Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Saint Jack (1979)


          After suffering one of the most precipitous falls from grace of any ’70s auteur, Peter Bogdanovich returned to his roots by making a low-budget Roger Corman production of such intelligence and quality that it put him back on the map the same way his first Corman production, Targets (1968), launched his career. Informed by Bogdanovich’s love for old Hollywood but also very modern in content and frankness, Saint Jack feels like the sort of movie John Huston would have made around this period had his favorite leading man, Humphrey Bogart, survived into the ’70s. The protagonist, Jack Flowers, is like a seedier version of Bogart’s Casablanca character, Rick Blaine—an opportunistic American who gets drawn into a crisis of conscience while living abroad.
          The setting is early-’70s Singapore, and Jack is a smooth-talking operator who runs errands for crooks and supervises a loose network of prostitutes catering to foreign travelers. Popular among many of the locals, Jack’s got the run of the island nation, so long as he stays under the radar; Singapore pimps occasionally threaten him for encroaching on their turf, but the fact that Jack doesn’t have an actual brothel keeps him safe.
          Based on a novel by Paul Theroux and filmed in Bogdanovich’s inimitably crisp style, all purposeful long takes and rat-a-tat dialogue, the movie gradually evolves from a pure character study to something of a thriller, tracking Jack’s ascension over the course of several years. He builds relationships with Pacific islanders including a Sri Lankan prostitute (Monkia Subramaniam) and a soft-spoken British bookkeeper (Denholm Elliott), invites violent reprisal by opening a short-lived whorehouse, and gets drawn into shady intrigue by a mysterious American (played by Bogdanovich). Through it all, Jack keeps his amiable sense of humor and maintains a fervent sense of loyalty to his friends; he’s the fascinating paradox of a moral man plying an immoral trade.
          Bogdanovich keeps Gazzara’s usual smugness and tendency toward boisterous over-acting in check, helping the actor give one of the most restrained and effective performances of his career. Particularly in the sly close shots that Bogdanovich creates by having Gazzara walk toward the camera or having the camera slide up to the actor, we’re able to see the play of subtle emotion across Gazzara’s face as he calculates the odds of any particular action. He’s a gambler, but never reckless, and he’s always willing to pay the price when a bluff doesn’t work.
          Saint Jack is filled with interesting textures, from the sweaty vitality of the location photography to the caustic wit of the dialogue, and there’s an interesting mix of unfamiliar Eastern faces and recognizable Western actors (including Joss Ackland and George Lazenby). The film isn’t perfect, suffering minor flaws like a lack of clarity about the passage of time, but it delivers in every way that matters: entertaining dramaturgy, meticulous characterization, provocative moral dilemmas.

Saint Jack: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Odessa File (1974)


          Adapted from a novel by thriller specialist Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File has all the usual elements of an international-intrigue flick: disguises, investigation, revenge, secrets, suspense, and so on. Furthermore, with its story of a modern-day German hunting down a fugitive Nazi who committed war crimes during the Holocaust, the movie is, for the most part, a brisk morality play fueled by intense emotions. However, significant shortcomings relegate the film to lesser status by comparison with, say, the inspired Forsyth adaptation The Day of the Jackal (1973).
          First, the characterization of leading man Peter Miller (Jon Voight) asks audiences to stretch believability to the limit. A freelance newspaper reporter hungry for a scoop, he discovers a journal left behind by an elderly Jew who just committed suicide. The man had recently learned that his concentration-camp tormentor, Nazi officer Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), is still alive, and was told that German authorities were unwilling to arrest Roschmann for his past misdeeds.
          As Peter learns from the journal and other sources, Roschmann is among the Nazis protected by the Odessa, a secret pro-Nazi organization that is also supplying arms for attacks against Israel. (There’s a whole subplot in the film about one particular pending missile strike about Israel, but the filmmakers don’t give the subplot enough attention to warrant its inclusion, which is a waste.) Since investigating the Roschmann matter immediately puts Peter and his girlfriend (Mary Tamm) into mortal danger, it’s unbelievable that Peter becomes preoccupied with confronting the aging Nazi; even though the movie eventually provides a last-minute explanation for Peter’s actions, the revelation arrives too late to justify two hours of wondering what’s happening inside the protagonist’s head.
          The Odessa File is also one of those bloated international thrillers in which the good guys take preposterously elaborate measures to accomplish things that, one presumes, could be achieved more simply. Specifically, anti-Nazi secret agents subject Peter to weeks of mental conditioning and physical alterations so he can pretend to be a former Nazi in order to infiltrate the Odessa organization—because, apparently, none of the highly trained operatives working with Peter are as capable of this particular mission as a hotheaded reporter nursing a personal grudge.
          As directed by Poseidon Adventure helmer Ronald Neame, The Odessa File is drably professional, with no real point of view or style, and Voight isn’t particularly impressive; though earnest and intense, he’s constantly on the cusp of over-acting. Given all of these problems, The Odessa File is agreeable entertainment, but nothing more.

The Odessa File: FUNKY

Monday, August 29, 2011

Every Which Way But Loose (1978)


          One of those lowbrow hits whose immense popularity defies all reasonable explanation, the Clint Eastwood action-comedy Every Which Way But Loose feels like a bad country song come to life, with random gags about a rascally primate thrown in for good measure. Eastwood plays Philo, a truck driver who moonlights as a bare-knuckle brawler and happens to own a pet orangutan. When he falls for a flighty country singer (Sondra Locke) who skips out on him, Philo chases her from California to Colorado, picking up nasty pursuers along the way: a pair of bruiser cops who hold a grudge after Philo kicked their asses in a bar fight, and a gang of bikers whose members have been humiliated by Philo. The movie comprises a string of stupidly macho episodes, interspersed with charmless scenes of Eastwood romancing Locke, the pale blonde actress who was his paramour in several films (and his private life) from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. Every Which Way But Loose also makes room for musical cameos by country singers including Charlie Rich and Mel Tillis, plus a grating supporting performance by Harold and Maude star Ruth Gordon, doing the potty-mouth shtick she contributed to a number of bad movies.
          Every Which Way But Loose drags on forever and can’t maintain a consistent tone, since some of the fighting bits are way too intense for lightweight escapist fare. However, the really confusing thing is that Every Which Way But Loose doesn’t feel like a bad movie. With several Eastwood regulars among the crew—and, more likely than not, Eastwood looking over nominal director James Fargo’s shoulder—the picture has a degree of technical spit and polish its idiotic script simply doesn’t deserve. Still, audiences loved the damn thing enough to warrant a more-of-the-same sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980). On a happier note, when Eastwood pal Burt Reynolds heard about Every Which Way But Loose, he told his friend to expect payback for infringing into Reynolds’ domain of brawling comedy; true to his word, Reynolds retaliated by making Sharky’s Machine (1981), a terrific cop thriller in the vein of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry flicks.

