Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tim (1979)



          The same year that Mel Gibson first played Mad Max, in the film of the same name, he starred in this very different feature, a sticky-sweet romance about a middle-aged woman who falls for a mentally challenged fellow 20 years her junior. While not an especially interesting movie, thanks to the sluggish pacing and trite storyline, Tim has some novelty simply because of Gibson’s presence. While his innate charm gets him through, the actor is as mediocre in Tim as he is assured in Mad Max. This says a lot about the importance of synchronicity between actor and role. In the ensuing years, Gibson’s capacity for real-life anger has become legendary, so it’s now easy to recognize why he simulated Mad Max’s sociopathic angst so effectively. Yet the title role in Tim called for an actor who could convey pure innocence, and that particular quality seemed to exist slightly outside Gibson’s wheelhouse circa the late ’70s.
          Throughout Tim, he diligently strips free of affect and guile, but in doing so, Gibson comes across more like a needy puppy dog than a believable human being. It’s also distracting that Gibson is so extraordinarily attractive—whether he’s prancing about in tiny swim trunks or working in short-shorts and a tank top, Gibson looks like he’s in a homoerotic music video, rather than a serious dramatic film. So while he’s not bad in the film, per se, he’s just slightly miscast—which has an impact on the overall project, since he is, after all, portraying the title character.
         That said, Tim is an essentially respectable enterprise. U.S. actress Piper Laurie, the picture of midlife elegance, stars as Mary Horton, an American-born professional living in Australia. One day, she spots handsome young laborer Tim (Gibson) doing yardwork next door. When her own gardener calls in sick, Mary hires Tim as a handyman, eventually extending his work to her beach house as well as her primary residence. Because Tim is simple-minded, Mary’s burgeoning affection for the young man is initially quasi-maternal in nature. Yet her patronage pleases Tim’s blue-collar parents, who fear Tim has no prospects in life. Then, after both of Tim’s parents fall ill, Mary’s role in the young man’s life becomes more central. She denies the physical aspects of her attraction to Tim until the circumstances of their lives change, so much of the film’s drama stems from Mary’s angst over whether to get intimate with a man who has the mind of a child.
          Based on a novel by Australian author Colleen McCullough—who famously revisited the forbidden-love genre for The Thorn Birds, which became a massive U.S. miniseries—Tim is gentle to a fault. There’s very little dramatic conflict, the movie is padded with flat and repetitive scenes of contented people enjoying each other’s company, and the gooey music score makes Tim seem like a Hallmark greeting card come to life. Still, Laurie lends more than a touch of class, Gibson’s megawatt charisma is on full display, and the Australian locations are lovely. Call it a draw.

Tim: FUNKY

Monday, July 28, 2014

Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976)



          The high point of Northville Cemetery Massacre—which is actually a biker flick, rather than the gory horror movie one might expect, based upon the title—occurs when several bikers get thrown into a county jail after getting needlessly hassled by redneck cops. As the cyclists pass around a reefer provided by a dealer who’s been thrown into the slammer with them, the amiable voice of Michael Nesmith appears on the soundtrack. Nesmith, a once-and-future member of pop group the Monkees, did the score for Northville Cemetery Massacre, and he also wrote and performed several songs. So, while the onscreen dudes toke, Nesmith croons like a country-and-western troubadour: “A friend with weed is a friend indeed.” For sheer novelty’s sake, nothing else in Northville Cemetery Massacre matches the peculiarity of a Monkee singing the praises of sweet Mary Jane. That’s because, excepting a surprising amount of gore during murder scenes, nothing in Northville Cemetery Massacre has the power to surprise.
          The story is a familiar grind during which bikers roll into a small town, get accused of a crime they didn’t commit (in this case, a rape), and then battle angry locals. The twist, such as it is, stems from the fact that rape was actually committed by a sleazy policeman (Craig Collicott), who persuades the victim’s father that the bikers were the culprints. Cue instant vendetta, with the cop and the father, abetted by a big-game hunter, mowing down bikers. The violent cycle culminates in a shootout that takes place in a graveyard, hence the film’s title.
          Despite sketchy production values and some iffy acting, Northville Cemetery Massacre has some pleasant passages. For instance, a biker captures counterculture angst by lamenting that “all you gottado is have long hair, ride a scooter, and wear colors, and everything you do is illegal.” In fact, all of the scenes of the bikers hanging out have a realistic vibe. Plus, the shootouts are so bloody that they command a certain amount of attention. In between these interesting-ish scenes, however, is lots of padding—long, pointless riding scenes, and such. Predictability and superficiality are problems, too, since character development clearly was not a priority for the filmmakers. FYI, one of those aforementioned filmmakers, codirector and cocinematographer William Dear, later went onto a respectable career making, among other things, such gentle family films as Harry and the Hendersons (1987). Go figure.

