Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ordeal (1973)

Although its content couldn’t be simpler—a cuckolded husband gets abandoned in the desert by his wife and her lover, and the husband’s lust for revenge compels him to survive—Ordeal has a sweaty intensity that makes it a bit more charged than the average early-’70s telefilm. It’s also unrelentingly dark, since each character in the picture is an awful human being, so the movie’s morality is enjoyably gray. And if the piece sputters to a halt with the kind of unsatisfying non-ending that plagued many small-screen movies in the ’70s, so be it—a five-minute letdown shouldn’t completely erase 85 minutes of solid buildup. Arthur Hill, the veteran stage actor whose big-screen credits include The Andromeda Strain (1971), stars as Richard Damian, a domineering son of a bitch whose callous ways have sucked the life out of his marriage to the icily beautiful Kay (Diana Muldaur). One day, Richard and Kay head out for a desert getaway with greasy local Andy Folsom (James Stacy) as their guide, even though Richard really considers Kay excess baggage during his various macho adventures. Turns out Kay has seduced Andy, so when an “accident” leaves Richard stranded on a high cliff, Kay and her lover flee with no intention of sending help. Thereafter, the movie enters a long and surprisingly compelling sequence of Richard trying to withstand dehydration, exhaustion, exposure, and the various ailments stemming from a leg injury. Director Lee H. Katzin comes up with several enterprising camera setups to keep things visually interesting, and his focus on Richard’s desire for payback ensures the movie is consistently tense. Meanwhile, cutaways from Richard’s travails to scenes of Andy and Kay reveal the disintegration of their tenuous bond. Even without a potent climax, Ordeal is an edgy exploration of the ways people abuse each other.

Ordeal: FUNKY

Friday, June 29, 2012

Le Mans (1971)

          Virtually an experimental film despite its big budget and marquee star, Le Mans is actor Steve McQueen’s most ardent cinematic love letter to auto racing. Although fast-moving cars played important roles in previous McQueen flicks, notably Bullitt (1968), vehicles are more important to Le Mans than actors, including McQueen himself. Shot on location during the 1970 edition of the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans road race, the picture has very little characterization, dialogue, or plot. Instead, it’s an impressionistic assembly of exciting footage that plays out like a blend of documentary and European art film.
          We eventually grasp the major threads of the piece, particularly the psychological damage that stoic American driver Michael Delaney (McQueen) suffered after his involvement in a crash at the previous year’s race. We also get glimpses of Delaney’s strained relationships with other drivers and the women who form an emotional constellation around the racetrack. Yet these supporting characters, played by minor European actors, all fade into the background—McQueen’s star power ensures that his is the only personality to emerge from the noise.
          Still, it’s possible that no degree of character definition would have made this piece more distinctive, since there’s a long tradition of auto-racing movies in which actors are overwhelmed by the sturm und drang of their roaring engines. Plus, it’s so clear in every frame of this picture that McQueen gets off on the mechanics of auto racing that it seems likely he got this picture made for his own satisfaction, with the idea of entertaining anyone but hardcore racing fans a secondary consideration. Thus, Le Mans is impressive but soulless.
          Some of the racing footage is undeniably exciting, showing low-riding speed machines blasting around French streets in dangerous conditions like darkness and inclement weather, so it’s impossible not to react viscerally while waiting for the inevitable catastrophes. (The movie’s crash scenes are compelling, with finely tuned vehicles crumbling to scrap given their speeds at the moment of impact.) Furthermore, director Lee H. Katzin’s team employs some truly extraordinary editing, using devices like audio dropouts and jump cuts to maximize the drama of key moments within races, and composer Michel Legrand’s jazzy, Golden Globe-nominated score turns some sequences into the equivalent of slick music videos. However, one longs for a greater sense of the men behind the wheel and the women who love them.

Le Mans: FUNKY

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Toomorrow (1970)

          There’s a reason wholesome Aussie thrush Olivia Newton-John seemed so comfortable on camera in her first major American movie, the blockbuster musical Grease (1978). Unbeknownst to stateside audiences, she’d been acting in English movies and TV shows for several years, following her debut performance in the obscure Australian picture Funny Things Happen Down Under (1965). The most noteworthy of Newton-John’s pre-Grease credits is Toomorrow, a bizarre hodgepodge of music and sci-fi that has a small but cultish fan base.
         Playing the movie’s female lead, Newton-John displays every aspect of her G-rated appeal, singing and go-go dancing through her performance as a girl-next-door coed who performs in a band called Toomorrow while wearing a succession of miniskirts and short-shorts. Blonde, ebullient, and smiling, she’s a vision of virginal sexiness, whether she’s delivering unfunny one-liners, playing vacuous music, or simply hanging out with the aliens who abduct Toomorrow. Yeah, aliens.
          Written and directed by Val Guest, a UK fantasy-cinema veteran whose credits include The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Tomorrow begins in outer space. Against a backdrop of trippy incidental music, a glowing spacecraft hurtles toward Earth and fetches the human-looking John Williams (Roy Dotrice) from his English estate by way of a glowing transporter beam. Once aboard the starship, John strips off his human shell to reveal that he’s a blue-skinned, slit-eyed alien, and that he’s the “Earth observer” tasked with identifying interesting developments by the human race. According to him, there haven’t been any—but then he’s told by fellow aliens that a new rock group, Toomorrow, has invented musical vibrations deemed crucial to the survival of the alien race.
          John resumes his human guise and woos the band by pretending to be a musical impresario. The band members, who are students at the London College of Arts, also get embroiled in a murky subplot involving campus protests. Guest vamps through several dull scenes of Toomorrow making lighthearted mischief (a wan riff on the Beatles’ signature tomfoolery), before the plot gets going. In a typical scene, drummer Benny (Benny Thomas) asks a lunchroom full of students if they mind listening to a rehearsal by calling out, “Hey, any of you cats mind a groove?” Naturally, they don’t, so the tacky lip-synching commences, since every number Toomorrow performs is a perfect studio production.
          The best tunes have some kick, although the band’s musical bag is a totally squaresville vibe that recalls vanilla pop groups like the Association, and the music is ultimately the least interesting element of the movie. More arresting are the sci-fi bits, like the scene in which the band members get tossed around a spaceship in slow motion while regressing back and forth to their childhood selves. And then there’s the sex. Guest indulges his randy side with lots of peekaboo glimpses at buxom supporting players. For instance, outrageously curvy British starlet Margaret Nolan appears as Johnson, an alien masquerading as an earth girl in order to seduce band member Vic (Vic Cooper), the band’s resident tomcat.
          How all this is supposed to add up is a mystery. The musical numbers get overshadowed by narrative nonsense, the sci-fi content is too geeky for casual viewers, and the smut feels out of character with the rest of the movie. Therefore, the amazing thing about Toomorrow is that it exists—did the producers even read Guest’s script? It’s no wonder Newton-John distanced herself from this strange flick, and it’s no wonder Toomorrow has yet to receive proper worldwide distribution. According to Wikipedia, the movie played for just one week in London during 1970, and then sat on a shelf (excepting bootleg copies) until receiving a UK-only DVD release in 2011.

