Tuesday, January 31, 2012

All the Kind Strangers (1974)

          Stories about malevolent rednecks were all the rage in the post-Deliverance era, but this made-for-TV thriller takes the redneck genre in an odd new direction. Furthermore, the picture features a slew of actors more frequently seen in big-screen features, plus smooth work by veteran director Burt Kennedy, who was just starting his drift back to the small screen after a solid run of theatrical features. Stacy Keach stars as Jimmy, a New York photojournalist trolling the backwoods of the U.S. for interesting stories. One afternoon, he spots an innocent-looking young boy, Gilbert (Tim Parkinson), walking down a rural byway with an armload of groceries. Jimmy offers to give the kid a lift home, which becomes a miles-long odyssey down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Jimmy is alarmed to meet Gilbert’s impoverished, sullen family, which is led by Gilbert’s twentysomething older brother, Peter (John Savage).
          The only adult in the ramshackle house is Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar), whom the kids call “Ma” but who clearly isn’t old enough to be the matriarch of the clan. It turns out the family’s parents died some time ago, so Peter invented a scheme of kidnapping adults to play the role of mother and father; as Jimmy soon discovers, those not suited to the role have been killed and disposed of in a nearby creek. Jimmy tries to escape several times with Carol Ann, but Peter and his faithful pack of dogs keep bringing the couple back to their weird prison. Since All the Kind Strangers was made for TV, some of the kinkier implications of the storyline go unexplored, and the movie wraps up somewhat abruptly in 74 minutes, making the whole thing feel like a bit of a cheat.
          Still, the caliber of acting is unusually high for this sort of thing, with Keach channeling rage and Eggar personifying terror while Savage provides compelling derangement and Robby Benson, playing his second-in-command sibling, lends an offbeat vibe of perverse masochism. (Benson also sings the movie’s twee theme song.) Even better, this creepy little movie is enlivened by vibrant location photography. In fact, had the story been given a bit more room to breathe in terms of edgier content and a longer running time, All the Kind Strangers would have made an interesting theatrical feature.

All the Kind Strangers: FUNKY

Monday, January 30, 2012

Someone Behind the Door (1971)

          Actor Charles Bronson tended to play it safe, bouncing between the only slightly varied genres of lighthearted action movies and violent action movies. However, he occasionally slipped an oddity into the mix, like this clever psychological thriller featuring Bronson as an amnesiac exploited by a ruthless shrink. However, big air quotes should be placed around the word “clever” since the plot of Someone Behind the Door falls apart on close inspection, with convenient twists and narrative inconsistencies leaving scads of questions unanswered. Nonetheless, the movie zips along at a strong pace, there’s a thick air of menace surrounding everything that happens, and costar Anthony Perkins thrives in his comfort zone as a tweaked smartypants using his wits to plan the perfect murder.
          The story takes place in France, where American-born doctor Laurence Jeffries (Anthony Perkins) specializes in brain surgery and memory loss. Leaving the hospital one evening, he spots an amnesiac man (Bronson) whom fishermen found wandering on a local beach. Offering the stranger a place to stay and free psychiatric services (under the auspices of helping with a research project), Jeffries brings the man home and helps the stranger piece together clues about his past based upon circumstantial evidence and items Jeffries finds in the man’s garments. Or at least that’s what Bronson’s character thinks. In reality, Jeffries is deluding the stranger into thinking he’s married to Frances (Jill Ireland), who is in fact Jeffries’ adulterous wife; Jeffries’ devious scheme is to push the stranger toward killing Frances’ lover so Jeffries can off a romantic rival and pin the murder on the stranger.
          Perkins runs the show from start to finish, his insinuating line deliveries and wily glances capturing an insidious type of blue-blooded villainy. For his part, Bronson makes a decent scene partner by demonstrating more excitability than usual. The movie gets a bit drab when it veers away from these two sharing the screen (Ireland is her usual vapid self), and some viewers may find the plot glitches too distracting. However, Someone Behind the Door is consistently tense, and the charisma of its leading players makes it worth examination.

Someone Behind the Door: FUNKY

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Slightly creepy in moments but deadly dull overall, The Haunting of Julia is yet another ’70s horror picture about a woman whose maternal instincts are tested by the presence of an evil child, complete with a starring performance by Mia Farrow, who became a star by appearing in the granddaddy of this particular subgenre, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. While the best creepy-kid movies follow a simple supernatural premise to its logical extreme, The Haunting of Julia awkwardly fuses two concepts, creating narrative confusion. Is the story about Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow) recovering from the death of her own child, or is the story about Julia getting spooked by the spirit of a dead little boy who once lived in her house? And which of these deceased kids, if either, is responsible for the string of grisly murders claiming the lives of people around Julia? Or is Julia insane and actually committing the murders herself? Answers to these questions may or may not be buried within The Haunting of Julia, but only diehard fans of either Farrow or the creepy-kid genre will have the patience to investigate. Most of the picture comprises dull montages of Farrow driving, moping, or sleeping, all scored with disquieting keyboard suites topped by eerie synthesizer flourishes. Composer Colin Towns works overtime to infuse the picture with atmosphere even when nothing’s actually happening, just like supporting player Tom Conti provides welcome comic relief as Julia’s easygoing best friend. Furthermore, because Farrow is palatable in the leading role, basically reprising her Rosemary’s performance, The Haunting of Julia has redeeming qualities. What it lacks is entertainment, even though a few characters die colorfully, and even though a nice run of disturbing scenes ensues when Julia investigates the death of the little boy. More material like that would have helped.

The Haunting of Julia: LAME

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Silver Streak (1976)

          A box-office hit that gave birth to the on-again/off-again screen duo of funnymen Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Silver Streak is impossible to take seriously for the same reason it’s impossible to dislike: The movie forgoes credibility in order to entertain viewers by any means possible. Essentially a Hitchcock-type thriller played for laughs, the movie follows an unassuming book editor (Wilder) during a cross-country train trip filled with unexpected danger, intrigue, and romance. As the tale grows more and more absurd, George stumbles into a dalliance with a sexy secretary (Jill Clayburgh), gets caught in the crosshairs of an evil conspirator (Patrick McGoohan), befriends a jive-talkin’ thief (Pryor), and survives accidents and near-misses in airplanes, cars, and trains. He gets arrested, chased, framed, shot at, thrown off a moving train, and targeted for murder, and yet he displays great moral character by striving to save his new lover and triumph over the bad guys.
          It’s all very silly, especially with the contrived McGuffin plot device relating to priceless letters written by Rembrant, but everyone involved in Silver Streak approaches their work with the same lighthearted attitude. Director Arthur Hiller keeps things moving briskly, creating comfortable spaces in which his actors can showcase their likeable personalities, and writer-producer Colin Higgins, whose gift for character-driven comedy distinguished ’70s movies like the great Harold and Maude (1971) and the effervescent Foul Play (1978), pumps the movie full of amusing one-liners. So, even though the picture drags on far too long and gets mired in bland action sequences like the elaborate shootout during the climax, Silver Streak is consistently watchable.
          Much of the credit goes to Wilder, who mostly eschews his signature hysterics while playing a straightforward romantic lead; he’s surprisingly believable as a dashing man of the world sharing flirtatious banter with Clayburgh, and his reaction shots whenever things get wild are priceless. Clayburgh is appealing in her mostly decorative role, while Pryor slides into an easy buddy-movie rapport with Wilder. Their obvious shtick, predicated on the differences between a streetwise African-American and an uptight honky, is epitomized in the famous scene of Pryor covering Wilder’s face with shoe polish and teaching Wilder to act like a “brother.” There’s no denying the humor of Wilder emulating urban swagger, but there’s also no denying the way the scene perpetuates demeaning stereotypes. Still, Silver Streak is too milquetoast to seem offensive: The racially insensitive gags are just tools the movie uses to elicit cheap laughs, and it’s hard to get angry at a picture whose only goal is making viewers happy.

