Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)

Ostensibly a Bigfoot flick but really just a psycho-killer/Satanic-cult gorefest made in the trashy Herschell Gordon Lewis style, Shriek of the Mutilated is completely devoid of redeeming qualities. The acting is atrocious, the storyline is moronic, and the thrills are nonexistent. The picture even fails as an excessive splatter movie, because the special makeup effects are amateurish. Following a few random vignettes that get the movie off to a disjointed, uninteresting start, the story proper begins when college professor Dr. Ernst Prell (Alan Brock) organizes a group of students for an expedition into the woods where a Yeti has allegedly been sighted. (Why a Yeti and not just Bigfoot, since the picture is set in America rather than Asia?) Prell loads a group of bland young adults into a van and schleps them to the remote home of his colleague, Dr. Karl Werner (Tawm Ellis). Karl’s a strange cat who’s balding on top but wears a graying ponytail, and he favors creepy ensembles of turtlenecks and way-too-tight pants. He’s also prone to florid lines like, “Your Yeti waits for you still, Ernst.” Before long, the college students start getting killed during attacks by a “monster” who’s really just a dude wearing a gorilla suit that seems like it’s made out of white shag carpeting, some pasty makeup, and a pair of dime-store Dracula fangs. It turns out the doctors are actually cultists who lure students to the woods, dress up like Yetis to scare them, and then kill the students for pagan rituals. This plot “justifies” close-ups of decapitated heads and dismembered limbs, none of which have any shock value—more like schlock value. Literally the only amusing moment in the whole movie is the scene during which one of the college students sits at the piano and croons a ditty he’s written about the situation: “On the prowl, hear him howl, here comes the Yeti now!”

Shriek of the Mutilated: SQUARE

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Capture of Bigfoot (1979)

Fungus scraped off the bottom of the Sasquatch-cinema barrel, The Capture of Bigfoot is a no-budget dud in which the redneck denizens of a small, snow-shrouded town blame a string of murders on something called “The Legendary Creature of Arak,” a white-haired Bigfoot/Yeti/whatever rumored by Native Americans to haunt the mountains surrounding the town. During this interminable movie, scheming entrepreneurs attempt to capture the monster for purposes of financial exploitation, while police officers try to determine whether the killings are the work of man or beast. Badly acted, incompetently filmed, lazily edited, and padded with meandering bits like pointless party scenes and unfunny “comedy” vignettes, this is one of those grade-Z creature features that only contains about 10 minutes of actual monster action, so trudging through the flick’s entire 92-minute sprawl is a monotonous chore none but the masochistic should attempt. Toward the end of the picture, once “The Legendary Creature of Arak” is finally captured, he/it is revealed to be a neatly groomed giant with a smooth white coat, a pointy head, and a scowling orange face; closely resembling the ridiculous “Mugatu” alien from the original Star Trek series, this critter ain’t the most formidable of beasties. Plus, the monster turns out to be quasi-benevolent, which makes all the previous scenes depicting the creature as a savage killer seem nonsensical in retrospect. And so it goes for the rest of this abomination, which offers nothing in the way of amusement, entertainment, novelty, or thrills.

The Capture of Bigfoot: SQUARE

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bigfoot (1970)

          My vote for the weirdest of the myriad ’70s movies about Sasquatch, this no-budget oddity transforms everyone’s favorite Pacific Northwest man-beast into an old-fashioned movie monster in the King Kong mold. When the disjointed flick begins, fast-talking drifter Jasper B. Hawks (John Carradine) drives through a forest with his idiot sidekick, Elmer Briggs (John Mitchum), while big-breasted blonde Joi (Joi Lansing) flies a small plane over the same area. Joi’s engine conks out, so she parachutes to safety. Arriving on the ground, she strips out of her flight suit into a mini-dress (!) and screams because Bigfoot has emerged from the woods to attack her. Then laconic biker Rick (Christopher Mitchum) rolls into the woods with his curvaceous girlfriend, Chris (Judy Jordan), who for no good reason is wearing a bikini (!). She stumbles onto a Bigfoot burial ground, and then screams because Bigfoot has emerged from the woods to attack her, too. Because, of course, smooth-skinned white chicks make Bigfoots blood boil.
          Rick seeks help, but only Jasper (remember him?) believes his story; Jasper offers aid because he plans to capture a Bigfoot for freak-show exhibition. Meanwhile, Peggy—still wearing her swimsuit and, of course, sporting perfect hair and makeup—wakes up tied to a tree beside Joi, who also has perfect hair and makeup. They’re being watched by three Bigfoot creatures (portrayed by actors in ridiculous monkey suits), so Joi and Peggy scream some more. Then Jasper, Elmer, and Rick trek through the woods, bickering all the way, until they reach the Bigfoot lair. Before long, more people get tied to stakes, more people scream, and Rick’s gang of hog-riding biker buddies arrives for a big brawl with a bunch of Bigfoot creatures. Oh, and it turns out the monsters who’ve been guarding the women are the hairy brides/sisters/whatever of the real Bigfoot, a giant ape-like dude.
          Bigfoot is a truly awful movie, combining a doofus storyline with shoddy production values and terrible acting, but it’s arresting in a fever-dream sort of way. Carradine’s supposed to be a formidable big-game hunter, but he’s an arthritic, emaciated senior dressed in a suit and tie. Christopher Mitchum, the son of screen legend Robert Mitchum, is supposed to be a tough-guy biker, but he’s a passive nebbish who politely refers to Carradine’s character as “Mr. Hawks.” Jordan and Lansing are so outrageously curvy—and so nonsensically underdressed—that their scenes feel as if they were guest-directed by Russ Meyer. The movie toggles back and forth between second-unit location shots showing actors full-figure from a distance and cheesy soundstage footage with the principal cast in close-up, so it’s like the flick drifts in and out of reality. Bigfoot creatures get more screen time here than in virtually any other ‘70s Sasquatch movie, which is not a good thing—prolonged exposure highlights the bad costumes. And we haven’t even talked about the upbeat honky-tonk music that plays during suspense scenes, or the incongruous surf-music cue that appears whenever the bikers are shown driving. Oh, and at one point, a lady Bigfoot wrestles a bear.

