Sunday, July 31, 2011

Our Time (1974)


          Before establishing a reliable brand with a run of moody conspiracy thrillers and wiseass action pictures, director Peter Hyams took journeyman gigs like helming Our Time, a sensitive-ish youth drama that’s only incrementally better than the average afterschool special of its era. Shot with a photographer’s eye for atmospheric detail (always a Hyams signature), the picture has adequate period texture but nowhere near enough originality or substance. Set in 1955, the exceedingly slight story concerns the romantic travails of private-school students Abby (Pamela Sue Martin), a pretty youth generally found courting trouble through insubordination and tardiness, and Muffy (Betsy Slade), her ugly-duckling best friend/roommate.
          Over the course of several months, Abby takes her romance with prep-school student Michael (Parker Stevenson) to the physical realm, while Muffy endures all sorts of misery as she pursues a stuck-up boy who doesn’t want her and reluctantly accepts the affections of a bespectacled dork who does. The first hour of the movie is quite tedious, since there’s no real dramatic tension—the characters aren’t interesting enough for viewers to get concerned about their romantic entanglements. Worse, Abby’s storyline, which is ostensibly the main thread of the story, is eclipsed by Muffy’s sordid melodrama. It’s not as if the filmmakers failed to select a focus; rather, it’s as if the filmmakers grossly overestimated the dramatic value of Abby’s romantic misadventures.
          This problem is exacerbated by a charisma inequity among the leading players: Martin and Stevenson, who later reunited as costars of the TV series The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, are not well matched, for while Martin offers naturalism and pouty sexiness, Stevenson is so blandly professional that he seems more like a stand-in than an actual performer. Therefore, Slade easily steals the movie from both romantic leads, since she gets to perform nearly every interesting action in the story. (It’s hard to discuss the specifics of her big moments without giving away the only substantial turn in the story, so suffice to say she’s affecting when the time comes.)
          As for Hyams, he delivers characteristically confident camerawork, slinging long lenses low to the ground in order to create scope, and sliding dollies through large spaces in order to accentuate scenes with motion. It seems clear he also created a comfortable space for actors, but the twin shortages of a shallow script and unexceptional acting limit how much he can accomplish. Still, the last half-hour of the picture, when the lives of the characters take a bleak turn, has a little bite, and deft character actor Robert Walden shows up for a memorable one-scene role. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Our Time: FUNKY

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dark Star (1974)


          Ambitious USC film student John Carpenter did such a bang-up job on his 45-minute thesis film, a 2001-inspired sci-fi comedy called Dark Star, that producer Jack H. Harris gave him a few extra bucks with which to shoot another 40 minutes of footage so the picture could become a theatrical feature. The resulting movie didn’t make much noise upon its initial release, but once Carpenter achieved stardom by making Halloween (1978) and other pictures, Dark Star was rediscovered. Given this context, it’s surprising that the movie is much more deeply infused with the personality of Carpenter’s principal collaborator on the project, fellow USC film student Dan O’Bannon. The two wrote the script together, O’Bannon plays the lead role, and O’Bannon both edited the film and supervised the picture’s resourceful special effects.
          Although all of Carpenter’s movies have mordant wit, he tends toward succinct irony. By contrast, the late O’Bannon tended toward overt comedy—so instead of Carpenter’s sly asides, Dark Star has motor-mouthed verbal gags and lots of outright slapstick. In fact, one reason the movie isn’t more effective is that Carpenter’s visual style of deep shadows and wide frames, which was already fully formed at this early stage, drowns the jokes in too much brooding atmosphere.
          That said, Dark Star has a trippy concept and many amusing scenes. The story concerns a space vessel called Dark Star, which zips through the universe blowing up planetoids that stand in the way of man’s development. The crew comprises shaggy hippies who bicker and joke like frat boys, and one of them is a ’70s stoner type who spends all his time in the ship’s observation bubble, silently blissing out on celestial panoramas. Crew member Pinback (O’Bannon), is in charge of feeding the ship’s mascot, a mischievous alien portrayed as a beach ball with feet, and a great deal of the movie concerns Pinback’s comedic misadventures with the critter. As silly as this material is, it’s executed professionally, and O’Bannon shows an appealing flair for physical comedy.
          On a deeper level, the movie riffs on 2001 by depicting a sentient bomb that gets annoyed each time it’s mistakenly pushed out of the ship for dispersal, and then pulled back in once the error is corrected. In the film’s funniest sequence, one of the astronauts gets into an argument with the bomb about the nature of existence as a means of dissuading the bomb from detonating.
          Dark Star drags because of the feature-length padding, the continuity is glitchy, and the visuals are grungy because the picture was shot on 16-milimeter film. But as a snapshot of where the collegiate head was at during the early ’70s, and as a footnote to one of cinema’s most interesting directing careers, Dark Star is a valuable artifact. Plus, it even has an amiable theme song: In addition to creating his first musical score, beginning a tradition that continued throughout his glory years, Carpenter penned the music for the country-and-Western ditty “Benson, Arizona,” which plays over the opening and closing credits.

Dark Star: FUNKY

Friday, July 29, 2011

Operation Daybreak (1975)


          Adapted from the true story of a bold Allied assassination attempt against a high-ranking Nazi officer, Operation Daybreak offers terrific verisimilitude but only so-so dramaturgy. The location photography, period details, and re-enactments of harrowing incidents are persuasive, creating a palpable sense of time and place, and the film’s matter-of-fact recitation of real-life heroism presents a sobering alternative to the usual war-movie derring-do and overwrought battlefield melodrama.
          The leading characters are Jan Kubis (Timothy Bottoms) and Jozef Gabcik (Anthony Andrews), Czech-born soldiers currently stationed in Britain. Given their lineage and other special skills, they are recruited for a mission requiring them to parachute into Czechoslovakia, rendezvous with the local resistance underground, and take out Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffing). An urbane but cruel Nazi oblivious to the suffering of civilians under his authority, Heydrich is considered by Allied commanders a potential successor to Hitler and therefore a symbol of Third Reich power; the idea is to shake German confidence by demonstrating that even the highest officials are vulnerable.
          From the first, the Czech commandoes’ mission is fraught with mishaps: They’re accidentally dropped 200 miles from their intended landing zone, and one of them breaks an ankle during the jump. Yet the locals aiding their efforts rise to the occasion, eager to depose a lethal tyrant; underground accomplices include the pastor of a Prague church and fiery resistance operative Anna (Nicola Pagett), who happens into a doomed romance with Kubis.
          As written by Ronald Harwood, from Alan Burgess’ novel Seven Men at Daybreak, the film gets minute-to-minute details so right, generally speaking, that it’s a shame the film’s approach to character lacks similar precision. Though many isolated exchanges are effective, the picture never presents complete characterizations; the film’s people are flatly generic amalgams of whatever qualities seem expedient for the story at any given moment. (The only satisfying character arc is that involving Heydrich and his Czech attendants, who sharply transition from reluctant deference to open contempt after the assassination attempt.)
          Operation Daybreak gains energy as it goes along, since rising tension makes character motivations plain through circumstance, and the twin climaxes of the assassination attempt and the Germans’ retaliatory assault on the conspirators’ hiding place are exciting and expertly filmed. The film’s performances are basically sound (though, of course, inhibited by thin writing), and Bottoms and Andrews generate affectingly bittersweet camaraderie during the final moments. Operation Daybreak doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential, but watched for its strongest elements—and as a tribute to a significant historical incident—it’s quietly engrossing. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Operation Daybreak: GROOVY

