Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Massacre in Rome (1973)



          The European-made World War II drama Massacre in Rome depicts a 1944 incident during which the Third Reich killed 335 citizens in reprisal for a partisan attack that left about 30 German soldiers dead. The so-called “Ardeatine Massacre” carried sociopolitical implications extending beyond the war itself, since the Vatican was asked to intervene but refused to do so. Written and directed by George P. Cosmatos, who adapted a book by Robert Katz, Massacre in Rome is a serious attempt at cataloguing the myriad factors that led to the slaughter, although the process of dramatization led Cosmatos toward both oversimplification and turgidity. Regarding the first extreme, Cosmatos transformed historical figure Herbert Kappler, the German officer tasked with organizing the reprisal, into a cinematic protagonist, which necessitated some sanding of edges. In the movie, Kappler—as played by Richard Burton—is a pragmatist who urges his commanders to exercise restraint not out of any great wellspring of human compassion, but because he knows that an excessive response will energize opposition among the Italian citizenry. Historical accounts suggest that the real Kappler had no such reservations about following the company line.
          Regarding the second extreme, that of turgidity, Cosmatos created a composite character, Father Pietro Antonelli—portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni—to represent the tricky relationship between the church and Italian partisans. Many scenes involving the priest devolve into pretentious debates about morality. Worse, the priest ultimately serves no discernible narrative function—despite fretting a lot, he never impacts the action in a meaningful way. Given these problems, Massacre in Rome is a middling film even though it’s also a sober undertaking with terrific production values. At his best, Cosmatos conveys a vision of the Third Reich’s high command as a dysfunctional family, with insane leader Adolf Hitler (who is never shown onscreen) creating a top-down climate of paranoia and savagery while more rational people eye the inevitable future after Hitler’s power structure collapses. Marginalized in this treatment of the story are the people affected by the massacre, because Cosmatos doesn’t spend enough time with the partisans or with the common people of Rome. That said, Cosmatos and producer Carlo Ponti honor the dead with a closing text crawl featuring the names of the victims.

Massacre in Rome: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Burnout (1979)



Sadly, this isn’t a character study of a Jim Ignatowski-style drug casualty, since the title stems from another use of the term “burnout.” Apparently, in the world of high-stakes drag racing, a “burnout” is a pre-race ritual during which drivers rev their wheels in order to get the treads hot for improved traction. Said ritual is shown in this film about 10 zillion times. Also repeated endlessly are shots of blue methane jets sparking from engine blocks, parachutes deploying after races are completed, and, of course, top-fuel dragsters blasting down tracks at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Burnout seems very much like a movie that was constructed around available footage, either because the filmmakers got access to a vault of racing shots or because they got permission to film a season’s worth of high-test action. However it came together, Burnout is vapid in the extreme. A good 60 percent of the movie comprises generic racing scenes that the filmmakers try to enliven with voiceover in the form of play-by-play commentary. The remainder of the film tells the uninteresting story of a spoiled rich kid from California named Scott. who decides for no special reason to become a drag racer. (The character is lifelessly portrayed by Mark Schneider, star of yet another vehicular dud, 1977’s Supervan.) Scott’s dad buys him a custom-made car, but Scott washes out in his first race, so he abandons the car and takes a job on a pit crew, eventually subbing for a driver during a big race. Give or take a few details, that’s the whole plot, and it’s delivered by way of laughably emotionless acting. Offering nothing in the way of characterization or dramatic stakes, Burnout will appeal only to those with a fetish for drag racing, but even those viewers are likely to get bored after a while.

Burnout: LAME

Monday, April 25, 2016

Top of the Heap (1972)



Top of the Heap represented a big professional leap for actor Christopher St. John, seeing as how he had only four screen credits to his name previously, including a supporting role in Shaft (1971). St. John wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Top of the Heap, but he botches all four of his jobs over the course of the glossy but misguided crime drama. George Lattimore (St. John) is an African-American beat cop in Washington, D.C., who resents that racist superiors prevent him from moving up in the ranks. Meanwhile, civilians and crooks alike regard George as an Uncle Tom, and George’s marriage to Viola (Florence St. Peter) has turned bitter. Had St. John kept things simple with a racially changed character study, he could have made something meaningful. Unfortunately, he overreached. St. John unwisely gave his protagonist a long-suffering mistress, identified only as “Black Chick” (Paula Kelly), and it’s hard to root for a philanderer who abuses both the women in his life. Worse, St. John interspersed the movie with bizarre dream sequences, mostly showcasing two recurring tropes—in one, George imagines that he’s an astronaut, and in the other, George imagines that he’s a naked savage running through a jungle. (The jungle scenes climax with an eroticized vignette of George and a woman slathering each other with pieces of watermelon, after which George inexplicably yells, “Jambalaya!”) The hallucinations give Top of the Heap an incoherent quality, but even the dramatic scenes are confusing, as when George, in uniform, scares a vituperative cab driver (cameo player Allen Garfield) nearly to death. By the time the movie’s pointless bummer ending rolls around, it seems like unreasoning rage, rather than righteous indignation about racism, is the protagonist’s real problem. Not exactly, one presumes, the point the filmmaker wanted to make.

