Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Baby (1973)


          One of the most perverse low-budget thrillers of the early ’70s (and that’s saying a lot), The Baby concerns a social worker who becomes fascinated with a mentally challenged adult male whose family treats him like a baby, as in dressing him in diapers and sleeping him in a crib. Although the picture was marketed as a horror flick, it’s really more of a twisted psychological thriller leading up to a whopper of a twist ending: While it features grisly scenes and a sizable body count, the focus is on disturbing, rather than shocking, the audience. The sight of “Baby,” a grown man crawling on all fours and communicating through goo-goo-ga-ga gibberish, is consistently unsettling, and actor David Manzy gets points for his committed performance.
          Even creepier are Baby’s relatives, from his blowsy, frequently inebriated mother (Ruth Roman) to his sexed-up adult sisters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Judith (Beatrice Manley). As if the bit when Germaine slips into Baby’s crib for an incestuous liaison isn’t icky enough, Hill plays her entire role with outrageously teased manes of blonde hair, making her seem as weird as her infantilized sibling. Roman, with her throaty voice and caked-on cosmetics, works the estrogen-deficient vibe that characterized Shelley Winters’ roles around this period, so she’s a horror show all on her own, scheming to keep the welfare checks coming by arresting her son’s development.
          Adding a whole different level of crazy to the mix is the social worker, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer). A glassy-eyed enigma who lives in a grim household with her mother-in-law and grieves for the husband she recently lost in an accident, Ann is a basket case in no shape to deal with something as troubling as Baby’s home life, yet she gloms onto Baby relentlessly. In their crude way, the filmmakers do a good job of implying that Ann’s interest in Baby is deviant until revealing a secret about her during the over-the-top climax.
          Director Ted Post, who mostly made action pictures and Westerns, doesn’t have the demented flair The Baby needs, which leads to scenes that feel drab and workmanlike. Plus, it should go without saying that the script by Abe Polsky is so gonzo that credibility was never going to be part of the equation. Still, the plot gets kickier as the picture progresses: The final stretch, in which Ann kidnaps Baby and provokes a final confrontation with his bizarre clan, layers one grotesque image upon another. Furthermore, because The Baby is more competently made than most out-there fright flicks of the same era, there’s a veneer of realism coating the picture’s truly insane plot.

The Baby: FREAKY

Friday, December 30, 2011

Breakout (1975)


If you set your brain on standby mode to groove on cheap thrills and star power, the Charles Bronson action picture Breakout is enjoyably pulpy. In the convoluted story, unlucky American Jay (Robert Duvall) gets framed and thrown into a nasty Mexican jail, thanks to the machinations of his evil father, Harris Wagner (John Huston); it seems Jay is in a position to expose some of Harris’ nefarious activities. Unaware of Papa’s real agenda, Jay’s dutiful wife, Ann (Jill Ireland), conspires to get Jay released. When legal procedures prove fruitless, she attempts bribing guards and tries smuggling in tools for an escape attempt, but nothing works. Eventually, Ann is introduced to Nick Colton (Bronson), a small-time pilot willing to break the law for a buck. After a few false starts, Nick contrives an audacious plan to fly a helicopter into the jail. Drama, such as it is, stems from Ann’s difficulty balancing her devotion to Jay and her attraction to Nick, plus the challenges Nick encounters while recruiting accomplices for a possible suicide mission. All of this is palatable in a Saturday-matinee kind of a way, which means that Breakout is never boring even though it’s never believable. The movie suffers tonal hiccups whenever it tries to get serious, as in the subplot of Jay’s mental state deteriorating after extended incarceration, and there’s not much in the way of character development. Still, Bronson makes a charming lowlife, all bravado and sarcasm, while supporting players Sheree North and Randy Quaid offer flair as Nick’s long-suffering redneck pals. Ireland, Bronson’s frequent onscreen costar and real-life wife, is a bit spunkier than usual, and Duvall adds a measure of gravitas by playing his prison scenes with great intensity. (Huston is wasted in a tiny role.) So, while Breakout is contrived and silly in the extreme, a few thrilling sequences (and one shockingly gory death scene) ensure that fans of manly-man action will find plenty to enjoy.

Breakout: FUNKY

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Greatest (1977)


          As a keepsake depicting the heyday of one of modern sports’ most celebrated figures, The Greatest is priceless, because boxer Muhammad Ali plays himself in a brisk overview of his illustrious career’s most notable moments. As a movie, The Greatest is, well, not the greatest. Setting aside the issue of Ali’s amateurish acting, since he never claimed thespian skills among his gifts, the picture is so flat and oversimplified that it’s more of a tribute reel than an actual film. At its worst, The Greatest is outright ridiculous. For instance, the opening-credits montage features Ali jogging while George Benson croons a maudlin version of “The Greatest Love of All,” which was composed for this movie even though most people know the song as a Whitney Houston hit from the ’80s. The problem is that the main lyric, “Learning to love yourself/is the greatest love of all,” doesn’t really apply to the former Cassius Clay, whose bravado is as famous as his pugilistic skill; for this man, self-love was never in short supply.
          Nonetheless, it seems the goal of this picture was to portray Cassius/Muhammad as a simple man trying to find his identity while he clashed with racist white promoters and, during his Vietnam-era battle against being drafted into military service, the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t dig deep enough to feel believable as an examination of the inner man, especially since most of the events depicted in the picture are familiar to everyone, from Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X (James Earl Jones) to his conversion to Islam. The movie’s credibility is damaged further by the filmmakers’ use of actual footage from Ali’s biggest bouts: The movie frequently cuts from shots of a well-fed 1977 Ali to clips of the same man looking leaner in earlier years, even though the disparate shots are supposed to be contiguous.
          Accentuating the cheesy approach are distracting cameo appearances by Jones, Robert Duvall, David Huddleston, Ben Johnson, and Paul Winfield, all of whom breeze in and out of the movie very quickly. (Ernest Borgnine has a somewhat more substantial role as trainer Angelo Dundee.) FYI, cult-fave director Monte Hellman provided uncredited assistance during post-production after the death of the film’s credited director, reliable journeyman Tom Gries; Hellman performed similar duties two years later on the misbegotten thriller Avalanche Express, joining that production after director Mark Robson died.

The Greatest: LAME

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Creeping Flesh (1973)


Proving that Hammer Films’ horror-flick formula was hard to duplicate, this meandering knockoff from low-rent company Tigon Pictures features Hammer’s two most beloved stars, plus a storyline suitable for Hammer treatment. What’s missing is the quasi-literary execution that made even the worst Hammer flicks feel like pulpy Victorian novels sprung to life. Therefore, even with regular Hammer director Freddie Francis at the helm, the atrocious script for The Creeping Flesh precludes the existence of coherence or credibility. When the movie begins, obsessed scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from a foreign expedition bearing the gigantic skeleton of some sort of missing-link creature. Dr. Hildren lives with but mostly ignores his daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), who believes her mother died when she was young. In truth, her mother went insane, so Emmanuel committed her to an asylum run by his icy brother, James Hildern (Christopher Lee). In quick succession, Emmanuel discovers that the ancient skeleton regrows flesh when exposed to water; Penelope uncovers the truth about her mother and learns that Mom died in the asylum; and a psycho killer escapes from the very same nuthouse. So, as the overstuffed plot grinds along, the skeleton springs to murderous life, Penelope slips into the same madness that once gripped her mother, and the psycho killer fixates on Penelope. To say these varied elements don’t gel would be to understate this picture’s problems. Whereas Hammer flicks generally focused on one horror trope at a time, The Creeping Flesh combines killer-on-the-loose thrills, psychological drama, and supernatural scares, so each element gets short shrift. Worse, the special effects for the skeleton scenes are weak, and neither Cushing nor Lee gets to do anything particularly interesting. Heilbron is fine as a sheltered girl unleashing her inner hellion, but her performance isn’t strong enough to compensate for the movie’s discombobulated narrative.