Every Which Way But Loose: LAME

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Black Belt Jones (1974)


Gene-splicing the blaxploitation and kung-fu genres was a smart move in terms of marketing, but Black Belt Jones is far less than the sum of its parts. There’s a significant kitsch factor thanks to scenes of black martial artists doing their thing with sky-high Afros atop their heads, but the flick is schlocky even by the low standards of the genres it bridges—the script is brainlessly derivative and the filmmaking is garishly mechanical. Real-life karate champ Jim Kelly, who achieved minor fame as a costar of Enter the Dragon (1973), stars as Black Belt Jones, a government operative/mercenary/whatever, since this is one of those B-movies in which dudes with prowess at kicking ass are constantly in demand from deep-pocketed employers. When Mafia bad guys decide to seize ownership of a property owned by Jones’ mentor, karate teacher Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers), the Mafia sends African-American enforcer Pinky (Malik Carter) to intimidate Pop. Unfortunately, one of Pinky’s goons inadvertently kills Pop, sending Our Hero on an uninteresting vengeance mission that somehow involves breaking into a mob fortress and seizing photos the gangsters use for blackmail against political figures. Obviously, acting and story are not the big draws here, and Kelly is fine kicking and punching his way through fights, often in slow motion. Gloria Hendry is actually even more impressive as Sydney, a female martial artist who mows down villains alongside Jones. Additionally, the action stuff has a few glimmers of wit, like the funny moment when a victim gets thrown onto a trampoline, bounces upward, and lodges in the ceiling like a character in a Warner Bros. cartoon. So, if tongue-in-cheek martial arts mayhem gets your blood pumping, you might find fleeting amusement amid the tedium—but if not, chances are you’ll find Black Belt Jones thoroughly uninteresting. (FYI, the 1978 Jim Kelly movie The Tattoo Connection is not a sequel to this film, and in fact there is no sequel to Black Belt Jones, despite some video releases that misleadingly label The Tattoo Connection as Black Belt Jones 2.)

Black Belt Jones: LAME

Saturday, August 27, 2011

J.W. Coop (1971)


          Actor Cliff Robertson dove headfirst into this vanity piece about a middle-aged rodeo cowboy trying to restart his career after a stretch in prison: In addition to playing the leading role, Robertson directed, produced, and co-wrote the overly meticulous character study. It’s tempting to say ego led Robertson to use every scrap of film he shot, since the film drags terribly at 112 minutes, but it’s just as likely he was trying to create a stylistic alternative to standard Hollywood artifice. To his credit, J.W. Coop is consistently authentic and sincere. Unfortunately, it’s not consistently entertaining.
          The picture begins when J.W. (Robertson) leaves prison and returns home to check in on his senile mother (Geraldine Page). Seeing only desperation in his hometown, he hits the rodeo circuit, and along the way gets involved with a pretty young hippie, Bean (Cristina Ferrare). He also has inconsequential adventures like a run-in with a cop who wants to cite J.W. for pollution, and a barroom brawl in which he defends a black friend against racist hoodlums. The goal of these episodes seems to be defining Coop as an honorable iconoclast so we’ll perceive his eventual showbiz excesses as tragic, because once J.W. gets back into the swing of bronc riding, he ascends the ranks until his only real competition is a superstar cowboy who flies his own private plane from one rodeo to the next. The picture asks how much J.W. is willing to risk to become the top guy on the circuit.
          Utilizing documentary-style footage and featuring many real-life figures from the rodeo world in supporting roles, J.W. Coop offers a believable look at a colorful subculture, and some of the bronc-busting action is intense, particularly the spectacular ride that a stunt man takes in the finale. However, the story holding this material together isn’t strong, and neither, frankly, is Robertson’s performance.
          The rare actor who chose to underplay once becoming his own director, Robertson is so soft-spoken and still throughout J.W. Coop that he generates nearly undetectable energy, if any. (Having said that, his rural accent and mannerisms are completely believable.) Leading lady Ferrare is mostly decorative, while Fitzgerald and durable character actor R.G. Armstrong—easily the picture’s best performers—don’t get enough screen time to compensate for Robertson’s sleepiness. As a result of its many weaknesses, J.W. Coop doesn’t make much of an impression, even though it’s on many levels tough and admirable.

J.W. Coop: FUNKY

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972)


          With its focus on low-level drug peddlers and “tune in, turn on, drop out” college culture, the lengthily titled Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues could easily have been made in the mid-’60s instead of the early ’70s, and the picture’s approach to characterization is so Spartan that the people in the movie feel like counterculture-era abstractions instead of flesh-and-blood individuals. That’s not a bad thing, however, since Dealing is like an injection of pure period vibe, from the pervasive theme of lawlessness to the happenin’ lingo to the potent male fantasy of a with-it hippie chick who grooves on the hero’s scene.
          Dealing isn’t deep or provocative, and it isn’t really about anything except the vague implications of a contraband-fueled adventure in the anything-goes ’70s, but it’s atmospheric, attractively shot, and loaded with far-out tunes (including drop-the-needle pop cuts and an eclectic score by Michael Small). Stripped of any aspirations to redeeming social value, the movie is like a sleek catalog of vintage textures.
          The story was adapted from a novel by “Michael Douglas,” the shared pseudonym for bestselling author Michael Crichton and his brother, Douglas Crichton. Peter (Robert F. Lyons) is a directionless Harvard law student not particularly interested in his studies. He regularly makes cross-country trips to fetch dope for his pal John (John Lithgow), an urbane drama teacher/dealer with a talent for coldly exploiting young people. In Berkeley for a connection, Peter meets pretty druggie Susan (Barbara Hershey), and before long, they get together in a recording studio, bonding over a few lines of coke and a bit of the old in-out. (He playfully introduces himself to Susan as “Lucifer,” having rocked out to the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on his Buck Rogers-looking stereo headset earlier in the movie.)
          Eventually, once Peter makes his way back to Boston, he persuades John to hire Susan for a run so she can join her new lover on the East Coast. The plan goes awry when Susan gets busted at Logan Airport by a corrupt detective, Murphy (Charles Durning), who swipes half her cargo. Realizing the cop stole drugs, John and Peter try to hustle Murphy in order to get Susan released, and this endeavor soon evolves into full-on intrigue: After John bails when the danger level gets too high, Peter finds himself stuck between corrupt cops and vengeful drug dealers in a violent showdown. The movie ambles through mellow situations until Peter’s predicament percolates, at which point a fair amount of suspense develops, and the big finish in a snow-covered nature preserve is exciting and weird.
          Although journeyman TV actor Lyons is a weak link, the stiffness of his performance is partially negated by the fact that his character is a cipher, and the rest of the cast is strong. Hershey comes across well in a mostly ornamental role; Durning is appropriately insidious; and Lithgow’s amusing characterization runs the gamut from perverse to pathetic. Adding considerably to the movie’s offbeat appeal is the complete absence of sympathetic characters—Peter and Susan are more appealing than the killers and sleazebags they encounter, but they’re still losers, which makes them unique choices to occupy the romantic center of a Hollywood movie. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues: GROOVY

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Klansman (1974)


