Thursday, October 30, 2014

Winterhawk (1975)



          Beautifully shot in wide-open locations throughout the Montana wilderness, Winterhawk has the trappings of a proper Native American–themed Western saga, complete with appearances by such reliable Hollywood character actors as Elisha Cook Jr., Denver Pyle, and Woody Strode. Alas, the film’s merits are almost wholly superficial, because the characterizations are thin and the narrative is trite. One suspects that writer-director Charles B. Pierce knew he’d missed the mark during principal photography, because he adorns the finished film with a corny theme song and prosaic narration (both penned by Earl E. Smith), and those elements provide most of the story’s shape.
          Winterhawk begins on the tribal lands of the Blackfoot Indians, where proud chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) watches his people suffer from smallpox, which was brought into their lives by white men. Taking the counsel of a friendly mountain man named Guthrie (Leif Erikson), Winterhawk travels to a white settlement seeking medicine. He is not only rebuffed but ambushed, so Winterhawk attempts reprisal by kidnapping two siblings from the encampment—pretty young woman Clayanna (Dawn Wells) and her little brother, Cotton (Charles Pierce Jr.). Then things get convoluted. Finley (Cook), the uncle of the kidnapped youths, forms a posse to chase Winterhawk, enlisting Guthrie as a guide. Shortly afterward, a thug named Gates (L.Q. Jones) attacks Guthrie’s cabin, raping and killing Guthrie’s Indian companion, Pale Flower (played by Sacheen Littlefeather, infamous in real life as Marlon Brando’s Oscar proxy).
          Pierce twists the story into knots to create comic relief from the interplay between the folks in Finley’s posse, to create tension from the various chases, and to disguise the fact that nothing much happens in the main plot. After all, scenes of Winterhawk and his captives include nothing more than shots of people riding across fields, mountains, and rivers. It’s not hard to figure out what went wrong, because Pierce clearly wanted to portray Winterhawk as a noble victim of circumstance, meaning that Winterhawk couldn’t be shown leading raiding parties or mistreating Clayanna. Instead, he does next to nothing. Supporting players deliver entertaining work, but the miscast Dante mistakes sleepwalking for stoicism, and Wells (of Gilligan’s Island fame) simply looks lost. On some level, Pierce’s heart was in the right place. Nonetheless, the countless shortcomings make Winterhawk a slog even though it’s supposed to be a song.

Winterhawk: LAME

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sybil (1976)



          Nearly 20 years after winning on Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1967), in which she played a woman with three different personalities, Joanne Woodward switched from patient to therapist for the acclaimed telefilm Sybil. Telling the fictionalized story of a young woman with 16 different personalities, the picture was a breakthrough project for Sally Field, who plays the title role. Continuing the artistic maturation she’d begun with serious telefilms including Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971), former sitcom actress Field proved she was capable of heavy lifting, dramatically speaking, earning an Emmy for her efforts. (Just three years later, she added on Oscar to her mantle, thanks to 1979’s Norma Rae.)
          This behind-the-scenes data is useful for contextualizing Sybil, which is excellent on many levels but very much a performance showcase. Originally broadcast over two nights, the unexpurgated version of the picture runs a whopping 187 minutes. And while it’s easy to see where fat could have been trimmed, the project’s integrity is beyond question. Not only is Sybil consistently earnest, humane, and intelligent, but it’s also made with the level of craftsmanship one would normally expect from a theatrical feature. Director Daniel Petrie employs extraordinarily long takes, correctly assuming that his leading actors’ remarkable work will sustain interest, and he shoots even the simplest locations with a rich sense of atmosphere. Additionally, Petrie and his collaborators made a strong choice by filming many scenes with horror-movie aesthetics, since the title character regards her multiple personalities—and the traumas of the past—like demons that are tormenting her. The overall experience of Sybil is immersive and powerful, if perhaps a bit too voluptuous.
          The movie begins in New York, where Sybil Dorsett (Field) is a graduate student and part-time schoolteacher prone to inexplicable behavior: She suffers blackouts during which she acts like someone other than herself. As the frequency and severity of her episodes increase, Sybil injures herself and lands in a hospital, where she encounters kindly psychologist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward). Thus begins an 11-year journey during which Dr. Wilbur catalogs Sybil’s personalities—some of which appear only fleetingly, and some of which overtake her consciousness for long periods of time—and during which Dr. Wilbur tries to discover the reasons why Sybil’s psyche initially fragmented.
          The film’s therapy scenes are compelling, with Field providing the fireworks while Woodward counters with compassion and rationality. Concurrently, scenes of Sybil trying to live a “normal” life are poignant. The most incendiary material appears in the flashbacks to Sybil’s horrific youth, when she was mistreated and mutilated by her mentally ill mother. Many other films and TV projects have gone down similar roads in the years before and since Sybil. Nonetheless, the novelistic length of the project allows screenwriter Stewart Stern—working from a nonfiction book by Flora Rhela Schreiber—to explore myriad nuances of Sybil’s condition and treatment. Further, the more-is-more approach pays off handsomely during the climax. Filled with feelings and insights and truths, some beautiful and some ugly, Sybil is a unique film that transcends its small-screen origins.
          Hollywood unwisely tried dipping into the same well 20 years later, when CBS broadcast an 89-minute remake of Sybil starring Tammy Blanchard (as Sybil) and Jessica Lange (as Dr. Wilbur. The 2007 version was met with indifference.

