Monday, April 30, 2012

The Cheap Detective (1978)


          Yet another of the myriad film-noir spoofs that proliferated during the ’70s, The Cheap Detective is surprisingly underwhelming given its all-star cast and brand-name writer. Neil Simon, opting for broad farce instead of his usual domestic dramedy, weaves together storylines and stylistic tropes from assorted ’40s detective movies, mostly those starring Humphrey Bogart. Peter Falk stars as Lou Peckinpaugh, a San Francisco private eye who gets embroiled in a plot that’s a little bit Casablanca, a little bit Maltese Falcon, and a little bit of everything else. His partner gets killed, villains search for a cache of super-sized diamonds, and Lou juggles romantic intrigue with several dizzy dames. The movie’s gags are so silly that characters have names like Betty DeBoop, Jasper Blubber, and Jezebel Dezire.
          Based on this movie and Neil Simon’s other noir spoof from the same era starring Peter Falk, 1976’s Murder by Death, one gets the impression that Simon was trying to outdo Mel Brooks at the anything-goes approach to lampooning movie genres, but Simon simply couldn’t match the inspired lunacy that made Brooks’ spoofs so delirious. By trying to keep dialogue crisp and plotting rational, Simon’s attempt at this style falls somewhere between the extremes of proper storytelling and wild abandon. Thus, The Cheap Detective is fluffy without being truly irreverent and goofy without being truly insane—it’s like a second-rate Carol Burnett Show sketch, needlessly extended to feature length. What’s more, the movie is hurt by flat direction, as TV-trained helmer Robert Moore lacks the ability to generate exciting visuals.
          Yet another problem is the all-over-the-map acting. The most enjoyable performances, by Falk and supporting players Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Madeline Kahn, and Fernando Lamas, wink at the audience without tipping into Borscht Belt excess. The most tiresome turns, by players including Ann-Margret, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, and Marsha Mason, fall into exactly that trap. (Though it must be said that Sid Caesar kills during one of the movie’s dumbest scenes, thanks to his legendary comic timing.) Some actors, however, seem completely adrift: Louise Fletcher, John Houseman, and Nicol Williamson strive to find consistent tonalities for their work, apparently receiving little guidance from Moore or the slapdash script. With this much talent involved, The Cheap Detective has a few bright spots, but the total package is quite blah.

The Cheap Detective: FUNKY

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Carnal Knowledge (1971)


          A dark and strange exploration of male sexuality, Carnal Knowledge sprang from the bitter pen of playwright/satirist Jules Feiffer, with the sophisticated social observer Mike Nichols serving as director. The story begins in the ’50s, when college roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) fumble their way through early sexual encounters with coeds. Jonathan’s an unapologetic horndog who soothes his insecurities through physical conquest, and, at least in his early days, Sandy is a romantic trying to balance libidinous urges with respect for women. The boys form a triangle with worldly coed Susan (Candice Bergen), who is drawn to Sandy’s sweetness but can’t resist Jonathan’s confidence. After this triangle runs its painful course, the movie skips forward and eventually lands in late-’60s New York City.
          Jonathan, who has grown into a deeply angry adult, gets involved with Bobbie (Ann-Margret), an older woman whose va-va-voom figure drives him wild. Unfortunately for him, she comes complete with emotional needs that he’s incapable of meeting, so their romance devolves into a regular schedule of screeching arguments. Meanwhile, Sandy becomes a seeker of sorts, bouncing from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next, and Jonathan makes wildly inappropriate passes at Sandy’s girlfriends.
          Much of the picture’s nonstop dialogue is sharp, capturing the extremes of emotionally crippled individuals. In one harrowing moment, for instance, Jonathan screams to Bobbie, “For God’s sake, I’d almost marry you if you’d leave me!” Nonetheless, the wall-to-wall dysfunction is a bit much. Since Feiffer and Nichols populate the movie exclusively with characters who are horrible or weak, if not both, their implied statement about the inability of men and women to coexist seems arch, forced, and unpersuasive. It’s also unclear whether Carnal Knowledge is meant to be drama or satire—is watching these sad people destroy each other supposed to be funny?
          Nonetheless, the film garnered considerable praise during its initial release, with Ann-Margret winning a Golden Globe and Feiffer earning a Writers Guild Award nomination. Furthermore, the film’s craftsmanship is impeccable. Nichols employs a restrained visual style, putting the focus on potent acting. The four lead actors are quite good, with Ann-Margret surpassing the low expectations established by her long string of shallow sex-kitten roles prior to this movie. Bergen conveys an alluring brand of icy intelligence, while ’60s pop icon Garfunkel, giving his first major dramatic performance, presents a unique sort of natural twitchiness. As for Nicholson, he’s hamstrung by a severe characterization, since Jonathan is more a compendium of compulsions than a genuine individual. Nicholson’s performance is creepily intense, but not realistic.

