Friday, September 30, 2011

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)


          It’s plain that the folks at Walt Disney Productions were trying to re-create the magic of their ’60s megahit Mary Poppins when they made Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the latter film has enough charm and imagination to feel like more than just a retread. As was Poppins, this picture is an epic-length musical adventure about a magical woman assuming guardianship of a group of children, and it features an extended sequence blending animation and live action. However, the similarities don’t end there: David Tomlinson, who played the father in Mary Poppins, gets promoted to the male lead in Bedknobs, and the sibling songwriting team of Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman composed tunes for both movies.
          Bedknobs is set in England during World War II, when singleton Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) becomes the temporary caretaker for a trio of displaced London orphans. The kids try to escape during their first night in the Price family castle, of which Eglantine is the only resident, then decide to stay when they spy her flying on a broomstick—it turns out she’s an apprentice witch, so the kids strong-arm her into providing cushy treatment by threatening to expose her secret. Soon enough, the whole gang is off on an adventure because Eglantine’s supernatural correspondence course abruptly ends before the final lesson, and she’s determined to get the final spell she needs to become a full-fledged witch.
          The crew hops onto an enchanted transporting bed (the titular knob is the key that starts the bed’s magic working) and treks to London. There, they find Eglantine’s erstwhile educator, con man Emelius Browne (Tomlinson). Amazed that one of his students has real magical ability, Browne reveals that he copied the spells out of an old book but never believed they would work, so the crew’s next adventure is looking for the pages missing from Browne’s copy of the book. This leads to a run-in with a shady book collector, plus a long interlude in the (animated) realm of Naboombu, a land of talking animals ruled by a blowhard lion king. After these amusing cartoon high jinks, the gang returns to Eglantine’s castle, with the elusive spell in their possession, just in time to foil an invasion by an advance squadron of Nazis.
          All of the usual Disney tropes are in evidence, from clever children to silly adults, and from goofy slapstick to sweet songs. So, while Bedknobs doesn’t break any new ground, it boasts playful wit. Lansbury is endearing (and far less sickly-sweet than Mary Poppins star Julie Andrews); Tomlinson is an enjoyably blustery boob; the kids aren’t egregiously cutesy; and the showdown with the Nazis is a special-effects delight—Eglantine animates museum artifacts, creating a legion of hollow uniforms and suits of armor. These strengths make Bedknobs palatable for both adults and the film’s intended audience.
        FYI, the picture hit some speed bumps on the way to theaters. After premiering at a length of nearly three hours, it was cut to two hours for its initial U.S. release, then trimmed further for a 1979 reissue. (Costar Roddy McDowall was the biggest victim of the edits, disappearing almost completely from the shortened versions.) In the 1990s, a 139-minute version approximating the original cut was assembled for DVD. As a result of all of this backing-and-forthing, the movie is now widely available as a two-hour feature and as a two-and-a-half hour epic.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks: GROOVY

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Manitou (1978)


          The supernatural horror flick The Manitou is about as gonzo as mainstream cinema gets. Featuring a demented concept taken to ridiculous extremes, this mesmerizing misfire combines demonic possession, Native American mythology, parallel dimensions, reproductive horror, sentient machinery, and probably a dozen other tropes of genre cinema, all wrapped up in a tasty package decorated with stilted acting, inane dialogue, and histrionic storytelling. There might be an interesting notion or two buried amid the melodramatic muck, but the beauty of something as strange as The Manitou is that redeeming values are beside the point; the movie’s spectacular awfulness offers a special kind of entertainment value.
          When the movie begins, Karen (Susan Strasberg) seeks medical help for a strange tumor growing out of her upper back. Physicians are astounded to discover that the tumor is actually a fetus. This revelation understandably concerns Karen’s on-again/off-again boyfriend, fake psychic Harry (Tony Curtis), who investigates Karen’s condition when medical science fails to provide an explanation. Eventually, Harry and a real psychic (Stella Stevens) dig up loopy scientist Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith), who opines that the growth is a “manitou,” the reborn spirit of a Native American shaman.
          Told that one needs a shaman to fight a shaman, Harry treks to the Southwest and recruits John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to serve as a kind of exorcist. John Singing Rock says he can’t battle the Manitou until the creature leaves Susan’s body, and the manitou’s birth scene is one of the most insane moments in all of ’70s cinema: A miniature muscleman crawls out of a giant sack attached to Strasberg’s spine and then plops onto the floor of a hospital room, panting like a placenta-drenched pervert. Soon, this child-sized monstrosity is lurking inside a force field created by John Singing Rock, plotting some sort of supernatural takeover (and breathing heavily some more). To quote a hackneyed line,” John Singing Rock says at one point, “This is powerful medicine.” You said it, friend!
          As directed and co-written by genre-cinema stalwart William Girdler (Grizzly), The Manitou is arresting simply because of how far it goes down the bad-cinema rabbit hole. Plus, to be charitable, some of the film’s images are genuinely unsettling: There’s a great bit during a séance, for instance, when a human head rises up through a tabletop as if the tabletop were an oil slick rather than solid wood.
          The acting is, of course, terrible, because no one can be expected to do much with this material, but Curtis has a few entertainingly bitchy line readings even as he trudges through various declarations of the obvious. Syrian-born Ansara, who had a long career as a voice actor in addition to his onscreen work, makes the fatal mistake of playing his role straight, so his wooden performance offers an amusing counterpoint to Curtis’ desperate hamminess. The movie’s high point, relatively speaking, is the trippy finale, which features (and I’m not kidding) a naked Strasberg shooting laser beams of channeled machine energy at the muscled little person as they float in a star field, battling for the final fate of the universe. Powerful medicine, indeed.

The Manitou: FREAKY

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Squeeze (1978)


When it kicks off, The Squeeze—variously known by titles including Diamond Thieves and The Heist and The Rip-Off, and released sporadically through various international territories from 1978 to 1981—seems as if it might offer some kicky thrills. Craggy old Lee Van Cleef, whose occasional appearances in quality films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) can only be seen as aberrations during a career dominated by low-budget international crap, shows up wearing a pimp-worthy white trench coat and a weird hairstyle including a bald dome, a halo of long gray hair, and a nattily trimmed beard. He looks ready to get down to some sort of nasty business, so when he’s approached by an ambitious young crook (Edward Albert) for help pulling a diamond heist, one hopes nefarious activities are in the offing. Things get even more promising when Our Lee decamps to New York City and hooks up with his favorite fence, played by the gravel-voiced bear Lionel Stander. And then it all goes to hell. The story gets lost in nonsensical double-crosses, to the point where it’s difficult to track what’s happening, and Our Lee gets sidelined with a gunshot wound, inexplicably shacking up in the apartment of a loudmouthed New Yorker (Karen Black). The movie quickly becomes an interminable death march of scenes in which nothing happens, punctuated by reiterations of the same awful jazz/funk music cue that repeats on the soundtrack, as if the producers were too cheap to commission an entire score (probably true). Van Cleef, who could thrive with good material, as seen by his bad-ass performance in Escape from New York (1981), delivers the worst kind of cash-the-paycheck acting here, reading every line with exactly the same menacing growl. As for the other actors, they barely register thanks to the story’s numbing incoherence. So, even though the ending has the tiniest amount of satisfactory zip, getting there isn’t worth the trouble.