Bigfoot: FREAKY

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ashanti (1979)

          Briskly entertaining, shallow, and slightly trashy, Ashanti hides its lurid nature behind a veneer of social relevance—since the thriller concerns modern-day slavery in Africa, ponderous opening text suggests the film will be a serious exposé, when in fact Ashanti is simply an old-fashioned potboiler. Taken for what it is, however, the picture is fun to watch (or least as much fun as a movie exploring distasteful subject matter can be), because it boasts ample star power, exotic locations, and a zippy storyline. Sure, some of the plot twists are a bit convenient, but not to such a degree that they disrupt the B-movie flow of what’s happening.
          Michael Caine stars as Dr. David Linderby, a World Health Organization physician working in a remote African village with his beautiful, African-born wife, Anansa (Beverly Johnson). Because Anansa is black and dressed in regional clothing, she’s mistaken for a local girl by an Arabian slaver, Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), whose minions kidnaps her along with several villagers. The movie then cuts back and forth between Anansa’s attempts to escape captivity and David’s efforts to rescue his bride. David’s principal accomplice is a mysterious Brit named Brian Walker (Rex Harrison), who introduces David to a series of mercenary helpers; eventually, Brian puts David together with Malik (Kabir Bedi), a nomad who wants revenge against Suleiman for the death of his family.
          As directed by the versatile Richard Fleischer, Ashanti zooms along from one colorful episode to the next, with Ustinov’s flamboyant performance providing the main driving force. Cooing his lines in a mellifluous accent and peppering his savagery with courtly manners, Ustinov makes Suleiman into an oversized villain straight out of a comic book. Bedi counters him nicely with steely-eyed intensity, and Johnson—famous offscreen as the world’s first black supermodel—smartly operates within her comfort zone of evocative poses and intense glances. Harrison, William Holden, and Omar Sharif provide the comfort of familiar faces during their brief appearances.
          And if Caine gets a bit lost in the shuffle for much of the movie—Ashanti was made around the time he segued to phone-it-in mode for popcorn pictures—that’s fine because he brings the requisite action-hero heat during the pulpy climax. To be clear, Ashanti isn’t special or even all that credible, but it accomplishes everything it sets out to accomplish and it ends before wearing out its welcome. When a movie has nothing to say (despite any intimations to the contrary), there’s a lot to be said for efficiency.

Ashanti: GROOVY

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)