Northville Cemetery Massacre: FUNKY

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Glen and Randa (1971)



          Lyrical and offbeat, cowriter-director Jim McBride’s postapocalyptic saga Glen and Randa offers a humanistic spin on a genre that’s normally marked by nihilism and violence. Rather than imaginging a near-future Earth where survivors of a cataclysm battle each other for dwindling resources, McBride posits a primitive environment where the eradication of knowledge is the biggest danger to the human race. The lead characters, hippie-ish teenagers Glen and Randa, are introduced nude and in the wilderness, hitting the Adam and Eve allegory hard, so the idea is that they’ve grown up as primitives without schools and other social structures to shape their understandings. Glen has gleaned his sense of the world from comic books that he (barely) reads, so he dreams of finding the gleaming city of Metropolis, where everyone can fly. (Glen’s so beguiled by power fantasies, in fact, that he shouts “Shazam!” whenever lightning strikes.)
          After a long and largely wordless sequence of Glen and Randa cavorting in the woods, the movie shifts to civilization, of a sort, when the young lovers join an enclave of raggedy survivors who gather around a campfire and eat scraps. Next, an old man known only as “The Magician” shows up, putting on a show featuring a random assortment of gadgets from the technology era—a blender, an record player, and even a fire-retardant suit. The Magician is a mile-a-minute blabbermouth, but his connection to the old world fascinates Glen, who becomes the Magician’s de facto assistant. (“You’re too good a man for slavery, Prince Valiant,” the Magician says to Glen in a mishmash of highfalutin phraseology and literary references. “I give you a quest.”) After Glen steals maps from the Magician, he and Randa set out for their next adventure, even though Randa has become pregnant. Finally, the duo falls into the orbit of Sidney Miller (Woody Chambliss), a sweet old recluse living in woods by an ocean shore.
          One could argue that nothing much happens in Glen and Randa, simply because McBride eschews the usual postapocalyptic tropes (messanic characters, radiation, roving bands of savages, etc.). Yet the vibe of the picture is strangely persuasive, and the specific choices that McBride makes are interesting—for instance, the Magician plays a warped 45 of the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side,” with the irony of that song in a postapocalyptic context emerging gradually. Ultimately, Glen and Randa is a strange little movie filled with connection and despair in equal measure. FYI, although the film carried an “X” rating during its original release, the only edgy material is nudity ands discreet sexuality.

Glen and Randa: GROOVY


Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Master Touch (1972)



          Slick and watchable but badly lacking in narrative tension, this European heist thriller stars a suave Kirk Douglas as Steve, an expert thief who has just been released after a three-year prison term that stemmed from an unsuccessful robbery arranged by a wealthy criminal named Miller (Wolfgang Preiss). Immediately after leaving jail, Steve is seized at gunpoint by Miller’s goons, because Miller has a new job for Steve. Unwilling to trust the man twice, Steve refuses, and subsequently reunites with his beautiful wife, Anna (Florinda Bolkan). Initially, Anna’s thrilled to have Steve home, but then she detects that he’s itching to resume his life of crime—which pushes her over the edge, because the thought of waiting while her husband does another long stretch behind bars is more than she can take.
          Meanwhile, Steve takes on an apprentice, trapeze artist-turned-thief Marco (Giulana Gemma), and Steve hatches a scheme to commit Miller’s crime without Miller’s participation, doubling his potential take but also doubling his risk. Especially with the added element of a dogged policeman (Rene Kolldehoff), who is determined to catch Steve red-handed, the basic architecture of The Master Touch should be sufficient to support a proper thrill ride. Unfortunately, director Michele Lupo and his collaborators are more interested in style than substance. Major plot threads—such as the detective angle and the hint of a romantic triangle comprising Anna, Marco, and Steve—are malnourished, and far too much screen time is consumed by nicely shot but pointless chase scenes, as well as sleek but tedious montages of Steve surveiling potential crime scenes and/or preparing equipment for the big heist. Additionally, Douglas disappears for long stretches,with Lupo padding the running time through the inclusion of solo scenes featuring Gemma.
          As a result of all of this narrative diffusion, the main thrust of the piece gets obscured at regular intervals, even though the whole movie is attractively filmed at various picturesque German locations. (Lupo makes especially good use of Third Man-style Dutch angles.) Still, the movie pays off well with a zippy action finale, and Douglas provides ample low-key charm by relying on his innate charisma instead of falling into his customary ’70s trap of overacting.

