Wednesday, February 29, 2012

ffolkes (1979)


          Midway through his tenure playing a certain suave secret agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Roger Moore was probably itching to do something different—which might explain why he attacks the leading role in this entertaining British thriller with ferocity noticeably absent from his acting in the 007 movies. Portraying an eccentric operative named Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (two lower-case letters at the beginning of the last name, thank you very much), Moore upends nearly every aspect of his James Bond characterization. Instead of a nightlife-loving rake, ffolkes is a recluse who prefers his cats to the company of women, and instead of being a charming sophisticate, he’s a tactless snob. Furthermore, rather than being a superhero capable of doing virtually anything, ffolkes is a specialist in just one tactic: underwater commando attacks.
          Thus, when three oil rigs located off the English coast get overtaken by terrorists, the British government knocks on the door of ffolkes’ castle—literally, because he lives in a decaying stone edifice—asking for help. Thereafter, the movie delivers tightly coiled excitement as the commandoes sneak onto the oil rigs with stealthy weapons like harpoons and knives, seeking to thwart the baddies before hostages are killed and the rigs are demolished with explosives. Written by Jack Davies from his own novel Esther, Ruth & Jennifer (the code names of the oil rigs), this picture was released as North Sea Hijack in the UK during 1979 before creeping onto American screens in early 1980 with the new title ffolkes. Although it didn’t do much business at the box office, it found a welcoming home on pay cable—and, as it turns out, ffolkes is nicely suited for home viewing.
          A brisk, workmanlike thriller with an entertaining mixture of bitchy banter and high-seas action, the movie has just enough zing in terms of production value and star power to feel like a major motion picture, but it’s so contained and straightforward it might as well be the pilot for a TV series. In fact, Moore is such a delight as ffolkes that it’s a shame no further adventures featuring the character were filmed: By the end of the movie, the character is so solidly established he could have swam the high seas for years afterward, foiling evildoers who dared to sully the world’s waters.
          Much of the credit for the picture’s Saturday-matinee vibe goes to director Andrew V. McLaglen, whose previous collaboration with Moore, The Wild Geese (1978), was another escapist winner. McLaglen and Moore are aided an efficient supporting cast, led by Anthony Perkins as the main hijacker—with typical aplomb, he weaves humor and perversity into a woefully underwritten role, and the dirty looks he and Moore exchange in their fleeting moments together are worth the price of admission. James Mason adds gravitas as the military official supervising ffolkes’ team of frogmen, while B-movie fave Michael Parks appears as Perkins’ principal henchman.

ffolkes: GROOVY

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Gumball Rally (1976)


          In 1975, a Time magazine cover story introduced the world to the “Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash,” better known as the Cannonball Run, an illegal road race in which competitors sped across the U.S. to determine who could travel from New York to Los Angeles the fastest. Created by a pair of car enthusiasts rebelling against speed limits, the Cannonball Run inspired two low-budget movies released in 1976. First up was the Roger Corman production Cannonball, a black comedy with the accent on violence, and then came this lighthearted take on the subject.
          The Gumball Rally stars Michael Sarrazin as Michael Bannon, the idle-rich originator of a Cannonball-style road race involving a handful of free-spirited competitors. Although the movie has some perfunctory plot devices, like Bannon’s friendly rivalry with fellow racer Steve Smith (Tim McIntire) and the efforts of inept cop Lt. Roscoe (Norman Burton) to interrupt the race, the focus is on wild automotive antics: The drivers pull high-speed shenanigans like transferring passengers from one moving car to another, and they make sport of outsmarting cops across the country.
          There’s not much in the way of characterization, so, for instance, Alice (Susan Flannery) and Jane (Joanne Nail) are one-note hotties using their looks to wriggle free of police entanglements while demolishing speed limits in their Porsche. Despite its superficiality, The Gumball Rally is an amiable celebration of individualism and irreverence, since the racers aren’t out to hurt anybody; they’re simply competing for fun, glory, and a gold-plated gumball machine.
          As directed by Charles Bail, whose career primarily comprises episodes of shows like CHiPs and Knight Rider, The Gumball Rally benefits greatly from enthusiastic performers. Sarrazin, an promising ’60s/’70s leading man whose career was starting to wobble at this point, is charming and funny, while McIntire offers his customary force-of-nature bluster; they make such a great duo it would have been fun to see them in other movies together. Gary Busey plays another in his long line of crazy-redneck characters, hootin’ and hollerin’ to enjoyable effect, and a young Raul Julia steals the movie with his flamboyant turn as an Italian speedster with a weakness for the ladies.
          The Gumball Rally is fluff, but it goes down a lot smoother than the officially sanctioned movie about the Cannonball race, 1981’s star-studded The Cannonball Run. Whereas the latter film is bloated, crude, and sexist, The Gumball Rally is 105 minutes of pleasant silliness.

The Gumball Rally: GROOVY

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Six Million Dollar Man (1973)


          Surprisingly, the first onscreen appearance of beloved ’70s superhero Steve Austin has more than a hint of darkness. Adapted from Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, this TV movie begins with former astronaut Austin (Lee Majors) working as a test pilot. After the experimental plane he’s flying crashes, government operative Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) approves the $6 million procedure of replacing Austin’s damaged body parts with lifelike, super-powered bionics. The procedure is executed by Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam), the bleeding-heart yin to Spencer’s coldly calculating yang. When Austin wakes from surgery and discovers what transpired, he’s enraged at being turned into a freak. Nonetheless, Austin agrees to conduct a covert mission in the Middle East, the purported goal of which is rescuing an American hostage—but in fact, Spencer engineered the mission as a test. He allows Austin to get captured, then waits to see if the “Six Million Dollar Man” can escape without assistance. Suffice to say he does, but that success merely triggers an oh-so-’70s bummer ending: Spencer orders Austin into an artificially induced coma, keeping him on ice until some future mission.
          The Six Million Dollar Man is highly watchable but quite gloomy, and thus a world away from the escapist vibe of the resulting series. After the first Steve Austin movie scored in the ratings on March 7, 1973, a pair of follow-up telefilms were broadcast in the fall of the same year, taking the character in a totally different direction: Wine, Women, and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping awkwardly shove Austin into James Bond-style adventures. Featuring comic-book plots and a goofy theme song performed by Dusty Springfield, both movies are enjoyable but far too derivative. Once the weekly Six Million Dollar Man series launched in January 1974, Majors’ aw-shucks stoicism and the spectacle of bionic-assisted heroism took center stage, with Austin reworked as a devoted government servant thankful for a second chance at life. Although the first episode introduced the series’ iconic opening sequence (“We can rebuild him,” and so on), the show didn’t reach cruising altitude until later seasons, thanks to recurring tropes like Austin’s mechanized love interest, the Bionic Woman, and a robotic version of Bigfoot (first played by wrestler Andre the Giant). In the context of what followed, the original 1973 pilot movie offers not just the foundation for a fun franchise, but also a window into a more serious version of The Six Million Dollar Man that might have been.