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973)


          Considering that he had already appeared in a several hard-hitting movies for grown-ups by this point in his career, it’s bizarre that Jan-Michael Vincent was offered a juvenile role in this squeaky-clean Disney comedy; it’s even more bizarre he accepted the offer. The World’s Greatest Athlete is inane even by the standards of live-action Disney pictures, which is saying a lot. Fed up with his losing streak at a small college, coach Sam Archer (John Amos) and his trusty assistant, Milo (Tim Conway), head off for a safari vacation in Africa. (The fact of two adult males traveling without female companions is unremarked upon, as is their subsequent preoccupation with a half-naked young man.)
          During the safari, they discover a white jungle boy, Nanu (Vincent), who possesses extraordinary athletic abilities. Sam learns that, according to tribal custom, a man who saves another man’s life must accompany the rescued man wherever he goes. He thereupon tricks Nanu into such an obligation, or at least believes he does; in actuality, Nanu’s godfather, witch doctor Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne), wants Nanu to see the outside world. Accompanied by his pet tiger, Nanu travels to America with Sam and Milo, where Nanu is tutored by pretty teacher/love interest Jane (Dayle Haddon) and groomed for sports competitions. Yes, that’s really the plot—not Disney’s finest hour.
          Making matters worse, the picture is filled with painfully stupid physical comedy. There’s an awful running gag about a nearly blind landlady (Nancy Walker) mistaking the tiger for a person, and there’s an excruciating sequence in which Gazenga shrinks Milo down to three inches in height. The screenplay is so blunt that it’s as if the story’s being told to newborns, not youngsters, and pretty much everything related to Africa is nonsensical and quasi-racist—for instance, why does Nanu speak like Tarzan if his godfather speaks perfect English? The climactic scene, in which Nanu performs several athletic events in succession, is enjoyable, and Vincent deserves faint praise for trying to play the movie straight. But with Amos’ unpersuasive overacting, Conway’s nattering-idiot routine, and the degrading sight of Browne wearing feathered headdresses and, at one point, a bone through his nose, The World’s Greatest Athlete is unrelentingly dissonant.

The World’s Greatest Athlete: LAME

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Town Called Hell (1971)


Yet another unwatchable Western spat forth from the bowels of the low-budget European film industry, A Town Called Hell is one of those simultaneously moronic and pretentious morality tales filled with dialogue about vengeance, and imagery rife with religious significance, yet almost completely lacking in coherence. The confusing picture begins when two Mexican revolutionaries—played by Robert Shaw and Martin Landau, to give you a sense of how far the picture is removed from reality—storm into a town and slaughter the local church congregation. A decade later, for reasons that are never particularly clear, Shaw has become the pacifistic local priest, and Telly Savalas—groomed within an inch of his life and talking in a vaguely Noo Yawk diction that makes no sense for the context—has emerged as a brutal local warlord whose power apparently stems from his willingness to shoot anyone who crosses his path. Into this environment arrives a mysterious black carriage containing a glass coffin, in which rests a white woman (Stella Stevens) who is very much alive; it seems her husband was killed in the town at some point, and she’s come for revenge. Yet her revenge, for some reason, takes the form of hiding out in Shaw’s church while Savalas taunts her with threats of violence. Then, when Savalas’ men abruptly turn on him, he more or less disappears from the story to make room for Landau, now a military official, who wants to find a fugitive hidden somewhere in the town. None of this makes much sense, and none of it is interesting; it’s all just very sweaty and unpleasant. Shaw, a great actor when guided by a strong director, is awful here, glowering and screaming pointlessly, and Stevens is so lifeless it’s appropriate she makes her entrance in a coffin. Savalas postures to a silly extreme, strutting around shirtless for most of the picture, and only Landau tries to give a credible performance, though he’s handicapped by the incomprehensible storyline.

A Town Called Hell: SQUARE

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

“10” (1979)


          It’s not difficult to identify some of the reasons why writer-director Blake Edwards’ sex comedy “10” struck a nerve during its highly successful initial release. The story of a middle-aged man who can’t stand the fact that young swingers are having wild sex while he’s stuck in a frosty monogamous relationship, the picture spoke to a whole generation of squares who felt like they were missing out on the erotic perks of the counterculture.
          And then there was the Bo factor. Although she had appeared in a couple of minor films previously, sun-kissed starlet Bo Derek made a huge splash with “10,” instantly becoming one of the most iconic sex symbols of the ’70s. The key image, featured in ads and posters everywhere, depicts the actress jogging along a beach in long-lensed soft focus, her cornrow-braided hair bouncing around her apple-cheeked face, and the rest of her, well, just plain bouncing. Epitomizing a certain fantasy ideal of California sexiness, she was the perfect object for the fixation of dirty old men circa 1979, and her casting is a major part of why the movie works as well as it does—which, it must be said, is not all that well.
          The problem isn’t so much the story, standard wayward-male stuff about Hollywood songwriter George Webber (Dudley Moore) skipping out on his lady to chase after a dream girl; the problem is Edwards’ execution. Instead of focusing on his forte of intricate physical comedy, Edwards tries to make a statement on American manhood that’s about as deep as a Playboy editorial, and nothing drags comedy down like shallow social commentary. Thus, the slapstick bits are often very funny—as when Moore tries to walk across a beach toward Derek but keeps hopping up and down like a dolt because the sand is too hot for his delicate tootsies—but the talking bits are tedious.
          Scenes of George arguing sexual politics with his Broadway-star girlfriend, Samantha (Julie Andrews), are pretentious and, now, quite dated. Even worse are the conversations between George and Jenny (Derek), who comes across not as a real character but as Edwards’ judgmental idea of an airheaded free spirit. To be fair, Edwards is just as harsh in depicting George, but that raises another question—if we’re not rooting for George to have a sexual adventure or rooting for Jenny to steer clear of a horndog, whose story are we following? Given that the picture meanders through a needlessly long running time, and given that the takeaway is a trite love-conquers-lust message, it seems Edwards never quite answered that question.
          Still, there are things to enjoy, and not just the ogling shots of Derek (which, in the context of the movie, seem appropriate instead of gratuitous). Robert Webber is funny and touching as George’s (gay) lyricist, working through his own difficulties with a decades-younger love interest; Dee Wallace is affecting as a lonely woman whose near-miss romantic encounter with George reaffirms her self-loathing; and Brian Dennehy dishes out 100-proof wisdom as a beach-resort bartender. A handful of comedy pros show up for enjoyable bit parts, with Max Showalter standing out as a reverend who wants George to hear the little romantic ditty he’s composed.
          These strong elements underline the frustrating thing about “10”—in many ways, Edwards was at the top of his game when he made the picture, but his grasping attempts at “significance” merely reveal the limits of his talent for cultural observation.

