Sunday, October 31, 2010

Phantasm (1979)



A strange horror picture written, produced, and directed by then-23-year-old Don Coscarelli, Phantasm is filled with images that burned themselves into viewers’ brains—literally, as you’ll discover in a moment. The movie isn’t particularly frightening, and it takes forever to kick into gear, but the sheer ’70s-ness of the thing contributes to its mystique. Everyone in the cast has a little too much hair, much of it feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style; the plot is filled with Chariots of the Gods-type hokum about aliens with a master plan for humanity; and the awkward score (think melancholy electric-piano solos) has an eerie closing-time vibe. The rudimentary cinematography and editing, also by multitasker Coscarelli, add a student-movie creakiness that gains power after a while, because it’s like the gruesome story oozes directly from Coscarelli’s young mind. The narrative concerns two brothers investigating mysterious goings-on at a funeral home, which is run by a pasty freak known as “The Tall Man” whose aides are scampering little people in brown robes. Phantasm is the sort of picture in which villains do creepy things in public and nobody notices except the heroes; I dig the moment when the Tall Man stops on a sidewalk and inhales car exhaust with an orgasmic look on his face, earning nary a bewildered glance except from the movie’s protagonist. Because the characters are ciphers, the flick’s real star is a prop—the flying, bladed metal ball that jams into people’s heads and drills until blood gushes out like water from a spigot. Unfortunately, it takes about 38 logy minutes to get to that high point, and the movie’s only 90 minutes long. Viewers with stamina are rewarded with a deranged third act, because the conspiracy the heroes discover is one of the most preposterous sci-fi concepts ever committed to film. FYI, Phantasm developed a cult following and spawned three undistinguished sequels, all made by the persistent Mr. Coscarelli.

Phantasm: FREAKY

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Norseman (1978)



So shamelessly absurd that it’s almost amiable, this medieval adventure stars Lee Majors as the chief of a Viking war party that sets ashore in 11th-century America to rescue their lost buddies from the clutches of dastardly Native Americans, with the help of a weather-controlling wizard and an Indian woman who inexplicably turns on her people. Suffice to say that Majors, a strapping Michigander with the acting range of a Pet Rock, doesn’t exactly disappear into his role as “Thorval the Bold”; from his flat Midwestern line readings to his perfectly groomed ’70s-stud mustache, he’s preposterous. It doesn’t help that his Viking costume includes a black superhero mask for no discernible reason, and that he spends much of the movie running in slow motion, which makes the film seem like a dream sequence from one of his Six Million Dollar Man episodes. Jack Elam, another performer who’s about as American as they come, plays the wizard, scowling from under the black cloak that hides his unconvincing hunchback prosthetic. The picture starts out well enough with a fusillade of action and semi-coherent plotting, then devolves into a series of needlessly protracted fights and chase scenes; even the spectacle of watching Majors spout silly dialogue wears thin. (Sample line: “Our shores are laden with the remains of intruders whose ambitions were far greater than their fighting skills.”) Running the show is writer-producer-director Charles B. Pierce, a prolific hack who spared every expense making robustly bad movies like The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). Pierce shot The Norseman in Florida—which everybody knows is exactly where Native Americans and Vikings would most likely tussle—and he didn’t break the bank acquiring the picture’s one impressive prop, because a closing credit thanks the city of Newburn, NC, “for furnishing the Viking boat.”

The Norseman: LAME

Friday, October 29, 2010

High Anxiety (1977)


          After striking out with Silent Movie (1976), which was a moderate success but still a huge comedown commercially and critically from the twin 1974 hits Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, comedy auteur Brooks drifted back to the sweet spot, more or less, for High Anxiety, a send-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classics. Though High Anxiety has some terrific moments, and despite Brooks’ obvious affection and respect for Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety lacks both the manic energy of Saddles and the sweetness of Frankenstein. Plus, by this point in Brooks’ career, the feces jokes were starting to get out of hand, which is indicative that the creative well was starting to run dry.
          The picture’s biggest minus is the presence of Brooks in the leading role as a shrink who must overcome his personal phobias in order to expose corruption at a psychiatric hospital. For although High Anxiety actually has a strong narrative, comparatively speaking, Brooks’ tendency toward overacting makes it hard to develop the emotional investment a subtler actor could engender. It’s true that Brooks gives a much better performance in High Anxiety than he did in Silent Movie, but he’s still the weakest link in terms of onscreen talent.
          Notwithstanding these shortcomings, High Anxiety has many bright spots, including the delightful scene of corrupt psychiatrist Harvey Korman torturing a patient by pretending to be a werewolf, Cloris Leachman’s go-for-broke performance as a nutjob nurse with a bullet bra and a mustache, and Brooks’ lounge-lizard rendition of the movie’s ridiculous theme song (classic line: “Oh—‘xiety!”). For movie buffs, it’s also a hoot to see future director Barry Levinson (who co-wrote this movie) acting in the film’s requisite homage to Psycho’s shower scene. Brooks regular Madeline Kahn is mostly wasted, although she gets to look gorgeous in the thankless role of a seductive/troubled blonde in the Hitchock mode.
          Had this movie been made by anyone else, and had it featured a proper actor in the leading role, High Anxiety might have been embraced by audiences for its easygoing silliness. But since it represents such a big comedown from its predecessors, and since Brooks’ front-and-center role screams of megalomania, it’s merely an enjoyable but minor entry in an important filmography.