The Six Million Dollar Man: FUNKY

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Zig Zag (1970)


          This twisty thriller kicks off with a terrific premise before faltering due to sloppy execution. George Kennedy stars as Paul Cameron, a claims investigator at an insurance company who learns he’s got only a few months to live. Desperate to provide for his wife and daughter, Paul digs through his company’s records and discovers that a $250,000 reward is still outstanding for the capture of an unknown criminal who kidnapped and murdered a millionaire. (Paul’s company paid a substantial death benefit to the victim’s family.) Using his wife’s maiden name as an alias, Paul sends a letter to the millionaire’s company claiming that he, Paul Cameron, was the murderer. Paul’s complex scheme is to get himself indicted and jailed for the crime so his wife, her identity hidden behind a web of bank accounts and P.O. boxes, can claim the reward. As this description indicates, the plot of Zig Zag ties itself in knots, stacking implausible developments until the storyline is impossibly muddled. Furthermore, the filmmakers present the story in a jagged style that justifies the title, jumping back and forth between the “present” (which begins with Paul’s arrest) and the “past” (which depicts his methodical planning).
          That said, a number of interesting things happen, like the casual revelation that Paul used to be a jazz drummer and therefore has connections in the hepcat underworld of drug dealers and musicians. Additionally, the relationship between Paul and his exasperated lawyer (Eli Wallach) is entertaining. On a stylistic level, director Richard A. Colla, a TV veteran who directed a handful of middling features, executes Zig Zag with visual panache, building many scenes around trick shots that open by peering deep into some partially obstructed background, then pull back to reveal previously hidden details. In fact, the gimmicky camerawork makes some sequences feel more interesting than they actually are, though the sleight of hand loses efficacy once the shortcomings of the script become impossible to ignore. Kennedy barrels through scenes with watchable intensity, employing vigor in place of nuance, while Anne Jackson (costar Wallach’s real-life spouse) delivers credible anguish as Paul’s worried wife, and Blacula star William Marshall lends his sonorous voice to key role as a nightclub owner who helps Paul out of a jam. These appealing performers and Colla’s kicky visuals make Zig Zag a pleasant distraction—until the confusing mess of a finale, that is. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

Zig Zag: FUNKY

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (1970)


          Although the idea of Charlton Heston playing classical roles always inspires trepidation, Heston is quite potent as Marc Anthony in this lusty adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. Instead, it’s the usually impeccable Jason Robards, playing treacherous senator Brutus, who underwhelms. Whereas one might expect Heston’s distinctly American persona to be an impediment in this milieu, his flamboyance fits the grandeur of Shakespearean English; conversely, Robards’ internalized moodiness is too quiet for director Stuart Burge’s muscular approach to the text. Screenwriter Robert Furnival hacked a few passages from the play, shortening the running time and making room for flourishes like an elaborate battlefield finale, but the core of the piece is intact. In 44 B.C., Roman emperor Julius Caesar (John Gielgud) cements his power through military victories, sparking fears among senators like Brutus, Casca (Robert Vaughn), and Cassius (Richard Johnson) that Caesar will seize absolute control. Brutus and his fellow conspirators murder Caesar, triggering a civil war between the conspirators and forces led by Caesar’s best friend, Marc Anthony.
          Burge gives the picture a standard sword-and-sandals look, with extras in flowing robes flitting across soundstages crammed with columns and staircases, so the piece doesn’t really take flight until Burge moves onto location for the climactic battle. That said, he builds an insistent pace and employs enough movement in his blocking to avoid filling the screen with long stretches of static talking heads. Plus, with its scenes of assassination and civil unrest, it’s not as if Julius Caesar lacks for inherent drama. Among the supporting cast, the standouts are Geilgud, bitchy and grandiose as a leader drunk on adulation; Johnson and Vaughn, calculating and cruel as men whose ambition trumps their loyalty; and Diana Rigg, sexy and sly as Brutus’ wife. Ultimately, however, the movie hinges on the interplay between Brutus and Marc Anthony. Robards seems uninterested throughout most of the picture, though his performance gains vigor after the assassination, but Heston is on fire from beginning to end. Clearly relishing the chance to play one of the great roles, Heston attacks monologues with the same animalistic energy he usually brings to the physical aspect of his performances, so he’s magnetic even though his performance choices are obvious and simplistic.

Julius Caesar: FUNKY

Friday, February 24, 2012

The AristoCats (1970)


          Walt Disney Productions’ first animated feature of the ’70s, The AristoCats is an old-fashioned charmer in the company’s classic tradition. Filled with amusing characterizations, bouncy songs, meticulous illustration, and unvarnished sweetness, this was the last animated feature authorized by Walt Disney himself, although he died before production began.
          Offering a feline twist on the studio’s canine classic 101 Dalmatians (1961), the picture takes place in 1910 Paris, where retired opera singer Madame Bonfamille lives with her cats and her seemingly loyal butler, Edgar. When Edgar discovers that “Madame” plans to leave her estate to her pets, he kidnaps the animals and dumps them in a remote field, starting the felines on a long journey home. Along the way, the cats bond with assorted critters who help the heroes foil Edgar’s scheme.
          As the title suggests, the main contrivance is that the cats inherited refinement from their owner. Thus, when feline matriarch Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her three kittens end up in adrift the world outside their stately home, they charm everyone they meet and discover the plebian pleasures enjoyed by vagabonds like Thomas O’Malley (voiced by Phil Harris), an alley cat who falls for Duchess.
          Although the vocal styles are a bit of a mishmash, with some performers speaking in European accents and others using American intonations, The AristoCats feels unified in the most important respects. The animals can only be heard speaking by other animals, and the choice of wildlife is germane to the story’s milieu.
          Moreover, the soundtrack entertainingly juxtaposes the faux-classical music of Madame’s world with the low-rent jump-and-jive of O’Malley’s environment. The movie’s centerpiece song, “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” is presented in an extended concert/party scene featuring O’Malley’s streetwise pal, Scat Cat (voiced by Scatman Crothers), and the sequence is an explosion of musical and visual energy with bright colors and dynamic graphics flashing in time with the music.
          Although that number was written by Floyd Huddleston and Al Riker, the best tunes in The AristoCats are those penned by songwriting siblings Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, of Mary Poppins fame. Their title song, performed over the opening credits by a droll Maurice Chevalier in the last recording of his life, and the Shermans’ character-defining song for Duchess and her kittens, “Scales and Arpeggios,” feature the brothers’ deft wordplay at its best.
          Gabor and Harris provide endearing vocal portrayals, as do the various character actors and children voicing the supporting roles, so even though the picture gets a bit carried away with peripheral comedy bits (like the frivolous scenes of Edgar battling a pair of pesky bloodhounds), The AristoCats is a winning exhibition of the beloved Disney style.