          Quintessential early-’70s “I gotta be me” cinema, this elaborate adaptation of Richard Bach’s best-selling book is fascinatingly weird. As the title suggests, Bach’s novella—which sold more than 1 million copies—is the allegorical story of a seagull who embarks on a spiritual quest, eventually becoming such an enlightened being that he elevates other seagulls beyond the earthly concerns of their everyday existence. The parallels to then-current themes of environmentalism, naturalism, and reincarnation are absurdly obvious—when we first meet him, Jonathan belongs to a flock that lives in a garbage dump, fighting with each other for scraps from man’s refuse. Realizing there must be more to life, and wondering why his fellow birds have so little interest in using their gift for flight to explore the universe, Jonathan experiments with high-speed soaring and gets excommunicated for his rebelliousness. He then embarks on a long odyssey and dies, ascending to some kind of bird heaven where he learns about using his mind to control his body. Then he returns to the mortal plane as a feathered messiah.
          The first part of the story is actually quite sincere, but things get silly once Jonathan transforms. However, the film’s painstaking execution makes Jonathan Livingston Seagull unique and, for sympathetic viewers, interesting. Writer-producer-director Hall Bartlett doesn’t feature a single human onscreen, instead relying on footage of carefully trained birds and—for the undeniably beautiful scenes of Jonathan soaring past forests and mountains and oceans—radio-controlled gliders shaped like seagulls. Cinematographer Jack Couffer and the film’s editing team were rightly nominated for Oscars, because the film is a beguiling travelogue. Yet the film’s sounds are more problematic than its visuals. Bartlett shoots close-ups and two-shots during dialogue scenes, treating the animals like actors, and he juxtaposes these images with voice-over tracks performed by Hollywood actors who “play” the different characters. In moderation, this is helpful for clarifying story points; in excess, it’s  goofy. (Thankfully, the birds’ beaks aren’t animated to mimic human speech movements.)
          The main voice performers are James Franciscus as Jonathan—think overly whispered intensity—and Philip Ahn, of Kung Fu fame, as the hero’s spiritual leader, Chang. Yes, the seagull has an Asian spiritual leader. But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more! Making the earnestness of Franscicus’ performance seem mild by comparison, Neil Diamond wrote and performed several songs that appear during montages, notably the epic ballad “Be.” Diamond’s music is potent, but his lyrics and his singing are cartoonishly overwrought—therefore, the combination of his tunes and Bartlett’s glorious pictures creates an effect, though not necessarily a good effect. Still, this is absolutely unique stuff, and it’s hard to imagine Bach’s book receiving any more reverential treatment. Therefore, it’s odd to discover that Bach sued the producers because he didn’t like Bartlett’s narrative tweaks. That’s a lot of fuss for a low-budget movie that not only flopped at the box office but also received some of the most vitriolic negative reviews of the era. Really, did Bach envision a better talking-seagull movie?

Jonathan Livingston Seagull: FREAKY

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thursday’s Game (1974)

          The first feature-length narrative written by Mary Tyler Moore Show guy James L. Brooks—who later conquered the big screen with Terms of Endearment (1983) and other films—the TV movie Thursday’s Game is a funny, insightful, and warm study of an everyman in crisis. Gene Wilder, operating at the height of his powers, plays Harry Evers, the producer of a low-rated daytime TV quiz show based in New York. For the past four years, Harry and his pal, clothier Marvin Ellison (Bob Newhart), have been part of a casual weekly poker game with several friends.
          One night, despite worries that his job is in danger, Harry agrees to make the game more exciting by playing for big cash, and he wins a major haul—only to have his “friends,” except for Marvin, say they’re unwilling to pay their debts. A fistfight ensues, which is an amusing spectacle because Newhart and Wilder look ridiculous trying to trade punches with fellow working stiffs, but Harry and Marvin bond during the brawl. Thus, they decide to continue meeting every Thursday for boys’ nights. Then, when the inevitable happens and Harry gets fired, he uses the Thursday getaways to escape home pressures once his wife, Lynn (Ellen Burstyn), starts pushing him to find another job or at least sign up for unemployment, which Harry considers humiliating.
          What unfolds from this relatable scenario is surprising and touching, because Harry goes nuts watching Marvin follow the opposite trajectory—Marvin achieves business success even as his marriage to Lois (Cloris Leachman) crumbles. Thursday’s Game plays to all of Brooks’ strengths, allowing the writer-producer to gently satirize careerism, male ego, marital politics, and other issues. Brooks clearly defines each character, even those who drift in and out of the story quickly, and his script is filled with great one-liners and memorable bits. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Harry has an infuriating showdown with his agent (Rob Reiner), who reveals he didn’t actually know he was Harry’s agent during the last several years—even though he collected 10 percent of Harry’s salary the whole time.
          Director Robert Moore wisely stays out of Brooks’ way, letting the expert script and marvelous actors dominate. The cast is filled with people who made ’70s TV lively, including Norman Fell, Valerie Harper, and Nancy Walker in addition to those already mentioned, and each performer contributes a new, sardonic flavor to the mix. Wilder is wonderful, reeling back his tendency toward overacting but still providing a few of his signature slow-burn moments; Newhart strikes a droll balance of likeable insecurity and tentative swagger; and Burstyn grounds the film with a potent dramatic performance as a woman torn between devotion and the need for honesty. Particularly given its ignoble release—Thursday’s Game was shot in 1971 but not aired until 1974—this is a rewarding comedy that deserves to be seen by many more people.