Sybil: GROOVY

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Summertree (1971)



          Strong acting saves Summertree from itself. Adapted from a play by Ron Cowen and directed by English actor/singer/songwriter Anthony Newley, this trés-’70s drama tackles the Generation Gap, race relations, and the Vietnam-era draft. Unsurprisingly, it’s the sort of clumsy patchwork that emerges whenever filmmakers try to be all things to all people. However, newcomer Michael Douglas and veteran Jack Warden, together with an engaging Brenda Vaccaro, breathe life into the story’s contrived rhythms. How contrived? At various times, the movie is amusing, provocative, romantic, and thoughtful—neither Cowan nor Newley seem comfortable committing to a single tonality. Therefore, perhaps it’s best to think of Summertree as a series of variations on a theme instead of a proper narrative; it’s as if the movie tracks the adventures of a confused young man during a dangerous time in his life, and then inadvertently tells a complete story along the way.
          The young man in question is Jerry (Douglas), a 20-year-old college student who wants to drop out of school and concentrate on playing music. This doesn’t sit well with his conservative father, Herb (Jack Warden). Yet Summetree doesn’t take the usual path of portraying Herb as a Greatest Generation ideologue who can’t stomach the counterculture antics of his longhair offspring. Rather, the filmmakers portray Herb as a humane individual who’s trying hard to understand changes in the world. For instance, he clearly states at one point that his attitude toward Vietnam changed from gung-ho to gun-shy the minute his own son became eligible for the draft. The scenes between Douglas and Warden are the best in the movie, with Douglas coming into his own as a self-confident screen persona and Warden providing an authoritative counterpoint.
          That said, the romantic scenes between Douglas and Vacarro have real heat—no surprise, since the actors became involved offscreen after making the movie—as well as edge, owing to an age difference between their characters, among other serious romantic obstacles. And if the weakest element of the picture is an underfed subplot about Jerry spending time as a Big Brother for inner-city kid Marvis, at least Kirk Callaway’s performance as the boy transcends the inherent cliché of an African-American preteen who mimics the behavior of older tough guys.
          Beyond its slight virtues as a character piece, Summertree works as a time capsule thanks to tasty ’70s lingo and vividly dramatized ’70s attitudes. (Jerry fits the “I gotta be me” archetype to a T, and Herb calls Jerry on the risks of Polyannish narcissism.) None would ever mistake Summetree for one of the great pictures of its era or its type, especially since the final image is a cheap shot that undercuts much of what came before. Still, in its modest way, the movie says many interesting things about many interesting topics. More importantly, the acting is polished without being superficial, so each of the three main actors lands a handful of genuine emotional hits.

Summertree: GROOVY

Monday, October 27, 2014

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)



          While it’s far from the worst blaxploitation horror flick—compared to Blackenstein (1973), anything is a masterpiece—this Afrocentric riff on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not good. Lots of interesting ideas bubble under the surface, notably the concept of a serum altering a man’s race, but Lawrence Woolner’s atrocious script bungles everything from character motivations to simple continuity. Even the basic premise of the picture, the specific nature of how a man transforms into a monster, is fuzzy. The first time the main character injects himself with the serum that releases his inner beast, he becomes an animalistic killer who can barely utter monosyllables. Later, however, he retains his hyper-educated speech patterns after transforming. Furthermore, in his first outing as a monster, the main character flinches from a small knife wound, but later he shrugs off bullets.
          Alas, the inability to properly track sci-fi “rules” is ultimately the least of the picture’s problems. Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is the sort of discombobulated mess in which characters come and go based on what’s convenient for any given scene, so, for instance, the main character never seems to share the same space with his coworker/girlfriend outside of the lab they share. Huh? Bernie Casey stars as Dr. Henry Pryde, a scientist developing a means of regenerating liver tissue because his mother died of liver disease. He works alongside Dr. Billie Worth (Rosalind Cash), and he volunteers at a free clinic where one of his patients is a prostitute named Linda (Marie O’Henry). Eager to test his theories, Henry injects himself and becomes a quasi-albino killer who gets mistaken for a white man while he rampages through Watts, accruing a body count of street people. Cops investigate the murders, but Linda, the booker, figures out the culprit’s identity first and confronts Henry. A lengthy chase featuring a King Kong-style climb of the Watts Towers concludes the film.
          Director William Crain, who previously helmed the enjoyable Blacula (1972), suffers badly for association with inferior material. He stages a few decent action beats, and the intimate scenes between Casey and Cash—as well as those between Casey and O’Henry—have real warmth. Crain also coaxes humor from the banter between black cop Jackson (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) and white cop O’Connor (Milt Kogan); Jackson delivers the amusing line, “Brother man, this situation is rapidly becoming insalubrious—meanin’ we about to stomp a mud hole in yo’ ass.” In other words, this unholy mess of a picture isn’t without its enjoyable moments, but the crappy storytelling and deadly pacing are as murderous to enjoyment as the half-assed monster makeup created by FX icon Stan Winston.