          For those who enjoy charting the outer reaches of bad cinema, the title of The Klansman looms larger than that of most ’70s movies. Featuring an inexplicable combination of actors—Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, O.J. Simpson—and a lurid take on incendiary subject matter, the movie promises a feast of jaw-dropping wrongness. And sure enough, The Klansman is both uproariously terrible and consistently distasteful. It’s also, however, quite tedious.
          The story is appropriately florid. In a small southern town populated by poor black folks and foaming-at-the-mouth racist whites (narrative restraint is not the watchword here), a young white woman (Linda Evans) is raped, so the gun-toting townies decide to pin the crime on “uppity” black Garth (Simpson). The town’s sheriff, Track Bascomb (Marvin), improbably a voice of reason and tolerance, tries to protect Garth from a lynch mob, but the fugitive escapes and starts picking off white people with an M-16.
          Meanwhile—there’s always a “meanwhile” in overcooked bad movies—local landowner Breck Stancil (Burton) invokes the ire of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter because he won’t let Klan soldiers search his property for Garth, who may be hiding with Stancil’s predominantly African-American workforce. Soon, the various forces in the story converge in a violent climax. All of this should be trashy fun, but as lifelessly directed by 007 veteran Terence Young, the movie just kind of happens; it feels as if the production team showed up every day and shot the appropriate screenplay pages without any regard for what came before or what might follow.
          Reportedly, one reason for the movie’s flatness is that it’s the faint echo of a potentially more interesting project: Original writer-director Samuel Fuller conceived the piece, using William Bradford Hule’s novel as a foundation, as a full-on KKK story in which the hero would be a Klan member who learns tolerance. Instead, the studio asked for something less provocative, and Fuller walked. The project was further damned by unwise casting: Burton and Marvin were falling-down drunks at this point, and Simpson, whose character is supposed to come across as a justice-dispensing revolutionary, is, to be generous, not an actor.
          Compensating somewhat for the lackluster work by the leads, Character player Cameron Mitchell livens up the picture with his cartoonish villainy as a hateful deputy. Better still, the priceless David Huddleston gives the best performance in the movie (which is admittedly not saying a lot) as the town mayor, who moonlights as the “Exalted Cyclops” of the local Klan chapter. Yet even Huddleston can’t do anything with hopeless dialogue: “Don’t look at me like I’m the heavy. You want to know who the heavy is, I’ll tell you. It’s the system. And we’re all of us caught up in it.”
          Unbelievably, the dialogue gets even worse later. Lola Falana plays a young black woman visiting her mother, one of Stancil’s employees, so the rednecks presume she’s sleeping with Stancil and therefore rape her to make a point. “They think I’m your brown comfort,” she says. “They wanted to foul your nest.” Yet perhaps the most (morbidly) fascinating aspect of this whole disastrous enterprise is Burton’s excruciating performance—he’s exactly this awful in plenty of other movies, but The Klansman features his spectacularly unsuccessful attempt at a Southern accent, which sounds different in almost every scene.
          Given how punishingly bad every frame of this movie is, it’s a wonder no one thought to chop it down to a 90-minute highlight reel, because if The Klansman moved faster, it would at least have the quality of a fever dream. Instead, it lumbers along for 112 bludgeoning minutes, forcing viewers to soak up every nuance of its terribleness. In this case, more is less.

The Klansman: FREAKY

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hennessy (1975)


A methodical revenge thriller predicated on the tensions between Great Britain and Ireland during the worst of the Irish “troubles,” Hennessy more or less gets the job done. It’s not a particularly efficient or stylish film, but the central premise is dramatic enough to generate suspense, and the leading players all contribute intense performances. Rod Steiger, exercising an unusual degree of restraint, stars as Niall Hennessy, a pacificistic family man who steers clear of IRA involvement, even though his brother is a notorious IRA terrorist. When Hennessy’s wife and child are gunned down in a sloppy street fight between English soldiers and Irish protestors, Hennessy coldly determines to seek revenge by blowing up the British Parliament. The picture then becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the English police and the IRA detect Hennessy’s plan and try to stop him; the Bobbies want to prevent a tragedy, and the IRA fears violent reprisal. As directed by workaday helmer Don Sharp, Hennessy grinds along in a perfunctory manner, with all of the moving parts in all the right places but no special panache of execution. The supporting characters aren’t developed deeply, so a subplot involving Hennessey’s main pursuer, Inspector Hollis (Richard Johnson), lacks the intended impact. Also, because Hennessy has no real emotional ties to any living characters, he comes across as a bit of an automaton, despite his relatable motivation. (Hennessy’s relationship with his sister-in-law, played by Lee Remick, is just a trite suspense device in the Hitchcock mode.) So, while the danger and intrigue are basically fine, there’s no personal story to grasp. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it keeps Hennessy from being anything more than a brisk diversion. On the plus side, watch out for a quick appearance around the 15-minute mark by a young Patrick Stewart—with hair! (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Hennessy: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)


          In culinary parlance appropriate to the subject, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? is a tasty trifle. The witty comedy offers neither great insights into the human condition nor even any real challenge to the audience (except the usual fun of a clever whodunit), but it’s thoroughly rewarding nonetheless. Featuring charming dialogue, an offbeat storyline, and playfully satirical characterizations, the film is the sort of cultured piffle that Audrey Hepburn made in her prime—which is not entirely coincidental, since the film’s screenwriter, Peter Stone, penned one of Hepburn’s most effervescent classics, Charade (1963).
          The plot is, appropriately, as light as a soufflé. Overbearing gourmand Maximillian Vanderveer (Robert Morley) writes an article for his influential culinary magazine, identifying the best chefs in Europe. One by one, the chefs are murdered, their bodies gruesomely cooked in the manner of their signature dishes. The only woman on the hit list, confectioner Natasha O’Brien (Jacqueline Bisset), understandably worries for her life, so she leans on her ex-husband, American fast-food entrepreneur Robby Ross (George Segal). He’s traveled to Europe to recruit a top chef as the spokesperson for his planned chain of omelet restaurants. Robby is also eager to rekindle things with Natasha, so investigating the murders becomes a grand romantic adventure. Based on a novel by Ivan and Nan Lyons, and directed by reliable journeyman Ted Kotcheff, the movie makes tremendous use of picturesque European locations (London, Paris, Venice), all photographed in a luminous classical style by John Alcott.
          Segal is at the height of his rascally charm, projecting harmless bravado and sly innuendoes; given the highbrow epicurean milieu, it’s effective and funny that his character is a vulgarian who made his fortune feeding slop to the masses. Bisset, for once, gets to offer more to a role than just her considerable physical beauty, and what she lacks in crisp comic timing she makes up for in enthusiasm; she also has a great facility for withering put-downs, usually directed toward the incorrigible Robby. It’s Morley, however, who steals the show, spewing droll barrages of pompous windbaggery. So, while it’s true that the movie gets a bit fleshy in the middle as it churns through necessary plot machinations, the main course is a delight: The film’s elaborate climax, set in and around the taping of a food show, is simultaneously silly and sophisticated. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? GROOVY