Carnal Knowledge: FUNKY

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Black Girl (1972)


          One of a handful of features directed by the beloved actor/activist Ossie Davis, Black Girl is a bracing alternative to the portrayals of African-American life that dominated U.S. screens in the early ’70s. Instead of the lurid violence of blaxploitation flicks or the pandering melodrama of message pictures, Black Girl is a straightforward story about a young woman trying to find her way in a world rife with unique expectations and pressures. Adapted by J.E. Franklin from her own play, the story concerns Billie Jean (Peggy Pettit), a black teenager living with a volatile extended family in Los Angeles.
          Life is tough because the household’s matriarch, Rosie (Louise Stubbs), squeaks by on government assistance, rental income from the tenant of a back room, and occasional handouts from her ex-husband, Earl (Brock Peters). Raising children from several different fathers, Rosie also takes in young women like Netta (Leslie Uggams), whose biological mother has mental problems. Further complicating the household is Rosie’s mother, known as Mu’Dear (Claudia McNeil), who fights for dominance within the family.
          Against this fraught backdrop, Billie Jean seeks to define her identity. She dreams of becoming a dancer, but risks her future by quitting high school after a quarrel with a teacher. Therefore, the main storyline of this densely plotted movie concerns a three-way duel between Billie Jean and her bitchy older sisters, Norma (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Rhetta Greene). These two fear that Netta has taken prominence in Mama Rosie’s heart because Netta got into college, so Norma and Ruth Ann manipulate the impressionable Billie Jean into ruining Netta’s impending visit. The movie also features a long sequence involving Earl, who loves Rosie but can’t meet her high standards of commitment and responsibility.
          The narrative of Black Girl is wildly overstuffed (all of this material gets crammed into 97 minutes), so the movie’s biggest problem is sprawl. Davis is adept at guiding performances, so individual scenes have impact, but the overall effect is dulled because Black Girl waffles between focusing on Billie Jean’s story and opening up to become an ensemble piece. However, the sincerity of the movie is undeniable. Everyone performs with great commitment, and Davis largely favors relatable interpersonal dynamics over cheap histrionics—notwithstanding the somewhat overwrought climax, Davis’ filmmaking is consistently humane and observational. Thus, his inability to pare down the story to a manageable scale is not the fatal flaw it might have been.

Black Girl: FUNKY

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Legacy (1978)


          Mindless and silly but entertaining in a guilty-pleasure sort of way, this good-looking horror flick features one of those inane plots about an otherwise ordinary person whose lineage designates her the inheritor of a fearsome supernatural power. Katharine Ross, lovely and lightweight as always, plays Margaret, an American summoned to England under the pretense of a lucrative commission for interior-design work. She brings along her sensitive-stud boyfriend, Pete (Sam Elliott), and soon after their arrival in the UK, the couple encounters trouble. Riding a rented motorcycle, they’re run off the road by the town car of Jason Mountolive (John Standing), a super-wealthy English gentleman. He invites them back to his sprawling estate, where it soon becomes clear Margaret was expected—she’s a distant relative of Mountolive, and he’s the person behind her mysterious job offer. In classic horror-movie fashion, Margaret ignores obvious warning signs and sticks around to see what happens.
          What happens, of course, is a serious of bizarre deaths involving the various loathsome relatives Mountolive summons to his estate. Eventually, we realize that the Mountolives are witches, and Margaret is expected to take her place as the clan’s new Satan-worshipping matriarch. Unfortunately, one of the other potential heirs is trying to take out the competition, so Margaret and Pete must dodge a few nasty attempts on their lives. Based on a story by Jimmy Sangster, a veteran of the Hammer Films assembly line, The Legacy gets goofier with each passing scene, to the point that the ending plays more like accidental humor than intentional horror.
          Still, some of the deaths are enjoyably gruesome, like the one in which flame leaps from a fireplace to cook a victim. Director Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi) makes good use of regal locations, while the British supporting players (including Rocky Horror Picture Show narrator Charles Gray and rock singer Roger Daltrey, of the Who) are lively. And though neither gives a strong performance, Elliott and Ross display believable attraction: They got together offscreen after making this movie, and they’ve been a couple ever since.

The Legacy: FUNKY

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Every '70s Movie is Now on Facebook!


Every ’70s Movie now has its very own Facebook page, located here. Show your support by “liking” the Facebook page and by suggesting that others do the same. Also, remember you can always help the cause by contributing to Every ’70s Movie via the “donate” icon located on the upper right of the homepage. To date, nearly 625 movies have been reviewed, and there are hundreds more to come in the future, so thanks for whatever you can do to help keep the Every ’70s Movie party going! Keep on keepin on, friends . . .

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)


          A low-budget Australian effort noteworthy for the presence of Hollywood leading man Dennis Hopper, Mad Dog Morgan offers an Ozzie spin on the cliché of the antihero outlaw. Based on the real-life exploits of John Fuller, a criminal who operated under aliases including “Daniel Morgan” in mid-19th-century Australia, the picture romanticizes certain elements of the protagonist while still depicting his violence in a vivid way. Morgan was a “bushranger,” living in the wild and subsisting on loot from robberies. He also developed a fierce reputation for the savagery of which he was capable when inebriated.
          Director/cowriter Philippe Mora elicits early sympathy for Morgan by featuring a prologue in which the character is brutalized while imprisoned. The image of Morgan getting branded is hard to shake, and the abuse he suffers behind bars goes a long way toward explaining why he subsequently shuns law and order. Whether this portrayal accurately reflects the real Morgan’s character is open to debate, but the strategy works on a narrative level: Even as Morgan becomes more and more dangerous, we recall why he resents authority and values his freedom.
          Hopper was ingenious casting, since his work in Easy Rider (1969) made him an icon for the rebel spirit of the counterculture era, and he gives one of his most disciplined ’70s performances here. It’s possible that having to maintain a pidgin Irish/Australian accent forced Hopper to concentrate on his dialogue instead of tumbling off into formless improvisation, but whatever the case, he’s ferocious and focused from start to finish.
          The movie’s plotting is rather ordinary, the usual business of a crook forming unexpected alliances and outsmarting pursuers until an inevitable showdown, so what makes Mad Dog Morgan arresting, aside from Hopper’s performance, is the movie’s rich Australian texture. Shot on location by cinematographer Mike Molloy, the film’s widescreen images present untamed regions of the land down under as a striking alternative to the familiar settings of Hollywood-made outlaw pictures. Lit naturalistically and shot on grainy film, Molloy’s frames feel like vintage photographs come to life. Furthermore, an ominous soundtrack featuring the eerie aboriginal wind instrument called the didgeridoo gives Mad Dog Morgan an otherworldly air.
          The supporting cast is fine but not spectacular, though Ozzie stalwart Jack Thompson contributes his usual commanding presence in the small role of Morgan’s main pursuer, and Aboriginal actor David Gulpill (Walkabout) is amiably enigmatic as Morgan’s outback sidekick. (Gulpill also performs the soundtrack’s didgeridoo music.) Thanks to strong execution elevating potentially humdrum material, Mad Dog Morgan offers an exotic new spin on a durable genre.