Thursday’s Game: GROOVY

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mr. Majestyk (1974)

          Despite his enviable literary reputation, Elmore Leonard’s output can get awfully pulpy, with his storied character flourishes and dialogue taking a backseat to humdrum, plot-driven violence. For instance, the Charles Bronson thriller Mr. Majestyk, which Leonard adapted from his own novel of the same name, has a few eccentric details—not many action heroes make their living growing watermelons, as the title character of this flick does—but in general the storyline is a compendium of chases, fights, and shoot-outs. So while the movie is enjoyable in an undemanding sort of way, it’s hardly memorable.
          As often happens in Leonard’s fiction, the narrative revolves around a self-suffiicient badass who’d rather avoid trouble but has no problem surmounting enemies if a hassle arises. Colorado watermelon farmer Vince Majestyk (Bronson) quarrels with local hoodlum Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo), who wants Majestyk to hire Bobby’s workers so Bobby can earn kickbacks. Majestyk refuses, giving Bobby a humiliating beat-down to drive the point home, so Bobby presses charges and gets Majestyk arrested. Thus, Majestyk ends up on a prisoner-transfer bus with Frank Renda (Al Lettieri), a fearsome Mafia hitman. When Renda’s cronies assault the bus to rescue their pal, Majestyk hijacks the bus—with Renda inside—hoping to trade the convict for leverage with the police, because he wants Bobby’s trumped-up charges dismissed. Understandably, this behavior puts Majestyk on the bad side of bad people, so the aforementioned chases, fights, and shoot-outs ensue. (The movie also features a perfunctory love story between Majestyk and a Latino labor leader, played by Linda Cristal.)
          Bronson suits this material well, obviously, since he spent most of his career playing tight-lipped tough guys, but the movie’s impact would have deepened if Bronson had been pitted against more formidable opponents—the bad guys in Mr. Majestyk make so many foolish choices they seem like buffoons compared to the methodical title character. Director Richard Fleischer, as always, contributes impersonal but solid work that conveys the intensity inherent to Leonard’s story, and some of the action scenes are exciting, but it says a lot that the movie’s most dynamic scene is a vignette of mobsters annihilating a pile of watermelons with machine-gun fire.

Mr. Majestyk: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Beyond and Back (1978)

          The dubious-documentary folks at Sunn Classic Pictures strike again with this sensationalistic study of near-death experiences, which is filled with so many bogus assertions, staged reenactments, and unsupported claims that its relationship to fact is laughably remote. That said, Beyond and Back is entertaining-ish, even though it goes on far too long, and during its best moments, the movie casts a creepy spell. Beardy, bearish host Brad Crandall—a hirsute professor type with a deep, melodic voice—introduces the movie from a mist-filled graveyard, and then retires to a library from which he remarks upon various episodes. Most of the vignettes are reenactments of incidents involving everyday people who “crossed over” while they were clinically dead for brief periods.
          The depiction of this phenomenon is similar in every episode. After the person dies, the camera rises above the person to represent the perspective of an out-of-body spirit, and then bright light shoots toward the camera. Next, the camera hurtles along a tunnel, or shifts to some idyllic setting, and in many instances the subject encounters a vision of Jesus before being told their time on Earth is not yet done. In between these reenactments, Crandall shares the usual Sunn Classics brand of “facts and figures”—serious-sounding pseudoscience that’s really a lurid mix of hearsay and hogwash. In Crandall’s finest deadpan moment, he sums up a series of vignettes illustrating the last words of dying people thusly: “All these people died after having their visions, and so can tell us little.”
          Beyond and Back is more focused than the usual Sunn Classic product, since projects like The Mysterious Monsters (1976) cover multiple believe-it-or-not mysteries at once, but Beyond and Back suffers for this singularity of purpose, because the picture is padded and repetitive. Nonetheless, Beyond and Back has several engaging moments of cheesy melodrama, notably a long sequence about a WWII private’s near-death experience. The voice of the actor playing the private was unmistakably replaced with that of Hollywood leading man Richard Jordan (although Jordan is not credited), and Jordan’s emotional line readings give Beyond and Back a few moments of dramatic credibility. FYI, this movie is not to be confused with the following year’s release Beyond Death’s Door, also from Sunn Classic Pictures.

Beyond and Back: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Thief in the Night (1972) & A Distant Thunder (1978)