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)


          A solid Western built around the familiar theme of a young man proving himself through the rigors of a dangerous adventure, The Culpepper Cattle Co. benefits from journeyman director Dick Richards’ background as a still photographer. Handsomely filmed in Arizona and New Mexico, the picture has a dusty, lived-in feel that makes the odyssey of a motley crew driving cattle through the American West seem credible and dangerous, even though the nonstop hardships the crew encounters represent unimaginative narrative contrivances.
          Earnest juvenile player Gary Grimes, working at the apex of his brief semi-stardom following the coming-of-age classic Summer of ’42 (1971), plays Ben Mockridge, a wide-eyed farmboy who talks his way onto a cattle drive because he wants to become a man. The drive is supervised by tough Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush), who makes it plain that he values his stock more highly than the lives of his employees, so the picture asks whether Ben will find a place for himself among Culpepper’s crew of proven cowboys, and whether the crew will make it to the end of the line alive.
          As in most episodic pictures that follow long journeys, some of the incidents in The Culpepper Cattle Co. are more interesting than others. Vignettes of Ben getting razzed by older men are perfunctory, and the picture meanders somewhat until rugged character actor Geoffrey Lewis shows up as Russ, the leader of a gang of replacement cowboys Culpepper hires after a run-in with rustlers.
          Lewis’ forceful work gives the movie old-fashioned entertainment value and sly humor, especially when Russ clashes with Pete (Matt Clark), a quiet cowboy who doesn’t feel like getting killed in exchange for a day’s wages. Another vital utility player familiar from countless ’70s Westerns, Clark is memorably vulnerable here, displaying colors he should have been given the opportunity to explore in bigger roles. The picture gains further intensity when Culpepper’s group gets into a hassle with vicious landowner Thornton Pierce (John McLiam), setting the stage for a bloody showdown. And even though the guns-a-blazin’ finale stretches credibility (characters who have only looked out for themselves suddenly develop nobility), the story ends on a strong note, hammering home the film’s humanistic themes.
          The Culpepper Cattle Co. isn’t unique, and it suffers because neither Grimes nor Bush are particularly dynamic performers, but it’s a thoroughly respectable entry into the genre of early ’70s Westerns intent on debunking old romantic myths.

The Culpepper Cattle Co.: GROOVY

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Killing Kind (1973)


Director Curtis Harrington earned a decent reputation as a horror maven prior to transitioning into an unspectacular career helming episodic television, and watching The Killing Kind explains why his career trajectory makes sense. Though certain scenes have sadistic glee, the picture is so workmanlike that it could have been made by anyone; it’s as disposable as an episode of generic TV. John Savage, all Method-y shouting and twitching, stars as Terry, a troubled twentysomething just released from jail after a two-year stint for his role in a gang rape. From the moment we meet him, Terry comes across as an antisocial, sex-crazed voyeur prone to creepy intimacy with his mother (Ann Sothern) and erotic reverie when he kills animals. In other words, he’s such an obvious nutjob that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to spend time around him. Nonetheless, the movie installs Terry as the handyman at his mom’s boarding house, where stupid tenants like wannabe model Lori (Cindy Williams) remain in residence even after Terry tries to drown her in the pool one sunny afternoon. Savage’s id-gone-wild routine ends up being more tiresome than disturbing, and Sothern performs in the libidinous-gorgon style that kept Shelley Winters employed during this era, albeit with far less panache than the estimable Ms. Winters. So, even with some colorful kills, such as Terry forcing a woman to drink a paralyzing amount of liquor before setting her on fire, The Killing Kind is really just another crude Hitchcock rip-off, right down to the Rear Window­­-style shots of a neighbor spying on Terry with binoculars.

The Killing Kind: LAME

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aloha, Bobby and Rose (1975)


          Although the ’70s produced a seemingly endless stream of dramas about mixed-up kids roaming the country and getting into trouble, many of these films felt as aimless as their protagonists. Aloha, Bobby and Rose is an exception. Atmospheric, credible, deliberate, and sensitive, the picture is a sharply observed story about a young man destined for difficulty and the damaged single mother who’s vulnerable enough to get drawn into his world.
          Bobby (Paul Le Mat) is a wiseass auto mechanic who bluffs his way through a pool game with tough East-LA Latinos until they discover he doesn’t have the cash to pay off his gambling debts. They give him a beating and promise there’s more to come if he doesn’t return the following evening with money. Bobby hustles friends for the bread but can’t put it together, then gets distracted when pretty young Rose (Dianne Hull) brings her car into the shop where he works. Characteristically ignoring his responsibilities, Bobby spends the day and evening courting Rose when he should be assembling a bankroll, and then he really gets into trouble—when Bobby pretends to stick up a convenience-store clerk, ostensibly for Rose’s amusement, the previously unseen store owner emerges with a gun and fires. The gunshot kills the clerk, and Rose instinctively whacks the owner on the head.
          Bobby and Rose flee, afraid they won’t be able to prove their innocence. Demonstrating that she’s cut from the same cloth as Bobby, Rose skips out on her kid to run away with Bobby, and during their travels they meet unruly Texans Buford (Tim McIntire) and Donna Sue (Leigh French); the couples spend a wild night in Tijuana before Bobby and Rose decide to retrieve her son from LA. This being an angst-ridden ’70s drama, suffice to say things don’t go according to plan.
          As in his debut picture, 1971’s Dusty and Sweets McGee, writer-director Floyd Mutrux swaths this movie in rich atmosphere. Every grimy wall and every banged-up prop feels right, and a long sequence of Bobby and Rose cruising the Sunset Strip—zooming past billboards for iconic ’70s rock albums—creates a vivid sense of a lost time. Cinematographer William A. Fraker, an old-school Hollywood pro best known for slick studio films, lends the same palpable realism to this picture than he gave to Dusty and Sweets McGee; his soft filters simulate the steamy haze that envelops Southern California on hot days. The soundtrack is terrific, annotating the heroes’ sad journey with tunes by Bob Dylan, Elton John, and various Motown artists (Little Eva’s “Locomotion” is used to ironic effect during a key scene).
          As for the performances, they’re naturalistic and vivid. Le Mat works the James Dean-wannabe groove typical to this type of picture, adeptly illustrating Bobby’s charms and shortcomings; Hull is frayed as a girl not yet ready for adult obligations; and McIntire is a force of nature as Buford, a crazy man who dances on tables, urinates in cars, and talks a great line of bullshit. Yet, even with all of these virtues, the beauty of Aloha, Bobby and Rose is that it’s so focused: Instead of trying to make a grand statement, it’s nothing more than a sensitively crafted drama filled with insights about the restless hearts of the young.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose: RIGHT ON

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hit Man (1972)