Mad Dog Morgan: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Horror Express (1972)


A strange European production that overcomes a bland first hour by delivering an over-the-top finale filled with apocalyptic implications and mass bloodshed, Horror Express costars the venerable Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their umpteenth movie together. Set in the Far East circa 1906, the story begins when Professor Saxton (Lee) loads his latest discovery into the cargo car of the Trans-Siberian Express, intending to cart the fossil back to Europe. Saxton believes the creature he’s found might be the “missing link,” but once the train gets underway, a series of mysterious deaths suggests the monster is not only alive but also homicidal. Cushing plays Dr. Wells, another scientist on board the train and one of several inconsequential characters who get caught up in the intrigue of determining whether Saxton’s discovery is behind the trip’s rapidly rising body count. Much of the picture comprises talky scenes intercut with grisly murders, though the story gets very strange by the time a laughably miscast Telly Savalas shows up as a gun-toting Russian officer assigned to investigate the troubles reported aboard the train: It seems the shambling killer is actually an energy being from outer space who inhabits mortal shells long enough to find new hosts, a process that is accomplished by sucking people’s memories out through their eyeballs. (Yes, this is one of those gruesome flicks in which victims bleed profusely from their eye sockets.) The icky death scenes provide most of the movie’s lurid appeal, although the choice to make insane priest Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) look like infamous mad monk Rasputin is a nice touch. Cushing and Lee deliver perfunctory work, Savalas raises the energy level considerably with his absurd cameo, and the wild excess of the climax is noteworthy. Horror Express is mediocre at best, but it can’t be said the filmmakers were stingy with carnage.

Horror Express: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue Collar (1978)


          After making his name with the incendiary screenplay for Taxi Driver (1974), Paul Schrader capitalized on his Hollywood heat by setting up his directorial debut, Blue Collar. (Schrader co-wrote the script with his brother, Leonard, from source material by Sydney A. Glass.) A tough morality play about corruption worming its way through an auto company and the labor union supposedly protecting the company’s workers, Blue Collar echoes the 1954 classic On the Waterfront, but it has an unmistakably ’70s patina of drugs, racial tension, sex, and vulgarity.
          The story follows three friends whose frustration with their working conditions at an auto plant reaches a boiling point when they realize their disreputable union reps are making side deals with management. The trio breaks into the union office, hoping to steal several thousand dollars they believe is hidden there, but all they get is petty cash. And that’s when the story gets really interesting: Union officials claim tens of thousands of dollars were stolen, setting an insurance-settlement scam in motion, so the workers-turned-thieves realize they have an opportunity to blackmail their oppressors. How this bold maneuver affects the three men leads to a climax of unusual complexity and intensity.
          Considering this was his first movie, Schrader is remarkably assured behind the camera, using a classical camera style that’s neither showy nor timid; abetted by cinematographer Bobby Byrne, Schrader gives the picture a look as gritty as the assembly line on which the main characters labor every day. The blues-inflected soundtrack, including original music by the great Jack Nitzsche, suits the material perfectly, and in fact the whole movie feels like a raw soul record come to life: When characters sit around a local dive, swigging beer and bitching about their troubles, Blue Collar offers a window into a secret world.
          Yet Schrader’s two-fisted storytelling would be for naught if the movie lacked powerhouse performances, and, luckily, the three leads deliver. Yaphet Kotto, working his singular mix of blazing anger and world-weary sarcasm, is compelling in every scene. Harvey Keitel, slickly translating his Noo Yawk edge to a volatile Midwestern vibe, is equally potent as the conscience of the group. And Richard Pryor is explosive, leaving any idea that he’s merely a funnyman in the dust. Never this good in a movie before or afterward, he channels deep veins of indignation and resentment into an unforgettable characterization. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)

Blue Collar: RIGHT ON

Monday, April 23, 2012

Footsteps (1972)


          Nominated for a Golden Globe as the best TV movie of its year, Footsteps is a hard-driving character drama set in the competitive world of college football. Yet instead of focusing on the tribulations of athletes, as is the norm for the genre, Footsteps explores the psychology of a ruthless coach whose belligerence, drinking, and shady ethics have made him a pariah among top schools. Richard Crenna, putting his customary intensity to great use, stars as Paddy O’Connor, a cocky ex-player with a good record of guiding teams toward victory, but a bad record of holding onto jobs.
          When the movie begins, he arrives in a small Southwestern town to start work as a defensive coordinator at a regional college. Since the school’s head coach, Jonas Kane (Clu Gulager), once played for O’Connor, O’Connor bristles at taking orders from a former subordinate. O’Connor also angles for Kane’s job, sleeps with Kane’s secretary to get inside information, cozies up to a deep-pocketed sponsor (Forrest Tucker) in order to have a star player moved to defense, and makes passes at Kane’s girlfriend, beautiful drama teacher Sarah Allison (Joanna Pettet). For a while, O’Connor gets away with his behavior by delivering a winning season, but things come to a head when moral crises reveal how conscience sometimes inhibits ambition.
          Although it suffers from brevity, running the standard 74 minutes for a ’70s TV movie, Footsteps is quite solid. Featuring a script co-written by future Oscar winner Alvin Sargent, the movie has several compelling confrontations. Moreover, the O’Connor character is such a force of nature that it’s fascinating to parse how much of his act is bluster and how much is justifiable confidence. Though generally not the deepest actor, Crenna slips into this role comfortably and delivers a virile performance. The supporting cast is fine as well, with Bill Overton doing strong work as O’Connor’s star player. (Ned Beatty is wasted in a tiny role.) Veteran TV director Paul Wendkos accentuates the story’s inherent tension with tight compositions placing actors in close proximity, and the filmmakers employ trippy effects like solarization and split-screens to enliven big-game montages that were obviously cobbled together from stock footage.