High Anxiety: FUNKY

Silent Movie (1976)


          After discovering his gift for spoofing movie genres with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which were released in 1974, Mel Brooks lost his way with Silent Movie. By many reports, Brooks’ considerable ego was to blame for the precipitous drop in the quality of his pictures, because he burned an important bridge by alienating actor-writer Gene Wilder, who starred in both 1974 hits, after taking too much credit for Young Frankenstein. So even though Brooks enjoyed long relationships with talented collaborators, including actors like Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman, as well as behind-the-scenes talents like composer John Morris, it was clear that on a Mel Brooks picture, only the name above the title really mattered. Therefore, in Silent Movie, it’s all about Mel, and not in a good way.
          Brooks cast himself in the leading role, and his legendary comic gifts aren’t enough to compensate for his shortcomings as an actor. He plays for the cheap seats with every reaction shot, bludgeons the delivery of jokes with bug-eyed obviousness, and can’t muster the varied nuances that Wilder brought to his performances in Brooks films. It doesn’t help, of course, that Silent Movie adheres to the gimmick implied by its title: Like an old one-reeler from the Mack Sennett era, the picture uses title cards in place of dialogue, which gives it a stop-and-start rhythm that soon grows wearying.
          The storyline is amusing-ish, with a film director (Brooks) trying to produce a brand-new silent movie in the modern era, and Silent Movie features cameos by big names who relish making idiots of themselves: Anne Bancroft, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds. (In a clever touch, French mine Marcel Marceau delivers the movie’s only line of spoken dialogue.) Brooks has fun executing exuberant physical comedy in the silent-era style with the assistance of core players DeLuise, Feldman, Sid Caesar, Ron Carey, Harold Gould, and Bernadette Peters, but the film’s slapstick is so endlessly insipid that the fervent efforts of the cast are mostly wasted.
          It’s hard to actively dislike Silent Movie since it’s trying so hard to be entertaining, but it’s hard to get excited about it, either.

Silent Movie: LAME

Young Frankenstein (1974)


          Astonishingly, comedy giant Mel Brooks managed to crank out his masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, less than a year after completing another outrageously funny spoof, Blazing Saddles. Yet while Blazing Saddles is an anything-goes romp that throws out narrative continuity whenever the opportunity for a gag arises, Young Frankenstein trumps its predecessor because in addition to featuring some of the funniest moments in cinema history, the picture also works as the bittersweet tale of a man, a monster, and the women who love them.
          Conceived by leading man Gene Wilder, who eventually had a falling-out with Brooks after he perceived Brooks as taking too much credit for this project, Young Frankenstein is a pseudo-continuation of the classic Universal Studios Frankenstein series that begin in the early ’30s. The picture is shot in glorious black-and-white to evoke a studio-era vibe, and the filmmakers even tracked down the original Kenneth Strickfaden-created props that appeared in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory during the earlier films.
          The screenplay, by Wilder and Brooks, picks up a generation after the events of the older pictures, when Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) inherits the castle where his crazed grandfather, Victor, once conducted unholy experiments. Discovering his ancestor’s records, Frederick casts aside his nature as a rational modern scientist in order to stitch together body parts and make a monster all his own. Aided by a trusty hunchbacked accomplice, Igor (Marty Feldman), and a fetching local girl, Inga (Teri Garr), Frederick creates a lumbering Monster (Peter Boyle).
          Wilder and Brooks borrow and spoof famous bits from the Universal Pictures, leading to uproarious scenes like the Monster’s encounter with a blind man (Gene Hackman) whose desire to share a cigar turns disastrous, and Frederick’s hilarious run-ins with an officious policeman (Kenneth Mars), who lost a limb to the monster that Victor Frankenstein created long ago. There’s also room for Frederick’s uptight fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), and the mysterious Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), who knew Victor better than anyone suspects.
          Virtually every scene in Young Frankenstein is a comedy classic, from the opening bit of Fredrick experimenting on an elderly patient during a medical class to the climactic musical number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which Wilder actually had to fight to keep in the movie because Brooks didn’t originally see the value of the scene. In addition to being riotously funny, Young Frankenstein is virtually note-perfect from beginning to end in terms of character and storyline. The acting is also consistently wonderful, with Boyle delivering a heartbreaker of a performance as the monster; his scene with Hackman is a perfect blend of pathos and whimsy.
          A career high point for everyone involved, Young Frankenstein showcases everything Brooks does well and features none of his often tiresome excesses, and it’s a triumph for Wilder as an actor and as a writer.

Young Frankenstein: OUTTA SIGHT

Blazing Saddles (1974)