Silver Streak: GROOVY

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cinderella Liberty (1973)

          In Cinderella Liberty, James Caan works his sensitive side by playing John Baggs Jr., a sailor who gets stuck in the Pacific Northwest when the Navy misplaces his records. Stranded on dry land and eager for a good time, John hits a raunchy bar and wins the favors of a hooker named Maggie Paul (Marsha Mason) in a pool game. Returning to her place for a tryst, John is startled to meet her preteen son, a streetwise mixed-race kid named Doug (Kirk Calloway). As John’s unwanted shore leave extends from days to weeks, he finds himself drawn back to Maggie and her child, realizing he’s more interested in setting down roots than he thought.
          Adapted by Darryl Ponicsan from his own novel, Cinderella Liberty tells the bittersweet story of an unlikely love affair, and though there’s no getting around the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché at the center of the story, Ponicsan and director Mark Rydell ensure that sentimentality is almost completely excluded from the story. The lead character is depicted as an interesting contradiction, because on the one hand he’s a moralist who detests foul language, but on the other hand he’s comfortable brawling and carousing. Meanwhile, Maggie is a woman so accustomed to disappointment that she’s accepted her demeaning lot. They inspire each other to want more from life, so when tragedy strikes their fragile surrogate family, we discover how much each is willing to fight for what they’ve built together.
          At 117 minutes, Cinderella Liberty is a bit windy for a straightforward romantic drama, and the colorful subplot about Baggs’ love/hate relationship with a former supervisor (Eli Wallach) feels unnecessary until a surprising payoff at the end of the picture. However, Rydell’s sensitive direction, lush photography by ’70s-cinema god Vilmos Zsigmond, and richly textured performances make the picture compelling and substantial. As for the leading players, Caan finds an interesting groove, portraying an introspective man occasionally drawn out of his shell by heated emotions, and Mason is bawdy and sad and vulnerable, delivering such expressive work that Cinderella Liberty earned her the first of her four Oscar nominations as Best Actress.
          The picture also provides a worthwhile complement to The Last Detail, another 1973 movie about sailors getting into trouble on the mainland—because The Last Detail was, not coincidentally, adapted from an earlier novel by Cinderella Liberty scribe Ponicsan.

Cinderella Liberty: GROOVY

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dragon Lady (1971)

Shot under the title Wit’s End, then given the lurid moniker Dragon Lady for broader release, this exploitation picture was made in Singapore with a cast mixing Americans and Asians. Adding to its dubious pedigree, the flick was retitled yet again as The G.I. Executioner when the shlockmeisters at Troma Entertainment put the movie back into theaters and on home video in the mid-’80s. By any name, however, this is a poorly made compendium of fetishistic violence and leering nude scenes, strung together with a powerful but out-of-place acid-rock score. There’s a germ of an interesting story buried under the muck, because protagonist Dave Dearborn (Tom Keena) is an opportunistic American stitching together a living in a foreign land by taking disreputable odd jobs for hoodlums; a few years after this turkey hatched, director Peter Bogdanovich tackled a similar storyline in his world-class drama Saint Jack (1979). Yet while Saint Jack is a sly character study, Dragon Lady is only a few steps removed from a grungy porn film: Dearborn is constantly in and out of bed with anonymous women, and the climax of the picture features a naked, silicone-enhanced actress racing around a boat while she shoots villains and gets stabbed. The story has something to do with a Chinese scientist trying to deliver military secrets to the West, but the plot is really just a thin excuse for Dearborn to get embroiled with assorted sleazy characters. In a typically crude scene, he gets drugged and chained while wearing a spangled pink vest and harem paints, because, apparently, even the men of Singapore can’t keep their hands off him. In another scene, Dearborn hides under a bed while a prostitute services a john several inches above his face, and then Dearborn chokes a snake that’s crawled under the bed with him; the implied masturbation metaphor is as close as the movie once titled Wit’s End gets to wit.

Dragon Lady: LAME

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Foreplay (1975)

          Yet another in a long line of ’70s sex comedies that are neither sexy nor funny, this three-part anthology picture feels like an attempt to capture the raunchy spirit of Playboy magazine’s humor, but inept execution makes Foreplay feel more sleazy than satirical. In the first installment, “Norman and the Polish Doll,” deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen plays a horny everyman who buys a lifelike female doll (Deborah Loomis) for sexual high jinks, only to realize she’s been programmed to nag instead of fondle. Paulsen’s droll line readings get drowned out by insipid slapstick (for instance, he steps in a toilet on the way to the bath) and he’s frequently upstaged by Loomis’ nudity (it’s difficult to focus on jokes when her lissome figure is on display).
          The second installment, “Vortex,” is moderately better, but still not particularly good. Based on a story by respected scribe Bruce Jay Friedman, the piece stars a young Jerry Orbach as a swinger visited by a muse (George S. Irving) who manifests as a doughy Italian man wearing only red bikini briefs. The muse takes Orbach’s character back to the scenes of several near-miss sexual encounters, each of which turns out to be just as frustrating the second time around. Orbach tries valiantly to form a characterization, and “Vortex” almost works. Almost.
          The final episode, “Inaugural Ball,” directed by future Rocky helmer John G. Avildsen, stars Zero Mostel as a U.S. president whose daughter is kidnapped. The criminals demand that in exchange for the release of his child, the commander-in-chief must mount his first lady (Estelle Parsons) on national TV. The closest “Inaugural Ball” gets to wit is the moment when Mostel solemnly announces his decision to comply with the demand: “Call the surgeon general. Tell him to prepare a massive dose of testosterone.” Mostel’s performance is smotheringly loud, which accentuates the crude nature of the comedy throughout “Inaugural Ball,” and the piece drags on forever. (Linking the three stories together are crass interstitial bits in which a clownish professor, played by Irwin Corey, presents a vulgar lecture about sexual topics.) All in all, Foreplay has the exact opposite effect of the activity described in its title: It’s a complete turnoff.

