Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sunburn (1979)


          There isn’t much to enjoy about a comedy-romance caper flick that’s neither amusing nor seductive, so even though Sunburn offers some kitschy distractions, the picture is so bland and uninvolving that it feels much longer than its actual 99-minute running time.
          The premise is fine, because Sunburn is about an insurance investigator who travels to Acapulco in order to sniff out possible fraud related to a multimillion-dollar policy; he recruits an actress/model to pose as his wife, and they fall for each other while exposing the bad guys. Where it all goes wrong is in the casting and execution. The leading man is Charles Grodin, a comic actor whose style is so bone-dry that if he doesn’t have a great scene partner, he’s left flailing; seeing him slide dialogue toward an unresponsive costar is like watching someone lob tennis balls at a mannequin. The leading lady, and unfortunately the picture’s biggest impediment, is ’70s sex goddess Farrah Fawcett-Majors, at the apex of her sun-kissed prettiness. Although Fawcett looks lovely in a series of revealing gowns and swimsuits, she’s so vapid one actually starts to forget her presence while she’s still onscreen: After the initial impact of her dazzling smile wears off, there’s simply nothing about her to sustain interest.
          To cut the actors some slack, they’re not helped by an inept screenplay that wastes all the potential of the premise, bombarding the audience with stupid attempts at bedroom farce and high-stakes action. The bedroom farce comes courtesy of a boozy nympho (played by Joan Collins in an epically awful performance), and the high-stakes action features trite gimmicks like a car chase and an underwater assault on a scuba diver. In the most painfully stupid sequence, Fawcett-Majors and Grodin drive a car into a bullring, leading to an unfunny fight between an automobile and a steer. All of this nonsense is scored with gruesomely bad disco music, complete with a cringe-inducing theme song by Graham Gouldman, of 10cc fame, who should have known better. Poor Art Carney, quickly descending from the heights of his amazing ’70s revival, does his usual professional work as Grodin’s sidekick, and his scenes are among the movie’s only redeeming values.

Sunburn: LAME

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Enter the Dragon (1973)


          A pulpy blend of martial arts and James Bond-style international intrigue, Enter the Dragon suffers from cardboard characterizations, predictable plotting, and action sequences that border on self-parody. Plus, the less said about the acting, the better. Nonetheless, Enter the Dragon is fascinating almost entirely because of its leading man, Bruce Lee. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Lee became a pop-culture icon by dying young, passing away at the age of 32 just days before Enter the Dragon, his first English-language starring role, premiered. And like his fellow tragic legends, Lee justifies his enduring appeal with a peerless onscreen persona: During the film’s many fight scenes, Lee does things that shouldn’t be possible and makes them look effortless. Lithe and graceful, he attacks with blinding speed and frightening power, so even though the fight scenes are jacked up with the campy sound effects that dominated ’70s martial-arts pictures coming out of Southeast Asia, Lee emerges as a cinematic badass of the highest order.
          As for the movie itself, Enter the Dragon is pure escapist silliness. An international criminal named Han (Shih Ken) holds a martial-arts tournament on his private island, and he invites Lee’s character (who is also named Lee) to participate. Meanwhile, government agents ask Lee to accept the invitation in order to sneak around the island and confirm reports that Han is hiding a major drug operation there. Also invited to the tournament are Americans Roper (John Saxon), a white man in debt to the mob, and Williams (Jim Kelly), a black man running from charges of assaulting police officers.
          Lee, Roper, and Williams participate in the tournament by day and discover Han’s criminal activities by night, leading to a giant confrontation as good guys, accompanied by legions of freed prisoners, battle Han and his minions in an island-wide martial-arts showdown. The movie’s climax is a justifiably famous duel between Han and Lee in a hall of mirrors, with Han wearing a set of metal talons in place of his missing left hand; since Shih Ken had starred in dozens of martial-arts movies before appearing in Enter the Dragon, he makes a formidable opponent for Lee, and their battle is exciting and stylish.
          Although Enter the Dragon wasn’t the very first martial-arts movie to find success in America—the 1971 indie Billy Jack, starring American karate fighter Tom Laughlin, made a mint when it was re-released in early 1973, just a few months before Enter the Dragon hit theaters—the fact that Enter the Dragon was a U.S./Hong Kong coproduction ensured the film was steeped in genre tropes most American audiences hadn’t seen before. Furthermore, director Robert Clouse shot fight scenes somewhat like dance numbers, emphasizing the elegance of the combatants movements and thereby helping stoke the fires of the ’70s kung fu craze. So, while it’s easy to identify the picture’s campy faults (many of which were mercilessly satirized in the 1977 comedy flick Kentucky Fried Movie), Bruce Lee’s participation makes Enter the Dragon one of the defining movies of the ’70s.

Enter the Dragon: GROOVY

Monday, November 28, 2011

From Beyond the Grave (1974)


          Amicus Productions’ long series of horror-anthology flicks ended anticlimactically with From Beyond the Grave, which comprises a quartet of uninspired stories connected by visits to a mysterious shop selling haunted antiques. Rightfully regarded as a second-rate competitor to Hammer Films, Amicus pulled from the same talent pool as Hammer—that’s Peter Cushing playing the ghoulish proprietor of the antique shop—but Amicus’ pictures rarely achieved the same level of gonzo energy as the best Hammer flicks. From Beyond the Grave seems particularly enervated, even by Amicus’ low standards; the script is dull, the performances are stiff, and the shocks are trite.
          Each story begins when a character buys a curio from Cushing’s musty shop, and the customers who try to swindle Cushing seal their fates. In the first story, “The Gatecrasher,” a collector (David Warner) purchases a mirror haunted by a spirit who needs flesh for sustenance, so the collector kills women as a means of bringing the spirit back to life. The usually lively Warner gives a numbingly sober performance in this by-the-numbers morality tale. The most laborious story, “An Act of Kindness,” features a repressed businessman (Ian Bannen) lying to impress a friendly street peddler (Donald Pleasence), then savoring the way the peddler treats him like royalty. The businessman eventually seduces the peddler’s strange daughter (Angela Pleasence), leading to a bloody turn of events. “An Act of Kindness” is confusing and contrived, though it’s a kick to see eccentric character actor Pleasence playing scenes with his real-life lookalike daughter.
          The mood of From Beyond the Grave lightens for “The Elemental,” which concerns a husband and wife hiring a dotty psychic (Margaret Leighton) to dispatch a mischievous spirit, but after a mildly amusing climax filled with flying objects and Leighton’s comic flamboyance, the tale turns needlessly dark. In the final story, “The Door,” a writer (Ian Ogilvy) buys a door that provides a gateway to the realm of an undead murderer; although this story features some interesting images, like that of the door bleeding when it’s struck by an axe, “The Door” feels redundant after “The Gatecrasher.”
          Hardcore Brit-horror fans will undoubtedly find enjoyable distractions in the ironic plot twists and (mild) gore; furthermore, director Kevin Connor presents the picture with a palatable sort of workmanlike competence, and the cast, which also includes Lesley-Anne Down in a decorative role, is solid. Still, From Beyond the Grave is more stultifying than horrifying. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