The AristoCats: GROOVY

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Straight Time (1978)


          After the flurry of activity that followed his star-making performance in The Graduate (1967), Dustin Hoffman became incredibly selective in the ’70s and ’80s, sometimes letting years pass between projects. Not coincidentally, his commitment to the parts he actually took was incredible, manifesting as deep involvement with story development and meticulous research into the lifestyles of his characters. The excellent drama Straight Time is rooted in this uncompromising craftsmanship: Hoffman’s character appears in virtually every scene, so his performance shapes the film.
          Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a small-time crook recently released from six years in prison. After a few halting attempts at living within the law, Max drifts back to criminality in part because his hard-driving parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh), finds drug residue left in Max’s dingy apartment by Max’s useless friend, fellow ex-con Willy Darin (Gary Busey). Feeling like he’s damned to incarceration whether he commits crimes or not, Max starts executing risky robberies despite the promise of his new romance with Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), a sweet young woman he met at an employment agency.
          The intense drama of Straight Time stems from an exploration of whether Max ever really has the opportunity to go straight. In a way, the picture is an indictment of the social structures that ensure a lifetime of punishment for any significant infraction. Based on a novel by real-life criminal Edward Bunker and directed by Ulu Grosbard, all of whose films are distinguished by extraordinary acting, Straight Time has authenticity to burn. It’s uncomfortable watching Max gauge the reactions of people who discover the truth about his past, and excruciating to see him tossed back in the slammer on the mere suspicion of a parole violation.
          The genius of Hoffman’s performance is that he plays Max as an addict: Whenever Max gets his teeth into a promising score, he loses the ability to perceive anything except the loot in front of him, so he frequently overstays his welcome at crime sites, endangering himself and his accomplices. Therefore, the movie provides a resonant portrait of a career criminal, someone who, accurately or not, believes no other options exist.
          The performers supporting Hoffman are terrific, with Busey and a young Kathy Bates playing an impoverished couple trying to steer clear of trouble despite the Busey character’s many weaknesses. Harry Dean Stanton essays a frightening professional crook whose ruthless discipline makes him a public menace. Russell is credible and sensitive in one of her first roles, and Walsh does wonders with the movie’s thinnest characterization. Although a slew of writers worked on the script (including A-listers Michael Mann and Alvin Sargent), it’s to Grosbard’s and Hoffman’s credit that the film comes together as smoothly as it does: Straight Time is essentially a character study, but the movie also works, at least in moments, as a gripping thriller. More importantly, it resonates.

Straight Time: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eraserhead (1977)


          Back in my film-school days, a fellow student who favored experimental cinema encouraged me to watch David Lynch’s directorial debut, Eraserhead, which at that point I knew only by reputation. (This was around the time Lynch was enjoying a vogue thanks to his TV series Twin Peaks.) I took the plunge and watched Lynch’s 90-minute ode to oddness, which explores the world of crazy-haired weirdo Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who lives in an industrial wasteland with a shrewish female companion and a caterwauling mutant baby. More of an audiovisual experiment than a traditional narrative, the movie is an endurance test for viewers—not only is the film virtually incomprehensible on the level of storytelling, Lynch utilizes so much sickening imagery and thundering noise that it sometimes seems his only goal is inducing nausea.
          Immediately after watching the movie, I was quizzed about my reaction by the Eraserhead fan, and I estimated that about 80% of the movie made sense to me. My friend said that meant I “got” the film, and, indeed, I vaguely recall articulating a fully formed interpretation. Collectively, however, the fact that I can’t remember a single word of what I said, the fact that I’ve never wanted to see the movie again, and the fact that failing to understand the entire movie was considered par for the course indicate how Eraserhead works: It’s like a drug. The movie is such a straight shot of Lynch—replete with his usual tropes of alienation, degradation, mutation, and stylization—that it’s either a sensation you need a fix of every so often, or a sensation you’re content to experience just once.
          There’s no denying the film’s power, because once you’ve seen Lynch’s grainy, black-and-white images of the putrid baby squirming in its crib, ooze glistening all over its misshapen body, you’ll never be able to erase the sight from your memory. Accordingly, Lynch deserves credit for putting his subconscious directly onto the screen; for better or worse, this is auteur filmmaking at its most idiosyncratic and indelible. And, as years of subsequent disturbing movies from this iconoclastic director have demonstrated, it’s not as if Eraserhead represented a juvenile stunt or a weird developmental phase—the man’s first feature is pure Lynch, unencumbered by the dead weight of a plot.
          As Lynch himself remarks in the so-so documentary Great Directors, “Eraserhead is my most spiritual film, but nobody has ever picked up on that.” (Whether that remark was coy or sincere is debatable, since I’ve never been sure how much of Lynch’s persona is a put-on.) Still, whatever the movie’s virtues and/or shortcomings, Eraserhead represents a cinematic artist finding success without compromise.
          Lynch started making the movie while a student at the American Film Institute, acquiring end money from a school grant and from actress Sissy Spacek, the wife of Lynch’s classmate/collaborator Jack Fisk. An adventurous distributor put the movie onto the midnight-movie circuit, where it became a sizable cult hit, earning $7 million despite costing only a reported $20,000. The film’s whacked-out artistry made a deep impression on Hollywood—Mel Brooks, of all people, hired Lynch to make The Elephant Man (1980), and Lynch’s career was off and running.
          So, although it’s deeply unpleasant to watch and although many viewers find it to be a pointless exercise in outré excess, Eraserhead is one of a kind—and that’s why it remains an inspirational touchstone for maverick filmmakers everywhere. Mutant babies of the world, unite!