The Creeping Flesh: LAME

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Freebie and the Bean (1974)


          So wrong and yet so right, Freebie and the Bean was one of the first buddy-cop movies, made before the genre even had a name, and it’s also one of the most politically incorrect studio pictures ever filmed: When I revisited the movie at a screening in Hollywood circa 2005, there were audible gasps from the audience at some of the movie’s outrageous race-baiting gags. Whereas most buddy-cop pictures undercut their nastiness by suggesting the heroes are secretly decent, Freebie and the Bean proves its badass integrity by focusing on policemen so dangerously unhinged they shouldn’t be loose on the streets, much less armed with guns and badges.
          Freebie (James Caan) is an unapologetic racist willing to cause mass destruction in the pursuit of criminals, and Bean (Alan Arkin) is a tightly wound Mexican so preoccupied with the possibility of his wife’s infidelity that he’s constantly in the grips of volcanic emotional outbursts. These madmen prowl the streets of San Francisco as plainclothes detectives, and as the story unfolds, they become obsessed with nailing local criminal boss Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen), which propels them to even greater heights of irresponsibility.
          Defying authority, destroying public property, and endangering bystanders wherever they go, Freebie and Bean barrel through San Francisco like tanks invading enemy territory, resulting in such crazed scenes as a chase that ends with a car zooming off a highway and landing inside an apartment building. While watching these and other jaw-dropping stunts, keep in mind Freebie and the Bean was made in the pre-CGI era, so real-life stuntmen performed the amazing feats; although the blending of real actors and stuntmen isn’t exactly seamless, the physical reality of the crazy action gives the movie tension.
          Director Richard Rush, whose gonzo style helped him forge a singular filmography including the drug-culture classic Psych-Out (1968) and the perverse behind-the-scenes thriller The Stunt Man (1980), has a field day with Freebie and the Bean, orchestrating outlandishly offensive confrontations and staging spectacular tableaux of gleeful demolition. This is total balls-to-the-wall filmmaking, so while Freebie and the Bean is not a great movie in the conventional sense (the story isn’t memorable and very little of what happens feels credible), it’s still powerfully entertaining.
          It helps a lot that both lead actors commit wholeheartedly to their performances: Caan is so cocksure and trigger-happy he makes Dirty Harry seem cautious by comparison, while Arkin is so paranoid and volatile he seems ready for an asylum. (Good luck ignoring the fact that Arkin and Valerie Harper, who plays his wife, are absurdly miscast as Mexicans.) Freebie and the Bean was a big enough hit during its initial release that it’s surprising a sequel was never made, although a (very) short-lived spinoff TV series appeared in 1980, with Tom Mason playing Freebie and Hector Elizondo playing Bean. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Freebie & the Bean: FUNKY

Monday, December 26, 2011

Crazy Mama (1975)


One of several dysfunctional-family-on-a-rampage flicks that producer Roger Corman cranked out in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this amiably sloppy feature stars Cloris Leachman as Melba, a middle-aged widow circa the mid-’50s who gets kicked out of her home in Long Beach, California, after falling behind on bills. Together with her sexy teenaged daughter, Cheryl (Linda Purl), and her brassy mother, Sheba (Ann Sothern), Melba departs California for her hometown of Jerusalem, Arkansas. Almost by accident, the family becomes a criminal gang, beginning when they steal a car from their skinflint landlord (Jim Backus), and continuing with robberies at diners, gas stations, and so on. The gang soon expands to include Cheryl’s two boyfriends (one of whom is played by Happy Days redhead Don Most), plus Melba’s new lover, Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), who just happens to be a (married) runaway sheriff. Like so many Corman pictures, Crazy Mama is a contrived jumble mixing together concepts from other movies, because the story is merely a loose framework for car chases, explosions, and the like. Therefore, notwithstanding Leachman’s participation—since her performance is an all-over-the-map mess—the sole reason Crazy Mama enjoys notoriety is that it’s an early work by director Jonathan Demme. Although Demme had not yet found his groove as a storyteller, his ability to get performers comfortable is plainly evident. Many scenes feel loose and unrehearsed, so even though the movie’s intentional jokes aren’t funny (“What’s the good of bein’ an outlaw if you look like an in-law?”), there’s an infectious party vibe from start to finish. Plus, by Corman standards, Crazy Mama is downright restrained: Purl manages to stay clothed except for a quick peekaboo shot, and Leachman, rocking a sexier body than you might imagine if you only know her from Mel Brooks comedies, reveals even less. So, if you want rednecks-on-the-run thrills without the usual corresponding seediness, Crazy Mama is the drive-in quickie for you.

Crazy Mama: FUNKY

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)


          After spending much of the ’60s in the creative wilderness, director John Huston rebounded in the early ’70s with the acclaimed character drama Fat City and the eccentric Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, both released in 1972. Still, it seemed unlikely he would ever make another classic equal to his studio-era masterpieces The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), both of which starred Humphrey Bogart. It also seemed unlikely he would ever find the right actors for his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King, since Huston originally meant to make the picture with Bogart and Clark Gable. Yet Huston gracefully achieved both goals: Engrossing, spectacular, and thoughtful, his film of The Man Who Would Be King is among the all-time great adventure movies, perfectly meshing a once-in-a-lifetime onscreen duo with a timeless parable about man’s lust for gold.
          Michael Caine and Sean Connery play English soldiers in late 19th-century India, when the country was still part of the British Empire. Determined to improve their lot and emboldened by their belief in the superiority of white Christians over dark-skinned pagans, Peachy (Caine) and Danny (Connery) quit the army and venture to the remote terrain of Kafiristan, which is rumored to harbor untold treasures. Employing their army training, the lads help bolster the defenses of a remote village against violent marauders, and then a chance occurrence elevates their stature.
          During an attack, Danny is hit by an arrow but doesn’t flinch, convincing the locals he must be a god. (In fact, the arrow struck his leather bandolier.) Soon, Danny is summoned to a nearby holy city, with Peachy in tow, and another chance occurrence secures their illusion of divinity: The locals mistake Danny’s Freemason crest for a symbol of Alexander the Great, thus mistaking him for a reincarnation of the fabled conqueror. A palace filled with gold is handed to the soldiers, but when Peachy suggests they grab as much loot as they can carry and leave before their ruse is discovered, a power-mad Danny insists on staying.
          The stage thus set, Huston elegantly stages the duo’s inevitable fall from grace. The film’s climax is beautifully realized thanks to committed acting, crisp storytelling, and dazzling stunt work. Huston and co-screenwriter Gladys Hill capture the dangers and delights of Kipling’s style throughout the picture, so scenes in crowded India are chaotic and fast, while scenes in sprawling mountaintop temples are meditative and resplendent. Furthermore, veteran cameraman Oswald Morris’ lush photography makes locations like a vertiginous mountaintop staircase and a terrifying rope bridge seem like legends come to life. Huston employs a quasi-documentary feel for the most exotic scenes, creating a sense that Caine and Connery wandered into a never-before-seen wonderland; this intoxicating atmosphere is accentuated by the presence of Caine’s real-life wife, Guyana-born beauty Shakira Caine, in her only significant acting role. (Christopher Plummer appears in enjoyable framing sequences as Kipling.)
          As for Caine and Connery, they live up to the grandiose production surrounding them. Trading working-class banter like blokes sharing a pint, the actors convey the quality of deep friendship, so watching avarice cleave their relationship feels like observing great tragedy. That the actors never reunited onscreen defines The Man Who Would Be King as a singular document of their cinematic camaraderie.

