Monday, October 31, 2011

Tales from the Crypt (1972) & The Vault of Horror (1973)


          Years before the cult-favorite 1989-1996 HBO series reintroduced the title Tales from the Crypt into popular culture, the notoriously gory short stories that first appeared in the EC Comics periodical of that name inspired a pair of British anthology films. Here’s the backstory: Published by William Gaines, EC Comics’ horror titles were scandalized during a mid-1950s witch hunt that blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency. Gaines’ books were easy targets, with their viscera-laden morality tales about nefarious people suffering horrifically ironic fates; the vignettes were like O. Henry yarns with dismemberments. All of Gaines’ horror books were canceled as a result of censorship pressures—yet once the passage of two decades made lighthearted bloodshed socially acceptable again, Amicus Productions, the English company that briefly competed with Hammer Films for dominance of the lucrative Brit-horror market, licensed a slew of EC stories for a pair of films.
          Unfortunately, neither movie is particularly good. One gets the impression that brisk shooting schedules were to blame, since the acting and photography feel rushed, and, as a result, neither picture evokes the beloved shadowy atmosphere of the source material. The first picture, Tales from the Crypt, includes a familiar framing device: A character called the Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson) gathers several people into a mysterious tomb and exposes them to visions of horrible things they might or might not have done. Instead of the cackling cadaver from the comics or the HBO series, however, Richardson is just a bitchy old Englishman, sort of like an otherworldly schoolmaster.
          The five episodes in Tales from the Crypt are unnecessarily long-winded, though Tales benefits from the participation of Hammer Films stalwarts including director Freddie Francis and actor Peter Cushing. In the most generic episode, “All Through the House,” Joan Collins plays a murderous wife who gets stalked by a psycho on Christmas Eve, and in the most sadistic story, “Blind Alleys,” Nigel Patrick plays a former Army major who runs a home for the blind with ruthless efficiency until his charges exact bloody revenge. The picture also features “Wish You Were Here,” the umpteenth variation of the old short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” about people who get into trouble by making unwise wishes. Everyone delivers professional work in front of and behind the camera, but it’s all quite rote.
          The follow-up flick, The Vault of Horror, features more of the same, albeit with more efficiency and less impressive marquee value. In the most amusing episode, “The Neat Job,” a memorably prissy Terry-Thomas plays a clean freak who drives his wife to murderous distraction, leading to a gruesomely appropriate fate. Several Vault episodes go the supernatural route, including “Drawn and Quartered,” featuring onetime Dr. Who star Tom Baker as an artist using voodoo to kill people who stole his work, and “This Trick’ll Kill You,” with Curt Jurgens as a magician who steals a gag from the wrong snake-charmer. The problem with these movies, aside from their unrelenting gruesomeness, is the formulaic story structure: villain does creepy stuff, villain gets bloody comeuppance. Some episodes have more zing than others, but the novelty wears off quickly.

Tales from the Crypt: FUNKY
The Vault of Horror: FUNKY

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Black Moon (1975)


          French director Louis Malle’s only feature-length venture into surrealism, Black Moon is among the strangest movies released in the ’70s, even though it’s quite tame, in terms of content and style, when compared to the boldest sex-and-violence freakouts of the era. Instead of shock value, Malle opts for the weirdness usually found in the world of dreams, juxtaposing doomsday scenarios, mother fixations, paranoia, talking animals, and other loaded psychological signifiers. Viewers inclined to parse Black Moon for deeper meanings could write epic dissertations trying to analyze all of the aural and visual messages, and stoners could presumably groove on the wall-to-wall oddity. For viewers seeking narrative coherence, however, only consternation awaits.
          British actress Cathryn Harrison stars as Lily, a young woman driving through the French countryside and trying to avoid the warring parties in a violent armed conflict between men and women. Eventually abandoning her car, Lily spots a unicorn and follows the animal to an old estate, where she encounters several bizarre beings: an elderly woman (Therese Giehse) who conspires with mysterious colleagues via radio; a young handyman (Joe Dallesandro) and his beautiful sister (Alexandra Stewart), who barely ever speak; and a slew of animals, some of whom speak.
          While ostensibly trying to find the unicorn, and thereby prove she’s not crazy to think she saw the mythical animal, Lily slips into the peculiar life cycle of the estate. After watching Stewart’s character breast-feed the elderly woman, for instance, Lily helps out by breast-feeding the elderly woman when Stewart’s character is away. Black Moon is filled with images that might mean something, like the bit in which Lily berates the unicorn, which she eventually finds, for being overweight and ungraceful. The question is whether Black Moon actually generates enough excitement and interest to warrant investigation of its mysteries.
          On the plus side, the movie has a beautifully overcast look; revered cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot the picture in and around Malle’s real-life family estate, so there’s a palpable sense of old Europe’s earthiness and splendor. On the minus side, the lack of a strong narrative line makes the episodes comprising the picture feel random, as if Malle (who also produced and co-wrote the picture) transcribed a stream of consciousness instead of crafting a story. Still, for many viewers, anything out of the ordinary is noteworthy, and if there’s one thing Black Moon is not, that is ordinary. Moreover, the frequent critical parallels between this film and Alice in Wonderland are justified, so if you’re game for another trip down the rabbit hole, Black Moon will certainly take you there.

Black Moon: FREAKY

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Hideaways (1973)


A lighthearted children’s movie with a reassuring message about appreciating the virtues of home despite the allure of faraway places, The Hideaways was based on E.L. Konigsburg’s novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a Newbery Award winner. When the story begins, gangly teenager Claudia Kincaid (Sally Prager) decides to run away from her suburban New Jersey home because she doesn’t feel appreciated. Enlisting her younger brother, preadolescent Jamie (Johnny Doran), as an accomplice, Claudia slips away with Jamie to New York City, then heads straight to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since Claudia is fascinated by ancient lore about chivalry. Drawing on their considerable ingenuity, the kids contrive means of living at the museum for several nights, hiding out from guards during closing time, grabbing coins from a wishing fountain for purchasing cafeteria lunches, and sleeping in beds that are on exhibit. While at the museum, Claudia becomes enchancted by a delicate statue of an angel, which may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo, so when homesickness motivates the kids to vacate the museum, they trek to the home of wealthy widow Mrs. Frankweiler (Ingrid Bergman), the statue’s previous owner. One of those gruff-but-loving types found only in children’s movies, Mrs. Frankweiler recognizes a kindred spirit in the willful Claudia, so the older woman shares a secret about the statue with her new young friend, giving Claudia an unexpected reward to her mischievous adventure before Mrs. Frankweiler’s driver escorts the children home. The Hideaways isn’t all that well-made (the children’s acting is just okay and the photography is murky), but the story is a heartfelt celebration of youthful imagination. Obviously, the picture exists in a fantasy realm where nothing bad ever happens to children, and contemporary kiddie viewers weaned on Night at the Museum would probably find the picture interminable. But with its fanciful narrative and sweet themes, to say nothing of Bergman’s formidable presence, The Hideaways is reputable juvenile escapism from a more innocent era. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Hideaways: FUNKY

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Hindenburg (1975)