From Beyond the Grave: FUNKY

Sunday, November 27, 2011

American Hot Wax (1978)


          Someone could make a great movie from the story of Alan Freed, the celebrated 1950s disc jockey who coined the term “rock and roll” and became a music-industry superpower before getting snared in a payola scandal. And, indeed, director Floyd Mutrux comes awfully close with his lively comedy American Hot Wax. Exploding with atmosphere, energy, and great music, American Hot Wax offers a romanticized snapshot of what Freed’s life was like while he was on top of the world, defying authorities by staging giant shows featuring what was still called “race music”; in Mutrux’s rose-colored vision, Freed is the pied piper of the youth movement, bringing black and white kids together through their shared love of tunes by wild men like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
          American Hot Wax is structured around the build-up to a major concert in New York, so Mutrux follows Freed (Tim McIntire) and his cronies as they cut records, form bands, score pay-for-play deals, and generally enjoy what later came to be known as the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyle. When American Hot Wax really connects, it creates a believable illusion that Freed is the center of the pop-culture universe, supervising recording sessions or working alone in his radio-station booth, drinking and chain-smoking while he lays down patter between the platters.
          McIntire, so vivacious in Mutrux’s Aloha Bobby and Rose (1975), is supercharged throughout American Hot Wax. In fact, the rest of the cast merely peeks out occasionally from behind McIntire’s shadow, but it’s interesting to see a trio of famous comedians early in their careers: Fran Drescher plays Freed’s assistant, Jay Leno plays Freed’s driver, and original Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman plays a wannabe songwriter sorta-modeled on Carole King. (Several real-life music pros play bit parts, including then-Rolling Stone correspondent Cameron Crowe and record producers Bob Ezrin and Richard Perry.)
          The characterization and plotting could be better, since Mutrux seems more interested in generating a cool vibe, but the movie does an decent job of building tension by demonstrating how badly law-and-order types wanted to knock Freed off his pedestal. Better still, the storyline about Newman’s character joining forces with a black vocal group illustrates that Freed’s enthusiasm emboldened legions of kids to pursue rock-and-roll dreams. The movie’s climax, during which Berry and Lewis play themselves, is filled with hot music but dodgy dramaturgy—for instance, the portrayal of Berry as a self-sacrificing mensch clashes with his real-life reputation as a cold-blooded businessman. Nonetheless, American Hot Wax is more than the sum of its parts. Even though the movie doesn’t have much depth, it features so many great scenes that it’s well worth watching, especially for hardcore music fans.

American Hot Wax: GROOVY

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Messiah of Evil (1973)


Married filmmakers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were awfully lucky they met George Lucas while all three were film students at USC, because outside of their work as writers on Lucas’ productions American Graffiti (1973) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the Huyck-Katz filmography is filled with flops and oddities. One example: their misbegotten horror flick Messiah of Evil. Huyck’s directorial debut, which he and Katz co-wrote, includes a handful of quasi-disturbing images, but it’s so amateurishly assembled and conceptually cuckoo that it’s impossible to take seriously. The story begins when a pretty young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) travels to the tiny beach community of Point Dume, California, where her missing father was last seen. Just before reaching town, she encounters a strange albino at a gas station, and after she leaves the gas station, we see the albino has a truckload of corpses. Clearly, something’s rotten in Point Dume. Upon arrival, Arletty gets the brush-off from spooked locals, but in true bad-horror-movie fashion, she ignores obvious cues to Get the Hell Out. Soon, Arletty gets embroiled with a swinger named Thom (Michael Greer), who travels with two compliant hotties (played by Joy Bang and Anitra Ford). Then, after Thom’s girlfriends meet grisly fates, the incredibly dim Arletty and Thom finally realize Point Dume is infested with flesh-eating creatures that seem like hybrids of vampires and zombies. All of this grinds toward a bloody climax, and even though the movie briefly flashes back one century to explain the source of Point Dume’s problems, the story never makes much sense. Some bits are fun, like the sequence of Bang’s character getting stalked in a theater (which is modeled after a key scene in The Birds), and some of the images are icky, like the moment when Hill discovers a spider crawling in her mouth, but none of it adds up to anything interesting. Furthermore, the acting is terrible, with second-rate character players Elisha Cook Jr. and Royal Dano embarrassing themselves in bit parts while Hill, though gorgeous as always, delivers an inept leading performance.

Messiah of Evil: LAME

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cold Turkey (1971)


          Although he’s best known as one of the most successful comedy producers in the history of television, Norman Lear dabbled in features during the late ’60s and early ’70s, scoring a few minor hits as a screenwriter. His lone effort as a director was not as successful. The hyperkinetic satire Cold Turkey boasts an outlandish premise and impressive production values, to say nothing of a few wickedly funny moments, but the picture falls victim to its own ambitions. Based on a novel by Margaret Rau and Neil Rau called I’m Giving Them Up for Good, the movie begins when tobacco-company executive Mervin Wren (Bob Newhart) contrives a publicity stunt: His company pledges $25 million to any American town whose residents can give up smoking for an entire month. The offer is not sincere, however, because Wren figures nobody can muster the necessary willpower—but Wren didn’t count on Eagle Rock, Iowa, a struggling town where Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) is eager to demonstrate leadership so he can win a transfer to a more affluent parish.
          Brooks makes it his mission to win the $25 million, so the bulk of the movie comprises his farcical attempts to keep residents from smoking, even as he fights off his own nicotine cravings. The unsubtle message is that Americans are so addicted to creature comforts they can’t make sacrifices under any circumstances, and Lear goes way over the top skewering American gluttony. During Eagle Rock’s smoke-free month, couples turn into sex maniacs to subvert their cravings; the local doctor (Barnard Hughes) becomes a scalpel-wielding maniac; the town drunk (Tom Poston) flees Eagle Rock rather than take part in the experiment; and so on. Lear stocks the picture with so many great comedy professionals—including the aforementioned plus Vincent Gardenia, Woodrow Parfrey, Jean Stapleton, and the comedy duo of Bob & Ray—that some of the gags connect even though the satire is incredibly obvious. There’s also a lot to be said for the film’s frenetic pace, since the movie zooms along at a crazy speed as it builds toward greater levels of chaos. In fact, had Lear found an ending that justified the manic buildup, Cold Turkey might have become a comedy classic. Instead, he opted for a dark ending that jarringly transforms the movie from sly to cynical. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Cold Turkey: FUNKY

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Pack (1977)