The Master Touch: FUNKY

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Demon Lover (1977)



At the height of the indie-flick boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s, filmmaker Chris Smith released a documentary titled American Movie, which took the piss out of no-budget cinema by introducing viewers to Mark Borchardt, a hopelessly untalented Midwesterner who makes godawful horror movies. For all the world’s high-minded talk about how anyone can make a film, alas, there’s still a reason why most of the features that get widespread attention are made within the Hollywood system. Amateurs tend to be, you know, amateurish. This context is useful for discussing a 1977 atrocity titled The Demon Lover, which has exactly the same grungy vibe as Mark Borchardt’s magnum opus, Coven. Shot in rural Michigan with a cast mostly comprising doughy Midwesterners, The Demon Lover concerns a coven leader who freaks out when his acolytes refuse to have an orgy. (Never mind that the coven leader is an overweight slob in a mega-mullet who looks as if he spends his life attending Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts and eating at KFC—orgy material, he is not.) Every single cliché of amateur horror is present in The Demon Lover: a demon costume that looks like a third-grader’s art project, George A. Romero-style gore created by fanboys who believe all they need for realism is caro syrup and ingenuity, sets featuring the anemic issue of low-rent smoke machines, weird voices on the soundtrack employed to create the illusion of tension, and so on. It’s all quite embarrassing to watch. Nonetheless, sporting viewers could easily derive 83 minutes of MST3K-style amusement from watching this train wreck, which is occasionally marketed as The Devil Master. The performances are delightfully incompetent, the pacing is nonexistent, the shock scenes are laughably cheap-looking, and the movie even features such choice dialogue as the following: “I don’t care if you drop Bufferin in your tea, I just want to talk!” One can only imagine how mortified the participants were upon seeing the final product.

The Demon Lover: SQUARE

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Candleshoe (1977)



          “I ain’t depressed,” tough street kid Casey explains. “I’m delinquent. There’s a difference, you know?” Had all of Candleshoe, the live-action Disney flick that tells Casey’s story, risen to the droll level of this dialogue, the movie would have been much more entertaining. Alas, the passable film coasts on the strength of glossy production values and skillful performances as the filmmakers substitute unnecessarily intricate plotting for actual storytelling. Based on a novel by Michael Innes, Candleshoe is one of those Disney pictures that twists itself into narrative knots while trying to generate an offbeat spin on a familiar formula. At its core, the movie presents the standard Disney gimmick of a wild kid becoming tame thanks to the acceptance of a loving family. Yet Candleshoe also includes con-artist schemes, an elaborate heist, a kidnapping angle, sweet kids attending to a dotty aunt, transatlantic travel, and a vivacious butler who masqueredes as different people in order to convince his employer that her estate is still solvent. Candleshoe only rarely breaks from the exhausting work of providing exposition long enough to offer such simple pleasures as slapstick and verbal comedy. So, while the movie isn’t bad—since it’s harmless and moderately intelligent—it’s leaden and slow when it should be light and speedy.
          Anyway, Jodie Foster, at her precocious best, plays Casey, an American street kid living in a dingy foster home. One evening, she’s “purchased” by English crook Bundage (Leo McKern). Turns out Casey vaguely resembles the long-lost niece of a wealthy Brit, Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes). Bundage hopes to insert Casey into Lady St. Edmund’s estate, Candleshoe, so Casey can find a buried treasure. Casey agrees to pretend she’s the long-lost niece in exchange for a cut of the take. Yet once Casey arrives at Candleshoe, she falls in love with the family—Lady St. Edmund; her resourceful butler, Priory (David Niven); and several children. Meanwhile, Casey discovers that Candleshoe is bankrupt, so she joins in with family schemes to keep the place afloat without revealing the financial trouble to Lady St. Edmund. Inevitably, some moments in Candleshoe are charming,simply because the actors are so good. Hayes provides warmth, Foster provides spunk,McKern provides menace, and Niven provides wit. Yet Candleshoe trudges when it should soar, never taking flight until the moderately entertaining slapstick-fight finale.