          A generation before James Cameron put Kate and Leo aboard the Titanic, transforming a historical tragedy into the colorful backdrop for a silly fictional story, the makers of The Hindenburg used a similar gimmick for their movie about history’s most famous airship disaster. Based on a speculative book by Michael M. Mooney, the picture presents one of the sexiest theories for why the famous zeppelin crashed while docking in New Jersey after a 1937 transatlantic voyage from Nazi Germany, where the ship was considered a powerful symbol of Third Reich accomplishment. According to the movie, anti-Nazi conspirators planned to destroy the ship after the passengers were safely away, but then a perfect storm of circumstance led to the deaths of 36 people.
          Completely missing every opportunity presented by this edgy storyline, The Hindenburg is a slow-moving bore filled with drab subplots, trite characterizations, and woefully little action. Using a tired Agatha Christie-type structure, the movie introduces Col. Franz Ritter (George C. Scott), a German pilot sent by the Nazi high command to spy on crew and passengers because of a bomb threat that was issued prior to the ship’s departure from Germany. (In typical disaster-movie fashion, every sensible person in the story recommends delaying the trip, but the expeditious high command insists on a timely liftoff.)
          Once the Hindenburg is airborne, Ritter pokes around the lives of various people, looking for clues of bad intent, so the picture quickly falls into a clichéd cycle of melodramatic vignettes that are supposed to make the audience wonder (and care) who’s going to live and who’s going to die. Unfortunately, none of the characters is interesting—not the German countess who shares romantic history with Ritter; not the songwriter and clown performing anti-Hitler routines; not the twitchy crewman whom the audience can identify as the saboteur the first time he appears onscreen. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast almost exclusively comprises workaday character actors: William Atherton, Anne Bancroft, Robert Clary, Charles Durning, Richard Dysart, Burgess Meredith, Roy Thinnes, and Gig Young are all solid performers, but they’re not exactly the mid-’70s A-list.
          The film’s production values are impressive-ish, including vivid re-creations of the Hindenburg’s interiors, and some of the flying shots feature handsome old-school effects, but director Robert Wise’s dramaturgy is so turgid that even these quasi-spectacular elements are for naught. Viewers who soldier through the whole movie are rewarded with a 20-minute climax featuring a detailed re-enactment of the Hindenburg disaster, which Wise presents in black-and-white so he can intercut his footage with newsreel shots of the real Hindenburg. This laborious denouement offers thrills, but its all too little, too late.
          If nothing else, the filmmakers get points for the sheer nerve of ending this bloated whale of a movie with vintage audio from the famous “Oh, the humanity!” radio broadcast: The last thing viewers hear before the credits is a voice announcing, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.” Cinematic self-awareness?

The Hindenburg: LAME

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)


          Highly regarded as one of the most faithful adaptations of a Raymond Chandler novel, Farewell, My Lovely is an oddity among the films that comprised the noir boom of the mid-’70s. Unlike, say, Chinatown (1974), which placed a contemporary cast in a period milieu to achieve a postmodern effect, Farewell, My Lovely stars an actor who appeared in several classics of the original late ’40s noir cycle: Robert Mitchum. And while Mitchum’s advanced age creates some storytelling hiccups, like the idea that his character is sexual catnip for a young beauty, his deep association with the genre and the hangdog quality that made him a good fit for vintage noir are used to great effect; Mitchum lumbers around Farewell, My Lovely like he’s the same poor bastard he played in Out of the Past (1947) after another 30 years of rough road.
          In addition to its well-cast leading man, the picture boasts a smooth script by David Zelag Goodman. The screenplay retains Chandler’s pithiest observations (via Mitchum’s world-weary voiceover) and lets the story spiral off into all the right murky tangents without losing narrative coherence. Describing a Chandler plot in the abstract does nothing to capture the story’s appeal, but the broad strokes are that a muscle-bound crook named Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) hires private dick Philip Marlowe (Mitchum) to track down his long-lost girlfriend. This draws Marlowe into a web of hoodlums, politicians, and whores, so before long Marlowe’s been beaten, shot at, shot up, and generally put through the wringer. Along the way, he commences a torrid romance with a powerful judge’s fag-hag trophy wife, Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling). The movie gets seedier as it progresses, with Marlowe serving as the audience’s tour guide through the underworld.
          Director Dick Richards gets preoccupied with aping the visual style of classic noir flicks (lotsa neon and venetian blinds), so the more amateurish actors in the cast don’t get the attention they need, and Richards is pretty inept handling the sequence of Marlowe getting hopped up on dope. Nonetheless, the story is compelling—in Chandler’s universe, bad situations always get worse—and the supporting cast is colorful. John Ireland stands out as Marlowe’s policeman pal, the stalwart Detective Nulty, and Sylvia Miles received an Oscar nomination for her grotesque turn as a boozy ex-showgirl. Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Spinell, and Anthony Zerbe show up at regular intervals, and there’s even a brief appearance by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Farewell, My Lovely is uneven, but its virtues are plentiful.

Farewell, My Lovely: GROOVY

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mikey and Nicky (1976)


          This hyper-realistic crime drama should hit my ’70s art-cinema sweet spot: It’s a quiet character piece about low-level hoods, grounded in energetic performances by two creative actors with a long offscreen history. It’s also a novelty as the only drama helmed by the great Elaine May, best known for her work in the realm of sophisticated light comedy. So, why doesn’t Mikey and Nicky work for me? In a word: Cassavetes. I realize it’s heresy to criticize the father of American indie cinema, but Cassavetes’ onscreen persona was grating at the best of times, and he’s downright insufferable here. It’s not just that he’s playing a pain-in-the-ass character; the problem is that Cassavetes treats every scene like an acting-class exercise, spinning into seemingly improvised riffs and repeating dialogue over and over again, presumably while awaiting the “inspiration” to say something different. Actors may find this stuff endlessly fascinating, but there’s a reason films usually capture results instead of process—nobody needs to see the sausage getting made.
          As the writer-director of this sloppy enterprise, May has to take the blame for letting her leading man run away with the movie to such an extent that Mikey and Nicky feels like one of Cassavetes’ own directorial endeavors. It’s a shame May didn’t exercise more discipline, since the premise could have led to something exciting. Small-time crook Nicky (Cassavetes) is convinced he’s on a Mafia hit list, so he reaches out to his long-suffering best friend, Mikey (Peter Falk)—and that early moment is when the story goes off the rails. It’s never clear what Nicky wants from Mikey, except perhaps companionship, since Nicky shoots down every suggestion Mikey makes for avoiding danger. Instead of running to safety, Nicky drags Mikey along for an evening of boozing and whoring, with more than a few pit stops for childish tantrums and emotional meltdowns. Nicky’s behavior is so obnoxious that it’s tempting to cheer when Mikey finally asks the obvious question: “Don’t you have any notion of anything that goes on outside your own head?”
          Appraising May’s contributions to Mikey and Nicky is almost impossible, since she seems like a passive observer capturing Cassvaetes’ tempestuous “genius” on film; stylistically, there’s nothing recognizable here from May’s other pictures. And befitting its on-the-fly nature, Mikey and Nicky is fraught with technical errors. In one scene, a boom operator is plainly visible in the mirror of a hotel room supposedly occupied only by the title characters. These amateur-hour mistakes are exacerbated by the fact that supporting actors including Ned Beatty, William Hickey, and M. Emmet Walsh are wasted in nothing roles. Mikey and Nicky gets all sorts of credit for trying to be something, and doubtless many discerning viewers will find admirable qualities. However, if there’s any great redeeming value buried in the self-indulgent muck, it was lost on me.