Top of the Heap: LAME

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The War Between Men and Women (1972)



          The title of this romantic comedy is a misnomer, because the picture doesn’t pit archetypal representatives of opposite genders against each other. Rather, the film tracks the unlikely romance between a misanthropic cartoonist and a compassionate divorcée. These two characters engage in conflict, but their clashes stem from the cartoonist’s disagreeable personality and the divorcée’s lingering affection for her ex-husband. Therefore, the only reason the title makes any sense is that the cartoonist often departs on flights of fancy in which he imagines men and women battling each other with weapons. Yet the muddiness of the title is but one of many problems plaguing The War Between Men and Women, which has several meritorious elements despite being a disappointment overall. Not least of the film’s virtues is a go-for-broke leading performance by Jack Lemmon, who plays a heel to the hilt.
          Set in New York, the film revolves around Peter Wilson (Lemmon), a sardonic cartoonist who writes illustrated books and also contributes to posh magazines. Suffering from poor eyesight, he visits his ophthalmologist one day and receives a grim diagnosis before experiencing a meet-cute with fellow patient Terri Kozlenko (Barbara Harris). For Peter, it’s dislike at first sight, but Terri finds him interesting. Later, the two meet again at a party and, improbably, begin dating. Terri’s lighthearted nature wears down Peter’s misanthropy, so they marry, which makes Peter a stepfather to Terri’s three children. Enter the ex-husband, Stephen Kozelenko (Jason Robards), an easygoing photojournalist. Funny and heroic and kind, he’s the opposite of wimpy whiner Peter, so his return causes friction—as does Peter’s discovery that Terri knew all along he’s verging on total blindness. As per the rom-com formula, complications ensue.
          Based upon the writings of humorist James Thurber and cowritten and directed by Melville Shavelson, The War Between Men and Women is an odd sort of picture. About 60 percent of the screen time comprises comic interplay, one-liners, and sight gags, including scenes of Lemmon directly addressing the camera. About 20 percent of the picture comprises animation or mixtures of animation with live action, with the lead character’s cartoons coming to life. And about 20 percent of the picture comprises maudlin melodrama. At its most rudderless, the movie swerves into a long scene of Peter counseling his teenaged stepdaughter about the realities of marriage and sex. The film’s tonal jumps are awkward, especially since the movie hums along fairly nicely whenever Shavelson and cowriter Danny Arnold—who previously collaborated on a TV series extrapolated from Thurber’s work—simply lock into a sitcom-patter groove. Still, Lemmon is terrific here, and one could do a lot worse for comic foils than Harris, Robards, and costar Herb Edelman.

The War Between Men and Women: FUNKY

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ruby (1977)



Hard as this might be to imagine, Ruby combines elements from The Exorcist (1973) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) with a seedy Floridian milieu to create a bizarre horror/melodrama hybrid. Oh, and tuxedo-clad 1930s gangsters find their way into the mix, as well. The end result is a mess. The movie is too silly to be scary, too strange to have emotional resonance, and too overstuffed to cohere. Much of what happens onscreen is nonsensical, and not in an enjoyably disorienting sort of way. Ruby begins with an overwrought prologue. In 1935 Florida, a gangster and his redheaded moll, Ruby (Piper Laurie), visit a remote lake at night. Then other gangsters show up and murder the boyfriend—at which point Ruby, whom the audience didn’t realize was pregnant, suddenly goes into labor. Sixteen years later, Ruby is a woman stuck in time, reliving her glory days as a radio singer and wannabe movie star while operating a drive-in theater. Her daughter, Leslie (Janit Baldwin), is a deaf-mute with emotional problems. For no apparent reason, weird supernatural shit starts happening at the drive-in, leading to several bloody deaths. Then Leslie starts speaking—in the voice of her long-dead father, Ruby’s gangster boyfriend. Apparitions appear, paranormal investigators are summoned, and director Curtis Harrington shamelessly steals from The Exorcist with shots of Leslie doing acrobatic contortions on her bed while spewing obscenities and vomit. Yet somehow the focus of the film is Ruby, a Norma Desmond type who can’t accept that the past is the past. Laurie, looking quite glamorous in all-red costumes, gives a loopy performance that’s a long way from the believable but creepy dementia of her work in Carrie (1976), and the movie around her is just as undisciplined as Laurie’s acting.

Ruby: LAME

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Boatniks (1970)



          Something of an aberration among ’70s live-action offerings from Walt Disney Productions, The Boatniks is a straightforward comedy with a romantic subplot. It doesn’t feature animals or children, and it doesn’t showcase special effects (excepting process shots of submarines) or supernatural elements. The Boatniks doesn’t even star one of Disney’s regular leading men, though it’s easy to picture Dean Jones in the starring role. The Boatniks could have been made by any studio, since it holds no special appeal for children beyond slapstick gags. After all, how interested is the average juvenile viewer in a love story, the exploits of jewel thieves, and the problems of a young Coast Guard officer trying not to botch his first command assignment?
          Onetime song-and-dance man Robert Morse, appearing in his last film role before a 17-year hiatus from the big screen, plays Ensign Tom Garland, a young junior officer assigned to supervise a patrol boat in the waters surrounding Los Angeles. A well-meaning klutz, Tom screws up his first few patrols, doing things like running a boat aground and spilling a can of paint on Kate (Stefanie Powers), the attractive proprietor of a sailing school. Tom’s misadventures cause friction with his exasperated supervisor, Commander Taylor (Don Ameche). Meanwhile, a group of jewel thieves led by fast-talking Harry Simmons (Phil Silvers) attempts aquatic getaway, which is impeded by the thieves’ lack of nautical knowhow. Clues eventually hip Tom to the presence of wanted criminals, so he strives to capture them and thereby refurbish his reputation. Naturally, he and Kate transition from frenemies to significant others amid the madcap antics.
          Notwithstanding its lack of standard-issue Disney plot elements, The Boatniks contains stylistic hallmarks of the studio’s live-action fare, notably dense plotting and mile-a-minute pacing. Some of what happens onscreen is amusing and charming, even though the overall tone of the piece is squaresville. (One exception: the randy running gag about a drunken playboy who keeps his boat stocked with bikini-clad babes.) Morse is personable in the leading role, though he’s outgunned by comedy pros Ameche and Silver, as well as supporting players Joe E. Brown, Wally Cox, and Norman Fell. Deserving special mention are writers Arthur Julian and Martin Roth, whose story is more of a juggling act than a proper narrative. Their deftness at keeping so many subplots running in tandem is impressive, even if The Boatniks never achieves the desired level of hilarity.