“10”: FUNKY

Monday, July 25, 2011

Man in the Wilderness (1971)


          The opening sequence of this strange Western is striking and memorable: A large expedition of fur trappers treks through the rugged American frontier, dragging a giant ship on wheels, the sea vessel’s towering mast dominating the skyline like a crucifix. Things only get weirder from there, and luckily for adventurous viewers, robust actors Richard Harris and John Huston deliver over-the-top performances that suit the bizarre material. Huston plays the expedition’s villainous leader, Captain Filmore Henry, an obsessed adventurer with a tentative grasp on reality and an almost utter lack of morality. With his black wardrobe, lanky frame, and phlegmatic voice, Huston personifies Captain Henry as a vision of sickly death. Harris is Zachary Bass, one of the captain’s trackers. Venturing away from the group at one point, Bass gets mauled by a bear, so Captain Henry orders him left for dead.
          Man in the Wilderness gets trippy after this turn of events, because vast wordless swaths of the movie depict Bass crawling through the woods as he tries to rebuild his strength, drifting in and out of delirious flashbacks all the while. This material exists somewhere on the border between fascinating and interminable, because Harris’ solo scenes are so repetitive and uneventful that at a certain point viewers become as disoriented as the character. Adding to the offbeat nature of the film are interludes of the expedition as it moves on from the site of Bass’ presumed demise; the superstitious trappers get the idea that Bass’ spirit is haunting them, so they guard the wheeled boat in shifts, waiting for some awful apparition to strike at them from the darkness of the forest. Huston goes to town in these sequences, depicting Captain Henry’s decline into guilt-ridden paranoia with gusto. By the time these two extreme characters reunite for their inevitable confrontation, Bass’ desire for revenge has, to a certain degree, become the audience’s desire as well.
          Harris spent much of the ’70s making violent Westerns about characters enduring horrible abuse, and Man in the Wilderness is the most surreal flick of the batch, which is saying something. The actor’s gift for portraying intense physicality makes the picture watchable in a masochistic sort of way, because his evocation of pain and suffering is excruciatingly vivid. With a characteristic lack of restraint, Harris plays to the cheap seats in every scene, even when he’s facedown in sludge, and that, too, adds to the effect: Harris seems like such a powerful force that it’s believable his character could survive an extraordinary ordeal. Therefore, despite the monotony and weirdness, the movie can’t be dismissed because of the fiery performances and because of the lushly textured widescreen images created by British cinematographer Gerry Fisher.

Man in the Wilderness: FREAKY

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sometimes a Great Notion (1970)


          Although author Ken Kesey famously distanced himself from the 1975 movie version of his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he apparently enjoyed the 1970 adaptation of his book Sometimes a Great Notion, even though nearly everyone else regards the film of Cuckoo’s Nest as a classic and the film of Notion as a minor work. Given Kesey’s proclivity for stories about people who resist authority at great personal cost, however, it follows that he wouldn’t line up with popular opinion. Setting the author’s stamp of approval aside, Sometimes a Great Notion, which stars and was directed by Paul Newman, is sometimes a great movie.
          Telling the story of the iconoclastic Stamper clan, a family of independent Pacific Northwest loggers who alienate their neighbors by refusing to support a labor strike, the picture has moments of great insight and sensitivity, plus a climactic scene that’s horrific and memorable. Yet the movie is diffuse and overlong, as if it can’t decide whether it’s primarily about ornery patriarch Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda); his heir-apparent son, Hank (Newman); his estranged child, Leeland (Michael Sarrazin); or the whole family. The movie’s indecisiveness about whose story is being told gets exacerbated by sloppy storytelling at the beginning of the movie, because it takes a while to grasp that the labor strike is the main plot device.
          Even with these frustrating problems, Sometimes a Great Notion is watchable and often touching. Fonda is a powerhouse as a self-made man who refuses to accept that he can’t live by his own idiosyncratic rules: There’s a reason Henry coined “Never Give a Inch” as the family’s motto. The movie expertly depicts how the deficiencies of Henry’s parenting have infected his kids, because Hank has managed to drain the life from his marriage to Viv (Lee Remick), and Leeland is a lost soul who can’t abide his family tradition of psychological abuse. In this fraught environment, only Henry’s simple-minded middle son, Joe Ben (Richard Jaeckel), really thrives, so it’s not a surprise when the narrative punishes Joe Ben for his unquestioning acceptance of God’s will (and Henry’s will).
          The film benefits greatly from vivid location photography, even if Newman lets montages of logging chores drag on a bit too long, and it’s fascinating to watch diehard lefty Newman tell the story of a character who disdains the idea of organized labor. Plus, as noted earlier, the film’s climax—a horrible on-the-job accident that shakes the whole Stamper family—results in an extraordinary sequence that consumes nearly the entire last half-hour of the picture. From the moment the accident happens to the instant the movie ends with a final gesture of defiance from the Stampers, Sometimes a Great Notion is riveting. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

Sometimes a Great Notion: FUNKY

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)


          Screenwriter John Milius crafted this outlandish narrative from the real-life exploits of Old West eccentric Judge Roy Bean, integrating a series of impossibly colorful episodes featuring an albino gunslinger, a lascivious priest, a beer-drinking bear, a legendary stage actress, and frontiersman Grizzly Adams. As directed by the venerable John Huston, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean isn’t remotely believable, but rather so enthusiastically weird that it’s fascinating to realize the movie was released by a major studio.
          Paul Newman stars as Bean, a fanciful drifter who wanders into a bar in the wilds of Texas only to get bushwhacked by unsavory locals. After being nursed back to health by a sweet senorita (Victoria Principal), he returns to the bar and slaughters everyone inside, then establishes the bar as the headquarters of his Wild West fiefdom. Bean declares himself a judge (literally draping himself in the U.S. flag at one point), and makes it a hanging offence for those under his “jurisdiction” to do things like besmirch the good name of Lily Langtry, the actress whom Bean worships from afar. He also attracts a cadre of loyal followers, including pistol-packing “marshals” who enrich themselves by stealing loot from the myriad unlucky souls Bean executes.
          The story eventually becomes a battle of wills between Bean and an ambitious lawyer (Roddy McDowall) who wants to seize the judge’s holdings, but the film mostly comprises a string of strange vignettes. Stacy Keach plays the aforementioned albino gunslinger, strutting around in pasty makeup, an Edgar Winter fright wig, and a spangled cowboy outfit worthy of the Village People. Appearing onscreen as well as directing, Huston plays Adams as a grumpy wanderer who complains the law won’t allow him to die wherever he wants. And so it goes. Huston lets actors run amok with the absurd material, and they look like they’re having a blast; Newman in particular seems thrilled to play a grizzled old coot with a silver tongue and a colossally bad attitude.
          The cast is filled with interesting people, from assorted varmint types (Ned Beatty, Bill McKinney) to those playing random small roles (Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Zerbe). But the real star of this unique show is Milius’ outrageous dialogue, like this rant from Bean after he insults a group of fallen women: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I'm sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say ‘whores.’ No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.”