The Squeeze: SQUARE

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Reflection of Fear (1973)


          There are a number of provocative ideas buried inside the perverse thriller A Reflection of Fear, and the picture also boasts a gorgeous surface, thanks to luminous photography by László Kovács. So, even though the movie is a total jumble from a narrative perspective, it offers many textural pleasures. The story centers around Marguerite (Sondra Locke), a disturbed 16-year-old girl who lives in luxurious isolation with her wealthy mother (Mary Ure) and grandmother (Signe Hasso) on a sprawling private estate. Marguerite’s room is crowded with dolls whom she believes are alive, and she’s obsessed with horticulture; in other words, the movie does everything but brand the word “psycho” across her forehead.
          Marguerite’s absentee father, Michael (Robert Shaw), shows up for a visit one summer because he wants a divorce from Marguerite’s mother so he can marry his girlfriend, Anne (Sally Kellerman). When Michael finally meets the daughter he’s never known, he becomes worried about her oddball nature and decides to rescue her from the grips of her family. Before he can do so, someone murders Mom and Grandma. In the aftermath, a local cop (Mitchell Ryan) tells Michael and Anne not to leave town, so the lovers move into the estate. As weird goings-on continue, Marguerite develops a quasi-incestuous obsession with her father, which understandably displeases long-suffering Anne. And so it goes as the movie spirals toward a psychosexual “twist” ending that’s neither satisfying nor surprising.
          Based on a novel by Stanton Forbes, the script for A Reflection of Fear vacillates awkwardly between intimate psychological tension and full-on horror jolts, so the tone is as disjointed as the story is murky. Most of the actors underplay their scenes, as if they’re not sure which way to take the material, but Locke eschews subtlety by complementing her peculiar appearance (she’s one of the palest people ever committed to film) with a breathy little-girl vocal delivery. It’s either an awful performance, if the goal was to be taken seriously, or an effective one, if the goal was merely to seem weird.
           Cinematographer-turned-director William A. Fraker, stumbling after his promising directorial debut Monte Walsh (1970), can’t pull the story together, but he does a fantastic job creating atmosphere with haze filters, ornate production design, and smoked sets. A Reflection of Fear isn’t particularly frightening, but it’s easily one of the best-looking movies of its type, and some viewers will find the picture’s strange mood and enigmatic dramaturgy mesmerizing. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

A Reflection of Fear: FUNKY

Monday, September 26, 2011

Airport (1970) & Airport 1975 (1974) & Airport ’77 (1977) & The Concorde: Airport ’79 (1979)


          It’s appropriate that the last movie bearing the Airport brand name begins with a balloon getting inflated, because this series is filled with nothing so much as hot air. Melodramatic, overlong, and trite, each of the four Airport flicks is a midair soap opera, with characterization and dialogue that would barely pass muster in the worst episodic television. If not for the innate allure of disaster stories and the presence of motley casts comprising former A-listers and permanent C-listers, these pictures would have vanished into obscurity immediately after they were made. However, one should never underestimate the public’s appetite for vapid escapism: The first picture was the biggest moneymaker of 1970 (out-earning M*A*S*H and Patton), and it somehow snared 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. As the people filling that balloon at the beginning of The Concorde: Airport ’79 know, hot air always rises.
          The first flick, simply titled Airport and adapted from Arthur Hailey’s bestselling novel of the same name, is lumbering and dull. An airport manager (Burt Lancaster) and a pilot (Dean Martin) face a crisis when a disturbed passenger (Van Heflin) sneaks a bomb onto a passenger jet. Contrived romantic subplots abound, as do goofy elements like a storyline about an elderly woman (Helen Hayes) who keeps sneaking onto flights as a stowaway. Shot in a flat, ugly style that reveals every location as part of a garishly lit soundstage, the talky movie grinds through so much nonsense that Martin’s plane doesn’t even take off until after the one-hour mark.
          Only about 30 minutes of the movie contain actual disaster-oriented action, so it’s notable that even though Airport was the first hit for the genre, the familiar victim-every-10-minutes formula wasn’t perfected until producer Irwin Allen (who had nothing to do with the Airport movies) made The Poseidon Adventure in 1972. About the only lively element of Airport is George Kennedy’s lusty supporting performance as airport engineer Joe Patroni, who spouts macho lines like, “I’ll have this mother outta here by midnight!” There’s also some mild interest in spotting moments that were later spoofed in Airplane! (1980), like the vignette of a stewardess slapping a hysterical passenger.
          For the imaginatively titled sequel Airport 1975, producer Jenning Lang took the franchise reins and shamelessly copied Irwin Allen’s style; Lang also hired square-jawed leading man Charlton Heston, who previously led the cast of Lang’s Allen-esque disaster flick Earthquake (1974). Although it’s just as insipid as the original film, Airport 1975 is more enjoyable, simply because it doesn’t take itself seriously; the movie is all about cheap thrills and over-the-top storytelling. In this one, a 747 is struck in mid-air by a tiny private plane, blowing out the cockpit and killing the flight crew. After the accident, a stewardess (Karen Black) has to keep the plane steady until her boyfriend (Heston) can reach the plane via helicopter, climb into the cockpit by rope ladder, and steer the jet to a safe landing. About the only thing more absurd than the plot is the cast, which also includes Linda Blair, Sid Caesar, Erik Estrada, Helen Reddy, and Gloria Swanson (as herself!). Kennedy reprises his Patroni role to mostly inconsequential effect.
          After this crescendo of craptastic cinema, the series fell to earth with Airport ’77, a boring thriller about a plane that gets hijacked over the Bermuda Triangle, and then plummets into the ocean. Instead of mid-air suspense, most of the picture delivers dull tight-quarters bickering set in the underwater jet, and everyone in the mixed-bag cast looks bored: Joseph Cotten, Lee Grant, Christopher Lee, Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, and so on. (Kennedy’s back as Patroni, not that it makes much difference.) Airport ’77 is the nadir of a series whose quality level was never high.
          The final entry in the franchise is arguably the most enjoyable, at least from a bad-cinema perspective, because The Concorde: Airport ’79 is preposterous right from the first frames. Cinematic cheese is spread evenly across a ludicrous story, cringe-inducing dialogue, and a parade of laughable performances. In other words, Airport ’79 marks the moment the franchise officially became The Love Boat with explosions. Kennedy finally gets promoted to a leading role, co-piloting the famously sleek French jet of the title with a smooth Gallic flyer (Alain Delon). Meanwhile, an evil industrialist (Robert Wagner) wants to blow up the plane because one of the passengers is carrying evidence that incriminates him for dastardly deeds. Wagner tries to take out the Concorde with a robot drone, a manned fighter jet, and, finally, a bomb smuggled on board when the Concorde conveniently hits the tarmac long enough for sabotage. Several actors who should have known better got roped into acting in this drivel (Eddie Albert, Cicely Tyson, David Warner), but most of the screen time goes to ’70s also-rans like John Davidson, Andrea Marcovicci, and Jimmie J.J. Walker. Cementing the Love Boat parallel, Charo even shows up for a cameo.

