Tuesday, September 23, 2014

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

          Thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly silly, the spy thriller When Eight Bells Toll sprang from the pen of adventure-story specialist Alistair MacLean, who never allowed logic get in the way of a good yarn. (Previous MacLean adaptations include 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and 1968’s Where Eagles Dare.) Anthony Hopkins stars as Philip Calvert, an operative of the British Treasury who specializes in underwater work. After several ships carrying gold shipments are hijacked, Calvert receives orders from government muckety-muck Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley) to investigate. Calvert places a tracking device on the next ship carrying gold, and then he slips aboard the vessel once it’s hijacked. The criminals are more heavily armed than expected, so even though Calvert kills a couple of them, he barely escapes. Nonetheless, he identifies the rough geographic region where the hijackers are most likely based—the rugged coast off the Scottish highlands—so Calvert travels to the area incognito, accompanied by intelligence specialist Hunslett (Corin Redgrave). Then Calvert makes like James Bond while investigating suspects. Naturally, one of those suspects is a beautiful young woman, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), who makes passes at Calvert even though he’s sure she’s an enemy agent. There’s also a subplot about a group of Scottish shark fishermen who may or may not be on the wrong side of the law. Along the way, the picture includes a brawl in a graveyard, a knife fight, an underwater duel involving a blowtorch, a mountain-climbing sequence, and a massive shootout in a cave.
          Deciphering the plot of When Eight Bells Toll isn’t worth the trouble—as is true for most pictures derived from MacLean’s loopy narratives—but the movie is fun to watch. In addition to employing his superlative dramatic skills, the icy Hopkins is cast well because his character is a derisive prick—it’s easy to believe that Calvert could survive in a line of work fraught with danger. Better still, director Étienne Périer and cinematographer Arthur Ibbertson make fine use of the film’s Scottish locations. The sky is heavily overcast in nearly every scene, and the ground looks dirty and wet throughout, so it feels like Calvert’s facing opposition from the climate as well as from criminals. A foreboding castle is a principal location, and the movie’s most exciting sequence features a helicopter crash on a high cliff, followed by a harrowing bit of Calvert trying to survive underwater in the wrecked chopper while killers prowl the ocean surface. Reprising a trope common to the spy genre, the behavior of the villains in When Eight Bells Toll makes no sense whatsoever, and the hero’s resourcefulness reaches godlike proportions. This is pure male fantasy, complete with a rousing, 007-influenced music score by Walter Scott—who, incidentally, later had a sex change and continued her career under the name Angela Morley.

When Eight Bells Toll: FUNKY

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974)

          Credited with having made over 1,000 features since its formation in 1958, Hong Kong production company Shaw Brothers has largely focused on domestic product, but the ’70s martial-arts craze expanded the company’s international reach. That period also found Shaw Brothers attempting co-productions with companies that were established in specific genres, hence the dizzyingly weird The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a kung fu/vampire mashup made with Hammer Films, and this buddy movie set in the Wild West. Coproduced by Shaw Brothers and Italy-based spaghetti-Western outfit Champion Films, the picture blends comedy, gun fights, kung fu, and a liberal sprinkling of sex. Accordingly, The Stranger and the Gunfighter begins with a truly bizarre sequence. As rootin’-tootin’ outlaw Dakota (Lee Van Cleef) breaks into a bank vault, he discovers still photographs of naked women. Close-up shots of the photographs trigger vignettes during which a Chinese gentleman named Mr. Wang tattoos artwork onto the buttocks of the women in the photographs. Keep in mind that Dakota doesn’t learn about the tattoos until later in the movie, so why the vignettes are featured in this scene is a mystery.
          Anyway, Dakota gets captured by authorities and sentenced to death. Meanwhile in China, Mr. Wang’s nephew, Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh), graduates from kung fu school, gets into a fight with a gangster, and is told he must travel to America and recover a fortune that Mr. Wang hid somewhere. Faster than you can say “plot contrivance,” Ho treks to the U.S. and rescues Dakota from the hangman’s noose. Then they’re off to find the women in the pictures, since the tattoos collectively form a treasure map. A crazed preacher chases after Dakota and Ho, intent on seizing Mr. Wang’s treasure for himself. The plot is mildly imaginative, in a farcical sort of way, and some of the culture-clash jokes generate brainless amusement. (For instance, the naïve Ho can’t understand why Dakota reacts with alarm every time Ho says, “I want to see ass!”)
          Furthermore, The Stranger and the Gunfighter moves along at a decent clip, even though the iffy dubbing common to both martial-arts films and spaghetti Westerns of the era guarantees a weird soundtrack. Similarly, the heavy use of comedic music and wacky sound effects makes action scenes feel cartoonish. On the plus side, there’s so much plot that the movie doesn’t get overly mired in fighting scenes, the ladies in the supporting cast are lovely, and the stars are cast well—Lieh blends impressive martial-arts abilities with childlike sweetness, while Van Cleef ably personifies a brute whose boastfulness often exceeds his skills. While not necessarily a standout amid the small subgenre of martial-arts Westerns (which also includes 1971’s gonzo Red Sun and the amiable Shanghai pictures of the 200s starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson), The Stranger and the Gunfighter offers a pleasant sampler platter of sensations from two popular genres.