The Boatniks: FUNKY

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Group Marriage (1973)



         Emerging almost inevitably from the anything-goes zeitgeist of the Sexual Revolution, Group Marriage is a lighthearted comedy about exactly what its title suggests, an arrangement by three couples to cohabitate and share sexual favors, thereby escaping the constraints of Establishment society. The movie is not quite as lurid and tacky as it sounds, though there are plenty of nude scenes as well as implications of encounters involving multiple partners. The movie is also not nearly as sharp as it should be, seeing as how it lives in the shadow of Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), which basically ends by crossing the sexual boundary at which Group Marriage begins. Whereas Mazursky’s film was a hip and thoughtful examination of the emotional and psychological effects of social change, Group Marriage merely gives lip service to serious issues while presenting anemic bedroom farce and simplistic clashes between seekers and squares. So even though Group Marriage is ultimately harmless, allowing its characters to display something vaguely resembling dimensionality, the movie is dragged down by knuckleheaded one-liners and a pervasive sense of voyeurism.
          The movie gets off to a rocky start, with cutesy scenes introducing viewers to Chris (Aimee Eccles), a clerk at a used-car dealership, and her boyfriend Sander (Solomon Sturges), proprietor of a bumper-sticker business. Chris meets Dennis (Jeffrey Pomerantz) and brings him home for sex, much to Sander’s chagrin, even though Chris makes the argument that her tryst was okay because she didn’t hide it from Sander. Then Dennis brings his buxom girlfriend, Jan (Victoria Vetri), into the mix, and it’s Chris’ turn to experience jealousy. Eventually, the group expands to include a studly beach bum, Phil (Zack Taylor), and a sexy lawyer, Elaine (Claudia Jennings). Complications ensue in the form of hangups and recriminations, as well as social pressure from folks who disapprove of the group’s arrangement. Some of the plot developments are imaginative, like Elaine’s quest to set a legal precedent for group marriage, and some are less so, like the various scenes involving the screaming-queen gay couple living next door to the group. To its minor credit, the movie never once devolves into outright sleaze, and perky performances keep the tone upbeat even when situations become complicated. 

Group Marriage: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Nashville Girl (1976)



          On some levels, the story of this music-business drama is as generic as the film’s title, because it charts the familiar trajectory of a nobody who becomes a somebody through a combination of genuine musical talent and humiliating personal sacrifices. It’s the old question of whether fame is worth achieving if doing so requires the aspirant to sell his or her soul. Yet Nashville Girl works because the texture of the picture is credible, and because the sexual politics make sense. Every horny dude and every seedy location feels believable, and the way the heroine battles for control over her sexual identity resonates. As such, Nashville Girl is an interesting reminder that even though Roger Corman spent much of his career producing exploitation flicks that lured male audiences with the promise of female skin, he also released several deeply feminist films. Like The Lady in Red (1979), a pungent gangster picture written by John Sayles, Nashville Girl does more than simply include the exploitation elements of nudity and sex; the film contextualizes these elements within a defiant sociopolitical framework.
          The picture plays rough right from the start. When we first meet her, Jamie (Monica Gayle) is a backwoods teenager crazy for country music, casually skinny-dipping in a pond. Yet male predators lie in wait, as they will throughout her ascension. A local boy rapes Jamie. Then, not long afterward, Jamie gets caught listening to her transistor radio in church, so her father beats her. That’s enough to convince her it’s time to leave home. Jamie makes her way to Nashville, where the best work she can find is being a receptionist in a massage parlor. Meanwhile, shady managers demand money in exchange for representation, and male country singers make overt passes. A vice raid at the massage parlor lands Jamie in jail, and when she gets out, she befriends a session player named Kelly (Roger Davis). He puts together a demo recording for Jamie, and they become lovers. The demo puts Jamie on the radar of recording star Jeb Hubbard (Glen Corbett), a horndog with a weakness for young flesh. He agrees to make Jamie a star, though Jamie knows it’s only a matter of time before he’ll expect repayment in sex.
          Effectively stripping the music business of glamour, Nashville Girl dramatizes the ugly reality that many young women pursuing a singing career will be asked to sleep their way to success. Moreover, the film tracks Jamie’s psychological growth with precision. Confused and sad because the choice of when to enter the world of sex was stolen by her rapist, she struggles to regain her sexual autonomy, only to become even more confused whenever she trades intimacy for advancement. (That the filmmakers handle this complex material so well is even more impressive given the pedestrian nature of the other credits on their filmographies.) While not an extraordinary film, Nashville Girl has a surprising abundance of grit, and the performance scenes effectively describe the gulf between grim offstage tension and sparkly onstage illusions. 