The Man Who Would Be King: OUTTA SIGHT

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Anderson Tapes (1971)


          Enough goes right in The Anderson Tapes that it’s almost possible to overlook the huge problem at the movie’s center: The main storyline of an apartment-building heist is exciting, but the gimmick of observing certain events through illicit wiretaps and surveillance cameras is pointless. In other words, the “Anderson” part is pretty good, but the “Tapes” part, not so much. Based on a novel by Lawrence Sanders and written and directed, respectively, by future Dog Day Afternoon collaborators Frank Pierson and Sidney Lumet, The Anderson Tapes begins when thief Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) gets released from jail after a 10-year incarceration. He heads straight to the bed of his sexy girlfriend, Ingrid (Dyan Cannon), who lives in a posh apartment building as a wealthy man’s kept mistress. Duke decides Ingrid’s building is a treasure trove waiting to be robbed, so he contacts a well-heeled gangster (Alan King) for backing, and then puts together a motley crew to pull off the job. Anderson’s colorful accomplices include a swishy art expert (Martin Balsam) and a cocksure electronics whiz/safecracker (Christopher Walken).
          As in all of Lumet’s New York-based crime pictures, the pleasure of The Anderson Tapes comes from watching cops and hoodlums methodically plan their respective efforts, because Lumet has a peerless touch for grounding high-stakes action in believable character dynamics. In his universe, crooks and police officers wrestle with mundane problems like budget shortfalls, looming deadlines, and workplace tension. Thanks to these nuances, the robbery scenes and the police-standoff climax are terrific. However, nearly everything else about The Anderson Tapes is wobbly.
          Duke’s relationship with Ingrid is unbelievable, since her loyalty wavers in a manner that’s narratively convenient. Balsam’s characterization is borderline offensive. And the whole business with the surveillance tapes is a miscalculation: We see various parties recording Anderson’s activities, and we get the idea he’s stepped into a web of illegal wiretaps installed to catch bigger fish, but this angle never affects the story. Still, the performances are generally strong. Connery is macho and believably frustrated by his dubious cohorts; King is cheerfully vicious; Cannon is cynical and sultry; and Walken, in his first major screen role, brings his signature twitchy energy. Even Balsam, despite the insensitive characterization, is quite enjoyable. And watch out for future Saturday Night Live star Garrett Morris as a world-weary beat cop.

The Anderson Tapes: FUNKY

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Take (1974)


Although it might seem on first glance to be a blaxploitation picture, The Take is instead a straight-ahead crime thriller that just happens to star a black man, the inimitable Billy Dee Williams. He plays an unabashedly crooked cop who accepts payoffs from criminals even as he endeavors to bring them down. There’s a germ of an interesting idea here, because exploring the life of a maverick detective who rips off the crooks he’s busting could unveil provocative insights. Rather than going down that interesting road, however, the filmmakers behind The Take merely generate an exciting potboiler as our antihero, Lt. Sneed (Williams), pulls a fast one on a New Mexico-based kingpin named Manso (Vic Morrow). The story begins when Sneed gets summoned from his home base in San Francisco to sun-baked New Mexico by exasperated police chief Barrigan (Eddie Albert). Although Barrigan needs a big-city cop to tackle Manso, he’s aware of Sneed’s unorthodox methods and suspicious that Sneed is corrupt; Sneed’s tension with his new superior officer helps the big-city cop get into Manso’s good graces. In theory, all of this should be devious and thrilling, but in a strange way, Williams’ famous suaveness undercuts the picture: He’s so cool under pressure that we never worry very much for his welfare. In fact, Wiliams ends up being less interesting to watch than either Albert or Morrow, both of whom elevate underwritten roles. Morrow shows great flair playing a hot-tempered mobster who, at one point, gingerly nudges a rattlesnake off his property even as his thugs pummel someone who betrayed him. It’s also a kick to see onetime Beach Blanket Bingo dreamboat Frankie Avalon playing a small-time hood in a minor role, since it’s hard to imagine another circumstance in which he and Williams would share screen time. And in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it department, voluptuous ’70s starlet Kathy Baumann shows up for a wordless supporting role as Avalon’s squeeze, turning a bath towel into the movie’s sexiest costume. The Take is little more than a compendium of chase scenes and macho stand-offs, but it’s enjoyable in a mindless, pulpy sort of way. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

The Take: FUNKY

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Black Windmill (1974)


          The Black Windmill is a straightforward thriller distinguished by the onscreen participation of Michael Caine and the behind-the-camera participation of director Don Siegel. Caine grounds the picture in his understated performance brimming with just-below-the-surface intensity, and Siegel makes sure the movie stays laser-focused on the task of generating tension. So, even though the plot is quite ordinary and the ending is a bit on the abrupt side, it’s hard to argue with results, and The Black Windmill is consistently compelling, exciting, and nerve-jangling. It may not be what the poster promises (“The ultimate experience in controlled terror”), but it’s a solid potboiler.
          Caine plays Major John Tarrant, a British covert operative under the supervision of unctuous spymaster Cedric Harper (Donald Pleasence). Violent crooks led by a mysterious Irishman (John Vernon) kidnap Tarrant’s son, then use their hostage for leverage to pressure Harper into handing over a cache of diamonds his agency is holding. (Rest assured this seems a lot less convoluted when it unfolds onscreen.) The story twists in interesting ways as Tarrant realizes his superiors value their financial assets more highly than the life of his son, so Tarrant steals the diamonds and attempts to outsmart the crooks. While still leaving room for a touch of nuance here and there, the picture builds steadily from one nasty situation to the next while Tarrant drifts further into illegality.
          As always, Caine excels at illustrating on-the-fly calculations; watching him assess situations and change strategy is pure pleasure, because subtle fluctuations dart across his expressive features like lightning sparking in the night sky. Pleasence is terrific as well, playing a heartless survivor whose mousy demeanor hides lethal ambition, and Vernon delivers another of his enjoyably florid turns as a cold-blooded monster. Joss Acklaland, Clive Revill, and chilly European starlet Delphine Seyrig also appear, and Nicholas and Alexandra Oscar nominee Janet Suzman gives an emotional performance as Tarrant’s estranged wife, who finds herself drawn back to Tarrant because of their family’s harrowing circumstances. Thanks to all of these virtues, it doesn’t matter that The Black Windmill isn’t really about anything, because the movie does exactly what it’s supposed to do and nothing more.