The Stranger and the Gunfighter: FUNKY

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

          Though he probably thought of himself as an actor in the classical sense, Charlton Heston was inextricably linked with a florid performance style. Whether he was fighting postapocalpytic vampires, parting the Red Sea, or telling a damn dirty ape what to do with its stinking paws, Heston’s best lines were often screamed at ear-splitting volume. Like Spinal Tap’s customized amps, Heston went to 11. This preamble should calibrate expectations for Heston’s directorial debut, Antony and Cleopatra, adapted from Shakespeare’s immortal play. The movie doesn’t work, for myriad reasons, but it speaks to an interesting mixture of misguided artistic ambition and pure thespian ego. Watching the movie, one can actually feel how badly Heston wants everything to coalesce.
          Set in ancient Rome and Egypt, the story takes place after the death of Julius Caesar, and it depicts the tragic romance between Caesar’s second-in-command, Mark Antony (Heston), and Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra (Hildegard Neil). When the tale begins, Antony is part of the triumvirate ruling the Roman empire, but he becomes so obsessed with Cleopatra that he merges his armies with her forces in Egypt. War among former allies ensues, and the whole situation is complicated by Cleopatra’s caprice—although she betrays Antony’s trust more than once, he keeps returning to her. Quite literally, this is the stuff of legend, so Heston’s grandiose style isn’t inherently incompatible. Had an experienced filmmaker taken the reins and kept the star focused on acting, Heston’s interest in the material could have delivered stronger results.
          Alas, Heston the director is the worst enemy of Heston the leading man. In addition to silly indulgences, such as gigantic close-ups during macho speeches and a semi-nude scene showcasing the actor’s burly physique, Heston displays a stunning lack of visual imagination. Antony and Cleopatra is shot roughly in the style of the leaden ’50s Biblical epics that first made Heston a star, even though the flat lighting style and ultra-wide compositions of the ’50s had become boring clichés by the early ’70s. Additionally, Heston took erratic liberties with the text. (He’s credited as the principal screenwriter.) Heston excised a huge swath of the play’s opening passages, making it impossible to track how Antony and Cleopatra became involved—and yet he retained massive speeches that could easily have been trimmed, notably Cleopatra’s final monologue.
          And while Heston delivers basically competent results with intimate scenes, since the mostly British supporting cast is adept at handling Shakespeare’s language, the battle scenes are laughably disjointed and old-fashioned. Damning the whole enterprise to mediocrity is the casting of Neil as Cleopatra. While she’s attractive and skillful, she’s nowhere near magical enough to persuade viewers of her character’s power to change the course of history, and her pale English features seem ridiculous whenever she occupies the same frame as dark-skinned extras.

Antony and Cleopatra: FUNKY

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wattstax (1973)

          During his opening remarks at the 1972 Wattsax Music Festival, an all-day concert designed to celebrate black pride on the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, politician/preacher Jesse Jackson captured the moment with his typical rhyming flair: “We have shifted from ‘burn, baby, burn’ to ‘learn, baby, learn.’” In that spirit, the festival—commemorated in this excellent documentary, which was released a year after the event took place—featured uplifting messages about community, love, and respect. And yet Wattstax director Mel Stuart also widened his focus to address some of the issues that provoked the Watts riots in the first place. At regular intervals during the movie, Stuart cuts to incendiary funnyman Richard Pryor providing irreverent comedy, as well as thoughtful commentary. (Pryor’s material was filmed after the concert.) For instance, Pryor does several hard-hitting minutes on the eternal quandary of the LAPD’s trigger-happy attitude toward black suspects.
          These combative moments mesh surprisingly well with such soothing scenes as the Staple Singers performing “Respect Yourself” onstage at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the festival. Combined with Stuart’s documentary footage of everyday life in Watts—much of which is cleverly juxtaposed with music—all of the elements coalesce into a mosaic about race in America circa the early ’70s. In fact, many of the film’s best scenes feature ordinary men and women speaking casually—but passionately—about the indignities they suffer. In one memorable sequence, several men recall the first time they were called “niggers,” pointedly describing the explanations their parents offered when asked about the hateful word. (One of the man-on-the-street interviewees is actor Ted Lange, who later played the bartender on The Love Boat.)
          Yet the music, of course, is the main attraction. Since the concert was sponsored by Stax Records, many icons of ’70s black music—from James Brown to the entire Motown roster—are conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, the onstage lineup makes for a varied and vibrant mix. The Bar-Kays tear through their swaggering funk number “Son of Shaft,” Luther Ingram sings a heartfelt “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” Jimmy Jones represents the gospel genre with “Someone Greater Than I,” Albert King lays down two slinky Delta blues numbers, and Rufus Thomas gets the crowd going with his novelty number “Do the Funky Chicken.” Funkmaster General Issac Hayes closes the evening with an epic reading of his Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” as well as the softer number “Soulsville,” which suits the peace-and-love mood of the event. (As one concertgoer says succinctly when asked for his reaction: “Like, shit, the whole thing is going on.”)
          Thanks to Stuart’s holistic approach to depicting the festival and its larger context, thanks to the great tunes from Stax artists, and thanks to remarkable editing by David Blewitt, David Newhouse, and Robert K. Lambert, a unique historical moment was preserved in a suitably unique fashion.