Nashville Girl: GROOVY

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Supervan (1977)



Considering how much fun people had in the ’70s customizing their vans and using them for makeout sessions, it’s a bummer that none of the many flicks made about van culture is any good. Even Supervan, the emphatic title of which suggests it should be apex of its subgenre, is a superdud. Employing the familiar elements of an I-gotta-be-me hero, a semi-illicit road race, and a villain determined to suppress innovative new technology, Supervan is so enervated in terms of characterization, plotting, and style that it’s excruciatingly boring. The hero is Clint Morgan (Mark Schneider), a suburban kid obsessed with prepping his pirate-themed van, the Sea Witch, for competition in the “Second Annual Non-National Bicentennial Invitational Freakout ’76.” While heading to the race, Clint overhears an attempted gang rape on his CB radio—yes, really!—and rescues the would-be victim. She’s Karen Trenton (Katie Saylor), who just happens to be the daughter of T.B. Trenton (Morgan Woodward), an evil oil executive. He hired a scientist to create a customized gas-guzzler van. Instead, the scientist created “Vandora, the Supervan,” a solar-powered vehicle that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. After losing the Sea Witch in an accident, Morgan becomes the driver of Vandora, with Karen at his side. Never mind asking what the scientist was planning to do before a driver conveniently crossed his path. Supervan is filled with dreary montages of vans driving down highways, plus sleazy shots of ladies in revealing clothes at the base camp for the road race. Other affronts to good taste include the film’s dorky theme song, an offensive portrayal of gay characters, and Schneider’s lifeless performance.

Supervan: LAME

Monday, April 18, 2016

Natural Enemies (1979)



          Natural Enemies is a character study of a man contemplating the annihilation of his own family, and writer-director Jeff Kanew never allows the tiniest sliver of hope to brighten the screen. Working from a novel by Julius Horwitz, Kanew takes viewers deep into the turbulent mind of magazine editor Paul Steward (Hal Holbrook), a man so bludgeoned by the disappointments of everyday life that he views oblivion as the only gift he can bestow upon his loved ones. Had Kanew surmounted this material’s inherent narrative problems, and had he adopted a more kinetic storytelling style, Natural Enemies could have become one of the great cinematic provocations of its day, especially because leading man Holbrook commits so fully to his nihilistic characterization. Alas, those narrative problems create speed bumps at regular intervals, and Kanew’s style is far too minimalistic and static. Some scenes are so flat as to narcotize the viewer. That said, Natural Enemies is a fascinating misfire.
          The picture begins on a fateful morning in suburban Connecticut, where Paul lives with his wife, Miriam (Louise Fletcher), and their three children. Thanks to several minutes of wall-to-wall voiceover, we learn that Paul is contemplating using a gun to kill his family and them himself upon returning home from work that evening. Traveling into New York, where he runs a small magazine catering to intellectuals, Paul speaks with two cerebral friends—a diplomat (José Ferrer) and a therapist (Viveca Lindfors)—and he tells both of them what he’s planning. Each expresses concern, but neither contacts authorities. Additionally, Paul realizes his final sexual fantasy by hiring five prostitutes for group sex, which leads to perhaps the strangest scene in the movie. As the prostitutes recline nude, Paul gives a monologue about the history of his marriage, up to and including descriptions of Miriam’s hospitalization for mental illness, before again revealing—this time, to five strangers—that the death of his family is imminent. The prostitutes engage in talking-and-listening therapy, offering Paul marital and sexual advice, but they, too, avoid notifying authorities. And then, once Paul gets home, Miriam says she knows what he’s going to do, which occasions a numbingly long dialogue scene that Kanew films in the least dynamic fashion possible.
          By the end of Natural Enemies, some viewers might share Paul’s homicidal impulses simply because Kanew has made Paul’s life seem so dreary that escape sounds appealing. Cheap digs about Kanew’s directorial limitations aside, Natural Enemies represents a sincere attempt at digging beneath the surface of an existential malaise that afflicted millions of people during the ’70s. Furthermore, the picture makes the troubling—if not altogether persuasive—argument that a killer lurks inside each of us. Yet dismissing Natural Enemies because Kanew didn’t argue his case well is too easy. Somewhat like Peter Bogdonavich’s Targets (1968), Natural Enemies asks why America is such fertile ground for growing monsters. Incidentally, Kanew’s career took some peculiar turns after this picture. His next project was helming the low-rent actioner Eddie Macon’s Run (1983), and then he scored big with Revenge of the Nerds (1984).

Natural Enemies: FUNKY

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Up from the Depths (1979)



The cycle of Jaws ripoffs spiraled ever downward with Up from the Depths, one of several movies that Roger Corman commissioned in order to cash in on the success of Steven Spielberg’s aquatic-horror blockbuster. Helmed by frequent Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith, Up from the Depths revives that old trope from 1950s monster movies, the notion of an ancient creature accidentally released from underwater hibernation. In this case, the critter is a dinosaur/shark/whale thingamabob, but nothing in the movie compels the audience to exhaust much energy identifying the beast’s identity. The attack scenes are derivative and silly, and once the creature is finally shown, it looks like a pile of plastic junk that was left outside to melt in the sun. As for the perfunctory narrative, it’s the same old shit about a resort proprietor suppressing evidence of a rampage in order to protect his livelihood, with disastrous results. The nominal protagonist is American hustler Greg Oliver (Sam Bottoms), who teams up with marine biologist Rachel McNamara (Susanne Reed) to investigate several mysterious deaths. Yawn. Per the Corman template, sex is used at regular intervals to compensate for the lack of suspense. The opening scene, a shameless cop from The Deep (1977), features a buxom diver in a white T-shirt that becomes semi-translucent underwater. Later, a model arrives at the resort to shoot a topless layout. Even the nudie shots, however, fail to enliven Griffth’s hapless attempts at generating a campy hybrid of horror and humor. One should not be surprised to discover the involvement of Filipino-cinema bottom-feeder Cirio H. Santigo, who produced this picture; few filmmakers so consistently excluded believability and logic from their storytelling.