Eraserhead: FREAKY

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The 5th Musketeer (1979)


          An unsuccessful attempt to piggyback on the success of Richard Lester’s joyous movies The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), this lavish production is actually the umpteenth screen adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask, the classic novel that French scribe Alexandre Dumas wrote as part of his ongoing Musketeers series. The storyline, of course, involves real-life French King Louis XIV and the fictional character Dumas invented—Louis’ twin brother, Philippe. (Both characters are played by Beau Bridges.) Upon learning of his twin’s existence, Louis and his underlings lock Philippe in a dungeon, his face hidden behind an iron mask, lest Philippe challenge Louis’ right to the throne. However, because Philippe was protected since childhood by the noble musketeers, the now-aging swordsmen come to their young friend’s rescue.
          There’s a lot more to the plot, such as the clash between Louis’ conniving mistress (Ursula Andress) and the Spanish aristocrat (Sylvia Kristel) set to join Louis in an arranged marriage, but as in all musketeer movies, the palace intrigue mostly exists to motivate thrilling swordplay. The best thing about the movie, by far, is the sumptuous imagery created by legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The picture looks great from start to finish, and the most attractive scenes—like a tense standoff between the musketeers and evil nobleman Fouquet (Ian McShane)—boast the visual depth of great paintings. Additionally, screen icon Olivia de Havilland adds dignity during her brief appearance as the Queen Mother, evoking the many Errol Flynn swashbucklers in which she costarred. But then there’s the problem of the movie’s half-hearted storytelling.
          The script, credited to David Ambrose and George Bruce, is humorless and turgid, while Ken Annakin’s direction is serviceable at best; were it not for the movie’s resplendent look, The 5th Musketeer would feel completely second-rate. Casting is another major problem. Bridges seems so modern (and so American) that he’s not believable in either of his roles; he also lacks the effervescence needed to thrill the audience while bounding across the screen with an exposed blade. The quartet playing his mentors is awkward, as well. Alan Hale Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island), Cornel Wilde, and José Ferrer all appeared in studio-era swashbucklers, so they more or less suit the milieu, but Lloyd Bridges, like his son Beau, is too contemporary for the period setting. Furthermore, none of them seems the least bit invested in the material. Kristel, better known for her lurid Emmanuelle movies, is pretty but forgettable, so only Andress and McShane set off (mild) fireworks in their cartoony bad-guy roles. As for the other noteworthy studio-era veteran in the cast, Rex Harrison, he’s a bored-looking non-presence.

The 5th Musketeer: FUNKY

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fyre (1979)


An indie production that doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish, Fyre is a little-girl-lost story following a 17-year-old down the dehumanizing path of abuse, drugs, and prostitution following a family tragedy. The picture isn’t sensitive enough to score as a probing drama, and it’s not sufficiently sleazy to qualify as exploitation, so about all that can be said for Fyre is that it’s briskly paced, coherent, and competently made. Is that enough to make it worth watching? Not unless you feel the need to see every movie in this sordid genre, or unless you’re taken with curvy leading lady Lynn Theel, who appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows during the late ’70s and early ’80s without gaining much career momentum. Watching her play the wayward lass whose nickname provides this film’s title, it’s not hard to see why Theel failed to achieve stardom. She gets the job done, and her effort to summon emotion in dramatic scenes appears to be genuine, but nothing sets her apart from other performers. And, unfortunately, she’s pretty much the whole show. Director and co-writer Richard Grand builds the entire movie around Theel’s character, tracking Fyre’s woes as she experiences rape, the loss of family members, a descent into the sex trade, a fraught love relationship with a small-time criminal, and even, just for extra titillation, a near-miss encounter with lesbianism. Then, once the movie reaches its climax of Fyre realizing self-definition is her only path to happiness, Fyre ends up feeling like an after-school special with a bit of R-rated raunch thrown in for no special reason. Offering some distraction from the blandness is a recurring character named Preacher, played by the rotund actor Allen Garfield; a fast-talking crook who drifts in and out of Fyre’s life, he’s the closest thing the movie has to novelty.

Fyre: LAME

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Death Wish (1974)


          Among the most controversial movies released by a major studio in the ’70s, Death Wish turned vigilantism into a hot topic around America’s water coolers and a perennial theme for action movies. Whereas the Clint Eastwood vehicle Dirty Harry (1971) manifested late-’60s frustration with the expansion of accused criminals’ rights, Death Wish works on an even more visceral level: It dramatizes the anguish felt by crime victims. Although novelist Brian Garfield, upon whose novel the film is based, reportedly disliked the movie because of the way it seemingly condoned vigilantism, the picture has a measure of nuance—while star Charles Bronson, producer Dino De Laurentiis, and director Michael Winner focus on no-nonsense action, the underlying premise is so provocative that thematic heft unavoidably permeates the bang-bang thrills.
          Bronson plays New York City architect Paul Kersey, whose wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked by criminals. The thugs beat Joanna, causing injuries that lead to her death, and rape Carol, sending her into a catatonic state. Shattered, Paul takes a working holiday to Tuscon, where he befriends a gun-enthusiast client (Stuart Margolin), who gives Paul a revolver as a gift. Returning to New York and learning that his family’s assailants will probably never be caught, Paul becomes so preoccupied with street crime that he starts packing heat and looking for trouble. Before long, he’s wiping out every lowlife who crosses his path, thus becoming a folk hero to crime-fatigued New Yorkers. Once the plot gets cooking, the movie depicts the dicey relationship between Manhattan’s mysterious new avenger and the police, notably Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia); while city officials condemn the vigilante’s lawlessness, they relish the downtick in street crime attributed to fear of the gunman.
          While Death Wish is unquestionably lurid and sensationalistic, the harshest criticism of the movie—that it glamorizes vigilantismis not entirely justified. The first time Paul kills a crook, he rushes home and vomits. Furthermore, the crisp screenplay by Wendell Mayes tightens the noose around Paul from the moment he begins his crusade. On a deeper level, the vengeance mission alienates Paul from society, even though he gets a perverse new spring in his step once he takes matters into his own hands.
          That said, the depiction of criminals as interchangeable ciphers makes it impossible to take the movie completely seriously. In this movie’s vision of New York, the streets are crawling with subhuman monsters, mostly African-American, and only a gun-toting cowboy can make the city safe. Even more troubling is the implication that every petty criminal deserves to die. But that’s what’s interesting about Death Wish, above and beyond the fact that it’s an exciting thriller—the movie tackles big themes, albeit clumsily. (Added novelty stems from the presence of future stars Christopher Guest and Jeff Goldblum in small roles, plus the kinetic funk/jazz score created by Herbie Hancock.)
          Death Wish was a major hit with lasting repercussions, vaulting Bronson to the A-list and triggering endless copycat movies. No official sequel appeared until 1982, but Death Wish II is putrid and the subsequent three pictures in the series are even worse, so everything worthwhile about Death Wish resides in the first movie.