Mikey and Nicky: LAME

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Killer of Sheep (1977)


          Viewed without any context, Killer of Sheep is difficult to appreciate or even grasp, because writer-director Charles Burnett eschews many of the tools that make narrative films accessible: Killer of Sheep doesn’t have much tension or structure, and the production values are, to be kind, humble. Killer of Sheep is also quite grim, depicting the hardscrabble lives of low-income African-Americans in mid-’70s Los Angeles. However, the harmony between the storytelling and the subject matter has made Killer of Sheep a favorite among some cinephiles. After the movie languished in obscurity for 20 years, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh endorsed a 2007 re-release that introduced Killer of Sheep to a broader audience.
          The picture’s behind-the-scenes story is integral to understanding the significance that some fans attach to the movie. Burnett made the feature on weekends over the course of several years while he was a film student at UCLA, and there’s a huge difference between the realistic world Burnett depicts and the sensationalized milieu featured in mainstream features of the same era. Instead of the jive-talking junkies and pimps that dominated Hollywood’s ’70s portrayal of urban black life, the characters in Killer of Sheep are poorly educated strivers trapped by disenfranchisement and poverty.
          The main character, Stan (Henry Sanders), makes a meager living in an industrial slaughterhouse (hence the title), and then deals with assorted pressures in his home life. His friends tempt him with involvement in petty crime, his house is overstuffed with relatives who can’t afford separate residences, and everything from his car to his sink is in disrepair. Further, Stan’s kids play in dangerous vacant lots, his wife (Kaycee Moore) waffles between affection and alienation, and Stan’s whole life seems like an endless loop of disappointment.
          Burnett’s style is, appropriate to the film’s origins, that of a student film: grainy black-and-white photography and terrible sound recording stitched together into dramatic scenes and lyrical montages. Adding to the amateur-hour vibe, Burnett’s storytelling choices are erratic. At his most focused, he uses painstaking detail to depict a mundane vignette (like Stan and a friend carrying a motor down a flight of stairs). At his sloppiest, he veers away from promising story threads mid-stream. Supporters of the movie consider this style intentional, a metaphor representing the stop-and-start flow of real life, but it’s also possible Burnett simply failed to get the footage he needed.
          Whatever the case, Killer of Sheep is significant as one of the most fiercely independent black films of the ’70s, a soft-spoken alternative to the sociopolitical fireworks of, say, Melvin Van Peebles’ movies. Killer of Sheep is not particularly compelling, but it’s easy to understand why some consider it an important museum piece.

Killer of Sheep: FUNKY

Monday, October 24, 2011

Made for Each Other (1971)


Actors Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor have been married in real life since the mid-’60s, and they’ve written and performed a number of lighthearted projects together for film, television, and theater. One of their earliest endeavors was this low-budget romantic comedy about a pair of neurotic New Yorkers who meet in an encounter group, embark on a whirlwind romance, and bicker their way to the realization that they love each other. The premise is fine, and the offscreen history that Bologna and Taylor share lets them get totally comfortable with each other onscreen; their interplay feels credible and spontaneous from start to finish. Unfortunately, the characters that Bologna and Taylor wrote for themselves are unrelentingly shrill. Gig (Bologna) is a nasty blowhard who perceives himself as a world-class stud, while Pandora (Taylor) is a lunatic who fancies herself a cabaret performer even though she can’t dance, sing, or tell jokes. To the duo’s credit, Bologna and Taylor don’t take the obvious route of showing these misfits supporting each other until their crazy ol’ dreams come true. However, in eschewing predictability and cheap sentiment, the writer-stars overcompensate by showing their characters berating each other so incessantly that it’s hard to see what they enjoy about each other. It’s true that Gig and Pandora would be intolerable to anyone except fellow basket cases, but still, where’s the fun in watching overbearing narcissists realize they’re stuck with each other? If Bologna and Taylor had some sort of satirical intent in mind, perhaps skewering the extremes of Me Decade self-centeredness, it’s not evident amid the screeching arguments and suffocating self-loathing. FYI, Olympia Dukakis and Paul Sorvino show up in supporting roles as Gig’s loutish parents.

Made for Each Other: LAME

Sunday, October 23, 2011

F.I.S.T. (1978)


          Jimmy Hoffa, Action Hero. If that sounds unlikely, then you’ve intuited why F.I.S.T. is such a peculiar movie. The team behind the picture clearly ached to tell the (fictionalized) story of Hoffa, the notorious labor leader whose alleged mob ties made him the target of a government investigation before he disappeared, but with Sylvester Stallone involved as leading man and co-screenwriter, a subtle approach to the material was impossible. Stallone, rewriting an original script by another man allergic to restraint, Joe Ezsterhas, imbues Hoffa doppleganger Johnny Kovak (played by Stallone) with qualities ranging from easygoing charm to operatic guilt to rugged idealism to social consciousness; he’s not just an everyman, he’s literally, it seems, every man Stallone could imagine, placing Johnny among the most absurdly overstuffed characterizations in American cinema.
          One suspects the problem was Stallone’s anxiety about potentially alienating viewers who loved him as underdog Rocky Balboa, but whatever the case, the effort to make Johnny heroic and likeable leads to weird tonal shifts. At the beginning of the picture, he’s a factory worker who mouths off to his odious boss about unfair working conditions, only to get fired for his impudence. Hired by an idealistic union boss (Richard Herd) as a recruiter for the Federation of Inter State Truckers (F.I.S.T.), Johnny quickly rises through the ranks because he’s good at motivating blue-collar workers. Seemingly overnight, Johnny evolves from the union’s hired hand to its most passionate advocate—and it simply doesn’t make sense that he cares about F.I.S.T. more than life itself, especially since the movie repeatedly affirms that Johnny isn’t even a trucker.
          Thus, as the movie gets more and more epic in scale, trying to beat The Godfather at its own game with a decades-spanning story of a man corrupted by power, the nonsensical underpinnings of the central character become so illogical that it’s hard to believe anything that happens. That’s a shame, since everything except Stallone’s characterization is solid. As directed by the versatile Norman Jewison, who obviously had a significant budget at his command, the movie has an impressive scope and vibrant energy; scenes of labor unrest, with picketing workers fighting union-busting thugs, are particularly exciting.
          There’s some enjoyable stuff with Peter Boyle as a union boss who talks a good game about serving the men but ends up dipping into union funds for personal luxuries, and Rod Steiger gets to showboat entertainingly as an ambitious Congressman who puts F.I.S.T. in his crosshairs. Supporting player Kevin Conway’s performance as a low-level mobster who gets his hooks into Johnny offers an amusing throwback to old-school cinematic criminality, and Tony Lo Bianco lays on the marinara as the Mafioso who drags Johnny even deeper into the organized-crime muck.
          Unfortunately, this two-and-a-half-hour opus is all about Stallone, and his performance is as unwieldy as his characterization. He speechifies like every scene is the finale of Rocky, complete with wildly inappropriate musical fanfare by Rocky composer Bill Conti, and his romantic scenes with Melinda Dillon feel like rehashes of the wonderful Rocky interactions between Stallone and Talia Shire. It’s true that all of this is quite watchable—the story covers so much ground, moves so fast, and reaches so many manipulative heights that it’s impossible not to be at least somewhat entertained. But does F.I.S.T. deliver a knockout thematic punch? Not so much.