Up from the Depths: LAME

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Jaguar Lives! (1979)



A dunderheaded take on James Bond-style international espionage with a heavy element of martial arts, Jaguar Lives! is roughly the equivalent of a second-rate television pilot, thanks to adequate production values, a blandly handsome leading actor, several faded stars playing vapid cameo roles, and a nonstop barrage of noisy action. The story is as stupid as it is trite, so not one frame of the picture is likely to lodge in the viewer’s memory. Jaguar Lives! is not even fun to watch ironically, excerpt perhaps for the snarky thrill of noting how many of the film’s macho moments come across as accidental homoerotica. In fact, viewers who enjoy watching leading man Joe Lewis perform martial-arts rituals while his naked, sculpted torso gleams in the sun may be the only ones who can derive uncomplicated pleasure from Jaguar Lives! The movie begins with secret agent Jonathan Cross, code-named “Jaguar” (Lewis), conducting a mission with his buddy, Bret Barrett, code-named “Cougar” (Anthony De Longis). The mission ends in tragedy, sending Jaguar into seclusion. He licks his spiritual wounds by doing martial arts in the desert under the watchful eye of his sensei (Woody Strode), whom the filmmakers helpfully adorn with the character name “Sensei.” Then intelligence operative Anna Thompson (played by onetime Bond girl Barbara Bach) arrives with a new mission, and—oh, forget it. International locations are visited, stuff explodes, and villains get their asses kicked. Beyond Bach and Strode, others collecting paychecks for playing pointless roles include Capucine, John Huston, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, and Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman. Lewis, who enjoyed a hugely successful career in competitive karate and kickboxing, is impressively athletic, and that may be the only reason to associate any form of the adjective “impressive” with Jaguar Lives!

Jaguar Lives!: LAME

Friday, April 15, 2016

Smoke in the Wind (1975)



          Hampered a limited budget, overly sincere acting, and an unwillingness to depict violence with gritty impact, Smoke in the Wind explores an interesting aspect of the post-Civil War era—fraternal conflicts in the Deep South between dogged Confederates and Southerners who fought for the North. In some places below the Mason-Dixon Line, the end of the war was the beginning for a new period of aggression. The story begins with noble officer Cagle Mondier (John Russell) and his son, Whipple Mondier (John Ashley), returning home to Arkansas after serving in the Union army. They’re devoted abolitionists, which puts them at odds with former friends and neighbors, especially sadistic pro-slavery zealot Mort Fagan (Myron Healey), who commands a band of vigilantes determined to lynch every “traitor” to Southern values. The narrative tracks the Mondier family’s battle with Fagan’s thugs, and the situation is complicated by romances that cross enemy lines. In particular, one of Cagle’s wartime subordinates, Smoky Harjo (Henry Kingl), is in love with Cagle’s daughter even though Cagle hates the bloodthirsty and hotheaded Smoky.
          Featuring the last performance of familiar big-screen character actor Walter Brennan—who plays the minor role of a shopkeeper—Smoke in the Wind feels a bit like a community-theater production, with amateurish players breathlessly delivering trite dialogue in costumes that look like they came straight from a rental house. Even nominal leading man Ashley, perhaps better known for the myriad exploitation flicks he made in the Philippines, gives a stilted performance, suggesting a lack of vision behind the camera. (Two directors are credited on Smoke in the Wind—Walter Brennan’s son, Andy, who never helmed another feature, and Joseph Kane, who directed countless programmers from the 1930s to the 1950s before shifting to episodic television.) For the most part, Smoke in the Wind is harmless, using life-and-death melodrama to put across a parable about decency vanquishing prejudice, but the combination of a turgid storyline and unimpressive acting ensures the highest this piece can ever rise is to the level of mediocrity.  

Smoke in the Wind: FUNKY

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Star Spangled Girl (1971)