          At first glance, the idea of a blaxploitation remake of Get Carter (1971) sounds great, since the grim Michael Caine picture has all sorts of elements that could transfer easily from working-class England to the American inner city: gangsters, pornographers, violence, and a badass antihero out for revenge. As written and directed by George Armitage, however, Hit Man lacks the single-minded malevolence of Get Carter. (Both pictures were adapted from Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home.) Hit Man is a fun movie in sporadic bursts, mostly due to Armitage’s odd little character touches, and it’s watchable overall because of leading man Bernie Casey’s charisma, but the flick is not the slam-bang winner the combination of genre and story should have produced.
          The movie begins when Tyrone Tackett (Casey) arrives in LA for his brother’s funeral and starts asking questions about who whacked his sibling. During the meandering first hour of the movie, Tyrone spends about half his time digging for clues and the other half hanging out with his late brother’s pals and assorted women; it’s like the movie periodically forgets to have a plot as Armitage gets lost in rich blaxploitation textures. This aimless stretch has its distractions, though: Tyrone visits a nature preserve, makes time with groovy ladies, and tussles with bad dudes. All of this is punctuated with choice blaxploitation dialogue, like this heavy line: “Look, man, I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’, and that’s the righteous truth.” There’s also some weirdly amusing stuff involving Tyrone and his late brother’s business partner, likeable used-car salesman Sherwood (Sam Laws). The two share a bizarre drunk scene, with Casey raising his voice like he’s going through puberty; later, Sherwood blows a take of a TV commercial by innocently proclaiming, “And for you prestige motherfuckers, we got . . .”
          The movie gets more mojo in the second half, when vivacious costar Pam Grier becomes prominent and when the revenge story kicks into gear. The dialogue gets juicier, too: “They shot her in the fuckin’ head, but chicks like your bullshit bourgeois daughter can do anything they wanna do, ’cause you got the bread to make it cool, ain’t that right?” That’s the stuff! Casey’s performance is erratic, suggesting he and Armitage couldn’t decide whether to make Tyrone a wronged everyman or a killer waiting for an excuse to open fire, but Casey’s laid-back vibe offers a good counterpoint to the flamboyant narrative. Most of the supporting cast is forgettable, though Grier is as outrageously sexy as usual, Laws is a hoot, and future Magnum P.I. costar Roger E. Mosley is amusing as a hired gun. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Hit Man: FUNKY

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Killer Elite (1975)


          Part action picture, part conspiracy thriller, and part revenge epic, The Killer Elite is a mess. As directed by Sam Peckinpah, whose creative decline was rapidly underway at this point, the picture boasts a handful of exciting scenes and several vivid performances, but its intentions are as vague as its storyline. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as a pair of gunmen who work for a private espionage group that’s hired by the CIA for covert operations like securely transporting international political figures who’ve been targeted for assassination by foreign governments. 
For reasons that are never particularly clear, Hansen (Duvall) shoots Locken (Caan) after a successful operation, betraying his buddy and leaving Locken a near-cripple thanks to wounds to his elbow and knee.
          The movie then devotes about 30 minutes to methodical scenes showing Locken’s recovery; as soon as Locken’s back in fighting shape, Hansen conveniently surfaces with a contract to kill an Asian dissident (Mako). Locken recruits a driver (Burt Young) and a sniper (Bo Hopkins) to help protect the dissident and, with any luck, confront Hansen. Also layered into the story are a series of double- and triple-crosses involving Locken’s bosses (Arthur Hill and Gig Young). Oh, and there are ninjas, too. Lots of ninjas.
          None of it makes very much sense, but the journey is still somewhat interesting because Caan is so charismatic and because Peckinpah knows how to shoot action scenes. (Extensive San Francisco location photography is another plus.) When The Killer Elite clicks, it delivers visceral moments like a shootout in a crowded street that expands into a nasty high-speed car chase. When the movie doesn’t click, it delivers spastic sequences like the climactic confrontation, during which Locken’s crew takes on an army of ninjas aboard a decommissioned warship, all of which leads up to a big swordfight between two supporting characters. Whatever.
          Luckily, the picture knows better than to take itself seriously, so sarcastic humor is woven into nearly every scene. Caan’s buddy-movie shtick with his sidekicks is terrific (Young is consistently amusing and Hopkins is memorably twitchy), and it’s also entertaining to watch Caan’s character get exasperated whenever the dissident spouts Eastern philosophy. “I understand now,” Caan opines bitchily at one point. “He wants to go back and die on his native soil. It’s that salmon-up-the-river shit.”

The Killer Elite: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Man Friday (1975)


          A strange re-imagination of Daniel Defoe’s classic adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, told from the perspective of the lead character’s companion/manservant Friday, Man Friday is filled with provocative ideas about the gulf between a “civilized” 17th-century Englishman and a “savage” from the tropics. The intention was clearly to examine a classic race-relations story through the prism of post-Civil Rights era enlightenment—and, indeed, much of the picture’s content fulfills this goal, illustrating Friday’s initial amusement and subsequent disgust with Crusoe’s imperialistic attitudes. In the movie’s best moments, Friday drives Crusoe to distraction with common-sense challenges to concepts like money, sports, and religion.
          Unfortunately, everything surrounding these insightful moments is awkward and borderline cringe-worthy. The acting by the two leads is erratic at best, with Peter O’Toole shouting most of his performance as Crusoe and Shaft’s Richard Roundtree vacillating between carefree ebullience and don’t-mess-with-me swagger. The picture gets bogged down in tiresome comedy bits, like a sequence of the men trying out various artificial wings during an attempt to escape the remote island on which they are marooned.
          Worse, the story’s framing device, which is clever in conception but distracting in execution, destroys the narrative rhythm: At the beginning of the movie, Friday is back on his own island after his adventures with Crusoe, relating his tale through jokes and songs around a crowded campfire as the members of his tribe listen. It’s hard to get over the jarring image of Roundtree, wearing just a loincloth, singing English-language verse over a queasy reggae beat while he explains that the man he called “Master” was a crazy person espousing alien beliefs. If the guiding aesthetic of this film was revisionist authenticity, wouldn’t shooting these scenes in Friday’s native tongue and subtitling the dialogue have been a stronger choice?
          Considering the dodgy lead performances and the story’s stop-and-start pacing, however, the stylistic choice of how to present language is really just the least of the movie’s problems. Case in point: The confusing and unsatisfying ending (which radically breaks from Defoe’s story) is a major tonal misstep. Man Friday is not without interest, especially since so few people know the movie exists, but it’s ultimately more of an offbeat curiosity than a lost classic.