F.I.S.T.: FUNKY

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Circle of Iron (1978)


          A strange blend of martial arts and philosophy that can’t be discounted because of its craftsmanship and sincerity, and yet can’t be taken seriously because much of the picture is patently ridiculous, Circle of Iron has an interesting backstory. The legendary Bruce Lee conceived the movie in the late ’60s, and he originally intended to co-star in the flick with his friend James Coburn. When the project got mired in development, Lee and Coburn moved on to other movies, and then Lee died. David Carradine, who by that point was a martial-arts icon thanks to starring in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-1975), took over Lee’s role in the project. More specifically, he took over Lee’s roles (plural), since Lee was originally slated to play the four parts that Carradine performs in the final film. It would be pleasant to report that all of this fuss was worthwhile, and that Circle of Iron is a great movie full of deep thoughts, but the film is instead a mixed bag.
          On the most superficial level, it’s a very silly adventure story set in a fantasy world that exists outside of time. Cord (Jeff Cooper) is a martial artist who wants to fight his way to the temple of Zetan (Christopher Lee), a wizard who possesses something called “The Book of All Knowledge.” During his travels, Cord meets and learns life lessons from a string of eccentric characters, many played by Carradine. The dialogue is pretentious (lots of Zen-lite aphorisms), the fights are exciting-ish, and the production design is goofy, so, as an action picture, Circle of Iron is weak. As an exploration of Lee’s philosophical beliefs, however, it’s interesting, even though the final screenplay is probably quite different from what Lee envisioned. (Lee, Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant wrote the story, Silliphant wrote the original script, and Stanley Mann wrote the final draft.)
          Many scenes in the picture are fanciful and provocative, like the vignette of Cord meeting the “Man-in-Oil” (Eli Wallach), a sad creature who has spent ten years sitting in a vat of oil in order to dissolve the lower half of his body and free himself from animal urges. Carradine is effective in his largest role as “The Blind Man,” a flute-carrying enigma who roams the land helping lost souls who don’t even know they’re lost. Unfortunately, Cooper is a non-entity whose campy costume, robotic performance, and surfer-dude looks add a distractingly comical element to the picture. Oddly, the picture explains nearly all of its mysteries with explanatory monologues during the climax; some viewers will find this clarification helpful and others will find it patronizing.
          Handsomely photographed by Ronnie Taylor and imaginatively edited by Ernest Waller (presumably under the supervision of director Richard Moore), Circle of Iron is far too well-made to dismiss as a standard B-movie, but when the story gets mired in segments like the fight scene during which Carradine is dressed as “Monkeyman,” it’s hard to see beyond the absurd visuals.

Circle of Iron: FUNKY

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Traveling Executioner (1970)


          The New Hollywood era was probably the only time The Traveling Executioner could have been made by a major studio, because the film is so dark and weird that at any other point in history, studios would have shunned the project like it was infected with a contagious disease. The movie is about exactly what the title suggests, an entrepreneur who owns an electric chair and shuttles between various Southern jails sending condemned killers to their final destinations. Imaginatively written by one Garrie Bateson (whose only other credits are a pair of early-’70s TV episodes), the picture doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its outlandish premise, but if only for its spectacular opening and closing scenes, it’s worth a look for adventurous viewers.
          Stacy Keach plays the wonderfully named Jonas Candide, a executioner working the Southern U.S. jail circuit in 1918. He’s perfected a colorful routine: As he straps terrified convicts into his chair, which he calls “Reliable” and treats as tenderly as a woman, he gives a spellbinding speech about how one of the men he killed contacted him through a medium and described “the fields of ambrosia” to which he was delivered after death. One warden chides Jonas for making the afterlife sound so appealing that guards are ready to line up for execution after hearing Jonas’ spiel.
          Our hero’s lifestyle gets derailed when he meets Gundred Herzallerliebst (Marianna Hill), the first woman scheduled for a rendezvous with Reliable. Gundred is persistent and slick, working the court system to obtain a series of stays on her execution, and she’s also a beauty willing to use her formidable wiles. Once Gundred gets Jonas in her sights, he’s a goner. She seduces him into feigning maintenance problems with Reliable, and then convinces him to bust her out of prison.
          The movie goes off-track at this point, getting lost in subplots about Jonas raising money for an elaborate breakout scheme, and the movie also loses its tonal focus; composer Jerry Goldsmith scores scenes in the middle of the picture like high comedy, as if the sequence of Jonas establishing a temporary brothel inside a prison is the height of hilarity. This discursion into ineffective black comedy is a shame, because the really interesting potential of the movie resides in elements like Jonas’ training of an apprentice (Bud Cort) and Jonas’ complex friendship with an amiable warden (M. Emmet Walsh). More damningly, the movie lets Jonas’ dynamic with Gundred slip into the cliché of black widow snaring a man with sex, when something more emotional would have had greater impact.
          Still, Keach is on fire throughout the movie, showing off his physical grace and his silky vocal delivery; the scene of him trying to sweet-talk a bank manager into providing a loan by pandering to the man’s patriotism is terrific. Even better, the dark turn the movie takes in its last act is simultaneously poetic and tragic, so by the end of the picture, Jonas’ peculiar identity as an evangelist for the afterlife has returned to the fore. This strange little picture also looks great, with journeyman director Jack Smight and veteran cinematographer Philip Lathrop assembling a series of stark widescreen frames that alternate between the shadowy spaces of prisons and dusty panoramas that make the picture feel like a deranged Western. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Traveling Executioner: FREAKY

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Shivers (1975)


          Canadian provocateur David Cronenberg’s first proper feature, and also the first taste world audiences got of his disturbing biological-horror fixation, Shivers isn’t a fully realized piece of work, but it demonstrates Cronenberg’s skill with pacing and tone. The story is one of the writer-director’s signature cautionary tales about doctors mucking around with the human body and thereby causing organs to rebel. Specifically, a deranged M.D. invents a parasite that can supposedly enter the body of a diseased person, eat a dysfunctional organ, and take the place of the organ as a permanent (and functional) resident in the body. Unfortunately, the parasites have a tendency to turn their hosts into sex-crazed psychopaths, and to multiply by creating new parasites in the bodies of their hosts’ sex partners. (The creatures’ life cycle explains the film’s U.S. title, They Came from Within, featured on the above poster.)
          Instead of exploring the broader implications and big-canvas possibilities of this nasty premise, Cronenberg wisely takes the Invasion of the Body Snatchers route by restricting the action to one confined location: a small island outside of Montreal occupied almost exclusively by a high-rise apartment building. So, over the course of the story, the slimy little parasites—which, in one of the director’s characteristically perverse touches, look like crawling sex organs—spread from a few infected persons to the entire population of the building. Battling the creatures is physician Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), and suffering the monsters’ worst abuse is businessman Nicholas Tudor (Allan Kolman), who spends much of the picture convulsing while beasties squirm under the skin of his abdomen. Also along for the ride is B-movie icon Barbara Steele, whose character gets raped by one of the critters during a bath.
          Blood flows freely throughout Shivers, which doesn’t hit the balance of gore and ideas that distinguishes Cronenberg’s best bio-horror flicks, though the mercilessness of the picture gives it a kind of sadistic integrity. Cronenberg’s clinical camera style is impressively in evidence, as is his gift for clear-headed storytelling, despite the fact that Shivers features a cast of thoroughly mediocre actors; while some of the unfamiliar faces scream and suffer effectively, only Joe Silver (as a doctor unwittingly caught up in the infestation) conveys a distinct personality.