Wattstax: RIGHT ON

Friday, September 19, 2014

Black Shampoo (1976)

          Apparently, making a cheap blaxploitation rip-off of the risqué Warren Beatty hit Shampoo (1975) was a more challenging endeavor than one might have expected. To be fair, Shampoo is only nominally about a straight hairdresser who lets other men think he’s gay so he can discreetly screw his female clients, since the complex movie’s real themes are related to ambition, male identity, and politics. Nonetheless, throwing the word “black” in front of the previous film’s title would seem to give Black Shampoo cowriter-director Greydon Clark license to tell a simple story about a black stud who wields a blow dryer while servicing rich white ladies. And, for a while, it seems as if that’s exactly the picture Clark is making. The first 30 minutes of Black Shampoo comprise pure softcore, with abundant full-frontal nudity and many feeble attempts at raunchy humor. Muscular John Daniels stars as “Mr. Jonathan,” a black Beverly Hills hairdresser who leaves his clients satisfied with more than their coiffures.
          When the movie’s “plot” kicks into gear, however, the tone of the picture abruptly changes. Mr. Jonathan’s beautiful receptionist, Brenda (Tanya Boyd), used to be romantically involved with a gangster, so the gangster sends thugs to Mr. Jonathan’s shop and intimidates Brenda into returning to him. Yet Brenda actually loves Mr. Jonathan, so she steals an incriminating ledger from the gangster, sparking a war between the gangster and the hairdresser. (And if any of this is meant to be satirical, the nuance got lost somewhere along the way.) By the time the movie lurches to a conclusion 83 sluggish minutes after it began, Black Shampoo has inexplicably transformed from a would-be sex comedy to an ultraviolent action picture. During the finale, Mr. Jonathan impales a dude with a chainsaw, skewers another fellow with a billiard cue, and watches as one of his sidekicks takes out a villain with an axe to the chest. Blood spurts as freely in these scenes as sudsy water does in the earlier scenes. Oh, and in one particularly gruesome moment, a poor guy gets a red-hot curling iron jammed up his—well, you get the idea.
          Adding to the disjointed nature of the picture is the fact that Clark’s directorial style seems to completely shift midway through Black Shampoo. The first half is borderline incompetent, with inept actors fumbling through pointless scenes—there’s a long romantic montage filled with clichéd images, as well as a long montage of Mr. Jonathan driving around Los Angeles while he looks for Brenda, and the film periodically uses solarized freeze-frames as transitions because Clark obviously forgot to shoot proper in-camera edit points. Yet once the bullets start flying, Clark reveals a minor skill for staging action, and flashes of real humor slip into the mix. (For instance, a flamboyantly gay hairdresser rebounds from an injury by wearing a chic scarf around his gigantic neck brace.) All of this is enough to give any viewer whiplash, and the only reason Black Shampoo doesn’t feel like a fever dream of gore and nudity and sex is that the movie’s pacing is laboriously slow.

Black Shampoo: FREAKY

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

While the low-budget creature feature Track of the Moon Beast is so idiotic that it was pilloried by the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000, I must confess that I’m a sucker for pictures that rip off the tragic storyline of The Wolf Man (1941). Furthermore, because Track of the Moon Beast is so shamelessly derivative, it almost makes sense, and coherence is more than one can usually expect from grade-Z ’70s horror. That said, the list of unintentionally hilarious things in Track of the Moon Beast is lengthy. First and foremost, there’s the origin story of the titular monster. While sitting under the night sky in the Southwest one evening with his new girlfriend, mineral specialist Paul Carlson (Chase Cordell) gets hit in the head by a falling meteorite. Part of the object gets stuck in his head and starts to deteriorate. This makes him radioactive (or something), so his DNA fuses with that of his giant pet lizard, and whenever the moon comes out, Paul turns into what another character repeatedly calls a “demon lizard monster.” And since the story is set in the Southwest, there’s a Native American angle—replacing the gypsy angle in The Wolf Man—so Paul’s Navajo buddy conveniently explains an ancient Indian myth that predicted the appearance of the “demon lizard monster.” Amid this silliness, Paul creates bloody mayhem while in his critter guise, slashing people to death and ripping limbs off unsuspecting victims. Director Richard Ashe demonstrates basic competence at designing shots, but he’s hopeless with actors, so the performances in Track of the Moon Beast range from embarrassing to nonexistent. Cordell and his leading lady, Leigh Drake, are completely wooden, while Gregorio Sala, as the Navajo sidekick, delivers lines with cartoonish intensity. Speaking of cartoons, Track of the Moon Beast was cowritten by comic-book legend Bill Finger, who co-created Batman with writer Bob Kane.