Toomorrow: FREAKY

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Driller Killer (1979)

The first feature film to which Noo Yawk director Abel Ferrara signed his name takes a literal approach to the concept of artistic horror, since the lead character (played by Ferrara under a stage name) is an artist who commits horrific acts. Yet while The Driller Killer is made with competence and a certain amount of grungy downtown style, this is clearly the work of the man whose previous effort (credited under an alias) was the X-rated flick 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. In other words, it’s unwise to expect good taste from early Ferrara. In The Driller Killer, Ferrara plays Reno, a hot-blooded artist living in a grimy pocket of Greenwich Village. Perpetually broke and upset with his crime-ridden surroundings, Reno gets pushed over the edge by a series of disturbing hallucinations and by the insufferable noise of a punk-rock band’s rehearsals in a neighboring apartment. Then, as rational people are wont to do, Reno expresses his angst by murdering people with a power drill. As in most of Ferrara’s movies, ennui and violence are closely intertwined, so we’re not meant to regard Reno as a monster; instead, we’re supposed to ask questions about why society drives some people toward unspeakable cruelty. However, it’s good that Ferrara got better at exploring this sort of material in subsequent movies, like his cult-fave 1981 revenge flick Ms. 45, since The Driller Killer doesn’t hit the mark. While the movie cannot be completely dismissed (Ferrara was clearly trying to explore something), the flick’s onslaught of bloodletting and general ugliness is unpleasant instead of provocative. Nonetheless, it’s to Ferrara’s credit that he committed so wholeheartedly to the piece, shooting on cobbled-together 16mm film inside his own apartment and the surrounding neighborhood, on top of playing the leading role. Furthermore, the fact that his gamble paid off by kick-starting his directing career gives The Driller Killer a minor historical significance the movie probably doesn’t deserve.

The Driller Killer: LAME

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Godspell (1973)

          One of the more peculiar outgrowths of the flower-power movement was a string of movies and stage shows drawing parallels between hippie idealism and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Arguably the most culturally significant of these projects was the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which became a 1973 film. Yet Godspell, featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, arrived almost simultaneously: The stage version debuted off-Broadway in 1971, and the film adaptation was released in 1973. Unlike Superstar, which is bold and nervy, Godspell is a gentle story about Christ preaching to his apostles. Adapted directly from the Gospel of Matthew (with a few snippets from Luke’s version of events), Godspell unspools like a piece of theological performance art.
          The only actors appearing onscreen are those playing Christ and the apostles (except during a brief prologue and epilogue), so even though the cast dances and sings throughout modern-day New York City, the locations seen abandoned—Manhattan becomes an elaborate metaphorical backdrop instead of a real city. When the picture begins, John the Baptist (David Haskell) summons a group of energetic young people to Central Park, where he bathes them in water from a public fountain and transforms their everyday clothes into multicolored Woodstock Nation costumes. During this ritual, Christ (Victor Garber) appears. Soon, the Messiah leads the whole gang on a far-flung walking tour of New York City, delivering sermons that the apostles act out in comedy-musical sketches.
          The movie works best when it’s in full-on musical mode, since many of Schwartz’s melodies are beautiful. In fact, the original off-Broadway cast’s recording of the main theme, “Day by Day,” became a pop hit. Along with writers David Greene (who also directed) and John-Michael Tebelak (who wrote the book for the stage show), Schwartz diligently dramatizes Christ’s greatest hits: stories about the Good Samaritan and Lazarus and the prodigal son and so forth. It’s peculiar, however, that the apostles regularly slip in and out of campy vocal inflections, speaking lines in the mode of Groucho Marx, Mae West and other iconic figures. Combined with the movie’s eye-popping color palette, frenetic choreography, and restless picture editing, the silly vocal flourishes help contribute to an overdose of good vibes.
          This musical is passionate and sincere, but for viewers without any religious background (myself included), Godspell is an empty spectacle. For instance, setting scenes at astonishing locations like the roof of the World Trade Center (which was still under construction during filming) pointlessly distracts from the straightforward nature of the homilies being related. Still, the music is good and sometimes great, with talented performers like Garber, Robin Lamont, Jerry Sroka, and Lynn Thigpen blasting notes up to the rafters.

Godspell: FUNKY

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Onion Field (1979)

          Former L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh forged a new career writing fiction and nonfiction books inspired by his time in uniform, and the moment his debut novel was published in 1971, he started getting attention from Hollywood. Yet by the end of the decade, he was reportedly sick of the liberties filmmakers took in their adaptations of his work—so for The Onion Field, Wambaugh insisted on writing the script and working closely with the director. The result was a highly intelligent look at the unique emotional challenges of police life, shown through the prism of how one detective is scarred by his involvement in a killing.
          As directed by Harold Becker, whose best movies are filled with actual and metaphorical shadows, The Onion Field paints a bleak picture of modern law-enforcement: The policemen in this story are easy targets, while criminals armor themselves with the legal system. Based on a real case, the narrative takes place in the early ’60s, when newly minted Detective Karl Hettinger (John Savage) is assigned to work with slightly older partner Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). Hettinger is an oversensitive ex-Marine, and Campbell is a conflicted soul who plays bagpipes for relaxation and contemplates whether he should quit police work.
          Meanwhile, simple-minded thief Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) has the bad luck to hook up with intense career criminal Greg Powell (James Woods) shortly after Smith’s release from prison. Powell’s a live wire who’s too smart for his own good, since his hodgepodge education leads him to misunderstand as many things as he comprehends. These duos from opposite sides of the law intersect when the criminals take the police officers captive. Soon, Campbell is dead in a roadside ditch near an onion field in the rural community of Bakersfield. Ettinger escapes captivity, though his real trauma has just begun. Haunted by guilt over what he might have done differently, Ettinger spirals into depression and petty crime, eventually losing his badge. He’s also forced to relive his worst moments again and again because after Powell and Smith are arrested, the hoodlums mount endless legal challenges.
          Wambaugh’s close attention to the psychological after-effects of crime ensures that every frame of The Onion Field is compelling, even though his handling of the story’s female characters is weak. Becker’s meticulous images accentuate Wambaugh’s dramaturgy, since Becker uses long lenses to isolate figures and, at other times, deep shadows to smother them.
          Woods’ performance dominates, not only because he’s got the showy role of a psychotic chatterbox, but also because Woods adds textures of deviousness, humor, intelligence, perversion, and self-loathing. (He received his first Golden Globe nomination for The Onion Field.) Savage is touchingly vulnerable, though he sometimes drifts into affected, Method-style twitchiness, and Seales displays wide-open emotion as a loser who stumbles into a situation he can’t handle. Danson is terrific in one of his earliest roles, putting across something memorably humane in just a handful of scenes.

