Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death of a Snowman (1976)

          While it’s unsurprising that certain genres associated with Hollywood have been emulated throughout the world, it does seem peculiar that blaxploitation—which, after all, grew from idioms and issues associated with inner-city America—made its way outside the borders of the U.S. Then again, if any country in the world could have made a viable claim to the genre in the mid-’70s, it would have been apartheid-era South Africa, where being black was often a matter of life or death. Having said that, whatever innate potential one might associate with the notion of a South African blaxploitation flick is unrealized in the boring Death of a Snowman, which is occasionally marketed by the alternate titles Black Trash and Soul Patrol. (Note the above poster, which has zero to do with the film’s content.) Suffering from a muddy script and sloppy editing, as well as indecisiveness about which character is the protagonist, the movie trudges through a rather pedestrian story about criminals masquerading as social activists.
          The picture ostensibly focuses on the partnership between a black reporter (Ken Gampu) and a white detective (Nigel Davenport), who join forces to investigate the criminals, but writer Bima Stagg and director Christopher Rowley fail to define the characters as interesting individuals, much less a dynamic duo. Meanwhile, recurring cuts to a spaced-out hit man (played by Stagg) add little except explosions of violence. Even though Death of a Snowman is only 86 minutes in duration, it feels infinitely longer because there’s no discernible narrative momentum. Further, Death of a Snowman has an odd vibe because of its international origin. Parts of the movie are reminiscent of Italian crime pictures, some scenes feature Asians performing martial arts, various actors’ voices were replaced in postproduction (creating lip-sync problems), and vignettes with Afros and leisure suits evoke American drive-in flicks. Death of a Snowman ends up feeling a bit like a fever dream of bad ’70s cinema, with flavors from around the world mixed together in the most haphazard fashion possible.

Death of a Snowman: LAME

Monday, July 21, 2014

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

          Considering that he collects and sells horse manure for a living, Irishman Quackser Fortune has a bright outlook on life. He makes his own hours, takes a different route every day through the streets of his beloved Dublin, and won’t listen to people who say that horse-drawn delivery carts may soon get replaced by trucks, rendering his profession obsolete. Quackser treats others with affection and respect, expecting nothing but the same in return. Which is why he’s thrown for such a loop when he meets Zazel Pierce, a beautiful but capricious American spending time in Dublin while doing research at Trinity College. Quackser’s instantly attracted to Zazel, and she feels the same way, but their value systems couldn’t be more different. And that’s the beautifully simple premise of Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, a delightful love story featuring what might be Gene Wilder’s most restrained performance.
          Bereft of his usual tics—the bug-eyed reaction shots, the pratfalls, the screaming—Wilder leads with his innate sweetness, and yet he never makes Quackser seem like a rube. Instead, the character comes across as that rarest of animals, a true innocent. Concurrently, Margot Kidder blends sexiness and worldliness to present Zazel as a modern woman who occasionally wants to meet Quackser on his own level, but then loses interest in him whenever something more challenging comes along. In one of the great victories of Gabriel Walsh’s original script, which was rightfully nominated for a WGA Award, Zazel comes across neither as a contrivance or a villain, but rather as a unique person who falls into the orbit of another unique person. This is character work of the best kind.
          And if the rest of the movie fails to hit that same high level, no matter. The world surrounding Quackser is a believable grind of factory work, hot-tempered relatives, and provincial attitudes. Similarly, Zazel’s sphere includes obnoxious people who wear their education and wealth like shields protecting them from the unclean touch of the rabble. Yes, the dichotomy is predicated on stereotypes, but Quackser and Zazel are such interesting creations that the broad-strokes backdrop works. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and director Waris Hussein make great use of extensive location photography, transforming Dublin into the magical canvas upon which the sort-of love story between Quackser and Zazel is painted. Meanwhile, the leading actors fill that painting with resplendent colors.
          Often bittersweet, Quackser Fortune is more of a light drama than an outright comedy, which makes Wilder’s presence even more interesting, since he rarely worked outside the comic realm during his heyday. And though the world is a richer place because of the lunacy Wilder created with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and other collaborators, Quackser Fortune points to another viable path his career could have taken. His performance is as lovely as the film itself.