Track of the Moon Beast: LAME

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Carter’s Army (1970)

          Formulaic, predictable, and shot on a meager budget, the made-for-TV war picture Carter’s Army, often marketed by the alternate title Black Brigade, is nothing special from a cinematic perspective. However, because the movie features several noteworthy black actors, including future box-office heavyweights Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams, Carter’s Army is enjoyable as a sort of all-star African-American riff on The Dirty Dozen. Set in 1944 Germany, the exceedingly simplistic movie revolves around U.S. Army Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd), a racist southerner given the thankless task of capturing a heavily guarded dam from the Nazis. Unfortunately for Carter, the only squad available to assist him is an all-black unit that’s never seen combat. Working reluctantly with the squad’s formidable commander, African-American Lieutenant Edward Wallace (Robert Hooks), Carter leads six enlisted men on the mission even though it’s likely to end in tragic failure. Along the way, the born-and-bred cracker learns to respect black people because of the bravery the soldiers demonstrate and because he witnesses the everyday humiliation the men suffer at the hands of fellow Americans.
          Not a single frame of Carter’s Army will catch viewers by surprise, and in fact, some scenes are a bit hard to take seriously because the forests of Germany look suspiciously like the high-desert woods above Palm Springs. (One could never accuse TV kingpin Aaron Spelling, who cowrote and coproduced this project, of overspending on location photography.) In lieu of a novel story, what keeps Carter’s Army lively is the cast.
          Moses Gunn appears as a professor suffering wartime indignities with grace, Pryor plays a soldier so afraid of fighting that he attempts desertion, Glynn Turman portrays a young man keeping a journal of the action-packed war that he wishes he could tell the folks back home he’s fighting, and Williams plays a tough guy from Harlem whose racial anger matches the intensity of Carter’s bigotry. Also in the mix are gentle giant Rosie Grier, the NFL star-turned-actor, and the stalwart Hooks (Trouble Man), who lends gravitas to the role of the squad’s leader. This being a Hollywood movie of a certain time, of course, the title character is a white guy whose journey to enlightenment is portrayed as having more narrative value than the lives of the black men around him. Veteran big-screen stud Boyd delivers adequate work as Carter, complete with a litany of disgusted facial expressions and an amusingly soupy accent.

Carter’s Army: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Newsfront (1978)

          Offering a nostalgic but tart look at the period in media history when theatrical newsreels gave way to television coverage, the handsomely crafted Newsfront also includes a litany of important Australian events from the years 1948 to 1956. A similar story could have been told about nearly any developed nation, but the rugged Australian setting fits this specific narrative about an old-fashioned cinematographer who resists change. In addition to making his feature debut, Aussie director Philip Noyce cowrote the script, which dramatizes social and technological changes by juxtaposing the experiences of stubborn Len Maguire with those of his comparatively easygoing younger brother, Frank. Yet the Len/Frank saga is just one of many storylines.
          Deliberately episodic, since actual Australian newsreels are woven into the story, Newsfront unfolds like a soap opera, with the staffers at two competing newsreel agencies crisscrossing over time. Len evolves from the cocky daredevil who’ll do anything for a shot to the embittered veteran who gets scolded for playing it safe. Along the way, he changes wives, loses friends to tragedy, and proudly supports the Communist Party. He’s a thorny choice for a central character. Although Newsfront features several action scenes depicting the risks Len and his peers take to capture footage, the most dynamic vignettes actually occur in mixing studios. It’s fascinating to watch the newsreel teams create soundtracks live—as a director gives cues by hand, a sound technician adjusts the music score and a voice-over actor delivers the purple prose for which newsreels were famous. Newsreel camera technology was the same as that used for fiction films, but this particular mixing process was unique to the newsreel medium.
          Generally speaking, the workplace scenes in Newsfront are more effective than the domestic bits, partially because Noyce employs such an understated style, and partially because leading man Bill Hunter (as Len) is supremely stoic. Hunter is cast well, seeing as how Len’s first marriage becomes a casualty of his remoteness, but Hunter never generates much emotional engagement. Costars Chris Haywood (as Len’s apprentice) and Gerard Kennedy (as Len’s brother) are more accessible, and the whole cast is quite good on a technical level. A pre-stardom Bryan Brown plays a small role, and Wendy Hughes offers a striking presence as the woman who gets caught between Frank and Len.
          Boasting consistently impressive production values—a sequence involving a flood looks amazing—Newsfront is quite watchable despite its clinical quality and ho-hum ending. Additionally, the movie is noteworthy because it earned a slew of Australian Film Institute awards (the Aussie equivalent to the Oscars), and because it marked a pivotal moment in Noyce’s career. Although the director didn’t achieve a true international breakthrough until helming the taut Nicole Kidman thriller Dead Calm (1989), Noyce subsequently directed numerous big-budget films, including a pair of Jack Ryan adventures and the twin 2002 triumphs Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

Newsfront: GROOVY

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bonnie’s Kids (1973)