Airport: LAME
Airport 1975: FUNKY
Airport ’77: SQUARE
The Concorde: Airport ’79: FUNKY

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)


The real-life inspiration for this tiresome comedy is an interesting footnote in Hollywood history: Early in his career, legendary studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck guided the career of silent-movie star Rin Tin Tin, who happened to be a particularly noble-looking German Shepherd. While the absurdity of transforming a canine into a matinee idol would seem to present possibilities for sly spoofery, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood instead opts for broad buffoonery. Set in the anything-goes world of 1920s Hollywood, the flick smothers its slight storyline with clunky plotting, inane slapstick, overwrought production values, and pointless cameos by faded stars of stage and screen. A badly miscast Bruce Dern stars as the Zanuck-inspired lead character, a Hollywood tour guide who dreams of moguldum and seizes his opportunity when a desperate studio owner (Art Carney) mistakes Dern’s character for the trainer of a photogenic dog. The animal actually belongs to a would-be starlet (Madeline Kahn), so Dern’s character and the starlet decide to hitch a ride to stardom on Won Ton Ton’s tail. Predictably, things go awry, so much of the movie concerns Won Ton Ton’s wilderness years after he’s separated from his owners, plus their attempts to replace him and, eventually, get him back; this plot twist changes the movie from silly to sappy, and Won Ton Ton is no better at eliciting tears than it is at eliciting laughter. Although Carney and Kahn are comedy pros accustomed to playing broad material, Dern is an edgy, naturalistic actor completely out of his element. Even more out of his element is the film’s director, Michael Winner, best known for brutal action pictures like Death Wish (1974); to say that the film’s painful aspirations to effervescence feel forced is an understatement. Some viewers may enjoy Won Ton Ton’s parade of Old Hollywood cameo players (everyone from Ethel Merman to the Ritz Brothers to Stepin Fetchit to Henny Youngman), but for anyone but obsessive devotees of movies about movies, Won Ton Ton is, well, a dog.

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood: LAME

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Drive, He Said (1971)


          A few years ago, I attended an anniversary screening of Chinatown (1974) at which screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, and star Jack Nicholson shared memories of making the classic detective story. Not having heard Nicholson speak extemporaneously before, I was surprised by how erudite he was but also by how obtuse he was. Though clearly steeped in esoteric artistic theories, he wasn’t particularly good at getting his ideas across. Perhaps that’s why he’s thrived as an actor, using other people’s writing as a prism for focusing his intellect. And perhaps that’s why he hasn’t thrived as a director, despite having helmed three features thus far. Each of Nicholson’s directorial efforts contains interesting ideas, but all are aesthetic and narrative jumbles.
          This is especially true of Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said, which is a bizarre drama involving college basketball, insanity, sexual obsession, student rebellion, and several other subjects. The movie is clearly about something, but Nicholson’s storytelling is so unfocused that it’s difficult to identify the underlying themes.
          William Tepper stars as Hector, a college-hoops star wracked with some sort of indecipherable angst. (In a laughably obvious moment, he opines, “I feel so disconnected.”) He’s involved in a sexual relationship with Olive (Karen Black), the undeserving victim of his frequent mood swings; Olive’s other lover is an older man played by Towne in one of his only acting roles. Making matters even more fraught, Hector’s best friend is Gabriel (Michael Margotta), a student revolutionary feigning insanity to dodge the Vietnam draft—and losing his marbles in reality.
          The script was based on a novel by Jeremy Larner (The Candidate) and credited to Larner and Nicholson, though Towne and Terrence Malick reportedly made uncredited contributions. Similarly, the movie has four (!) credited editors. So, whether the unfathomable nature of the story is the result of too many cooks in the kitchen or simply of Nicholson’s reach exceeding his grasp, the sum effect is the same: Drive, He Said feels like several movies stitched together, forming a haphazard mosaic.
          In fact, much of Drive, He Said comprises people making random declarations, like this narcissistic gem spoken by Towne: “I don’t think I want to talk about this as much as I thought I did.” Every so often, something affecting happens, like Black and Tepper forming an emotional connection in bed, and every so often, something coherent happens—but it’s a measure of this movie’s peculiarity that the most rational scenes involve Bruce Dern, who plays Hector’s coach. When one of the most deliciously unhinged actors of the ’70s gets relegated to straight-man status, something’s gone terribly wrong.
          The last half-hour of the movie gets awfully mean-spirited and weird, when Gabriel starts to completely lose his shit. First, he freaks out in an Army induction center, and then he tries to rape Olive. Eventually, a nude Gabriel breaks into a college science lab and releases assorted insects, reptiles, and vermin, “liberating” fellow prisoners of the Man’s oppressive system. With its abundance of such oddly provocative moments, Drive, He Said is a heavy trip, but it’s hard to say whether the trip actually goes anywhere.

Drive, He Said: FREAKY

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)


          The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is an enjoyable romp about the good/bad old days of the Negro League, a consortium of baseball franchises that thrived in the 1930s, until the big leagues broke the color line by hiring black players for previously all-white teams. Billy Dee Williams, at the apex of his laid-back suaveness, stars as Bingo Long, star pitcher for the Ebony Aces, an NL team owned by heartless mortician “Sallie” Potter (Ted Ross). Fed up with Potter’s abusive polices (fining players for insubordination, kicking injured players to the curb), Bingo forms his own team for a barnstorming tour of the Midwest.
          To realize his dream, he recruits influential catcher Leon Carter (James Earl Jones), wild-man right fielder Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), and other NL luminaries. Dressing in brightly colored costumes with slouchy satin hats, the newly formed All-Stars swagger from one small town to the next, grabbing pickup games with local teams and building a solid bankroll even as they wrestle with racism and unsavory promoters. Meanwhile, Potter and the other NL owners recognize the All-Stars as a threat to their livelihood, so Poter sends goons out to harass and rob the All-Stars.
          As directed by popcorn-movie specialist John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), Bingo Long is brisk and eventful, with a vibrant mix of comedy, drama, social commentary, and sports action. The story moves along at a good clip, even if the characters are drawn a bit broadly, and there’s an offbeat mix of performance styles. Pryor is more like a guest star than a costar, dropping in and out of the movie periodically, but he’s got a funny running gag about trying to calculate batting averages, and he livens up the picture whenever he’s onscreen. Jones, showing the chops for light comedy that are easy to forget given his impressive résumé as a dramatic actor, is funny and tough, the voice of reason balancing Bingo’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
          Williams is hamstrung slightly because writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins let their protagonist get eclipsed by supporting characters; Bingo gets the story going and returns to the fore at the end, but his inner life is never sufficiently developed to make him the start-to-finish focus. Given this shortcoming, Williams does just fine, channeling the charisma that helps Bingo talk friends into joining his crusade.
          The movie is a touch long at 110 minutes, especially considering its thin approach to characterization, but it presents such unusual subject matter, in such an entertaining way, that it’s a solid double even though it’s not a home run.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings: GROOVY