          A generation before the Left Behind book/film series popularized the Rapture as an evangelical Christian scare tactic, producer-director Donald W. Thompson and his team of true believers created A Thief in the Night, an independent feature illustrating the horrors of the end times, according to the filmmakers’ interpretation of the Bible. The film revolves around Patty Myers (Patty Dunning), a young Everywoman who wakes one morning to discover that millions of Christians have disappeared from the face of the Earth, which religious scholars within the film label the beginning of the end times. In conversations with survivors (and flashbacks to exchanges with her Christian friends and relatives), Patty learns she wasn’t living a sufficiently Christian lifestyle prior to the Rapture, because even though she followed the Commandments and went to church, she didn’t take the Big Guy into her heart.
          As if the prospect of being held back from Heaven wasn’t sufficiently grim, the filmmakers introduce another conundrum when agents of the Antichrist seize control over the un-Raptured. The UN forms a group called U.N.I.T.E. (United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency), requiring every citizen to get a U.N.I.T.E. tattoo—which is, of course, a coded version of the 6-6-6 “mark of the beast.” Even though she doesn’t immediately realize the nefarious nature of U.N.I.T.E., Patty resists the group’s authority with deadly results. She also ends up seeming like the bimbo heroine of some grade-Z slasher flick, since her entire characterization is predicated on doubting the obvious—her journey is not so much a cautionary tale about religion as it is a cautionary tale about stupidity.
          A Thief in the Night’s first sequel, A Distant Thunder, is highly repetitive, with Patty once again trying to understand the breadth of the Rapture while remembering lectures from friends who warned her about not being sufficiently Christian. A Distant Thunder is a bit slicker than its predecessor—love the new long, straight hair, Patty!—and it’s so grim it ends with a woman being led to a guillotine by agents of the Antichrist. However, neither film is made particularly well, since the style Thompson uses for both movies exists somewhere between that of a clumsy educational film and that of a low-budget horror movie. Additionally, the acting in both movies is across-the-board-terrible. Plus, since the pictures are designed to communicate religious messages, the drama stops at regular intervals so a preacher or some similar character can pontificate about the obligations of faith.
          Still, A Thief in the Night and A Distant Thunder have a weird sort of intensity simply because of the apocalyptic subject matter. The Christians in these movies spend all their time frightening non-Christians with threats of eternal damnation, and during the beginning of A Thief in the Night, several Christians actually sing a gloomy tune called “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Sample lyrics: “A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone—I wish we’d all been ready.” Bummer, man! Anyway, Thompson wasn’t done exploring the end times after making A Distant Thunder, so he wrapped up Patty’s story in Image of the Beast (1981) and then concluded the series with The Prodigal Planet (1983).

A Thief in the Night: LAME
Distant Thunder: LAME

Monday, October 22, 2012

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

          In Michael Feeney Callan’s 2011 biography Robert Redford, there’s a brief but illuminating examination of Redford’s involvement in Little Fauss and Big Halsy, a deservedly obscure flick costarring the gleaming blonde Californian and diminutive oddball Michael J. Pollard. According to Callan, Redford picked the project as his follow-up to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) for perverse reasons of wanting to undercut his likeable image. And, indeed, Redford plays a right proper son of a bitch in this meandering movie about two losers who make their way through the Southwestern dirt-bike circuit. Halsy (Redford) is a narcissist who swindles everyone he meets, but rarely thinks past his next meal or sexual conquest. During his travels, Halsy seemingly befriends insecure white-trash troll Fauss (Pollard), but it turns out Halsy’s got an agenda—he injures Fauss during a race, then persuades Fauss to become an on-call mechanic rather than a competitor. Meanwhile, Halsy gets involved with a string of women and dangles the possibility that he’ll get Fauss laid.
          This strange movie becomes less and less plot-driven as it progresses, so the second half of the film comprises interchangeable scenes involving Fauss, Halsy, and Halsy’s main girlfriend, Rita (Lauren Hutton), a vapid hippie who eventually becomes pregnant. Although the story doesn’t go anywhere, Little Fauss and Big Halsy is moderately interesting for its offbeat texture. Most of the film was shot outdoors, so grim, sun-baked terrain becomes a visual signifier for the going-nowhere characters. Country-music legend Johnny Cash sings a number of original songs, which comprise the entire musical score. And then there’s Redford, playing one of the most extreme roles of his career—while showcasing his matinee-idol looks by appearing shirtless in many scenes, he also captures the reckless way self-centered studs strut through life.
          For instance, at one point Halsy slips out of a motel room the morning after a threesome, claiming he’s got no use for chicks who go both ways: “Once it’s cool, twice it’s queer!” Seeing Redford play a carefree monster is bracing, so it’s a shame the movie doesn’t rise to his level of commitment. Part of the problem is director Sidney J. Furie, who builds individual scenes competently but can’t seem to find a shape for the overall narrative, and part of the problem is the lack of star power complementing Redford. Bonnie and Clyde Oscar nominee Pollard presents a compendium of tics instead of a performance, moping and pulling weird faces, while former model Hutton is dull and whiny.

Little Fauss and Big Halsy: FUNKY

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Terrorists (1974)

While it’s fun to see a thriller in which Sean Connery uses his brains to outwit bad guys, rather than his fists or 007 gadgets, The Terrorists isn’t clever enough to justify the genteel approach. Despite naturalistic location photography by the great Sven Nykvist and a muscular score by the reliable Jerry Goldsmith, the storyline is too ordinary, and the storytelling is too clunky. For no particular reason, the narrative takes place in a fictional country called Scandinavia, even though nearly all of the actors use their own British accents. After a group of terrorists take the British ambassador to Scandinavia hostage, the country’s top cop, Nils Tahlvik (Connery), is tasked with defusing the situation. Then, when a second group of terrorists—led by British gunman Ray Petrie (Ian McShane)—hijacks a passenger jet just as the plane is landing in a Scandinavian airport, things get complicated. Petrie’s group plans to use the plane as a getaway vehicle for the group holding the ambassador hostage, threatening to blow up the plane (and its passengers) if they’re not allowed to do so. For much of the picture, Connery paces around the exterior of the British embassy and the halls of the airport, trying to figure out attack routes and exit strategies; he also fends off political pressure from British authorities and local heavyweights, since the two countries involved have vastly different agendas. Some of this stuff is interesting, in a procedural sort of way, and McShane invests his underwritten role with a bit of suave menace. Additionally, the movie’s pulse rises during the second half of the picture, as the story winds toward a far-fetched twist ending, and the lack of gunplay throughout much of the film forces theater-trained Finnish director Caspar Wrede—here directing the last of his five feature films—to conjure tension from circumstance instead of pyrotechnics. (Like Connery, he does what he can with limited resources.) Still, one need merely look at the following year’s Dog Day Afternoon to see how many terrific opportunities for hostage-situation suspense the makers of The Terrorists missed.