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: GROOVY

Friday, July 22, 2011

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)


          Entertaining despite an overlong running time and some dubious stylistic flourishes, Kelly’s Heroes is one of the myriad smartass World War II romps that followed in the wake of The Dirty Dozen (1967). Like the earlier picture, Kelly’s Heroes assembles an unlikely crew for an impossible task, all the while mixing anti-Establishment sentiment and broad characterizations in order to present everyman soldiers looking out for themselves instead of buying into the mission that brought them to the battlefield. Yet while The Dirty Dozen cleverly depicted criminals becoming soldiers, Kelly’s Heroes more crudely depicts soldiers becoming criminals; it’s a heist picture in war-movie clothing.
          Clint Eastwood stars as Private Kelly, an enlisted man with an attitude problem who accidentally discovers the hiding place for a cache of Nazi gold worth millions. He convinces his gruff NCO, “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas), to lead an excursion behind enemy lines so they can rip off the loot, and their crew soon expands to include “Crapgame” (Don Rickles), a supply sergeant who outfits the crew with munitions and other gear, and “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland), a space-case longhair who happens to have three Sherman tanks under his command. Sutherland’s characterization is simultaneously the funniest thing in the movie and the hardest element to believe; bearded and, though this is never explicitly stated, apparently high as a kite throughout the story, he’s a ’60s stoner in a ’40s setting, so it’s never clear, for instance, how he rose to the rank of sergeant.
          Yet logic isn’t really what makes this sort of movie work, because Kelly’s Heroes is a big, silly adventure story about entertaining characters blowing stuff up, cracking wise, and pulling one over on the man. The production values are impressive—the picture was shot in Yugoslavia, where a wealth of WWII-vintage gear was available for filming—and everyone delivers the requisite goods in terms of onscreen charisma. Eastwood is sly and quiet, always one step ahead of everyone else; Savalas is a dese-dem-dose tough guy; Rickles does his insult-comic thing, bitching and sassing with every breath; and Caroll O’Connor, going way over the top, appears as a ridiculous general who mistakes Kelly’s mission for a nervy invasion. All of this goes down fairly smoothly in a guy-movie kind of way, though it doesn’t seem unreasonable to lament the lack of anything resembling substance in the movie’s 144 minutes.

Kelly’s Heroes: FUNKY


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)


          Despite a fantastic cast, the would-be farce Harry and Walter Go to New York falls flat because only a handful of the movie’s myriad one-liners, sight gags, and slapstick routines actually elicit laughter. A failed attempt to blend the Vaudevillian style of silent-era comedy with the elaborate con-man plotting of The Sting (1973), the ineptly written but lavishly produced picture follows a pair of nincompoop 19th-century crooks who fall into the orbit of a world-famous master criminal, then try to rob a bank before the criminal gets there first.
          James Caan and Elliot Gould play Harry and Walter, small-time robbers who get caught picking pockets during one of their low-rent song-and-dance routines. Meanwhile, gentleman thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine) gets tossed into the same jail as our heroes, but Adam’s so rich that he gets a private cell appointed with velvet curtains and silver table settings. Harry and Walter discover—and accidentally destroy—Adam’s prized blueprints for an ambitious bank job, then escape and get enmeshed with activist reporter Lissa Chestnut (Diane Keaton). Through convoluted circumstances, Harry, Walter, and Lissa end up trying to rob the bank the same night as Adam’s gang, leading to silliness like Harry and Walter stalling for time with an improvised musical number.
          As photographed in a nostalgic glow by Laszlo Kovacs, Harry and Walter looks great, and the leads are complemented by a gaggle of ace supporting players, including Val Avery, Ted Cassidy, Charles Durning, Jack Gilford, Carol Kane, Lesley Ann Warren, and Burt Young. Unfortunately, the material just isn’t there. The characters are underdeveloped, the comedic situations don’t percolate, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle, and the narrative conceit that the idiotic Harry and Walter keep stumbling into good fortune feels like a cheat. Still, it’s impossible not to find commendable elements with this much talent involved, and those high points range from the intentionally awful musical passages featuring Caan and Gould to Caine’s peerless delivery of sardonic dialogue. Providing one of the movie’s few real laughs, he dismisses the heroes by explaining that “They’re not oafs—they would require practice to become oafs.”

Harry and Walter Go to New York: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Treasure of Jamaica Reef (1975)


Among of the worst movies of the ’70s, this amateur-hour adventure—which tries and fails to deliver comedy, excitement, and underwater grandeur—would almost certainly have disappeared from the face of the earth had its leading lady not achieved fleeting sex-symbol status a few years after the picture was made. The woman in question is Charlie’s Angels beauty Cheryl Ladd (billed here as Cheryl Stoppelmoor), and it says most of what you need to know about this cinematic atrocity that she plays a perky treasure hunter named Zappy. Check, please! But, no, sadly, there’s a movie to watch, or at least endure. Zappy gathers her pals, played by Z-listers including studio-era hunk Stephen Boyd and future game-show host Chuck Woolery (sporting a pimp beard of which Superfly would be proud), for a trip to Jamaica, as it seems Zappy has acquired salvage rights for a sunken wreck in which treasure is supposedly hidden. The plot is virtually nonexistent, with a few throwaway scenes of crooks trying to steal a treasure map from our heroes, so the interminable movie comprises endless diving scenes, often with absolutely nothing of interest happening. Making the whole thing even more painful to watch is clunky narration that’s clearly used to add a measure of coherence to the disjointed footage, plus music that would have been cut from a children’s cartoon for being too cutesy. The only novel element, besides the not-unpleasant sight of Ladd cavorting in a bikini, is the bizarre casting of former football pro Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier as the heroes’ boat captain. He spends most of his time giving Ladd diving lessons (because, of course, the character who initiated the treasure hunt isn’t qualified to dive), and the sight of enormous Grier splashing around with tiny Ladd—well, it’s not exactly interesting, but it’s almost something, which is more than can be said of the rest of the picture. (FYI, this movie was later reissued as Evil in the Deep, and given a silly shark-centric poster, in a crass attempt to hop aboard the Jaws train.)