The Black Windmill: GROOVY

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) & The Other Side of the Mountain Part 2 (1978)


          The blockbuster success of Love Story (1970) reminded studios about the moneymaking potential of over-the-top tearjerkers, which explains why Universal put its muscle behind The Other Side of the Mountain, even though the bummer material seems more suitable for a TV movie. Based on the unfortunate experiences of real-life American skier Jill Kinmont, The Other Side of the Mountain depicts what happened to Kinmont (played by Marilyn Hassett) before, during, and after an accident that left her paralyzed from the shoulders down, ending her promising athletic career and confining her to a wheelchair. Adding to her woes, Kinmont became engaged to skier Dick “Mad Dog” Buek (played by Beau Bidges) after her accident, surmounting the many issues separating able-bodied persons from the disabled, but Buek died in a plane crash before they got married.
          The movie frames these sad events with a quasi-uplifting prologue and epilogue, showing Kinmont looking fulfilled in her second career as a schoolteacher, but the point of the movie is bludgeoning viewers with the particulars of Kinmont’s misery. As directed by feature/TV journeyman Larry Peerce, The Other Side of the Mountain is so perfunctory it occasionally borders on self-parody—every time Peerce shows the heroine smiling, it’s a sure sign something horrible is about to happen. Even Kinmont’s best friend, fellow skier Audra Jo Nicholson (Belinda J. Montgomery), suffers the whims of fate, losing full mobility in her legs after a bout of polio.
          The workaday nature of the picture is not aided by Hassett’s performance: Though sincere and wholesomely pretty, she alternates between extremes of sweetness and hysteria. Luckily, Bridges has fun with his daredevil role, and Montgomery lends sass whenever her character castigates Kinmont for self-pity. (The great comic actor Dabney Coleman appears in a minor role as Kinmont’s pre-accident coach.)
          Audiences gobbled up The Other Side of the Mountain, generating enough interest for a sequel that offers an uplifting change of course from its predecessor. The Other Side of the Mountain Part 2 shows Kinmont finding love again, this time with simple but soulful truck driver John Boothe (Timothy Bottoms). The sequel also delves deeper into Kinmont’s occasionally fraught relationship with her mother-turned-caretaker, June (Nan Martin). However, whereas the first picture moves briskly by jamming years of experiences into a single feature, the second picture feels padded and thin. Nonetheless, Bottoms is appealing, exuding vulnerability even though his acting sometimes lacks polish; in a strange way, he and Hassett make a potent screen duo because the strain of their respective efforts feels compatible.
          Taken together, these two movies are meant to be inspirational celebrations of Kinmont’s triumph over despair, but they also contain three and a half hours of almost relentless human suffering. So, if schadenfreude takes you to your (un)happy place, then a world of wonder awaits on you on The Other Side of the Mountain. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

The Other Side of the Mountain: FUNKY
The Other Side of the Mountain Part 2: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Barquero (1970)


Although its plotting is not particularly credible, the violent Western Barquero features intense performances by leading men Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates, plus a hoot of a supporting turn by veteran character player Forrest Tucker. Combined with a few weird narrative flourishes and a dollop of sexual tension, which stems from a fraught relationship between Van Cleef’s antihero and a formidable homesteader played by Mariette Hartley, these elements give Barquero enough zing to make the whole thing quite watchable. The contrived story begins when psychotic outlaw Jake Remy (Oates) and his gang slaughter everyone in a small town during a brazen robbery. They head toward the Mexican border to make good their escape, but standing in their way is a wide river, and the only means of crossing is a barge owned by a bull-headed former soldier named Travis (Van Cleef). Prior to the arrival of Remy’s gang, Travis shuttled townsfolk from a riverbank settlement onto his side of the water, so Travis finds himself in the dangerous position of protecting both his boat and his neighbors from the marauding horde. Most of the picture comprises scenes of Jake and Travis shouting at each other across the river, threatening to kill each other’s hostages, and trying to outsmart each other. There are also vignettes on Jake’s side of the river, including flashbacks to his past humiliations at the hands of the oppressors who turned him bitter and evil, plus lots of melodrama on Travis’ side of the river. For instance, Travis has the hots for Hartley’s character, so when her husband gets captured by Jake, Travis agrees to rescue the man in exchange for sex. The best scenes involve Mountain Phil (Tucker), a wild man of Travis’ acquaintance; it’s great fun to watch the genial way he complains about having to help people. Predictably, the whole movie climaxes in a violent showdown, which is more or less satisfying. However, Travis never emerges as a noble hero, because in his moralistic way, he’s as much of a savage as Jake.

Barquero: FUNKY

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sextette (1978)


          If there’s one scene that epitomizes the spellbinding strangeness of Sextette, a big-budget musical comedy that’s both tone-deaf and completely unfunny, it’s an extended romantic duet between the heroine and the younger man she just married. The leading lady is none other than Mae West, the notorious actress/writer who first achieved fame in the 1920s for scandalous stage shows. The bridegroom is played by Englishman Timothy Dalton, a decade before his brief run as 007. At the time, West was 84 and Dalton was 32, yet the scene features the actors sharing vocal chores (and they are chores, since neither can sing) on a lifeless, quasi-disco version of the Captain and Tennille hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
          Dalton’s a slim young man wearing an elegant tux, and West is an overweight senior hidden behind gallons of makeup, acres of Edith Head-designed sequined costuming, and a haze filter thick enough to trigger a smog alert. At the most ludicrous moment of this sequence, Dalton sings the laughably re-written lyric, “Young and beautiful, your looks will never be gone.” The camera then cuts to a close-up (shot from about 20 feet away) of West writhing seductively, her looks very much gone.
          And that’s pretty much the tone of this whole excruciating picture, which features an old-fashioned lark of a plot about legions of men lusting after West’s character, Marlo Manners. Marlo is a Hollywood movie star who just married her sixth husband, Great Britain’s Lord Barrington (Dalton). Their honeymoon is being celebrated by the public and documented by the media as a major event, but before the duo can (shudder) consummate their union, Marlo’s agent (Dom DeLuise) says the U.S. government wants Marlo to seduce a foreign leader (Tony Curtis) into cooperating with an international peace initiative. Meanwhile, Marlo’s fifth husband, gangster Vance Norton (George Hamilton), has resurfaced despite everyone believing him dead, and he’s intent on reclaiming Marlo’s hand.
          Also thrown into the mix are a fey fashion designer (played by The Who drummer Keith Moon), an imperious Russian film director (played by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr), real-life broadcasters Rona Barrett and Regis Philbin (as themselves), and cameo players Walter Pidgeon and George Raft. Oh, and shock-rocker Alice Cooper shows up at the end, without his trademark ghoul make-up, to (quite effectively) croon a number as a singing waiter.
          This whole mess is based upon the last play West wrote, also called Sextette, and because the play opened in 1961, questions of “why” are unavoidable. Why was a film adaptation deemed necessary almost 20 years after the play opened? Why was a West comeback deemed necessary, more than 30 years after her last starring role in a movie? And why the hell didn’t anyone realize how wrong all of this was? Answers to these puzzlers are lost to the ages, so we’re merely left with a cinematic curio. Sextette is filled with images that would be innocuous in other circumstances but are mind-warpingly bizarre given West’s advanced age: a roomful of bodybuilders flexing their muscles to curry West’s favor; a roomful of diplomats (including a stand-in for then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter) singing and dancing as West holds them in her thrall; West cooing sexual puns as she lounges in bed and drives men like Curtis, Dalton, and Hamilton to erotic distraction.
          West’s performance is abysmal, since she tries to mimic the sass of bygone days without acknowledging the passage of time; the poor woman looks close to toppling when she tries to shimmy in tight dresses. About the only good thing one can say about Sextette is that even though much of the dialogue recycles past favorites (“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime,” and so on), West had not completely lost her flair for penning ribald one-liners, like this zinger: “I’m the girl who works for Paramount all day, and Fox all night.”