Foreplay: LAME

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

10 Rillington Place (1971)

          Since Richard Attenborough is best known to American audiences for directing Gandhi (1982), and for portraying the grandfatherly developer in Jurassic Park (1993), it’s a shock to see him playing a psycho in 10 Rillington Place, a methodical crime drama about a killer whose crime spree scandalized postwar England. Yet Attenborough commits wholeheartedly to the role of John Christie, a working-class nobody who manages a grimy apartment building and habitually slaughters young female tenants, burying the bodies in a small garden adjoining his building.
          Directed by versatile but unstylish helmer Richard Fleischer, 10 Rillington Place matches several strong performances with persuasive physical details, creating a strong sense of everyday danger. The main focus is Christie’s relationship with his upstairs lodgers, struggling young couple Timothy John Evans (John Hurt) and Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson). Timothy is a simple man, illiterate and prone to angry outbursts, while Beryl is an unhappy housewife who knows she deserves more. When the couple becomes pregnant, they agree to an abortion but can’t afford to have the procedure done in a hospital. Their kindly downstairs neighbor Mr. Christie offers to help, claiming that he picked up medical knowhow during military service.
          The considerable tension in 10 Rillington Place stems from the ease with which Christie contrives means of disguising his murders as accidents; furthermore, the movie takes on a more insidious layer of intrigue once Christie frames an innocent man for his crimes. 10 Rillington Place eventually transforms from a murder story to a legal thriller, and the tissue holding the picture together is Attenborough’s chilling performance as a sociopath determined to get away with murder. His work is complemented by the equally good acting of Geeson and Hurt; Geeson communicates her character’s believable dismay at a dead-end living situation, while Hurt transitions gracefully from the bravado of a man lording over his household to the terror of a naïf trapped by incredible circumstance.
          Ultimately, 10 Rillington Place is as tragic as it is horrific, for while the picture doesn’t have many jump-out-of-your-seat jolts, the methodical way it illustrates Christie’s rampage demonstrates how easily an intelligent monster can hide in plain sight. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

10 Rillington Place: GROOVY

Monday, January 23, 2012

Deliverance (1972)

          Even though it contains one of the most infamous scenes of the ’70s, there’s so much more to John Boorman’s shattering action thriller Deliverance than “Squeal like a pig!” Adapted for the screen by poet James Dickey from his own novel, the picture follows four city-slicker Southerners during an ill-fated trip down the (fictional) Cahulawasee River in the dense wilderness of rural Georgia. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the de facto leader of the group because he’s a veteran outdoorsman, Ed (Jon Voight) knows his way around the woods but can’t match Lewis’ wild-man bravado, Drew (Ronny Cox) is a soft-spoken urbanite more comfortable with a banjo than a rifle, and Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an overweight everyman along for the ride. Spurred on by Lewis, the men decide to take a canoe trip before the river is dammed to create a lake; for Lewis, the challenge is conquering a disappearing wilderness, and for the others, the kick is escaping the urban grind.
          Right from the opening frames, Boorman creates an ominous atmosphere, best exemplified by the legendary “Dueling Banjos” scene. When the gang pulls up to a riverbank settlement, Drew engages an odd-looking (and presumably inbred) boy in a banjo-picking contest, but the musical bond shatters when Drew tries to shake the boy’s hand; the scene perfectly conveys that Lewis’ group has gone someplace where they don’t belong. Ignoring these portents, the gang hits the river and encounters rougher water than expected, figuratively and literally. Before long, their weekend of “roughing it” devolves into a violent nightmare when the boys find themselves at odds with violent locals.
          In the unforgettable “squeal like a pig” scene, for instance, Bobby is sexually assaulted by a vicious redneck (Bill McKinney), an act that compels Bobby’s compatriots to seek bloody revenge. The great accomplishment of Deliverance is that Boorman and Dickey convey the disturbing notion that nature itself is battling the interlopers—the rednecks are like antibodies battling invading toxins. Boorman also creates a dreamlike quality, notably when a wounded Ed climbs a sheer cliff as the sky undulates with unnatural colors behind him. Throughout the film, Boorman treats merciless rapids like a special effect, showing how easily a river can swallow a man.
          Realizing Boorman’s vision perfectly, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond found innovative ways to shoot in difficult situations and captured the terrifying beauty of a resplendent backwoods milieu. As for the acting, all four leading players contribute some of the best work of their careers. Voight is humane and vulnerable, perfectly illustrating a man driven beyond his natural capacity for violence by an insane situation, while Beatty and Cox present different colors of modern men whose animal instincts have been dampened so thoroughly they cannot withstand nature’s onslaught.
          Yet the picture in many ways belongs to Reynolds, who instantly transformed from a lightweight leading man to a major star with his appearance in Deliverance. Funny and maddening and savage, he’s completely believable as a he-man whose bluster hides a deep need to prove his own virility. The physicality of Reynolds’ performance is incredible, whether he’s steering a canoe or working a bow and arrow, and Reynolds went just as deep psychologically.
          Deliverance is hard to watch given the intensity of what happens onscreen, but the acting, filmmaking, and writing are so potent that it’s impossible to look away. Accolades showered on the film included Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing.

Deliverance: OUTTA SIGHT

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Prisoner of Zenda (1979)

          British funnyman Peter Sellers’ ability to play multiple roles in the same film had gotten to be a crutch by the late ’70s, and many of his final films, including Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), rely on the gimmick of hiding Sellers behind silly accents and even sillier costumes. So, while The Prisoner of Zenda goes light on facial prosthetics and outrageous wardrobe, the central contrivance of Sellers playing both an endangered monarch and his commoner lookalike is so unimaginative that watching the movie becomes a chore. Having said that, Sellers isn’t entirely to blame, because everything about this flick is tiresome. Although the Anthony Hope novel upon which the film is based provides such a solid narrative that the tome has been adapted for the screen several times, the producers of this version opted for a style of lighthearted irreverence that requires inspired scripting; put more bluntly, The Prisoner of Zenda is a satire that isn’t funny.
          Rudolf V (Sellers) is the ruler of a small European country in the late 19th century. While traveling in England, Rudolf is targeted for assassination, so his underlings recruit a salty London cab driver, Syd (Sellers), to stand in for the king. Unfortunately, the handlers withhold key information from their dupe, who finds himself mired in palace intrigue he doesn’t understand. The straightforward premise should lead to culture-clash comedy, but instead, the filmmakers focus on idiotic bedroom farce and laborious slapstick. For instance, one running gag involves a hot-blooded count (Gregory Sierra) perpetually trying to start a duel with Syd because Rudolf is sleeping with the count’s wife (Elke Sommer); this leads to scenes of the count getting knocked down on streets, set on fire, and so on. Making matters worse, the filmmakers don’t give Sellers scene partners worthy of his skills, so he flounders as competent but utilitarian actors deliver bland performances. If Sellers looks bored playing his trite dual roles, who can blame him?