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx: RIGHT ON

Sunday, July 20, 2014

1980 Week: Cruising

          No one in Hollywood ever sets out to make a dud. Take, for example, Cruising, the notorious William Friedkin thriller starring Al Pacino as a straight cop who infiltrates New York’s gay-nightclub scene while hunting a killer who is targeting homosexuals. It’s easy to imagine why Friedkin and Pacino, both of whom enjoy testing limits, saw the pulpy story as an opportunity to investigate a mysterious subculture. Concurrently, it’s useful to remember that the gender-politics climate of the late ’70s was still rotten with prejudice. Fearful the movie might propagate ugly stereotypes about predatory gays, activists staged noisy protests during filming in Manhattan, thereby creating a widespread perception that Cruising was antigay. These circumstances all but guaranteed a hostile reception from audiences and critics, rendering the filmmakers’ original intentions moot.
          But that was then. In trying to arrive at a modern understanding of Cruising, however, one must wrestle with the fact that the naysayers who attacked the film during its original release were both right and wrong. For instance, Cruising absolutely features the “gay killer” trope, which had become a raw nerve after too many movies along the lines of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). Yet Cruising is too complex to earn a label as narrow as “antigay.” More than anything, Cruising is deliberately perverse. It’s about a man who loses his personal and sexual identity while pretending to be someone else, set against the backdrop of a nightclub community populated by individuals who celebrate their truth and by individuals who disguise themselves.
          Like the best of Friedkin’s films—a category to which Cruising doesn’t necessarily belong—Cruising is designed to get under the viewer’s skin and distort perceptions. Just as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) revel in moral ambiguity, Cruising revels in sexual ambiguity.
          That leaves unanswered, of course, the burning question: Is Cruising a good movie? That all depends on the kind of experience the viewer wants. Those craving sensitive insights into gay culture will be left wanting, since Cruising focuses almost exclusively on the rough stuff—S&M, street hustling, swinging, and so on. Alternatively, viewers who want a conventional whodunit may be turned off by Friedkin’s incessant use of misdirection. Satisfying the viewer, in the usual sense of that phrase, was obviously never the goal.
          Yet buried within the frustrating rhythms of Cruising are moments of great intensity and surprise. Powers Boothe has a memorable scene as a salesman who explains which handkerchiefs, worn in which fashion, communicate the wearer’s interest in particular sex acts. Karen Allen brings a sultry quality to her part as the lead character’s long-suffering girlfriend. And Pacino attacks the starring role with his signature go-for-broke intensity. Whether he’s dancing in a nightclub while wearing a black tank top or wrestling with angst over antigay violence committed by fellow policemen, he’s an open wound of ambition, confusion, emotion, and need. Cruising doesn’t “work” in any conventional sense, and it undoubtedly retains its power to offend many people, but it’s a singular piece of filmmaking. At its best, it’s haunting. At its worst, it’s wildly sensationalistic. And if nothing else, it remains a lightning rod for debate.

Cruising: FREAKY

Saturday, July 19, 2014

1980 Week: When Time Ran Out . . .

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting title for the final big-screen release from producer Irwin Allen, who became synonymous with the disaster-movie genre after making The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). By the time this enervated flick hit cinemas with a resounding thud, time had indeed run out for Allen’s formula of jamming as many movie stars as possible into melodramatic epics about mass destruction. The disaster this time is a volcano that threatens to consume an island in the Pacific, so the usual Allen contrivances seem especially silly. For instance, tanned B-movie stud James Franciscus plays the requisite cold-hearted businessman who tries to convince island residents that the volcano’s not going to erupt. Really? Then what’s with all the lava and smoke, to say nothing of the corpses left over from scientists conducting tests in the mouth of the volcano? Similarly, the endless scenes of people climbing hills and crossing ravines—running from lava as if the stuff possesses malicious intent—are ludicrous. And while much of the cast comprises such second-stringers as Edward Albert, Barbara Carrera, Alex Karras, and (of course) Allen regular Ernest Borgnine, Allen clearly wrote big checks to get a trio of major stars involved. William Holden plays a hotel owner more concerned with his love life than his professional obligations, Paul Newman plays a heroic oil-rig boss who spots trouble that others can’t recognize (naturally), and Jacqueline Bisset plays the woman caught between them. Never mind that late-career Holden looks so desiccated from alcoholism that he seems more like Bisset’s grandfather than her would-be lover. Anyway, it’s all incredibly boring and shallow and trite, with any potential for excitement neutralized by indifferent acting, leaden pacing, and questionable special effects. Not even Bisset’s spectacular cleavage or Newman’s irrepressible charm can sustain interest. Instead of being a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out is merely a disaster.