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde: LAME

Sunday, October 26, 2014

1980 Week: Oh! Heavenly Dog



          Slick but wrongheaded, this unlikely collaboration between family-friendly filmmaker Joe Camp and sarcastic Saturday Night Live alum Chevy Chase derailed the popular Benji franchise. Turns out moviegoers weren’t eager to see scruffy little mutt Benji associated with sex jokes and swearing. Shamelessly lifting concepts from Heaven Can Wait (1978), which was itself a remake of a remake, Oh! Heavenly Dog takes place in London, where American B.J. Browning (Chase) works as a private investigator. One day, shortly after a meet-cute with pretty Englishwoman Jackie (Jane Seymour), B.J. is hired by a mystery man (Omar Sharif) to protect a wealthy woman. When he reaches the lady’s flat, B.J. discovers that she’s dead—and then B.J. gets killed with a butcher knife. Upon arriving in the afterlife, B.J. learns that this admission to heaven is conditional on doing one more good deed: solving his own murder. Since no human vessels are available, B.J.’s soul is put inside a cute little dog, also named B.J. (Benji).
          That’s when Oh! Heavenly Dog starts to lose what little appeal it possessed beforehand. As in prior Benji movies, producer-director Camp and his animal trainers lead their four-legged star through elaborate tricks, simulating a “performance.” The twist this time is that Chase, in voiceover, provides the dog’s inner thoughts—or, more accurately, B.J. the human’s inner thoughts. As if to tell the audience right away that their beloved canine star has left G-rated territory, the first line Chase speaks in dog mode is, “Oh, shit, that was close!” Later, once Seymour’s character reenters the story, the movie features a pair of scenes in which Benji and Seymour bathe together, complete with bedroom eyes across the suds. These scenes are exactly as icky as they sound.
          The voiceover gimmick works for a while, and Chase lands a number of lines well, but eventually viewer fatigue takes hold in a big way. The last 40 minutes or so, during which Benji and the lovely but vapid Seymour conduct the murder investigation together, are utterly lifeless. The presence of dynamic costar Robert Morley only helps so much, and Sharif’s disdain for the movie is plainly evident. While not an outright stinker (though it comes close), Oh! Heavenly Dog is too crude for children and too insipid for adults, but it’s interesting to see how hard Camp tries to make the whole contrived enterprise take flight. Someone even wrangled songs by Elton John and Paul McCartney for the soundtrack.

Oh! Heavenly Dog: FUNKY

Saturday, October 25, 2014

1980 Week: The Sea Wolves



          Several veterans of the highly enjoyable military adventure The Wild Geese (1978)—including director Andrew V. McLaglen, star Roger Moore, and screenwriter Reginald Rose—reteamed for the offbeat World War II adventure The Sea Wolves. In fact, the original plan was to reunite all three main stars of The Wild Geese: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Moore. Alas, it wasn’t to be, so Moore costars in The Sea Wolves with the considerably older David Niven and Gregory Peck. As it happens, Niven and Peck are more appropriate casting, notwithstanding Peck being an American, since the story dramatizes a real-life incident during which a group of retired British cavalry officers were recruited for an espionage mission against the Nazis. Additionally, Niven and Peck had collaborated to strong effect in a previous manly-man adventure picture, 1961’s The Guns of Navarone.
          The Sea Wolves has a certain genteel charm owing to its old-fashioned presentation of Allied heroism and Axis treachery. However, the absence of the modern tonalities that McLaglen and Rose utilized so well in The Wild Geese—angsty antiheroes, twisted international politics—makes The Sea Wolves seem overly tame. The filmmakers’ attempts at integrating lighthearted comedy into the mix further diminish the life-or-death gravitas needed to make the derring-do scenes work. At its worst, the movie is flat and forgettable.
          Set in India, the picture begins by showing U-boats sinking British tankers, thus interrupting key Allied supply lines. British spies determine that information about the tankers is emanating from a radio transmitter hidden somewhere a port controlled by the neutral country of Portugal, meaning that no official invasion force can be sent to dismantle the transmitter. This situation gives rise to the bold idea of recruiting soldiers from the Calcutta Light Horse, many of whom are retired and living in India. Eager for another shot at military action, aging enlisted men train for their mission while the Light Horse’s officers—played by Moore, Niven, and Peck—conduct espionage in order to learn the exact location of the transmitter.
          Despite the tremendous appeal of the leading actors, The Sea Wolves is bogged down with predictable plotting and uninspired staging. Furthermore, the chemistry between the leads never clicks quite the way it did between the stars of The Wild Geese. Moore seems like he’s a generation apart from his costars, Niven looks bored, and Peck seems frustrated at playing such a vapid role after getting so much room to stretch in his two previous films, MacArthur (1977) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). One also suspects that McLaglen was exhausted after having directed two elaborate films—the larky ffolkes and the leaden Breakthrough—in the year prior to making the equally complex The Sea Wolves. Whatever the reasons, The Sea Wolves is watchable but a disappointment nonetheless.