          After making a wholly original film, The Producers (1968), and a goofy literary adaptation, The Twelve Chairs (1970), comedy giant Mel Brooks found his true niche in 1974 with the spectacular one-two punch of Blazing Saddles, released in February of that year, and Young Frankenstein, released in December. Satirizing film genres freed Brooks to stack gags on top of gags without having to worry about inventing new stories, since he repurposed elements from old films to create solid narrative foundations. Yet rather than just firing off jokes in these first two spoof films, Brooks took care to imbue even the most preposterous characters with likeable humanity—so, for instance, Blazing Saddles focuses on a black sheriff who combats Old West prejudice by making a fool of every racist he encounters. More importantly, Blazing Saddles reaches such dizzying heights of comic insanity that it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.
          The picture began as an original script by Andrew Bergman, who later became a comedy director in his own right, and the story went through a spirited metamorphosis as Brooks and others added characters and jokes and themes. At one point, comedy legend Richard Pryor was hired to smooth out potentially offensive race jokes, but instead fixated on penning gags for the existentially confused man-child Mongo (Alex Karras), who at one point sadly opines, “Mongo just pawn in game of life.”
          The main story this brain trust generated involves the devious machinations of corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who wants to demolish a small town and make room for a railroad in which he has a financial stake. By manipulating his state’s oblivious governor (Brooks), Hedley gets a black man, Bart (Cleavon Little), assigned as the town’s new sheriff. Upon seeing the color of the lawman’s skin, the town’s welcome wagon turns into a lynch mob, but soon Bart teams up with alcoholic gunfighter Jim (Gene Wilder) to save the day by confronting Hedley. The story, of course, is of minor importance, because Blazing Saddles is like a vaudeville revue filled with screamingly funny stand-alone gags, most of which are better discovered than described.
          Befitting its tagline, “Never give a saga an even break,” Blazing Saddles upends every imaginable convention of Hollywood Westerns. Conniving villains are made to look ridiculous (Hedley freaks out during bath time when he can’t find his rubber ducky); racial stereotypes are exploited for outrageous laughs (Little’s line, “Excuse me while I whip this out,” has become immortal); and, of course, the picture contains cinema’s most infamous demonstration of the effect baked beans have on the male digestive system, the symphony of campfire flatulence heard ’round the world.
          Everyone in the movie is terrific, with Little exhibiting charisma and great timing while Wilder gives an uncharacteristically soft-spoken performance as his sidekick. Korman is pure genius from start to finish, and Brooks regular Madeline Kahn slays as put-upon German seductress Lili Von Shtupp. The movie goes off the rails toward the end, albeit intentionally, so inspiration eventually gives way to desperation—but the chaos helps give Blazing Saddles such extraordinary shelf life that it’s one of the few modern movie comedies that can still leave fans gasping for air while laughing at the same jokes for the hundredth time.

Blazing Saddles: RIGHT ON

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Slither (1973)


So offbeat that I’m surprised Wes Anderson hasn’t bought the remake rights, this amiable comedy stars James Caan as an ex-con (ex-caan?) who inadvertently gathers a surrogate family of weirdos as he pursues a fortune in stolen loot. The eccentricity is front and center right from the first scene, in which Dick (Caan) visits his crooked pal Harry (Richard B. Schull) in a ratty old country house. As they chat, gunsels close in from all directions and riddle Harry with bullets, so a dying Harry secrets Dick into an underground bomb shelter and blows up the house, obliterating the gunsels in the process. Dick exits the rubble, dusts himself off, and shuffles away to his next adventure. He soon crosses paths with ditzy drifter Kittty (Sally Kellerman), who has a nasty habit of holding up roadside establishments at gunpoint. And eventually Dick partners with low-rent bandleader Barry (Peter Boyle), who claims to know the location of the stashed cash. So once the movie’s up to speed, Dick, Harry, and Kitty are roaming through trailer parks and other kitschy locations in Harry’s Winnebago, while mysterious villains in color-coordinated vans chase after them. It’s all very zippy and absurd, sort of like a novelistic character study with a crime element thrown in to keep things moving. Caan seems unsure how to play his character, but Boyle and Kellerman go full-out in every scene; Boyle’s a smooth-talking loser eager to latch onto something big, and Kellerman’s a motor-mouthed space case eager to latch onto anything. The imaginative screenplay by first-timer W.D. Richter (of Buckaroo Banzai fame) eventually runs out of gas, but it travels to quite a few interesting places before that happens, wringing affectionate chuckles from the spectacle of hapless characters trapped in pathetic situations; a playful scene set during a trailer-park bingo game is a standout in terms of sheer eccentric fun. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Slither: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Alien (1979)


          Writer Dan O’Bannon was a film-school pal of John Carpenter’s, but his career foundered after the duo expanded Carpenter’s thesis film into the commercial feature Dark Star (1974). While Carpenter was making the low-budget shockers that launched his career, O’Bannon was mired in stillborn projects like an unproduced version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, and at he ended up living on his friend Ron Shusett’s couch. Luckily, Shusett was an aspiring writer-producer intrigued by O’Bannon’s idea for a claustrophobic sci-fi/horror flick about an outer-space critter that preys upon a spaceship’s crew. (The concept borrows liberally from myriad sources, with the 1958 B-movie It! The Terror from Beyond Space often cited as a direct influence.) O’Bannon and Shusett fleshed out the story, which at one point was titled Star Beast, then sold the package to producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hil, whose new company Brandywine Productions had access to Twentieth Century-Fox. Giler and Hill, both screenwriters, did more narrative tinkering, but Fox didn’t get excited until the studio’s Star Wars (1977) exploded at the box office. Alien was the next outer-space picture on deck at Fox, so the project finally got momentum—and as more people joined the party, the level of artistic ambition continued rising.
          Ridley Scott, then a veteran of countless TV commercials but only one little-seen feature, was hired because of his keen visual sense. Just as importantly, Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who worked on the same stillborn version of Dune as O’Bannon, was recruited for creature and set designs; his creepy “biomechanics” style infused the resulting film’s alien scenes with perverse grandeur. Representing a rare case of the development process doing what it’s supposed to do, Alien kept evolving, rather like the creature in the story, until finally, on May 25, 1979, audiences got their first look at a perfect marriage of exploitation-flick elements and art-film craftsmanship. Scott fills every frame of the picture with meticulous details, building excruciating tension by keeping the titular beastie almost completely offscreen until the film’s finale. He also created one of scare cinema’s greatest jolts with the unforgettable “chest-burster” scene.
          So despite underdeveloped characters and an occasionally murky storyline, nearly everything in Alien works on some level, from the sleek title sequence by R/Greenberg Associates to the terrifying climax featuring Sigourney Weaver wearing the smallest panties in the known universe. The production design’s mix of utility and grime is utterly credible; the score by Jerry Goldsmith is eerily majestic; and the interplay between actors Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Weaver nails under-pressure group dynamics. The movie that O’Bannon and Shusett once pitched as “Jaws in space” sits comfortably alongside Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster as one of the most cinematically important horror shows ever made.