When Time Ran Out . . .: LAME

Friday, July 18, 2014

1980 Week: Popeye

          Based on the enduring character Popeye the Sailor Man, a popular attraction in comic strips and cartoons since the Depression era, this big-budget musical comedy was such an embarrassing misfire that it’s amazing the principals behind the film were able to sustain careers afterward. For leading man Robin Williams, who chose this project for his first big-screen starring role after conquering television with Mork & Mindy, the picture led to a stint in “movie jail” that didn’t end until he took a dramatic turn in The World According to Garp (1982). And for director Robert Altman, who should have known better, Popeye dissipated what remained of the goodwill earned by hits including M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975)—after Popeye, Altman spent more than a decade making low-budget oddities until returning to the A-list with The Player (1992).
          Allowing that some folks consider the movie to be a quirky gem, Popeye is likely to strike most viewers as awkward and boring and silly right from the get-go. Amid preposterously elaborate production design that includes an entire seaside village built from scratch, Williams plays Popeye with prosthetics on his arms that make Williams look as if he’s smuggling hams under the skin beneath his wrists and his elbows. Like everyone around him, Williams (badly) sings arty little ditties penned by the idiosyncratic rock musician Harry Nilsson. Meanwhile, Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl as a mess of goofy pratfalls and shrill noises, while offbeat actors ranging from Paul Dooley to Bill Irwin to Paul Smith (best remembered as a would-be rapist in 1978’s Midnight Express) personify one-joke characters with performances of astonishing monotony.
          All of these resources are put in the service of a turgid story about Popeye competing with the brutish Bluto (Smith) for Olive’s hand, about Popeye and Olive becoming the surrogate parents for an orphaned baby named Swee’Pea, and about Popeye reconnecting with his long-lost dad, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). There’s also a big fight with an octopus, and, naturally, lots of spinach. While it might seem small-minded to criticize Altman and his collaborators for trying to blend unusual elements, there’s nothing quite so inert as a failed experiment in genre-splicing. As penned by satirist Jules Feiffer, who shares an insouciant approach to comedy with Altman and Nilsson, Popeye clearly wants to be entertaining and ironic simultaneously. Instead, it’s too plodding and stupid for cerebral viewers, and too weird for casual watchers. It’s fair to say there’s never been a movie exactly like Popeye—an arthouse cartoon, if you will—but that’s not meant as praise.

Popeye: LAME

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1980 Week: Heaven’s Gate

          Writer-director Michael Cimino’s magnum opus about greed, which has ironically become shorthand for the profligate excesses of auteur filmmaking, boasts enough commendable elements for a dozen movies. The story is a thoughtful riff on a fraught period in American history, the performances are sensitive and textured, the production values are awesome, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s images are rapturous. Had Cimino been able to wrestle this material into shape, either at the time of the film’s original release or prior to one of its many reissues, he could have made a classic Hollywood epic. Famously, however, he did not. In its most widely acclaimed version, Heaven’s Gate runs three hours and 37 minutes, which is not inherently hubristic; Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only one minute shorter. The problem is that Heaven’s Gate features at least an hour of repetitive material that, no matter how beautifully filmed, adds nothing to the dramatic experience. Hence, now and forever, Heaven’s Gate is known as the debacle that nearly bankrupted United Artists, the disaster that ballooned from an original budget of $11 million to a final cost of $44 million, and the death knell for the freedoms that maverick directors enjoyed in the ’70s. Ouch.
          The movie begins with a pointless 20-minute prologue that introduces protagonist Jim Averil (Kris Kristofferson) during his graduation from Harvard in 1870. The excess of the prologue, which features innumerable extras in elaborate costumes, is a bad omen. Once the movie cuts 20 years ahead, to 1890 Wyoming, things get moving (more or less). Averil has become a marshal tasked with overseeing a county populated by impoverished Eastern European immigrants. In the first volleys of a land war, cattlemen led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) hire gunmen to kill immigrants based on trumped-up charges. Eventually, a love triangle emerges between Averil, prostitute Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken). Amid various subplots, the narrative builds toward a showdown between the haves and the have-nots, with our Principled Antihero caught in between.
          Alas, Cimino’s writing is nowhere near as strong as his direction. When he aims for subtlety, he achieves muddiness, and when he reaches for profundity, he achieves pretentiousness. Supporting characters feel underdeveloped, relationships grind through repetitive rhythms, and everything is grossly overproduced. Some of the film’s gigantic scenes are powerful, including the final showdown, but some are laughable—notably the 10-minute roller-skating scene. Cimino’s missteps are especially disappointing because he gathered such an interesting cast and, for the most part, gave the actors viable emotions to play. Kristofferson fares the worst, since his understated screen persona exacerbates the movie’s lazy pacing, but he connects periodically. Walken fares the best, his innate eccentricity helping him forge an individualized character. Yet costars Jeff Bridges and Brad Dourif are almost completely wasted.
          Even though it’s possible there’s a great movie buried inside Heaven’s Gate, it becomes more and more difficult to see potential as the minutes tick by and the problems accumulate. Nonetheless, there’s some comfort it knowing the situation could have been worse. The first version of Heaven’s Gate that Cimino showed to understandably flabbergasted United Artists executives was five hours long.