The Terrorists: FUNKY

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Soylent Green (1973)

          Although the film’s storytelling is a bit on the turgid side, despite lantern-jawed leading man Charlton Heston adding his usual animalistic fervor, Soylent Green is among the most memorable of the myriad downbeat sci-fi dramas that proliferated during the ’70s. Much of the credit goes to the movie’s wild twist ending (rest assured, no spoilers here), but there’s more to the picture than its famous final moments: Soylent Green presents a grim view of a future Earth suffocated by overpopulation. In New York City, where the film is set, every square inch of available space is filled with desperate, hungry vagrants, so anyone with property is a target. Amid this deadly environment, tough-talking cop Robert Thorn (Heston) tries to keep order by bringing murderers to justice, although he’s not exactly noble.
          For instance, when Thorn struts around the apartment of a murder victim at the beginning of the picture, he helps himself to choice possessions even as he’s snooping for clues. Like everyone else in this bleak future, Thorn subsists mostly on Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, tiny nutrient tablets made by the Soylent Corporation. However, these products are so bland that when the company introduces the more flavorful Soylent Green, riots erupt among New Yorkers who crave the delicacy. At first, Thorn doesn’t make the connection between Soylent Green and his investigation into the death of a Soylent executive, but Thorn’s senior-citizen friend, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), detects a conspiracy. Sol spends his days poring over old books and records to find valuable information for Thorn, but Sol also realizes that he’s dead weight in an overcrowded city. Then, when Sol volunteers for government-sanctioned assisted suicide, Thorn tumbles into an existential crisis that leads him toward the shocking discovery at the center of the film’s ending.
          Adapted from a novel by Harry Harrison and directed with slick efficiency by Richard Fleischer, Soylent Green is longer on atmosphere than it is on action, since it falls somewhere between cerebral sci-fi and visceral sci-fi. Nonetheless, much of the picture is arresting, with Heston swaggering through his scenes while key supporting players add interesting textures. The beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young appears as a consort—referred to in future parlance as “furniture”—and the way she trades her body for survival accentuates the film’s theme about the cheapness of life in a mechanized world. Studio-era survivor Robinson, in his last screen role, lends a campy mix of pathos and whimsy, and his connection to an earlier time in cinema history helps tether this fantastical story to familiar reality. Thanks to all of these strengths, Soylent Green is hard to shake, even though it’s not by any means a great movie.

Soylent Green: GROOVY

Friday, October 19, 2012

Against a Crooked Sky (1975)

So innocuous it’s completely forgettable, this family-friendly Western borrows a plot contrivance from the John Ford classic The Searchers (1956), but instead of the moral complexity found in the earlier film, Against a Crooked Sky is filled with clichés and hokum. When the movie begins, spunky young man Sam Sutter (Stewart Petersen) spends a playful afternoon taunting his pretty sister, Charlotte (Jewel Blanch), while she bathes in a pond on the family’s remote homestead. (Yes, this G-rated flick begins with peekaboo shots of an attractive starlet—go figure.) Soon afterward, the Sutter parents leave the kids alone one day, and a gang of Indians invades, knocking Sam unconscious and abducting Charlotte. Guilt-ridden over his failure to protect his sister, Sam ventures into the wilderness on a rescue mission, eventually stumbling across a crusty prospector named Russian (Richard Boone). Soon, these unlikely allies join forces to search for Charlotte, because Russian believes the Indians who took Sam’s sister know the whereabouts of underground gold. Directed with pedestrian competence by TV hack Earl Bellamy, Against a Crooked Sky feels like it’s cobbled together from bits of other movies, right down to the characterization of Russian as an ornery drunk with a soft side—Boone, generally quite entertaining, does his best with the lackluster material, but he’s following in tracks left by Lee Marvin, John Wayne, and myriad others. Worse, his fellow actors in Against a Crooked Sky are generic C-listers of dubious competence. The only other noteworthy figure in the movie is Brenda Venus, a dancer best known for dating writer Henry Miller toward the end of his life and for, well, her noteworthy figure. Plus, even though Against a Crooked Sky runs a brief 89 minutes, it’s a long slog because nothing unique happens.