Sextette: FREAKY

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)


          Picking apart the logic of the offbeat Western action-comedy Two Mules for Sister Sara would take little effort, but since the picture never aspires to be anything except Hollywood hogwash, quibbling seems pointless. Clint Eastwood plays Hogan, a gunslinger wandering through Mexico. He stumbles across a nun named Sara (Shirley MacLaine), who’s being assaulted by a gang of thugs. After rescuing her, Hogan is conflicted by his attraction to the woman and his respect for her vows, so he reluctantly agrees to escort her to safety. He soon discovers, however, that she’s part of a guerilla force rebelling against French occupation of the region, so Hogan is inadvertently drawn into dangerous political intrigue. Thus begins a contrived but enjoyable odyssey involving an impregnable fortress, superstitious Indians, violent rebels, and various other action-flick tropes.
          The joke of the movie is that Sara uses her wiles to manipulate Hogan even though she’s betrothed to Jesus, so there’s a bickering It Happened One Night quality to Eastwood’s interactions with MacLaine. Is their dynamic believable? Not even for a minute, but who cares? Eastwood is churlish and rugged, while MacLaine is bawdy and sexy, so they mesh well. In fact, watching Two Mules for Sister Sara reveals what a shame it was that Eastwood mostly avoided going head-to-head with strong women in later movies; it wasn’t until he costarred with Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County a quarter-century later that Eastwood tackled another role this purely romantic in nature.
          As written by the manly-man duo of Budd Boetticher and Albert Maltz, and as directed by Eastwood’s mentor in no-nonsense cinema, Don Siegel, Two Mules for Sister Sara delivers the popcorn-movie goods from start to finish, even though it’s bit fleshier than Siegel’s usual efforts, sprawling over 116 minutes. (The extra screen time comes, in part, from an overly long and overly violent climax.) Nonetheless, the picture’s problems related to logic and tone don’t change the fact that Two Mules for Sister Sara is solid escapist entertainment. For instance, why question the way MacLaine complements her nun’s habit with thick mascara when she looks so great that it’s easy to see how she wraps Eastwood around her rosary-clenching fingers?

Two Mules for Sister Sara: FUNKY

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Movie Movie (1978)


          A gently satirical tribute to the corny double-features of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Movie Movie begins with a short introduction from George Burns, continues into a boxing picture called Dynamite Hands, shifts gears for a fake trailer, and concludes with a showbiz-themed musical called Baxter’s Beauties of 1933. Replicating the way contract players were rotated through interchangeable roles during the studio era, many actors appear in both features (and the fake trailer), with George C. Scott playing all the lead roles. As written by comedy pros Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller, Movie Movie cleverly spoofs every contrivance common to movies that were cranked out a weekly basis, from plots predicated on absurd coincidences to completely implausible happy endings.
          Many of the subtler jokes, like the gimmick of having the same actor (Art Carney) open both features by giving a dour medical prognosis that triggers the plot, may be lost on viewers who aren’t steeped in old-school Hollywood cinema. However, the very funny dialogue, which riffs on the way studio hacks used to jumble clichés and metaphors into a stew of verbal nonsense, is terrific even without knowing the context. One example: “It’s funny, isn’t it, how many times your guts can get slapped in the face.” Or: “With the woman you love at your side to stand behind your back, a man can move mountains with his bare heart.” One gets the impression Gelbart and Keller spent their youths groaning through lines like these every Saturday at the local movie palace, only to hurry back for more the next week; whereas some cinematic satires falter because contempt for the subject matter makes the comedy seem mean-spirited, Movie Movie shines because its humor stems from nostalgic affection. So, with venerable director Stanley Donen playing to his strong suit of smoothly choreographed light comedy, Movie Movie becomes first-rate escapist silliness.
          Of the two features, Dynamite Hands is marginally better because the focus is on delivering verbal gags and spoofing clichéd storytelling. However, Baxter’s Beauties of 1933 has song-and-dance numbers that Donen stages with his signature effervescence. Appearing in both features, Carney, Red Buttons, Trish Van Devere, and Eli Wallach have a blast sending up the mannered acting of studio-era hams. Scott manages to be sweetly affecting in his dual roles, as a gruff boxing trainer in the first picture and as a Broadway impresario in the second. Kathleen Beller, Harry Hamlin, and real-life Broadway hoofer Ann Reinking are featured in Dynamite Hands, while Rebecca York costars with Bostwick in Baxter’s Beauties. They all get into the spirit of the thing, investing their performances with golly-gee-whiz enthusiasm. Also working in Movie Movie’s favor is zippy pacing—two features, a trailer, an introduction, and credits get crammed into 105 fast-moving minutes.

Movie Movie: GROOVY

Friday, December 16, 2011

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)


          Bloated, miscast, and ridiculous, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is one of those old-school film adaptations of Broadway shows that’s tacky enough to make some people swear off musicals forever. Every single thing about this movie is artificial, from the unbelievable love relationship at the center of the story to the stylized sets on which the action unfolds. Worse, the songs (by Burton Lane and the legendary Alan Jay Lerner) are forgettable and saccharine. That said, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is fascinatingly weird, because the underlying narrative is borderline perverse. When the tale begins, a psychiatrist (Yves Montand) works with a neurotic young woman (Barbra Streisand) to cure her smoking addiction, only to discover that she vividly recalls her past lives; in short order, the psychiatrist falls in love with one of his patient’s past selves, then contrives reasons to hypnotize the modern woman so he can court someone who’s been dead for a century. Furthermore, the shrink is about 30 years his patient’s senior—and the young woman has ESP, and she’s considering leaving her fiancée for her stepbrother (Jack Nicholson). Kinky!
          Much of this material was added for the movie (Lerner wrote the screenplay, and old-school musical pro Vincente Minnelli directed), which means the team behind the film of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever deemed this plot an improvement over the stage version. Since the story is such a mess, the meager appeal of this picture is mostly attributable to Streisand’s charms. In addition to her magnificent singing voice, she showcases her considerable light-comedy chops, and she looks more beautiful here than in almost any other movie: During flashbacks as her character’s 19th-century alter ego, Streisand is downright ravishing in low-cut gowns and ornate hairstyles. So, if nothing else, it’s easy to see why the shrink falls for “Melinda,” the 19th-century character, even if it’s difficult to see why anyone fell for the narrative when the show appeared on Broadway.  Apparently, on a clear day you can’t see plot holes.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: FUNKY