          Nature-strikes-back pictures were all the rage after the success of Jaws (1975), but most rip-off projects stretched credibility too far (killer bees, killer rabbits, killer octopi, and so on.). Therefore it’s great fun to find a Jaws-influenced thriller with a story that actually works. In The Pack, based on a novel by David Fisher, a tiny resort island gets overrun by stray dogs when summer people abandon their pets; the animals turn vicious after several days of exposure and starvation, and when their leader gets infected with rabies, the pack becomes a nightmare for the handful of locals left on the island. As written for the screen and directed by B-movie stalwart Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon), The Pack is a no-nonsense shocker in the classic mode, keeping nettlesome details like characterization and nuance to a bare minimum while focusing on gruesome dog attacks.
          To the picture’s great credit, many genre clichés are avoided, so instead of a callous local official trying to keep a lid on the danger lurking in the woods, the townies do everything they can to protect people. Furthermore, there’s only one instance of characters stupidly wandering into a part of the island where they might be attacked, but even that scene is defensible because at the time the characters venture off, they’re not yet aware of how bad the puppy problem has gotten. (A bigger hiccup is the battle sequence during which the heroes miss obvious opportunities to take out their attackers with close-quarters gunplay.)
          The movie’s hero is fish-and-game guy Jerry (Joe Don Baker), a recent transplant to the island who is building a family with his girlfriend Millie (Hope Alexander-Willis) and her two kids. Jerry’s local compatriots are sardonic innkeeper Hardiman (Richard B. Shull) and crusty seaman Cobb (R.G. Armstrong). Enduring the ordeal along with the locals is a late-season tour group headed by a bank president (Richard O’Brien) who hopes his sad-sack adult son (Paul Wilson) will get laid with the good-time gal (Sherry Miles) brought along expressly for that purpose.
          The Pack follows the standard creature-feature playbook, beginning with isolated attacks and escalating toward greater intensity as the animals become more brazen and their potential victims become more desperate, so there aren’t many narrative surprises. That said, The Pack delivers the goods with effectively staged scare scenes, and there’s a bittersweet undercurrent to the movie since the dogs are themselves victims. The movie is aided tremendously by the work of composer Lee Holdrige, an industry veteran with hundreds of credits for features and TV; his Jerry Goldsmith-style score uses taught strings and percussive rhythms to jack up suspense in a highly entertaining fashion. And while acting doesn’t matter a whole lot in a project like The Pack, everyone does just what he or she is supposed to do, and Baker cuts a reassuring figure with his easygoing demeanor and ever-present shotgun. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Pack: GROOVY

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bombay Talkie (1970)


          Before their company became synonymous with highbrow literary adaptations, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory collaborated on a long series of projects set in India. Many of these early projects explored clashes between European values and Indian mores, and a good example is Bombay Talkie, a drama about an English novelist’s torrid affair with an Indian movie star. Whereas some Merchant-Ivory pictures are so reserved they barely have a cinematic pulse, Bombay Talkie is comparatively lusty, so even though the story loses momentum in the middle, it’s one of Merchant-Ivory’s most passionate films.
          Things get off to an interesting start with the unusual title sequence (a group of people carries a sign bearing the movie’s name through a crowded city street), and with the visually exciting first scene. Novelist Lucia (Jennifer Kendal) gets a tour of a soundstage where heartthrob actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) is shooting a musical number set on a giant typewriter; watch closely for Merchant in a bit part as the producer who escorts Lucia into the room. Lucia swoons over the married Vikram, and she ignores the fact that the film’s screenwriter, Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), is smitten with her. Once Lucia and Vikram become lovers, poor Hari gets stuck in the emasculating role of conveying secret messages for them. Eventually, this three-way dynamic gets so intense that Lucia departs Bombay for a religious retreat, leading to an unconvincing sequence of Lucia seeking enlightenment. When the triangle reforms, Lucia’s capriciousness, Vikram’s machismo, and Hari’s volatility collide in tragedy.
          The characters’ inner lives are crisply defined in the script by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which presents a thorny style of romantic intrigue. And while some viewers may lose patience with Kendal’s shallow performance as a self-centered twit, Kapoor’s smooth turn as a cocksure heel is oddly ingratiating—his character is an illiterate beauty so accustomed to getting what he wants that he seems childlike when faced with disappointment. (FYI, Kapoor and Kendal were married in real life from 1958 to the time of Kendal’s death in 1984.) Moheyddin is dark and nuanced, fleshing out the cliché of the tortured writer, and he’s perfectly cast as an everyman who can’t compete with Kapoor’s blinding handsomeness. With its fraught mix of gender conflict, jealousy, and sex—and with insightful grace notes like a subplot about Lucia’s strained relationship with her teenaged daughter—Bombay Talkie presents a rich tapestry of human experience. The picture also features a startling but highly appropriate ending, which the leading actors play beautifully.

Bombay Talkie: GROOVY

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Call of the Wild (1972)


Although hampered by the bad dubbing found in so many European productions from the early ’70s, this grimy adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel has admirable qualities. The movie adheres to London’s narrative by making a dog the lead character, even though Charlton Heston gets top billing for playing a sled driver-turned-prospector who becomes the dog’s kindest owner. The picture unflinchingly depicts ugly episodes from London’s story, including scenes of animal abuse and frontier tragedy. Furthermore, the flick delivers a bummer ending instead of whitewashing the source material. Having said all that, there are several good reasons why this international co-production has a reputation that falls somewhere between ignominy and obscurity. For one thing, the (human) acting in the picture is almost wall-to-wall terrible. Heston snarls and struts in his usual manner, though enough of the picture involves physical action that his imposing frame lends a certain degree of credibility. The location work is strange, with European vistas standing in for the film’s North American settings. And then there’s the maudlin music, particularly an eerie love theme for the romance between Buck, the canine hero of the story, and the she-wolf who makes him howl. The story, which gets muddied by extraneous scenes featuring Heston’s character, begins when a domesticated dog is stolen and sold into service in the Yukon. John Thornton (Heston) buys Buck after the dog has suffered abuse by handlers, but John brings out Buck’s qualities as a born pack leader. Eventually, Buck gets separated from John and suffers more abuse, but John recovers the animal and nurses him to health. The man-dog love story ends badly, but the dog-wolf romance has a brighter denouement. Along the way, the movie presents a handful of exciting action scenes, and only the most hard-hearted viewer would fail to empathize with Buck’s plight. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

The Call of the Wild: FUNKY

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stevie (1978)



          The formidable British actress Glenda Jackson was at the height of her dramatic powers in the ’70s, winning two Oscars for Best Actress before the first half of the decade was through. However, even a great performer has difficulty making overly intellectualized material compelling, and that’s the obstacle Jackson encounters in Stevie. Adapted from a stage play about the late poetess Stevie Smith, a troubled artist who led a spinster’s lifestyle but enjoyed a vivid creative dialogue with her small circle of friends and relatives, the picture is a string of monologues and two-character vignettes. Most of the picture depicts Stevie (Jackson) spending time at home with her widowed aunt (Mona Washbourne), though a brief flurry of activity occurs when Stevie rebuffs the marriage proposal of a lifelong friend, Freddy (Alec McCowen). Stevie and her aunt engage in quasi-clever verbal jousting, and Stevie recites a great many of her gloomy poems, the majority of which are preoccupied with death and loss.
          Despite the heavy subject matter, Stevie is suffocatingly polite, so even though the acting and writing are sharp, there’s a considerable tedium factor. Pretentiousness is a problem, as well—although director Robert Enders’ visual style is unassuming, the contrivance of Jackson periodically leaving scenes to address the audience feels like an artsy cheat, and the film’s least effective device is its most precious: Trevor Howard appears in transitional scenes playing a character known only as “The Man,” offering pithy remarks as he wanders through random locations. For instance, after Stevie attempts suicide, The Man comments thusly: “Death, that sweet and gentle friend, failed to respond to her summons. Life continued.” There’s no questioning the seriousness of this film’s intentions, nor is there any questioning the viability of Stevie as the subject for a biopic, but writer Hugh Whitemore’s failure to transform his play into a filmic narrative results in a flat presentation. One could defend this approach on a metaphorical level, since there’s an obvious parallel between Stevie’s monastic lifestyle and the film’s visual austerity, but that doesn’t make the experience of watching Stevie any more exciting.