The Treasure of Jamaica Reef: SQUARE

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Skin Game (1971)


          Even in the changing times of the post-Civil Rights era, the prospect of a Hollywood comedy about slavery would seem to promise something wildly offensive, and yet the James Garner-Louis Gossett Jr. romp Skin Game is not only thoroughly enjoyable but, in its irreverent way, respectful. The story, by Richard Alan Simmons, is clever and nervy. In the pre-Civil War South, white hustler Quincy Drew (Garner) travels from town to town “selling” his friend Jason (Gossett), a free man posing as a slave. Exploiting the arrogance of slave owners, they realize nobody expects Jason to slip away after he’s been purchased, so they divide their earnings each time they bilk another rube. The movie finds entertaining ways to address nearly every possibility suggested by this scheme—nefarious types figure out what’s happening and try to hustle the hustlers; Jason ends up getting bought by someone who makes easy escape impossible; Quincy ends up on the receiving end of a bullwhip, making him understand the dangers Jason faces; and so on.
          Even though the picture apparently had some rockiness behind the camera (two directors, a screenwriter working under an alias), Skin Game unfolds confidently, zooming along at a steady pace and revealing witty surprises at nearly every turn. It’s true that some of the twists are a bit too convenient (Jason’s bonding with a group of newly arrived African slaves is a stretch), but the resourcefulness with which the filmmakers complicate the heroes’ lives is impressive. The result is a breezy “another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” buddy comedy, with Garner at the apex of his rascally charm and Gossett mixing lightness into his customarily intense screen persona. Their bickering scenes are thoroughly amusing, and the depth of friendship the story conveys is touching.
          The movie provides love interests for both characters, appropriately a brazen grifter (Susan Clark) for Quincy and a beautiful house slave (Brenda Sykes) for Jason. (Clark, a solid player in a variety of ’70s movies, does some of her best work here, though she’s not in Garner’s league.) However, even with Simmons’ ingenious story and the winning performances by Garner and Gossett, the real star of the show is screenwriter Peter Stone, credited as Pierre Marton. The light-comedy master behind Charade (1963) and Father Goose (1964), Stone fills Skin Game with effervescent dialogue, like this quip from Garner after Clark’s sticky-fingered character offers to safeguard a bankroll: “It’s not you I don’t trust, it’s the money—it begins to act strangely whenever it’s in your possession.”
          FYI, the 1974 TV movie Sidekicks represented a failed attempt to turn Skin Game into a series; Larry Hagman took over the Quincy Drew role while Gossett reprised his Jason character. (Skin Game available at WarnerArchive.com)

Skin Game: GROOVY

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meatballs (1979)


          Mostly notable as Bill Murray’s movie-star debut—and his first collaboration with director Ivan Reitman, of Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) fame—the Canadian indie Meatballs is an amiably insouciant comedy. The picture depicts how the counselors and kids at a second-rate summer camp embrace their also-ran status throughout a summer filled with mischief, sex, and sticking it to their obnoxious counterparts at another camp. Although the premise suggests a lowbrow comedy filled with bathroom humor and panty raids, Meatballs is all bark and no bite, at least in terms of the usual teen-comedy tropes. Excepting a tame sequence of dudes eavesdropping on an all-girls cabin, the sex in the movie is discreet and romantic, and the biggest bathroom joke is a toilet flush broadcast over a loudspeaker. Even the naughty language is comparatively innocuous.
          Instead of crassness, the movie focuses on sweet storylines about people nurturing and supporting each other. Murray plays Tripper Harrison, ringleader of the CITs (counselors-in-training) at Camp North Star, an underfunded facility catering to lower-middle-class kids. Tripper’s the quintessential Murray character, a cocky jokester who talks a great anarchistic line even though he’s basically decent; his raison d’être is getting others to loosen up and resist authority. Tripper is also the only properly developed character in the picture, presumably because Murray added interesting flourishes during production. Everyone else is a cliché—the horny nerd, the tweaked pyromaniac, the uptight administrator.
          Most of the story concerns Tripper’s sensitive friendship with a lonely young misfit, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), Tripper’s courtship with fellow CIT Roxanne (Kate Lynch), and Camp North Star’s various run-ins with the stuck-up folks at neighboring Camp Mohawk. Yet the story is primarily just a string of random vignettes until the climax, when the camps face off in a sports competition. (Cue rousing music as unlikely hero Rudy saves the day.) Though generally pleasant to watch, Meatballs lacks anything particularly memorable—excepting, of course, Murray’s wiseass persona—but Makepeace, who later starred in My Bodyguard (1980), does a lot with a little, turning his thinly written character into a empathetic screen presence. Furthermore, it’s hard not to root for the ne’er-do-wells at Camp North Star, and Murray’s appeal is undeniable.

Meatballs: FUNKY

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)


          Writer James Goldman, the older brother of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid scribe William Goldman, made his name with the play and screenplay The Lion in Winter (released as a film in 1968), which dramatized the life of England’s King Henry II. He then spent much of his career exploring similarly lofty historical subjects, and Goldman’s ability to blend the personal and political is on full display in the downbeat epic Nicholas and Alexandra, which depicts the doomed reign of Russia’s last tsar. Nicholas Romanoff (Michael Jayston) is the product of a 300-year dynasty, an insulated royal so oblivious to his people’s suffering that he blithely extends military conflicts out of personal pride. He’s also preoccupied with his loving marriage to Alexandra (Janet Suzman), a foreign-born aristocrat who engenders only enmity from the Russian populace, so when the couple’s son, Alexis, is diagnosed with hemophilia, they lose virtually all connection with life outside the palace. Meanwhile, ambitious politicians including Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant) carefully transform public rage into the seeds of revolution.
          Even at a length well over three hours, Nicholas and Alexandra, based on the book of the same name by Robert K. Massie, tackles an enormous amount of history; some viewers will get lost amidst the huge cast of characters and the shifting backdrops of social change. Also problematic is director Franklin J. Schaffner’s regal style. Taking a step away from his usual robust camerawork, Schaffner shoots Nicholas and Alexandra somewhat like a play, with lengthy dialogue passages unfolding in an unhurried fashion, ornate costumes and sets allowed to overwhelm actors, and stiff blocking. The movie’s dramatic power is further muted by Jayston’s intense but quiet lead performance; although perfectly cast as an ineffectual monarch, Jayston displays a soft-spoken style that’s more soothing than invigorating.
          Nonetheless, Nicholas and Alexandra is such an ambitious and handsome production, offering so many insights into a tumultuous period, that it overcomes its weaknesses. The dialogue is consistently intelligent and probing, the intercutting between subplots is careful and logical, and the physical reality of the production is awesome—whether the setting is a barren Siberian encampment or a glorious St. Petersburg palace. Plus, the acting is uniformly good, even though most of the players are as understated as Jayston. Suzman is especially strong, playing a lioness of a mother, and future Doctor Who star Tom Baker is creepy as Alexandra’s notoriously debauched advisor, “mad monk” Rasputin. Familiar faces including Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, and John Wood appear in the cast, though everyone takes a backseat to the leading players. While probably not exciting or lurid enough to entice viewers who are not predisposed toward historical subjects, Nicholas and Alexandra is an elegant treatment of an unusual subject: the reign of a man who didn’t understand the obligations that accompanied his crown until it was far too late.