          An all-too-common storytelling technique among ’70s filmmakers catering to the drive-in market involved taking elements that worked in other low-budget movies and jamming them together for maximum pulpy impact, even if narrative dissonance resulted. As a case in point, the action thriller Bonnie’s Kids includes ingénues, lesbians, mobsters, horny rednecks, sleazy photographers, a heist story right out of an old film noir, and lurid scenes that could be generously described as attempts at sex comedy. Based on sheer percentages of screen time, Bonnie’s Kids is a crime movie by default, but there’s a lot of cinematic wandering amid the film’s 105 undisciplined minutes. And yet as awful and sloppy as the preceding description makes Bonnie’s Kids sound, it’s not a completely terrible movie. The performances by leading lady Tiffany Bolling and supporting actor Alex Rocco are tasty, the plotting is relatively intricate, some scenes contain a modicum of wit, and there’s more than enough sex and violence to keep the viewer’s reptile brain engaged.
          The story starts in the deep south, where sexy sisters Ellie Mae (Tiffany Bolling) and Myra (Robin Mattson) live with their drunken lout of a stepfather because their mother, Bonnie, died two years previous. After the stepfather tries to molest Myra, older sister Ellie Mae unloads a shotgun into his chest, and the sisters flee to L.A., where Bonnie’s brother is a businessman. Before long, Myra gets romantically involved with a predatory lesbian, while Ellie Mae gets roped into transporting a package across state lines for gangsters, which brings her into the orbit of fellow courier Larry (Steve Sandor). Once Ellie Mae seduces Larry, she persuades him to open the mysterious package they’re carrying. It’s full of cash, so Ellie Mae talks Larry into running away with her—and the money. Predictably, the Mafia doesn’t the theft lightly, so gunmen Digger (Timothy Brown) and Eddy (Rocco) are sent to recover the loot.
          The first half of Bonnie’s Kids is scattershot, but the second half works fairly well as a lovers-on-the-run melodrama. There’s even some real tension toward the end, despite Ellie Mae’s annoying tendency to shout, “What are we going to do?” every five seconds. Writer-director Arhtur Marks, who cut his teeth directing episodes of Perry Mason and later made several lively blaxploitation flicks, keeps the pace brisk and seizes every opportunity to showcase the curvaceous figures of starlets. One can do a lot better in the world of tacky ’70s exploitation pictures than Bonnie’s Kids, but one can also do a lot worse, because hints of real filmmaking periodically emerge from the boobs-and-bullets muck.

Bonnie’s Kids: FUNKY

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Street Fighter (1974) & Return of the Street Fighter (1974) & The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (1974)

          A favorite of both Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, this ultraviolent trilogy of Japanese martial-arts pictures stars Sonny Chiba, one of many Asian actors who filled the marketplace vacuum created by Bruce Lee’s death in 1973. As directed by Shigehiro Ozawa in a workmanlike fashion, the Street Fighter pictures offer diminishing returns. The first movie has a certain pulpy energy because the filmmakers took obvious glee in testing the limits of good taste; the second picture makes an okay companion since the storyline is closely connected to that of its predecessor; and the final flick is dull, perfunctory, and repetitive. (Continuing the chop-socky carnage, Chiba appeared in a spinoff trilogy about a female martial artist that began with Sister Street Fighter, also released in 1974.)
          The Street Fighter introduces deadly mercenary Terry, played by Chiba. Fearless, resourceful, and tough, he pulls such brazen maneuvers as rescuing a thug from police custody, even though doing so requires defeating half a dozen cops with karate. The plot is needlessly lugubrious, but the gist is that Terry and his idiot sidekick, “Ratnose” (Gerald Yamada), get on the bad side of the Yakuza by refusing a contract for moral reasons. Despite being targets themselves, Terry and Ratnose rescue a young woman whom gangsters want dead, so fights ensue with criminals including the formidable Jungo (Milton Ishibashi). Yet the story is ultimately inconsequential, because The Street Fighter is primarily about the varied ways in which Terry kills people. At one point, he rips the genitals off a would-be rapist. Later, after Terry whacks a dude on the head, director Ozawa cuts to an X-ray of a skull as a huge crack appears. Fake-looking blood flows freely throughout The Street Fighter, culminating in a gross-out shot of a man’s head exploding like a watermelon when he’s thrown off a high ledge. Chiba’s athleticism is impressive, he delivers dialogue competently, and he scowls effectively enough. Furthermore, because The Street Fighter is basically a Japanese riff on the familiar Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood formula—tough guy kills other tough guys—the combination of excessive violence and rudimentary characterization gets the dirty job done.
          Return of the Street Fighter adds a little bit of narrative texture by emphasizing supporting characters, including the honorable master of a martial-arts school and the principled cop who quits his job so he can pursue Terry, vigilante-style. Throughout Return of the Street Fighter, the filmmakers try to shift Terry into likable-antihero mode, marking a subtle change from the avenging-angel archetype he represented in the first picture. Unfortunately, by placing Terry into opposition with noble characters who value decency and public safety, the filmmakers obscure any sense that Terry is a necessary evil in a chaotic world. He seems as vile as any of the mobsters who employ him, particularly when he hits one fellow’s head so hard that the gentleman’s eyes literally pop out of his skull. (Although probably intended to be shocking, this image is unintentionally hilarious because it recalls countless shots from cartoons showing the reactions of wolfish men to attractive women.) Nonetheless, reprising key characters from The Street Fighter gives the ending of Return of the Street Fighter a smidgen of stylish symmetry. Plus, there’s a bad guy who speaks through a mechanized voice box—always a nice touch.
          The final picture in the trilogy, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, is enervated in the extreme, and the film’s episodic storyline absurdly positions Terry as some sort of underworld superhero. (At one point, he even refers to himself as “The Street Fighter,” and it’s never a good sign when pictures get overly self-referential.) The muddled plot has something to do with gangsters pursuing an audiotape that contains the formula for synthetic heroin, but the storyline is really just an excuse for marital-arts mayhem. Whereas the previous films included such elaborate conclusions as a battle on a boat during a rainstorm and a fight inside a shadowy factory, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge concludes with a drab martial-arts match on a pier in broad daylight. Additionally, it appears that the final picture suffered from even worse censorship during its American release than the previous Street Fighter films did, so the level of graphic violence in the film’s American version is surprisingly low, even though The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge—like the original Street Fighter—was initially hit by the MPAA with an “X” rating for gore. The dubbing in the American version of The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge is also considerably worse than that in the previous films.
          Purists, of course, may wish to seek out original Japanese-language prints of these pictures and could well discover virtues absent from the dubbed American versions, so the preceding remarks should be considered in that context.