The Sea Wolves: FUNKY

Friday, October 24, 2014

1980 Week: Brubaker



          Although his entire career is defined by conflict between artistic aspirations, political inclinations, and the seductive pull of movie stardom, Robert Redford hit an especially perilous juncture in 1980. He made his directorial debut with Ordinary People, in which he did not appear, and the project eventually earned Redford an Oscar for Best Director. His commitments to the U.S. Film Festival (later to become the Sundance Film Festival) were consuming more of his time. And the film industry’s steady slide toward corporate control was making it more and more difficult to secure financing for the kinds of grown-up movies that Redford produced in the ’70s. A moment of reflection was in order, so Redford took a four-year hiatus from acting following the release of Brubaker.
          These remarks are provided to give Brubaker some film-history context, since the movie is only so interesting on its own merits. An old-fashioned melodrama about prison reform, the picture boasts fine performances, an intense storyline, and unassailable morality. Yet it’s strangely forgettable in many ways. One problem is that the movie fictionalizes an amazing real-life saga, which has the effect of making the movie seem relatively trivial. (The lead character is based upon a reformer named Thomas Murton.) Another problem is the movie’s weak approach to characterization. The makers of Brubaker are far more concerned with demonstrating righteous indignation—and with showing the ugly extremes of inmate mistreatment—than they are with introducing viewers to distinct personalities. When combined with the film’s tendency to lapse into ornate speechifying whenever the title character decides to explain what’s wrong with the world, Brubaker ends up feeling more like a position paper than a proper drama. The movie is entertaining, if somewhat grim and pedantic, but it’s not vital.
          Redford plays Henry Brubaker, a warden who goes undercover as an inmate at the Arkansas prison he’s been hired to supervise. After witnessing abuse, bribery, graft, rape, and violence, Brubaker makes himself known to the prison population and then begins a crusade for reform that rattles officials in state government. The film’s large cast of top-shelf character actors is mostly wasted, since the picture is designed as the soapbox on which Redford stands while cataloging the ills of the Arkansas prison system. So, as pleasurable as it is to see Jane Alexander, Wilford Brimley, Matt Clark, Morgan Freeman, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Yaphet Kotto, Tim McIntire, M. Emmet Walsh, and others ply their craft, they all get crowded off the screen by vignettes that sanctify Redford’s character. However, since the making of Brubaker included behind-the-scenes tumult—original director Bob Rafelson was replaced, during production, with Cool Hand Luke helmer Stuart Rosenberg—the workmanlike nature of the picture is understandable.
          After his many exemplary achievements of the ’70s (All the President’s Men, The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Sting, The Way We Were), Redford had set an impossibly high bar for himself. Thus, seeing as how Brubaker arrived on the heels of yet another mediocre picture that squeaked out box-office success, The Electric Horseman (1979), it’s no wonder Redford wanted time to consider where to put his energies.

Brubaker: FUNKY

Thursday, October 23, 2014

1980 Week: The Big Red One



          Maverick B-movie director Samuel Fuller returned from a decade-long hiatus with The Big Red One, a World War II melodrama based upon Fuller’s real-life experiences as a soldier in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry. The picture closely follows a single squad’s experiences as the squad moves from one deployment to the next, spanning D-Day to the end of the war. Episodic, heavy-handed, and meandering, the picture is deeply flawed but nonetheless interesting. Among other things, The Big Red One doesn’t feature any commanding officers—the highest-ranking major character is a sergeant—so it’s very much a grunt’s-eye-view of combat. The soldiers in this movie follow orders without a sense of the overall conflict’s larger political and/or strategic significance, which makes the brutality the soldiers witness (and commit) seem especially gruesome. Additionally, Fuller has a great eye for locations, putting viewers right there in the muck and rubble with physically and spiritually existed Yanks as they plow through seemingly endless waves of enemy combatants. Because Fuller was not a subtle filmmaker, however, the movie’s realistic textures clash with the clunky themes of the storyline.
          For instance, the main emotional hook involves the squad leader, Sgt. Possum (Lee Marvin), who was traumatized years earlier when he unknowingly killed a German soldier moments after the World War I armistice was signed. Forever cognizant of war’s costs, Possum has zero tolerance for cowardice—and zero tolerance for avoidable bloodshed. Fuller pays off this character arc in the least believable way possible, ending the picture on a false note. Similarly, a subplot about Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) turns trite as Griff overcomes his initial cowardice during a highly unlikely moment of heroism.
          Despite all of its narrative excesses and shortcomings, The Big Red One has a hell of a climax, because—as Fuller’s squad did in real life—the movie squad liberates a concentration camp. Demonstrating uncharacteristic restraint, Fuller evokes the soul-shattering horror soldiers must have felt upon encountering the depths of human evil. Photographed in rich color by Adam Greenberg and held together by Dana Kaproff’s efficient musical score, The Big Red One is a grand old mess of a personal statement, which might explain why the film has suffered so much at the hands of outside forces. Although Fuller’s original version ran nearly three hours, Warner Bros. cut the picture to 113 minutes for its initial release. Commercial failure and complaints from Fuller about tampering followed. Years later, well after Fuller’s death in 1997, a restored version running 162 minutes was released to much approval by critics.
          In any form, The Big Red One is noteworthy because it’s so clearly a passion piece, and because the best moments ring true. As for Fuller, he remained undaunted by the box-office stillbirth of The Big Red One, directing one more American feature—the relentless race-relations melodrama White Dog (1982)—before transitioning to the small European films that comprise the twilight era of his long and singular career.