The Prisoner of Zenda: LAME

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sparkle (1976)

          A routine showbiz melodrama enlivened by great music, Sparkle leaves virtually no cliché untouched. Written by future director Joel Schumacher, from a story by Howard Rosenman, the movie follows the exploits of three young women who try to escape life in the New York ghetto by singing soul music in nightclubs circa the 1950s and ’60s. Inspired by the real-life adventures of vocal groups like the Supremes, Sparkle in turn inspired the creation of the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which was of course adapted for the screen in 2006. Continuing the pop-culture recycling, a remake of Sparkle was released in 2012, featuring the late Whitney Houstons final acting performance.
          Given how enduring this movie and its imitators have proven to be, one might expect Sparkle to shine, but it’s merely an energetic trifle.
          That said, it’s not difficult to see what fans like about the picture, because the combination of a rags-to-riches showbiz saga and overheated domestic melodrama gives Sparkle campy zing as it hoots and hollers through 98 music-filled minutes. The figure at the center of the story is Stix, played by Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice fame in an amateurish but endearing performance. He’s a would-be music mogul who recruits several friends (both male and female) to form a singing group. Almost immediately, Sister (Lonette McKee) becomes the breakout member of the group, ostensibly because of her showboating vocals but really because she’s a sexy knockout.
          Stix shrinks the group into a vocal trio called Sister and the Sisters, in the process marginalizing his sweet girlfriend, Sister’s younger sibling Sparkle (Irene Cara). As Sister’s fame grows, she falls in with an abusive, drug-addicted manager named Satin (Tony King), which starts Sister down the path of self-destruction. Eventually, Stix persuades Sparkle it’s her turn to shine. As in Fame (1980), Cara makes an impression with her unique combination of an unassuming screen presence and a powerhouse voice.
           McKee is just as potent a singer, so the musical sequences of Sparkle are wonderful; in fact, the real star of the movie is soul-music legend Curtis Mayfield, who wrote and produced the movie’s songs. (One tune, “Something He Can Feel,” became a breakout hit from the film’s companion album, on which Aretha Franklin sang the lead vocals.) Furthermore, McKee is quite beautiful in the film, and she gives the picture’s best dramatic performance as her character suffers a precipitous decline. (Mary Alice offers a rock-solid counterpoint as the mother of the singing sisters.)
          Sparkle has many virtues in terms of music and performance, so it’s ironic that the film’s least interesting element—its story—has enjoyed the longest life. Yet there’s a reason why people play sad songs over and over again; like a favorite tune, Sparkle presses so many familiar buttons that it’s the equivalent of comfort food.

Sparkle: FUNKY

Friday, January 20, 2012

Savages (1972)

          According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, this bizarre Merchant-Ivory production was born when director James Ivory had the idea to flip the story of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel’s 1962 movie The Exterminating Angel. In Buñuel’s picture, a posh dinner party devolves into primeval savagery, so in Ivory’s cinematic retort, a group of primitive people become gown- and tuxedo-wearing sophisticates. Presumably, the satirical intention was to suggest that the cutting remarks and sarcastic gestures of an upper-crust dinner party are as brutal as the violent rituals of wild tribes, but that message gets buried in a barrage of unrelenting weirdness.
           The movie opens with a ’30s-style title sequence, complete with cabaret singer Bobby Short crooning on the soundtrack. Then the movie shifts from color to black-and-white as the presentaton becomes that of a nature documentary observing a tribe called “The Mud People.” Silent-movie-style title cards offer explanatory and/or sardonic commentary, and there’s also a random trope featuring voiceover spoken in German. At one point, a croquet ball flies into the tribe’s encampment, so the Mud People follow the trail of the ball and find an abandoned country manor. Picking through jewelry and silverware, the Mud People mimic behaviors associated with the objects, at which point the film suddenly cuts to full color, and the actors playing the Mud People suddenly become bluebloods chit-chatting their way through a dinner party. (Familiar faces among the cast include ’70s starlet Susan Blakely, future B-movie regular Martin Kove, and a very young Sam Waterston.)
           Once the movie settles into its dinner-party groove, Savages becomes something like a dry run for Merchant-Ivory’s many later pictures about the troubles of the wealthy, with cascades of numbingly polite conversation about political differences and romantic intrigue. However, within the crisply articulated dialogue is a strong thread of lighthearted surrealism: Two of the partygoers are cross-dressers (see the above photo); characters periodically devolve into savagery by mounting each other in small rooms off the main hall; and the gang worships a shrine built around the croquet ball. Toward the end of the picture, the characters suddenly lose their sophistication (and their clothes), running back into the woods to become Mud People again.
            Obviously, none of this makes any sense, although particularly cerebral viewers could probably have a field day analyzing the anthropological and sociopolitical signifiers with which the movie is laden. Plus, the picture might appeal to cult-movie fans because the script was co-written by Michael O’Donoghue, the notorious National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer/performer known as Mr. Mike and loved/hated for his dark sketches; fans of his bone-dry humor might find traces of Mr. Mike insouciance somewhere in Savages. For most viewers, however, Savages will simply seem boring and weird, although the picture affirms Merchant-Ivory’s brave willingness to try new things.

Savages: FREAKY

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Next Man (1976)

          While primarily a suspense film about a diplomat being targeted by a femme-fatale assassin, The Next Man slips in a few provocative ideas about the never-ending conflicts in the Middle East. It also features an authoritative performance by Sean Connery as a man who tries to change the world with his wits, rather than his fists, even though The Next Man is one of several pictures in which the Scotsman is incongruously cast as an Arab. While it would be fabulous to report that this picture pulls its disparate elements together in a compelling way, The Next Man is, sadly, meandering and unfocused.
          The set-up is simple enough: Amid a climate of rampant political assassinations, Saudi Arabian ambassador Khalil Abdul-Muhsen (Connery) stirs up international controversy by suggesting during a speech at the United Nations that Israel should become a member nation of OPEC, the Arab-controlled oil-production consortium. Meanwhile, he’s seduced by sophisticated beauty Nicole Scott (Cornelia Sharpe), who is actually an international assassin tasked with killing him.
          The big problem with the movie is twofold: First, viewers learn Nicole is an assassin before she even meets Abdul-Muhsen, so there’s no mystery about her motivation, and second, once she becomes sexually involved with the ambassador, she has countless opportunities to kill him that she does not exploit. Particularly since Abdul-Muhsen’s enemies perceive his continued existence as a threat, it makes no sense that the conspirators would delay the inevitable, especially since the trite subplot in which Nicole grows to love her target never rings true.
          The fault for the ineffective romance angle lies partly with the script, since Nicole is presented as such a cipher we have no way of gauging which feelings are true and which are deceptions, and partly with Sharpe’s performance. A long and lean blonde with piercing eyes, Sharpe was understandably successful as a fashion model, but she’s lifeless as a dramatic actress.
          As directed TV veteran Richard C. Sarafian, who helmed a number of pulpy oddities in the ’70s, The Next Man has a few effective scenes, like a siege on Abdul-Muhsen’s vacation home in the Bermudas, but the lack of credibility in the main onscreen relationship, combined with the awkward juxtaposition of talky political scenes and violent action sequences, steer The Next Man way off course. Connery’s charisma, the offbeat subject matter, and Sharpe’s beauty make the picture watchable, but just barely.