Against a Crooked Sky: LAME

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lies My Father Told Me (1975)

          Earnest and insightful, Lies My Father Told Me is a nostalgic drama inspired by screenwriter Ted Allan’s childhood in the Jewish ghettos of 1920s Montreal, a colorful setting few viewers are likely to have encountered elsewhere. Adding to the film’s novelty is its emotionally turbulent storyline, because the hero of the piece is a young boy, David Herman (Jeffrey Lynas), who grows up torn between the loving companionship of his deeply religious grandfather, Zaida (Yossi Yadin), and the chilly secularism of his irresponsible father, Harry (Len Birman). Although he’s old and tired, Zaida spends his days driving a horse-drawn cart through poor neighborhoods in Montreal, collecting junk that he resells for a meager but steady living.
          Young David’s favorite times are the Sundays when he can ride alongside Zaida, because Zaida nurtures his grandson with idealistic lessons and wonderful fantasies. Harry, meanwhile, is an irritable ne’er-do-well constantly pestering Zaida for money with which to pursue get-rich-quick schemes. However, Zaida has little tolerance for Harry’s nonsense or for Harry’s borderline-abusive treatment of Annie (Marilyn Lightstone), Harry’s wife and Zaida’s daughter. Seen through young David’s eyes, the Hermans’ neighborhood is an almost mythical place filled with larger-than-life characters—the town whore, the town witch—and Zaida serves as the neighborhood’s unifying force, a steadfast voice of morality and reason.
          Director Ján Kadár, a Czech émigré, does a fine job of capturing the textures of life within an impoverished, insular community, so details like the manure-drenched hay in Zaida’s stable and the rickety stairs leading to the Herman apartment are vivid. Yet Allan and Kadár err by including too much evocative detail. The simple story could have been told in 80 minutes, but Lies My Father Told Me drags out across 102 minutes thanks to repetitive scenes and unnecessary tangents. (Do we really need to see David learn about vaginas while sitting with a neighbor child whose dog is about to give birth?)
          The film’s syrupy score doesn’t help matters, amplifying the contours of a story that’s already quite sentimental, and inconsistent performances are another problem. Yadin exudes wry gravitas in every scene, but Lynas is awkward and unappealing—he comes across more whiny than fragile. Birman fails to invest his boorish character with redeeming values (it’s hard to sympathize with an obnoxious putz), and Lightsone is a non-entity because her role is underdeveloped. Still, many viewers reacted strongly to the movie’s tender portrait of a lost era, and Allen scored an Oscar nomination for his script.

Lies My Father Told Me: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

          While not actually a good movie in terms of artistic achievement and/or narrative ambition, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is in some perverse ways the epitome of its genre. Throughout the ’70s, filmmakers made innumerable ennui-drenched flicks about young people hitting the road for crime sprees that represented a sort of anti-Establishment activism. In the best such pictures, the wandering youths articulated their angst so well that their actions felt meaningful; in the worst such pictures, the basic premise was simply an excuse for exploitative thrills. Since Dirty Mary Crazy Larry exists somewhere between these extremes, it’s emblematic of the whole early-’70s road-movie headspace. The picture also has just enough cleverness, reflected in flavorful dialogue and oblique camera angles, to validate the existence of genuine thematic material, even in the context of a trashy lovers-on-the-run picture.
          Peter Fonda stars as Larry, an iconoclastic driver pulling crimes to earn money for a new racecar. Riding shotgun during Larry’s adventure is Deke (Adam Roarke), an accomplice/mechanic. During the movie’s exciting opening sequence, Deke breaks into the home of a grocery-store manager (Roddy McDowall) and holds the man’s family hostage while Larry waltzes into the store to collect the contents of the store’s safe. Unfortunately, Larry’s most recent one-night stand, Mary (Susan George), tracks Larry down during his getaway—she steals his keys and threatens to tell the cops what he’s doing unless she lets him tag along. Thus, Deke, Larry, and Mary form an unlikely trio zooming across the Southwest with police in hot pursuit. Working from a novel by Richard Unekis, director John Hough and his assorted screenwriters do a fine job of balancing talky interludes with high-speed chase scenes, creating an ominous sense of inevitability about the drama’s impending resolution.
          Still, the characterizations are thin—although the crooks’ main pursuer, Sheriff Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow), is an enjoyably eccentric small-town lawman—and the performances are erratic. Roarke anchors the getaway scenes with a quiet intensity that complements Fonda’s enjoyably cavalier persona. Englishwoman George, however, is a screeching nuisance, presumably impeded by the task of mimicking redneck patois. She’s so annoying, in fact, that it’s easy to laugh when Fonda berates her with this bizarre ultimatum: “So help me, if you try another stunt like that, I’m gonna braid your tits!” Dirty Mary Crazy Larry zooms along as fast as the cars featured onscreen, delivering several nerve-jangling crash scenes and generally setting an interesting trap for the reckless protagonists. Yet the movie’s ending changes everything, and the finale is so quintessentially ’70s that it’s reason enough to check out this hard-charging romp.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry: GROOVY