The Street Fighter: FUNKY
Return of the Street Fighter: FUNKY
The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge: LAME

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973)

Watching misbegotten horror movies can be a confusing experience, because encountering the juxtaposition of incompatible narrative elements begs the question of how and/or why the elements were combined in the first place. In the execrable Godmonster of Indian Flats, for instance, the basic DNA of a monster movie is grafted onto meaningless melodrama involving residents and visitors in a small town known for elaborate re-enactments of Old West shootouts. As such, the movie contains scenes of a mad doctor experimenting on a giant mutant fetus that came out of a sheep, scenes of two men fighting over the accidental shooting of a friendly German Shepherd (complete with an ornate funeral for the canine), and scenes of a fur-vest-wearing ranch hand tripping out following his exposure to radioactive materials. There’s also a pie-throwing contest. And a pointless vignette featuring grifters who get the ranch hand drunk after he wins a bundle of cash in Reno, and then rip him off by using a sexy pickpocket as bait. Especially because the acting is consistently terrible, none of this is interesting to watch. Worse, writer-director Fredric Hobbs periodically forgets that he’s making a movie with “monster” in the title. For long stretches of screen time, the only horror elements onscreen are repetitive cutaways to the titular creature sitting in a lab with smoke emanating from its body. However, that’s just as well, because once the creature escapes captivity to begin its inevitable rampage—which doesn’t happen until the last 30 minutes of the picture—the design of the beastie is revealed as ridiculous. The “godmonster” looks like a giant sheep with a face made out of dripping yogurt, prowling around on its hind legs while two inert little arms dangle from its torso. For emphasis, the “godmonster” growls like an irritated Rottweiler. Lots of this growling occurs during the scene in which a group of cowboys lasso the mutant sheep as if the thing were a runaway cow.

Godmonster of Indian Flats: SQUARE

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rosebud (1975)

          Following the horrors of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the pro-Palestine terrorist organization Black September was depicted in a number of film projects, some based on real events and some wholly fictional. In addition to this picture, which was extrapolated by producer-director Otto Preminger from a novel by Paul Bonnecarrère and Joan Hemingway, Black September appears in the big-budget thriller Black Sunday (1977). Yet while Black Sunday is a robust action thriller, Rosebud is a talky procedural depicting the complex international response to a politically motivated kidnapping. Like many of Preminger’s movies, Rosebud is simultaneously too smart for its own good—issues are discussed at such great length that the movie sometimes seems like a talk show—and too tidy. Even with the presence of characters who personify the ambiguity of the modern world, Rosebud is dry and schematic. This is exacerbated by Preminger’s predilection for scenes in which characters sit or stand in one position while delivering reams of dialogue.
          Dramaturgical shortcomings aside, Rosebud is somewhat compelling because of its level of detail. The picture begins by introducing a group of young women from various countries as they hop onto the massive yacht Rosebud, which is docked in the Mediterranean and owned by French businessman Charles-Andre Fargeau (Claude Dauphin), who is grandfather to one of the ladies. After Black September operatives hijack the boat and move the women to a hidden location, Fargeau hires Larry Martin (Peter O’Toole), a CIA-trained operative, to engineer the release of the women. Extensive back-and-forth maneuvers ensue. The terrorists use ingenious means to obfuscate their location while issuing films in which the captives read lists of demands. Larry tracks the source of the terrorists’ finances to an Englishman named Edward Sloat (Richard Attenborough), who converted to Islam and became a fanatic. Meanwhile, individuals including an activist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are used as pawns, by both sides in the conflict, to gain information and leverage.
          Some of the scenes depicting backroom negotiations feel sterile, thanks to drab staging and inconsistent acting, but the script—credited to Preminger’s son, Erik Lee Preminger—is painstaking in the extreme. Even the film’s handful of action scenes, such as the hijacking and the climactic assault on the kidnappers’ lair, include copious details about methodology. Plus, as Preminger did in Exodus (1960) and other politically themed films, the filmmaker paints a complicated picture by showing how crisscrossing agendas create problems—for instance, while the parents of the kidnapped women want to capitulate, government officials from America and Israel advocate hard-line stances toward negotiating with terrorists. So, while Rosebud is infinitely more cerebral than visceral, the story is muscular and relevant.
          As for the performances, O’Toole dominates with his signature brand of civilized cruelty, and Attenborough infuses his small part with to-the-manor-born indignation. Kim Cattrall, in her movie debut, provides streetwise edge playing one of the kidnapped women, and Gallic star Isabelle Huppert lends dignity to the role of a released hostage who participates in the effort to rescue her friends. Other notables in the cast are Cliff Gorman (as an Israeli intelligence officer) and Raf Vallone (as the courtly father of Huppert’s character).