Death Wish: GROOVY

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ganja & Hess (1973)


          A cult-fave movie whose enviable reputation might have more to do with novelty and obscurity than actual cinematic merit, Ganja & Hess is almost certainly the most experimental of all black-vampire movies; it’s closer in spirit to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 surrealistic epic Vampyr than to the campy blaxploitation joint Blacula. Written and directed by theater-trained artiste Bill Gunn, who apparently was hired to make a straight monster movie but took the production down a different path, Ganja & Hess is a strange meditation on the anguish of addiction and the difficulties African-Americans face in retaining their cultural identity.
          The movie is as formless and languid as a dream, so even though Ganja & Hess delivers many standard horror elements, such as bloody knife attacks and gruesome scenes of characters lapping up plasma, it’s clear from the first frames that Gunn is trying to create an artistic experience instead of a horror show. Whether he achieves his goal is up to each viewer; some cinephiles consider this picture an unsung masterpiece, but there’s no way to overlook the ineptitude of the film’s technical execution. The cinematography is grainy and erratic, with some shots artfully composed and others seemingly rushed; the sound recording is abysmal; and the acting is all over the place.
          Leading man Duane Jones, best known for his starring role in Night of the Living Dead (1968), cuts a striking figure with his expressive face and lean build, but he’s not particularly charismatic. Leading lady Marlene Clark has mesmerizing eyes, but some of her line readings are so amateurish they shatter whatever illusion Gunn is trying to create.
          As for the story, it’s the usual bloodsucker lore, but with a multicultural twist. The tale begins when a scientist (Jones) gets stabbed with a knife bearing the ancient curse of an African tribe. Even though the word “vampire” is never used in the movie, the curse gives the scientist an insatiable thirst for blood. Despite his affliction, he falls for and marries the wife (Clark) of his assailant, leading to her inevitable indoctrination into the world of vampirism. Since the story is rather trite, what makes Ganja & Hess noteworthy is the way Gunn weaves cultural, psychological, and sexual symbolism into the narrative.
          Montages feature characters writhing in pain or pleasure while Gunn dissolves to shots of African tribal rituals or other such visuals; these scenes are fused by a fevered soundtrack blending atonal music, driving rhythmic patterns, and weird utterances like grunts and screams. Gunn also uses awkward jump cuts within scenes, perhaps because he’s trying to simulate the strange sense of time that someone who cannot die might experience. The sum effect of Gunn’s art-house flourishes is that Ganja & Hess feels like a bizarre hybrid of intellectualized style and lame-brained content. Some may find this thrilling, and some (like me) may find it dull and pretentious, but Ganja & Hess is inarguably unique.

Ganja & Hess: FREAKY

Friday, February 17, 2012

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972)


An opulent adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel about a little girl encountering fantastical creatures, made with actors in deliberately artificial animal costumes, and featuring sets so two-dimensional they seem borrowed from a stage production, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland feels like an attempt to create a British companion piece to The Wizard of Oz (1939). From the myriad musical numbers to the use of comedy performers in supporting roles, the picture echoes many elements of the MGM classic, yet doesn’t come close to emulating the magic of Dorothy Gale’s journey to a land over the rainbow. One issue is the malevolence inherent to Carroll’s narrative—whereas the beloved Disney cartoon made from this story, Alice in Wonderland (1951), replaced some of the creepier aspects of Carroll’s book with whimsical flourishes, this version accentuates the frightening nature of Alice’s experiences inside the rabbit hole. (Intense surrealism and lighthearted children’s entertainment aren’t exactly the best mix.) Other problem areas include John Barry’s score and Fiona Fullerton’s leading performance. Barry employs his standard idiom of sweepingly romantic strings, and the resulting music feels way too heavy for a lark about a little girl imagining that drinking magical potions can alter her natural size. As for Fullerton, she’s a pretty young woman whose looks are similar to those of Kirsten Dunst, but she seems too grown-up for this material even though she was a teenager when the film was shot. She’s also highly forgettable. Several English notables are wasted in featured roles as the Caterpillar, the Door Mouse, and other weirdly anthropomorphic Carroll creations; those zipping in and out of the movie without making much impact include Michael Crawford, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, and Peter Sellers.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: LAME

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Black Bird (1975)


The film-noir revival of the mid-’70s produced a lot of interesting films, including a handful of comedies satirizing the tropes of classic private-dick flicks. In The Black Bird, George Segal plays Sam Spade Jr., son of the detective character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—the idea is that Sam Sr. left the actual Maltese Falcon among his personal effects, and three decades after the first set of lowlifes tried to acquire “the black bird,” a new crop of loonies pursues the prize. Story author Gordon Cotler came up with a decent concept, but screenwriter-director David Giler employs cheap gags instead of sophisticated wit. For example, characters keep joking that how strange it is that Segal’s character is named “spade” even though he’s not black. The movie isn’t quite as bad as that running joke suggests, but it’s not great. To the filmmakers’ credit, the narrative is as convoluted as anything Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett ever wrote, so the spirit of the thing is basically right, with deceitful dames and trigger-happy thugs appearing at every turn; furthermore, the Sam Spade Jr. character combines the usual cynicism of a noir detective with the added element of familial resentment, since he hates the fact that he inherited his dad’s business. Segal is also in rare form here, demonstrating impeccable comic timing with his exasperated line readings, slow-burn reactions, and tumbling pratfalls. He tries valiantly to raise the level of the material, so whenever the movie settles into long dialogue passages, things start to crackle. (The best verbal interplay is between Segal and gravel-voiced character actor Lionel Stander, playing a slow-witted hoodlum who ingratiates himself into Spade’s life.) However, many key elements in the movie just sit there, like the absurd villain (an excitable Nazi dwarf, if you can believe that) and the forgettable leading lady (thick-accented French actress Stéphane Audran). So, even though The Black Bird is amusing-ish, it never coalesces into anything special.

The Black Bird: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Equinox (1970)


          An awful movie that’s probably only of interest to special-effects junkies, Equinox took a peculiar path to the screen. In 1967, college student Dennis Muren spent a reported $6,500 to make a short film titled The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural, featuring imaginative stop-motion monsters in the style of Ray Harryhausen. Impressive for an amateur production, the picture caught the eye of distributors, who acquired the film and hired editor-turned-director Jack Woods to shoot additional scenes. The resulting hodgepodge was released in 1970 under the shortened title Equinox, and the movie might have disappeared into obscurity had Muren not achieved fame for his subsequent, Oscar-winning work on Star Wars (1977) and other pictures.
          The narrative of Equinox is a trite contrivance about a quartet of college students heading into the mountains to visit their professor. The kids stumble onto a weird book containing satanic incantations, and an evil policeman named Asmodeus (played by additional-footage director Woods) pursues them because he wants the book. Creature attacks and demonic possessions ensue. Although the effects in Equinox are quite crude—key visuals include a giant blue ape and a flying demon, plus an invisibility-shrouded gateway to another dimension—achieving so much with so little was a noteworthy accomplishment.
          Unfortunately, the acting is atrocious, the continuity is terrible, the camerawork is shaky, and the writing is ghastly, particularly the numbingly obvious dialogue. Equinox isn’t unwatchable, partly because it’s so short (80 minutes) and partly because monsters pop up every so often to keep things lively, but its origins as a student film are painfully evident in every frame. That said, the picture’s in-your-face flaws probably explain why Equinox's 197o release included a trip through the midnight-movie circuit, where viewers often watch bad films ironically. FYI, costar Frank Bonner, billed here as Frank Boers Jr., later found notoriety as oily salesman Herb Tarlek on the cult-favorite 1978-1982 sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Inexplicably, Equinox is available on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which includes many classics of high-art world cinema.