The Big Red One: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1980 Week: The Formula



          While it would be exaggerating to describe this conspiracy thriller as a massive waste of talent, it’s fair to say that the luminaries involved in the project should have been able to generate something more exciting. After all, stars Marlon Brando and George C. Scott both had Oscars to their names by the time they costarred in The Formula, and director John G. Avildsen had recently scored a major hit with Rocky (1976). Even the movie’s deep bench of supporting actors is impressive: John Gielgud, Marthe Keller, Richard Lynch, G.D. Spradlin, Beatrice Straight. Yet The Formula is talky instead of thrilling, and the mano-a-mano faceoff between the top-billed actors that’s promised by the film’s poster never really materializes. On the bright side, The Formula is a handsome-looking movie that benefits from intricate plotting and (no surprise) skillful acting.
          Written and produced by Steve Shagan, the picture begins with a prologue set in Germany during the final days of World War II’s European action. A Nazi general is entrusted with a shipment of valuable papers that Third Reich officials hope to trade for protection after Germany falls, but U.S. soldiers seize the shipment before the Nazi general can escort the papers to a safe place. Next, the movie cuts to the present, where LAPD Detective Barney Caine (Scott) begins investigating the murder of a former LAPD chief. Caine uncovers connections between the dead man and oil magnate Adam Steiffel (Brando), and he also links the dead man to various mysterious people in Europe. Despite skepticism from his superiors, Caine treks to Germany and discovers that the dead man was part of a conspiracy involving a World War II-era formula to convert coal into oil. The ramifications are huge, since replacing petroleum as the world’s primary source of fuel would change the global economic map. Intrigue follows as Caine chases leads with the help of Lisa Spangler (Keller), a German model whose uncle has a tragic connection with the conspiracy.
          The premise of The Formula is interesting and workable, so the problem with the picture is one of execution. Nearly all of Caine’s investigative work takes the form of personal interviews, and there’s a numbing repetitiveness to the way people get shot and killed by unseen assassins immediately after giving Caine vital information. Worse, since the hit men never seem to aim at Caine himself, there’s not much real tension. By the time the movie climaxes in a lengthy (and surprisingly casual) chat between Caine and Steiffel—one of only two scenes shared by Brando and Scott—a general sense of lethargy has taken hold. Still, nearly everyone contributing to The Formula does solid work, from the way Brando hides his character’s evil behind an avuncular façade to the way composer Bill Conti accentuates scenes with robust flourishes. However, because the story never reaches a boiling point, The Formula ends up feeling like an episode from a well-made TV detective show, albeit with fancier actors and more elaborate location photography.