The Onion Field: GROOVY

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Flood! (1976) & Fire! (1977)

          After the success of his lavish blockbusters The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), producer Irwin Allen tried to keep the disaster-movie momentum going, but most of his subsequent flicks ended up getting made for television on pathetic budgets. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Allen refused onscreen credit for producing the first of these also-ran projects, Flood!—the exclaiming title of which promises more excitement than the movie delivers.
          A random gang of actors, most of whom were on their way down the Hollywood ladder at the time, portray residents of a small town called Brownsville, which gets submerged when the local dam succumbs to pressure after heavy rainfall. Since the movie features an idiot politician who refuses to acknowledge the potential for danger until it’s too late, calling Flood! trite would be giving the thing too much credit. Furthermore, the special effects, normally Allen’s hallmark, are laughable. One silly gimmick involves placing a container of water in front of the camera, then shooting over the container toward a nearby building, as if this bargain-basement illusion can persuade viewers they’re beholding a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. Worst of all, the movie is dull and slow, despite the hearty efforts of actors including Richard Basehart, Robert Culp, Barbara Hershey, Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, and Poseidon Adventure survivors Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowall.
          Allen’s next TV endeavor, for which he actually did take onscreen credit, nearly earns its exclamation point. Fire! stars Poseidon Adventure veteran Ernest Borgnine, whose campy acting style always enlivens silly movies, and the simplistic plot gets the job done: When a convict on a labor crew working in a mountaintop forest starts a fire to obscure his escape attempt, the conflagration spreads toward a resort town, forcing guests and locals to flee. Meanwhile, easygoing local Sam (Borgnine) sticks around to help with the evacuation because he’s in love with the local hotelier (Vera Miles). The cast is unimpressive (Alex Cord, Patty Duke, Erik Estrada, Donna Mills, Lloyd Nolan), but Allen and his director, Earl Bellamy (who also helmed Flood!), get the formula right in terms of meshing melodrama with nature-gone-wild tragedy. It helps that the movie relies on practical effects, with real buildings and trees burning on camera, rather than chintzy tricks. Fire! is terrible, of course, but it delivers the goods.
          Clearly, however, the bloom was off the rose, so even though Allen oversaw three additional made-for-TV disaster flicks, they suffered ignoble fates. With C-listers like Bert Convy starring, Allen’s production Hanging by a Thread, in which people flash back to their pasts while trapped in a cable car, aired to no acclaim as a two-night miniseries in late 1979. Next, the self-explanatory The Night the Bridge Fell Down was shot in 1979 but not broadcast until 1983. Then, after Allen’s final big-screen disaster movies, The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out . . . (1980), the end of his cycle finally came with Cave-In, a long-winded TV movie about just what the title suggests, which aired in 1983, shortly after The Night the Bridge Fell Down. (All made-for-television titles available at

Flood!: LAME
Fire!: FUNKY

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Swashbuckler (1976)

Two depressing facts emerge when one surveys actor Robert Shaw’s career following his breakout performance in Jaws (1975): Shaw’s days on this earth were numbered, so he only had three years in which to enjoy his newfound fame, and almost every post-Jaws movie in which he starred was terrible. Nonetheless, one gets the impression that Shaw had a blast play-acting in macho leading roles, so, for instance, he exudes contagious joie de vivre in this terrible pirate movie. On some metaphysical level, the possibility that Shaw had fun making Swashbuckler compensates for the lack of enjoyment viewers derive from watching the movie. On the plus side, Swashbuckler is a fairly lavish production about an 18th-century buccaneer battling a crazed tyrant in Jamaica. Additionally, even though director James Goldstone can’t come close to matching the lighthearted approach to swordfighting featured in Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies of the same era, at least Goldstone fills the screen with talented actors. Dressed in a silly costume of red tights and a flowing red blouse, Shaw presents a lusty copy of Errol Flynn’s patented derring-do, and he shares mildly amusing interplay with his cheerful second-in-command, played by James Earl Jones. (The cast also includes Beau Bridges, Geneviève Bujold, Geoffrey Holder, and a young Angelica Huston.) However, the material is so generic that copious screen time is wasted on clichés like peg-legged pirates brandishing their cutlasses and growling. Worse, Peter Boyle’s performance as Lord Durant, the aforementioned tyrant, is atrocious. Woefully miscast, his contemporary American patois seeping through the fruity period jargon he’s forced to spew, Boyle tries to enrich his characterization with perverse qualities, but he seems like he’s in a different movie than everyone else. Unfortunately, the movie he’s in isn’t any better than Swashbuckler.

Swashbuckler: LAME

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Story of Adele H. (1975)

          Offering a harrowing but sensitive look at an obscure historical figure, the acclaimed French film The Story of Adele H. is significant as the movie that brought actress Isabelle Adjani her first international notoriety. Although the picture is very much an auteurist statement by director/co-writer François Truffaut—the most consistently accessible filmmaker to emerge from the celebrated French New Wave movement of the ’60s—his gifts were known to world audiences by the time this film was released. Therefore, the discovery of the picture is Adjani’s fearless acting.
          Portraying a young woman who throws away social position and wealth in Europe in order to chase a caddish soldier across the Atlantic, Adjani incarnates disturbing qualities of delusion, mania, obsession, and self-destruction. During the course of the movie, we literally watch a soul depart a body as Adjani’s character succumbs to madness. The performance is all the more noteworthy given Adjani’s arresting beauty—since the easier path of appearing in decorative roles was surely available to her, it’s impressive the actress chose challenging work. And because The Story of Adele H. set a template for many later Adjani roles, it’s fascinating to see how good she already was at portraying instability in this, her first major screen role.
          The story begins in Halifax, Nova Scotia, circa 1863. A refined but skittish French beauty (Adjani) arrives on a boat from Europe, and then takes up occupancy at a boarding house. She gives each person she meets a different explanation of her identity, eventually settling into the alias of Miss Lewly. In fact, Adele is the daughter of Victor Hugo, the great French literary and political figure. We soon learn that Adele is in love with Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robins0n), a British military officer stationed in Halifax. They were involved briefly in Europe, an interlude Adele mistook for the beginning of a lifelong romance.
          A callous gambler who moves from one lover to the next without a backward glance, Pinson doesn’t return Adele’s continued affection, so he’s startled to find she crossed an ocean to be with him. Adele’s fixation on Pinson grows stronger each time he spurns her, so even as Adele builds a network of supportive friends in Halifax—and even as Victor Hugo writes heartbreaking letters begging for her return home—Adele disappears into her fantasy of predestined love. She spends hours in her dark room writing a “book” that is actually just the ramblings of a troubled mind, and she humiliates herself by claiming that she’s married to and pregnant by Pinson.
          Truffaut tells the story largely in blackout sketches—appropriately, like chapters in a gloomy novel—and he steadily tracks Adele’s transformation to a skeletal wastrel wandering the streets in rags. Some of Truffaut’s storytelling devices feel forced, like the trope of Adele reading her own writing out loud as she works, but in general Truffaut approaches the material unobtrusively, often letting the bottomless mysteries of Adjani’s face fill the screen for long, wordless moments. Furthermore, one could argue that the lack of development in supporting characters is a way of helping viewers see the world through Adele’s myopic vision.
          Ultimately, The Story of Adele H. is a cold-blooded exercise, more clinical study than emotional journey, but for those willing to embrace the piece on its own terms—literary, meticulous, psychological—it’s a potent inquiry into the fragility of the human heart.