Heaven’s Gate: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1980 Week: Windows

Although Gordon Willis’ directorial debut deserved each one of its five Razzie Award nominations, the movie is noteworthy exactly because of the ways in which it is terrible. After dominating the 70s with his astonishing work as a cinematographer (All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, The Godfather, etc.), Willis finally stepped into the director’s chair for this offbeat thriller about shy NYC stutterer Emily (Talia Shire) being menaced by her unstable neighbor, Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley). Predictably, the movie looks amazing, with so many beauty shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York skyline that the film could have been sliced up to make tourism commercials. Living up to his “Prince of Darkness” nickname, Willis accentuates the failing light of late afternoons and the smothering shadows of urban nights. In some scenes, it’s as if Willis challenged himself to see how little illumination he could use and still record an exposure on film; the climax, for instance, features a pair of faintly backlit silhouettes juxtaposed with the dim view seen though a background window. Unfortunately, it seems Willis had no energy left for directing actors after composing his artful images—the performances in Windows are so flat that it seems like sleeping gas was pumped into the soundstage during production. Shire, never the most dynamic performer, tries for a Mia Farrow-esque brand of fragile anguish, but her character is so dull and inactive that the actress’ efforts are for naught. Ashley is terrible, using bugged-out eyes and heavy breathing to convey instability, while leading man Joe Cortese (playing a detective who romances Emily) is positively zombified. Yet it’s the script, by Barry Siegel, that really sinks Windows. The storyline comprises a painfully slow succession of scenes in which interesting things almost happen, and then even more scenes in which people stand around waiting for things to happen. So even though Willis’ photography is as regal as ever, his movie is a detour to Dullsville. Happily, Willis returned to his original vocation for many years of great work after Windows.

Windows: LAME

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

1980 Week: Can’t Stop the Music & Xanadu

          Since disco was already dying by the time these two spectacularly bad dance-themed movies were released, it’s not fair to say that either picture killed disco. Nonetheless, the sleazy Can’t Stop the Music and the wholesome Xanadu certainly inflicted wounds. Starring the Village People, Can’t Stop the Music is perplexing right from the first frame, because the opening-credits sequence features Steve Guttenberg roller-skating through New York City, in a split-screen effect, as he listens to the Village People on his personal radio and as the credits reveal the motley crew assembled for the movie. Beyond Guttenberg, the cast includes athlete Bruce Jenner and sexpot Valerie Perrine. Stranger still, the picture was directed by Nancy Walker, best known for playing greasy-spoon waitress “Rosie” in ’70s commercials for Bounty paper towels.
          Can’t Stop the Music purports to tell the story of the Village People’s formation, and like everything else related to the ridiculous vocal group behind “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.,” Can’t Stop the Music avoids the elephant in the room—the fact that the Village People coyly repackaged homoerotica for mainstream consumption. Can’t Stop the Music is outrageously sexualized, featuring scenes in gyms and saunas and swimming pools—there’s even the occasional glimpse of a penis, despite the film’s PG rating. The five singers in the Village People give terrible acting performances, as does Jenner, and the whole movie is cut so fast that it feels like a hallucination. Weirdest of all, perhaps, is the unrelentingly upbeat tone—Can’t Stop the Music is like an old Garland-Rooney “let’s put on a show” picture, only set in a bathhouse.
          Xanadu is just as exuberant, and occasionally just as surreal, but it lacks the subversive quality of Can’t Stop the Music. Instead, Xanadu is an infantile phantasmagoria. However, I must confess to loving the movie’s soundtrack album, featuring songs by Electric Light Orchestra and the film’s leading lady, Olivia Newton-John. (True confession: Xanadu was the first LP I bought with my own money.) Michael Beck, a long way from The Warriors (1979), plays Sonny, an L.A. artist who paints billboard-sized versions of album covers. While roller-skating around Santa Monica one afternoon, Sonny meets the beguiling Kira (Newton-John), who turns out to be one of the Muses from Greek mythology. Kira provides magical inspiration to both Sonny and aging song-and-dance man Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) as the three contrive to build a roller-disco palace called Xanadu. That is, until Zeus decides Kira must return to Olympus.
          In the course of telling its silly story, Xanadu toggles between cinematic styles with great abandon. There’s an animated sequence, lots of special effects, endless roller-disco jams, and a bizarre mash-up number combining a WWII-style big band performance and a guitar-heavy throwdown by L.A. pop-punkers The Tubes. As with Can’t Stop the Music, the genuinely terrible Xanadu is best experienced with either abject disbelief or ironic amusement. The only unassailable aspect of the film is the leading lady’s appearance, because Newton-John was at the apex of her girl-next-door sexiness. Amazingly, Xanadu has enjoyed a long afterlife, even spawning a Broadway musical. Turns out you really can’t stop the music—no matter how hard you try.
          FYI, the collective awfulness of Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu led to the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards, which honor cinema’s worst achievements.