The Next Man: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Front (1976)

          In the ’70s (and the ’80s, for that matter), Woody Allen only acted in two movies that he didn’t direct, and both are winners. Yet while Play It Again, Sam (1972) is essentially a Woody Allen movie because he wrote the script based upon his own play, The Front is that true rarity: a for-hire acting gig. It’s not hard to guess why Allen joined the project, because in addition to providing him with a great role, the film chronicles an important period in modern American history. A scathing look a the effects of the anti-communist blacklist that ravaged show business in the ’40s and ’50s by purging left-leaning artists from the mainstream, The Front is a message picture done right, delivering its themes with grace and restraint while also providing rousing entertainment.
          The picture’s authenticity and passion steams from the harrowing offscreen experiences of several key players: Screenwriter Walter Bernstein, director Martin Ritt, and actors including costar Zero Mostel were all blacklisted. In the story, which is set in New York during the ’50s, writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) learns that he’s about to get blacklisted, so he reaches out to his opportunistic friend, lowly cashier Howard Prince (Allen), for an unusual favor. In exchange for a percentage of Alfred’s profits, Howard is asked to put his name on Alfred’s TV scripts, submit them as if he wrote them, and attend meetings pretending to be a writer. This way, Alfred can continue making a living even though studios won’t officially employ him.
          “Fronting” was incredibly widespread during the blacklist era, and it represented a huge risk for everyone involved, but that’s only one of the nuances The Front brings to life. In addition to portraying Howard’s moral conflicts—he becomes an admired and wealthy public figure under false pretenses, and an idealistic TV story editor (Andrea Marcovicci) falls in love with the man he’s pretending to be—the movie depicts the insidious effect of the blacklist on comedian Hecky Brown (Mostel).
          An amalgam of several real-life performers pushed off the screen because of their past support for liberal causes, Hecky is a tragic figure in the classic mold, a small man caught in the machinations of political forces he barely understands. Watching the cruel anti-communist crusaders slowly destroy Hecky rouses Howard’s previously dormant conscience, and for anyone who thinks of Allen merely as a joker, it’s startling to see the clarity and intensity of his performance. Allen does justice to Bernstein’s clockwork script, in the same way that Mostel, who was prone to abrasive excess, delivers a humane and poetic portrayal. (This was Mostel’s last onscreen role, and a fitting epitaph for his epic career.)
          The best thing about The Front is that it’s a great yarn in addition to being a powerful civics lesson. With Allen delivering zingers in his inimitable style, and with Bernstein carefully depicting the devious way right-wingers persecuted progressives, The Front smoothly balances humor and pathos, all the way from its mood-setting opening montage to its whopper of a closing scene.

The Front: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The People Next Door (1970)

          Similar in content to innumerable TV movies about suburban parents wrestling with their teenage kids’ drug use, The People Next Door is elevated by world-class cinematography and a smart script that shines an ironic spotlight on “acceptable” substance abuse by grown-ups. Part of the reason the piece goes down so smoothly is that it actually was a TV movie in an earlier incarnation; writer J.P. Miller and director David Greene made The People Next Door as a small-screen drama in 1968 before delivering the big-screen version two years later.
          The story explores the lives of Arthur Mason (Eli Wallach) and his wife Gerrie (Julie Harris), an all-American couple raising high-school student Maxie (Deborah Winters) and her older brother, recent high-school graduate Artie (Stephen McHattie). Artie is a longhaired rock musician involved with the counterculture, so he drives his father crazy. Meanwhile, Maxie can do no wrong in her parents’ eyes—until the night she wigs out on acid. Once Maxie sobers up, she reveals that she’s not only using drugs but also sleeping around.
          What’s more, she hates her parents for being phonies: Arthur is an adulterer, while Gerrie ignores reality by pretending everything is copacetic. The Masons try to coax Maxie back to their idea of a normal life, but an overdose renders her catatonic, forcing the Masons to institutionalize their “sweet little girl.” Miller’s unsubtle theme about troubles visiting even the best families is leavened by a secondary focus on Arthur’s drinking and Gerrie’s smoking, so the thought-provoking idea that everybody wants some form of escape from life comes through loud and clear.
          The acting in The People Next Door is effective if not particularly revelatory. Wallach does a fine job illustrating a man who is paradoxically strong-willed and terrified of confrontation. Harris is vulnerable essaying someone who has hid so long beneath a plastic shell that she barely knows herself anymore. And Winters, reprising her performance from the TV version, plays against her girl-next-door prettiness by unleashing a volatile mix of narcissism and rebelliousness. However, Hal Holbrook nearly steals the show as the Masons’ neighbor; his final scene is chilling for its mixture of anger and anguish. (Cloris Leachman is interesting but underused as the wife of Holbrook’s character.)
          The People Next Door is strongest when it dramatizes the way drugs exacerbate familial tension, and the movie wobbles when it tries to address larger issues like student protests. Overall, however, the movie offers a rational examination of subject matter that is more often depicted hysterically. In terms of tethering the storyline to a recognizable version of reality, the movie’s greatest virtue is the cinematography by Gordon Willis (The Godfather). Not only does Willis cloak scenes in his signature deep shadows, he finds sly ways of easing actors into dramatic compositions that poignantly accentuate the emotional distance between characters.

The People Next Door: GROOVY

Monday, January 16, 2012

Roseland (1977)

          Given their predilection for stuffy period stories, it’s always surprising to see how well the Merchant-Ivory team handled contemporary narratives. Freed from obligations to replicate the décor and mannerisms of yesteryear, director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala could focus on the simple business of documenting human behavior in all of its sad and beautiful dimensions, creating charmingly melancholy movies like Roseland. Set in the titular Manhattan dancehall, a mecca in the ’70s for aging New Yorkers eager to recapture the elegance of their younger years, Roseland comprises three featurettes with separate casts; the movie gracefully segues from one story to the next simply by cutting across the sprawling Roseland facility.
           In the first story, “The Waltz,” aging widow May (Teresa Wright) fixates on an unglamorous dance partner, Stan (Lou Jacobi), because whenever they waltz together, she sees visions of her younger self and her late husband in mirrors. “The Waltz” is a sweet fable about the strange ways people find happiness, and it delivers a warm message about the transformative power of dancefloor intimacy.
          The longest story, “The Hustle,” focuses on professional dancer Russel (Christopher Walken), who juggles unusual relationships with three women. His mother figure is his dance mentor, Cleo (Helen Gallagher), who probably wants to become lovers but doesn’t push her luck because she senses her affections are not reciprocated. His benefactor is Pauline (Joan Copeland), who treats Russel like a pet and plies him with compliments and gifts. Russel enjoys this murky status quo until he becomes involved with Marilyn (Geraldine Chaplin), a control freak who demands Russel give up his nebulous status as a boy toy and assume adult responsibilities. Jhabvala deftly sketches the myriad ways an intruder upsets the social order created by complex relationships, and she’s meticulous in her depiction of Russel as an opportunist who belives no one’s getting hurt by his choices, even though everyone involved is actually wounding everyone else on a daily basis. “The Hustle” is a smart, understated piece of work.
          Roseland closes with “The Peabody,” which has a lovely story and a grating lead character. Aging, delusional dancer Rosa (Lilia Skala) perceives herself as a once-and-future star, so she’s obsessed with winning the weekly Peabody contest because it’s the closest she can get to notoriety. Unfortunately, her regular partner just died, so Rosa tries to mold her enthusiastic but untalented new partner, Arthur (David Thomas), into a competitor. Meanwhile, she ignores the fact that he adores her, since Rosa considers him beneath her station. This dynamic is Merchant-Ivory class observation at its best, a kind of textured social anthropology that reveals how people are limited by the walls they accept or create.
          From start to finish, Roseland is brisk, romantic, soft-spoken, and tragic, and it’s easily the best movie Merchant-Ivory made in the ’70s.