Footsteps: GROOVY

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Devil Within Her (1975)


          Originally titled I Don’t Want to Be Born for its domestic release in the UK, then renamed The Devil Within Her for American exhibition, this supernatural howler may be the silliest of the myriad evil-baby movies that proliferated in the post-Rosemary’s Baby era. Joan Collins, as glamorously awful as ever, plays Lucy Carlesi, the English wife of an Italian businessman. When the movie begins, Lucy moans and screams through the difficult delivery of her first child, a sequence so extreme that attending physician Dr. Finch (Donald Pleasence) remarks, “It’s as if he doesn’t want to be born!” But born he is, a black-haired, 12-pound tot named Nicholas, and trouble soon follows. In a serious of ridiculous scenes, the newborn bites people with teeth he shouldn’t have yet, scratches their faces with nails that shouldn’t be as sharp as they are, and even commits impossible crimes like shoving people into rivers. Although Lucy’s husband, Gino (Ralph Bates), stupidly ignores the obvious, Lucy realizes that little Nicholas is a problem child. Making a rather dramatic leap of logic, she determines that her pregnancy was cursed by the evil dwarf whose affections she spurned when they worked together in a strip club.
          Thus informed, Lucy seeks assistance from Gino’s sister, Albana (Eileen Atkins), who conveniently happens to be a nun. Cue exorcism! Powered by an insane score that mixes influences from Indian, Italian, and progressive-rock music, The Devil Within Her glides along smoothly for a while, with logical characterizations and sensible scenes complementing the gonzo premise. But once the movie really gets cooking, logic and sense give way to absurdity and goofiness. Atkins’ performance gets more bug-eyed and frenetic, Bates’ Italian accent fades in and out, and Collins’ breathy speaking voice grows more irritating. (It’s a sure sign of trouble when Donald Pleasence comes across as the most restrained cast member.) The finale of the movie approaches a kind of so-bad-it’s-good campiness, and the filmmakers get points for making it clear that no character is safe from the nasty newborn. Nonetheless, calling The Devil Within Her anything but awful would be irresponsible.

The Devil Within Her: LAME

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Big Fix (1978)


          The Big Fix attempts so many interesting things, and demonstrates such a high level of craftsmanship and intelligence, that it’s completely worthwhile despite significant flaws. Adapted by Roger L. Simon from his own novel, the movie introduces viewers to Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss), a former ’60s activist now settled into humdrum ’70s adulthood. A divorcé with two kids, Moses makes a sketchy living as a private investigator, mostly doing unglamorous stakeout work for corporate clients. Life is constantly humiliating for Moses until he encounters an old flame from college, Lila (Susan Anspach), who reminds him of the beautiful ideals they espoused in the ’60s.
          However, to Moses’ great disappointment, Lila has sold out to work on the gubernatorial campaign of a stuffy politician, and she needs help because someone is spreading rumors that her candidate associates with an Abbie Hoffman-esque radical named Howard Eppis. Moses reluctantly takes the case, but soon realizes he’s stumbled onto something heavy.
          The Big Fix is ostensibly a comedy, with gentle gags like the various explanations for the cast on Moses’ hand, and Simon provides appealing banter for Moses and the peculiar characters he meets. Yet the movie is also a detective thriller with a body count, and years before writer-director Lawrence Kasdan explored similar subject matter in The Big Chill (1983), this film asks why some ’60s activists joined the Establishment they once fought. In fact, the movie sometimes lurches awkwardly between light farce and murderous drama. What holds the thing together is Dreyfuss, who also co-produced the picture.
          Operating at the height of his considerable powers, Dreyfuss showcases Moses’ emotional journey—the character starts out bored and tired, gets jazzed by adventure, and ends up revitalized by the discovery that he hasn’t truly betrayed his old principles. Dreyfuss has many dazzling scenes, whether he’s hyperventilating after a shooting or demonstrating unexpected courage during an interrogation. It’s probably a better performance than the material deserves, but great work is always a joy to watch.
          Another strength of The Big Fix is the terrific supporting cast: F. Murray Abraham, Bonnie Bedelia, Jon Lithgow, Ron Rifkin, and Fritz Weaver each contribute something memorable and unique. Director Jeremy Paul Kagan moves the camera smoothly, shapes a number of good performances, and uses locations well, but as in most of his features, the pieces never fully cohere; The Big Fix is more a collection of enjoyable scenes than a well-told story. Nonetheless, the film’s virtues are many, and its offbeat take on the subject of ’60s counterculture is consistently interesting.