Alien: OUTTA SIGHT

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vigilante Force (1976)



          Way before making the ’90s cult faves Grosse Pointe Blank and Miami Blues, George Armitage wrote and directed this odd exploitation flick, which boasts an eclectic cast, an insane storyline, and weird flourishes like happy banjo music accompanying scenes of bloody mayhem. Vigilante Force is so disconnected from recognizable reality that it’s like a drive-in flick viewed through the prism of an irreverent absurdist. And, yes, that’s a compliment: Vigilante Force is disorganized, illogical, and strange, but it’s also compulsively watchable.
          The outrageous story takes place in a small California oil town called Elk Hills, which has been overrun by itinerant workers. Blissfully eschewing restraint, Armitage depicts the interlopers as hordes of brawling rednecks; these faceless savages seem to be controlled by sociopathic groupthink. In the first 10 minutes alone, criminals trash a saloon, murder cops in broad daylight, and literally shoot a car to death. Given the many whimsical touches that follow, one can only imagine that Armitage envisioned his film’s opening act as a spoof of other movies about random violence, but then again, his storytelling is so capricious throughout Vigilante Force it’s hard to parse narrative intention.
          Anyway, the leading moral force in Elk Hills is Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), a salt-of-the-earth widower who wants to protect the small town where he lives with his young daughter. At the urging of his neighbors, Ben tracks down his wayward Vietnam-vet brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), and then hires Aaron to form a peacekeeping militia. Initially, the scheme works, because Aaron and his rough-and-tumble buddies crack down on street crime. However, it soon becomes apparent that Aaron is even more dangerous than the thugs he was recruited to fight. Enlisting secret operatives to shake down local business owners and gleefully using murder to intimidate opponents, Aaron quickly gets Elk Hills under his militaristic thumb. Among other things, Aaron’s rampage features some of the most blasé murders ever shown in movies; the comic-book universe Armitage creates is almost entirely devoid of visible emotional consequences, a bizarre tonal choice accentuated by across-the-board understated performances.
          While all this is going on, the movie tracks Ben’s romance with a saintly schoolteacher (Victoria Principal) and Aaron’s thorny involvement with a cynical barroom singer (Bernadette Peters). While future Dallas star Principal is mostly relegated to stand-by-her-man ornamentation, Peters gets to show off her comedy chops through sly running gags. Plus, both women are blazingly sexy, so even though Vigilante Force is chaste by exploitation-movie standards, there’s plenty of eye candy—and since Kristofferson spends about half the movie shirtless, Armitage ensures there’s something for everyone to ogle. Furthermore, the supporting cast features several familiar faces, including Charlie’s Angels sidekick David Doyle, Breakfast Club villain Paul Gleason, and, in tiny roles, WKRP in Cincinnati bombshell Loni Anderson and B-movie icon Dick Miller.
          After meandering through a confusing but entertaining second act, Vigilante Force sticks the landing with an incredibly colorful finale: Aaron’s crew masquerades as a marching band in order to rob the Elk Hills bank, and Ben forms a militia of his own comprising local geezers and youths. Thus, the climax features Kristofferson blasting away with an M-16 while dressed in a cherry-red marching-band outfit and standing atop a giant oil tank. From its surreal opening to its even more surreal denouement, Vigilante Force maintains a breakneck pace that precludes questions about the nutty narrative until it’s all over. As a result, Vigilante Force is among the most uniquely entertaining schlock movies of its era. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)


Vigilante Force: FREAKY

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) & Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) & Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) & Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)