Equinox: LAME

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Boy Friend (1971)


          British director Ken Russell earned his bad-boy bona fides with his breakout movie, Women in Love (1969), a posh literary adaptation infamous for its scene of nude male wrestling. And though he seemed intent on continuing down the road of sexualized content with The Music Lovers (1970) and his first 1971 release, The Devils, he instead took the exact opposite tack with his second 1971 release. Adapted from the 1954 stage musical that made Julie Andrews a star, The Boy Friend is so chaste it could have been made in the 1930s—and, indeed, the strongest scenes feature Russell’s tributes to the work of Depression-era musical-movie auteurs like Busby Berkley. Loaded with flapper-styled costumes, opulent sets, and outrageous compositions that turn actors into elements of candy-colored tableaux, these sequences are visually resplendent. Unfortunately, the film containing these highlights is frothy and meandering, so The Boy Friend becomes quite dull as it sprawls across 137 repetitive minutes. Those who savor coordinated chorines and tricky tapping will find much to devour, but those craving a potent narrative will be left starving for substance.
          Finding a clever-ish way to give playwright Sandy Wilson’s storyline added dimension, Russell (who also penned the script and produced the picture) turns Wilson’s The Boy Friend into a play-within-a-movie. Thus, Polly Browne (Twiggy) is not just the lovestruck girl in the play, longing for sparks with a handsome delivery boy (Christopher Gable); she’s also an actress playing the lead role in a stage musical titled The Boy Friend. This device allows Russell to balance Wilson’s trite onstage patter with more realistic vignettes taking place offstage. Equally helpful is Russell’s addition of a theatrical star (played by an uncredited Glenda Jackson) whose injury forces Polly to take the stage in her place; this gives the Polly character a poignant underdog quality. Russell’s third big gimmick is the unexpected appearance of a Hollywood producer (Vladek Sheybal) on the very night Polly steps into the spotlight, filling all the stage performers with excitement about the possibility of big-screen stardom.
          Yet even though Russell’s efforts to toughen up the narrative are admirable, The Boy Friend is still just a compendium of 20 forgettable songs. Furthermore, leading lady Twiggy, a former model, is endearing but not particularly compelling (although she somehow managed to win two Golden Globes for this movie), so she’s regularly upstaged by livelier performers. In particular, long-limbed ’70s Broadway star Tommy Tune is impressive whenever he puts his gangly frame to the task of blazing tap-dance performances. The Boy Friend looks gorgeous, not only because of the impressive production design but also because of delicate photography by David Watkin, and it’s interesting to see Russell’s over-the-top style presented without his customary vibe of juvenile perversity. At more than two and a half hours, however, The Boy Friend is a slog for anyone but diehard movie-musical fans. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Boy Friend: FUNKY

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Gauntlet (1977)


          A meat-and-potatoes action picture blending brutal violence and cynical humor, The Gauntlet is a lowbrow crowd-pleaser featuring elements that dominated direct0r-star Clint Eastwood’s outlet for years afterward: The acting is perfunctory, the camerawork is loose, the gunplay is expertly filmed, and the politics are militaristic. So, while The Gauntlet is highly entertaining, it’s also, arguably, the production with which Eastwood and his production team learned how to make movies on autopilot.
          In fact, the picture is so formulaic that it’s basically a Dirty Harry sequel without the brand name. As in the Dirty Harry pictures, Eastwood plays a rogue cop assigned to an impossible case—and as in the Dirty Harry pictures, Eastwood’s character becomes a target for cops and criminals alike, blasting his way to freedom with a pocket-sized cannon of a handgun. Virtually the only deviation from the Dirty Harry formula is that Eastwood’s character, policeman Ben Shockley, is an alcoholic bum rather than a respected badass.
          Therefore, when he’s assigned to escort prostitute Gus Mally (Sondra Locke) from Las Vegas to Phoenix, where she’s set to testify against mobsters, it’s seen as a nothing assignment for a nothing cop. However, criminals have Mally in their crosshairs, so Shockley realizes keeping her alive long enough to testify will be tough. Furthermore, Shockley gets framed for a crime by the corrupt cops on the mob’s payroll, meaning he must transport Mally across the Southwest with legions of gun-toting policemen in hot pursuit.
          During the movie’s most memorable scene, the duo hides in a small building that gets surrounded by an army of cops who open fire with so many guns that the building gets perforated until it crumbles to the ground; Eastwood and cameraman Rexford L. Metz have fun creating stylish shots of Mally and Shockley dodging beams of light as gunshots let the sun into their dark hiding place. The ability of these characters to survive impossible odds eliminates any possibility of narrative credibility, just like the trite banter between crusty cop Shockley and sassy prostitute Mally grates after a while. Eastwood’s strong-and-silent bit is just as entertaining as always, but Locke, costarring with then-real-life companion Eastwood for the second time, gives a shrill performance.
          Still, there’s no denying that Eastwood and his people know how to stage action, so The Gauntlet is filled with intense chases, shootouts, and stunts. After all, even if this picture represents the moment when Eastwood locked into a formula, there’s a reason why the formula scored at the box office time and again throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

The Gauntlet: FUNKY

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gargoyles (1972)


          Made-for-TV horror movies got awfully strange in the early ’70s, sometimes diving deeper down the supernatural-cinema rabbit hole than their big-screen counterparts. Gargoyles is a prime example. Depicting exactly what its title suggests, the picture features an anthropologist running afoul of a tribe of real-life gargoyles, flying human/lizard hybrids who look as if they just emerged from the stonework of old buildings. Yet while the concept promises scares and spectacle, the makers of Gargoyles employ a moronic storyline that not only gets mired in trite monster-movie gimmicks but also contradicts itself. For most of the picture, it seems the gargoyles are misunderstood monsters trying to steer clear of human interference, but then the lead critter (Bernie Casey) announces a master plan to hatch thousands of baby monsters and take over the world. This indecision about how to present the titular creatures is unfortunately but one of Gargoyles’ problems.
          Things get off to a bland start when macho scientist/author Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) recruits his grown daughter, Diana (Jennifer Salt), for an expedition through the American southwest. They travel to a novelty shop whose proprietor claims to have a gargoyle skeleton, and then the novelty shop is violently attacked by unseen creatures. After the requisite scenes of our heroes reporting the incident to disbelieving authorities, who blame the attack on a trio of dirt bikers led by James (Scott Glenn), Mercer and Diana get assaulted once more. This time, however, they see their assailants—who are played by stunt men running around in head-to-toe lizard suits complete with horns, devilish faces, and giant wings. And so it goes from there. As the first onscreen monsters created by legendary special-effects guy Stan Winston, the gargoyles have some geek-cinema historical importance, but they’re also thoroughly ridiculous, especially when Casey starts delivering dialogue from behind his goofy monster mask. It must have been trippy to stumble across this thing in 1972, but time has diminished whatever charm Gargoyles might once have possessed.