The Story of Adele H.: RIGHT ON

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hooper (1978)

          While this may not sound like the most enthusiastic praise, Hooper is better than most of Burt Reynolds’ myriad car-chase comedies of the ’70s and ’80s. However, because Reynolds’ good-ol’-boy charm was among the most appealing textures in mainstream ’70s cinema, noting that he was at the height of his powers when he made Hooper underscores why the movie works: Despite a story so thin it sometimes threatens to evaporate, Hooper offers 99 minutes of comic escapism driven by the macho charisma of its mustachioed leading man.
          One of several late-’70s/early-’80s film and TV projects celebrating the work of Hollywood stuntmen, Hooper stars Reynolds as Sonny Hooper, an aging daredevil who realizes a career change is imminent because his body can’t take much more abuse. When we meet him, Sonny is employed as the stunt double for Adam West (who plays himself) on the 007-style action picture The Spy Who Laughed at Danger. Despite being a pro who regularly delivers spectacular “gags,” Sonny clashes with the movie’s asshole director, Roger Deal (Robert Klein), since Deal demands impossible results on budget and on schedule, then takes credit for the footage Sonny and his team make possible.
          Sonny is involved with Gwen (Sally Field), the daughter of a retired stuntman (Brian Keith). Because Gwen has seen firsthand what stunt work does to the human body, she’s adamant that Sonny quit, but Deal’s pressure and Sonny’s own vanity become obstacles. Then a hot new stuntman, Delmore “Ski” Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent), arrives on the scene. Although Sonny recognizes that he’s being replaced with a younger model, he insists on going out with a final super-stunt. The gentle drama of the picture, which obviously takes a backseat to action scenes and jokey interplay, stems from the question of whether Sonny will push his luck too far or succeed in providing Deal with the gag to end all gags.
          Hooper was a bit of a family affair for Reynolds, and the pleasure he presumably derived from making the picture is visible onscreen. The movie reunited Reynolds with his longtime buddy, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, following their success with Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and Field was Reynolds’ offscreen paramour in addition to being his frequent costar.
          Needham’s intimate familiarity with the stunt world benefits the movie greatly, because many details—from the preparations of car engines for jumps to the application of Ben-Gay on aching knees—feel effortlessly authentic. And while the character work and dialogue are as simplistic as one might expect from this sort of picture, the key actors are so watchable that we want Deal to get his comeuppance, we want Sonny to succeed, and so on. Plus, of course, the stunt sequences are fantastic, like the elaborate bit during which Sonny and Ski drive a sportscar through an entire town as it’s being demolished.

Hooper: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bless the Beasts & Children (1971)

          Adapted from a 1970 novel by Glendon Swarthout, Bless the Beasts & Children is a weird meditation on adolescent angst, the ostracism of oddballs, and the ugliness of killing animals for pleasure. Despite all of these conflicting elements, Bless the Beasts and Children is highly watchable, though perhaps not for any of the reasons producer-director Stanley Kramer intended. The histrionic performances by the child actors comprising the film’s main cast give the picture a so-bad-it’s-good kitsch factor, the overwrought nature of the plot offers the lurid appeal of sensationalism, and the unearned intensity of Kramer’s storytelling commands attention in a traffic-accident sort of way. Bless the Beasts & Children isn’t a disaster, but it’s an oddly beguiling mess.
          The picture begins at a summer camp in Arizona, where counselors train boys in the ways of the Western frontier. The Bedwetters, occupants of the camp’s lowest-ranked cabin, are traumatized because of a recent field trip to a buffalo ranch. During the field trip, the boys witnessed the shooting-gallery slaughter of excess livestock. Led by high-strung John Cotton (Barry Robins), the Bedwetters flee camp one night, intent on freeing the next group of buffalo marked for death. As the movie follows the kids’ odyssey across the Southwest, Kramer cuts to flashbacks of key episodes from each child’s past, and it all leads up to a ridiculous climax filled with Kramer’s usual sledgehammer moralizing.
          The concept of unruly kids sharing an adventure is appealing, so scenes of the Bedwetters traveling through the desert on stolen horses, or zipping down the open road in a stolen car, are lively. Unfortunately, the characterizations are way too arch (for instance, the effeminate Bedwetter complements his uniform with bleach-blonde hair, a headband, and a shag vest) and the villains are preposterously two-dimensional (every adult is a mouth-breathing ogre). On the bright side, the cinematography by Michael Hugo is bright and muscular, while the music is, to say the least, assertive.
          Composers Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin Jr. smother the movie with maudlin strings, and one of their principal motifs was later repurposed for Olympics broadcasts as the famous “Nadia’s Theme,” and then again repurposed as the title music for the long-running soap The Young and the Restless. (Years later, the music became the sample underlying Mary J. Blige’s signature song, “No More Drama”). The musical bludgeoning continues in the movie’s main-title song, performed by the Carpenters. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

Bless the Beasts & Children: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Despite scoring a major hit on the drive-in circuit with his first movie, the Bigfoot-themed mockumentary The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), low-budget auteur Charles B. Pierce dabbled in stories about Indians and moonshiners before returning to his comfort zone of Southern-fried horror. Once again flimflamming viewers by claiming that a highly fictionalized story was based on true events, Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown dramatizes the reign of terror that a real-life serial killer inflicted on a small Arkansas town during the 1940s. To give the story momentum, Pierce and his frequent screenwriter, Earl E. Smith, focus on a hard-driving Texas Ranger (Ben Johnson) who tries to capture the murderer. So far, we’re off to a good start—and, indeed, many aspects of The Town That Dreaded Sundown seem promising at first glance. The title is great, the poster is spooky, and the trope of a psycho appearing from darkness wearing a sack over his head while he wields a pitchfork is memorably disturbing. (A long sequence in which the so-called “Phantom Killer” stalks a woman played by Gilligan’s Island star Dawn Wells almost fulfills this gimmick’s promise.) Unfortunately, Pierce’s usual problems with maintaining a consistent tone and sustaining dramatic interest derail the film. Recalling the faux-newsreel style he used for Boggy Creek, Pierce presents most of the movie like a documentary, complete with narration and re-enactments, but he occasionally abandons the style to showcase long stretches of straight narrative. This doesn’t work. Furthermore, a comedy subplot about an inept policeman (played by Pierce) is beyond tiresome, and the murder scenes are so sadistic they feel out of character with the rest of the picture. In other words, enjoy the poster and skip the movie, otherwise you’ll say goodbye to 86 minutes that could have been spent more constructively.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown: LAME