Can’t Stop the Music: FREAKY
Xanadu: FREAKY

Monday, July 14, 2014

1980 Week: The Empire Strikes Back

          Heretical though my viewpoint might be among old-school fans of a galaxy far, far away, I don’t subscribe to the belief that The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than Star Wars (1977)—even though, by most normal criteria, the second film in the Skywalker saga is superior. Yes, the acting is better, the dialogue is crisper, the narrative is deeper, and the storytelling is slicker. Even the special effects are more impressive the second time around. Still, two considerations always persuade me to keep the first picture atop the pantheon: 1) Empire doesn’t have an ending, because the resolution of the film’s plot doesn’t occur until the first 20 minutes of 1983’s Return of the Jedi; 2) By definition as a sequel, Empire cannot match the thrilling freshness of Star Wars. Ideas are only new once—even ideas like Star Wars, which was cobbled together from myriad preexisting influences.
          Having said all that, Empire is such an exciting, fast, intoxicating, romantic, and surprising ride that it’s unquestionably among the few sequels to match its predecessor in quality. One need only look at the precipitous drop from Empire to Jedi in order to understand how difficult it is to keep a good thing going.
          In any event, reciting Empire’s plot serves very little purpose, partially because the movie is familiar to most viewers and partially because the storyline will sound impenetrable and/or silly to anyone who hasn’t yet hitched their first ride in the Millennium Falcon. (See, we’ve lost the Star Wars virgins already.) Nonetheless, here are the basics. After destroying the Death Star, rebel forces decamp to the snow-covered planet Hoth, but the Empire’s main enforcer, Darth Vader, leads a successful siege. Escaping separately from the fight are wannabe Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker, who heads to the planet Dagobah for training with Jedi Master Yoda, and the duo of mercenary Han Solo and rebel leader Princess Leia. While Luke channels his abandonment issues into supernatural Jedi skills, Han and Leia wrestle with their burgeoning attraction—even as Vader conspires to capture the heroes.
          Fantastical sights and sounds abound. The floating Cloud City overseen by suave Lando Calrissian. The epic lightsaber duel that concludes with perhaps the greatest single plot twist in sci-fi history. And so much more. Although series creator George Lucas stepped away from the director’s chair for Empire, enlisting his onetime USC teacher Irvin Kershner, Lucas’ fingerprints are visible on every frame. Better still, cowriter Lawrence Kasdan (beginning a hot streak of Lucas collaborations) helps introduce grown-up emotions into the Star Wars universe. The principal cast of the so-called “original trilogy” reaches its zenith here, with Mark Hamill transforming Skywalker from a hayseed into a haunted hero, Carrie Fisher elevating Leia into a full-on field commander (albeit with a soft spot for the men in her life), Harrison Ford perfecting his charming-rogue take on Han, and new arrival Frank Oz contributing wonderful puppetry and voice work as Yoda.
          Nearly everything in Empire is so terrific, in fact, that a tumble into mediocrity was probably inevitable by the time Jedi came around. Thus, for fans who were kids when the first Star Wars was released (myself included), Empire represents the last moment when we believed Lucas could do no wrong—a galaxy of possibilities, if you will. To say nothing of outer-space badass Boba Fett. (Now we’ve really lost the Star Wars virgins.)

The Empire Strikes Back: OUTTA SIGHT

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Cremators (1972)

A year after subjecting the world to the awful creature feature Octaman, which is indeed about an octopus that walks like a man, writer/director Harry Essex returned with The Cremators, a sci-fi/horror flick about a giant blob of otherworldly flame that rolls around the countryside of the southwestern U.S., burning people alive. Essex, who cowrote the classic monster flick The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), employs a cinematic style that’s woefully out of time, so The Cremators includes such antiquated tropes as repetitive comin’-at-ya monster shots and wall-to-wall background music. How old-school is The Cremators? Consider the evidence. Cop-out ending that suggests the danger has not truly passed? Check. Obnoxious Theremin solos during the climax? Check. Square-jawed hero who contrives a scientific means of defeating the monster? Check. All in all, The Cremators is so old-fashioned that it could’ve just as easily been made in 1952, rather than 1972. There’s not a moment of originality or surprise to be found here, so every time heroic scientist Dr. Seppel (Eric Allison) tries to persuade disbelieving authorities that a space monster is responsible for mysterious killings, the viewer’s only possible reaction is a wide yawn. And while The Cremators is in some ways incrementally better than Essex’s previous movie—the photography is a smidgen more atmospheric, for instance, and this time there’s no dude running around in a rubbery-looking octopus suit—Essex set the bar so low with Octaman that even marginal improvement is insufficient to raise The Cremators from the ranks of grade-Z horror. Plus, the way Essex once again cops story elements from The Creature from the Black Lagoon represents a startling failure of imagination. And need we mention that the sight of a glowing special-effects ball is no more frightening here than it was in the innumerable ’60s Star Trek episodes featuring similar beasties bedeviling the starship Enterprise? Happily, Essex stopped directing after The Cremators, returning to the safe harbor of writing movies that better filmmakers captured on celluloid.