          When Chuck Heston screamed at the half-buried Statue of Liberty during the conclusion of Planet of the Apes (1968), what seemed like one of the great twist endings in sci-fi history was actually the launching pad for an interesting but short-lived movie series, probably because producer Arthur P. Jacobs was eager to milk a hit after taking a bath on the notorious turkey Doctor Dolittle (1967). Demonstrating that a sequel was neither organic nor planned, Heston is a minor presence in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which strangely pushes the titular primates to the sidelines in favor of a cult of underground mutants worshipping an unexploded nuclear bomb; even more egregiously, Beneath is the only picture in the series that doesn’t feature Roddy McDowall in the cast. Nonetheless, Beneath has some memorable loose-nuke paranoia, and Chuck brightens the third act by showing up to flex his pecs and grit his teeth. If you go Beneath, by the way, stick through to the ending, which is spectacularly cynical.
          Jacobs more or less rebooted the series with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which kinda ignores the previous film by reprising beloved ape characters Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) from the original picture. The duo travels back in time from their ape-dominated future Earth to present-day 1970s Earth, where they’re perceived as a threat to man’s dominance of the planet. Escape is flat and talky compared to the rest of the series, but it introduces the entertaining human character Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and features a denouement that’s both exciting and depressing.
          The jewel in the crown of the ’70s Apes pictures is unquestionably Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which boasts a taut script about slavery and rebellion, zesty performances by McDowall and Montalban, and genuinely scary sequences of civil unrest that director J. Lee Thompson reportedly modeled after news footage of the 1964 Watts riots. McDowall actually plays the son of his character in the previous Apes pictures, and he brings previously unseen grit and rage to his portrayal of an, ahem, guerilla leader; he also benefits from a methodical story that believably evolves him from pacifist to revolutionary. Adding even more flava is the ingenious use of a then-new office plaza in what’s now known as Century City, California, for the primary location, because Fox audaciously transforms its corporate backyard into a futuristic battleground. Yet another virtue of the movie is a charismatic performance by journeyman African-American actor Hari Rhodes, of Daktari fame—he’s commanding and intense as the only human besides Armando to evade the apes’ wrath. FYI, the highly recommended extended cut of Conquest that debuted on Blu-Ray (and the Fox Movie Channel) in 2008 ups the violence quotient and deepens the movie’s theme of racial friction.
          Predictably, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is an anticlimax, mostly because it should have picked up exactly where Conquest ended. Instead, it takes place years later and features a long, slow buildup to a poorly staged fight between a nasty human armada and a fractious ape community. Seeing John Huston in primate drag at the beginning and end of the picture is a hoot, though (he speaks to the camera in wraparound bits). Oh, and don’t be fooled if you come across listings for Back to the Planet of the Apes or Forgotten City of the Planet of the Apes (both 1974); they’re slapdash re-edits of scenes from the disposable Apes TV series that ran for one season.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes: FUNKY
Escape from the Planet of the Apes: FUNKY
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: GROOVY
Battle for the Planet of the Apes: LAME

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kansas City Bomber (1972)


On paper, this one sounds pretty fabulous as far as ’70s kitsch goes. Sex symbol Raquel Welch plays a single mom who tries to conquer the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby when other professional avenues prove unavailable. Kevin McCarthy, the star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays the oily team owner who courts Welch and persuades her to join his roller-derby empire, spotting a potential marquee attraction. Norman Alden, the journeyman actor known for craptastic ’70s TV like Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, plays a gentle-giant skater prone to inflicting serious bodily harm when he’s not looking out for Welch’s welfare. The cast also includes Jodie Foster in an early role. But the sum of Kansas City Bomber is far less than its parts, even with some of those parts belonging to Welch. The reason is simple: The movie’s no fun. It’s actually a rather grim affair, as if the filmmakers thought the world would take a roller-derby movie starring Raquel Welch seriously. As for the star, she’s not really awful in this movie so much as just plain boring, which is disappointing because she seems sincere about demonstrating chops that she simply doesn’t have. Alden tries just as hard, but his performance as a mentally challenged individual borders on the cringe-worthy. So within this dramatic vacuum, McCarthy probably comes off best, because he at least plays the one note of his vile character effectively. The plot, standard leering stuff about predatory men who want Welch and bitchy roller-derby queens who want to put her down, would be tolerable if the action on the rink was exciting. No such luck. The sports scenes are sloppy and repetitive, without any of the crazy hair-pulling fun one might expect. Kansas City Bomber should be a permanent resident of the cinematic penalty box.

Kansas City Bomber: LAME

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Sting (1973)


          Paul Newman and Robert Redford could have followed the blockbuster Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with pretty much any onscreen reunion and delivered box-office gold. But the savvy movie stars waited for something special, and David S. Ward’s twisty screenplay about Depression-era grifters pulling the ultimate con on a vile gangster fit the bill. Also rejoining the actors was Butch director George Roy Hill, whose storytelling is close to flawless throughout The Sting. Fast and fun from start to finish, the clever comedy-drama lays out a complex plot with incredible clarity, driving characters inexorably toward one of the most entertaining third acts ever filmed. Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small-time con man whose mentor, Luther (Robert Earl Jones), gets killed after ripping off a courier in the service of big-time crook Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Determined to get revenge, Hooker connects with veteran grifter Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), and together they contrive an elaborate scheme to swindle Lonnegan out of a fortune. The picture is broken up into chapters—complete with hand-painted title cards for segments like “The Set-Up,” “The Hook,” and “The Shut-Out”—and riffs on Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic “The Entertainer” complement Marvin Hamlisch’s original scoring to give the piece a playfully old-fashioned feel.
          The interplay between Newman and Redford is marvelous; they’re so charming that their shared scenes are like intoxicants. Shaw counters them with seething savage-in-a-suit villainy, and the fantastic supporting players fill the movie with delectable flavors: Jones, Dimitra Arliss, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar, Harold Gould, Jack Kehoe, and Ray Walston are wonderful. The Sting scores in every conceivable way, because it’s rare for any movie to meet, much less exceed, high expectations, just like it’s rare for a script full of plot twists to work all the way through, and just like it’s rare for a large ensemble cast to mesh into a seamless unit. At once a throwback to a simpler time in Hollywood history and a celebration of how sophisticated the art of filmmaking had become by the early ’70s, this masterpiece contains just about everything Tinseltown does well. It’s always tempting to express disappointment that Newman and Redford didn’t reunite onscreen after Butch Cassidy and The Sting, but unlike the baddie they bamboozled in The Sting, they were too smart to fall into traps. After all, why blow a good run by trying to hit the trifecta?