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Slap Shot (1977)

          It’s all about the Hanson Brothers. There’s a lot to like in George Roy Hill’s foul-mouthed, irreverent, and playfully violent hockey saga, but nothing in the movie clicks quite as well as the sight of Jack, Jeff, and Steve Hanson—three longhaired brothers wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses that probably have higher IQ’s than the siblings—working their mojo on the rink. Savages who win by attrition, the Hansons zoom up and down the ice, high-sticking and punching and slashing their competitors until they’ve left a trail of injured opponents in their wake. These bad-boy antics are at the heart of this movie’s rebellious appeal, because even though Slap Shot has an amiable leading character and a tidy storyline, it is above all a lowbrow jamboree of brawling, cussing, and drinking.
          Set in a fictional Rust Belt town, the story follows the Charlestown Chiefs, a pitiful minor-league hockey team in the midst of an epic losing streak. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) tries to rouse his teammates for some good “old-time hockey”—straight playing without fights—but he knows crowds only get excited for bloodbaths. Meanwhile, team manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) is sending signals that the Chiefs organization might be on the verge of folding.
          Over the course of the movie, Reggie—who is desperate to elongate his career, even though he knows it’s long past time for him to stop playing and concentrate on coaching—pulls several underhanded maneuvers. He unleashes the Hansons, whose violence raises the level of game-time brutality while also stimulating attendance; he tricks a local reporter (M. Emmet Walsh) into printing a rumor that the Chiefs might have a new buyer; and he tries to seduce the depressed wife (Lindsay Crouse) of a peacenik player (Michael Ontkean) in order to prod his teammate toward violence. Reggie is a rascal in the classic Newman mold, willing to fracture a few laws in the service of a more-or-less noble goal.
          Written by first-time screenwriter Nancy Dowd, whose brother Ned played minor-league hockey, Slap Shot is cheerfully crude, taking cheap shots at bad parents, French-Canadians, gays, lesbians, and other random targets; most of the jokes are funny, but even the ones that aren’t help maintain a genial vibe of frat-house chaos. The picture also drops more F-bombs (and other colorful expletives) than nearly any other ’70s movie. It’s therefore quite a change of pace for the normally genteel George Roy Hill, whose other memorable collaborations with Newman are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). One gets the impression both men had a blast making Slap Shot, since Hill captures the hockey scenes with clever moving-camera shots and Newman elevates the piece with his contagious smiles and entertaining surliness.
          While not a critical hit and only a moderate box-office success during its original release, Slap Shot has since attained enviable cult status, even spawning a minor franchise of inferior straight-to-video sequels: Slap Shot 2: Breaking the Ice was released in 2002, and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League followed in 2008. Furthermore, a remake of the original film is rumored to be in the works. Until then, fans can content themselves with Hanson Brothers action figures, which hit stores in 2000.

Slap Shot: GROOVY

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)

          Despite falling well short of greatness, The Mephisto Waltz is an above-average supernatural-horror flick with evocative atmosphere, strong acting, and a unique hook—it’s built around the world of classical music. It should also be noted that the movie stars Jacqueline Bisset at her most ravishingly beautiful, so the eye-candy quotient is considerable. At the beginning of the movie, we meet angsty Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda), a mediocre pianist relegated to interviewing better players in his role as a music journalist. Accompanied by his wife, Paula (Bisset), Myles travels to a sprawling estate for an audience with Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), a legendary virtuoso. Although Paula gets a bad vibe off Duncan and his twentysomething daughter, Roxanne (Barbara Parkins), Myles quickly falls under Duncan’s spell—because Duncan claims he can train Myles to become a world-class pianist. It turns out the Elys are Satan worshippers, and Duncan has designs on U-Hauling his soul into Myles’ healthy young body, since Duncan is terminally ill but determined to preserve his genius.
          It’s not giving anything away to say that Duncan succeeds, because the real thrills begin when Paula starts to realize her husband isn’t her husband anymore. Produced by prolific TV guy Quinn Martin (whose output included The Fugitive and The Streets of San Francisco), the picture is capably directed by Paul Wendkos from a script by Ben Maddow (which was adapted from Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel). The execution is stylish even when the story gets convoluted and silly, and the film benefits tremendously from spooky music by composer Jerry Goldsmith. Additionally, the locations are consistently credible, especially the shadowy expanses of the Ely mansion. Yet it’s the acting that really propels the piece. Alda is poignantly narcissistic as Myles, and then appropriately aloof once Duncan’s spirit inhabits Myles’ body, while Jurgens makes a strong impression as a domineering diva during his few scenes. Parkins, whose dark beauty complements Bisset’s natural look, has fun playing a scheming witch, and Bisset lends a certain measure of emotional credibility to her various scenes of anguish and panic. Best of all, the movie twists and turns toward a perverse ending that almost justifies the movie’s overlong, 115-minute running time.

The Mephisto Waltz: GROOVY