The Big Fix: GROOVY

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Towering Inferno (1974)


          The biggest box-office success of 1974 and in many ways the climax of the ’70s disaster-movie genre, The Towering Inferno is terrible from an artistic perspective, featuring clichéd characters and ridiculous situations spread across a bloated 165-minute running time. Still, it’s fascinating as a case study of how Hollywood operates. First and most obviously, the movie represents producer Irwin Allen’s most successful attempt to mimic the success of his underwater thriller The Poseidon Adventure (1972), because Allen outdoes the previous film with bigger spectacle, bigger stars, and bigger stunts.
          The movie also reflects movie-star gamesmanship. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman agreed to costar, then fought for primacy within the story, each demanding exactly the same number of lines in the script. Even sillier, their agents arranged for the actors’ names to appear in the credits in the same size type but at different heights, so each would have “top” billing even when their names were side-by-side. Furthermore, the movie demonstrates the ease with which greed trumps pride in Hollywood. One studio owned a book about a fire and the other owned a book about a giant high-rise building, so Allen persuaded Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros. to co-produce the movie, an industry first; each studio sacrificed the integrity of its respective brand for half of a sure thing.
          Somewhere amid the power plays, an actual movie got made, and The Towering Inferno is the epitome of what later became known as “high-concept” cinema. It’s about a big building on fire, and that’s the whole story. Sure, there are mini-melodramas, like the romantic tribulations of the folks trapped inside the building and the macho heroics of an architect (Newman) and a fireman (McQueen), but the thing is really about the excitement of seeing which characters will get burned to death, which will fall from terrible heights, and which will survive.
          The plot begins when an engineer cuts corners in order to rush the opening of the Glass Tower, a skyscraper in San Francisco. Once the inevitable blaze erupts, further shortcomings in the building process complicate efforts to rescue trapped occupants. (Elevators, helicopters, rope bridges, and other contrivances are utilized.) As per the Allen playbook, an all-star cast trudges through the carnage, trying to instill cardboard characterizations with life. Richard Chamberlain plays the short-sighted engineer, Faye Dunaway plays Newman’s love interest, William Holden plays the oblivious builder, and Robert Wagner plays a smooth-talking PR man. Others along for the ride include Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Dabney Coleman, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, and Robert Vaughn.
          The Towering Inferno is a handsome production, with director John Guillermin and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp using their widescreen frames to give everything a sense of opulence and scale. Additionally, Allen (who directed the action scenes) knew how to drop debris onto stuntmen. Nonetheless, The Towering Inferno is humorless, long-winded, and repetitive. Amazingly, the movie received a number of Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture), and won three of its categories: cinematography, editing, and original song. In Hollywood, nothing earns praise as quickly as financial success.

The Towering Inferno: FUNKY

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jesus (1979)


Created by such ardent true believers that the story is identified onscreen as “the public life of Jesus, a documentary taken entirely from The Gospel of Luke,” this routine drama is hard to criticize because its intentions are so plain. A no-nonsense recitation of the Messiah’s time on Earth, Jesus features generic actors and mid-level production values but not a whit of artistry. Melodic-voiced narrator Alexander Scourby (speaking as Luke) provides informational nuggets that connect blandly staged scenes featuring Christ’s rise to prominence, his performance of miracles, his preaching of the gospels, and, of course, his crucifixion and resurrection. Eschewing the grandiosity of most Hollywood movies about this subject matter, and existing a universe away from the gory extremes of Mel Gibson’s euphoric visions, Jesus presents Biblical episodes as matters of fact, so actors never get particularly excited and the camerawork feels clinical. The lack of melodrama should be a relief, but the flick is so enervated that a little flamboyance every now and then might have been welcome—this is less The Passion of the Christ and more The Politeness of the Christ. Playing the Son of Man, workaday British actor Brian Deacon displays a lovely speaking voice and a reassuring physical presence, but he’s so subordinate to the role that it’s difficult to remember anything specific about him even moments after the movie concludes. In fact, the whole cast is filled with anonymous players, some of whom wear robes that seem to have come straight from the drycleaners—although the picture has good-looking locations and plenty of extras, there’s a veneer of “Hey, let’s put on a show” artificiality. All of these gripes are moot, however, since viewers who are only marginally interested in the story of Christ will probably never watch this movie, while the faithful are likely to overlook narrative shortcomings given the picture’s unabashed reverence.

Jesus: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Freaky Friday (1976)


          Among Walt Disney Productions’ most memorable live-action offerings of the ’70s, thanks to a novel concept and the presence of Jodie Foster in the leading role, Freaky Friday had a different genesis than the studio’s usual fare. Rather than being generated by in-house creatives, the movie was based on a novel by Mary Rodgers (the daughter of legendary composer Richard Rodgers), who also wrote the script. So, even though Freaky Friday follows the basic Disney paradigm of delivering a wholesome message through effects-driven comedy, it’s got a personal point of view.
          That’s not to say, unfortunately, that the movie is particularly good, since the characters are trite and the comedy never really connects. Freaky Friday zips along nicely enough, and the performances are sufficiently enthusiastic, but the movie’s entertainment value falls somewhere between forgettable and tiresome. The simple story begins when tomboyish, underachieving 13-year-old Annabel (Foster) and her uptight housewife mom, Ellen (Barbara Harris) simultaneously wish they could trade places with each other. By some unexplained magic, the women’s souls transpose, so Annabel’s mind ends up inside her mother’s body, and vice versa.
          At first, each is thrilled because of assumptions that the other lives a carefree existence, but then, as they will, high jinks ensue. Living inside an adult body but unaware how to deal with adult responsibilities, Annabel screws up chores like cooking and laundry. Meanwhile, Ellen can’t figure out how to make her teenaged body perform Annabel’s routine of schoolyard field hockey and extracurricular water-skiing. Ellen’s husband (John Astin) gets caught in the middle of the chaos, even as he’s trying to organize the splashy launch for a new real-estate development. It’s all quite harmless, with Annabel realizing what her mom juggles every day while Ellen learns that a lack of encouragement is keeping Annabel from fulfilling her potential.
          However, the mild charms of the leading performances—Foster displays her famously precocious gravitas, while Harris works a groove of likeable silliness—get drowned out by elaborate sight gags, particularly during the laborious chase scene that climaxes the movie. Nonetheless, Freaky Friday was a decent-sized hit that earned three Golden Globe nominations. It also got the remake treatment a generation later. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan as mother and daughter, the 2003 version is infinitely superior to the original, opting for sweetly character-driven comedy instead of noisy slapstick.