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (1979)


With their low-cut tops, tight hot pants, and gyrating dance moves, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders became headline news after Super Bowl X in 1976, when the women were featured onscreen during a lull in the game’s network broadcast. Three short years and a handful of appearances on game shows and variety specials later, the squad was the focus of this TV movie, which scored blockbuster ratings. Not only is the actual Texas Stadium used as a primary location, many real Dallas cheerleaders play themselves in minor roles, and the cost ABC paid for this participation is painfully evident from the first frames: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is a 90-minute endorsement of the cheerleading squad as the gosh-darn-wholesomest dance crew in the world. Helmet-haired ’70s game-show stalwart Bert Convy stars as a magazine editor who wants an exposé about the cheerleaders, whether it’s accurate or not, so he hires beautiful freelancer Laura Cole (Jane Seymour) to try out for the squad and get the inside scoop. The movie also features trite melodramas about wannabes including Betty (Pamela Susan Shoop), a housewife longing for something more; Ginny (Kathy Baumann), a social climber with her eye on Hollywood; Jessie (Lauren Tewes), an unlucky girl with a stalker on her tail; and Joanne (Ellen Bry), a returning cheerleader afraid she’s getting too old to shake her pom-poms. In other words, there’s not a whit of competition, drug use, or fraternizing. As Laura declares at one point, “The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are everything that their PR says they are—they’re just a bunch of nice, down-home girls having some fun.” Whatever. In lieu of narrative interest, the movie offers G-rated cheesecake, with the various lovely starlets disco-dancing and rehearsing in not-very-revealing outfits while horrible music like the original song “Sunday Afternoon Fever” grinds on the soundtrack. A Seymour-free sequel, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II, was broadcast in 1980.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: LAME

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rooster Cogburn (1975)


          More of a merger between two established cinematic brand names than an organic creative enterprise, Rooster Cogburn offers the unlikely screen duo of towering he-man John Wayne and delicate blueblood Katharine Hepburn. A sequel to True Grit (1969), the movie for which Wayne won his only Oscar, this lively Western adventure story reprises Wayne’s award-winning role of drunken, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and pairs the character with a Bible-thumping East Coast transplant named Eula Goodnight (Hepburn). Each role is catered to the persona of the respective screen legend, so Rooster Cogburn delivers exactly what longtime fans of the actors want, and nothing more: Wayne is cranky and heroic and macho, while Hepburn is articulate and defiant and indomitable. The movie is therefore hard to beat for sheer crowd-pleasing star power, but aesthetic dissonance abounds.
          For instance, the acting styles of the two stars are so wildly divergent that the performers seem to exist in parallel universes even when they occupy the same shot. Wayne poses and preens, pausing arbitrarily like he’s struggling to remember his lines, while Hepburn powers through reams of dialogue effortlessly; however, each accentuates the other’s peculiar appeal, since Wayne’s frontier authenticity compensates for his lack of acting ability in the same way that Hepburn’s numerous affectations are leavened by her supreme dramatic skills. With star personalities the main attraction, it doesn’t matter that Rooster Cogburn’s story is redundant and trite.
          Just like in True Grit, Cogburn embarks on a hunt for a pack of killers accompanied by the willful daughter of a murdered man. In this case, Eula is the adult child of a preacher who was gunned down by varmints led by Hawk (Richard Jordan), a thief who has stolen a wagonload of government nitro for use in a robbery. When Cogburn accepts the job of capturing Hawk, Eula insists on tagging along, so the bulk of the picture comprises cutesy scenes of Rooster and Eula bickering even as they develop grudging affection for each other. There are several exciting action sequences, particularly a raft ride down nasty white water, and attractive location photography in Oregon adds to the film’s appeal. Jordan delivers enjoyable villainy, doing the best he can with an underwritten role, and costar Anthony Zerbe lends a bit of nuance as a gun-for-hire with conflicted emotions. Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Stuart Millar, Rooster Cogburn is pure hokum, and it never pretends otherwise.

Rooster Cogburn: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ode to Billy Joe (1976)


          A thoughtful drama adapted from country singer Bobby Gentry’s 1967 song of the same name, Ode to Billy Joe has a great first hour and a mess of a finale. So unfortunately, even though viewers are given a plausible explanation for why the song’s tragic protagonist, Billy Joe McAllister, jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge—the mystery that made Gentry’s song a pop-culture phenomenon—muddy storytelling dilutes a potentially powerful narrative. Producer-director Max Baer and screenwriter Herman Raucher build their story around Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynis O’Connor), a precocious teenager living in rural Mississippi circa 1960. Bobbie Lee is filled with curiosity about romance and sex, but her parents won’t let her date until she’s 16. Meanwhile, Bobbie Lee’s childhood friend, the slightly older Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson), is feeling hormonal surges of his own, so he courts Bobbie Lee relentlessly while still respecting her boundaries.
          The flirting scenes are filled with entertainingly ornate dialogue: “I think I’m either adopted or depraved,” O’Connor remarks at one point. “Of the two, I prefer depraved.” Even such minor characters as Bobbie Lee’s mother get atmospheric lines: “Mosquitoes always did take to you on a thick evening,” Mom says. Baer, who played Jethro on the ’60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, displays a sensitive feel for the rhythms of Southern life, so his storytelling thrives during quiet scenes and falters elsewhere. Most problematically, Baer introduces a major plot twist without sufficient clarity, making the rest of the picture cryptic in a manner that’s out of step with what came before. This narrative derailment is a shame, because so many things in the movie are worth watching. O’Connor is terrific, a spitfire bristling against constricting social expectations, and Benson adds dark dimensions to his patented puppy-dog persona. Joan Hotchkis and Sandy McPeak are authentic and warm as Bobby Lee’s parents, with Hotchkis radiating maternal understanding and McPeak wearing male pride with dignity; rounding out the family, Terence Goodman is solid as Bobbie Lee’s testosterone-crazed older brother.
          Composer Michel Legrand provides a subtly effective score that evokes the arrangement of Gentry’s song for stylistic unity (half the song plays over the opening credits, setting up the story, and half plays at the end, tying up loose ends). On the visual front, cinematographer Michael Hugo makes the most of authentic locations like the decrepit span used for the Tallahatchie Bridge. So even with its flaws, Ode to Billy Joe is praiseworthy for its heady mixture of atmosphere, sensitivity, and tragedy.