The Cremators: SQUARE

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tilt (1979)

          Even though the main bullet point for any discussion of Tilt should be the brazenness with which cowriter/producer/director Rudy Durand ripped off the classic drama The Hustler (1961), moving the original story about pool into the oh-so-’70s arena of pinball, it’s impossible to discuss any of leading lady Brooke Shields’ early films without marveling at the unpleasant influence of the male gaze. Few starlets have been as overtly sexualized as Shields was in the late ’70s, whether she was modeling jeans in print advertisements or striking sultry poses in feature films. Even her most seemingly innocuous movies, like this one or the equally dodgy Wanda Nevada (1979), feature scenes in which men discuss their sexual attraction to the very young Shields. “Distasteful” is too timid a word. Anyway, setting that aside, Tilt is unimpressive for a number of reasons. The pacing is deadly dull, male lead Ken Marshall gives a performance of numbing vapidity, and the film is loaded with aimless montages set to bland singer-songwriter tunes. Plus, close-ups of little silver balls bouncing around inside pinball machines quickly lose their novelty.
          Yet Tilt has one very important saving grace, which is the presence in the cast of the great Charles Durning. He’s so good in his scenes, elevating clich├ęd material into passable drama, that he’s almost reason enough to watch the movie.
          The plot begins in Texas, where would-be singer Neil (Marshall) tries to hustle obese pinball wizard Harold (Durning), only to be caught cheating. Neil decamps to California, where he meets teen runaway Tilt (Shields), a preternaturally gifted pinball hustler. Neil lies to Tilt by saying he needs money for recording a music demo, when in fact what he really wants is to employ Tilt’s skills for revenge against Harold. A long and uninteresting sequence of Neil and Tilt traveling from California to Texas follows, but things pick up once Harold and Tilt meet. Durning and Shields share a long scene together, which is thankfully bereft of erotic implications, and watching the scene is like watching Durning give an acting lesson to an eager young student. While Durning decorates his lines with subtle gestures and vocal flourishes, Shields provides a gentle sounding board, occasionally reflecting back some subtle nuance that Durning has injected into the scene. Interesting stuff.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Born Innocent (1974)

          After starring in perhaps the most controversial theatrical feature of 1973, The Exorcist, perhaps it was fitting for 14-year-old Linda Blair to appear in one of the most controversial small-screen features of 1974. Part of a lurid series of girls-gone-bad telefilms, the relentlessly grim Born Innocent tracks the downward spiral of Christine Parker (Blair), who runs away from her abusive home so many times that her parents surrender custody of Christine to the government. Thus, Christine lands in a juvenile detention center for girls, where fellow inmates subject her to an incident of soul-crushing abuse. Then, despite the valiant efforts of a counselor named Barbara Clark (Joanna Miles), Christine dangles on the precipice of complete disengagement from emotions and morality. The drama of the piece stems from the question of whether Barbara will be able to help Christine save herself, complicated by the secondary question of how much degradation and disappointment one human being can withstand before hiding behind a shell of contempt and cynicism.
          This is heavy stuff, and even though there’s an innately salacious element to Born Innocent—ads hyped that Blair would appear in explicit scenes—the movie is kept on track, narratively speaking, by Gerald Di Pego’s sensitive teleplay. Di Pego, an occasional novelist who has subsequently accrued an impressive string of big-screen writing credits, employs minimalism to great effect throughout Born Innocent. For instance, only one scene between Christine and her parents (played by Kim Hunter and Richard Jaeckel) is needed to communicate why Christine felt the need to escape her household. Working from a book by Creighton Brown Burnham, Di Pego and director Donald Wrye create a tense mood that compensates for the unavoidably episodic nature of the storyline.
          In fact, it’s to the filmmakers’ great credit that Born Innocent works quite well despite a leading performance that’s mediocre at best. Skilled as she was at mimicking intense emotions during her younger years, Blair can’t come close to matching the power that, say, Jodie Foster could have generated in the same material. In any event, the lasting notoriety of Born Innocent stems largely from a single scene—the lengthy and shocking sequence during which Christine’s fellow “inmates” rape her with the handle of a plunger. Although nothing truly graphic is shown, the scene is startlingly forthright considering the context, and it casts such a dark shadow over the rest of the story that everything afterward seethes with subtext. Because of the intensity of that single scene, and because of the delicacy of the film’s character work, Born Innocent may be the best example of its sordid genre, as well as the most haunting.