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Hawaiians (1970)

          James Michener’s 1959 novel Hawaii was a major bestseller, but it was also a monster in terms of narrative scope: Sprawling over nearly 1,000 pages, the book traces centuries of history from the formation of the islands by geological forces to the present day at the time of the book’s publication. Therefore, even though Hollywood was eager to capitalize on the novel’s success, putting the entire story onscreen was impossible. Taking a creative approach to the challenge, producer Walter Mirisch decided to film the book as a pair of epic features, but the first picture to be filmed, Hawaii (1966), barely covered one chapter of Michener’s story. Hawaii did well enough that Mirisch pressed forward with the second film, which, given the nature of the source material, is less a continuation of the first picture’s story and more of a companion piece.
          Whereas Hawaii dramatizes early conflicts between European missionaries and Hawaiian natives, The Hawaiians takes place a generation later, when the son of the first movie’s protagonist has grown into a middle-aged bureaucrat named Micah Hale (Alec McCowen). Yet the real center of The Hawaiians is Hale’s cousin, sea captain Whip Hoxworth (Charlton Heston). When the story begins, Whip returns from the sea to accept an inheritance from his recently deceased grandfather. Unfortunately, the estate was left to Hale. Incensed, Whip starts a plantation on the meager stretch of uncultivated land he owns.
          His workers include a pair of impoverished Chinese immigrants, Mun Ki (Mako) and Wu Chow’s Auntie (Tina Chen). (The relationship between these characters is way too complicated to describe here.) To endow his plantation with a unique cash crop, Whip sails to French Guiana and steals pineapples, which are not yet being grown in Hawaii. Wu Chow’s Auntie proves adept at nurturing the plants, so Whip gives her some land to start a small farm of her own. Thus, the foundations of two parallel dynasties are formed. The movie tracks Whip’s ascension to supreme wealth as an agricultural tycoon, and the rise of Wu Chow’s Auntie as the matriarch of an expansive immigrant clan. The picture also features subplots about leprosy, mental illness, political unrest, and other intense subjects.
          The Hawaiians crams an enormous amount of narrative into 134 minutes, and much of what happens onscreen is interesting, like the arcane workings of the Chinese community in Hawaii. However, tackling so much material gives the picture a diffuse quality. Director Tom Gries handles individual scenes with workmanlike efficiency, but neither he nor screenwriter James R. Webb are able to forge a unified statement. One episode unfolds after another, time passes, and a resolution of sort arrives, but it’s all somewhat random.
          It doesn’t help that the film’s central performance is its least compelling, since Heston grimaces and growls in his usual blustery manner. Chen and Mako do much more nuanced work, although the age makeup applied to Chen in later scenes is unconvincing. (McCowen is too polite to make much of an impression.) The Hawaiian locations are, of course, quite beautiful, so the land itself becomes the most arresting characterit’s easy to see why generations of people battled for control over this vast paradise of adjoining islands. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Hawaiians: FUNKY

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Last Detail (1973)

          Jack Nicholson’s post-Easy Rider ascension to Hollywood’s A-list continued with The Last Detail, a crowd-pleasing road movie of sorts dominated by the raunchy Navy sailor whom Nicholson portrays with manic intensity. Written by Robert Towne from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, and directed by the peerless humanist Hal Ashby, The Last Detail begins when enlisted men Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) get assigned to a demeaning task: They’re to escort a sailor named Meadows (Randy Quaid), who has been sentenced to eight years in jail for petty theft, across several states so he can commence his incarceration.
          Buddusky is a heavy-drinking troublemaker who peppers nearly every sentence with some variation of the word fuck, and Mulhall is a savvy African-American whose strategy for survival is flying below The Man’s radar. Buddusky convinces Mulhall to drag out their transport duty so they can pocket extra per-diem money, and once they meet Meadows, both men become sympathetic to the kid’s pathetic circumstances. A simple-minded stooge whose real crime was pissing off a superior officer, Meadows is so green that he’s never had booze, cigarettes, or sex. Buddusky decides to ensure Meadows experiences all three before hitting the brig, so the trio’s journey becomes a hell-raising odyssey.
          Some of the episodes are exactly what one might expect, like a brawl with a group of Marines, but others exude pure early-’70s quirkiness. The sailors meet a hippie chick who meditates with Far East chanting, so Meadows picks up the habit, and the sailors make a pit stop at Meadows’ home to discover the bleak reality he left behind when he joined the Navy. The Last Detail walks a fine line between comedy and drama, often pivoting instantaneously from raucous to somber and back again. While Ashby’s masterful control of tone anchors the storytelling, the picture rises to an even higher level on the strength of the performances.
          Quaid works the weird gentle-giant vibe that characterized many of his early roles, and it’s to his great credit that Meadows keeps surprising us right through to the final scene. As for Nicholson, his flamboyant turn in The Last Detail cemented his cinematic persona. And while he’s probably over the top in many respects, exaggerating his character’s volatility almost to the point of seeming insane, excess seems like an appropriate acting choice since Buddusky’s supposed to represent the male animal cut loose from decorum and propriety. (Young is fine, by the way, but his character is so underdeveloped that he’s regularly eclipsed by his costars.)
          The Last Detail isn’t perfect, given its weakness for clichés like the hooker with the heart of gold (Carol Kane plays this thankless role with a blend of cynicism and sweetness). Nonetheless, by the time the movie reaches its downbeat finale, Ashby and his collaborators have delivered a potent statement about the limitations that bureaucracies—and, really societies in general—place upon individuality.