Stevie: FUNKY

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chato’s Land (1972)


          British filmmaker Michael Winner made a slew of gruesome movies in the ’70s and ’80s, often starring Charles Bronson as tight-lipped avengers who let their bloody actions speak for them. At their best, the duo created provocative work like Death Wish (1974). At their worst, they made ugly trash like Chato’s Land, which can best be described as a two-hour murder symphony. It’s hard to tell which element of the picture is most confusing and distasteful: The casting of Lithuanian-descended Bronson as a half-breed Apache, or the weird plot that presents Bronson’s character, Chato, as a vigilante seeking revenge even though he’s the perpetrator of a crime instead of the victim.
          At the beginning of the story, Chato struts into a white town, lets a racist marshal talk him into an argument, and kills the lawman instead of walking away. After Chato heads for the Indian country outside town, he’s pursued by ex-Confederate solider Capt. Whitmore (Jack Palance) and a posse of bloodthirsty townies. Once the pursuers slip into “Chato’s land,” the half-breed uses clever guerilla tactics to demoralize the posse. Then, when the pursuers rape and murder Chato’s relatives, he declares war. The problem is one of motivation: The attack that justifies Chato’s vigilantism doesn’t happen until after he’s already started picking off his enemies. Since Chato’s Land is merely a quick-and-dirty action picture, it’s unlikely the filmmakers were trying to make a nuanced statement about violence begetting violence—therefore, the storytelling just seems sloppy. It doesn’t help that most of the posse members are depicted as cartoonish rednecks, notably vile Elias (Ralph Waite) and his sex-crazed little brother, Earl (Richard Jordan). There’s some lip service given to the subject of morality, with characters including grizzled frontiersman Joshua (James Whitmore) questioning the virtue of violence, but the talk rings hollow as Winner stages one elaborate kill scene after another.
          Beyond its dubious content, Chato’s Land also suffers from erratic acting: Whereas Jordan, Waite, and Whitmore chew up the scenery, Palance wanders around in a daze, whispering elegiac monologues that don’t make much sense, and Bronson just glares a lot. Furthermore, since Bronson spends most of the movie flitting about in a loincloth, his taut musculature ends up giving a more expressive performance than his famously squinty face.

Chato’s Land: LAME

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Castaway Cowboy (1974)


One can only marvel at the imagination the team at Walt Disney Productions brought to the plotting of the studio’s live-action films back in the day, because the stories for some of these movies are so bizarre and elaborate they seem like transcriptions of fever dreams. In the offbeat Western The Castaway Cowboy, James Garner plays Lincoln Castain, an amiable Texan who gets dumped from a vessel crossing the Pacific and drifts to shore near the struggling Hawaiian plantation of plucky widow Henrietta McAvoy (Vera Miles). In the course of working to earn money for passage home, Lincoln discovers that Henrietta’s estate is home to a sizable cattle herd, which would fetch a handsome price on the mainland. The only problem is that the rocky shores of the island of Kauai make it impossible to get cows from the beach to cargo ships. As Lincoln ponders this issue, he (of course) falls for Henrietta and (of course) gets into a hassle with his rival for her affections, one Calvin Bryson (Robert Culp). Calvin’s a competing landowner intent on ruining Henrietta’s farm, so when Lincoln comes up with a way around the transportation problem—using small boats to guide swimming cows through ocean waters right up to the sides of waiting ships—Calvin mucks up the works with tricks like persuading a crazy local to use island magic against Lincoln. As with many Disney pictures of the same vintage, The Castaway Cowboy is as exhausting to watch as it is to describe, because character development and logical credibility get smothered by nonstop plot twists. Garner’s innate charm cuts through the overwrought narrative, and the location photography is impressive. There’s also minor novelty in watching the bovines swim through crystal-clear Hawaiian waters, but that only goes so far. Still, The Castaway Cowboy is hard to match for sheer randomness: A would-be cattle baron kickin’ it Hawaiian-style? Whatever.

The Castaway Cowboy: FUNKY

Friday, November 18, 2011

Harper Valley P.T.A. (1978)


Starring former I Dream of Jeannie sexpot Barbara Eden as a sassy Southern single mom, drab comedy Harper Valley P.T.A. was of course extrapolated from the 1968 story-song “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which was written by Tom T. Hall and sung by Jeannie C. Reilly. Hall’s pithy little narrative about a woman who gives small-town busybodies a good talking-to after they criticize her parenting was a No. 1 smash on both country and pop radio. The first 15 minutes of the movie adaptation deliver the story content of the song right down to featuring lyrics in dialogue; fans of the tune can rest assured that Eden recites the song’s familiar put-down, “This is just a Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites!” After the song’s narrative runs its course, the filmmakers contrive a thin story about the heroine’s tormenters—the members of the titular Harper Valley Parent Teachers Association—ostracizing Stella Johnson (Eden) after her angry speech. She returns the favor by staging humiliating pranks that expose the P.T.A. members as drunks, liars, nymphomaniacs, thieves, and so on. Subplots, such as they are, involve Stella falling for a local businessman (Ronny Cox) and nurturing her ugly-duckling daughter (Susan Swift). The movie’s production values are passable, but the acting is lifeless, the dialogue is trite, the physical comedy is crude without actually being outrageous, and the plotting is moronic, so there’s not much reason to watch Harper Valley P.T.A. except to wallow in predictability and to admire Eden’s famous figure, which is on (fully clothed) display in every scene.

Harper Valley PTA: LAME

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stay Hungry (1976)