Man Friday: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Terminal Man (1974)


          The innate cinematic potential of the late Michael Crichton’s novels, from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park and beyond, stemmed from the author’s style of blending provocative scientific concepts with potboiler storytelling, essentially delivering highbrow content in lowbrow wrapping. That being the case, it’s interesting to check out The Terminal Man, one of the few Crichton adaptations more suited to the art-house than the cineplex; writer-director Mike Hodges’ movie is a cerebral meditation rather than a visceral thriller. Though admirable, the approach simply doesn’t work, because while The Terminal Man has all of the requisite ethics-and-morality philosophizing that distinguishes the best Crichton stories, it lacks any excitement whatsoever, dragging along at a sluggish pace before transitioning to a violent but pretentiously orchestrated finale.
          It certainly doesn’t help that the central narrative hook is obscure. Harry Benson (George Segal) has a cerebral abnormality that causes him to periodically lapse into violent seizures, so medical geniuses including Dr. Ellis (Richard Dysart) and Dr. McPherson (Donald Moffat) invent a risky solution: With Harry’s consent, they implant electrodes in his brain, powered by an atomic battery in his chest, to override the seizures when they manifest. Crichton’s fanciful subject matter is that of high-tech alternatives to lobotomies, and there’s undoubtedly a bracing suspense story to be made from this source material. Unfortunately, Hodges bypasses thrills in favor of chilly Kubrickian observation, resulting in a flat wash of antiseptic surfaces and soft-spoken interactions.
          The movie goes wrong immediately, because Harry is already preparing for surgery when the story begins; we neither see him suffer the brain injury that led to his condition nor see him experience one of his murderous rages. As a result, we have no real sense of the hardship he’s trying to overcome. Then, just before the surgery, Harry’s girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) brings him a disguise with which he plans to escape postoperative police custody. This murky plot ploint makes the whole story confusing: Does Harry plan to embrace the cure, or not? And if not, why is he going through with the surgery? Harry’s flirtations with sympathetic Dr. Janet Ross (Joan Hackett) further muddy the waters, because we can’t tell if his affections like with the doctor or his girlfriend.
          Worst of all, the first hour of the movie unfolds like a medical documentary, with barely any dramatic conflict in evidence. And then, once Harry escapes and (predictably) experiences rages because the surgery didn’t work, the movie becomes a trite killer-on-the-loose story delivered in ridiculously genteel style, via touches like a slow-mo stabbing montage set to melancholy Bach music. The Terminal Man has interesting ideas and thoughtful performances, but Hodges doesn’t even come close to approximating Crichton’s usual balance of intellectualism and escapism. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Terminal Man: FUNKY

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)


          Riveting from its first frame to its last and infused with equal measures of humor and tragedy, Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece of closely observed character dynamics and meticulous dramaturgy. It also contains two of the most powerful performances of the ’70s, from leading man Al Pacino and co-star John Cazale, to say nothing of one of the decade’s most memorable moments, the “Attica, Attica!” bit in which Pacino riles up a crowd gathered around the movie’s central location by invoking a then-recent tragedy at a New York prison.
          The story is a riff on a real-life bank robbery that was comitted by crooks with unusual motivations. Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, an intense ne’er-do-well who recruits his dim-witted buddy, Sal (Cazale), to help with a brazen heist in broad daylight. The robbery quickly evolves into a hostage situation as cops, led by Sgt. Moretti (Charles Durning), congregate outside the bank. Then, as we watch various communications between Sonny and the outside world, we discover why he planned the heist: for money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. So, while the anxious afternoon darkens into an excruciating evening, viewers develop deep compassion for Sonny’s peculiar plight—on top of everything else, he’s married to a woman and doesn’t want to hurt her, even though his heart belongs to Leon (Chris Sarandon).
          Working from a Frank Pierson’s Oscar-winning script and guided by Sidney Lumet’s sure directorial hand, Pacino reveals dimension upon dimension of his offbeat character, never once making a cheap ploy for audience sympathy; the actor illustrates such deep and profound emotional truths, through behavior and dialogue and physical carriage, that Sonny feels like a living and breathing human being in every scene. The performance is not for every taste (the Method-y screaming and general demonstrativeness is a turn-off for some viewers), but it’s impossible not to recognize Pacino’s work as some of the most impassioned and meticulous performance ever committed to film.
          Cazale, the haunted-looking Bostonian who died at age 42 after appearing in just five films (all of which were nominated for Oscars as Best Picture), is terrific as Sal, a slow everyman who can barely grasp what’s happening at any given moment, much less the future implications of his actions; in the classic moment, he’s asked what country he would like to flee to after the robbery, and he says, “Wyoming.” Durning offers humanistic support as a cop trying to keep a bad situation from exploding, Sarandon is funny and sensitive during his brief appearance as Sonny’s lover, and a young Lance Henriksen shows up toward the end of the movie.
          But it’s almost completely Pacino’s show, or, more accurately, Pacino’s and Lumet’s. As they did to an only slightly lesser degree on Serpico (1973), the two men lock into each other’s creative frequencies perfectly—Lumet creates complex, lifelike situations to frame Pacino’s emotional explorations, and Pacino fills Lumet’s frames with as much vitality as they can contain. Detractors might argue that the movie drags a bit in the middle, but because each scene enriches our understanding of Sonny’s inner life and his strange predicament, complaining about too much of a good thing seems petty—few movies offer as much in the way of believable pathos and varied tonalities as Dog Day Afternoon, and few movies sustain such a high level of artistry and craft for the entire running time. Exciting, frightening, moving, surprising, and unique, Dog Day Afternoon is as good as it gets in ’70s cinema.

Dog Day Afternoon: OUTTA SIGHT

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973)


          Best known for the Oscar-winning adapted screenplays of Julia (1977) and Ordinary People (1980), Alvin Sargent has spent his career writing stories about troubled characters. Some of these stories hit a perfect target of idiosyncratic sensitivity, and some of them, well, don’t. An example of the latter circumstance is Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the tale of an emotionally disturbed American youth and an uptight middle-aged Englishwoman who fall in love while traveling through Spain. The story is reasonable enough, since we discover why each character has fled home and why each character feels sufficiently adrift to latch onto an unlikely paramour, but the execution is awkward.
          As directed by the venerable Alan J. Pakula, who specialized in heavy drama, Love and Pain has an oppressive seriousness that inhibits Sargent’s attempts to blend comic and dramatic elements. Pakula anchors shots in deep shadows that create distractingly ominous portent, and his handling of performances is almost too sensitive: Pakula lets Bottoms and Smith go so deep into their characters’ traumas that viewers are more likely to be frightened for these people than to root for them. It doesn’t help that vignettes in Sargent’s script range from generic to silly.
          On the generic end of things are many aimless scenes of the couple walking around historical sites, and on the silly end is the sequence in which the guests encounter a strange duke (Don Jaime de Mora y Aragón), who literally rescues Smith on horseback after she suffers a fall. Sargent also occasionally succumbs to hippie-era psychobabble, like this speech delivered by Bottoms: “We’re free, we’re coming alive, we’re talking to each other—what do you want to go back to crying in the dark for?” Complicating matters further, the picture features dissonant moments of lowbrow physical comedy, like the bit of Smith tripping on her panties while fleeing an interrupted sexual liaison.
          Ultimately, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is an extremely odd movie, with a jumble of erratic tonalities and fleetingly touching performances; though the picture has such admirable intentions and genuine feeling that it can’t be dismissed, it’s an aesthetic hodgepodge.