The Sting: OUTTA SIGHT

Friday, October 22, 2010

Crossed Swords (1977)


After scoring with The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind tackled another classic novel with their lavish adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. And while Twain’s narrative has as much adventure and whimsy as Dumas’ Musketeers book, Crossed Swords (as the Salkind production of The Prince and the Pauper is more widely known) was handicapped by miscasting in front of and behind the camera. In the dual lead roles of an English prince and the lookalike street urchin with whom he trades places, Mark Lester is startlingly amateurish. Undoubtedly cast because he had played Oliver Twist in the Oscar-winning musical Oliver! (1967), Lester is gangly and stiff in Crossed Swords, forcing bug-eyed reaction shots and yelping whiny line deliveries. The inadequacies of his performance are exacerbated by the presence of flamboyant big-name actors who blow the young leading man off the screen. Even worse, journeyman director Richard Fleischer calls the shots instead of Richard Lester, whose light touch with action and comedy made the Musketeers movies memorable. Under Fleischer’s hand, Crossed Swords is quite severe, not exactly the right tonality for an escapist fable. But for viewers who can overlook shortcomings, the picture has buried treasures. The swordfight scenes are muscular, the production values are terrific from start to finish, and costar Oliver Reed gives one of his most entertaining performances as a nobleman robbed of his title. Once the film pits Reed against David Hemmings, playing the nobleman’s avaricious brother, Reed catches fire in a string of powerful scenes. The movie also boasts appearances by Ernest Borgnine, Rex Harrison, Charlton Heston, George C. Scott, and Raquel Welch, most of whom are miscast but all of whom periodically fill the entertainment gap created by the film’s unsatisfactory lead player.

Crossed Swords: FUNKY

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Caligula (1979)


Sleaze merchant Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, tried to buy credibility by financing a historical film about debauched Roman emperor Caligula, assembling a script by Gore Vidal and a cast including John Gielgud, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter OToole. One suspects that Guccione sold the actors a bill of goods about making something provocative but respectable, sort of a randy I, Claudius; furthermore, Guccione had a strong precedent for his transition to the mainstream because his skin-trade competitor, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, produced Roman Polanskis acclaimed film of Macbeth (1971). Alas, Guccione the pornographer trumped Guccione the patron of the arts, because the final film is as grotesque as anything that ever appeared in Penthouse, if not more so. Parsing Caligula to guess which bits were shot under the original auspices of making a “real” movie, it’s clear the project went off the rails pretty quickly, because even the straight dramatic scenes involving the principal actors are overwrought in terms of florid dialogue, undisciplined performances, and wall-to-wall ugliness. The bit in which a man’s penis is sliced off and fed to a dog is exactly as enjoyable as the scene of Caligula (McDowell) raping a Roman citizen’s virginal bride. (An equal-opportunity violator, Caligula also services the groomwith his fist.) Incest between Caligula and his sister (Mirren) gets plenty of screen time, as well. At least Gielgud and O’Toole exit before the film devolves into a stag reel, since their characters die early in the storyline. The behind-the-scenes story goes that after director Tinto Brass wrapped principal photography, Guccione decided Caligula wasn’t rough enough, so he recruited a cast of dwarves, grotesques, studs, and Penthouse Pets to shoot reel after reel of hardcore sex that was then intercut (often randomly) with the dramatic scenes. Vidal tried to get his name taken off the picture, and the leading actors were mortified that they couldn’t be removed from the monstrosity entirely. Genuinely vile from its first frame to its last, Caligula is morbidly fascinating as the most pornographic film ever made with name actors, but it’s about as fun as dentistry without anesthesia. FYI, there’s an R-rated version of the picture available on DVD, but what’s the point of that? The only reason to slog through this atrocity is to see how far Guccione really went when carving out his loathsome little niche of cinema history.

Caligula: SQUARE

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fast Company (1979)


Badass biker-movie veteran William Smith didn’t get many opportunities to appear in “real” movies, and it was even less common for him to play sympathetic leads. So while Fast Company is a routine B-movie elevated by the skills and reputation of its director, it also represents a high point for fans of charismatic muscleman Smith. The director is, improbably, Canadian bio-horror specialist David Cronenberg, caught halfway between his early Great White North indies and his ’80s breakout period. He does a solid job as a helmer-for-hire, delivering all the requisite drive-in whammies; lean and mean but reflecting a fair amount of craftsmanship, Cronenberg’s drag-racing extravaganza is exploitive without being out-and-out sleazy. There's violence, debauchery, and skin, but also consistent characters and a rational narrative about how a devious corporate sponsor exploits its drivers. Enter the Dragon guy John Saxon, at the height of his macho comb-over glory, revels in his villainous role, and Smith plays a simple but relatable sort of romantic lead. He also gets to deliver a few tasty lines, like when he takes a shot at his sponsor, Fast Co. Motor Treatment, during a live TV shoot: "Fast Co. is gonna keep you regular and raunchy till way after sundown." Preach on, brother man! The low-rent '70s music is atrocious and tragic ’70s starlet Claudia Jennings is underused, but the movie pays off like gangbusters. Fast Company is that rare animal of an exploitation flick you can watch without feeling skanky the next morning.