          First, the bad news: Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry is a hodgepodge of incompatible elements; the tone is completely out of control, ping-ponging between heavy drama and silly comedy; and Arnold Schwarzenegger gives one of the movie’s most nuanced performances. That said, Stay Hungry is so willfully weird that it merits examination, even if curious viewers aren’t necessarily rewarded with consistent entertainment.
          The strange story revolves around Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges), a wealthy young Southerner whose parents died in an accident, leaving him ownership of a small estate in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The directionless Craig has gotten involved with a cartel of unscrupulous real-estate developers, and he’s been charged with persuading the owner of a local gym to sell his property. Instead of accomplishing his dubious goal, however, Craig becomes enmeshed in the dysfunctional culture of the gym, befriending drunken owner Thor Erickson (R.G. Armstrong), bonding with star bodybuilder Joe Santo (Schwarzenegger), and falling for Santo’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Mary Tate (Sally Field).
          Once all of these characters are introduced, director/co-writer Rafelson wanders somewhat aimlessly through disassociated vignettes. Craig slums with working-class Mary Tate, enjoying carnal bliss at home but ignoring her in public. Craig goes on adventures with Joe, leading to the bizarre scene of humungous Austrian Schwarzenegger visiting a gaggle of backwoods buddies for fiddle practice. (Later in the movie, Schwarzenegger performs a full-on fiddle concert.) Also thrown into the mix is a convoluted subplot about a bodybuilding contest. Some of the bits in Stay Hungry are enjoyably odd, like the sequence of toupee-wearing Thor and his pure-as-driven-snow sidekick (Roger E. Mosley) entertaining a pair of hookers in the gym, but much of the movie is abrasive. For instance, Craig is a shallow son of a bitch, so it’s boring to watch him mistreat the amiable Mary Tate and display his “friend” Joe like a freak.
          The slapdash quality of the storyline is exacerbated by Rafelson’s tonal indecision, since he waffles between celebrating and satirizing his characters. The ending is especially sloppy, with various plot threads resolving against a backdrop of half-dressed bodybuilders parading through downtown Birmingham. (At one point, several of them ride atop a city bus, posing and preening in Speedos.) Though ultimately a blip in the careers for most of its participants, Stay Hungry was significant for Schwarzenegger, since it was his first dramatic role in a big-budget movie; combined with his appearance in the documentary Pumping Iron, released the following year, Stay Hungry demonstrated Schwarzenegger’s powerful charisma, setting the stage for his success as an action-movie star.

Stay Hungry: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

High Rolling in a Hot Corvette (1977)


Boring and pointless but borderline tolerable because the location is novel and the storyline is coherent, High Rolling in a Hot Corvette is one of those innumerable “light-hearted” adventure romps about mischievous dudes roaming across the countryside, getting into trouble and getting into women’s pants. One presumes the intended appeal was wish-fulfillment for male viewers and bad-boy eroticism for female viewers, but as often happens in this particular genre, the filmmakers failed to make the leading characters charming enough to justify watching 90 minutes of their obnoxious antics. Joseph Bottoms, younger brother of ’70s mainstay Timothy Bottoms, stars as Texas, an overbearing American tramping around Australia with his Ozzie pal Albee (Grigor Taylor). They start out working at a carnival, but Texas gets fired after closing his attraction in the middle of the day for a quickie with a patron. Then the duo hitchhikes across the continent. One of their rides, Arnold (John Clayton), makes a pass at Albee, who knocks the guy flat. The lads then discover that Arnold’s car—the hot Corvette of the title—is loaded with money and pot, because Arnold’s a dealer. The boys steal the car and embark upon a freewheeling holiday, hooking up with women including a drifter (played by the great Judy Davis, mostly ineffectual in her first movie role) and a pair of cabaret singers. Eventually, the lads decide to become full-on crooks, so the climax involves the boys hijacking a tour bus while Arnold and his gunsels close in for the kill. The stakes are never very high in High Rolling, because we don’t care what happens to the idiotic heroes, and the picture’s tone is so lightweight it’s hard to believe major bloodshed looms ahead. Still, there are worse movies in this genre, and the Australian setting is offbeat. Plus, the flick contains one sequence of completely random weirdness: Dressed in flowing white gowns, the cabaret singers cover Donna Summer’s raunchy disco tune “Love to Love You Baby” as a performance piece of posh lesbian erotica. A land down under, indeed!

High Rolling in a Hot Corvette: LAME

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brother John (1971)


          Because Sidney Poitier had been playing saintly characters since the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before he portrayed an actual messiah, as he does in the compelling allegorical drama Brother John. Imaginatively written by veteran TV scribe Ernest Kinoy, the movie takes place in the small Alabama town to which long-gone native son John Kane (Poitier) returns on the occasion of his sister’s funeral. The town is mired in racially charged turmoil, so John’s appearance raises eyebrows among conservative whites like Lloyd Thomas (Bradford Dillman), who suspect John of being an outside agitator. Lloyd pressures the local sheriff (Ramon Bieri) to investigate John, which reveals the mystery man has traveled all around the world; this leads to allegations that John is some sort of communist operative.
          The whites’ paranoia is exacerbated when John starts keeping company with a local woman (Louisa MacGill), because if he’s just home for the funeral, they ask, why is he setting down roots? Adding another layer of intrigue, John reveals lethal martial-arts skills when assaulted by local thugs and, later, a redneck cop; though he doesn’t kill anyone, he makes it clear that doing so is well within his bare-handed power.
          Yet not everyone sees John as a threat. Lloyd’s freethinking father, small-town physician Doc Thomas (Will Geer), is nearing the end of his life and feeling spiritual, so he starts to wonder if John is part of a larger design. Eventually, Doc becomes convinced that John is a harbinger come to test the mettle of mortal man—and that man is failing the test miserably. The most riveting scenes of this unusual picture are one-on-one exchanges in which Doc asks for perspective from the celestial realm and John cagily avoids verifying whether Doc has guessed his true identity.
          As directed by workmanlike helmer James Goldstone, Brother John has sensitivity but lacks the visual poetry the material demands, and the story takes a while to get cooking. Furthermore, some viewers will find the cryptic ending highly unsatisfying. However, the concept is alluring and the acting is great. Poitier is effectively restrained, yet he ensures that the soul-deep disappointment behind his eyes is plainly visible. As for Geer, he brings the same avuncular sensitivity that later distinguished his work on the long-running TV show The Waltons. So, even though it’s far from perfect, Brother John presents such an unusual story with such care in front of and behind the camera that its best passages are hypnotic.

Brother John: GROOVY

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Taste of Hell (1973)


A violent action picture about the horrors the Japanese Army visited upon locals while occupying the Philippines during World War II, this excruciatingly bad movie is set on the island nation circa 1942. After a brutal Japanese commander annihilates a guerilla platoon led by American Lt. Barry Mann (John Garwood), leaving a badly burned Barry for dead, Barry survives to torment his Japanese oppressors. He also longs to reconnect with Maria (Liza Lorena), his beautiful Filipino lover, whom we knows will never look at him the same way now that he’s so disfigured he looks like Vincent Price in, well, pretty much any movie in which Vincent Price was disfigured. There’s also a perfunctory subplot involving Barry’s best friend, fellow American solider Jack (William Smith), who loves Maria but won’t say so out of loyalty to Barry. Oh, and just for good measure, Barry bonds with a hunchbacked young boy who embraces Barry as a fellow social pariah. Incompetently written and blandly filmed (by two credited directors), A Taste of Hell features wall-to-wall dubbed dialogue, so the disjointed movie feels like a workprint that’s missing half the key scenes. One can (almost) imagine the intense revenge flick the filmmakers might have deluded themselves into believing they were making, but what they actually made is an ugly mixture of tedium and violence lacking credibility, drama, or tension. Smith, the muscular veteran of a zillion bad movies, looks great glowering his way through various manly-man scenarios, but the bad dubbing and discombobulated storytelling render his performance inert. As for Garwood, who rarely speaks once he slaps on the burn makeup, he doesn’t so much act his role as mime it, and he doesn’t even do that particularly well.