Nicholas and Alexandra: GROOVY

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972) & The Strongest Man in the World (1975)


          These follow-ups to the 1969 Disney hit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes continue the adventures of Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell), a science major at fictional Medfield College who keeps stumbling upon formulas that give him amazing abilities. Unlike most live-action Disney offerings, the Medfield movies lack cutesy kids and syrupy sentimentality; instead, they’re brisk slapstick diversions featuring enthusiastic performances by teenagers and slickly professional turns by veteran comedy pros. Since all three pictures in the series recycle the same reliable storyline—Medfield is in financial trouble, and only Dexter and his pals can save the day—they don’t demand much of viewers, but they’re entertaining nonetheless. In The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, an accident gives Dexter a computer brain that gets exploited by local crime boss A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), who uses Dexter’s skills to win big at the track. By far the best of the three pictures (admittedly, not the highest hurdle to vault), Computer sets up the world of the series, especially the comic relief of Medfield’s amusingly inept leader, Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn).
          In the second picture, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, Dexter and his buddy Schuyler (Michael McGreevey) stumble upon a formula for invisibility. When bad old A.J. Arno (Romero again) buys up the lease on Medfield, the boys make themselves invisible and snoop on him, only to discover he plans to foreclose on the school and turn it into a casino. Investigative high jinks ensue, with a climax involving Arno and his hoodlum accomplice Cookie (Richard Bakalyan) becoming invisible and evading police in an invisible car. It’s all very cartoonish, of course, but the sight gags mostly work and the tone is consistently light and amiable. Now You See Him features a lot more Dean Higgins (still played by Flynn) than the first picture, and he delivers enjoyable buffoonery during two long sequences of playing golf, first spectacularly with help from an invisible Dexter and then abysmally without.
          Predictably, the series runs out of gas in the third picture, The Strongest Man in the World, the sci-fi hook of which is, as the title bluntly states, Dexter becoming super-strong. Russell, who is exuberant and likeable in all three pictures, is sidelined in Strongest Man, with Schuyler (still McGreevey) getting substantially more screen time. That’s not a good thing, nor is the too-prominent presence of old-school comics like Eve Arden and Phil Silvers. With grownups taking center stage, including returning players Flynn and Romero, there’s way too much bug-eyed overacting, and not enough of those gosh-darn crazy kids. Strongest Man is the first Medfield picture to feel padded, and it’s just as well Disney gave up on the series after such a lackluster third entry. Trivia buffs may enjoy noting that a young Ed Begley Jr. shows up briefly in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes as a student at rival State University, then returns in Now You See Him, Now You Don’t as a star pupil at Medfield; this says a lot about the continuity, or lack thereof, between the pictures.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t: FUNKY
The Strongest Man in the World: LAME

Friday, July 15, 2011

The One and Only (1978)


          Steve Gordon was just beginning an impressive career when he died; after several years of writing for sitcoms, he made an auspicious directorial debut with the beloved comedy Arthur (1981), based on his own script, then suffered a fatal heart attack in 1982 at the age of 43. The only other feature on his too-brief filmography is The One and Only, which he wrote and produced, and which has similarities to Arthur. The story of a self-possessed man-child whose dreams of stardom lead him to a career in professional wrestling, The One and Only shares with Arthur the conceit that a person who lives only for laughter can find a soulmate who sees substance beneath the silliness.
          Henry Winkler stars as Andy Schmidt, a college student who’s convinced that he’s destined for greatness, despite having shown no particular skill for his chosen vocation of acting. Quite to the contrary, Andy’s such an irrepressible ham that during a school production of a classical play, he uses his one line as an excuse for interrupting the show with cheap comedy shtick. Nonetheless, his single-minded determination wins the heart of amiable coed Mary Crawford (Kim Darby).
          Much to the consternation of Mary’s uptight parents (William Daniels and Polly Holliday), the young lovers get hitched and move from the Midwest to New York, where Andy tries and fails to get an acting career going. Crossing paths with a little person who works on the wrestling circuit, Milton (Hervé Villechaize), Andy accidentally discovers his true destiny as a shameless crowd-pleaser who assumes various identities in the wrestling ring, from a psychic who hypnotizes opponents to a Nazi who bops his enemies with a war helmet.
           As directed by old-school comedy pro Carl Reiner, The One and Only goes down smoothly, mixing amiable I-gotta-be-me speechifying with terrific one-liners (some of the short jokes made at Villechaize’s expense are laugh-out-loud funny, though they definitely precede political correctness). Gordon’s script is pure fluff, and the story stops just when it’s picking up steam, but funny is funny, so it’s hard to argue with results. It helps that Winkler is terrific, all charm and comic timing, although Gene Saks (best known as a director of many Neil Simon films and plays) nearly steals the movie with his caustic performance as Andy’s hilariously crude agent.

The One and Only: FUNKY

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Deep (1977)


          Few ’70s blockbusters had the far-reaching impact of Jaws (1975), which spawned not only countless substandard imitators but also a boom period for nearly everyone involved in the original picture. Both phenomena manifested in The Deep, a glossy thriller about oceanic peril based on a novel by the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley. With the additional exception of actor Robert Shaw’s participation, however, the similarities pretty much end there. Whereas Jaws is a robust adventure film with underwater horror, The Deep is a comparatively limp crime picture with underwater boredom. The movie has many noteworthy elements, all of which cheerfully pander to the public’s appetite for lurid sensation, but it’s also a 123-minute slog filled with meandering scenes that go on seemingly forever.
          The story begins when two young Americans who are vacationing in Bermuda discover a shipwreck during a scuba dive in the waters off the island. An artifact they recover catches the attention of a crusty deep-sea salvage expert (Robert Shaw) and a vicious drug dealer (Louis Gossett Jr.), because it turns out the shipwreck is filled with vials containing enough morphine to produce a huge amount of heroin. Accordingly, most of the picture comprises repeated dives to gather booty from the wreck, plus on-shore confrontations like the bit in which the Americans drive scooters while being chased by a truckload of bad guys. The thrills in The Deep are shameless, right down to the tepid running gag about a gigantic killer eel who lurks somewhere inside the shipwreck, and in fact the movie’s best-known element is its tackiest: Voluptuous costar Jacqueline Bisset’s long dive at the beginning of the movie certified her sex-symbol status because she spends the whole sequence in a nearly transparent white T-shirt.
         For good or ill, that sequence is indicative of The Deep’s ample lowbrow appeal. In the same vein, leading man Nick Nolte was at the apex of his handsomeness and youthful intensity, so he’s enjoyable even when he’s chewing the scenery. Shaw, basically delivering a toned-down version of his Jaws performance, is thoroughly entertaining even though he’s saddled with trite material. Gossett is effective as a crook hiding a killer’s heart behind a winning smile, and Eli Wallach adds campy flavor as the old sea dog who helps the heroes on their dives. The Deep falls apart toward the end, resorting to all sorts of tacky fake-outs to ensure a highly improbable happy ending, and fans expecting sea-critter action on the order of Jaws will be disappointed. Still, with its whatever-works mishmash of brazen titillation and luxurious underwater photography, The Deep is enjoyably shallow.