Shivers: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dreamer (1979)


This sports drama features one of the most undercooked scripts in a genre known for undercooked scripts, to the point that easily half a dozen significant subplots are introduced and abandoned with no explanation or resolution. So, if you’re looking for a movie with satisfying storytelling, move along. That said, there are minor consolations: With the roguishly charming Tim Matheson playing one of his few leads and reliable character actor Jack Warden providing support, Dreamer explores the world of high-stakes bowling, which has not been the subject of many feature films. So theres that. Matheson, fresh off his supporting turn in Animal House (1978), stars as Dreamer (yes, everyone in the movie really calls him by that name), a promising amateur trying to get into the Professional Bowlers Association. He works as a jack-of-all-trades in a small-town bowling alley, he’s involved in a tempestuous romantic relationship with Karen (Susan Blakely), and he has a loving father figure in Harry (Warden), a man who once dreamed of becoming a pro but now focuses on training his protégé. Given this set-up, you know the drill: Dreamer fights to get taken seriously by the PBA, Dreamer works through his relationship with Karen, and Dreamer overcomes personal hardship to win the big game. Dreamer is so lightweight that it nearly evaporates, but the actors are watchable; Matheson goes for a cocksure/vulnerable balance, though it’s hard to understand why his character is so angsty, and Warden provides gravitas, though the climax of his character’s storyline makes very little sense. As for Blakeley, she’s a bit on the whiny side, and promising supporting characters played by Matt Clark, Richard B. Shull, and Barbara Stuart are wasted. Inexplicably, the movie features its overly emphatic theme song three times; for most viewers, soft-rock band Pablo Cruise’s tune “Reach for the Top” will wear out its welcome the first time. The same, sadly, can be said of Dreamer, though watching the movie is tolerable if one has affinity for the leading actors.

Dreamer: LAME

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Jerk (1979)


          After becoming a household name with bestselling albums and blockbuster TV appearances, comedian Steve Martin conquered the big screen with The Jerk, which he starred in and co-wrote. Instead of merely recycling audience-favorite routines, Martin and co-writer Carl Gottlieb created a proper narrative for the movie, which gives The Jerk a measure of artistic integrity. Moments like an out-of-nowhere kung fu scene break the mood, but for the most part, The Jerk is a sweet little story about an innocent adrift in the big, bad world: Think Forrest Gump with more deliberate punch lines.
          The absurdist vibe is established in the opening scene, during which drunken bum Navin Johnson (Martin) declares: “I was born a poor black child.” The movie then flashes back to the homestead where Navin grew up as part of a happy but impoverished black family. Shocked to discover he was adopted (“You mean, I’m gonna stay this color?!!”), Navin leaves home to find his destiny. A job at a gas station goes awry when a nutjob sniper picks Navin’s name out of the phone book while looking for random victims, and a job with a carnival veers off-course when Navin becomes the boy toy of a psychotic female daredevil.
          Eventually, Navin falls in love with soft-spoken Marie (Bernadette Peters), and then he learns that a gadget he invented is a runaway success. Wealth doesn’t bring Navin happiness, however, and the sudden loss of his unexpected riches sends him to skid row, bringing viewers back to a reprise of the opening scene.
          Merely reciting the plot does little to suggest the movie’s wall-to-wall whimsy. Martin’s dialogue is filled with offbeat touches, like his character’s predilection for “Pizza in a Cup” and his belief that a thermos is an appropriate gift for a paramour. Martin spoofs Navin’s ignorance relentlessly, so viewers get gems like the letter Navin writes home to his parents: “I think next week I’ll be able to send some more money as I may have extra work—my friend Patty promised me a blow job.”
          Some of the comedy is forced, like the kung fu scene, but generally, director Carl Reiner lets humor bubble up organically from the interplay between cynical modern life and simple Navin. Better still, the love scenes between Marie and Navin are gentle and sweet, foreshadowing Martin’s deft touch with romantic stories later in his career. Reiner, himself a stone-cold comedy pro, gives Martin room to spin his comic webs. In one particularly effective scene, Peters feigns sleep during a two-shot that runs for several minutes while Martin performs an elaborate routine; the sense that Reiner creates of silly things happening in otherwise realistic setting accentuates Martin’s irreverence.
          Ultimately, The Jerk is a bit too lightweight, because when the movie goes for pathos toward the end of the storyline, the transition doesn’t feel natural. However, Martin’s charm and wit are irresistible; Peters is a fine light comedienne (and a voluptuous knockout); and the supporting cast includes pros like Mabel King, Bill Macy, Jackie Mason, M. Emmett Walsh, Dick O’Neill, and Richard Ward. The Jerk is merely the opening act of Martin’s beloved screen career, but it’s also 104 minutes of silly fun with heart.

The Jerk: GROOVY

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Moment by Moment (1978)


Although performer Lily Tomlin and writer Jane Wagner have been a formidable creative team for decades, creating top-rated TV specials and Tony-winning stage productions, whatever magic they normally conjure together is absent from Moment by Moment, Wagner’s sole outing as a feature-film auteur. Starring Tomlin as an existentially adrift Malibu divorcee and John Travolta as the soulful young drifter who brings her loins back to life, the movie isn’t so much awful as indifferent. Though impeccable from a technical standpoint, the film is flat in every other regard, from acting to dialogue to staging; Moment by Moment feels like a rehearsal instead of an actual movie. There’s also the significant issue of Tomlin and Travolta lacking anything resembling chemistry—no matter how many times Tomlin plops onto Travolta and slides her hands down his pants, it’s difficult to believe these two people want to sleep with each other, much less connect on a deeper level. This isn’t because Tomlin is gay in real life (she and Wagner were already a couple by the time they made Moment by Moment), but because the actors give lifeless performances. In their meager defense, few performers could overcome limp lines like, “You seem so withdrawn, like you’re not even there,” which Tomlin actually says to Travolta at one point. What’s more, the storyline itself is so obvious, shallow, and unconvincing that it almost parodies itself. Thus, in trying to portray sensitivity, Travolta comes across as a girly-man on the verge of weeping in almost every scene, while Tomlin sounds robotic issuing trite observations. (Another gem: “I don’t even know what the word ‘love’ means anymore. I don’t know what cheap sex is.”) The film’s effort to seem heartfelt gets so arch that in one scene, Dan Hill’s infamous wimp-rock ballad “Sometimes When We Touch” plays in the background. Watching this pointless endeavor grind along, one can only wonder what potential Wagner and the actors saw in the material, because in its final form, Moment by Moment is 102 moments of attractive, star-driven nothing.