Fast Company: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Big Bus (1976)


It’s not hard to see why The Big Bus seemed like a good idea at the time. Mel Brooks had just turned spoofs into big business, with Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), and the disaster movie was all the rage, making it an ideal satirical target. But even with good timing, a decent budget, and a cast filled with rock-solid comedy pros, this minor effort from the usually impressive producing team of Julia and Michael Phillips is thoroughly forgettable. From a film-history perspective, however, it’s interesting to examine The Big Bus as the first attempt to do what Airplane! did so much better few years later. The missing secret ingredient seems to be lunatic non sequiturs, because every joke in The Big Bus is hindered a laborious setup. The picture’s intentionally stupid plot concerns the maiden voyage of a giant nuclear-powered bus, which is fraught with problems like a crazed passenger who wants to kill the driver because she thinks he ate her father (and 109 other folks) after a bus crash in the boonies years ago. The caliber of the humor is summed up by a sequence in which the driver accelerates the bus to test whether it overcomes wind resistance, finally exclaiming, “We’ve done it! We’re breaking wind at 90 miles an hour!” The movie is borderline watchable because it’s handsomely produced, blasts from start to finish in 88 minutes, and includes lots of fun people: Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Joe Bologna, Stockard Channing, Bob Dishy, José Ferrer, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, Stuart Margolin. There’s even room for Ruth Gordon of Harold and Maude fame, doing the sort of vulgar-old-lady shtick Betty White does today.

The Big Bus: FUNKY

Monday, October 18, 2010

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) & Live and Let Die (1973) & The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) & The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) & Moonraker (1979)


          After scoring in the ’60s on the strength of Sean Connery’s he-man swagger, the James Bond franchise spent the ’70s creeping toward self-parody with a series of gimmicky films that tried to latch onto then-current trends, often with embarrassing results. Luckily, two solid entries appear amid the dreck. Having previously ceded the Bond role to the underrated George Lazenby (the franchise’s only one-time 007), Connery was lured back with a big paycheck for the forgettable Diamonds Are Forever. Also returning to the series was Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton, who helmed Diamonds as well as the next two 007 flicks. Dull and garish, Diamonds features an overused Bond villain (Ernst Blofeld) in one of his least interesting incarnations, a vulgar choice of setting (Las Vegas), and crass flourishes like Bonds showdown with two high-kicking kung fu babes. The movie is also incredibly mean-spirited, right down to the offensive characterizations of two gay hit men who trail Bond across the globe. Even leading lady Jill St. Johns outrageous body, which is on ample display, can only sustain interest for so long. Especially since the previous film in the series, the Lazenby-starring On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), is one of the best-ever 007 flicks, its depressing to watch Connery sleepwalk through an entry as halfhearted as its leading actors performance.
          Then came Roger Moore, the debonair British actor previously known for the Bond-ish TV series The Saint. Moore cut a great figure with his raised eyebrow, tailored wardrobe, and velvety speaking voice, and at least at the beginning of his run he seemed intense enough to wield 007’s license to kill. Unfortunately, along with Moore came a new style largely set by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who inserted so many verbal and visual winks that Bond started to become more of a joke machine than a killing machine. Moores first Bond outing, Live and Let Die, was designed to piggyback on the blaxploitation craze with a turgid story that begins in drug-infested Harlem and continues down to the voodoo-drenched Caribbean, but the producers hedged their bets by featuring a Caucasian leading lady, Jane Seymour, whose presence in the storyline makes no sense. The combination of a rotten musical score (excepting Paul McCartneys kicky theme song) and stupid puns (Bond visits the “Oh Cult Voodoo Shop”) makes Live and Let Die feel flat, and main villain Yaphet Kotto was miscast as a speechifying mastermind. Worse, the insipid “comedy scenes featuring Clifton James as a redneck sheriff illustrate how far the film deviates from what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie.
          Team 007 got back to basics with the next entry, The Man With the Golden Gun, which flips the usual Bond formula by making 007 the hunted instead of the hunter. Hammer horror stalwart Christopher Lee costars as suave assassin Francisco Scaramanga (whose distinguishing characteristic is a third nipple!) and future Fantasy Island sidekick Hervé Villechaize plays Scaramanga’s diminutive henchman, Nick Nack. When Bond lands on Scaramanga’s hit list, 007 begins an unauthorized investigation, taking place mostly in Hong Kong, to smoke out his would-be killer. Hamilton stages several stylish sequences, notably the bookend scenes in the assassin’s funhouse hideout; the picture features colorful locations including a fortress inside a half-sunken ocean liner; and the focus on a worthy mana-a-mano duel keeps the storyline tight. The movie gets a bit logy during the climax, but Moore plays the material straight (for once) and Lee actually musters enthusiasm during several scenes, a rarity for the generally stoic performer. Best of all, The Man With the Golden Gun eschews the distractions of gadgets and murky subplots, focusing instead on the core elements of death-defying escapes, exciting fight scenes, and smooth seductions. Happily, the reprise of Clifton James redneck character is fleeting.
          When Bond returned to the big screen three years later in The Spy Who Loved Me, producers added tremendous visual opulence in the form of grandiose location photography and cutting-edge special effects. By far the most visually impressive of Moores 007 flicks, Spy has a silly plot and a forgettable villain (something about stolen nuclear submarines and an international extortion scheme), but it boasts one of the best opening sequences in the franchise’s history. That spectacular bit, a ski chase concluding with an amazing skydive, is complemented by a moody foot pursuit through the Egyptian pyramids, as well as an exciting shootout in a submarine bay (at the time the largest set ever constructed for a movie). And then there’s Jaws (Richard Kiel), the towering assassin with the metallic mouth; he’s such a preposterous character that he’s amusing every time he walks onscreen. Spy also features one of the series’ best attempts to match Bond with a woman who equals him in every way. Lovely Barbara Bach, who in real life later became Mrs. Ringo Starr, appears as a Russian agent out to avenge her lover, who died at 007’s hands. Bach isn’t up to the task of portraying the character’s shadings, but it’s still a relief to see a woman in the franchise who is more than a sexual plaything.
          Sadly, everything that went right in Spy went wrong in Moonraker, a pathetic attempt to capitalize on the success of Star Wars by sending Bond into space. Poor Lois Chiles has to play a character named “Holly Goodhead,” and during the climax, extras limply float around the exterior of a space station while shooting laser guns at each other. The highlight, if that's even the right word, is a scene of Moore getting trapped in a G-force simulation chamber, his jowls flapping as his capsule zooms around a circular track at insane speeds; in addition to the way the scene demonstrates the series growing reliance on production values over narrative inspiration, the scenes unflattering closeups illustrate how quickly Moore was aging out of the 007 role. It all got much worse in the ’80s, but Moonraker represented the nadir of the franchise up to that point. Still, Bond’s ’70s adventures are fascinating when screened in sequence, because viewers can see the production team trying to completely rethink the series with each new movie.