Rosebud: GROOVY

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bluebeard (1972)

          One of the many strange things about this thriller starring Richard Burton as a serial killer whose victims are his gorgeous wives is that Bluebeard was released near the apex of the Women’s Lib movement—not exactly the right moment for a piece about the ultimate misogynist. Similarly, make what you will of Burton’s casting, seeing as how he shot Bluebeard toward the end of his first tumultuous marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. Knowing that Burton had considerable friction with the woman whom he reportedly called “Miss Tits” lends strange connotations, especially during scenes in which Burton’s character is repulsed by the sight of bared breasts. Oh, and Bluebeard—which features as much gore and nudity as the raciest Hammer flicks—was among the final films directed by Hollywood veteran Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny).
          Based on the 17th-century story by Charles Perrault but set during the 1930s, Bluebeard is about Baron von Sepper (Burton), an Austrian aristocrat whose facial hair turned blue following exposure to chemicals during a fighter-plane crash in World War I. (Because that happens.) After the Baron’s current wife dies under mysterious circumstances, he falls for a spunky American showgirl, Anne (Joey Heatherton). After they marry, Anne discovers a trove of corpses in the Baron’s castle, so she persuades the Baron to explain the circumstances of his past murders in order to buy time before she becomes his latest victim. This prompts long flashbacks, one per wife.
          Tonally, Bluebeard is so inconsistent that it’s likely each participant thought he or she was making a different movie. Burton plays his scenes like high camp, as if he’s Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, while Heatherton purrs and slinks like she’s starring in a softcore picture. (Although her acting is hilariously bad, she looks great whether clothed or, as is frequently the case, not.) Supporting players incarnating the roles of the Baron’s wives/victims deliver a dizzying range of styles. Nathalie Delon exudes sincerity playing the naïve Erika (that is, until her steamy lesbian fling with buxom costar Sybil Danning). Marilú Tolo (literally) sings her way through a cartoonish turn as the exuberant Brigitte. And Raquel Welch embarrasses herself with stilted line readings suitable for a high school play while portraying Magdalena, a nymphomaniac-turned-nun.
          The film’s horror aspects are silly, thanks to the use of unrealistic-looking mannequins for corpses, and the application of cheap Freudian psychology to explain Bluebeard’s motivations is tacky. As a result, good luck figuring out whether Bluebeard is a failed comedy, a failed thriller, or a horribly misguided hybrid. Despite all of these faults, however, Bluebeard is weirdly watchable because of opulent production values, a steady procession of naked beauties, and the odd rhythms of Burton’s performance, which has moments of credible intensity amid overall hamminess. Capping the whole psychosexual experience is a gonzo musical score by the inimitable Ennio Morricone.

Bluebeard: FREAKY

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976)

          Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of this sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), because Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby was made for TV eight years after the original picture was released. Cheap-looking, silly, and featuring only one returning cast member, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby is not without its odd virtues, but it doesn’t exist in the same universe as its illustrious predecessor. When Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby begins, the child whom Rosemary Woodhouse delivered at the end of the first film is eight years old. Raised in seclusion by the Satanists who arranged for Rosemary to be impregnated by the devil, the boy whom Rosemary insists on calling “Andrew” is called “Adrian” by the devil worshippers. Hopeful that she can save her boy from his predetermined fate of becoming the antichrist, Rosemary kidnaps Adrian/Andrew during the first section of the movie, titled “The Book of Rosemary.”
          Suffice to say, her rescue mission fails, which brings us to “The Book of Adrian,” which picks up the story 20 years later. Brooding and impetuous, twentysomething Adrian/Andrew knows that a large number of people consider him special, though he has no idea why. (Or maybe he does—the biggest storytelling problem in the movie is that it’s never clear whether Rosemary’s baby knows his true lineage.) During Adrian/Andrew’s birthday party, the Satanists drug the young man, slather him with mime makeup (!), and perform a ceremony meant to imbue Adrian/Andrew with his biological daddy’s powers. Yet that plan hits a snag, too, leading to the film’s final segment, “The Book of Andrew,” which is the best of the batch because it actually contains a few surprises.
          Director Sam O’Steen, who was the picture editor of the original Rosemary’s Baby, seems utterly confused about how to convey information and where to put his camera, so the movie looks amateurish, and it feels like big chunks of the story are missing. Nominal star Stephen McHattie, who plays Adrian/Andrew as an adult, seems like he’s still emulating the sullen style of James Dean (whom he played in an telefilm broadcast a few months before this one), and he often looks as if he’s about to fall asleep. Worse, it’s deeply distracting to see most of the major roles from Rosemary’s Baby recast, especially since Ruth Gordon reprises her part as chipper Satanist Minnie Castavet. Patty Duke, George Maharis, and Ray Milland replace Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Sidney Blackner, respectively. (Also appearing in Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby are Broderick Crawford, Tina Louise, and Donna Mills.) Predictably, Gordon’s pithy asides add as much humor to this picture as they did to the original. 