          While not an outright flop, Neil Simon’s comic play The Star Spangled Girl ran for less than nine months in 1966 and 1967, a disappointment given the outsized expectations created by Simon’s previous successes—Barefoot in the Park had a four-year run, The Odd Couple lasted more than two years, and so on. Ever the pragmatist, Simon agreed with critics that The Star Spangled Girl was not his best work, a notion instead of a premise, and the play’s clumsy engagement with ’60s counterculture revealed that politics were not good fodder for Simon’s imagination. Nonetheless, Simon’s name had gained sufficient marketplace value by the early ’70s that even his failures were given screen adaptations, hence this middling and tiresome romantic comedy.
          In 1970s Los Angeles, impoverished activist Andy Hobart (Tony Roberts) publishes an underground newspaper, The Nitty Gritty, out of the filthy garden apartment he shares with his one and only contributor, brilliant but eccentric Norman Cornell (Todd Susman). Andy makes ends meet through chicanery and petty theft. One day, wholesome would-be Olympic swimmer Amy Cooper (Sandy Duncan) moves into the same apartment complex, and Norman becomes infatuated with her, which distracts him from writing. Norman harasses Amy relentlessly, breaking into her apartment and spray-painting love messages all over town, but she finds him repellant. Eventually, Andy persuades Amy to take a part-time job at the paper, hoping this will inspire Norman to resume his work. Predictably, Amy and Andy fall in love, putting a wedge into Andy’s friendship with Norman.
           At its most tedious, the film features drab political “debates” between Amy and Andy, she the aw-shucks heartland gal and he the intellectual pinko. It is beyond inconceivable that these characters find each other attractive. Even though screenwriters Arnold Margolin and Jim Parks tweaked Simon’s narrative to pull the story forward into the ’70s, traces of the play’s temporal origins peek through the surface in unhelpful ways. It’s as if this movie desperately wants to engage with the fraught political atmosphere of the period during which the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were escalating, but lacks the nerve to do so. Furthermore, because Star Spangled Girl forefronts romantic banter and sight gags, the sense that something more substantial is being suppressed makes the film feel even more trivial than it might otherwise. In sum, Star Spangled Girl pairs frenetic silliness with unformed political musings, so the film strikes out on two levels at once.
          That said, Roberts—later to become a staple in a decade’s worth of Woody Allen movies—delivers Simon’s one-liners well, and both Duncan and Susman exhibit boundless energy. Star Spangled Girl also contains a peculiar shout-out to another movie: During one early scene, a lookalike for Midnight Cowboy character Joe Buck references Buck’s experiences in that film.

Star Spangled Girl: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Stacey (1973)



Stacey occupies a (very) minor place in film history, because it’s the first example of low-budget director Andy Sidaris’ signature style. During the ’80s and ’90s, Sidaris made a slew of ridiculous action movies starring Penthouse and Playboy models, correctly assuming that the combination of guns and gazongas would score with the home-video crowd. All the elements of Sidaris’ exploitative formula can be found in his debut feature, Stacey. Presented as a hard-boiled detective story, complete with cynical past-tense narration, Stacey concerns Stacey Hanson (Anne Randall), a private eye who happens to be a buxom blonde. Hired by a rich old woman, Stacey is charged with investigating the woman’s potential heirs to see if any of them deserves an inheritance. Naturally, each of these folks is up to something. John (John Alderman) is gay but closeted, so his horny wife, Tish (Anitra Ford), finds pleasure in bed with a handyman, who takes pictures of their trysts for purposes of blackmail. Meanwhile, Pamela (Cristina Raines) is involved with a Manson-style sex cult. This being a Sidaris film, most scenes require Stacey to wear skimpy clothes—or nothing at all—in order to track down clues. Somewhat improbably, Stacey is also a racecar driver, which leads to the silly finale during which she steers a racecar down a rural road while being chased with a helicopter. Even more typical of the film (and of Sidaris’ juvenile aesthetic) is the scene in which a killer stalks Stacy while she showers—only to discover that she’s waiting for him behind the curtain with a gun. The ladies in Stacey are attractive, and the film contains a fair measure of action, so it’s no surprise to learn that Roger Corman’s New World Pictures released Stacey—Sidaris delivers the trashy goods. Nonetheless, Stacey is boring, episodic, and stupid, ideal only for the most lascivious of viewers.

Stacey: LAME

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)



          Possibly the grisliest adaptation of a Jules Verne novel ever made, The Light at the Edge of the World depicts the conflict between a gang of pirates and the lone survivor of a lighthouse crew on a remote island. Kirk Douglas plays the survivor with clenched-teeth intensity and nimble physicality, Yul Brynner offers an interesting contrast by portraying the main villain as a sadist with the courtly manners of a European gentleman, and the action unfolds on rocky terrain so barren that it might as well be the surface of the moon. Those seeking the lighthearted escapism one normally associates with Verne’s fiction should look elsewhere, because this is a brutal picture featuring a beheading, gang rape, and a horrific scene of a man being flayed alive. That could be why The Light at the Edge of the World fared poorly during its initial release, because viewers presumably expected something like Douglas’ previous Verne exploit, the family-friendly 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
          It should also be noted that The Light at the Edge of the World has no discernible thematic content, so it’s not as if the producers tried to elevate Verne’s pulpy storytelling. Viewed unfavorably, The Light at the Edge of the World is a Saturday-matinee adventure gone wrong. Viewed favorably, it’s a pirate picture that avoids romanticizing outlaws.
          The movie opens with the arrival of a three-man crew on a remote island. Assistant lightkeeper Will Denton (Douglas) is the crew’s outlier, since his companions are an old man at the end of his career and a young man just starting his. (Clues about Will’s tragic past are sprinkled throughout the movie, though the backstory payoff is underwhelming.) One day, a pirate ship sails into the island’s harbor, and marauders under the command of Jonathan Kongre (Brynner) murder Will’s compatriots. Despite briefly evading capture, Will is apprehended and used for sport by the vicious Jonathan. Only a brazen leap off a high cliff saves Will’s life. Eventually, the pirates dismantle the lighthouse and trick another ship into crashing upon deadly reefs. The pirates kill all the survivors except pretty Arabella (Samantha Eggar), whom Jonathan takes for a plaything, and the ship’s engineer, whom Will rescues. These two men plot revenge against the pirates.
          Despite being overlong at two hours and change, The Light at the Edge of the World is quite consistent. Not only do the filmmakers steer clear of swashbuckling fluff, but they allow the story to grow darker as it progresses—in one demented scene, Jonathan’s sexually ambiguous henchman cross-dresses so he can torment Arabella with a weird dance. Although Douglas has never been the subtlest of actors, he fares well in this milieu, conveying a mixture of brokenhearted angst, righteous anger, and sheer terror. Brynner, conversely, camps it up by grinning and laughing while his character commissions one atrocity after another. Naturally, these two big-screen alpha males have at each other during the requisite action-packed finale.