A Taste of Hell: SQUARE

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tom Sawyer (1973) & Huckleberry Finn (1974)


          The sibling songwriting duo of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman had a huge impact on family entertainment in the ’60s, writing songs for projects including the blockbuster musical Mary Poppins (1964) and Disney’s theme parks (the Shermans wrote “It’s a Small World”). Their dominance of the family-film game ebbed in the ’70s, but not before they expanded their creative purview to include screenwriting. The Shermans wrote the scripts and a brace of original songs for Tom Sawyer, adapted from Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, adapted from Twain’s revered 1884 sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; both films were produced by Arthur P. Jacobs, whose previous entry into the realm of movie musicals was 1967’s super-expensive Doctor Dolittle.
          Given their big-budget pedigree, it’s unsurprising that both Twain adaptations look fantastic, boasting authentic production design and slick photography. However, as Jacobs discovered with the disastrous Dolittle, musicals are all about the songs, and the Twain adaptations are mostly tone-deaf. Plus, although the underlying narratives are timeless, the Shermans make such vapid adaptive choices that the stories end up seeming contrived and stiff.
          Tom Sawyer is the better of the two movies, but only marginally so. Johnny Whitaker (from TV‘s Family Affair) plays Tom in all of the familiar adventures: convincing his friends to paint a fence; witnessing a murder with his buddy, Huck Finn (Jeff East); falling in love with a pretty young neighbor (Jodie Foster); testifying about the murder in court; and enduring a scary underground confrontation with crazed killer Injun Joe (Kunu Hank). Whitaker is cute and enthusiastic, but not skillful enough to create the illusion of Tom’s preternatural cleverness. Therefore, the dramatic heavy lifting falls to screen veterans Celeste Holm (as Tom’s long-suffering Aunt Polly) and Warren Oates (as Tom’s drunkard friend Mutt). As for the songs, the Shermans’ style of cutesy wordplay and syrupy sentimentality clashes with Twain’s thorny sarcasm. The underscore is actually better than the tunes, thanks to the participation of composer John Williams, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work but did not return for the sequel. Ultimately, the most irritating aspect of Tom Sawyer is that it’s decent whenever people aren’t singing, because the plot is full of exciting events and the production values are terrific.
          Ironically, Huckleberry Finn has the key element that eluded Tom Sawyer (a great song), but it’s a lesser film in every other regard. Part of the problem is the odd plotting of Twain’s novel, which has confounded literary critics for generations; though ostensibly the brilliant parable of runaway ragamuffin Huck (East) bonding with runaway slave Jim (Paul Winfield), the story is episodic and burdened with an infuriating third act (which the Shermans omit in favor of something more poetic). As in the first picture, East is competent but not special, and he’s pretty much the whole show, since the formidable Winfield is kept offscreen for a great deal of the movie. Even the presence of lively supporting player Harvey Korman (as a con man who calls himself “The King”) isn’t enough to break the overall tedium. On the plus side is that great song, “Freedom,” which is sung over the opening credits by Roberta Flack. Although “Freedom” eventually gets buried in maudlin strings, the song is a simple reflection of the story’s main theme, and therefore a welcome musical change from the gimmicky trifles that permeate these tiresome films.

Tom Sawyer: FUNKY
Huckleberry Finn: LAME

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sweet Hostage (1975)


          A peculiar made-for-TV drama that mixes lofty dialogue and pulpy sensationalism, Sweet Hostage features the unlikely screen pairing of Martin Sheen, then 35 and at the height of his Badlands-era intensity, and Linda Blair, then 16 and caught in an awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood. To say there’s a disparity between what each actor brings to the table is an understatement, but the tension between their skill sets works in a queasy sort of way.
          Playing an escaped mental patient who kidnaps a young woman while hiding from authorities in a remote part of New Mexico, Sheen explodes with energy and talent, riffing through dozens of accents and showcasing fluid physicality—he’s such a live wire that his performance would seem excessive if he didn’t have the leeway provided by his character’s mental illness. Conversely, Blair plays a simple farm girl aching to learn more about the outside world, so her job is mostly to watch Sheen’s character with confused fascination. While Blair’s leaps back and forth between girlish innocence and womanly coquettishness aren’t executed all that smoothly, she more or less gets the job done, and she seems quite sincere by the end of the picture.
          Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley called Welcome to Xanadu, the picture is structured like a standard thriller, with frequent cutaways to police officers and worried parents trying to find the kidnapped girl, though the bulk of the movie comprises two-character scenes in which the erudite mental patient beguiles his “sweet hostage” with grammar instruction, poetry readings, and romantic compliments. It’s never totally clear what his intentions were in abducting the girl, although sexual attraction is implied from the earliest scenes, but then again, the same fact of mental illness that gives Sheen free rein for dramatic opulence cuts the storytellers some slack. And if Blair’s characterization is a bit dicey—it’s always hard to believe transformations from reluctant captivity to voluntary imprisonment—the point of the piece is a young woman opening herself to a larger world of ideas and language through the peculiar circumstance of meeting a troubled aesthete.
          That said, don’t get the idea that Sweet Hostage is some poetic little gem made with consummate taste; though the direction by TV veteran Lee Phillips is vibrant, the music score is ghastly, bursting with inappropriate arrangements and overripe cues. There’s even a wretched theme song, “Strangers on a Carousel,” which manages to be insipid and saccharine all at once. In other words, Sweet Hostage is very much trapped by its nature as a TV movie, lacking narrative sophistication and post-production polish. Plus, to be frank, it’s a Linda Blair vehicle. Within those limitations, however, Sweet Hostage is arresting and offbeat. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Sweet Hostage: FUNKY

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cops and Robbers (1973)


          A lighthearted crime thriller unwisely marketed as an out-and-out comedy, Cops and Robbers features a clever plot, flavorful ’70s atmosphere, and exuberant performances by a pair of actors not customarily cast as leads. The movie has significant tonal inconsistencies, and (like all heist movies) raises the question of why we should care about people who steal, but it’s so brisk and watchable that it’s worth investigating. Joe (Joseph Bologna) is a New York City beat cop exasperated by his inability to get ahead financially. So, one evening, he walks into a liquor store in full uniform and robs the place. Afterward, Joe tells his plainclothes-detective buddy Tom (Cliff Gorman) how easy it is to exploit the power of the badge. Determined to stage a major heist so he and Joe can retire into luxury, Tom approaches mid-level mobster Pasquale Aniello (John P. Ryan) for advice. Amazed at the policeman’s hubris, Aniello says that if Tom and his partner steal $10 million in bearer bonds from Wall Street, he’ll pay the cops-turned-crooks a cool $2 million.
          Written by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, Cops and Robbers scores on two levels. The central crime is just weird enough to jibe with reality, and the straightforward motivation of the lead characters speaks to universal frustrations with the slow pace of making an honest buck—even though it’s hard to actually like Joe and Tom, since they flagrantly violate the public trust, it’s easy to see what pushes them toward criminality. Westlake also does a clever job of illustrating that everyone in the system is ripping off everyone else (brokers are robbing from brokers, crooks are robbing from crooks), creating the illusion of a victimless crime. In that context, the fun of the movie is watching Joe and Tom work out the particulars of their crime, even as a hundred things go wrong on the big day. The heist scene is meticulously paced and staged, with all sorts of nerve-jangling complications, and the offbeat climax takes place in Central Park on “Bicycle Day.”
          Editor-turned-director Aram Avakian predictably does best in action scenes, when he’s able to shape varied footage into taut vignettes, though he doesn’t quite succeed in coaxing his actors toward matching the jaunty tone of the script. As a result, Cops and Robbers is a bit too serious for its own good, which is compounded by a downbeat score featuring the frequently repeated R&B theme song “A World of Cops and Robbers.” It also feels like a couple of dramatic beats are missing, with characters making confusing leaps forward, and Bologna and Gorman, though both very skilled at expressing their characters’ frustrations, aren’t exactly the most charismatic performers. Nonetheless, more goes right than wrong in Cops and Robbers, and the cast features a slew of interesting Noo Yawk supporting players, like Joe Spinell and Dolph Sweet.