Freaky Friday: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

. . . And Justice for All (1979)


          After a spectacular run in the early ’70s, Al Pacino slid into a long period of mediocrity beginning with 1977’s racecar-themed dud Bobby Deerfield and continuing with this chaotic comedy-drama. Although Justice did okay at the box office and earned two Oscar nominations (including one for Pacino), it’s a perplexing mixture of farce and social commentary. Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, a Baltimore lawyer described by everyone around him as both an exceptional litigator and a paragon of legal ethics. Yet we never actually see Kirkland do his job well—instead, he regularly breaks confidentiality, fights with judges, and loses cases. In striving to define Kirkland as a moral island in a sea of corruption, screenwriters Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson ended up treating the character as a symbol of righteous indignation rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Worse, their narrative is contrived and overstuffed.
          The story proper begins when a hard-driving judge, Henry Fleming (John Forsythe), is accused of rape. For convoluted reasons, Fleming asks Kirkland to represent him, even though they’re bitter enemies. Kirkland takes the case because he needs a favorable ruling from Fleming in order to exonerate a wrongly imprisoned client. Other plot elements include a judge contemplating suicide, a lawyer going insane because he helped a killer avoid prosecution, and a transvestite living in terror at the prospect of prison. Funny stuff, right? The fact that Curtin and Levinson treat this dark material with sitcom-style dialogue feels cheap and distasteful, especially since the film’s dramatic scenes work so much better than the comedy bits.
          In particular, the interaction between Forsythe and Pacino, two actors with completely different styles, is surprisingly interesting: Forsythe infuses his customary elegant reserve with an undercurrent of hateful menace, so Pacino’s exasperation in Forsythe’s presence is believable. In fact, all of the movie’s performances are good, with Christine Lahti, Lee Strasberg, and especially Jeffrey Tambor giving formulaic characters a degree of flesh-and-blood reality. However, the great Jack Warden is underused as the suicidal judge, because he’s mostly stuck performing stupid comedy like a wild helicopter ride that, one presumes, was meant to be outrageously funny.
          Director Norman Jewison handles individual scenes with his usual skill, but no filmmaker could stitch these discordant pieces together into a coherent whole. Plus, among its myriad other flaws, Justice is arguably the movie that introduced the world to Screamin’ Al, the latter-day Pacino performance style distinguished by vein-popping volume. “Out of order? You’re out of order!” Indeed you are, sir.

. . . And Justice for All: FUNKY

Monday, April 16, 2012

Captain Apache (1971)


Tedious in the extreme, this spaghetti Western stars the indestructible Lee Van Cleef as a half-breed lawman who spends most of his time grimacing through insults as whites call him names like “red-ass” and as Indians question his ethnic bona fides. Van Cleef snarls with his usual aplomb, and he cuts an impressive figure whether he’s fighting with his fists or his six-guns, but as in most of his second-rate spaghetti Westerns (which is to say pretty much everything except The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), the combination of a clichéd script and Van Cleef’s paycheck-cashing indifference results in drabness. The story has something to do with Captain Apache (Van Cleef) investigating a killing and stumbling across a conspiracy, but the movie is really just a string of manly-man confrontations showcasing Captain Apache’s toughness. He intimidates weaklings into revealing information and he pretends to change his allegiances in order to sneak into the villains’ confidence, but everything is so inconsequential that it’s impossible to care how the pieces of the puzzle fit together or, really, whether Our Hero will vanquish evil at the end of the day. Since Captain Apache has all of the usual spaghetti-Western shortcomings (awkward dubbing, disjointed editing, meandering story), only the novel elements merit notice. Van Cleef talk-sings the movie’s theme song, providing some unintentional laughs, and at least one scene reaches the level of camp: When Captain Apache meets an Indian who disbelieves the hero’s racial identity, Van Cleef strips down to a loincloth (as a means of showing off his “red” skin), then performs the rest of the scene oiled like a bodybuilder and sucking in his gut. At least when Van Cleef is crooning and preening, Captain Apache offers weirdness to break the overall monotony.