The Light at the Edge of the World: GROOVY

Monday, April 11, 2016

Salty (1973)



          A low-budget attempt at simulating the Disney formula for heartwarming stories about kids bonding with animals, Salty costars a personable sea lion and Ron Howard’s little brother, Clint Howard, an unusual-looking child best known for playing an alien in a 1960s Star Trek episode and then portraying an assortment of ghouls and weirdos in 1980s exploitation flicks. He’s a teenager here, and during several scenes he performs the “ugly cry” (to borrow a phrase from Oprah Winfrey), meaning that his face contorts in unflattering ways whenever he tries to convey deep emotion. All due respect, this has the effect of making Howard seem more peculiar than sympathetic, which in turn makes his casting seem like a poor choice, particularly since the nature of his acting is not such that it compensates. Moreover, the story is about as contrived and simple as it gets. After their parents are killed, twentysomething Taylor Reed (Mark Slade) and his little brother, Tim (Howard), hit the road for rural Florida, where Taylor has arranged a job at a marine-life attraction. The siblings hitch a ride with Clancy (Julius Harris), an animal trader traveling by school bus to the same park, where he intends to sell several animals. One of the animals is Salty, a sea lion, who bonds with Tim during their shared road trip.
          Upon reaching the marine-life attraction, which is operated by Mrs. Penninger (Nina Foch), the siblings and Clancy—who has become something like a surrogate uncle for the boys—discover that the attraction has fallen on hard times. The inevitable ensues. As the boys help resuscitate the attraction, Tim and Salty have adventures, leading toward manipulative sequences during which Salty is badly injured and, later, erroneously blamed for starting a fire. None of this is interesting or surprising, and every aspect of the production looks cheap. Yet because the filmmakers include myriad shots of the sea lion flopping around on dry land or splashing through ocean waves, Salty delivers the bare minimum of what one might expect from such a project. FYI, the picture was co-written, coproduced, and directed by Ricou Browning, the swimmer who played the titular monster in the underwater scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955). Additionally, Salty continued as a TV show for 20 episodes from 1974 to 1975; Harris and Slade reprised their roles, though Howard wasn’t involved.

Salty: FUNKY

Sunday, April 10, 2016

1980 Week: Tom Horn & The Hunter



          Like so many movie stars who epitomize a particular romantic ideal, Steve McQueen’s reign as a box-office champ was surprisingly brief. He found success on television with the 1958-1961 Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive, then became a proper marquee name with his breakout role in the ensemble adventure The Great Escape (1963) before peaking with action/thriller pictures including Bullitt (1968). By the mid-’70s, however, McQueen was basically over. That is, until he mounted a two-film comeback attempt in 1980. Alas, McQueen’s return to glory was not meant to be. The actor died from a heart attack at age 50 while receiving treatment for the cancer that his doctors discovered after McQueen completed production on his last movie, The Hunter. While both of McQueen’s final films are palatable distractions, neither is remarkable, and, quite frankly, neither suggests McQueen had much gas left in the tank. Released in March 1980, Tom Horn is an elegiac Western about a cowboy forced to pay for his violent life. Released in August 1980, The Hunter is the lighthearted story of a modern-day bounty hunter. Both pictures are based upon real people, and both roles suit McQueen well.
          Tom Horn, the better of the two pictures, explores the unique quandary faced by gunslingers during the historical moment when the Wild West gave way to civilization, with all the petty corruptions that word entails. The real Tom Horn was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, and he helped capture Geronimo. By 1901, he was a relic—a bit like McQueen circa 1979, when the picture was shot. While drifting through Wyoming, Tom (McQueen) meets gentleman rancher John Coble (Richard Farnsworth), who hires Tom to help roust a troublesome band of rustlers. Working on behalf of John and a consortium of fellow ranchers, Tom dispatches the varmints permanently, killing them one by one. Even though he’s following orders and operating within the law, Tom’s bloody campaign gains unwanted attention, because the ranchers want Wyoming to seem like a peaceful paradise. Therefore, when Tom is arrested for the murder of an innocent man, it sure seems as if some nefarious soul framed Tom in order to make him go away. (The film, with a script credited to Bud Shrake and Thomas McGuane, retains ambiguity about the critical shooting.)
          The second half of Tom Horn comprises a kangaroo-court trial, though the real thrust of the inquiry is exploring the necessity of free-roaming gunmen in the 20th century. Director William Wiard does an okay job of infusing Tom Horn with fatalism (at one point Horn muses, “Do you know how raggedy-ass and terrible the West really was?”), and he tries valiantly to emulate John Ford’s sweeping vistas. However, Wiard isn’t much for generating real dramatic energy, and the casting of vapid Linda Evans in the female lead dooms the film’s romantic subplot. McQueen seems tired throughout the movie, which fits the character, but a distracting sense of listlessness pervades Tom Horn’s 98 pokey minutes.
          Offering a different look at similar subject matter, The Hunter is a more accomplished piece of work, but not in a good way—the movie is so slick and tidy that it feels like the pilot for a TV series instead of a proper feature. McQueen plays Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a gruff but loveable hired gun who chases bail jumpers across the country. Packing a .45 and perpetually griping that he’s too old for this shit, Papa treats bad men without mercy but cuts all kinds of slack for misguided ne’er-do-wells, even providing employment to some of the people he captures. Director Buzz Kulik has fun staging action scenes, including a chase across a farm involving cars and a tractor, as well as the centerpiece sequence revolving around an elevated train in Chicago. Domestic scenes are less impressive, because McQueen and leading lady Kathryn Harrold—as Papa’s pregnant girlfriend—share anemic, sitcom-style banter about commitment and Lamaze classes. Worse, the film’s climax is so trite that it’s nearly comical, and the myriad scenes designed to inform viewers that “Papa” is brave, eccentric, noble, old-fashioned, or just plain wonderful get tiresome after a while.
          Nonetheless, Tom Horn and The Hunter capture something important about McQueen, even if both are disappointing in different ways. In the ’60s, McQueen was the quintessential man of his moment. Just as McQueen did, the moment passed quickly through this world, leaving an indelible impression.