Cops and Robbers: GROOVY

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Blackout (1978)


A queasy hybrid of the crime-thriller and disaster genres, Blackout has, as its title suggests, a solid premise: When the lights go out in New York City, criminal types go on a rampage. Unfortunately, bad acting, a skinflint budget, and a terrible script make Blackout a study in monotony. The plot centers on a group of lunatics who escape from a transport van and terrorize the residents of a high-rise apartment building. Using a narrative gimmick later employed to better effect in Die Hard (1988), the hero is a lone street cop (James Mitchum) who follows the criminals into the building and tries to take them down one by one. There are a few perfunctory scenes outside the building, like drab vignettes in a power station, but the picture mostly comprises unattractively photographed interior scenes of bad people doing bad things. The main crook is Christie (Robert Carradine), an anti-corporate terrorist who inexplicably transforms into a petty thief; he enlists the less-intelligent thugs from the transport van to serve as muscle during a robbery spree, giving them license to rape and kill at their leisure. It’s safe to say that when the loveable geek from the Revenge of the Nerds movies is playing a criminal mastermind, expectations should be kept low; similarly, the presence of a leading man whose only claim to fame is being Robert Mitchum’s son doesn’t promise much elevation of the material. As in most disaster-themed pictures, some supporting actors provide momentary distraction. Dancer/singer June Allyson trudges through pointless scenes as a woman caring for her invalid husband, Belinda J. Montgomery is earnest as a rape victim, and Jean-Pierre Aumont is likeably urbane as a pauper living alone with his dog. The movie’s “big name,” Ray Milland, who had a bad habit of showing up in low-budget crap and looking ashamed for doing so, is characteristically obnoxious as a rich man who cares more about his paintings than his wife. Badly made, consistently boring, and performed with understandable indifference, Blackout represents the total waste of a good idea.

Blackout: SQUARE

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)


          With a more coherent script work and a better actress playing the female lead, this insouciant comedy about misfits working for low-rent ambulance companies might have been a solid entry in the M*A*S*H-inspired subgenre of outrageous medical comedies. As is, the picture’s redeeming qualities get drowned out by muddy storytelling and tonal inconsistencies.
          Bill Cosby stars as Mother, a driver at the wildly unethical F+B Ambulance Company. Boozing it up behind the wheel and packing a .357 Magnum for sticky situations, Mother regularly intercepts calls for other ambulance companies so F+B can collect the fares. Raquel Welch costars as Jennifer, better known as “Jugs” (for obvious reasons); she’s the F+B receptionist who longs for gender equality in the workplace. Eventually, Harvey Keitel shows up as Speed, a police detective who needs to make extra cash while on suspension for alleged corruption. These three characters, along with other oddballs like Murdoch (Larry Hagman), a scumbag prone to stunts like trying to rape unconscious female patients, form a tapestry of human weirdness that’s occasionally very funny.
          Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, known for his lighthearted contributions to Roger Moore’s early 007 movies and the first two Superman pictures, contrives lively banter, although the fact that Cosby delivers most of the best lines suggests the actor did some on-set embellishing. When the movie is really cooking, which doesn’t happen very often, Mother, Jugs & Speed cleverly riffs on the idea of trying to remain sane in a world gone mad. Unfortunately, the movie gets derailed as frequently as it stays on track.
          One big problem is the characterization of Jennifer. After she transitions from her secretary role to working in the field, the movie’s focus shifts to the angst she suffers upon encountering the Big Bad World. Jennifer also falls into a sudden (and not particularly credible) relationship with Speed, despite rebuffing the advances of every other dude she meets. Exacerbating matters is the fact that when Mother, Jugs & Speed goes dark, it goes very dark, to the tune of major characters getting shot and killed. Even with reliable director Peter Yates calling the shots, this picture simply isn’t solid enough to sustain whiplash changes in tone.
          Still, there’s plenty for casual viewers to enjoy in the brisk 95-minute film, from Cosby’s impeccable timing to Allen Garfield’s sweaty performance as F+B’s cheapskate proprietor. Fellow supporting players Hagman, Bruce Davison, and L.Q. Jones deliver vivid work, and Keitel is appealing in one of his few real romantic leads. As for Welch, she thrives during light-comedy bits but is startlingly awful during dramatic scenes.

Mother, Jugs & Speed: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)


          By the time she made Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, the formidable Joanne Woodward had been playing troubled women onscreen for years, so she was way past the point of trying to engender audience sympathy; quite to the contrary, her performances in ’70s pictures like this one are truly fearless. Put even more bluntly, Woodward had no reservations about playing complete bitches, probably because she trusted her ability to reveal the hurt beneath the anger. And that’s just what she does in Summer Wishes, to the point that her performance has a subtlety the rest of the movie can’t quite match. So, while the film as a whole is good but not great, no such hedging is required when praising Woodward’s work. She’s abrasive, exhausting, rude, vicious, and vulnerable, portraying the whole spectrum of one woman’s complex emotional life.
          Rita Walden (Joanne Woodward) is the wife of a successful optometrist, Harry (Martin Balsam). They live in upper-middle-class luxury in New York City. Rita whiles away her time shopping with her stuck-up mother (Sylvia Sidney), fretting about a past love she can’t forget, and trying to understand why she’s at loggerheads with her adult daughter and completely estranged from her adult son. In the course of the story, a family tragedy and a resulting breakdown force Rita to question her life choices, even as the long-suffering Harry takes her on a romantic getaway to Europe. Profoundly lost, Rita lashes out at anyone and everyone, yet still expects her loved ones to come when she calls; she’s incapable of realizing that her psychological prison is of her own making. And once Rita and her husband reach France, we realize Harry his is own demons, because traumatic memories of his World War II combat experiences come flooding back.
          Directed by journeyman Gilbert Cates as the follow-up to his similarly bleak award-winner I Never Sang for My Father (1970), and written by Stewart Stern (an Oscar nominee for the 1968 Woodward vehicle Rachel, Rachel), this is a posh but understated production from top to bottom. The interior scenes, evocatively lit by cameraman Gerald Hischfeld, are bathed in deep shadows that reflect the emotional states of the characters, and the exterior scenes, particularly those in the former battlefields of the European theater, are suitably overcast.
          Balsam, though primarily focused on mirroring Woodward’s acting, has some sweetly affecting moments as a man struggling to understand his enigma of a wife, and Sidney is fierce in her brief appearance. The picture isn’t perfect by a long shot, and the subplot of Rita being traumatized by her son’s homosexuality is treated clumsily; dream sequences in which Rita’s son is romanced by a male ballet dancer are at best dated and at worst borderline offensive. That said, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams attacks a worthy theme with focus and purpose, making it easy to overlook a few narrative hiccups. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams: FUNKY