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing: FUNKY

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Man Called Sledge (1970)


          A Man Called Sledge stitches together a dozen clichés of the spaghetti-Western genre and drains them of virtually all interest, so only the presence of charismatic leading man James Garner provides fleeting (but woefully insufficient) passages of watchability. Garner plays a gunslinger who stumbles across information about a military convoy that regularly transports gold across the desert and stores the loot overnight in a prison, so he conspires to get himself locked in the big house because he’s cooked up a scheme for ripping off the gold from inside the prison. A Man Called Sledge is so generic that its version of the clichéd Western character of a crazy old man is literally named “Old Man.” (If you care, John Marley from The Godfather plays the role.) The movie also has tired Euro-Western tropes like a histrionic music score and silly religious imagery, in this instance the crucifix Garner uses for a splint when his arm gets shot, meaning Jesus literally guides his gun hand. Whatever. Claude Akins and Dennis Weaver pop up in the supporting cast, as do lots of sweaty Italians, but they mostly just glower and gripe, so their presence doesn’t add much.
          Helmed and co-written by tough-guy actor Vic Morrow, A Man Called Sledge is nearly palatable during meat-and-potatoes action scenes, and then thoroughly uninteresting during dialogue passages. The biggest problem is that the characters are undefined, making it impossible to invest in the story. For instance, Sledge himself (Garner, of course) gets several different introductory scenes, none of which illuminates anything unique, so by about 15 minutes into the movie, it’s still unclear whether he’s a loner, part of a duo, or the leader of a gang. Adding insult to injury, the movie is capped by an atrocious theme song called “Other Men’s Gold,” featuring insipid lyrics sung in an amateurish warble—thereby unintentionally encapsulating the bargain-basement flavor of the whole enterprise. Oh, and for a capper, A Man Called Sledge mistakes viciousness for hard-edged storytelling, so the movie feels mean-spirited from beginning to end.

A Man Called Sledge: LAME

Friday, August 12, 2011

Americathon (1979)


          The basic premise of this hyperkinetic comedy is a winner, but the execution is so deprived of inspiration that Americathon ends up feeling like a Saturday Night Live sketch overstaying its welcome. Set in 1998, which was 20 years into the future when the movie was made, Americathon imagines what happens when the U.S. finally runs out of money and risks defaulting on debts. (Sound familiar, circa 2011?) The government hires a PR man (Peter Riegert), who suggests a month-long telethon in which Americans will be invited to help the government pay off a $400 billion loan. That’s a great start, but the filmmakers behind Americathon bludgeon this rich concept with one lame joke after another, filling the movie with so many misdirected satirical potshots that the movie becomes unrelentingly stupid.
          The country’s main creditor is a rich Native American (Chief Dan George), who makes his money selling running shoes and track suits; the President (John Ritter) is a narcissistic horndog preaching ’70s-style philosophy while operating out of the “Western White House,” a sublet condo in Southern California; and the country’s main enemy is a new nation called the United Hebrab Republic, formed when Arabs and Israelis solved their differences to become a greedy world power. But wait, there’s more! The telethon host is a drugged-out sitcom star named Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman); the President gets infatuated with a screeching Vietnamese singer (Zane Busby), who performs something called “puke rock”; and the President’s insidious chief of staff (Fred Willard) wants to sabotage the telethon (by overstuffing the talent list with ventriloquists) in order to sell the country to the Hebrabs. There’s also room for rocker Meat Loaf as a stuntman, baseball manager Tommy Lasorda as a sports commentator, Jay Leno as a shlub who enters a boxing match with his aging mother, and random moments like a performance by Elvis Costello.
         Directed by Neil Israel, who later co-created the Police Academy franchise, this picture opts for a shallow mile-a-minute style that only works when the jokes are so funny that viewers can’t catch their breath in between laughs—and the jokes in Americathon simply aren’t funny. One can’t help but feel for the actors, since they’re clearly trying to elevate this dreck into something worthwhile, but even the indefatigable Korman is left gasping for air by the dopey script. In fact, virtually the only unassailable element of the movie is George Carlin’s sardonic narration (he voices a track ostensibly spoken by Reigert’s character); though the jokes in the narration aren’t any better than those onscreen, Carlin’s delivery is so perfect that his work hints at the satirical free-for-all Americathon could have been. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Americathon: LAME

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Deer Hunter (1978)


          The winner of five Oscars and one of the best-remembered movies of the ’70s, The Deer Hunter has undeniable strengths. The acting is across-the-board great, with Christopher Walken earning an Academy Award for the film’s crucial supporting role; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep were nominated for the male and female leading roles, respectively, and John Cazale and John Savage both contribute mesmerizing work. The film’s level of intensity, once the story kicks into gear, is so high that many find the film too painful to watch. On every technical plane, the movie is gorgeous to behold, with immaculate costuming and production design filling cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-nominated imagery to create a rich visual experience. And, finally, since The Deer Hunter was one of the first big-budget movies to address the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder as a major issue for veterans returning from the Vietnam War, it has historical importance.
          Having said all that, The Deer Hunter hasn’t aged well, and in fact its flaws were apparent to some discerning viewers back when the movie was new. First off, director and co-writer Michael Cimino’s storytelling is wildly undisciplined. The first hour of the picture, which introduces a group of male friends living in a Pennsylvania steel town, drags on endlessly. Although Cimino’s scheme of immersing viewers in mundane details of his characters’ lives before moving the story to Vietnam is sensible, Cimino ends up delivering the same information over and over again, resulting in tedium. In particular, the interminable sequence depicting the wedding of wide-eyed Steven (Savage) to his pregnant sweetheart unfolds in what feels like real time. Amid this narrative muck, De Niro’s character, Michael, emerges as the de facto leader of the group, an autodidactic tough guy whom the others fear and respect in equal measure.
          A long sequence of the male friends bonding for one last deer hunt before deploying to Vietnam has great visual poetry, but it’s jarring that the sequence was obviously shot in the Pacific Northwest (specifically, Washington state) even though it supposedly takes place in Pennsylvania. The movie really goes off the rails, however, after an abrupt mid-movie shift to Vietnam. For the remainder of the movie, the vicious game of Russian roulette becomes the dramatic focus, first when American POWs are forced to play the game by their animalistic captors, and then when Nick (Walken) becomes a champion Roulette player working the postwar Vietnamese underground. Michael is a kind of battlefield superhero during the POW scenes, and the manner in which he rescues his buddies stretches believability. Yet the story becomes even more audacious when Michael returns to postwar Vietnam in order to rescue Nick, who has become so traumatized, almost to the point of catatonia, that he plays Russian roulette for money.
          It turns out there’s a good reason why none of this hangs together particularly well. Producer Michael Deeley reportedly hired Cimino to expand a non-Vietnam script about Russian roulette into the story that eventually became The Deer Hunter. Perhaps reflecting this hodgepodge approach, the Russian roulette material is so overwrought, and so demeaning to the Vietnamese national character, that it completely derives the film of dramatic restraint and historical accuracy. Whether historical accuracy was ever the goal is another question, but The Deer Hunter ends up being an uncomfortable hybrid of incompatible narrative elements, and also a needlessly repetitive movie that slogs through 183 minutes of boredom and brutality. There are incandescent moments, mostly due to the valiant work of a remarkable cast, but in sum, The Deer Hunter is pretentious, sloppy, unpleasant, and not just a little racist.

