the notion of world-class indigenous Canadian cinema barely existed at the time Mon oncle Antoine was made. (There’s a reason why this movie has for decades been prominent on lists of the best Canadian movies ever made.)

          The picture gets off to an odd start, because cryptic early scenes depict the bleak life of Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve), a French-speaking laborer. Then the movie awkwardly shifts from Jos’s remote milieu to the streets of a tiny town, where middle-aged Antoine (Jean Duceppe) operates a general store that doubles as a community hub. Antoine also serves as the local undertaker. Eventually, the filmmakers settle into the viewpoint of Antoine’s nephew, Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), who works in the store alongside Antoine’s wife, Cécile (Olivette Thibault); another teenager, Carmen (Lyne Champagne); and an adult clerk, Fernand (played by the film’s director, Claude Jutra). Antoine drinks, delegates, and vacillates between ignoring and seducing his wife, who seems a bit too receptive to Fernand’s flirtations. Meanwhile, Benoit endures the disorienting phase of learning how to critically appraise grownups—and how to manage growing awareness of Carmen’s sexuality. The main narrative begins about halfway through the movie, when Antoine gets the call to collect a body from a home in the countryside. Benoit tags along, but the journey becomes a test that everyone involved fails.

          Notwithstanding a few moments of levity, Mon oncle Antoine is largely clinical and downbeat. Through Antoine’s eyes, we see how some lives fall into downward spirals, how other lives get stuck in empty routines, and how still more lives encompass only disappointment and regret. Left to the audience’s imagination, of course, is how Antoine might respond to these lessons. Co-written and directed by Jutra, a major pioneer in Canadian narrative film, Mon oncle Antoine boasts engrossing location work and persuasively naturalistic performances. Events feel authentic, as well, perhaps because the storyline was inspired by the youthful experiences of co-writer Clément Perron. Whether it’s accurate to call their film uniquely Canadian is best left to those born in the Great White North, but beyond dispute is the assertion that Mon oncle Antoine is thoroughly empathetic—perhaps to a fault. One can’t help but wonder how a more surgical edit of the same footage might have come across. 


Mon oncle Antoine: GROOVY