Candleshoe: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Absolution (1978)



          Murder and religion become entwined in Absolution, a dark mystery/thriller penned by the noted English playwright Anthony Shaffter, whose other film projects include the revered Sleuth (1972) and the notorious The Wicker Man (1973). While Absolution does not rise to the heights of those pictures, it is nonetheless a brisk piece filled with creepy implications about the capacity young people have to commit physical and psychological violence. The inevitable twist ending might strike some viewers as a bit of a stretch, and, indeed, the final scene—which features an Agatha Christie-style explanation for various mysterious events—is laborious. Nonetheless, artful dialogue, meticulous characterizations, and the presence of the great Richard Burton in the starring role make Absolution quite worthwhile.
          Burton, looking much the worse for wear after years of alcoholism and phoned-in performances, stars as Father Goddard, a strict teacher at a Catholic school in England. Shaky in his faith and weary from too many years on the job, Goddard plays favorites, heaping praise on standout student Stanfield (Dominic Guard) and incessently belittling handicapped nerd Dyson (Dai Bradley). However, when a motorcycle-riding hippie named Blakey (Billy Connolly) sets up a campsite in the woods near the school, it’s Stanfield who defies Goddard by befriending the charming stranger. Realizing that he’s misjudged Stanfield rattles Goddard, and then things get truly grim—Stanfield tells Goddard, during confession, that he’s killed Blakey. Worse, Stanfield torments Goddard based on the rule that Goddard cannot reveal anything shared in confession. The situation spirals from there, with Goddard’s sanity becoming as endangered as the lives of the other students whom Stanfield threatens.
          Shaffer apparently wrote Absolution as a play first, though the ingenious premise (confession as a cover for murder) works well cinematically given Shaffer’s use of indoor and outdoor locations to represent different worlds pulled into conflict with each other. Naturally, the dialogue is quite sharp, though Shaffer’s wordplay perpetually teeters on the line between clever and pretentious.(At one point, Goddard derides Blakey by saying, “Freedom’s a banner the unscrupulous frequently march under.”) Yet the lofty language suits the milieu, and the actors all render words so skillfully that the high-minded approach works. Further, director Anthony Page and his collaborators create an ominous mood with shadowy cinematography, the efficacy of which is maximized by Stanley Myers’ excellent suspense score. Plus, as do all good thrillers, Absolution creates a disturbing sense of inevitability, with each dark turn of the story signaling a deeper descent into oblivion.
          FYI, business complications prevented Absolution from reaching the U.S. until the late ’80s, when it was unceremoniously dumped on the public like a straight-to-video cheapie.

Absolution: GROOVY

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death of a Snowman (1976)



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

Death of a Snowman: LAME

Monday, July 21, 2014

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)



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

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx: RIGHT ON

Sunday, July 20, 2014

1980 Week: Cruising



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

Cruising: FREAKY

Saturday, July 19, 2014

1980 Week: When Time Ran Out . . .



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

When Time Ran Out . . .: LAME

Friday, July 18, 2014

1980 Week: Popeye



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

Popeye: LAME

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1980 Week: Heaven’s Gate



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

Heaven’s Gate: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1980 Week: Windows



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

Windows: LAME

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

1980 Week: Can’t Stop the Music & Xanadu



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

Can’t Stop the Music: FREAKY
Xanadu: FREAKY