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Big Jake (1971)


          Apparently aware that his days were numbered, cowboy-cinema legend John Wayne spent the early ’70s looking for a Western that might serve as his swan song in the genre. He ultimately hit the target with The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1976), yet even the also-rans during this period are interesting, partially because Wayne’s stock Western performance was oiled to perfection by this point, and partially because you can feel him writing rough drafts of his Final Statement. So, while Big Jake is not a particularly distinguished picture—it lacks the poetic impact of The Cowboys and the crowd-pleasing closure of The Shootist—it delivers an enjoyable mixture of action, drama, and humor, laced with sly nods to Wayne’s advancing age.
          He plays Jacob McCandles, a wealthy rancher with an intimidating reputation that borders on myth, given the fact that most people assume he’s dead. In fact, he’s merely been wandering the wilderness in the years since he fell out with his wife, Martha (Maureen O’Hara), who raised their brood in his absence. When varmints led by ruthless John Fain (Richard Boone) attack the McCandles ranch and kidnap Jacob’s grandson, demanding a $1 million ransom, Martha asks Jake to rescue the boy and wipe out the crooks. He sets out on the mission accompanied by two sons he barely knows, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), plus a long-in-the-tooth Indian pal, Sam (Bruce Cabot). The posse has a few colorful adventures on the road, mostly to do with people trying to steal the ransom money, before their final showdown with the kidnappers.
          Written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, the creators of the Dirty Harry character, Big Jake is bloodier and meaner than the usual Wayne fare, so the climax has real tension, although the edginess makes the requisite comic-relief bits feel out of place. And though Boone is entertaining as an amiable psychopath, he and the Duke (plus O’Hara) are the only formidable performers in the picture; Patrick Wayne, the star’s son, and Mitchum, whose dad is movie tough guy Robert Mitchum, are flyweights. As for Wayne, he’s no more an actor here than usual—his strength was inhabiting a larger-than-life persona, rather than incarnating actual characters—but he delivers the macho goods, strutting ridiculously as he shrugs off bullet wounds and other injuries in the name of doin’ what a man’s gotta do. Big Jake is hokum, to be sure, but it’s a step along the path that Wayne followed to his final reckoning with Westerns.

Big Jake: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Reckoning (1971)


          An interesting character study about an ambitious businessman who releases his inner animal after being dragged back to his working-class roots, The Reckoning boasts an intense leading performance by Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson, the fiery Scotsman perhaps best known to American audiences for his spellbinding turn as Merlin the Magician in Excalibur (1981). In The Reckoning, he plays Michael Marler, a fast-rising executive at a London business-machine company.
          Arrogant and merciless, Michael cuts a swath through local ladies, even though he’s married to the long-suffering Rosemary (Ann Bell), and he’s brutally competitive with coworkers. However, he acknowledges the limits of propriety, if not necessarily those of morality. Michael’s world is rocked when he’s called back to his hometown of Liverpool for a deathbed visit with his hardscrabble Irishman father. It turns out Michael’s “da” was fatally injured in a bar fight with local motorcycle thugs, so Michael reasonably expects the police to investigate. The British Bobbies show little interest in examining the death of an Irishman, so Liverpool locals pressure Michael to exact street-level justice. “For Christ’s sake,” Michael wails, “it’s way past the middle of the twentieth century, and here I am, expected to kill some yob I don’t even know!”
          Whether he goes through with the deed is best discovered in the context of the movie, but suffice to say that contemplating the most violent aspects of his nature releases Michael from any self-imposed obligations to honor legality. This epiphany emboldens him to act out even more boorishly than before, which manifests as brazen boozing and debauchery, and it liberates him to sabotage his immediate workplace superior. Watching Williamson chart Michael’s slide down into an amoral abyss is fascinating, since the actor’s craft is beyond reproach, so it ultimately doesn’t matter too much that the script by John McGrath (from a novel by Patrick Hall) meanders. Williamson is in virtually every scene, and he’s compelling even when the story loses focus.
          Adding considerable interest is crisp photography by the great British cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth, who eschews his signature ’70s style; instead of the dense haze filters he used for other projects, Unsworth opts for long lenses and smoked sets in order to create depth. Jack Gold, the journeyman British director behind a long string of respectable projects for film and television, opts for a few cheap tricks, like smash cuts and sudden zooms, but, for the most part, he wisely lets Williamson’s acting occupy center stage. Veteran composer Malcolm Arnold contributes a subtly Hitchcockian score that ups the tension level, and the movie benefits from solid location photography and a sturdy if unremarkable supporting cast. The ending is a bit dodgy, with a way-too-obvious final scene that would have been more effective if placed elsewhere in the film, but, even with its flaws, The Reckoning is a potent little dose of nastiness. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

The Reckoning: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gold (1974)


          After becoming James Bond in 1973, suave British star Roger Moore was cast in a slew of leading roles outside the franchise, yet was singularly unlucky in picking projects; none of his non-007 pictures became a significant hit, and many were outright disasters. Thus, it’s a great surprise to discover that Gold, which did very little business during its initial release and subsequently fell into the public domain after legal squabbles between Moore and the producers, is quite watchable.
          Depicting the adventures of a mine supervisor who discovers he’s merely the pawn in an outrageous scheme, the movie takes place in the colorful milieu of the South African gold business. The main villain is Manfred Steyner (Bradford Dillman), an ambitious executive conspiring to destroy his own mine in order to drive up worldwide gold prices. He’s keeping his plans secret from his wife, Terry (Susannah York), and her imperious father (Ray Milland), who owns the mine. When the supervisor who was rigging the scheme for Manfred dies in a mining accident, Manfred recruits hot-tempered Rod Slater (Moore) to take the supervisor’s place; Rod is told that a new vein is being tapped, when in fact he’s being coaxed into opening an underground quarry that will flood the mine.
          Although Gold is far too long, getting lost for a while in the romantic subplot of Rod’s illicit affair with Terry, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film. Several veterans of the Bond franchise participated, giving the movie energy and scale: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service helmer Peter Hunt directed the film with gusto; Maurice Binder contributed a lively title sequence; and frequent Bond director/editor John Glen supervised the mining scenes, which are claustrophobic and intense. (There’s even a corny title song performed by Jimmy Helms in a Tom Jones-lite mode that evokes brassy Bond themes like “Thunderball.”)
          Moore doesn’t leave his comfort zone, laying on the charm with tools like his arched eyebrow and seductive speaking voice, but it’s a pleasure to see him being manipulated, rather than strutting like the master of all he surveys, since vulnerability becomes him. York is fine in a thankless role (even though she’s swathed in godawful ’70s fashions), and Dillman is fun as an unscrupulous climber who goes to pieces when Rod starts mucking up his grand scheme. Milland scowls and shouts in his usual style, which is always entertaining, and supporting player Simon Sabela is compelling as the most prominent native miner, Big King.
          The film’s exciting conclusion, which has everything from an emergency plane landing to a vehicular assault to workers getting obliterated by explosions and floods, isn’t edited as tightly as it should have been, but Gold is nonetheless quite satisfying, offering an agreeable mixture of escapist adventure and simplistic social commentary.