Gargoyles: LAME

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Going in Style (1979)


          Matching a whimsical premise with a pitch-perfect cast and a skilled writer-director hungry to show off his comedy chops, Going in Style is a charmer from start to finish. The plotting is a bit on the predictable side, and some might find the picture’s juxtaposition of melancholy elements with a frivolous story jarring, but the movie overflows with what used to be called, in less cynical times, “heart.”
          Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney), and Willie (Lee Strasberg) are three seniors sharing expenses by living together in New York City. They fritter away their days feeding pigeons from park benches, and they’re all close to going stir crazy from the monotony of their eventless lives. One day, Joe gets a wild idea: Why not rob a bank? Watching the three men debate and plan their crime is a hoot, since none can muster a good argument against becoming criminals; the threat of life in prison, for instance, isn’t much of a deterrent for men already facing death in the near future, and the idea that bank deposits are federally insured convinces them nobody will get hurt.
          Al pilfers pistols from his sweet nephew, Pete (Charles Hallahan), a working stiff who collects antique guns, and the seniors pick out novel disguises for the big heist—they wear Groucho glasses. Offering a reasonable explanation for why the trio gets away with their crime, writer-director Martin Brest (working from a story by Edward Cannon) plays up the idea that bank employees are stunned by the sight of gray-haired bandits with shuffling gaits and stooped shoulders. After the heist, Brest sweetly illustrates the new spring each man has in his step; the point is not that the men have become callous law-breakers, but that they’ve recaptured what it feels like to be alive.
          The movie takes some colorful turns after the robbery, leading to a bittersweet finale that’s quite satisfying, and Brest walks a fine line by balancing fun narrative contrivances with more realistic considerations. (His deft approach to character-driven crime comedies delivered blockbuster results in the ’80s, when he made Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run.) Each of the leading performances is lively and warm, with Burns putting a deadpan capper onto his amazing run of ’70s comeback roles, and Carney relishing a substantial part at a point when his own ’70s comeback was starting to run out of gas. As for Strasberg, the revered acting teacher best known for playing Jewish gangster Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II (1974), he counters his showier costars with a gently touching performance distinguished by expressive wordless moments.

Going in Style: GROOVY

Friday, February 10, 2012

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)


          Few movies are more beloved by fans of ennui-drenched ’70s counterculture cinema than Monte Hellman’s enigmatic drama Two-Lane Blacktop, which for years was almost impossible to see: Glimpsed only fleetingly in late-night broadcasts or repertory screenings, the movie built a reputation throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as one of the lost masterpieces of the New Hollywood era. Now that the picture has been widely available for a decade, its shortcomings are as apparent as its virtues.
          Viewed from a counterculture perspective, the tale of men drag-racing their way across the U.S. is a potent metaphor for the way young people felt adrift in an era when they discarded their parents’ values—but taken merely at face value, the picture seems opaque and pretentious. In fact, Two-Lane Blacktop somehow manages to justify both interpretations simultaneously. At its best, the movie says volumes about directionless youth, and at its worst, the movie itself is directionless.
          The narrative is almost mythical in its simplicity: The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) zoom a hopped-up ’55 Chevy across America, picking up cash here and there by challenging strangers to races. Meanwhile, a slightly older man, G.T.O. (Warren Oates), identified only by the make of his yellow muscle car, cruises the highways in tandem with the heroes, occasionally bonding with them and occasionally clashing. The other major player is The Girl (Laurie Bird), a freethinking hitchhiker who spends most of her time in the Chevy, romancing The Driver, but also ends up in the G.T.O. from time to time.
          All of the characters cite vague goals they want to accomplish, but in reality they’re addicted to the freedom of the road, presumably as interested in running away from something as running toward something. Obviously, there’s a lot of thematic heft implied by this situation, and in one of the movie’s best lines, Oates articulates what’s stirring inside these rootless racers: “If I’m not grounded pretty soon,” he says, “I’m gonna go into orbit.” In another scene, Oates toasts Taylor by saying, “Here’s to your destruction.” Taylor’s reply: “Same to you.”
          Are these characters seeking oblivion or salvation? Director Hellman and the movie’s writers (Will Corry, Floyd Mutrux, and Rudy Wurlitzer) aren’t interested in answers. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the day-to-day reality of moving down the road from one hamburger stand to the next, stopping only for sleep or to fix a broken engine; the clear implication is that the road is life, and the characters represent all of us trying to find our way even though we don’t know where we’re supposed to go.
          Other movies made similar points with greater clarity and depth, but the symbolic nature of the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop still speaks to people decades after the film’s original release. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the presence of real-life rock musicians Taylor and Wilson, since this was the only time either gave a significant acting performance. Neither is particularly revelatory, but they’re both handsome and intense, representing a certain romantic ideal of the Angry Young Man circa early-’70s America.

Two-Lane Blacktop: FUNKY

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Force 10 from Navarone (1978)


          An unnecessary but harmless sequel to a classic action movie, Force 10 from Navarone slots replacement actors into the leading roles from The Guns of Navarone (1961); it also substitutes the simplistic men-on-a-mission vibe of the earlier film with a convoluted storyline comprising rampant double-crosses. As a result, Force 10 lacks the clarity and star power of its predecessor. At the end of The Guns of Navarone, World War II British commandoes Mallory (Gregory Peck) and Miller (David Niven) head home for England after blowing up an enemy installation in Nazi-occupied Greece. Force 10 picks up a short while later, when Mallory (Robert Shaw) and Miller (Edward Fox) are recruited to kill a dangerous double agent embedded with rebel forces in Yugoslavia.
          For reasons that are never particularly clear, the duo gets attached to “Force 10,” an American commando unit headed to Yugoslavia for a mysterious mission, and this understandably irritates Force 10’s no-nonsense leader, Barnsby (Harrison Ford). Thereafter, the movie’s narrative gets really contrived. First, an American soldier under military arrest, Weaver (Carl Weathers), escapes captivity and sneaks onto Force 10’s plane. Then, upon arrival in Yugoslavia, Mallory and Miller must track the shifting allegiances of a monstrous Yugoslavian (Richard Kiel), a beautiful rebel fighter (Barbara Bach), and the man who may or may not be their assassination target (Franco Nero). Oh, and there’s also the whole business of Force 10’s mission, which involves blowing up a bridge.
          Force 10 from Navarone is so over-plotted that character development is a casualty, but the movie zips along nicely thanks to attractive location photography and crisp direction by Bond-movie veteran Guy Hamilton. The picture has some enjoyable macho highlights, like Weathers’ duel with Kiel—how totally ’70s to see a knife fight between Apollo Creed and “Jaws” from the 007 movies! Additionally, Bach provides the requisite sex appeal, Nero smolders as we try to determine whether he’s a hero or a villain, and Fox scores a few laughs as a pip-pip Brit with a perpetual even keel. The climax has some groovy miniature effects, too.
          However, the movie hinges on the leading performances, and they’re a mixed bag. Shaw, apparently enjoying his post-Jaws run of action-hero roles, is atypically lighthearted, but Ford is lifeless. Shooting his first big action movie after Star Wars, he seems determined to present a characterization with more gravitas than his Han Solo performance, but this movie is far too slight to support understated acting. Nonetheless, Ford’s participation is probably why Force 10 from Navarone has been a cable-TV staple since the early ’80s, and it’s interesting to see the actor finding his way before Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) secured his status as a cinematic icon.