The Last Detail: RIGHT ON

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Frogs (1972)

It’s not as if one starts watching an early-’70s horror movie titled Frogs with expectations of greatness, but it’s reasonable to assume the picture will deliver a few rudimentary thrills over the course of a brisk narrative. Alas, something far less insidious is in store for the unlucky viewers who dive into this amphibian atrocity. Noteworthy only for its extensive use of real animal footage, Frogs is among the dullest movies of its type, dragging through long, uneventful sequences in between nasty shots of swamp critters eating people. Despite the film’s title, frogs are not the only killers on display here; in fact, frogs are presented like evil masterminds goading their fellow beasties toward mayhem. Because, really, when one tries to list the fiercest predators in the natural world, aren’t frogs the first things that come to mind? The story begins with nature-magazine photographer Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott) riding his canoe around a private island in Florida while he takes pictures of animals and pollution. Soon, he’s invited to join the island’s residents, the Crockett family, for their annual Fourth of July celebration. The patriarch of the clan, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), is domineering but wheelchair-bound, a rich prick who gets off on controlling the lives of his children and their spouses. (Quasi-notable actors playing his relatives include Adam Roarke and Joan Van Ark.) The Crocketts are preoccupied with a frog infestation on their island, so Pickett offers his counsel as an ecology expert, initially guessing that extreme weather changed breeding patterns. Yet after various island residents turn up dead, Pickett suggests nature is striking back after years of pollution. Nonetheless, Jason denies the obvious until it’s too late—but, hey, you knew that would happen, right? Hack director George McCowan devotes most of his energy to staging gruesome death scenes involving alligators, snakes, spiders, turtles, and other creepy-crawlies. If the movie zipped along a little faster, Frogs might qualify as effective kitsch, but even though the picture just squeaks over the 90-minute mark, it’s padded to the point of extreme tedium. Therefore, unless scales and tails get your motor running, it’s best to stay out of the swamp.

Frogs: LAME

Friday, June 15, 2012

Watermelon Man (1970)

          Although screenwriter Herman Raucher’s storyline for Watermelon Man represents a trite expression of white guilt (with a distasteful counterpoint of white arrogance), the participation of director Melvin Van Peebles transforms the piece into a more complicated statement. Raucher’s story fancifully depicts what happens when a white bigot wakes up one morning to discover he’s become a black man. Suddenly forced to experience the racism of which he was previously a purveyor, the hero learns a lesson about sensitivity toward minorities.
          Columbia Pictures reportedly envisioned the movie with a white actor playing his black scenes in makeup, planning an ending in which the hero wakes from his “nightmare” to discover he’s white again. Van Peebles, the thorny independent artist who won entrée into Hollywood by making a European feature called The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), persuaded the studio to embrace a different approach. In Van Peebles’ movie, the lead actor is a black man who wears makeup during his white scenes, and the ending depicts the hero embracing his new black identity.
          Given this provocative context, Watermelon Man should be a classic of race-relations cinema, but it’s not. For one thing, Raucher’s writing is infused with sitcom-style superficiality, a problem exacerbated by leading man Godfrey Cambridge’s exhausting performance. His acting sharpens once his character becomes embittered, but even then Cambridge is so far over the top it’s hard to parse nuances.
          The picture is equally divided between scenes at home, where the hero’s wife (Estelle Parsons) gradually shuns her husband because of his new color, and scenes at work, where racism leads to marginalization. A vast number of offensive clichés are invoked, some ironically and some less so, from the idea that black people require a steady stream of fried chicken to the notion that horny white women lust after every black man they encounter.
          Unsubtle as ever, Van Peebles employs awkward devices like flash cuts and superimpositions, plus he supplies a clumsy musical score that would have been more suitable for the broad-as-a-barn comedy of the silent-movie era. Based on his subsequent work, it’s clear Van Peebles was itching to move in a more experimental direction, but the tension between his offbeat flourishes and the movie’s homogenized photography is distracting. Like the leading performance, Van Peebles direction bludgeons everything interesting about Watermelon Man, making the picture’s flaws as prominent as its virtues.

Watermelon Man: FUNKY

Thursday, June 14, 2012

F.T.A. (1972)

A somewhat interesting artifact from the Vietnam War era, this documentary comprises filmed performances by a roving troupe of antiwar activists who toured small venues located near U.S. Army bases. The reason the picture got a theatrical release, and the reason it survives to this day via DVD and other formats, is the impressive wattage of the key participants. The major players are actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, who also produced the picture (with director Francine Parker). So, even though the skits captured in the film are not particularly inspired, it’s fascinating to see the shag-coiffed “Hanoi Jane” at the height of her controversial campaign against the war. Her passion burns through the screen, even if it sometimes reads as naïve stridency. It’s also compelling to watch the faces of the soldiers in the audience, because one can only imagine what was going through the minds of these young men as they watched a revue nominally titled “Free the Army” but really known as “Fuck the Army.” Most of the sketches, which were written by a cabal of satirists, feature obvious lampooning of military bureaucracy with an undercurrent of humanistic revolt against the bloodshed of a pointless war. Yet not everything in the movie strives for humor. In a particularly arresting sequence, Sutherland reads aloud from Dalton Trumbo’s legendary 1939 antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, the story of a World War I soldier wishing for death after losing his facial features and all of his limbs. Elsewhere, folksinger Holly Near performs tunes typical of the earnest era in which the film was made. However, perhaps the movie’s greatest claim to fame is its obscurity. The week F.T.A. opened in America, Fonda traveled to North Vietnam for a trip many perceived as traitorous, immediately making her the right wing’s Public Enemy No. 1. Buckling to pressure, American-International Pictures pulled the film from theaters before it completed its first week onscreen.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)

          Overwritten and shrill, to say nothing of ferociously demeaning to women, The Owl and the Pussycat is a weird relic of the sexual revolution—the movie’s preoccupation with libidinous urges recalls a historical moment during which horniness was conflated in the public conversation with progressive thinking. To say this so-called comedy hasn’t aged well is an understatement, and in fact were it not for the presence of a certain superstar in the leading female role, chances are The Owl and the Pussycat would have long ago disappeared from mainstream exhibition. Yet there Barbra Streisand is, at the apex of her post-Funny Girl popularity, spewing one-liners and wearing sexy outfits while playing a prostitute who falls into an unlikely romance with a struggling author.
          Based on a play by Bill Manhoff—and overhauled significantly by screenwriter Buck Henry—the story begins when uptight writer Felix (George Segal) notices an attractive young woman in the window of an apartment within his complex. When he realizes she’s turning tricks in her pad, Felix reports the woman to their mutual landlord. A short time later, the woman, whose name is Doris (Streisand), shows up at Felix’s doorstep demanding a place to crash since his tattling got her evicted. Most of the movie takes place during this duo’s first night together: Doris berates Felix for his stuffiness while Felix begs her to stop talking so he can sleep. Felix also tries to pretend he’s not aroused, even though Doris struts around in a peekaboo costume complete with embroidered hands decorating the cups of her brassiere.
          Some of the movie’s banter is clever, like a running gag of Felix baffling Doris with polysyllables, but Doris is so obnoxious it’s hard to see any attraction past the physical. Similarly, Felix is a judgmental prick who lies about his literary achievements and avoids mentioning his engagement to another woman. These are awful people, so only the charm of the performers makes them remotely palatable. Director Herbert Ross does a fine job of keeping things lively through movement and pacing, and he ensures that Streisand looks as alluring as possible. In fact, even though the movie supposedly presents Streisand as a strong-willed individual, Ross camera never misses an opportunity to ogle her curves. Furthermore, the picture’s ending finds Doris begging for a louse’s approval. There’s a smidgen of wit here and there, and both the acting and filmmaking are strong given the limitations of the material, but the misogyny on display throughout The Owl and the Pussycat is consistently unpleasant—so proceed with caution.