Gold: GROOVY

Monday, September 19, 2011

End of the Game (1975)


          Ambitious, provocative, and thoughtful—but ultimately jumbled because its reach exceeds its grasp—End of the Game is a twisty whodunit that intertwines the resolution of an epic conflict between two aging enemies with the melodrama of young characters drawn into a scheme beyond their understanding. If that already strikes you as a confusing premise, then you’ve lit upon this highly admirable picture’s main problem: End of the Game tries to tell at least one story too many, and, as a result, all of its narrative elements get short shrift. The movie gets all sorts of points for trying to make a complex statement about morality, but the statement is neither clear nor forcefully expressed.
          Martin Ritt, appearing here as an actor but better known to audiences as a director of sensitive dramas, is appealingly rumpled as a veteran Swiss detective named Baerlach, who has spent decades trying to prove that a powerful industrialist named Gastman (Robert Shaw) once killed a woman. For cold-blooded Gastman, getting away with murder is the ultimate aphrodisiac, so he relishes watching his old adversary struggle with clues and evidence; furthermore, Gastman uses lethal force to protect himself whenever Baerlach gets too close to closing the case. After Baerlach’s aide (Donald Sutherland) dies mysteriously, the relentless investigator decides Gastman was responsible, so he sends an eager young cop (Jon Voight) after Gastman, which unexpectedly draws the young cop’s lover (Jacqueline Bisset) into the intrigue.
          End of the Game was directed by Austrian hyphenate Maximilian Schell, best known as a leading and supporting actor in international movies; unsurprisingly, the flamboyance of his performance style carries over to his directorial approach. (Schell co-wrote the script with German author Friedrich Durrenmatt, upon whose novel the film is based.) Attractive European locations enhance the theme, because it’s as if the “game” has been played since the ancient bridges and buildings surrounding the characters were first erected. More importantly, Schell put together a terrific cast, and the valiant efforts of his leading players make the picture consistently watchable—even when the story becomes impossibly convoluted, the actors ensure that individual scenes are credible and tense.
          The premise of aging adversaries using younger people as pawns is interesting, and the juxtaposition of wise older characters and reckless younger ones gives the picture an existential quality: Everyone in this movie seems to be grasping for the deeper meaning of his or her own life. So, even though End of the Game doesn’t ultimately make all that much sense, it’s worthwhile because what it’s trying to accomplish is so interesting from a psychological perspective.

End of the Game: FUNKY

Sunday, September 18, 2011

R.P.M. (1970)


          Though admirable for his commitment to exploring progressive causes onscreen, producer-director Stanley Kramer was also a total square whose movies were so conventional they felt ancient even when they were new. That’s certainly the case with R.P.M. (the poster of which provides the handy translation Revolutions Per Minute), which explores the student unrest that was pervasive on college campus circa the late ’60s. However, instead of building his movie around a student leader whose experiences might illuminate issues related to the counterculture, Kramer focuses on a fiftysomething professor who’s so “hip” to the youth scene that his live-in girlfriend is a 25-year-old grad student (Ann-Margret). Yes, in Kramer’s archaic viewpoint, being a dirty old man is a revolutionary act.
          Further identifying this weird movie as an establishment statement about anti-establishment themes, studio-era leading man Anthony Quinn stars as Professor Paco Perez, a social-sciences specialist recruited by his school’s board of trustees to serve as an interim president after students storm the administration building and force the resignation of the previous president. With his hep-cat clothes and “rebellious” motorcycle, Paco swings to the same lefty tune as student leaders Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield), but once Paco starts engaging in rap sessions with the protestors, he discovers the gulf between his grown-up pragmatism and the kids’ all-or-nothing extremism. This renders the whole film somewhat pointless, because the focus on the uninteresting topic of Paco’s midlife crisis pushes the whole subject of student unrest into the background.
          That said, R.P.M. is strangely watchable. Kramer’s filmmaking is energetic, even though he opts for borderline embarrassing vignettes like a dream sequence in which school administrators are seen as clowns. There’s also considerable pleasure to be found in watching Kramer struggle with the movie’s climax, because his shots of the inevitable student riot are laughably overwrought. Furthermore, the dialogue is like a greatest-hits collection of ’60s slang; R.P.M. was penned by future Love Story author Erich Segal, who knew a thing or two about tapping into the zeitgeistLeading man Quinn is comparatively restrained, embracing the talky role of an intellectual as a switch from his usual casting as animalistic macho men. Lockwood, best known for his costarring role in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is quietly charismatic; Winfield is characteristically intense; and Ann-Margret’s sex appeal is as formidable as always.
          Ultimately, R.P.M. is fascinating not only for its clumsy onscreen examination of the generation gap, but because its very style demonstrates the breadth of that gap—in every scene, it’s painfully obvious that Kramer and the kids he’s depicting come from totally different worlds. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics Request via WarnerArchive)

R.P.M. : FUNKY

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Adios, Amigo (1976)


Adios, Amigo represented a new pinnacle of behind-the-scenes power for football player-turned-action star Fred Williamson, because it was his first effort as a star-producer-writer-director (he had played these roles on previous films, but never all at once). Gratifying though it might be to indicate that Williamson rose to the occasion of becoming a fully realized auteur, Adios, Amigo is a cheap, dull, and sloppy Western boasting virtually nothing of interest except for the presence of Williamson and costar Richard Pryor. The action-comedy plot features Pryor as a fast-talking bandit who roams from town to town stirring up trouble, usually leaving fugitive Williamson to take the blame. Adding some pseudo-structure to the picture is a recurring device of the action freezing into paintings while the funky title song plays, which evokes the ’60s TV show The Wild, Wild, West. Williamson obviously intended to make a farce about one dude making life difficult for another dude, but instead, all he does is make life difficult for viewers. Pryor has a few fleeting moments of wiseass charm as a hustler trying to work every angle he can imagine, but he’s dragged down by the meandering, repetitive script. (One example of the witless writing: Pryor’s character is named “Sam Spade.”) As for Williamson’s acting, when he’s not being overshadowed by Pryor (which happens in most of their shared scenes), the star swaggers through one interchangeable vignette after another, beating the crap out of thugs, showing off his six-shooter skills, and (of course) driving white women wild. Playing yet another in his litany of super-cool characters, Williamson was well on the way to self-parody when he made Adios, Amigo.