Captain Apache: SQUARE

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Hired Hand (1971)


          Easygoing actor Peter Fonda’s directorial career never amounted to much (he’s only made three movies thus far, each of less interest than the preceding), so it’s surprising just how good his first film was. Made at a time when Fonda was synonymous with the counterculture movement, The Hired Hand is a throwback instead of a contemporary tale, but it’s infused with themes that resonate with the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” era. The Hired Hand is also a glorious exercise in ’70s-cinema style, featuring luminous photography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond and an evocative acoustic score by Bruce Langhorne. So, even if the story is a bit thin, the piece is engrossing on other levels.
          Fonda stars as Harry Collings, a world-weary cowboy roaming the West with his amiable pal, Arch Harris (Warren Oates), and a younger man who recently joined their travels, Dan (Robert Pratt). Rolling into a tiny town one day, the three have drinks while Harry explains that he’s decided to quit his cowboy lifestyle and return to the homestead he abandoned 11 years ago. (Harry walked away from his wife and young child because he felt trapped by domesticity.) Before Harry can make his break, he and his companions get into a battle with McVey (Severn Darden), the brutal thug who lords over the small town.
          Dan dies and McVey is badly injured, but Harry and Arch figure the matter is settled, so they head off to Harry’s old farm. The duo discovers that bitter experience has transformed Hannah Collings (Verna Bloom) from a wide-eyed newlywed to a tough frontier woman—she’s understandably ambivalent about her husband’s return. What ensues is a simple but touching story about emotional connections, the obligations of friendship, and the repercussions of violence.
          Even with genuine-sounding dialogue by screenwriter Alan Sharp, who wrote a handful of offbeat ’70s Westerns, The Hired Hand is more effective as a tone poem than as a narrative. Zsigmond’s photography is wonderfully naturalistic, full of blazing colors and moody silhouettes, so the movie looks like an expertly shot travelogue. Editor Frank Mazzola, who receives an unusual credit for “film editing and montages,” works wonders with Zsigmond’s footage, solarizing and/or tweaking speeds to create lyrical passages set to Langhorne’s downbeat melodies—these montages are gorgeous meditations on sensation and texture.
          Perhaps Fonda’s most interesting directorial choice is steering the cast, himself included, toward restraint. Bloom, Fonda, and Oates speak so infrequently, and with such economy, that silences says as much as their words. Similarly, these characters guard their emotions so closely that we find ourselves peering into their eyes for glimpses of inner life. The Hired Hand falls short of greatness because of its lack of ambition and its overreliance on familiar themes, but as a mood piece, it’s superlative.

The Hired Hand: GROOVY

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Family Plot (1976)


          Impeded by a muddy narrative that lacks a clearly defined main character, the Alfred Hitchcock comedy-thriller Family Plot has earned a dubious reputation over the years. In fact, it’s generally accepted that the picture represented a steep decline in Hitchcock’s artistry, which is unfortunate because it ended up being his final feature. Working once again with his North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Hitchcock obviously saw the potential for an entertaining mix of fright and fun in the Victor Canning novel from which Family Plot was adapted. The title stems from a comparatively minor story point, in which a principal character discovers that a grave is empty, meaning the person supposedly buried there must still be alive. That kind of morbid detail infused many a Hitchcock plot, and, indeed, some elements of Family Plot suit the Master of Suspense’s signature style. However, the movie never comes together in a satisfying way.
          The main threads of the story involve a con-artist couple and a kidnapping couple. The con artists are fake psychic Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her private-investigator boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern). They’ve stumbled onto a chance for an easy paycheck, provided they can find the long-lost nephew of a rich, elderly woman. As for the kidnappers, they are Fran (Karen Black) and Arthur (William Devane). These two are in the midst of committing a string of abductions, collecting gigantic diamonds as ransom payments. (Arthur runs a jewelry store, so he knows how to fence the rocks.) Although the manner in which these narratives intertwine is pure Hitchcock orchestration, the mechanics of the story are murky and unbelievable.
           Far too many scenes rely upon coincidences, last-minute rescues, and stupidity on the part of the characters. Moreover, the first hour of the movie drags because it takes Hitchcock an eternity to reveal where the story is headed. That’s not to say the film completely lacks charm. Although Black and Devane do rather ordinary work, Dern’s disquieting intensity complements Harris’ campy performance as a “seer” who speaks in tongues for dramatic effect. Had their strange characters occupied the center of the movie, Family Plot might have coalesced into a quirky black comedy. Alas, Hitchcock spends nearly as much time detailing the kidnappers’ elaborate methodology, suggesting the director couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on jokes or jolts.

Family Plot: FUNKY

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)


Made by a group of people whom, one fears, believed their story could help change the world, this silly Christian drama depicts a saintly layperson whose goodness and perseverance transform various hard-luck cases in a gang-ridden section of New York City. Pat Boone, the Bible-thumping crooner who achieved fame with his clean-cut movies and songs in the ’50s, plays David Wilkerson, a Midwestern do-gooder whose parish takes up a collection to pay his way to the Big Apple so he can intervene on behalf of street kids caught up in gang violence. Absurdly naïve and square, David zeroes in on Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada), the hot-tempered boss of a Latino gang, as well as Nicky’s troubled squeeze, Rosa (Jacqueline Giroux). David presents himself to these two and their cohorts, repeatedly delivering the message that, “Someone loves you, and his name is Jesus Christ.” Nicky responds by brandishing a switchblade and threatening to cut David unless he goes away. Instead, Our Intrepid Hero finds a place to stay with local Christians, and then spends day after day giving street-corner sermons and offering comfort to gang members who come to him about various crises. Meanwhile, a turf war brews between Nicky’s crew and an African-American gang. As he tries to defuse this explosive situation, David somehow manages to persuade Rosa to give up both heroin and prostitution, so the example of her “salvation” changes Nicky’s mind. In the movie’s goofy climax, David stages a revival meeting and invites the warring gangs to attend, but before the event devolves into a bloodbath, Nicky announces that he’s found Jesus and wishes to renounce violence. (During Nicky’s epiphany, special effects depict a luminous cross appearing over Boone’s head, and background singers coo the words, “God loves Nicky Cruz!”) The leader of the black gang says volumes by watching this spectacle and then announcing, “Wow, man, I really don’t dig this scene tonight at all.” Sensible viewers will have the same reaction to The Cross and the Switchblade, which combines amateurish acting, ham-fisted writing, and perfunctory direction into nearly two hours of drab sermonizing inspired by the experiences of the real-life Wilkerson.