Ode to Billy Joe: FUNKY

Monday, December 12, 2011

Avalanche Express (1978)


A turgid Cold War thriller featuring a sloppy script and underwhelming special effects, Avalanche Express also suffers because of two unexpected tragedies. The film’s director, action-movie veteran Mark Robson, died partway through production and was replaced with an uncredited Monte Hellman. More glaringly, leading man Robert Shaw died before post-production began, so when the filmmakers decided to re-record the dialogue in his first scene, they ended up hiring actor Robert Rietty to dub Shaw’s entire performance; as a result, not a syllable of Shaw’s distinctive English lilt is heard during the movie. Ultimately, however, these are the least of the movie’s problems, because Avalanche Express grinds through a simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped narrative marked by tedious lulls between action sequences. The basic premise is simple enough. When a high-powered Russian general named Marenkov (Shaw) defects to the West, U.S. agents led by Major Wargrave (Lee Marvin) transport Marenkov by train as a means of luring the assassins they know Soviet spymaster Bunin (Maximilian Schell) will send to kill Marenkov. The idea is to flush out long-buried operatives with the bait of a defector whose secrets can unravel important Soviet projects. Unfortunately, the filmmakers smother this workable premise with pointless subplots about double agents, a Middle Eastern terrorist group, a mysterious Russian counterintelligence project, and Wargrave’s on-again/off-again relationship with a fellow spy (Linda Evans). That all of this gets crammed into 88 minutes gives a sense of how superficially each story point gets addressed; the word for every scene in this movie is “perfunctory.” Even the presence of former football great Joe Namath (as Wargrave’s sidekick) and a cheesy avalanche sequence created by Star Wars special-effects guy John Dykstra aren’t enough to overcome the movie’s glaring flaws. Avalanche Express isn’t unwatchable, because there’s just enough action and star power to generate fleeting interest, but it’s a poor epitaph for Robson and Shaw. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Avalanche Express: LAME

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Harder They Come (1972)


          One of the few Jamaican-made features to enjoy wide exhibition in the U.S., The Harder They Come fizzled during its initial release and then found a more welcoming audience on the midnight-movie circuit, where the picture’s vibrant soundtrack helped familiarize Americans with reggae music. In fact, iconic reggae star Jimmy Cliff won international notoriety by playing the film’s leading role. Based on the real-life exploits of a poor Jamaican who became an anti-establishment folk hero, The Harder They Come takes place in the 1950s, when Ivan Martin (Cliff) travels from rural Jamaica to the big city in search of work. Eventually, he starts earning room and board as a handyman for a moralistic preacher (Basil Keane). Ivan falls in love with a young woman (Janet Bartley) who sings in the preacher’s choir, and then gets into trouble with the law while pursuing his real dream of becoming a reggae singer.
          After many false starts, Jamaican music-industry kingpin Jose (Carl Bradshaw) agrees to a recording session with Ivan, and the session is the most thrilling scene in the movie: Cliff gives a heroic performance of his song “The Harder They Come,” an upbeat anthem for the disenfranchised. After the session, Jose pressures Ivan into signing away the rights to the song, forcing Ivan to look elsewhere for income. He ends up becoming a small-time pot dealer, so at the same time his song is dominating the island’s airwaves, Ivan must avoid capture by authorities. Reflecting the movie’s real-life inspiration, Ivan transforms into a rebel hero for the impoverished people of Jamaica.
          Directed and co-written by Jamaican native Perry Henzell (whose only other film project was the feature No Place Like Home, which he started in the ’70s but didn’t complete until 2006), The Harder They Come is quite poorly made, suffering from murky cinematography and sloppy editing. The cast’s thick Jamaican accents also make deciphering dialogue tricky. However, there’s a reason the picture kept midnight-movie viewers coming back for more: The picture has infectious energy, riffing on the romantic theme of a man pushed to criminality by an unfair society, and Cliff is appealing despite lacking any real skill as an actor. More importantly, the music kills, from the title tune to Cliff’s soaring ballad “Many Rivers to Cross” to the handful of songs by other artists used as background music.

The Harder They Come: FUNKY

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973)


Confusing, sloppy, and dull, the cheaply made blaxploitation flick Sweet Jesus, Preacherman has an interesting flourish here and there, but these grace notes are not sufficient to make the picture worthwhile. Roger E. Mosley (later to costar on the TV series Magnum P.I.) plays a hit man named Holmes, whose primary employer is a mobster named Martelli (William Smith). When Martelli starts losing control over a black ghetto, he hires Holmes to take the place of the local preacher as a means of infiltrating the community and rooting out crooks who are undermining Martelli’s operation. Seeing as how the movie introduces Holmes by showing him commit several flamboyant murders, like lighting a man on fire and tossing him off the balcony of a high building, the filmmakers don’t exactly make a persuasive case that Holmes is the right guy for a job requiring subtlety. Nonetheless, we’re told that Holmes grew up around Baptist preachers, so he knows how to talk the talk. As soon as Holmes assumes his position behind the pulpit, however, the movie wanders off into subplots about community activists, street-level dealers, and a state senator (Michael Pataki) whom Martelli wants to influence; as a result, Holmes gets lost in the narrative shuffle as supporting characters grab unnecessarily large chunks of screen time. Directed by one Henning Schellerup, Sweet Jesus, Preacherman is so disjointed that some scenes are cut up and dispersed throughout the movie, and so padded that unimportant montages, like that of a pimped-out dealer strutting down the street, drag on forever. The idea that Holmes can pull off his ruse never gains credibility, and a mid-movie plot twist involving Holmes’ sudden desire to seize control of the ghetto comes out of nowhere. Mosley is just okay, though he works up a decent head of steam during his first sermon as a fake preacher, and Smith’s exuberant over-acting is wasted because his character is a cipher.

Sweet Jesus, Preacherman: LAME

Friday, December 9, 2011

Shoot Out (1971)


If the idea of a cuddly revenge picture strikes your fancy, then the middling Western thriller Shoot Out is for you. The picture starts out well enough, with brooding bank robber Clay Lomax (Gregory Peck) getting released from jail and setting out to find his former partner, Sam Foley (James Gregory), a double-crossin’ varmint who’s got a date with the business end of Clay’s six-shooter. Aware that Clay is out for blood, Sam hires a group of thugs to keep tabs on Clay, but misjudges the character of the gang’s leader, Bobby Jay Jones (Robert F. Lyons). Turns out Bobby Jay’s a psycho looking for trouble, so when Bobby Jay starts endangering innocent people, Clay decides to take care of Bobby Jay before his showdown with Sam. So far, so good. But then the real plot kicks in: A former lover of Clay’s saddles him with a young girl who may or may not be his daughter, forcing Clay to juggle caregiving and gunplay. Whereas the logical narrative choice would’ve been to portray Clay as a reluctant father figure who can’t fathom how to keep a child amused, the filmmakers instead depict Clay as a natural parent who looks after the girl’s diet and hygiene, and even knows silly games and stories with which to keep her amused. This is the deadly criminal at the center of our story? Illogically softening Clay’s characterization drains nearly all the tension from Shoot Out, transforming the film from a guns-a-blazin’ oater to a softhearted family picture. To confuse matters further, Shoot Out returns to its original dark-and-nasty vibe toward the end of the story, because Bobby Jay goes on a killing spree that sets Clay’s blood a-boilin’. The climax of the picture is actually quite exciting, but the sudden flurry of high-stakes action seems to drift in from another movie. Still, Peck fans might dig the way Shoot Out bridges the actor’s softer side and the tough image he assumed in latter-day films, and the movie is assembled with utmost efficiency by veteran helmer Henry Hathaway. Shoot Out is watchable, but beware the gooey center. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

Shoot Out: FUNKY

Thursday, December 8, 2011

House Calls (1978)