Adios Amigo: LAME

Friday, September 16, 2011

Remember My Name (1978)


          After making a minor splash with Welcome to L.A. (1976), writer-director Alan Rudolph stepped out from under the shadow of his artistic patron, Robert Altman, with this unapologetically arty drama that focuses on behavior and mood instead of narrative clarity and momentum. So, while Welcome to L.A. feels like watered-down Altman with its myriad interconnected storylines, Remember My Name is purely and eccentrically Rudolph, a cryptic meditation on strange characters wading through a languorous haze of ennui and music.
          Rudolph favorite Geraldine Chaplin stars as Emily, a mystery woman who stalks a married couple while building an oddly itinerant lifestyle that involves camping out in a depressing apartment and working at a dead-end job as a general-store clerk. We eventually learn that she’s an ex-convict, and that the husband of the couple she’s stalking is her estranged ex-husband (Anthony Perkins), with whom she has some sort of unfinished business. And that’s pretty much the entire plot, because instead of revealing story points, Rudolph spends the movie showing Emily and the other characters living the mundane reality of their mundane lives: There are innumerable scenes of people driving to and from their homes and jobs; bringing home groceries and other household items; and making arrangements for doing things at later dates.
          As strung together by a soundtrack featuring blues songs performed by the forceful Alberta Hunter, Remember My Name has a distinct vibe but not very much energy. The last 30 minutes or so have a pulse because the story evolves rapidly once Chaplin confronts her ex, but until then, the leisurely pacing and opaque plotting are frustrating; it’s easy to envision some viewers getting caught up in the smoky atmosphere, but I’m among those immune to the film’s charms. Chaplin expresses the weird and needy aspects of her character effectively, and it’s a joy to watch Perkins play an ordinary character instead of a freak, but Berry Berenson (Perkins’ spouse in the movie and real life) is a blank slate, and Moses Gunn is underused as Chaplin’s policeman neighbor, so the performances don’t slot together comfortably. Helping matters somewhat are appearances by Dennis Franz, Jeff Goldblum, and Alfre Woodard in minor roles.

Remember My Name: FUNKY

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Coach (1978)


The concept of a sexy woman becoming the coach of an all-male basketball team could have led to satire or smut, but the movie featuring this concept is a milquetoast nothing: Coach is sufficiently well-made that it’s coherent and professional-looking, but the story is so uneventful that Coach feels like a set-up for jolts that just aren’t there. Every possible opportunity for sharp jokes about the gulf between the sexes is ignored or wasted; the sports scenes are drab and trite; and the leading lady tries to retain both her clothing and her dignity, which is admirable but not exactly the best way to deliver on audience expectations given that the narrative focuses on a sexual relationship between the coach and one of her players. The plot, which matters even less than you might imagine, involves onetime Olympic champion Randy Rawlings (Cathy Lee Crosby) getting a coaching job because a school functionary mistakes the name on her résumé for a man’s name. The school’s biggest backer, Granger (Keenan Wynn), tries to fire her immediately, but Randy threatens a discrimination lawsuit, so Granger endeavors to sabotage her job performance. In this context, it makes no sense that the supposedly intelligent Randy risks her employment by hopping into the sack with eager hoops player Jack (Michael Biehn), but there you go. Offering brief respites from the main storyline are idiotic scenes like the bit in which a white student is hypnotized into thinking he’s a black hoops star. (Yes, Coach is supposed to be a comedy.) Crosby, all cheekbones and teeth, is believably athletic (she was a tennis champ before becoming an actor), but there’s a reason her career mostly comprises guest shots on grade-Z television. Yawn.

Coach: LAME

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Suspiria (1977)


          Arguably the most beloved of Italian shock-cinema maestro Dario Argento’s various bloody cinematic freakouts—beloved by a certain stripe of masochistic viewer, that is—Suspiria is like a tone poem written in the form of a fan letter to Fangoria. Taking place in some bizarro alternate universe comprised entirely of horror-movie clichés, Suspiria is a nasty piece of work that takes perverse pleasure in getting a rise out of viewers, yet what separates it from standard slasher fare is the surrealistic artistry of Argento’s filmmaking. From the disturbing music (more on that in a minute) to the crazy lighting, which casts blazingly hot beams of bright colors across almost every scene, Suspiria is cranked up to overdrive from start to finish.
          The story, which couldn’t possibly matter less, concerns wide-eyed American dancer Suzy Banion (Jessica Harper), who is invited to enroll in a European dance academy. The night she arrives, one of the students is stalked and murdered by a psycho, and as various creepy things happen around Suzy, our intrepid heroine slowly, dimly, excruciatingly figures out All Is Not Right.™ Yes, even the hoary cliché of the Unbelievably Stupid Young Woman™ is represented in Suspiria, although with a trippy twist: The nutjobs running the dance academy start drugging Suzy soon after her enrollment, so for all intents and purposes, she’s high throughout most of the movie.
          It seems reasonable to assume that some of the folks behind the camera were toking as well, since Suspiria feels like a funhouse-mirror version of reality. Walls are alive with shadows and mysterious movements; maggots infest an attic; the exterior and interior spaces of the school look like backdrops from some experimental theater piece; and everyone talks in stilted phrases with no discernible relation to actual human speech. (Strange-cinema mainstay Udo Keir’s performance is particularly absurd, since dubbing magically erases his thick German accent.) More importantly, for shock value anyway, all of the characters are so weird that any rational person would run for the hills upon encountering these ghouls. Yet Suzy just hangs out, even as innumerable clues and otherworldly goings-on suggest her teachers are witches, because that’s what people do in over-the-top horror pictures: They linger because They Don’t Trust Their Own Senses.™
          As straight narrative, Suspiria is a disaster—when it’s not tediously repetitive, it’s insultingly obvious—but as an exercise in sicko style, it’s impressive. The picture’s crucial element, without question, is that aforementioned music, by a rock group called Goblin (with help from Argento). Played at punishingly loud volumes, Goblin’s music features surreal, jangling death rattles mixed with a vocal motif that sounds like a distant echo of a child’s lullaby. When those sounds are juxtaposed with Argento’s Day-Glo montages of women getting mutilated, it’s impossible not to react, because the audience is getting bludgeoned as mercilessly as the characters.
          If there’s any point to this exercise in excess other than trying to make viewers ill, however, it isn’t immediately apparent. So, if you go for this sort of thing, Suspiria is some kind of milestone achievement. If you don’t, it’s merely an unpleasant audiovisual assault created by One Really Sick Dude,™ a sobriquet one suspects Argento would consider a compliment.

Suspiria: FREAKY

Monday, September 12, 2011

March or Die (1977)