Roseland: RIGHT ON

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Westworld (1973) & Futureworld (1976)

           Best-selling author Michael Crichton made his feature-film directorial debut in 1973 with Westworld, based on his original script about a high-tech amusement park for adults. It’s a crudely made film, both in terms of narrative structure and production values, but the idea is so fascinating and the visuals are so rich that it’s one of the most memorable sci-fi pictures of the decade, especially since it contains a relentless villain who undoubtedly provided some inspiration for the Terminator character that Arnold Schwarzenegger first played a decade later. The story takes place at Delos, a super-expensive resort divided into three elaborate environments: Medieval World, Roman World, and Westworld. A grown-up spin on Walt Disney World, these realms are populated by lifelike robots that engage in realistic combat with guests, allowing visitors to feel as if they’re emerging victorious from gladiatorial contests, jousts, and shootouts.
            The movie follows two city-slicker businessmen, played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin, who travel to Westworld for an exotic getaway. However, as tends to happen in cautionary tales, something goes wrong, so the robots start turning on the guests. The biggest menace is Gunslinger (Yul Brynner), a robot dressed as a black-garbed Old West outlaw, and as in the Terminator movies, part of the thrill of watching Gunslinger’s rampage is seeing his faux flesh ripped away to reveal glimpses of the technology underneath. Characterization and plotting are thin, and Benjamin struggles to infuse his role with a semblance of individuality, but the movie zooms along during 88 brisk minutes, providing just enough escapist jolts to make Westworld a fun ride.
          The movie did well enough to justify a sequel, made without Crichton’s participation. Futureworld lacks the no-nonsense gusto of its predecessor, tackling a somewhat more complex story as it sprawls over 108 leisurely minutes. Although the acting in Futureworld is much better than that in Westworld, the convoluted conspiracy-themed plot drags. Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda play reporters who travel to a new Delos attraction, Futureworld, in order to investigate why a journalist was killed when trying to expose something about the Delos organization. The movie drifts through several sorta-exciting scenes, including an unimpressive bit set in a room simulating the weightlessness of space, before becoming a straight-ahead thriller as Danner and Fonda strive to escape Futureworld with their lives. (In the movie’s weakest moment, Brynner reprises his Gunslinger role for a pointless dream sequence.) Futureworld ends on a strong note, with Fonda brandishing his signature antiestablishment attitude, and Danner is credible and lovely throughout, offering a strong counterpoint for Fonda’s easygoing persona.
          However, neither Westworld nor Futureworld truly lives up to the potential of Crichton’s underlying premise, so it’s no wonder plans for a remake of Westworld have been underway for years. (Futureworld is available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Westworld: FUNKY
Futureworld: FUNKY

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Winter Kills (1979)

          By the end of the ’70s, conspiracy thrillers had started to evolve from provocative political thrillers to wild escapist romps, because as fictional conspiracies grew more outlandish, the derring-do required to survive them grew to equally unbelievable proportions. For instance, consider the credibility gap separating the best-known adaptation of a Richard Condon conspiracy novel, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, and the least-known adaptation of a Richard Condon conspiracy novel, 1979’s Winter Kills. Whereas the former is a chilling story about political assassination made just before the real-life death of John F. Kennedy, the latter is a whimsical oddity made at the end of a decade during which the public overdosed on real-life political corruption. In fact, Winter Kills somehow manages to be both a conspiracy movie and a spoof of conspiracy movies, delivering a narrative so preposterous that it provides sardonic commentary on the whole premise of searching for wheels within wheels while scrutinizing the body politic.
          An obvious riff on the Kennedy clan’s woes, the picture follows directionless young blueblood Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), the younger brother of assassinated U.S. President Timothy Kegan. Nearly 20 years after the killing, Nick meets a dying man who claims to have pulled the trigger, which starts Nick down an investigative road that reveals how deep the roots of political murders reach. As written for the screen and directed by the clever William Richert, the picture follows Nick into a quagmire involving a crazy millionaire with a private army (Sterling Hayden), a tweaked behind-the-scenes power-monger who operates out of a computerized secret lair (Anthony Perkins), and other strange characters who are all vaguely connected to Nick’s super-rich father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), a modernized doppleganger for legendary patriarch Joseph Kennedy. Nick also gets involved with a mysterious woman (Belinda Bauer) who may or may not be a femme fatale, and he spends plenty of time getting assaulted, shot at, and threatened by various bad guys.
          Richert’s script is brilliant in flashes but muddy overall, providing a number of memorable scenes even though the main narrative is unnecessarily convoluted. Still, the whole thing goes down quite easily thanks to splendid widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and thanks to a number of thoroughly entertaining performances. Bridges is exasperated and intense, desperately trying to prove his manhood while he’s digging for the truth, and Bauer is powerfully seductive (that nude scene!) in her first movie role. Huston, by this point in his career a seasoned pro at playing oversized villains, barks and growls in that special style of avuncular menace he did so well. The supporting players are just as good. Hayden is funny as a militaristic kook, recalling his role in Dr. Strangelove, while Perkins is slyly robotic, coolly delivering dialogue even as he withstands physical assault. As an added bonus, watch closely for Elizabeth Taylor, whose droll cameo is one of the movie’s sardonic highlights.