The Deep: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Blue Bird (1976)


          Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlink’s fantasy about peasant children drifting through a magical dreamworld, originally titled L’Oiseau blue, provided the source material for two silent films and an Oscar-nominated Shirley Temple movie in 1940, all bearing the English-language title The Blue Bird, before venerable director George Cukor helmed this full-color musical version in 1976. Whatever charms the piece has in its previous incarnations are absent from Cukor’s picture, however, which is awkward, dull, and vapid. The whimsical story has two kids whisked away to a trippy fantasyland by a fairy named Light (Elizabeth Taylor) in order to recover the Blue Bird of Happiness, which will enrich the life of a sick child living near the peasants.
          Accompanying the children on their adventure are personified versions of household items like bread and sugar and water, plus walking-and-talking incarnations of their pet cat (Cicely Tyson) and dog (George Cole). During their journey, the kids meet an obnoxious oak tree (Harry Andrews), a demonic creature called Night (Jane Fonda), a seductive woman representing all things luxurious (Ava Gardner), and even cranky old Father Time (Robert Morley). The sheer amount of hokum crammed into one story is numbing, as are the muddled aesthetics of Cukor’s version.
          The costumes are self-consciously artificial (Tyson wears a leotard, a scarf, and half-hearted cat makeup), the settings fluctuate indiscriminately between tacky sets and lush European forests (the picture was shot in Russia), and the songs are so cloying and insubstantial that they barely register as anything more than background noise. The young actors playing the leads (including Patsy Kensit, who years later costarred in Lethal Weapon 2) are weak, and the adults fail to impress—Cukor, who seems to think he’s making a glossy MGM musical in the ’30s, steers his cast toward florid line readings instead of performances, with only Cole offering a glimmer of characterization as a loyal puppy who digs being able to chat with his master.

The Blue Bird: LAME

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lucky Lady (1975)


          Screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were hot after American Graffiti, scoring a huge purchase price for their screenplay Lucky Lady, which gene-spliced the music-driven ribaldry of Cabaret (1972) with the twisty plotting of The Sting (1973). An impressive roster of A-list talents converged on the project, including director Stanley Donen and the three stars billed above the title: Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds, and Cabaret Oscar-winner Liza Minnelli. Cabaret vets working behind the camera include cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and songwriters Fred Ebb and John Kander. But even with all of this cinematic firepower, and a hefty budget of $13 million, Lucky Lady is little more than a well-made train wreck.
          The main problem is that expensive script, which puts three despicable characters into an icky housekeeping arrangement. After an unnecessarily convoluted set-up, Prohibition-era schemers Kibby (Hackman), Claire (Minnelli), and Walker (Reynolds) become rum-runners sailing their ship, the Lucky Lady, back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., chased by a homicidal Coast Guard captain (Geoffrey Lewis) and a ruthless fellow bootlegger (John Hillerman). Half of the picture is devoted to criminal intrigue, including several high-seas shootouts, so the movie’s frothy tone disappears whenever the story turns dark and violent, which is often. The other half of the picture is devoted to the farce of Kibby and Walker competing for Claire; she moves back and forth between their beds until all three finally sleep together. Why these two men are so excited by the abrasive Claire is as mystifying as why viewers are expected to care about any of them, since all three are deceitful, shallow, and tiresome. (Supporting player Robby Benson, as a Lucky Lady shipmate, adds the film’s only glimmer of sweetness.)
          With its painfully episodic structure, the movie feels much longer than its 118-minute running time, and Unsworth goes berserk with his signature haze filters, making some images almost indecipherable. The stars try valiantly to make the material work, with Reynolds thriving in his light-comedy métier and Minnelli belting out a few numbers, but aside from the production values and star power, there’s little to recommend in Lucky Lady.

Lucky Lady: LAME

Monday, July 11, 2011

One on One (1977)


          A charming underdog drama starring Robby Benson, the ’70s teen heartthrob with boyish features and impossibly blue eyes, One on One depicts the journey of Henry Steele, a small-town hoops star who discovers the complexities of the wider world when he’s recruited to play ball at a Los Angeles college. The story tracks Henry’s conflict with hard-driving Coach Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin), who becomes convinced Henry can’t make it in the big time, and Henry’s romance with sexy graduate student Janet Hayes (Annette O’Toole), who slowly realizes Henry is more than just another dumb jock.
          Co-written by Benson and his father, Jerry Segal, One on One is a perfect vehicle for its young leading man, because the story is as unassuming and warm as Benson’s onscreen persona. A brisk prologue establishes that Henry’s been groomed since childhood for basketball greatness, and the minute he pulls into LA, it’s painfully evident that he’s a corn-fed rube because he gets hustled by the first pretty girl he meets, a chipper hitchhiker (Melanie Griffith) who rips off all his cash.
          Once Henry arrives at school, he’s overwhelmed by the scale of everything—the size of the sports arena, even the size of the other players—and then, when he becomes infatuated with his tutor, Janet, he’s totally flummoxed. Henry’s resulting shaky performance on the basketball court alienates Coach Smith, who tries to intimidate Henry into quitting. Enter, as the saying goes, the love of a good woman, and soon Henry’s got the motivation to fight.
          Although there’s nothing groundbreaking in One on One, it’s a thoroughly watchable movie. The script balances Henry’s journey from wide-eyed innocent to toughened-up competitor with sweet romantic interludes and easygoing comic vignettes, like Henry’s close encounters with Coach Smith’s sex-crazed secretary, B.J. Rudolph (Gail Strickland). As directed by reliable journeyman Lamont Johnson, the movie is paced comfortably, and the sports scenes have effective documentary-style realism.
          The cast is filled with several vivid actors who make an impact thanks to well thought-out characterizations; for instance, Hector Morales plays a cranky campus groundskeeper in one amusing scene. The main focus is, of course, the love story, and that works well: O’Toole’s tough-cookie vibe makes a strong counterpoint to Benson’s puppy-dog routine. And while it’s true that Benson’s character makes a couple of abrupt leaps, Henry’s overall arc feels credible, and Benson is, as O’Toole describes him the picture, adorable. Spradlin, probably best known for his small roles in important movies like Apocalypse Now (1979), meshes domineering cruelty and obsessive focus, bringing a militaristic, weakness-will-not-be-tolerated quality to his role.
          The fruity songs by soft-rock duo Seals & Crofts that punctuate the soundtrack might be too precious for some viewers (particularly since the lyrics comment on the action a bit too specifically), but the music adds to the picture’s evocative snapshot of a particular moment in time. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