          Though gorgeous to look at, thanks to sensuous imagery created by cinematographer John Alcott, the French Foreign Legion drama March or Die is an absolute mess. The story is unfocused, the characterizations are unsatisfying, the villain is laughably miscast, and the filmmakers seem confused about which characters should engender audience sympathy. The fact that the picture is more or less watchable, despite these huge flaws, is almost entirely attributable to Alcott’s photography and to the charisma of leading players Catherine Deneuve, Gene Hackman, and Max von Sydow.
          March or Die begins in a tellingly murky fashion: A few years after the end of World War I, Major Foster (Hackman) leads his troops back to France following a bloody deployment. In a tense meeting with his superiors, American-born Foster is assigned to protect a group of archeologists led by François Marneau (Von Sydow) during a dig in Morocco, where Arab locals are hostile to foreigners. Foster frets about the possible human cost, suggesting he’s a noble soldier who cares only about his men. But then, as soon as Foster starts training new recruits for the mission, he’s depicted as a heartless bastard who takes sadistic pleasure in abusing subordinates.
          Confusing matters further is a long sequence of the soldiers traveling to Morocco. One of their fellow passengers is Simone Picard (Deneuve), who falls for Marco (Terence Hill), a part-Gypsy enlisted man. Foster expends considerable energy humiliating Marco, even though it’s plain that Marco is a favorite among the men because he looks out for gentle souls like the soft-spoken musician who’s withering under the rigors of military service. Upon reaching Morocco, the troops are confronted by Arab leader El Krim (Ian Holm), who is determined to derail the French expedition. Turns out he and Foster have history, meaning a showdown is inevitable.
          There’s enough story here for a dozen movies, or at least one rich epic, but co-writer/director Dick Richards can’t corral the material. Working with co-writer David Zelag Goodman, Richards fails to guide viewers through this maze of interconnected narrative, and he fails to define his characters as specific people. There are tantalizing glimpses of internal life, like the vignette of Hackman lounging with a Moroccan courtesan, and there are poetic moments, like the final fate of the musician. However, none of it hangs together, and false notes abound.
          Hill, the Italian-born stud who starred in a string of ’60s and ’70s Westerns, is physically impressive but blank in dramatic scenes, while Holm, the Englishman best known for fantasy films like Alien (1979), derails his performance with bug-eyed overacting. Hackman plays individual scenes beautifully, though each seems appropriate for a totally different character, and Deneuve merely provides alluring ornamentation. Worse, the florid score by Maurice Jarre sounds like a satire of his legendary work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

March or Die: FUNKY

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Roller Boogie (1979)


The title of this low-budget romantic drama explains its minor curiosity value, since the fad of roller-skating in discos was so purely ’70s that watching a feature-length celebration of the activity is like slipping into a time machine. Having said that, the movie is as interesting as the roller-boogie fad itself, which is to say that after about two minutes of watching attractive young people zip around in polyester and spandex, all curiosity has been satiated. Linda Blair, caught in her awkward transition from juvenile stardom to grown-up roles, stars as Terry, a teen musical prodigy from a wealthy Beverly Hills family who digs slumming with the skaters on the Venice Beach boardwalk. There, she meets gifted skater Bobby (Jim Bray), who becomes her roller-boogie tutor and, later, her wrong-side-of-the-tracks lover. Complicating their lives are the mobsters who want Venice entrepreneur Jammer (Sean McClory) to sell his roller rink so they can redevelop the property. Soon enough, Terry and Bobby become the leaders of a group of kids striving to expose the bad guys and save their favorite hangout. In other words, to call Roller Boogie vapid would be to unfairly raise expectations. From start to finish, the acting is as bad as the writing, the picture’s attempts at comic relief are awful, and the roller-boogie sequences drag on forever. It’s also jarring that some of the skating vignettes are highly choreographed, while others are documentary-style montages of kids doin’ their thing on the roller-rink track. Bray, a real-life skating champion, offers impressive athleticism but nothing else, while the nubile Blair fills out her barely-there outfits more ably than she fleshes out her whiny characterization.

Roller Boogie: LAME

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)


          In addition to being one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting offscreen couples, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward made a formidable combination whenever Newman stepped behind the camera to direct his wife. Case in point: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a bleak drama about a bitterly unhappy single mother raising two young daughters even though she’s barely capable of looking after herself. In a dodgy urban pocket of Connecticut, Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Woodward) lives in a disorderly house with high-schooler Ruth (Roberta Wallach) and grade-schooler Matilda (Nell Potts). Beatrice squeaks by on a meager income, which includes lodging a procession of decrepit seniors in a downstairs room.
          Beatrice is a foul-tempered, hard-drinking, self-loathing harridan, a lifelong misfit whose sharp tongue made her a class clown back in her school days, but now serves to alienate her from nearly everyone she encounters. Resentful that her husband left her and subsequently died, dooming her to a hand-to-mouth existence, Beatrice brims with so much rage that she lashes out with every breath, deriding her daughters and burdening them with her adult problems. Ruth is old enough to retreat into the distractions of a teenager’s social life, but Matilda is so young and sensitive she can’t figure out where she belongs in her horror show of a home life.
          Adapted by sensitive-drama specialist Alvin Sargent from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paul Zindel, the story tracks an excruciating stretch in the life of the Hunsdorfer clan, during which Matilda slowly discovers a self-affirming identity as an exceptional science student (the film’s title relates to her horticultural experiment), and during which Beatrice spirals deeper into depression. Newman’s direction is clinical and unobtrusive, observing Beatrice somewhat like a wild animal in a zoo, and he concentrates much of his energy on coaxing affecting performances from the girls playing Beatrice’s offspring.
          Wallach, the daughter of durable character player Eli Wallach, is appropriately reserved and sullen, but Potts provides the crucial counterpoint to Woodward’s intensity. The real-life daughter of Newman and Woodward, Potts (born Elinor Teresa Newman) is a fragile presence, her pale blue eyes expressing the unique confusion of a child frightened by her mother. Woodward is as powerful as usual, delving into Beatrice’s darkness and finding the wounds behind the ugliness, so when the story comes together in the last half-hour, the juxtaposition of Potts’ performance with Woodward’s creates something simultaneously beautiful and excruciating. The Effect of Gamma Rays is tough going, since Newman builds emotional tension without any reprieve, but it’s a worthwhile journey.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: GROOVY

Friday, September 9, 2011

Superdad (1973)


          The live-action Disney comedy Superdad is awful but weirdly fascinating. Although the title promises one of the studio’s special-effects farces, Superdad is instead a misguided attempt at dramatizing the generation gap. Uptight father Charlie McCready (Bob Crane) frets that his daughter, recent high-school graduate Wendy (Kathleen Cody), is wasting the summer before college; she’s spending all her time with friends including her childhood sweetheart, Bart (Kurt Russell), while waiting to hear if she’s gotten a scholarship to her parents’ alma mater. Charlie’s jazzed about the scholarship possibility because attending the far-away college would separate Wendy from Bart and the gang. Watching TV one night, Charlie hears a pop psychologist suggest that parents should try getting hip to their teenagers’ lifestyles, so Charlie tags along for a disastrous day of beach volleyball and water-skiing. Disgruntled, Charlie slips back into control-freak mode and tricks Wendy into thinking she won the scholarship. Predictably, Wendy goes to pieces when driven away from her friends. At college, Wendy gets “engaged” to a counterculture artist, forcing Charlie (and Bart) to intervene.
          Tiresome in every respect, this movie about the generation gap is, inadvertently, a product of the generation gap—the clueless middle-aged Disney pros behind the camera depict teens as airheaded twits who do nothing but laugh and sing all day, making the kids seem like G-rated hippies. (The scene of the gang driving around while they warble an insipid song called “Los Angeles” against a backdrop of ugly process shots is particularly painful.) Oddly, the adults don’t come off looking much better, since Charlie is less of a Superdad and more of a Superdouche. He lies to his family, maligns the people Wendy loves, scowls at everything, and tries to dominate everyone he meets. It’s also difficult to accept Crane as a squeaky-clean Disney paterfamilias knowing that in his offscreen life, he was a sex addict who ran with a dangerous crowd. As for Disney stalwart Russell, it’s to his great credit that the romantic subplot comes across fairly well, especially since Cody is a bottle-blonde cipher, but his sincere performance belongs in a better movie.