The Owl and the Pussycat: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Norwood (1970)

          After achieving success on the pop charts, velvet-voiced Arkansas native Glen Campbell displayed a comfortable onscreen presence in the John Wayne movie True Grit (1969), so it was inevitable that some enterprising producer would test Campbell’s viability as a leading man. (Hey, it worked for Elvis, so why not?) In Norwood, Campbell plays upbeat war veteran Norwood Pratt, a good ol’ boy from Texas who bums around the country with his acoustic guitar, crooning innocuous tunes and spewing redneck patois (“Think I’ll mosey on over to the roller rink, see if I can’t pick up a little heifer lookin’ for a ride home”).
          Upon returning from Vietnam to his tiny hometown of Ralph, Texas, Norwood works in a garage and endures sitcom-style quarrels with his sister (Leigh French) and her idiot husband (Dom DeLuise). Eager for escape, Norwood agrees to help a slick used-car salesman (Pat Hingle) transport cars to New York City. He also agrees to transport a sexy would-be performer (Carol Lynley), leading to arguments in which she calls him “peckerwood” and he calls her a “damn squirrel-headed dingbat.” Yeah, it’s like that.
          Eventually, Norwood discovers the cars he’s moving are stolen, so he dumps the vehicles and heads to New York anyway, where he gets laid with a spunky hippie (Tisha Sterling). Sated, he hops on a bus for the long trip back home. Along the way, he forms a bizarre surrogate family with Rita (Kim Darby), a redneck runaway bride; Edmund (Billy Curtis), a little person raised in the carny world; and a chicken. Yes, a chicken.
          To call Norwood inconsequential would be to overstate its value, but some scenes are so random they command attention, like the bit of costar Joe Namath tossing around a football with the dwarf in the backyard of a Southern estate. (Despite his prominence on the poster, former gridiron star Namath has a tiny role.) As for Campbell, he strikes a clean-cut figure with his helmet of shiny hair and his lantern-jawed good looks, but he’s more of a personality than an actor, so assessing his performance is pointless.
          Incredibly, this slight movie was adapted from a novel by True Grit author Charles Portis, though the vapid storyline of Norwood exists a universe apart from the unforgettable narrative of True Grit. Norwood is also notable, if that’s the right word, as one of the gentlest Vietnam-vet stories ever, since the easygoing Norwood seems as if he just came back from a country club instead of surviving a tour in Southeast Asia.

Norwood: FUNKY

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Driver (1978)

          Fast, stylish, and taut, The Driver is an audacious experiment in cinematic minimalism. Eschewing conventional elements like backstory, character names, and emotional life, writer-director Walter Hill presents an action movie comprised merely of situations and forward momentum; the fact that a certain kind of ambiguous character study emerges from this Spartan storytelling speaks not only to Hill’s craftsmanship but also to the depth of his commitment to themes of individuality and male identity.
          The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is a Los Angeles wheelman who freelances for crooks, providing his expensive services during high-speed getaways. The Driver’s reputation has spread beyond the criminal community to the world of law enforcement, so the Detective (Bruce Dern) devotes himself to catching the Driver. Caught between them is the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a casino gambler who witnessed the Driver performing a crime but refuses to ID him for the Detective’s benefit. When these characters converge, the Detective forces a situation that puts the Driver in league with reckless thieves willing to betray anyone and everyone for the right price.
          Taking place mostly at night, and set in evocative locations like a cavernous warehouse and L.A.’s iconic Union Station, The Driver is a sleek underworld poem. Nobody trusts anybody, and yet people must rely on each other to get their jobs done, so disconnected souls rise and fall based on their luck in picking the right partners. For viewers who buy into Hill’s singular approach, The Driver is a metaphorically rich meditation on the bleak moral relativism shared by killers. Yet others might find The Driver pretentious and vacuous, merely a symphony of attractive actors, cool shots, and exciting sequences.
          For me, the beauty of the picture is that it justifies both reactions—it’s a deep statement if you’re inclined to explore its enigmatic textures, and it’s empty fun if all you want to do is enjoy its visceral pleasures.
          Cast for their surface qualities rather than their acting chops, O’Neal manifests a cynical swagger that works well in this context, while Adjani’s dark beauty suits Hill’s nocturnal aesthetic. Dern manages to slip in a bit of characterization despite the script’s restraint, so he steals the movie by dint of presenting a recognizable personality. However, the acting in The Driver is really just part of Hill’s overall palette, because this is the action movie as art piece—whenever Hill commences a chase scene or a tense standoff, he reveals his innate mastery of primal signifiers and visual economy. In his hands, a car zooming across a nighttime highway is a brushstroke across a canvas, and a fragment of dialogue is a world of implied psychology.

The Driver: GROOVY

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mrs. Sundance (1974) & Wanted: The Sundance Woman (1976)

          Since the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend, Etta Place, was the only major character left standing after the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it’s not surprising she became the focus of two attempts by 20th Century-Fox to capitalize on the film’s success. In 1974, Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery headlined Mrs. Sundance, the feature-length pilot for a potential series about Place’s adventures following the events of the 1969 movie. Mrs. Sundance begins with Place working as a small-town teacher under an assumed name. (There’s a price on her head because of her association with criminals.) Worried that relentless lawman Charles Siringo (L.Q. Jones) is close to finding her, Place hops a freight train and meets small-time crook Jack Maddox (Robert Foxworth), who recognizes her and claims to have known Sundance. Then, when Place hears a rumor that Sundance is still alive, she tracks down old accomplices for directions to the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang’s hideout. Unfortunately, it turns out Maddox has been pressured into working for Siringo, so Place doesn’t realize she’s heading into a trap.
          Mrs. Sundance is actually rather dark, since the specter of death runs through the whole storyline, and the movie features a potent musical score by Pat Williams. Jones makes an effective villain, all crisp diction and merciless efficiency, while Foxworth exudes a squirrelly sort of appeal as a small man ashamed of his own cravenness. Montgomery ends up being the weak link, her breathy line readings and vapid expressions making slow scenes feel even slower. Still, Montgomery’s beauty and spunk command attention; had Mrs. Sundance gone to series, she might have grown into the role. Alas, when Mrs. Sundance failed to excite the public, Fox decided to reboot the concept by hiring Katharine Ross, who originated the Place character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for a second TV movie.
          Wanted: The Sundance Woman is less grounded than Mrs. Sundance, although the picture offers stronger production values. In Wanted, Place asks Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa (Hector Elizondo) for protection, in exchange for helping with his revolutionary endeavors. Siringo is still on Place’s trail, but this time he’s played by Steve Forrest in an unmemorable performance. Whereas Mrs. Sundance rightly portrays Place as a woman still in love with a man who has recently died, Wanted hints at romantic tension between Place and Villa, a plot development that feels forced and tacky. Worse, Elizondo is too lightweight a presence to seem credible as an iconic revolutionary. Ross is as beautiful as ever, though the cheap lighting of a TV movie cannot match the spellbinding glamour with which cinematographer Conrad Hall surrounded Ross in Butch Cassidy.
          So, while both of these telefilms are mediocre, Mrs. Sundance is incrementally more satisfying. Ironically, had Ross agreed to star in the first picture, which has a better storyline, Etta Place might have become an interesting presence on ’70s episodic TV, instead of merely a footnote to the era’s small-screen fare.