          A comedic piffle elevated by smart dialogue and a terrific cast, House Calls is easily one of the best romantic comedies of the ’70s. Charley Nichols (Walter Matthau) is a recently widowed surgeon who saves a patient, English divorcée Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), from the incompetent ministrations of Charley’s senile boss, Dr. Amos Willoughby (Art Carney). As Charley endures the repercussions of treating another physician’s patient without permission, he also savors his newfound swinger’s lifestyle until he realizes that Ann has gotten under his skin. Ann’s thorny intelligence not only rouses Charley from his midlife-crisis stupor but also emboldens him to confront Amos, who has gotten so addled he’s endangering the lives of patients.
          Despite murky literary origins (four writers worked on the script, which was adapted from a French novel), House Calls is brisk and smooth, throwing credible obstacles between the protagonists and their inevitable happily-ever-after destiny; when it’s really crackling, the movie comes close to the frothy frizz of classic romantic comedy from the ’30s, but with a modern, liberated-woman spin. And though some might question the casting of Matthau as a romantic lead, since overpowering handsomeness was never one of his virtues, the filmmakers weave Matthau’s wiseass humor into the persona of his character, depicting how easily he charms every woman he meets. Jackson matches Matthau’s pithiness perfectly, offering a feminist complement to his macho swagger, and the filmmakers do a fine job of articulating Charley’s realization that companionship trumps casual sex.
          Watching Matthau and Jackson work together is extremely pleasurable, because they’re both so confident and loose; in particular, their physical-comedy scene of trying to figure out whether a couple can copulate while each has one foot on the floor is a delightful demonstration of their vanity-free commitment to meeting any scene’s demands. Carney, at the peak of his terrific late-career revival, is funny and formidable as a man clinging to power because letting go would involve admitting he’s elderly. Additionally, several supporting players contribute fine work: Richard Benjamin gets in a few zingers as Charley’s younger colleague, Candice Azzara is droll as a pragmatic gold digger from Noo Yawk, and the always-entertaining Dick O’Neill is memorably exasperated as a hospital executive doomed to clean up messes created by Carney’s character.

House Calls: GROOVY

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977)


          Best known in the U.S. for his hilarious performance as Igor in Young Frankenstein (1974), odd-looking Englishman Marty Feldman was an accomplished comedy writer before he started acting, so it’s not surprising he used his mid-’70s visibility to launch a career as a feature filmmaker. Unfortunately, his directorial debut, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, is a dreary compendium of painfully obvious jokes with only a few flashes of real wit. As the title suggests, the picture riffs on a manly-man tale that was adapted for the screen several times previously, P.C. Wren’s 1924 novel about the French Foreign Legion, Beau Geste. The story concerns a pair of orphaned brothers, Beau and Digby, who are raised in an aristocratic French home. Once they reach adulthood, the brothers become suspects in the theft of a precious jewel, so noble Beau withdraws honorably to join the Foreign Legion. In Feldman’s version of the story, inept Digby gets thrown into prison while Beau is away, then escapes and joins Beau in Morocco for adventures that lead to the recovery of the jewel.
          Feldman assembled a great cast, with Michael York as Beau, Ann-Margret as the brothers’ conniving mother-in-law, and Peter Ustinov as the brothers’ psychotic Foreign Legion commander. (Feldman, of course, plays Digby.) Actors essaying cameos and minor roles include Henry Gibson, Trevor Howard, James Earl Jones, Roy Kinnear, Ed McMahon (!), Spike Milligan, Avery Schreiber, and Terry-Thomas. On the bright side, the picture has a few imaginative gags like an elaborate scene during which Feldman magically travels into footage from a 1939 version of the same story, resulting in a dialogue scene between Feldman and Gary Cooper. These kicky sequences demonstrate that Feldman had a deep knowledge of cinema devices and a vivid comic imagination.  More typical, however, is the bit depicting a commercial for a used-camel salesman whose slogan is “Let Harik hump you.” Ustinov is the only actor who really shines here, since he has a field day with physical gags like interchangeable peg legs. As for Feldman, sporadic funny moments cannot disguise how ill-suited he was for playing leading roles. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

The Last Remake of Beau Geste: FUNKY

Monday, December 5, 2011

Herbie Rides Again (1974) & Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977)


          It doesn’t speak well of American culture that the biggest domestic box-office hit of 1969 wasn’t Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Midnight Cowboy or Romeo and Juliet. No, the top grosser was Disney’s The Love Bug, a ridiculous special-effects comedy about an anthropomorphized Volkswagen Beetle that plays matchmaker for two unsuspecting humans. Starring the amiable Dean Jones and the grating Buddy Hackett, The Love Bug makes almost every other live-action Disney flick seem sophisticated by comparison. Given this success, its odd the Love Bug back didn’t hit the road again until 1974, when Herbie Rides Again was released.
          The second time around, the hero is not Jones’ racecar-driver character, but instead Willoughby Whitfield (Ken Berry), the nebbishy nephew of cutthroat real-estate developer Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn). Hawk wants to demolish an old firehouse occupied by widow Mrs. Steinmetz (Helen Hayes), so he sends Willoughby to sweet-talk the old lady. This puts Willoughby at odds with the widow’s spunky granddaughter, Nicole (Stefanie Powers), and the widow’s even spunkier VW, Herbie. (Mrs. Steinmetz is the mother of Hackett’s character from the original movie.) Herbie Rides Again is laborious and tiresome, with idiotic scenes like Herbie driving up the rails of the Golden Gate Bridge while an oblivious Mrs. Steinmetz sits behind the wheel, focused on her grocery list. The only memorable sequence is Hawk’s trippy nightmare vision of armies of Herbies attacking him, some flashing gaping “mouths” lined with sharp teeth, others dressed like Indians and tossing Tomahawks that scalp poor Alonzo. Berry, Hayes, and Powers are likeable, and Wynn is appropriately cartoonish, but the stupidity factor is almost unbearable.
          Things don’t get much better in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, for which Jones resumes leading-man duties. The filmmakers overlook the fact that Jones got married at the end of the first picture, since he’s inexplicably single, and they never explain why he’s got a new best friend/mechanic, Wheely Applegate (Don Knotts). Nonetheless, he heads to Europe for a racetrack comeback in the cute little VW with the “53” on the side. The plot thickens when jewel thieves hide a stolen diamond inside Herbie’s gas tank and when Herbie falls in love with a sexy Italian sportscar. Veteran British thesps Bernard Fox and Roy Kinnear try valiantly to make their slapstick scenes as the bumbling crooks work, but the lifeless script renders their efforts futile. Worse, the long scenes of Herbie courting the sportscar seem creepy after a while, since the vehicles do everything short of consummating their attraction. The moronic plot also calls far too much attention to the imponderables of just how self-aware Herbie really is; since the car drives itself for most of the movie, what purpose, exactly, does Jones’ character serve during the big race?
          Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo did well enough to justify a final sequel in the franchise’s original run, 1980’s Herbie Goes Bananas (without Jones), plus a short-lived TV series in 1982 (with Jones). The spirited VW returned yet again in 2005, when Lindsay Lohan starred in Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Herbie Rides Again: LAME
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo: LAME