Superdad: LAME

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bootleggers (1974)


          True story. I was halfway through watching Bootleggers, a low-budget adventure story about feuding moonshiners in Prohibition-era Arkansas, when it occurred to me the picture was going down more smoothly than the usual offering from schlockmeister Charles B. Pierce: The story made sense, the acting was more or less passable, and the photography exploited real locations to fill the screen with lush colors. Then I glanced at the video sleeve and discovered Bootleggers was supposed to be a comedy. Not having laughed once during the first hour, this caught me by surprise, but by the time the movie was over, it didn’t really matter. Bootleggers is pleasant drive-in fare with better storytelling and visuals than might be expected—but it ain’t no gosh-darned comedy, to put it in the backwoods vernacular of the picture’s characters. Slim Pickens, at his a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ best, plays the patriarch of a clan of moonshiners, with Dennis Fimple and Paul Koslo (don’t worry, I’d never heard of them, either) playing his grown-up grandkids, who cook the hooch and make deliveries while Slim keeps the home fires a-burnin’.
          The movie depicts various adventures as the boys avoid the law, romance local ladies, and tussle with another bootlegging clan. When the movie actually tries to be funny, it’s excruciating simply because of the cartoony music used to accentuate “comedy” bits, but when it grinds through vignettes of rambunctious redneckery without editorial commentary, it’s innocuous fun. The sheriff is stupid and sweaty, the “bad” bootleggers are dirty and sweaty, and the heroes are exuberant and sweaty. Future Charlie’s Angels beauty Jaclyn Smith shows up for a supporting role as a pistol-packin hairdresser, lending loveliness and sass to the proceedings, but the real star of the picture is cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (later to become a go-to guy for directors Jonathan Demme and M. Night Shyamalan). His images make Pierce’s slight story look a lot more credible than the story probably deserves to look.

Bootleggers: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Mack (1973)


          Few blaxploitation pictures have cast a longer shadow over African-American pop culture than The Mack, a violent thriller about the sex trade that’s imbued with a bracing amount of documentary realism. Set in the ghettos of Oakland, California, the picture follows the adventures of Goldie (Max Julien), a small-time crook who returns home to Oakland after a stretch in prison. Surveying his options for making a buck, he decides to become a pimp (or “mack,” in the movie’s authentic parlance), and his success in the flesh-peddling line makes him a target for competitors, corrupt cops, and mobsters.
          On paper, the picture sounds like a hundred other blaxploitation flicks, and, indeed, The Mack features the customary polyester clothing, R&B tunes, and street jargon. Beyond the rote action-movie plotting, however, is a sincere exploration of sociopolitical forces driving life in the roughest pockets of Oakland’s black community. The filmmakers enlisted several real pimps as technical advisors, which gives credibility to scenes of internecine power struggles.
          Adding another interesting dimension are pointed interactions between Goldie and his brother, black-power activist Olinga (Roger E. Mosley). “Bein’ rich and black means something,” Goldie says to Olinga at one point. “Bein’ poor and black don’t mean nothing.” The idea of success as a revolutionary act is provocative, and Olinga counters this argument with hard-hitting remarks about how the cycle of blacks exploiting blacks benefits the white power structure.
          This is heady stuff for a B-movie that also makes room for vicious scenes like the moment when Goldie locks a competitor in a car trunk along with a bagful of rats, but The Mack is consistently surprising. In addition to the race-relations material, the movie tries to explain the phenomenon of pimps controlling the minds of their “bitches” (get used to hearing that word, a lot, if you watch The Mack). In one vivid scene, Goldie gathers his streetwalkers in a planetarium and delivers a Jim Jones-style sermon about the rewards he’ll shower them with in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.
          The Mack isn’t made particularly well (most of the shots are grainy and underexposed), and Julien is a peculiar leading man, his onscreen persona so leisurely it’s hard to buy him as a lethal street warrior. Additionally, comedian Richard Pryor is underused in a supporting role as Goldie’s sidekick, though his sporadic torrents of vulgarity amp up the intensity level.
          Nonetheless, the resonant elements of the picture stack up. Willie Hutch contributes atmospheric music (including the suave ballad “I Choose You”); veteran character actor Don Gordon weaves all sorts of eccentric details into his performance as a bad cop who torments Goldie; and Mosley, later of Magnum P.I. fame, is believably anguished. More importantly, for fans of the blaxploitation genre, The Mack is filled with choice dialogue, like Goldie’s classic challenge to an enemy: “We can handle this like you got some class, or we can get into some gangsta shit.”

The Mack: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hot Stuff (1979)


          Rotund comedian Dom DeLuise could be hilarious in the right situations, whether he was cutting up with buddy Burt Reynolds on The Tonight Show or mugging in outrageous Mel Brooks movies. In the wrong situations, however, he was prone to cartoonish behavior like double-takes and pratfalls. In that context, it’s interesting to watch Hot Stuff, the only theatrical feature DeLuise directed, because, in theory, his performance in the picture offers a pure demonstration of his idea of comedy; no one guided DeLuise except DeLuise himself. Therefore, it’s a bummer to report that he delivers pretty much the same broad clowning here that he did elsewhere. It turns out DeLuise was simply one of those amiable performers best appreciated in small doses.
          As for the movie itself Hot Stuff is very silly and not nearly as funny as it might have been. The script, co-written by veteran crime scribe Donald E. Westlake, has a fun idea: Four Miami cops set up a fencing operation to trap thieves. DeLuise plays Ernie, a nervous detective just shy of retirement, and country singer-turned-actor Jerry Reed plays Doug, his good-ol’-boy partner. Suzanne Pleshette plays Louise, a cop from another precinct who joins forces with the boys (and becomes Doug’s love interest). Together with a fourth cop (Luis Avalos), they rig a borrowed storefront with video equipment and lure unsuspecting criminals by paying top dollar for stolen loot. (The great Ossie Davis is wasted in a trite supporting role as their long-suffering commander.)
          Yet, instead of the fraught predicaments one might expect from a story about police officers working undercover, Hot Stuff feels like a variety show, with the cops holding court in the storefront while a string of low-rent comedians enter and exit the scene, giving mini-performances as oddball crooks. At one point, towering funnyman Pat McCormick literally walks into the storefront and drops a string of lame one-liners, stopping just short of telling the police to tip their waitresses and try the veal. The episodic nature of the picture is ameliorated somewhat by a couple of chase scene/shootouts and by a subplot about the Mafia mistaking the cops for competitors.
          A few of the bits are clever, like the finale in which the cops stage a spectacular mass arrest (which rings true with stories from the annals of real-life sting operations). However, the movie spends way too much time on Gong Show­-grade comedians, to say nothing of inanity like a pie fight. Hot Stuff is watchable, but it’s not for discerning viewers. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

Hot Stuff: FUNKY