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Shaggy D.A. (1976)


In a word: woof. This live-action Disney comedy is a sequel to the studio’s minor 1959 hit The Shaggy Dog, about a young boy who turns into a sheepdog thanks to a magic spell. In the sequel, the boy has grown up to become reputable attorney Wilby Daniels (Dean Jones). When his house is robbed in broad daylight, Wilby decides to run for district attorney because the current D.A. is soft on crime. Unfortunately, that old magic spell gets reactivated, so Wilby starts turning into a sheepdog at inopportune moments, like when he’s preparing to get interviewed on television. Meanwhile (there’s always a meanwhile), current D.A. John Slade (Keenan Wynn) conspires to eliminate our hero before the lycanthropic litigator  can discover that Slade is in bed with the Mob. Disney regular Jones is amiable and diligent, investing considerable energy to give insipid scenes bounce and spunk, but not even the most gifted comedian could make Don Tait’s hackneyed screenplay sing. Very small children might be amused by vignettes of Jones growing hair on his face and by scenes of the sheepdog galumphing about while speaking with Jones’ voice, but grown-up viewers will have a hard time sitting through this barrage of cartoonish slapstick, clunky effects, and labored plotting. Matters are not improved by Tim Conway’s supporting performance as a dim-witted ice cream man, because his bumbling-idiot routine gets tired very quickly. And for dog lovers, presumably one of the movie’s target audiences, it’s a drag to watch the scene of the hirsute hero getting herded into an animal shelter’s gas chamber before he stages a four-legged jailbreak, since puppy euthanasia ain’t exactly comedy gold. Twenty years after this sequel was released, Tim Allen starred in a CGI-heavy remake of the original film.

The Shaggy D.A.: LAME

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Breakheart Pass (1975)


          Though he spent most of the ’70s starring in ultraviolent thrillers, Charles Bronson also displayed a lighter touch in occasional escapist adventures. One of the most diverting of these efforts is Breakheart Pass, adapted by bestselling novelist Alistair MacLean from his own book. Breakheart Pass is a Western thriller gene-spliced with bits and bobs from the espionage and murder-mystery genres, set primarily on a passenger train barreling through the wintry wilds of the Midwest. Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) is on board the train to oversee the delivery of medical supplies to a fort that’s suffering an outbreak of diphtheria. During a routine stop in a frontier town, U.S. Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) talks his way into passage on the train, bringing along his prisoner, medical lecturer-turned-suspected murderer Deakin (Bronson). Once the train gets moving again, several passengers are mysteriously killed, so Deakin sniffs around and discovers that the diphtheria outbreak is a ruse invented to cover a heinous conspiracy to which the governor is party. So, in the classic mode, Deakin has to figure out whom he can trust as he smokes out the bad guys, all while racing the clock before the train arrives at a rendezvous with destiny.
          Breakheart Pass is enjoyably overstuffed with manly-man excitement: The picture has bloodthirsty criminals, fistfights atop moving trains, marauding Indians, revelations of secret identities, shootouts in the snowy wilderness, unexpected double-crosses, and even a spectacular crash. As with most of MacLean’s stories, credibility takes a backseat to generating pulpy narrative, so trying to unravel the story afterward raises all sorts of questions about logic and motivation. Still, Breakheart Pass is thoroughly enjoyable in a cartoonish sort of way. Veteran TV director Tom Gries keeps scenes brisk and taut, and he benefits from a cast filled with top-notch character players, including Charles Durning, David Huddleston, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, and others. As for the leading players, Bronson presents a likeable version of macho nonchalance, while Crenna essays his oily character smoothly. Predictably, the female lead is Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland, who costarred in a dozen of her husband’s ’70s pictures.

Breakheart Pass: GROOVY

Saturday, November 5, 2011

House of Dark Shadows (1970) & Night of Dark Shadows (1971)


          Although the name of producer-director Dan Curtis looms large over small-screen ’70s horror—his projects from the era include the series The Night Stalker and the TV movie Trilogy of Terror—Curtis’ brand of melodramatic horror didn’t connect as strongly on the big screen, as evidenced by the fact that he only made one proper theatrical feature in his career, the 1976 Bette Davis shocker Burnt Offerings. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that the two big-screen spin-offs Curtis made from his cult-favorite supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows are unimpressive: The gimmicks that seemed bold and exciting in America’s living rooms weren’t enough to sustain interest in darkened theaters.
          Running from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows was an oddity in the milquetoast realm of daytime TV, mixing ghosts and werewolves and vampires into the usual soap tropes of domestic drama and doomed romance. Additionally, the show’s cheesy production values were part of its charm—so the fact that House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows are competently made actually works against their efficacy. Whereas the series had a quasi-intentional tongue-in-cheek quality thanks to actors flubbing lines and stagehands walking through shots, the features are presented without irony, so they feel dull and humorless.
          The narratives also move at a glacial pace, as long stretches of screen time are filled with characters wandering through forests or hallways while spooky music plays in the background. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that the both movies awkwardly rehash plot threads from the TV show. House of Dark Shadows is a sort of “origin story” adventure featuring the series’ beloved vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), and Night of Dark Shadows is a Gothic romance about Quentin Collins (David Selby), an artist haunted by the demons of his past lives; both main characters were regulars on the series. In the first picture, anguished bloodsucker Barnabas explores a possible cure for vampirism until a romantic triangle involving a reincarnated lover ruins his plans for a plasma-free future. In the second picture, Quentin moves into the haunted family estate in Collinsworth, Maine, where he’s seduced by the angry spirit of a witch he loved in a previous life, a turn of events that understandably creates tension in Quentin’s marriage to spunky Tracy Collins (Kate Jackson, pre-Charlie’s Angels).
          Both pictures deliver the familiar visual style of the series, which means lots of deep-focus camerawork juxtaposing background and foreground actors; super-low angles accentuating ornate castle walls; and waves upon waves of ominous music. The acting is enthusiastic but mediocre, with actors hamstrung by florid dialogue and turgid pacing. Another reason neither movie is particularly satisfying is that each has something the other lacks—House of Dark Shadows has a steady flow of action leading to an overwrought Grand Guignol finale, while Night of Dark Shadows boasts a more vivid love story. In fact, had these movies been the world’s first exposure to the Dark Shadows franchise, it’s unlikely anyone would remember Barnabas and his extended clan today.

House of Dark Shadows: FUNKY
Night of Dark Shadows: FUNKY