Moment by Moment: LAME

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Brink’s Job (1978)


Since director William Friedkin is mostly known for making intense pictures like The Exorcist (1973), it should come as no surprise to report that his occasional ventures into comedy aren’t among his most impressive achievements. So, even though The Brink’s Job has many of his trademarks (naturalistic acting, realistic locations) it fails in a rather significant regard: It’s not the least bit funny. Telling the real-life story of a group of brazen thieves who broke into a Brink’s building in late ’40s Boston and boosted almost $3 million, the picture is supposed to be a farce about a gang of nincompoops who slipped through cracks in the Brink’s security system, then became folk heroes once FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made catching them a top priority. Instead, it’s a good-looking but flat recitation of events involving people who aren’t admirable or interesting. The ensemble Friedkin assembled couldn’t be more appropriate for this sort of thing, with Peter Falk leading a gang that includes Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield (billed as Allen Goorwitz), Warren Oates, and Paul Sorvino, but they all play dull stereotypes: Falk is a cantankerous mastermind, Boyle is a hot-headed career criminal, Garfield is a simpering idiot, Oates is a shell-shocked war veteran eager to kill people, and Sorvino is a seen-it-all dandy who prefers jobs that don’t require him to get his hands dirty. The performances are fine, but they’re not specific enough to elevate the ho-hum screenplay by Walon Green; although some of Green’s dialogue has street-level authenticity, his narrative is plodding. Plenty of crime films have surmounted turgid narratives, however, so The Brink’s Job might have fared better if audiences hadn’t been told to expect laughs that the movie never delivers. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

The Brink’s Job: FUNKY

Friday, October 14, 2011

Every ’70s Movie is One Year Old Today!

The first Every ’70s Movie review appeared online a year ago today, on Thursday, October 12, 2010—the review was of Martin Scorsese’s great entry into the annals of chick flicks, 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which got a well-deserved “Right On” rating—and in total, 417 movies have been reviewed since the blog launched. Lots more to come in the future! If you’re digging this scene, show your support by becoming a follower, spreading the word so new readers can groove on the reviews, and perhaps even considering a donation through the blog’s new PayPal donation button (it’s on the upper right-hand side of the main page, just under my profile). Every little bit helps, because the more support I have, the deeper I can dig for hard-to-find titles. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and keep on keepin’ on, fellow ’70s-cinema addicts!

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)


          On some levels, the bleak Burt Lancaster picture Ulzana’s Raid is what critics used to call a “thinking man’s Western,” since the picture’s screen time is divided between philosophical conversation and open-desert carnage. Starring Lancaster as a McIntosh, a grizzled scout who helps a posse of U.S. Cavalry soldiers hunt for a vicious Apache named Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez), the movie explores a deep ideological rift, because some of the Americans view their quarry as little more than an animal who walks upright. However, the inexperienced lieutenant leading the posse, DeBuin (Bruce Davison), struggles to understand his enemy instead of blindly condemning Ulzana. McIntosh exists somewhere between the worlds of these opponents; as a white man married to an Indian, he realizes how pointless it is for a man like DeBuin to try penetrating the Apache psyche.
          Writer Alan Sharp and director Robert Aldrich do a decent job balancing the movie’s highbrow and lowbrow elements. For instance, in the movie’s best scene, a homesteader’s wife and child hurtle through the desert in their wagon, with a band of Ulzana’s braves in hot pursuit on horseback. The woman and child hail a passing Cavalry soldier for help, and, at first, he wisely rides away. Then, when his conscience gets the best of him, he heads toward the endangered whites—and shoots the woman in the forehead, saving her from the degradations these Apaches visit upon their white captives. Attempting to save the boy, the soldier tosses the kid onto his saddle and makes tracks, but one of the braves shoots his horse. Keenly aware he’ll be tortured if captured, the soldier puts his pistol in his mouth and shoots, leaving the boy defenseless. Yet the boy displays such grit defending his mother’s corpse that the Apaches depart without harming the child.
          This nearly wordless scene says volumes about the disparity between two worldviews, communicating far more than even the best-written dialogue exchanges in the picture. A greater number of scenes in this vein of pure cinema would have gone a long way, but instead, Ulzana’s Raid gets bogged down in repetitive vignettes of DeBuin angsting, McIntosh scowling, and Ulzana scheming. (That said, sturdy character player Richard Jaeckel enlivens the picture with his performance as a cynical NCO disgusted by his lieutenant’s naïveté.) Lancaster works a smooth groove blending a grubby appearance with lyrical vocal delivery, adding a bit of poetry to the generally hyper-realistic movie, and Davison’s personification of a man struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible is affecting. Ultimately, Ulzana’s Raid attempts more than it can actually accomplish, so it ends up being an action movie with thoughtful nuances, but since it never slips into murkiness or tedium, it comes awfully close to achieving something powerful. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

Ulzana’s Raid: GROOVY

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Super Cops (1974)


          To get a sense of how The Super Cops uses wiseass humor to satirize rampant police corruption, think Serpico with jokes. Directed by blaxploitation vet Gordon Parks and written by the witty Lorenzo Semple Jr. (from a book by L.H. Whitemore), The Super Cops depicts the early adventures of real-life New York City cops David Greenberg and Robert Hantz. Hungry to become detectives, the boys started making busts while they were still cadets, which put them in opposition with the corrupt cops pervading the NYPD in the days before the storied Knapp Commission cleaned house.
          At first, cadets Greenberg (Ron Leibman) and Hantz (David Selby) are mistaken for shady operators looking for payoffs, but when it becomes clear they’re genuine do-gooders, the folks profiting from the status quo target the eager newbies as threats. After graduating from the police academy, Greenberg and Hantz get assigned to a dangerous precinct in Brooklyn, where drug dealers hire gunsels to take out overzealous cops. Undaunted, Greenberg and Hantz make like cowboys by staging brazen busts. Their swaggering ways make waves in the district attorney’s office, so Greenberg and Hantz run into trouble getting convictions. Eventually, the resourceful heroes engineer a bold double-cross, framing crooked cops who are trying to frame them.
          All in all, the adventures of Greenberg and Hantz are thoroughly entertaining (although their characterizations were undoubtedly whitewashed for dramatic effect), and Semple’s playful dialogue gives the movie whimsical flair. Parks does well meshing the tough realism of his blaxploitation pictures with the pithiness of Semple’s approach, ensuring that the movie zooms along.
          That said, the story is episodic and the ending is anticlimactic. Furthermore, Leibman and Selby try hard to develop a buddy-movie dynamic, but their vibes are incompatible; Leibman is consistently cocky and overbearing, while Selby waffles between macho stoicism and streetwise sensitivity. The supporting cast is merely passable, with Sheila Frazier the standout as a world-weary hooker/informant and Dan Frazer providing amusing work as the boys’ skittish commanding officer (“Get me outta this meshugana precinct!”). Oddly, however, the weakest element of The Super Cops is probably its title, which suggests a broad comedy. Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand why the most likely alternative wasn’t a viable option: On the street, Greenberg and Hantz were known as “Batman and Robin.” (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Super Cops: GROOVY