Born Innocent: GROOVY

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dogs (1976)

          One could easily program an entire film festival comprising nothing but grade-B (and grade-Z) horror movies that were made to capitalize in the success of Jaws (1975). Yet amid the predictable foll0w-ups about aquatic menaces were a handful of pictures about animals gone bad on dry land, including not one but two features in which domesticated dogs become killers. The better of these pictures is most certainly The Pack (1977), with the inimitable Joe Don Baker, but Dogs has its pleasures, as well. To be clear, Dogs is quite horrid, thanks to repetitive attack scenes, stiff acting, and trite plotting. The movie even suffers a unique problem because costar George Wyner later became a familiar face in comedy films, notably Spaceballs (1987), so it’s nearly impossible to take any of his scenes seriously. Yet for many horror fans, sometimes a consistently silly movie can be just as enjoyable as a consistently scary one.
          Set on the campus of a university in the American Southwest, Dogs depicts the problems that emerge once household pets slip out of homes to run wild on suburban streets, forming a murderous pack. There’s some lip service given to the notion that the dogs are driven wild by creepy experiments at a government facility near the campus, but the explanation is so perfunctory it barely merits inclusion. Absent genuine logic and/or suspense, the “appeal” of Dogs stems from its campy approach to fright.
          David McCallum, formerly of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., hides behind a beard and a bowl cut to play Harlan Thompson, a sullen scientist at the university. As per the norm of such movies, he’s the one who figures out that canines are the culprits behind a series of mysterious deaths. Later, Harlan leads the inevitable race against time as citizens seek shelter during a savage rampage by the dogs. Meanwhile, stupid characters take reckless risks, ensuring a plentiful body count. The first half of Dogs is very slow going, because the film’s character development leaves much to be desired, but things pick up once critters start prowling. (The filmmakers wisely focus on shots of a German Shepherd pouncing on people, since the beagle and the sheepdog aren’t especially threatening.) The best scenes in the second half of Dogs are fun in an undemanding sort of way, and special mention should be made of the absurd scene in which dogs lay siege to future Dallas star Linda Gray while she’s in the shower. Yes, there is indeed a Psycho homage in a movie about killer dogs.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Scavenger Hunt (1979)

          Producers have spent years trying to mimic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the all-star comedy epic about an international treasure hunt. Lesser attempts, such as Scavenger Hunt, succumb to predictable problems including bloated running times and underwritten characters. Trying to adequately service roles for a dozen or more principal actors seems to vex even the most well-meaning filmmakers. Additionally, trying to maintain the desired level of hellzapoppin excitement for an entire feature film usually drives the people behind pictures like Scavenger Hunt to rely on chases, screaming, and slapstick—all of which get tiresome. Inevitably, the initial sugar rush leads to a crash. Although Scavenger Hunt is largely a disappointment, especially considering the incredible array of gifted comic actors appearing in the film, it has some meritorious elements. Cowriter/producer Steven Vail and his team (mostly) avoid taking cheap shots at ethnic stereotypes, and they play a clean game by opting for family-friendly jokes instead of lurid ones. It’s not difficult to see the frothy confection the filmmakers had in mind.
          The premise, naturally, is simple. When multimillionaire board-game titan Milton Parker (Vincent Price) dies, his would-be heirs are forced to compete in a scavenger hunt that will determine who inherits the Parker fortune. On one team is Parker’s greedy sister (Cloris Leachman), along with her idiot son (Richard Masur) and her slimy lawyer (Richard Benjamin). Another team includes Parker’s son-in-law (Tony Randall) and the son-in-law’s kids. Next up is a duo comprising two of Parker’s nephews (played by Willie Aames and Dirk Benedict). Still another team features Parker’s household help—the butler (Roddy McDowall), the chauffeur (Cleavon Little), the chef (James Coco), and the maid (Stephanie Faracy). The wild-card contender is a dimwitted taxi driver (Richard Mulligan), whom Parker included because the cab driver accidentally killed Parker’s business partner, making Parker rich.
          You can figure out where this goes—as the teams pursue items on their lists, the evil people bicker and steal while the virtuous people help each other. Some scenes that presumably were meant to be comic highlights fall flat, including a lengthy bit of McDowall supervising his team’s theft of a toilet from a hotel bathroom. Cameos from random actors (Ruth Gordon, Meat Loaf, Arnold Schwarzenegger) add little, and the gags are uninspired. Nonetheless, director Michael Schultz keeps everyone upbeat and moving fast, so several sequences generate mild amusement, especially the anything-goes finale. Additionally, while none of the performances truly stand out (excepting perhaps Benjamin’s vigorous turn as a long-suffering schmuck), the vibe is consistently and pleasantly silly.