The Formula: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

1980 Week: The Elephant Man



          Here’s one of my favorite bits of movie trivia—Mel Brooks is responsible for unleashing David Lynch on the world. Sort of. After expanding an American Film Institute student project into the bizarre feature Eraserhead (1977), Lynch caught the attention of a producer at Brooks’ short-lived production company, Brooksfilms. This led to Lynch getting hired as the director for The Elephant Man, which Lynch did not originate but which completely suits the filmmaker’s dark style. Thus, a connection was permanently formed between the funnyman who filled the Wild West with flatulence in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the experimentalist who combined huffing and rape in Blue Velvet (1986).
          Anyway, The Elephant Man is in some ways Lynch’s most accessible movie, even though it’s black-and-white, set during the Victorian era, and profoundly sad. Notwithstanding some flourishes during dream sequences, The Elephant Man is entirely reality-based, so Lynch doesn’t rely on any of his usual surrealist tricks. Instead, he demonstrates an extraordinary gift for stylized storytelling, because Lynch swaths this poignant narrative with a perfect aesthetic of murky shadows, silky rhythms, and undulating textures. (Lynch and his collaborators create such magical effects with editing, music, production design, and sound effects that the film seems to have a tangible pulse.) The director also guides his cast through masterful performances.
          Based on the real-life exploits of Joseph Merrick, an Englishman afflicted with neurofibromatosis, the movie tracks Merrick from the indignity of life as a circus attraction to the period during which he was accepted by polite society thanks to the patronage of a sympathetic doctor. Renamed John Merrick in the script, the character is a paragon of dignity, suffering the exploitation of cretins and the revulsion of gawkers without manifesting the rage to which he was surely entitled. The saintly portrayal tips the narrative scales, to be sure, but this approach suits the film’s overall themes: More than anything, The Elephant Man is about society’s inability to embrace unique people.
          When the story begins, Merrick (John Hurt) is kept as a virtual slave by a beastly carnival barker named Bytes (Freddie Jones). One evening, aristocratic Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees Merrick on display and marvels at Merrick’s deformities, which include an oversized head, a misshapen spine, and various large tumors. Treves buys Merrick’s freedom and contrives to find Merrick a permanent home inside a London hospital. Later, Merrick is presented to society and shown a mixture of pity and respect that he perceives as love. Crystallizing Merrick’s acceptance is his friendship with a famous stage actress (Anne Bancroft), who visits Merrick regularly without ever evincing disgust at his appearance. The demons of Meerick’s old life aren’t so easily kept at bay, however, because Bytes and other tormenters forever threaten to ruin Merrick’s salvation.
          Despite being made with consummate craftsmanship on every level (the movie received 10 Oscar nominations), The Elephant Man is painful to watch, simply because of the amount of suffering that Merrick experiences in every scene. Yet there’s great beauty to the film, as well, particularly during the heartbreaking final sequence, which is set to Samuel Barber’s exquisite “Adagio for Strings.” Part character study, part medical mystery, and part morality tale, The Elephant Man is a singular film of tremendous power.

The Elephant Man: RIGHT ON

Monday, October 20, 2014

1980 Week: Airplane!



          Not too long ago, I attended a speaking engagement by former Seinfeld writer-producer Peter Mehlman, during which Mehlman spent a few moments discussing Airplane!, the iconic disaster-movie spoof created by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. Mehlman recalled buying a ticket for Airplane! during its original release and watching the movie from his usual cynical remove—until the scene when Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) stops at an airport newsstand. Noticing a sly throwaway sight gag—the newsstand’s adult-magazine section is labeled “whacking material”—Mehlman turned to a fellow moviegoer and said, “I’ve really gotta start paying attention here.”
         And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of Airplane! Some of the jokes are inspired, some are merely okay, and some are silly, but there are so damn many jokes that watching Airplane! is like huffing pure comedy. “Don’t call me Shirley.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” “Give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.” “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” “Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.” And, of course, “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” (Devoted Airplane! fans will recognize that last line as a straight lift from 1957’s Zero Hour!, the vintage potboiler that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker used as the template for Airplane!)
          Densely packed into 88 minutes of nostop insanity, Airplane! not only slaughters the disaster-movie genre but takes the mile-a-minute comedy style perfected by Mel Brooks in the ’70s to an entirely new level. Devoting the least possible screen time to an actual story, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker treat every single line of dialogue as either a set-up or a punchline. They also discard logic and reason, as well as most laws of aeronautics and physics, to reach for jokes wherever jokes can be found. Death, drugs, gender, race, sex—it’s all fair game. And it’s all in good fun, because even though countless Airplane! gags are in bad taste, there’s not a mean-spirited millisecond to be found. The most unique element of Airplane! is the brilliant casting of supporting roles. Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker rightly reasoned that hiring dramatic actors to play their scenes with deadly seriousness would maximize the absurdity of the situations. Thus, square-jawed Lloyd Bridges, Graves, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Stack revived their careers by learning how to spoof their own images. (Nielsen ran the farthest with this opportunity, headlining the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Naked Gun franchise throughout the ’80s.)
          Not everything in Airplane! has aged well, with the disco gags and the bit about the Peace Corps volunteers teaching basketball to Africans feeling especially creaky, but the best stuff in Airplane! still kills. Stack pummeling solicitors while racing through an airport. Passengers lining up, with various weapons, to quiet a hysterical woman. Otto the Autopilot getting the best manual inflation in screen history. A preteen passenger shooting down an age-appropriate suitor by saying she takes her coffee “black, like my men.” The list goes on. Even though Airplane! is about a plane in danger of crashing, the movie reaches cruising altitude immediately and then keeps climbing all the way to the goofy finale. Hell, even the credits are funny: Playing on the familiar “Best Boy” credit, Airplane! acknowledges “Worst Boy: Adolf Hitler.”