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

For Pete’s Sake (1973)


          One in a long string of mediocre Barbra Streisand ’70s comedies, For Pete’s Sake is competently made and lighthearted, but it tries way too hard to force hilarity. It also hits more than a few atonal notes that dampen the fun. The story concerns housewife Henrietta “Henry” Robbins (Streisand), who struggles to keep the home fires burning while her husband, Pete (Michael Sarrazin), finishes school. She’s doing everything For Pete’s Sake—get it? The title pun indicates the level of comedy here: harmless but numbingly obvious.
          Early in the story, Pete gets a tip about a can’t-miss investment opportunity, so Henry borrows $3,000 from a loan shark. Then, as the movie progresses, her debt is “sold” from one criminal to another, each of whom asks Henry to engage in some sort of illegal activity, but she proves incompetent at everything from prostitution to cattle rustling. Presumably, the idea was to layer one absurdity upon another, but the story gets so far-fetched, so quickly, that it’s hard to accept For Pete’s Sake as anything but a compendium of goofy sight gags.
           Streisand has some great moments, offering her signature motor-mouthed sarcasm in the face of outrageous situations, but she doesn’t have the Chaplin-esque gift for physical comedy that the most outlandish scenes require. It’s also problematic that Streisand’s characterization awkwardly fuses two priorities: In keeping with her offscreen feminist ideals, Streisand plays Henry as a willful individual who won’t take guff from anyone, but the story requires her to be a screwball-era ditz. So, is Henry crazy like a fox, subverting criminal activity because she’s a nice person, or is she a dope who gets in over her head? Good luck sorting that one out. Similarly, if For Pete’s Sake is supposed to be about the noble sacrifices of the working class, why is the story predicated on an insider-trading tip that’s supposed to unlock instant wealth? Slapstick movies are never big on logic, so when Streisand’s gender politics get added into the mix, the film becomes hopelessly muddied.
          That said, Sarrazin is amiable in a nothing role; Estelle Parsons is effective as Henry’s bitchy sister-in-law; and Molly Picon is amusing as the world’s sunniest madam, one “Mrs. Cherry.” There’s even room for Deliverance rapist Bill McKinney as, no surprise, a creepy rural type. Those who enjoy mindless laughs might dig sequences like the goofy vignette of Babs getting chased through the New York subway by a drug-sniffing dog, but discriminating viewers will find little to love.

For Pete’s Sake: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)


          Go figure that this gender-flipping take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is one of the best movies the British horror company Hammer made during the ’70s. Although the cheesy title suggests that a sexploitation romp might be in store, the movie is instead a creepy meditation on twisted psychology. The sex-switching premise is also a provocative (and appropriate) elaboration of Stevenson’s theme of the duality in man; really, is the idea of a scientist using chemicals to alter his gender any more preposterous than that of a scientist using chemicals to release the monster within?
          In screenwriter Brian Clemens’ clever narrative, Victorian-era genius Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) experiments with female hormones because of their youth-extending qualities. Unfortunately, he needs dead female bodies from which to extract the hormones, so he enlists the aid of infamous real-life murderers Burke and Hare; furthermore, the killings that provide Jekyll his raw materials get labeled by newspapers as the so-called “Whitechapel Murders.” In other words, this inventive take on Stevenson identifies Jekyll as not only as a scientific madman but also as Jack the Ripper.
          Clemens’ script is imaginative and playful right from the beginning, even if it takes a while for the sci-fi/horror stuff to get going (the first transformation occurs around the 25-minute mark, and the movie’s only 97 minutes long). The fluid staging provided by stalwart Hammer director Roy Ward Baker adds muscle to the storytelling, however, so there’s not only tension throughout the movie but also a sense of narrative purpose.
          Eventually, the storyline contrives a perverse romantic quadrangle involving Jekyll, his chemically created female self (whom he introduces as a widow named “Mrs. Hyde”), and the siblings who live upstairs from the good doctor in a boardinghouse. Watching the filmmakers blur the lines of the quadrangle is delicious, particularly during the scene in which Jekyll flirts with the man who’s been courting him while he’s in Hyde mode.
        Bates is a fine standard-issue Hammer leading man, all uptight repression and latent psychosis, and Martine Beswick is darkly alluring as Mrs. Hyde; for once, Hammer casts a striking beauty for a better reason than mere visual appeal, because Jekyll is weirdly attracted to/fascinated by the lissome creature he becomes when under the influence. Better still, the filmmakers do terrific job of moving all the pieces in place for a rousing climax, complete with a great final image that underscores the movie’s transgressive themes. As are Hammer’s best Frankenstein movies, this monster show is as much about ravaged souls as it is about ravaged flesh.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde: GROOVY

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Barefoot Executive (1971)


Although it’s ultimately quite harmless, there’s little to recommend in The Barefoot Executive, a live-action Disney movie set in the world of TV-network corporate offices. A quick recitation of the plot explains why the movie is such a dubious proposition: Ambitious TV-network page Steven Post (Kurt Russell) discovers that his girlfriend’s pet chimpanzee has infallible instincts for picking which TV shows will get high ratings, so Steven pretends he’s actually picking the shows and thus climbs the network hierarchy. As penned by sure Disney hand Joseph L. McEveety, the script isn’t quite as insipid as the story suggests, since McEveety keeps things moving quickly and zeroes in on Steven’s moral conflict about lying to his bosses and exploiting his simian sidekick. That said, it’s a movie about a chimp picking TV shows, so there’s only so high up the ladder of quality a movie with this premise can ascend, particularly since McEveety doesn’t go far enough with the satire implied by the set-up. Russell, at this point just a few years away from aging out of juvenile roles, does fairly well in the emotional scenes, though he’s still operating inside the golly-gee-whiz confines of exuberant Disney-kid acting. Nobody else in the movie gets anything interesting to do, so Disney regular Joe Flynn overcompensates with his standard exasperated-nincompoop routine and the normally reliable Harry Morgan shouts his way through an uncharacteristically obnoxious performance. As Steven’s girlfriend, leading lady Heather North is forgettable, and as his main nemesis, future TV star John Ritter is enjoyably fussy if not in any way exceptional. The chimp is cute, though.