Scavenger Hunt: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Education of Sonny Carson (1974)

          Based on a popular nonfiction book by real-life criminal-turned-activist Robert “Sonny” Carson, this deeply flawed drama tries to frame the crisis of African-American gang violence within a larger context of racial marginalization. Had the picture been executed with more responsibility and sophistication, it could easily have become one of the seminal black films of the ’70s. Instead, the movie reaches far beyond its grasp, because despite lots of grandiose talk about how the title character is the innocent victim of a cruel system, the storytellers tend to put the cart before the horse—in other words, they offer sociopolitical explanations for Sonny’s criminal acts after he’s committed them, which creates the effect of convenient justification instead of legitimate proof. What the film has to say may in fact be correct and important, but the argument is made poorly.
          At the beginning of his journey, Sonny (played as a child by Thomas Hicks) is a tough street kid in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with gang violence. After serving a stretch in juvenile detention for petty theft, Sonny (played as an adult by Rony Clayton), joins street gang the Lords and becomes friends with fellow member Lil Boy (Jerry Bell). When Lil Boy is killed during a huge brawl with a rival gang, Sonny steals money to pay for flowers at Lil Boy’s funeral. This puts Sonny in the crosshairs of vicious cop Pilgilani (Don Gordon), who beats Sonny before shipping the young man off to prison. (Yes, the movie is so blunt that the main cop has a name including the word “pig.”)
          While the preceding events might seem as if they should comprise merely the first 20 minutes of screen time, setting up Sonny’s odyssey through punishment and redemption, it takes more than an hour for Sonny to land in prison. This first hour of the movie is padded and slow, while the rest is rushed and superficial. Director Michael Campus lingers endlessly on marginal scenes, like an endless shot of Sonny and his girlfriend riding a ferry past Liberty Island or a ridiculous scene of a preacher (Ram John Holder) eulogizing Lil Boy. (There’s a hell of a lot of weeping in The Education of Sonny Carson.)
          Even though the storytelling is clumsy, the notion that audiences are supposed to sympathize with the going-nowhere lives of inner-city youths comes across. Yet the actual dialogue in the picture doesn’t convey the message effectively. For instance, when Sonny asks a parole board who gave the board “the authority to impose your will on me,” he’s expressing the right sentiment to the wrong people. And so it goes throughout this frustrating movie, which is so weakly constructed that a key plot point of heroin addiction plaguing black neighborhoods isn’t even introduced until the last 10 minutes. There’s an impassioned and soulful drama buried inside The Education of Sonny Carson, but sifting through the dissonant and superfluous material takes work.

The Education of Sonny Carson: FUNKY

Monday, July 7, 2014

Luther (1973)

          In addition to starring in some of the darkest and strangest Hollywood films of the ’70s, the extraordinary actor Stacy Keach appeared in a handful of ’70s projects that employed a more classical style, including this cerebral offering from the American Film Theatre. Essentially a filmed (and slightly modified) version of John Osborne’s 1961 play about historical figure Martin Luther, the feature tracks the events that led Luther to break from the Catholic Church at the moment the world was shifting from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The story takes the title character along a painful journey from being a self-loathing monk to being a morally conflicted revolutionary, so Keach gets to employ his signature intensity as well as his mellifluous speaking voice. The movie is not perfect, simply because it’s so talky that parts of the story go slack, but Keach is deeply impressive.
          Luther begins in 1506, when the Catholic Church is at an apex of sociopolitical influence and unchecked corruption. Young German monk Luther (Keach) wrestles with the strict doctrines of the church, punishing himself for not loving God in the “right” way, and struggling to reconcile his feelings of pride and rebellion with his orders to be humble and subservient. As the years pass, Luther becomes a respected Biblical scholar, but knowledge merely sharpens his disdain for church authorities. Adding to Luther’s indignation is the ubiquity of such theologically dubious practices as the selling of “indulgences,” essentially get-out-of-jail-free cards for wealthy sinners. It all comes to a head in 1517, when Luther issues his scorching Ninety-Five Theses, a methodical explanation of how the church has lost touch with true faith. Showdowns with Catholic authorities ensue, but Luther remains unbowed.
          The historical significance of this story is of course monumental, since Luther was one of the architects of Protestantism, and it would take a more learned person than me to appraise the accuracy of the film’s chronology. Taken solely on dramatic terms, the picture is effectively structured—Luther as the crusading hero, the bloated church as the collective villain—and much of the dialogue is powerful. Additionally, Osborne deserves ample credit for lightness of touch, since the high-minded text is sprinkled with excretory humor, of all things, stemming from the real Luther’s lifelong stomach trouble.
          Still, Luther is slow going, even when Keach locks horns with such formidable scene partners as the urbane Alan Badel, the boisterous Hugh Griffiths, and the menacing Patrick Magee. (Judi Dench, years before her stardom, plays a small role toward the end of the picture as Luther’s wife.) Ultimately, Luther is too fiery to be dismissed as a dry history lesson, and too static to quality as full-blooded cinema. It’s a sophisticated presentation of important subject matter, elevated by an extraordinary leading performance.

Luther: GROOVY