The Deer Hunter: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Glass House (1972)


          For an early-’70s social-issue telefilm, The Glass House has an impressive pedigree: Truman Capote co-wrote the story, and ace scribe Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Longest Yard) wrote the teleplay. Alan Alda stars as Jonathan Paige, a college professor convicted of manslaughter for inadvertently killing the man who injured Paige’s wife in a car accident. He’s sent to prison on the same day that an idealistic guard, Brian Courtland (Clu Gulager), starts work at the institution, and as these unsuspecting men fall into the web of corruption and violence spun by prison overlord Hugo Slocum (Vic Morrow), a brutal killer incarcerated for life, the heroes come to realize the hopelessness of escaping, much less changing, the merciless status quo inside the big house.
          Paige’s descent is tied to the abuse visited upon a sweet-faced young man (Kristoffer Tabori) whom Paige fails to protect, and Courtland’s disillusionment stems from his realization that the aged warden (Dean Jagger) is content to let inmates kill each other. Unobtrusively directed by journeyman helmer Tom Gries, the picture moves at a strong pace from the bleak opening sequence to the horrific finale, making a simple statement about the seeming impossibility of retaining humanity inside a maximum-security lockup.
          Abetted tremendously by Alda’s characteristically sensitive performance, the script does a strong job of depicting Paige as a man who can’t win: Keeping to himself doesn’t steer the professor clear of danger, and neither does taking a principled stand. What’s more, the script expertly weaves together various strong personalities, with Morrow commanding the screen as a predatory monster, and Tabori giving a poignant turn as innocent doomed by circumstance. Billy Dee Williams shows up in an important featured role, and the film slyly employs his super-cool swagger to present a complex character who’s part peacenik, part revolutionary, and part straight-up badass. Depressing but focused and purposeful, The Glass House is solid stuff.

The Glass House: GROOVY

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Swarm (1978)


          Hollywood’s master of disaster, producer Irwin Allen, was well into the unintentional self-parody phase of his career by the late ’70s, less than a decade after he first started mining mass misfortune for mass entertainment. Instead of the towering infernos and upside-down cruise ships of yore, he restored to demonizing insects in The Swarm, an undercooked comin’-at-ya picture in which killer bees, mostly depicted as animated blotches roaming across the skyline, attack a small town in the Southwest before heading to Houston. Filled with all the usual tropes of Allen’s pictures, from large mobilizations of rescue forces to trite melodramas playing out against the backdrop of tragedy, The Swarm also features one of Allen’s trademark hodgepodge casts.
          Michael Caine, starting his slide into ridiculous paycheck gigs, stars as a bug specialist who takes command of the government’s response to the bees, and he’s accompanied by Richard Widmark (as a general who wants to blow up everything in sight), Henry Fonda (as a wheelchair-bound immunologist), Richard Chamberlain (as a Southern-fried scientist/crankypants whose sole function seems to be scowling at Caine), and Katharine Ross (as a scientist/love interest who gets stung by more than Cupid’s arrow), plus Patty Duke Astin, Olivia de Havilland, Bradford Dillman, Jose Ferrer, Lee Grant, Ben Johnson, and Fred MacMurray.
          Even though a few elements are respectable, like Jerry Goldsmith’s exciting score, The Swarm is, well, swarming with ludicrous highlights, because the movie’s so preposterously straight-faced it plays like a comedy. The plotting is, of course, extraordinarily stupid, with Caine regularly leaving his post as the government’s top man during a major crisis to run inconsequential errands with Ross so they can share cutesy patter while driving around the countryside. Better still, from the perspective of amusing awfulness, is the outrageously limp dialogue, which nails the audience with clunky exposition as mercilessly as the bees zap their victims. “Just because you’re the mayor of Marysville, that doesn’t make you an engineer,” Johnson barks to MacMurray, who replies, “Look, nobody asked you to leave Houston and come here to retire, you know.” Ouch.
           In its most hysterically insipid moments (which are, sadly, outnumbered by long stretches of flat tedium), The Swarm approaches full-on camp, like the bee attack on a nuclear power plant or the colorful bit of Caine running through the small town, screaming, “The killer bees are coming! Everybody get inside!” (On a less amusing note, Widmark takes to referring to the Africanized bees as “Africans,” leading to icky lines like, “By tomorrow, there will be no more Africans in Houston!”) The movie’s best moment, though, is undoubtedly the scene in which Caine coaches a young bee-sting victim through a bout of hysterics by convincing the boy that the giant bee floating in front of his head—depicted, with goofy obviousness, by a giant superimposed bee—is a hallucination.
          For good or ill, The Swarm is no hallucination, because this two-and-a-half-hour venom blast of a gloriously bad creature feature really exists. And, yes, you read that right: Though originally released at 116 minutes, there’s an extended version of The Swarm clocking in at 155 minutes. Rest assured the whole damn mess was endured for the sake of this review. Anti-venom, please!

The Swarm: FREAKY

Monday, August 8, 2011

Breaking Point (1976)


Yet another in the endless stream of vigilante flicks that spewed forth after the success of Straw Dogs (1971) and Death Wish (1974), this Canadian actioner starring long-forgotten ’70s leading man Bo Svenson falls short in terms of characterization, drama, logic, and thrills. The last exploitation flick that eclectic director Bob Clark made before going mainstream with 1979’s Murder by Decree, the picture is competent to the point of utter homogenization, as if an editor threw pieces of similar films up in the air and then assembled the pieces in more or less the right order to create a Frankenstein hodgepodge of a vigilante movie. In other words, everything in Breaking Point was done better elsewhere. As is the norm in the genre, a decent man gets on the wrong side of bad people, then takes all he can take until he reaches his—well, it’s all in the title, isn’t it? Michael McBain (Svenson) is an unassuming judo instructor (convenient!) who witnesses a mob-related crime, then enters witness protection under the care of cop Frank Sirrianni (Robert Culp) while preparing to testify against the soldiers of crime boss Vincent Karbone (John Colicos). Predictably, Karbone’s people reach McBain where he’s most vulnerable, by violently harassing the people he loves, so soon enough McBain has to unleash some of his judo whup-ass on the villains. Lacking the psychological complexity of Straw Dogs and the relentless intensity of Death Wish—or even the go-for-broke excess of a self-respecting exploitation picture—this film offers all of the shortcomings of the vigilante genre and none of the cathartic jolts. Clark’s direction is indifferent, as if he had already left the grindhouse in spirit, and Svenson is believably tough but in every other regard forgettable. Thus, the only reason to watch Breaking Point is to discover how long it takes for you to reach your napping point.

Breaking Point: SQUARE