Diamonds Are Forever: LAME
Live and Let Die: FUNKY
The Man With the Golden Gun: GROOVY
The Spy Who Loved Me: GROOVY
Moonraker: LAME

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Thing With Two Heads (1972)


Some movie ideas are so phenomenally stupid that one has to admire the nerve of the filmmakers involved for seeing the idea through to fruition. And if a respectable actor can be persuaded to participate, then the conditions are right for the creation of entertaining awfulness. In this instance, the respectable actor is Ray Milland, playing a surgeon experimenting with the transplantation of heads because he’s dying of cancer but wants to preserve himself from the neck up after he croaks. At the beginning of the picture, we see that Milland has created a gorilla with two heads (one original, one a transplant), and the unapologetic way the filmmakers showcase a stunt performer wearing an unconvincing gorilla suit sets the craptastic tone. Before long, Milland slips into a coma and his flunkies attach his noggin to the shoulder of a death-row inmate played by former NFL star Roosevelt “Rosie” Grier. Little problem: The convict is black and the doctor is a flaming racist. The ebony-and-ivory racial banter is flaccid, Grier is awful (though likeable), it takes forever for the action to kick into gear, and the motorcycle-chase scene is endless, but the absurdity factor is such that watching Grier play scenes with Milland strapped to his back has inherent train-wreck appeal. Plus, every so often the movie enters full-on bizarro mode, like when Milland conspires to kill Grier while Grier naps in the middle of a chase scene, or when actors bark lines like this one: “Cut down the dosage of Barbitol to the black head!”

The Thing With Two Heads: FUNKY

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Superman (1978)


          Hard as it may be to imagine, now that seemingly every Spandex-clad character who ever fought crime has been featured in movies, reboots, sequels, and spinoffs, there was a time when the idea of turning a comic-book hero into a movie character seemed preposterous. In the early 1970s, when Superman was conceived, audiences mostly knew caped crusaders from campy TV series like The Adventures of Superman (1952-1957) and Batman (1966-1968). As one colorful story from the development process goes, Warren Beatty was approached to play the Man of Steel, so he slipped on a Superman costume and walked around his backyard trying to decide if he could get over feeling ridiculous. He couldn’t, and neither could any of the other big names offered the role. And that was just one of myriad behind-the-scenes dramas.
          Original scripter Mario Puzo delivered an unwieldy draft running 500 pages. Millions were spent on test footage for flying effects. Christopher Reeve was so scrawny when he was cast that English bodybuilder David Prowse (Darth Vader in the original Star Wars flicks) was recruited to help the Son of Krypton add bulk. Marlon Brando, hired to play Superman’s dad, was an overpaid diva, trying to convince the producers he didn’t need to appear onscreen. A plan to shoot the film and its sequel back-to-back fell apart, with production on the sequel halted halfway through. But amazingly, offscreen mishegoss translated to onscreen magic.
          As helmed by director Richard Donner, Superman treats the superhero’s origin story like a great piece of cornpone Americana. The movie proper begins with a long prologue on Krypton, where trippy costumes and grandiose production design give the movie a snazzy sci-fi jolt. The next major passage is a lengthy tenure in Smallville, anchored by Glenn Ford’s touching appearance as Superman’s surrogate father. Finally the movie shifts to Metropolis, where Gene Hackman has a blast playing amiable psychotic Lex Luthor. The plot is wonderfully overstuffed, with long detours for things like Luthor’s elaborate theft of two nuclear missiles, and the narrative voluptuousness works in the movie’s favor: Everything is Super-sized. John Williams, on a major roll after Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), contributes a perfect score loaded with orchestral grandeur, while cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth gives the picture a dreamlike glow. (The Smallville sequence is especially beautiful, with luxurious tracking shots of wheat fields.) And though the effects have lost their ability to astonish, they’re still pictorially elegant.
          The heart of the movie, however, is the love story between sweet Clark/Superman and salty Lois Lane. That memorable romance is brought to life by Reeve, balancing sly humor with square-jawed earnestness, and Margot Kidder, simultaneously sexy and abrasive. Not everything in the movie works; the “Can You Read My Mind” scene was rightly cited in a recent book titled Creepiosity: A Hilarious Guide to the Unintentionally Creepy. But in terms of treating a comic-book story with just the right mix of irony and respect, nothing came remotely close to Superman until along came a Spider-Man more than two decades later.

Superman: RIGHT ON