Mrs. Sundance: FUNKY
Wanted: The Sundance Woman: FUNKY

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979)

          Even though a proper sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) was impossible, given the film’s definitive ending, 20th Century-Fox made three halting attempts to exploit the film’s popularity. In 1974, Elizabeth Montgomery starred in the TV movie Mrs. Sundance, imagining what happened to the Sundance Kid’s paramour, Etta Place, after the events of the original film. Montgomery was a substitute for Katharine Ross, who played Etta in the 1969 movie, but Ross reprised her original role in a second TV movie about Etta’s adventures, 1976’s Wanted: The Sundance Woman. Then, in 1979, Fox took the prequel route by casting new actors in the roles Paul Newman and Robert Redford made famous. Butch and Sundance: The Early Days depicts youthful misadventures including the formation of the bandits’ notorious gang (which was known as the Wild Bunch in real life but called the Hole-in-the-Wall gang in the 1969 movie).
          The accent for Butch and Sundance: The Early Days is on comedy, with lots of goofy sight gags like the outlaws’ use of a horse-drawn hearse as a getaway vehicle. As with most prequels, however, Butch and Sundance feels unnecessary, since it’s not as if audiences exited the first film with lots of unanswered questions. Furthermore, although director Richard Lester and his leading actors do the best they can with the bum hand they’re dealt, it would have been impossible for anyone to recapture the magic that director George Roy Hill caught on film during Newman and Redford’s first onscreen pairing.
          Lester, whose farcical Musketeer movies of the mid-’70s made him a logical choice to helm this wiseacre project, stages many scenes well, and he conjures an easygoing camaraderie between stars Tom Berenger (as Butch) and William Katt (as Sundance). Yet the movie’s script, by Allan Burns, is episodic, inconsequential, and meandering. (William Goldman, who won an Oscar for writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, served as one of the prequel’s producers but did not officially contribute to the screenplay.) Berenger does an okay job of mimicking Newman’s rascally charm, and Katt efficiently evokes Redford’s sun-kissed cantankerousness. Unfortunately, the story they’re telling is so thin there’s even a scene providing the origin for the Sundance Kid’s moustache. Thanks to the actors’ amiable work and Lester’s deft orchestration of onscreen mayhem, Butch and Sundance is pleasant viewing but nothing more.

Butch and Sundance: The Early Days: FUNKY

Friday, June 8, 2012

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

          No discussion of this notorious Italian movie can begin without a warning: The subject matter of Salò is so disturbing, and the onscreen content so gruesome, that merely hearing descriptions of the film is enough to turn some people’s stomachs. So, if you get squeamish when the subjects of child abuse and sexual deviance are raised, please read no further. Make no mistake, Salò is a movie that one doesn’t watch so much as endure. Yet while some pictures exploring the outer boundaries of what can be captured on film are plainly exploitative, Salò is far more complicated. This is an artful meditation on anarchism, depravity, fascism, nihilism, and other unnerving tendencies of the human animal.
          In fact, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie is such a serious-minded endeavor that it’s almost impossible to say when and where he crosses the line between clinically observing abuse and salaciously relishing abuse—yet since Pasolini could have expressed his provocative thematic ideas without including some of the ghastly images that fill Salò, it’s inarguable the filmmaker got lost in the ugly maze he created.
          Based on an unfinished novel by the Marquis de Sade written circa 1785, Pasolini’s storyline takes place in 1944 Italy. Four wealthy fascists establish a secret fortress in the Republic of Salò, a short-lived nation established by Nazi Germany within Italy during the height of World War II. The fascists kidnap 18 teenaged boys and girls for use as sexual playthings during a 120-day festival of inhumane debauchery.
          Aided by a support staff of willing adults, the fascists stage a bizarre daily ritual. While congregating in a large room to listen to filthy anecdotes that are told by middle-aged prostitutes, the fascists indulge their perverse whims on the teenagers. These whims include beatings and rape in endless variations, and at one point the youths are put on leashes and forced to walk on all fours up and down stone staircases. Another favorite pastime is feeding the children human excrement. The fascists grow more depraved with each passing day, gaining arousal from the despair of their victims and competing with each other to see who can travel further down the abyss of amorality.
          Viewed from the most forgiving perspective, Salò is a merciless commentary on the subjugation of citizenry by any group with absolute power, and many intelligent critics consider Salò an important achievement in 20th-century cinema because of its boldness and political insights. Viewed more harshly, the movie seems sensationalistic.
          For instance, Pasolini’s clinical visual style evokes a Kubrickian coldness even though Pasolini lacks Kubrick’s photographic sophistication. At times, this approach renders stomach-churning results, as in the finale—once sex games give way to bloodsport, Pasolini observes various torture scenes through the remove of long lenses tricked up to resemble the view through binoculars, putting the audience in the position of the fascists who watch the torture with voyeuristic fervor. At other times, however, Pasolini’s unflinching eye creates a sense of unseemly luridness, as when the filmmaker lingers needlessly on close-ups of genitals.
          Furthermore, the film’s over-the-top dialogue exists on a plane far beyond realism; the fascists speak with academic formality, saying things like, “In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” It’s tempting to call this aspect of the movie pretentious, but it’s just as likely Pasolini considered his characters metaphors, thereby aesthetically justifying their unwieldy speech patterns. In any event, Salò is unique—virtually no other movie contains this many repulsive images. Salò offers no escape or salvation, instead immersing viewers in a cinematic dungeon of psychological punishment and sexual savagery.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom: FREAKY