Airplane!: RIGHT ON

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bug (1975)



          The final film produced by B-movie kingpin William Castle, Bug starts out like a standard-issue monster movie, then morphs into a tragic character study about a mad scientist. Later, Bug enters quasi-surrealistic terrain thanks to inexplicable character motivations, jarring lapses in story logic, and a gonzo finale peppered with apocalyptic overtones. Very little of what happens in Bug makes sense, but the film is strangely beguiling nonetheless. Bug opens with an impressive earthquake sequence that’s staged entirely inside a small church. Next, director Jeannot Szwarc’s probing camera reveals that giant, mutated cockroaches have invaded the small California town in which the church is situated. Meanwhile, the story zeroes in on Prof. James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), a science teacher at the local college. Thanks to clues provided by townie Gerald Metbaum (Richard Gilliand), who witnessed strange phenomena in the desert, Parmiter determines that the cockroaches emerged from deep inside the earth after the quake. Evolved for survival under massive pressure, the bugs have the ability to spark fires. Yet Parmiter’s realization comes too late to prevent tragedies including the death of his own wife (Joanna Miles), so Parmiter seeks revenge against the killer insects.
          That’s when Bug drifts into craziness. Parmiter captures a specimen, holes up in a remote cabin, and performs experiments including crossbreeding the “firebugs” with common cockroaches. A diving bell is involved. Concurrently, characters wander around town as if nothing unusual is happening, even though citizens are dying from spontaneous combustion at a rapid clip. On one level, Bug is so outrageously stupid that it’s almost a comedy. On another level, the movie is fleetingly effective as a horror show, thanks to elaborate scenes of bugs crawling onto people and then bursting into flames. On a third level, Bug is fascinating simply because the storyline is constructed in such an eccentric way—for the last 45 minutes of the movie, nearly all the screen time is devoted to scenes of Parmiter hanging out with bugs in his makeshift lab. Dillman’s twitchy performance is fun to watch, even though his characterization is cartoonish and silly, and director Szwarc—who later returned to the shock-cinema genre with Jaws 2 (1978)—shoots the material for maximum pulpy impact. Not a single frame of Bug can be taken seriously, but insufficient credibility has never been on obstacle for enjoying creature features.

Bug: FUNKY

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Human Factor (1979)



          Like many iconic directors who began their careers in the studio era, Otto Preminger fared poorly in the ’70s—with each successive picture, his old-fashioned style seemed more and more disconnected from current trends. Adding to the problem was the filmmaker’s apparent creative fatigue, because Preminger’s final films are even more static and talky than the ones he made in his heyday, which is saying a lot. This doesn’t mean, however, that Preminger had lost his ability find interesting material. Quite to the contrary, the director’s last feature film, The Human Factor, is an intelligent and restrained spy thriller adapted from a book by one of the genre’s grand masters, Graham Greene. Had a filmmaker with more passion tackled the project, The Human Factor could have achieved a much greater impact. As is, it’s respectable but unimpressive.
          Set in England, the story concerns two MI6 analysts, Marcus Castle (Nicol Williamson) and Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi). Castle has settled into a quiet existence with his wife, Sarah (Iman), a former spy whom he met while working for the UK in South Africa, and her son. Conversely, Davis hates the dull routine of a desk job, preferring the high life of nightclubs and women. When clues from within the USSR alert ambitious security officer Colonel Daintry (Richard Attenborough) to a leak in MI6’s African division, Daintry collaborates with a ruthless superior officer, Dr. Percival (Robert Morley), on an investigation into the activities of Castle and Davis. Describing any more of the story would reveal key plot twists, but suffice to say that Greene’s narrative plays provocative games with duplicity, personal agendas, and political affiliations, as well as the X factors of bloodlust and careerism.
          In fact, nearly everything about The Human Factor works except for Preminger’s direction. Tom Stoppard’s script is intelligent, if a bit mechanical, and the cast is excellent, with the exception of model-turned-actress Iman, who’s quite weak in this, her debut performance. Williamson defines a believable sort of middle-class discomfort, which is surprising to encounter in this context; Jacobi essays a would-be swinger whose style outpaces his substance; and Attenborough is terrific as a company man who maintains rigid control until he realizes the dangerous repercussion of his brazen maneuvers. Morley’s performance is a bit odd, for while he delivers lines with his usual panache, he often seems as if he’s reading dialogue from cue cards, and the lengthy sequence of Morley making exaggerated facial expressions while reacting to a topless dancer is unpleasant to watch. The stripper scene is one of many that Preminger both films unimaginatively and lets run to excessive length; these shapeless stretches dilute the story’s potential impact.
          The Human Factor eventually comes together in a credibly unresolved sort of way, since everyone involved in the story becomes affected by revelations and suspicions. Nonetheless, the movie isn’t nearly the elegant descent into darkness it should have been.

The Human Factor: FUNKY

Friday, October 17, 2014

Here Come the Tigers (1978)