Winter Kills: GROOVY

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)

          Truly one of the worst movies ever made, the no-budget horror flick Dracula vs. Frankenstein is such an excruciating, incoherent mess that it’s not even fun to watch through the prism of traffic-accident perversity. The story involves Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) recruiting a mad scientist (J. Carrol Naish) to revive the Frankenstein monster (John Bloom) for some nefarious purpose, but just like when the same scheme unfolded in the Universal monster-mash pictures of the 1940s, Dracula ends up dueling with the monster. Since Dracula and Frankenstein are among most enduring figures in popular culture, it’s amazing that director Al Adamson managed to drain the vitality out of two classic monsters at once, but nothing of narrative interest occurs during the picture’s 90 minutes of supernatural mayhem.
          As Dracula, the cringe-inducing Vorkov comes across as a pasty girly-man reading lines off cue cards while his voice gets run through a distortion machine; the Frankenstein’s monster makeup gives the impression that a crumpled grocery bag was dropped onto Bloom’s head; and poor Lon Chaney Jr., a long way from his glory days in the aforementioned Universal horror pictures, looks bloated and depressed as he lumbers through a nothing role as an axe-wielding henchman. Also, for some inexplicable reason, Adamson regularly cuts from the monstrous goings-on in Dracula’s laboratory to innocuous scenes of forgettable supporting characters, as if he can’t even be bothered to deliver an entire movie’s worth of what his title promises.
          Finally, just to make matters so much worse, the picture’s production values are pathetic, to the point that the climactic duel is so under-lit it’s difficult to see what’s happening onscreen. But then again, Dracula vs. Frankenstein is such an interminable slog that not being able to see part of the movie is probably a blessing. Trivia buffs take note: Beloved monster-magazine publisher Forrest J. Ackerman plays a bit part and served as “technical consultant,” whatever that means, while Kenneth Strickfaden, who created props for The Bride of Frankenstein (1931), provided his vintage gadgets plus a few crude special effects.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein: SQUARE

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The In-Laws (1979)

          One of the most beloved comedies of the late ’70s, The In-Laws is a study in controlled lunacy. Working from an immaculate screenplay by Andrew Bergman, who previously wrote the script that became Blazing Saddles (1974), director Arthur Hiller orchestrates a beautiful slow burn as the movie’s central gag gets taken to more and more absurd extremes. However, what really plops The In-Laws into the comedy sweet spot is the interaction between stars Alan Arkin and Peter Falk; while their everyman-vs.-lunatic dynamic is nothing new, both actors pitch their performances perfectly. So, while The In-Laws is too silly and slight to qualify as a classic, it’s completely enjoyable. In fact, many fans rank it among the funniest movies ever made—and when the movie’s really cooking, especially during a laugh-filled excursion from New Jersey to South America, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
          The story begins when motor-mouthed weirdo Vincent J. Ricardo (Falk) enters the life of uptight New York dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin), because Vincent’s son is about to marry Sheldon’s daughter. On their first meeting, a dinner at Sheldon’s house, Vincent comes across as a loon prone to mood swings and outrageous lies; his story about seeing tsetse flies large enough to pluck children off the ground suggests Vincent’s not quite firing on all cylinders. Thanks to a few wild plot twists, Vincent shanghais Sheldon into a scheme involving stolen U.S. Mint engraving plates, a covert CIA operation (which may not be a real CIA operation), an illicit deal with an insane South American general, and a cheerfully bizarre plane ride on Wong Airlines.
          What makes The In-Laws so fun is the way Sheldon’s blind terror at being shot at complements Vincent’s easygoing attitude toward international intrigue—even in the most dangerous situations, like a crazed backwards car chase, Vincent pauses to compliment Shelton for keeping his cool, even though Sheldon’s perpetually on the verge of an aneurysm. Arkin is wonderful here, adding welcome vulnerability to his sometimes-chilly screen persona, and Falk is a riot. Time and again, Falk scores with deadpan readings of Bergman’s fine-tuned zingers. For instance, it’s hard to envision anyone but Falk selling the bit in which Vincent explains the benefit program available to covert agents, adding, “The trick is staying alive—that’s really the key to the benefit program.”
          The scheme that drives the movie’s story is a wafer-thin contrivance, the extended sequence with comedy pro Richard Libertini as the nutty general gets a little too goofy, and ace supporting players like Ed Begley Jr., Nancy Dussault, and James Hong are underused, but these are minor quibbles, since the best moments in The In-Laws are priceless.

The In-Laws: GROOVY

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cahill: United States Marshal (1973)

An entertaining but forgettable entry in John Wayne’s latter-day filmography, Cahill: United States Marshal lacks the tragic poetry of The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1976), the elegiac Westerns that comprise the Duke’s farewell to his beloved cowboy genre. Instead, Cahill: United States Marshal briskly presents a by-the-numbers story punctuated with solid action. There’s nothing here that fans haven’t seen a gazillion times before—Wayne struts through hordes of enemy gunmen like a superhero with a six-gun, barely flinching whenever he’s shot—but then again, novelty and surprise aren’t what people expected (or wanted) when they bought tickets to cowboy movies starring John Wayne. In this flick, the Duke plays J.D. Cahill, a tough-as-nails U.S. Marshal whose young sons fall in with a bad element while he’s away on business. Fraser (George Kennedy), a two-dimensional villain with a tendency to snarl while standing outside in lightning storms, pressures Cahill’s boys Danny (Gary Grimes) and Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) to help with a bank robbery. When the robbery leads to the murder of a local sheriff, the lads realize they’ve gotten involved with the wrong varmints and try to wrangle themselves free of their predicament without getting killed or letting Dad know what’s happening. Much of the picture comprises Cahill stalking the robbers with the aide of his cranky Indian guide, Lightfoot (Neville Brand), so the drama of the piece, such as it is, stems from the question of how long the Cahill boys can manage to deceive their father. Quite predictably, it all comes to a head when Cahill figures out the truth in time to dole out equal measures of hot lead and life lessons. Efficiently directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and adequately written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink (who also penned the Duke’s 1971 Western Big Jake), Cahill: United States Marshal is pleasant entertainment and nothing more, a well-made but uninspired run through the usual tropes of last-minute rescues, ornery put-downs, tense shootouts, and tough talk about how a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Cahill: United States Marshal: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cry Uncle (1971)

Truly vile, this low-budget attempt at spoofing the private-eye genre features excitable character actor Allen Garfield in one of his few leading roles, but the picture’s real claim to notoriety is that it’s an early effort by director John G. Avildsen, who later rose to fame with the Rocky and Karate Kid franchises. Whereas those series comprise feel-good family entertainment, Cry Uncle is a gutter-level sex flick; in fact, thanks to copious amounts of nudity, a few unpleasantly realistic sex scenes, and a generally depraved atmosphere, Cry Uncle carried an X-rating in its original release. The story is the usual film-noir gobbledygook about a private detective getting embroiled in a morally complex blackmail case, and (of course) the detective becomes sexually involved with someone related to the case. On the plus side are a few amusing throwaway moments, like the scene with a chain-smoking cop (Paul Sorvino in an early role) who can’t stop coughing. Additionally, some viewers might find Garfield’s performance amusing, since he takes his exacerbated-everyman persona to a greater extreme here than in most other films. However, it’s difficult to see beyond the movie’s grimy sexual content, since lowbrow smut infuses nearly every frame (in the few scenes when characters aren’t actually screwing, they’re talking about screwing). Given that most of the carnal scenes involve Garfield, whose physique is not exactly that of an Adonis, it’s evident that Avildsen was after something other than titillation—there’s nothing remotely sexy about watching hairy, overweight, sweaty Garfield mount one woman after another. Presumably, Avildsen was trying to mock the film-noir trope of private dicks being sexual catnip for all the women they meet. Whatever the intent, humor is nowhere to be found in scenes like the jaw-dropping moment when Garfield’s sex-crazed character rapes a corpse. The irony is that if Cry Uncle didn’t have so much sleaze, it might have been a watchable spoof. As is, however, the plot-driven scenes are probably boring for viewers who prefer the raunchy bits, and the sex scenes are so unpleasant they sour the experience of following the story.