The Barefoot Executive: LAME

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fritz the Cat (1972) & The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974)


          One of those notorious movies whose cultural significance remains obvious years after its initial release but whose entertainment value does not, Fritz the Cat enjoys a number of peculiar distinctions. Among other things, it was the first X-rated cartoon, and it eventually became the most successful independent animated feature of all time. Based on the work of underground comics icon R. Crumb, Fritz the Cat is a deliberately vulgar comedy that lampoons many of the prevalent attitudes of the 1960s, taking equal pains to skewer pretentious hippies and close-minded Establishment types. That all of this takes the shape of a talking-animal movie is simply the most obvious way in which Fritz the Cat is gleefully perverse; truly, images like the film’s opening vignette of a construction worker whipping out his schvantz to urinate on a passing hippie would have been startling in any format.
          Even with its wall-to-wall outrageousness, however, Fritz the Cat hasn’t aged well. The intentionally crude animation isn’t the problem, since it’s as clear today as it was in 1972 that writer-director Ralph Bakshi was trying to get as far away from the cuddly comforts of Disney cartoons as possible, giving his raucous flick the grimy quality of a cheaply mimeographed underground ’zine. The problem, or at least one of them, is the stream-of-consciousness storytelling, which jumbles everything from loose rap sessions to carefully staged slapstick bits, with more than a fair share of puerile X-rated content thrown in for good measure, into a numbing cavalcade of wrongness.
          In its sharpest moments, Fritz the Cat is a with-it takedown of pseudo-intellectual college dudes who feign existential angst in order to talk impressionable coeds into bed, and in its most juvenile moments, the movie is an over-the-top farce with characters humping in every portion of the frame. Bakshi can’t seem to decide if he’s after social commentary or cheap thrills, so the whole thing ends up being sloppy and tiresome. The movie shows nerve by depicting civil disobedience, drug use, police brutality, racism, rape, religious intolerance, terrorism, and other hot-button topics, but at a certain point merely depicting these things isn’t enough; one wants the picture to offer more than shock value.
          Bakshi also has no idea when to quit, layering on unpleasant scenes like the bit in which a redneck slaughters a truckload of chickens because their clucking annoys him, or, because one onscreen discharge apparently wasn’t enough, the scene of a dude standing up during a gang bang to urinate all over a cop. So, ultimately, Fritz the Cat is more of a déclassé museum piece than a true counterculture classic.
          The inevitable sequel, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, simultaneously has more and less going for it than the original picture. (Bakshi didn’t return for the second film, so Nine Lives lacks his wild narrative approach.) On the plus side, Nine Lives has a discernible story structure—married to a shrew and living on welfare, Fritz gets stoned and hallucinates various alternate lives—and the animation is slicker. On the minus side, the movie gets so fixated on scatological humor that it’s like a precursor to the modern gross-out comedy. Sample Fritz dialogue: “Hey, Juan, you better get back in the phone booth, man—I feel a fart comin’ on.”
          Whereas the satirical targets of the first picture were the social mores of the ’60s, giving Fritz the Cat trippy coherence, Nine Lives goes all over the place, offering everything from simple sexcapades to elaborate vignettes about religion and, believe it or not, Naziism. The movie’s bizarre peak depicts Fritz as Adolph Hitler’s personal orderly, a sequence that climaxes with a nude Fuhrer confessing his homosexuality to Fritz while giant psychedelic skulls float around the screen; Hitler then tries to rape Fritz until an Allied bomb hits the site and obliterates Hitler’s one remaining testicle.
          Devotees of the Fritz movies might argue that the flicks make more sense when accompanied by controlled substances, but Fritz the Cat and The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat are so strange they almost are controlled substances.

Fritz the Cat: FREAKY
The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat: FREAKY

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Street People (1976)


A borderline incoherent crime thriller that’s essentially an Italian film with a pair of English-language actors jammed into the leading roles, Street People is generic action-cinema meat: a mindless string of buddy-movie banter, car chases, double crosses, and shoot-outs. Roger Moore plays an Italian educated in England (or an Englishman raised in Italy, whatever) who grew up to become the lawyer for an Italian gangster based in San Francisco; the mobster, in turn, has some sort of decades-old psychodrama going with his brother, a priest who may or may not be involved with the family business. (Given this picture’s sloppy storytelling and the fact that most of the dialogue was dubbed into English after filming, it’s hard to keep the facts straight.) Stacy Keach shows up when Moore’s character needs help smoking out bad guys who ripped off a shipment of Mafia dope, and it’s never particularly clear how the two know each other, or even what form their relationship takes: Are they friends, former colleagues, relatives? It doesn’t help that the leading actors, apparently receiving no useful guidance from the picture’s two credited directors and six credited writers, give performances that belong in two different movies. Keach goes for light escapism, which works, and Moore goes for heavy drama, which doesn’t. The overwrought filming style doesn’t do Moore any favors; in one of his big scenes, literally every single shot is a melodramatic zoom into a closeup. Amid the nonsense are a few fleeting moments of amusement, like a sequence in which Keach “test drives” a Mafia car by banging it into every vehicle in sight, while a terrified mobster rides shotgun. And, for viewers who trudge all the way to the ending, the climax has that special overcaffeinated intensity usually found in spaghetti Westerns, complete with elaborately intercut bloodletting. Street People isn’t unwatchable, but even calling it a complete mess is being generous.

Street People: LAME

Friday, October 7, 2011

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)


          Inspired lunacy from start to finish, the Monty Python comedy troupe’s first narrative feature is rightfully beloved as one of the funniest movies ever made. Clever, perverse, satirical, silly, and sometimes just playfully deranged, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is ostensibly an adaptation of the King Arthur myth, but it’s really the troupe’s first experiment at stringing their surrealistic sketches together as a (more or less) coherent full-length story. So, while the picture represents a significant moment in cinematic history because it was a milestone in co-director Terry Gilliam’s evolution from the Python’s resident animator to a world-class narrative filmmaker, its real value is as an irresistible laugh machine.
          Any list of unforgettable gags in the picture would go on forever, including brilliant contrivances like Sir Robin’s minstrels (who torment him by describing his cowardice in song), the snotty French soldiers guarding a decrepit castle (which they defend against invading Englishmen by launching a cow with a catapult), the persistent but eventually limbless Black Knight (“It’s only a flesh wound!”), the politically conscious farmers who taunt a visiting king (“Can’t you see him repressing me?”), and, of course, the coconuts the Knights of the Round Table use to simulate the sound of the horses they’re not actually riding.
          Right from the beginning of the picture—when ominous opening-credits music is riotously juxtaposed with bizarre subtitled discursions about llamas, Swedish tourist attractions, and crew members who’ve been sacked—the writer/performers who comprise Monty Python use every tool at their disposal to fill the frame with textual, verbal, and visual jokes so that each scene is jammed with dozens of comedy concepts. Ideas from the fertile minds of Gilliam, co-director Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin spill onto the screen so feverishly that watching Holy Grail is like getting an intravenous feed of their whimsical outlook, which is all to the good.
          Inveterate pranksters who take the piss out of every imaginable authority figure and social structure, the Pythons target everything from the media to monarchy to religion in Holy Grail, though some of their best stuff skewers those who are haplessly opportunistic; a great example is the classic “Bring out your dead!” scene in which corpse collectors aren’t too picky about whether the corpses they’re collecting have actually expired. Not everything in the picture is satire, of course, because many of the most heart-stoppingly funny moments in Holy Grail are unhinged non sequiturs, like the killer rabbit that causes one of the Knights of the Round Table to “soil his armor” (twice).
          The lore about Gilliam’s and Jones’ ingenuity is well-known, because the pair worked wonders with minimal resources, accentuating evocative costumes and grubby locations over the pricier production values they couldn’t afford, and, as in all Python projects, the gang saved a bundle by casting themselves in multiple roles. It’s hard to say which Python deserves the MVP prize, but a case could be made for Cleese, whose character roster includes the Black Knight, Sir Lancelot, and the Taunting French Guard—one should not challenge the virtuosity of the man who memorably threatens to “fart in your general direction.”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: OUTTA SIGHT