Helmed by Sean S. Cunningham, who later found a niche in teen-themed horror by directing Friday the 13th (1980), this low-budget family comedy is a shameless rip-off of The Bad News Bears (1976). Like The Bad News Bears, this movie depicts a ragtag Little League team getting whipped into shape by a reluctant coach. Among other elements brazenly stolen from The Bad News Bears, the picture features a juvenile delinquent who becomes a star player and a soundtrack peppered with classical music. Yet while Bill Lancaster’s ingenious script for The Bad News Bears completely avoided the usual cute-kid excesses of family films by featuring a cantankerous coach and foul-mouthed youngsters, Here Come the Tigers is nearly as sickly-sweet as a Disney movie. In the bizarre opening sequence, kindhearted policeman Eddie Burke (Richard Lincoln) talks an older colleague out of committing suicide by agreeing to become a Little League coach. Then Eddie’s bumbling partner makes a bet on Eddie’s baseball success. These contrived circumstances set the stage for Eddie’s first encounter with his team, which includes such misfits as Art “The Fart” Bullfinch (Sean P. Griffin), whose distinguishing characteristic is indeed flatulence. By 10 minutes into the movie, which is about when the first scatological joke happens, it’s clear that viewers have traveled a long distance from the sharp satire of The Bad News Bears. Leading man Lincoln delivers a truly bland performance, and none of the child actors pop as memorable personalities. Additionally, all of the baseball scenes feel like limp re-enactments of bits from The Bad News Bears, complete with montages of botched plays and running gags about imaginative training techniques. Cunningham’s direction runs the gamut from basically competent to numbingly generic. There’s nothing to genuinely hate in Here Come the Tigers, since it’s a feel-good story about an adult teaching children to respect themselves, but there’s also no reason to watch a carbon copy of an infinitely better movie.

Here Come the Tigers: LAME

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Every ’70s Movie is Four Years Old!


Once again, it’s time to thank the many readers who visit Every ’70s Movie regularly, as well as the casual fans who pop in from time to time. Since this blog is very much a labor of love, feedback and readership stats are vital to letting me know that people dig the work. While the exact number of movies that meet the criteria for this blog remains a moving target, my best guess right now is that the tally will top out around 2,650 titles. As of this week, just over 1,500 movies have been reviewed, so the two-thirds milestone is visible on the horizon. To provide illumination for any who are curious, my criteria is roughly this—any English-language, feature-length fiction film that received a theatrical release in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1979, is fair game. Because the story of ’70s cinema includes many other interesting colors, I’m also reviewing the era’s most significant documentaries, foreign films, and made-for-TV movies. To keep things lively, this year I introduced a recurring feature called “1980 Week,” so every three months, one seven-day week of this blog highlights releases from what could arguably be described as the last year of the ’70s. After all, nearly every 1980 release began its life cycle in 1979 or earlier. (The next “1980 Week” begins on Monday.) As I move through the back half of my master list of ’70s movies, more and more detective work—as well as other resources—will be required to track down copies of films, so I’ll close with my annual request for donations. (See the top of the blog's right-hand column.) If you enjoy this blog regularly, please consider helping out so I can tell the story of ’70s cinema all the way to the end. Meantime, thanks again for reading, and looking forward to chatting with you via the comments function.

The Dove (1974)



          Based on the real-life adventures of an American sailor named Robin Lee Graham, who began a five-year solo trip around the world while he was still a teenager, The Dove could conceivably have become a probing existential drama. Instead, the movie’s screen time is divided unequally between sailing scenes, which are interesting, and romantic interludes, which are not. The real Graham met and married a fellow American, Patti Ratteree, while he was traveling, so the filmmakers mostly treat Robin’s journey as an obstacle to his relationship with Patti. It’s only near the end of the picture that the filmmakers start using weather as a metaphor to investigate the deeper reasons why Robin felt compelled to prove himself. In particular, sequences of Robin enduring a horrific storm and suffering through a month of windless days feel like precursors of the excellent Robert Redford film All Is Lost (2013), which is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon as the most harrowing film ever made about a solo ocean voyage.
          The Dove, which is named after the small sailboat that Robin steered around the world, begins in L.A. with Robin (Joseph Bottoms) leaving port for his long voyage. So little backstory is provided that the leading character feels like a cipher at first, which means the early passages of The Dove provide little more than aquatic spectacle. The storytelling gets clearer—and far less distinctive—once Robin reaches his first major port of call, where he meets Patti (Deborah Raffin). Around the same time, Robin begins his love/hate relationship with a series of correspondents from World Travel magazine, which has an exclusive on his story. (In real life, Robin worked with National Geographic.) By about 20 minutes into its running time, The Dove settles into a repetitive pattern: sailing scene, dry-land scene with Patti and/or journalists, teary goodbye scene, then back to the beginning of the cycle for another loop.
          Although director Charles Jarrott and his crew do an adequate job of shooting nautical vignettes—the storm sequence is genuinely harrowing—the movie tends to lose energy whenever Robin docks his boat. Leading man Bottoms (one of actor Timothy Bottoms’ three younger brothers) performs with more sincerity than skill, so he’s rarely able to enliven stiffly written scenes, of which The Dove has many. Raffin fares much worse, since she was prone to wooden performances anyway; some of her line deliveries in The Dove are embarrassingly amateurish. Even composer John Barry falls victim to the movie’s mediocrity, delivering one of his least interesting scores and contributing the melody for a fruity theme song, “Sail the Summer Wind,” which appears twice during the movie. FYI, The Dove is one of only three features that iconic actor Gregory Peck produced; the others are The Big Country (1958) and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972).

The Dove: FUNKY