Cry Uncle: SQUARE

Monday, January 9, 2012

The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

The House on Skull Mountain is one of those silly supernatural thrillers with just enough happening in terms of narrative intrigue and production values that if you came across five minutes of the movie on late-night TV, your curiosity might be piqued. Unfortunately, there are probably only about five interesting minutes in the entire bottom-of-the-barrel shocker. Worse, The House on Skull Mountain is rated PG, so even though the story has intimations of titillating occult weirdness, The House on Skull Mountain doesn’t even have the usual exploitation-flick distractions of gore and smut. The story begins when an old voodoo priestess dies in Georgia, triggering the invitation of several long-lost relatives to her estate for the reading of her will. As the movie’s title suggests, the woman lived atop a mountain with rock formations resembling a giant skull, which is such a goofy detail it makes the movie feel like an episode of Scooby-Doo. The relatives who gather include Lorena (Janee Michelle), a beautiful young black woman, and Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French), the only white man in the group. Very quickly, the filmmakers reveal that the deceased’s faithful butler, Thomas (Jean Durand), is a voodoo priest conspiring to kill the relatives in order to inherit their family’s power, which leads to a climax in which Thomas dances around with a group of anonymous cultists. The movie also features several unexciting murder attempts, usually preceded by someone seeing a phantom skull floating in front of them. (Yawn.) The movie is adequately made, with crisp photography and a few decent-looking sets, but the script is a tedious muddle, and the acting is terrible. French, best known for roles on touchy-feely TV shows, tries in vain to make his scenes work, and Michelle, though quite lovely, is completely vapid. Only Durand provides much interest, but his campy performance isn’t reason enough to sit through this dreck.

The House on Skull Mountain: LAME

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wanda (1970)

          Noteworthy as one of the few American movies of its era to be directed by a woman, the gritty indie drama Wanda has gained an enviable reputation in the years since its original release. Most of the film’s notoriety stems from fascination with writer-director-star Barbara Loden, a onetime fashion model who became a personal and professional muse for the great director Elia Kazan; she played a supporting role in his classic movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and married Kazan in 1968.
          For Wanda, which Loden shot on grainy 16mm film, she cast herself in the title role as a confused woman living in a grim Pennsylvania mining town. Wanda abandoned her husband and children, can’t hold onto a job, and drinks heavily, so she drifts from one dead-end sexual relationship to the next. Eventually, she stumbles into an affair with gruff crook Dennis (Michael Higgins), and they commit a series of low-rent heists culminating in an audacious attempt to rob a bank in broad daylight.
          Although the broad strokes of the story sound clichéd, Wanda takes an offbeat approach to the material, focusing on mundane vignettes like Dennis sending Wanda out for fast food and then berating her for bringing back hamburgers with the wrong toppings. In fact, most of Wanda’s screen time is consumed with seemingly inconsequential moments; we see lots Wanda wandering and plenty of Dennis deliberating. However, we also get a few touching glimpses of inner life, such as the moment when Dennis tries to give money to his disapproving father.
          At its worst, the movie is as boring as the lives of the people it portrays. But at its best, the movie is incisive and naturalistic, with Loden committing to her cinema verité approach by featuring nonactors throughout the supporting cast. Furthermore, it’s possible to view Wanda as a pre-feminist archetype, the classic woman who wants more but gets beaten down by a patriarchal society. Whether that political interpretation is valid is up to the individual viewer, but there’s no question that Wanda is a deeply independent work that epitomizes many of the myth-busting ideals of the New Hollywood era. One wishes the picture were a bit more dynamic, but undercutting exactly those expectations was probably part of Loden’s artistic agenda. Despite winning accolades for her directorial debut, Loden never acted in or made another film, and she died a decade after Wanda was released.

Wanda: FUNKY

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The First Nudie Musical (1976)

          Despite awful songs, lame jokes, vapid performances, and witless writing, The First Nudie Musical is noteworthy as an artifact of the anything-goes ’70s, because the movie is exactly what the title suggests: a cheerful song-and-dance trifle filled with sexualized content. Production numbers include “Lesbian, Butch, Dyke,” a Germanic anthem sung by a cross-dressing woman; “Let ’Em Eat Cake,” a toe-tapper about cunnilingus; and the self-explanatory “Orgasm.” Most of the songs feature chorus lines of naked female dancers, and every frame is preoccupied with the horizontal mambo. Yet The First Nudie Musical is so cheerfully shameless that, after a while, the picture starts to feel weirdly wholesome.
          When the story begins, movie producer Harry Schecther (Stephen Nathan) has fallen on hard times, so he’s cranking out cheap porno flicks in order to keep his once-successful studio solvent. After creditors threaten Harry with foreclosure, he dreams up a desperate final gambit: making an all-singing, all-dancing X-rated movie. The First Nudie Musical depicts his bumbling attempts to get the job done despite a miniscule budget, tight schedule, and uncooperative leading lady. To make matters worse, Harry is forced to hire John Smithee (Bruce Kimmel), the dim-bulb son of a studio creditor, as his director. The First Nudie Musical follows the standard let’s-put-on-a-show drill, so the scenes without nudity are so perfunctory they glide by without making any impression.
          However, the naughty bits are so crass they command attention in a traffic-accident sort of way. And, to give songwriter-screenwriter-costar-codirector Kimmel his due, every so often a good comedy idea shines through the mediocrity. One such bit occurs during the “Dancing Dildos” number: When chorus girls flick the “on” switches decorating the costumes of male dancers who are dressed as vibrators, the resulting noise gets synced to the music as a kazoo solo.
          While the sheer oddness of this movie is the primary reason for its cult-fave status, the presence of Cindy Williams in the leading female role raises eyebrows as well. Though Williams remains fully clothed throughout the picture, it’s startling to see the wholesome Laverne & Shirley star singing and dancing alongside chorines in bottomless costumes, to say nothing of spewing lines so blue they would melt a TV censor’s headphones. In addition to being the most entertaining performer in the movie—her dry delivery makes weak lines seem funnier than they are—Williams is presumably the reason that Ron Howard, her costar from American Graffiti and Happy Days, plays an amusing cameo.
          FYI, Kimmel’s career after The First Nudie Musical has mostly been inconsequential, but leading man Nathan went on to considerable success after moving behind the camera. Today, he’s an Emmy-nominated TV writer-producer with a long list of credits on shows ranging from Bones to Everybody Loves Raymond. That’s quite a leap from singing about how much he wants to bury his face in a woman’s “honey pie.”

The First Nudie Musical: FREAKY