Force 10 from Navarone: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wonder Woman (1974) & The New Original Wonder Woman (1975)


          Plans to put DC Comics’ iconic heroine onto the small screen began in the mid-’60s, when the campy Batman show was peaking in popularity. All that remains of the 1967 Wonder Woman is an excruciatingly awful five-minute presentation reel titled “Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?” and featuring a mousy woman who imagines she’s a voluptuous goddess. (YouTube it if you’re feeling masochistic.) Seven years later, a full-length pilot movie took a deadly serious approach and delivered deadly dull results.
          Starring athlete-turned-actress Cathy Lee Crosby (above left), Wonder Woman is only interesting for how many things it gets wrong. Rather than presenting Wonder Woman as a superhero, the movie shows her as a secret agent in a star-spangled track suit, working at a leisurely pace to foil the plans of an international criminal (Ricardo Montalban) who is ransoming the identities of undercover operatives. Thanks to Crosby’s lifeless performance and sluggish action sequences, the 1974 Wonder Woman movie is drab in every respect. The highlight, such as it is, features Wonder Woman trapped in a tiny room as geysers of rainbow-colored sludge ooze from the walls, threatening to trap her until she improbably kicks open the room’s Plexiglas door. In the end, a defeated Montalban coos, “Wonder Woman, I love you”—but at least as far as this version of the character is concerned, he’s alone in that opinion.
          A year and a half after the Crosby misfire, ABC broadcast the awkwardly titled The New Original Wonder Woman, which introduced viewers to the impressive spectacle of Lynda Carter (above right) crammed into a skimpy costume—although the 1975 movie introduces many kitschy flourishes, including the series’ memorably disco-flavored theme song and a colorful World War II milieu taken straight from the first Wonder Woman comics of the 1940s, Carter’s sex appeal is the main attraction.
          Developed and written by Stanley Ralph Ross, a veteran of the ’60s Batman series, The New Original Wonder Woman tries to recapture the previous series’ tongue-in-cheek quality, but instead comes across as insipid because the script isnt witty enough to trigger an ironic response. Even with comedy pros Henry Gibson, Cloris Leachman, and Kenneth Mars in the cast, The New Original Wonder Woman is tedious, with flaws like cheap-looking sets and schlocky special effects exacerbating the stiff lead performances by Carter and costar Lyle Waggoner. The only time the pilot reaches the desired level of camp is the finale, during which Carter has a catfight with guest star Stella Stevens.
          Nonetheless, Wonder Woman the series finally was off and running, though only one season was set in World War II. After the first run of episodes, the series migrated to CBS and became The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, with stories set in the present day; that version ran for two seasons. In the years since, Wonder Woman has thrived in animation, various attempts at a feature film have stalled, and super-producer David E. Kelley’s 2011 pilot for a new Wonder Woman series didn’t even get on the air. So, for the time being, in addition to being remembered as one of the sexiest pinup queens of the ’70s, Carter remains the world’s live-action Wonder Woman of choice.

Wonder Woman: LAME
The New Original Wonder Woman: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tropic of Cancer (1970)


          Tropic of Cancer is a nasty barrage of sex, scheming, and vulgarity, leavened with a strain of ironic literary observation. However, this combination of elements should come as no surprise given the subject material: Tropic of Cancer is the only feature-length adaptation of notorious American writer Henry Miller’s work. The sex-crazed Miller’s adventures as an expat living in France also inspired the 1990 biopic Henry & June—yet while the latter film was a straightforward narrative infused with sophisticated erotica, Tropic of Cancer is a grungy experimental film punctuated by seedy simulated sex. In Tropic of Cancer, nearly every physical encounter has a grim punchline, whether it’s the revelation that one of the partners has VD or a glimpse of one partner stealing money from the other.
          Our guide through these vignettes is Henry Miller (Rip Torn), a perpetually impoverished writer who occasionally takes day jobs doing things like editing copy for an English-language newspaper, but mostly subsists on favors from friends. A hobo without a permanent address, he crashes on couches, takes hotel rooms whenever he has money in his pocket, and persuades fellow Americans to feed him even though he offers virtually no consideration in return. In addition to leeching off everyone he knows, Henry spends every waking moment trying to get laid, indiscriminately sleeping with prostitutes, strangers, and the wives of his friends.
          Director Joseph Strick presents these events in fragmented little bursts, loosely connected by voiceover featuring Torn reading from Miller’s books. (Unfortunately, most of the voiceover comprises crudely rhapsodic descriptions of female sex organs.) Parisian location photography adds authenticity, although it’s peculiar that Strick shot the picture with modern clothing (circa 1970) instead of matching the 1930s era during which most of Miller’s real-life Gallic exploits took place.
          Muddying the waters further is Torn’s casting and characterization. Constantly unkempt, flashing a devil’s smile full of yellow teeth, and relentless about seeking his own pleasures no matter the cost to others, Torn’s version of Miller is an irredeemable cretin, so it’s hard to know what reaction Strick hoped to elicit: Was the idea to document the extremes of a rare man, or to incarnate Miller’s ideas about the “honesty” one finds in embracing animal instincts?
          The picture never speaks clearly enough to make a strong statement one way or another, and Strick’s choice to fill the screen with naked women undercuts whatever artistic aspirations might be present—Tropic of Cancer ends up feeling like a pretentious nudie flick. Still, for adventurous viewers, Tropic of Cancer may be worth exploring for hidden virtues. Furthermore, the presence of an uncredited Ellen Burstyn in the movie provides some interest; the future Oscar winner appears briefly, mostly without clothing, as Henry’s quasi-estranged wife.

Tropic of Cancer: FREAKY