One on One: GROOVY

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mad Max (1979)


          Australian director George Miller announced himself to the international marketplace as a formidable storyteller with Mad Max, a violent story set in a bleak near future where brutal gangs clash with trigger-happy cops on the battlefields of open highways; Miller’s camera swirls and swoops around the action in a kinetic way, accentuating the excitement generated by the confrontations between leather-clad road warriors. Mad Max was also the first opportunity for many viewers to see the young Mel Gibson, who tapped into his well-documented reservoir of personal rage to play an already tough cop transformed into a grim avenger by unfortunate circumstance. Having said all that, is Mad Max a particularly good movie? Not really.
          The story is a tricked-up rehash of standard vigilante tropes, Straw Dogs with car fetishism thrown in for good measure. The narrative is also relentlessly histrionic, with every scene punctuated by capital letters in terms of blunt foreshadowing and heavy-handed visual metaphors. Yet even though there’s not a whit of subtlety to be found in these 88 minutes, the acting is generally quite strong. It’s interesting to watch Gibson’s first attempt at the man-on-the-edge routine he later perfected in countless Hollywood movies; leading lady Joanne Samuel is earthy and warm; and villain Hugh Keays-Byrne does an effective job of portraying a punk-rock version of your friendly neighborhood sadist (his one shaved eyebrow is a nice touch). So while the story is thoroughly clichéd and the violence is cartoonishly excessive (let’s run that guy over twice, because once is never enough), Mad Max seethes with the energy unique to ambitious young artists who are desperate to show off their skills.
          After Mad Max made a splash, Warner Bros. hired Miller to shoot The Road Warrior (1981), a hybrid remake/sequel that features Gibson in a star-marking reprise of his Mad Max role. In addition to a bigger budget, The Road Warrior has more imagination and style than its predecessor, though it shares the same numbing sledgehammer approach. A third film in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, appeared in 1985, and a fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road, is reportedly in the works, albeit without Gibson in the lead role.

Mad Max: FUNKY

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Showdown (1973)


By the time Showdown was released, the traditional Western had been all but replaced on American movie screens by revisionist Westerns filled with dark characterizations and grimy location photography. So it’s jarring to watch this utterly traditional film featuring two utterly traditional stars (Rock Hudson and Dean Martin), because the picture feels as if it could have been made in the ’60s or even the ’50s. Accepting as a given that the movie is hopelessly out of step for its era, Showdown is harmless enough—an earnest story about two lifelong friends who end up on opposite sides of the law. Hudson plays an Old West sheriff who makes a small but honest living with his spitfire wife (Susan Clark), and Martin plays his long-lost pal, a ne’er-do-well who has fallen in with a gang of thieves. When Martin’s crew robs a train in Hudson’s territory, Hudson has to hunt his old friend. Martin is torn between his desire for freedom and his reluctance to shoot a pal, and the situation gets complicated when Martin’s ex-partner (Donald Moffat) decides he wants revenge, meaning Martin now has two gunslingers after him. Notwithstanding a series of illuminating flashbacks showing the main characters bonding prior to current events (an admirable attempt at deepening characterization), there’s nothing in Showdown that Western fans haven’t seen a hundred times before. The dialogue is decent and the various open-desert shootouts and high-desert chases are okay, though it’s distracting that the film employs antiquated rear-projection techniques. Hudson is a solid presence, especially since the stoicism of cowboy characters suits his limited range, and Martin is charming even if he’s a bit long in the tooth for this sort of thing. Showdown is too innocuous to dislike, but it’s not a cause for much excitement.

Showdown: FUNKY

Friday, July 8, 2011

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)


          A year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show flopped on movie screens in the first step of its journey toward becoming a cult classic, another rock-and-roll musical did the exact same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. Written and directed by Brian De Palma, whose work on the picture bridges his early efforts at counterculture-themed satire with his future identity as a suspense maven, Phantom of the Paradise is an intentionally funny but still deeply weird morality tale about the inevitable problems that arise when art gets into bed with big business.
          William Finley, a gangly and bug-eyed college chum of De Palma’s whose film career mostly consists of strange characterizations in his friend’s movies, stars as Winslow, a sensitive composer finishing his masterpiece, a rock cantata adapted from Goerthe’s Faust. Winslow’s music catches the ear of megalomaniacal producer/executive Swan (Paul Williams), who steals Winslow’s magnum opus. Winslow seeks revenge, which triggers an insane series of events that leave Winslow disfigured and presumed dead.
          Thus, Winslow becomes a masked maniac called the Phantom, wreaking bloody havoc on Swan’s lavish new theater, the Paradise. Undaunted, Swan strikes a deal with his nemesis, because it turns out Swan’s in league with supernatural forces—and not above manipulating poor Winslow by threatening the life of the pretty young singer Winslow loves, Phoenix (Jessica Harper). To say that all of this comes to a bad end isn’t giving anything away, since violent climaxes are in the nature of these things, but the devil, pun intended, is in the details.
          De Palma fills the screen with bizarre costumes, sets, and props that blend everything from futurism to leather fetishism to pop art to transvestitism, so Phantom’s visuals are a crazy quilt of flamboyant signifiers. The Phantom’s guise, for instance, includes a strange biker helmet with some sort of bird-beak protrusion over the face and a gigantic eyehole that accentuates one of Finley’s abnormally large orbs. And then there’s the offbeat look of the movie’s real villain, Swan.
          Diminutive singer-songwriter Williams, of “Evergreen” fame, was often cast in ’70s films and TV shows as freaky characters because his tiny body and long blonde hair lent him a childlike look that he undercut by portraying creeps. In Phantom, Williams’ appearance is exploited in an especially playful fashion: His character is sexual catnip to every woman in sight. Yes, Phantom really does include (chaste) orgy scenes in which beautiful women writhe in ecstasy at the thought of bedding Paul Williams.
          The picture gets more outré when priceless B-movie actor Gerrit Graham shows up as Beef, a muscular glam-rock singer who’s a macho monster onstage and a prissy queen offstage; Graham is hysterical, the movie’s energy flags the minute he leaves the story, especially since his exit is such an outrageous high point.
          Despite being a quasi-horror picture, Phantom of the Paradise isn’t scary. It’s so over-the-top ironic that it’s impossible to take anything seriously, and in fact the picture’s incessant wink-wink strangeness makes the whole thing feel like a did-I-really-just-see-that dream. However, thanks to a breathless pace, nonstop cartoonish imagery, and the peculiar potency of Williams’ music (he composed the tunes himself, and shared an Oscar nomination for the background score with George Aliceson Tipton), Phantom of the Paradise is never boring.
 
Phantom of the Paradise: FREAKY