Tom Horn: FUNKY
The Hunter: FUNKY

Saturday, April 9, 2016

1980 Week: The Mountain Men



          A manly-man’s adventure flick filled with bloodshed, cartoonish characterizations, and playful vulgarity, The Mountain Men plays like a dumbed-down version of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the soulful Robert Redford melodrama about an iconoclastic frontiersman. Whereas that picture tapped into mythic themes by depicting one individual’s desire to find meaning through connection with the wilderness, The Mountain Men is about crude rascals concerned only with profit and survival. This material doesn’t fit leading man Charlton Heston especially well, since the actor’s best roles positioned Heston as a voice of righteous indignation within society. Although he was always believable with heavily physical characterizations, his take on coarse manners and salty language feels artificial, giving the impression of a little boy playing dress-up. Conversely, costar Brian Keith seems totally comfortable in every scene, hitting a fine balance between generating larger-than-life entertainment and rendering a consistent portrayal.
          It’s not quite fair to say that this mediocre and unmemorable picture is worth watching solely because of Keith’s performance, but his work is certainly the film’s strongest element. Also praiseworthy are the film’s robust location photography and the general intensity of the action scenes, because what the film lacks in substance, it makes up for with pulpy excitement.
          The slender narrative has longtime friends Bill Tyler (Heston) and Henry Frapp (Keith) agreeing to guide inexperienced travelers through unsettled parts of Wyoming circa the 1830s. This contrivance is merely a weak engine for delivering the real focus of the story, Bill’s quest to find an elusive valley filled with beavers, the trapper’s equivalent of a gold mine. Unfortunately, neither of these elements gives the film much momentum, since the script by first-timer Fraser Clark Heston (the star’s son, later to become a middling director of theatrical features) is exceedingly episodic. That’s not to say, however, that all of the episodes are uninteresting. The film’s most exciting scene involves a run-in between the trappers and a band of Blackfoot Indians, culminating with the startling image of warriors scalping Henry. In a separate passage of the storyline, Bill ends up stuck in the wilderness, using his stamina and wits in order to survive without proper resources. Some of this stuff is fun to watch, and some of it isn’t. 

The Mountain Men: FUNKY

Friday, April 8, 2016

1980 Week: First Family



          Calling First Family a political satire is being too generous, but as one watches—more like endures—the unfunny sprawl of Buck Henry’s solo directorial debut, it’s possible to imagine how this might have worked on paper, specifically as a short story or a comic novella. The arch characterizations, the lewd running joke about a nymphomaniac, the ridiculous payoff involving gigantic fruits and vegetables grown with the aid of a sexually satisfied pagan god—given Henry’s dry wit, all of this stuff must have seemed quite droll at the conceptual stage. On film, none of it works. It’s not simply a matter of Henry lacking directorial experience, though the inert quality of First Family lends credence to the lore that Warren Beatty rightfully usurped Henry during the making of Heaven Can Wait (1978), hence their shared directing credit on that wonderful film.
          The problem stems from the nature of the jokes in First Family. To a one, each verbal and visual gag is an intellectual flight of fancy that’s amusing only in broad strokes. The African ambassador who learned random English phrases without understanding what the words mean. The high-level political meeting held in the Oval Office during a costume party, with the nincompoop VP wearing a pink bunny suit. The African leader who wishes to purchase several hundred white, middle-class American families so his country an experience the presence of a “repressed minority.” These are cocktail-party one-liners, not the foundations for screen comedy.
          Still, Henry’s track record (cocreating Get Smart, cowriting The Graduate, etc.) attracted a terrific cast to this doomed enterprise. Bob Newhart plays an unpopular president desperately looking for a big win. Madeline Kahn plays his boozy First Lady. Gilda Radner, in the picture’s most absurd role, plays the 28-year-old First Daughter, a virgin whose chastity is protected by the Secret Service. (Because most 28-year-old American women have neither had sex nor left their parents’ homes.) And so on. Richard Benjamin. Bob Dishy. John Hancock. Julius Harris. Harvey Korman. Rip Torn. Fred Willard. Even Buck Henry himself, in two roles. All wasted on material that never elicits so much as a chuckle. Unsurprisingly, First Family was also Henry’s last hurrah as a director, notwithstanding one episode of a PBS sitcom (!) in 1989.

First Family: LAME