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Sell-Out (1976)

          Offering a textbook definition of how much value familiar genre elements and slick location photography can add to a picture, the international-espionage thriller The Sell-Out is fairly watchable despite indifferent leading performances, sluggish pacing, and a turgid storyline. Whenever the movie seems to be running out of gas, director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) and his collaborators unleash a chase scene, a shootout, or some other intense event. So, even though The Sell-Out isn’t particularly interesting, the filmmakers do their best to make sure that boredom is held at bay. They don’t always succeed, so most viewers will experience fatigue midway through the picture, but The Sell-Out is, more or less, a respectable enterprise. Oliver Reed, sporting a clumsy accent to play an American, stars as Gabriel Lee, a spy who defected from the U.S. to Russia but has now landed in Israel. After operatives from the CIA and the KGB try to kill Gabriel, alerting him that he’s no longer traveling incognito, Gabriel phones his old CIA mentor, Sam Lucas (Richard Widmark), who has retired from the spy game and now lives in Israel. Convenient! Things get emotionally complicated because Sam’s live-in girlfriend, Deborah (Gayle Hunnicut), used to be with Gabriel, and there’s still a weirdly sadomasochistic spark between Deborah and Gabriel. (This makes Sam understandably insecure, she’s he’s old enough to be Deobrah’s father, while Gabriel is roughly Deborah’s age.)
          The makers of The Sell-Out can’t quite decide whether they’re after a character-driven story in the mode of John Le Carre or a lusty adventure in the style of Ian Fleming, so they toggle back and forth between these extremes. Generally speaking, the cartoonish Fleming-style stuff works better, thanks to extensive use of Israeli locations (including the Wailing Wall) and thanks to a fun supporting performance by Vladek Sheybal as a cold-blooded mercenary nicknamed “The Dutchman.” Whenever the movie shifts into overdrive, with Reed grimacing in between automotive bang-ups and near-miss gunshots, The Sell-Out has a decent pulpy vibe. Furthermore, some of the mano-a-mano scenes between Reed and Widmark are tasty, with Reed overplaying per his norm and Widmark seething in comparative restraint. (Hunnicut does what she can with her poorly written role, since her character occasionally lapses into inexplicable histrionics.) Adding an odd flavor to the picture is the score by Colin Frechter and Mike Green, since they mix jazz-fusion jams with proto-disco grooves. Meanwhile, cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson uses sleek moves and wide-angle lenses to fully exploit the craggy textures of Israel’s cities and countryside—as well as the craggy textures of his weathered leading men.

The Sell-Out: FUNKY

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Flesh and Blood Show (1972)

If nothing else, this one gets points for truth in advertising—The Flesh and Blood Show features copious amounts of nudity and a smattering of gore. There’s also a story of sorts, but it’s probably kinder to focus on the ways in which producer-director Pete Walker delivers the goods. A prolific maker of U.K. sexploitation flicks, Walker tries to create a straightforward thriller about innocent victims trapped in a confined location with a killer, but he can’t help himself. Nearly every scene is designed to showcase the female form, so The Flesh and Blood Show features copulating, groping, ogling, stripping, and even a long sequence of a fully nude starlet running from a killer who demands that she meet her fate naked because she’s committed carnal sins. Clearly, nothing rings Walker’s bell more than persuading attractive actresses to disrobe, then training his camera on their private parts. And yet the funny thing is he’s not a bad director, per se. Individual scenes within The Flesh and Blood Show have genuine merits, from clever camera angles to moody lighting. All this is for naught, however, since the story is dreary and predictable and silly. When The Flesh and Blood Show begins, several young actors (male and female) receive notices from a mysterious producer that they’ve been cast in a new play. Traveling to an abandoned theater on a pier, the twentysomethings rehearse by day and screw by night. (Seriously, these characters seem averse to sleeping alone or even wearing clothes after sundown.) When someone starts killing the actors one-by-one in gruesome ways, the survivors inexplicably remain at the location and continue rehearsing, at least until the bizarre black-and-white climax during which the killer reveals his identity and does the bit of chasing the nude cutie around the theater. Whatever. Plenty of slasher flicks are just as dumb as The Flesh and Blood Show, but Walker somehow manages to make sex and violence dull simply because the pacing is slow and the tone is flat. While none of the actors is of special note, the ladies are all quite shapely, and Australian-born costar Tristan Rogers later became a fan-fave regular on the American daytime soap General Hospital.

The Flesh and Blood Show: LAME