The Cross and the Switchblade: LAME

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Zabriskie Point (1970)


          Even though Zabriskie Point is the epitome of counterculture-era cinematic pretention, the film is undeniably arresting. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, continuing the English-language adventures he began with the sexy ’60s hit Blow Up, set out to make a tone poem about the flower-power generation. To achieve this effect, Antonioni and his various co-writers (including Sam Shepard) juxtaposed a pair of archetypal characters against the symbolically and visually potent backdrop of an American desert. Unfortunately, using metaphors instead of real characters, and representative predicaments instead of real situations, gives Zabriskie Point a desperate quality—every frame of the movie strains to reach the level of High Art. Shots are photographed from oblique angles that form beautiful but nonsensical compositions; locations are either absurdly picturesque or outrageously ugly; the music score by Pink Floyd (and others) winds and whirls through weird psychedelic textures; and even the attractive leading actors feel like colors Antonioni plucked off his palette.
          The story, which is more of a series of minor events than a proper narrative, goes like this. Mark (Mark Frechette) is a radical student at a university in Los Angeles. During a student demonstration, he aims a gun at a policeman, but someone else shoots the cop instead. Nonetheless, Mark flees and gets accused of the crime, making him a fugitive. Meanwhile, Daria (Daria Halprin) is an ambivalent young woman working for (and possibly sleeping with) an Establishment figure, macho real-estate developer Lee (Rod Taylor). The protagonists meet when Mark steals a small plane and flies to Death Valley, where Daria is driving to join Lee for a business meeting. Mark buzzes Daria’s car with his plane, then lands. Soon, the duo wander through the remote wilderness of the desert, eventually having sex in a notorious sequence: The kids’ lovemaking is so beautiful and pure it causes visions of other writhing couples to appear all around them, leading to a trippy tapestry of hippies humping across the horizon.
          This being an early-’70s social-issues movie, the good vibes give way to a heavy scene, with lots of “poetic” violence during the climax. It’s entirely possible that Zabriskie Point is about something, although the interpretations that immediately come to mind seem naïve and stilly. (Capitalism equals death, nothing beautiful lasts, sex is the only real honesty, and so on.) One hopes Antonioni was aiming higher than that, and, indeed, critics have spent years trying to determine whether the film is legitimately artistic or merely audacious. Still, there’s no denying that Zabriskie Point is among the must-see pictures of its era, since it presents the angst and idealism of a turbulent time in a singular fashion. As the narrator of the movie’s fabulously vague trailer muses, “Zabriskie Point—how you get there depends on where you’re at.”

Zabriskie Point: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Slams (1973)


          Ostensibly a blaxploitation picture because it stars Jim Brown, the imposing football player-turned-actor, The Slams is actually a straightforward prison-break flick with a sprinkling of urban style. Curtis Hook (Brown) helps steal a briefcase full of a dope, as well as a half-million dollars in cash, from organized-crime types. However, Hook’s accomplices turn on him, so he kills them and gets a nasty gunshot wound for his trouble. After destroying the drugs and hiding the cash, Hook tries to drive to a hospital but runs off the road in view of a cop, leading to his incarceration. Once he’s in prison, Hook becomes a target for convicts after his stolen loot, and he gets into hassles with a corrupt guard and a mobster. Hoping to wait out his jail term, Hook discovers that the building where he stashed the stolen cash is scheduled for demolition, so he enlists his girlfriend and a pal for assistance in busting out of the joint.
          The Slams has some gruesome murders, and Hooks’ climactic escape attempt is fairly suspenseful, so the movie is pleasantly diverting even though it’s not memorable. Brown does his usual super-cool thing, working badass mojo during action scenes and likeable swagger while making time with his lady; in other words, he’s on macho autopilot, but his reserved quality works for a story about a dude keeping secrets from everyone around him. None of the supporting players has much impact, though leading lady Judy Pace is sexy and it’s a hoot to see Ted Cassidy playing Hooks’ main prison-yard antagonist. The six-foot-nine character player best known as “Lurch” from the ’60s TV series The Addams Family, Cassidy naturally looked like a cartoon character (and sounded like one, thanks to his impossibly deep voice), so he cuts an appropriately outsized figure.
          The Slams was directed by Jonathan Kaplan while he was making his way up from the B-movie slum of sexploitation movies to the legitimate terrain of studio pictures like The Accused (1988). Kaplan keeps the movie fast and violent, though he didn’t fully commit to the kitschy joys of blaxploitation until his next movie, the luridly entertaining Truck Turner (1974). (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Slams: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) & Return to Boggy Creek (1977)


          Hollywood set decorator Charles B. Pierce launched his career as a low-budget auteur by producing, directing, and photographing this ersatz documentary about sightings of a Sasquatch-like creature in the swamps of Fouke, Arkansas. Presented with very little synchronized sound (most of the commentary is provided by a narrator), the movie trudges through dull re-creations of encounters with the shambling man-beast. Pierce isn’t a bad cinematographer, at least when he’s got enough light for proper exposures (which isn’t always), so some sequences have passable atmosphere. With Pierce’s camera picking out evocative details like the way tree shadows fall across murky water, the best images in The Legend of Boggy Creek reveal why Pierce made his living embellishing cinematic visuals. Unfortunately, every other aspect of the picture explains why his directorial endeavors were limited to cheap drive-in attractions. Working with screenwriter Earl E. Smith, Pierce fails to generate any narrative momentum. It’s true that certain vignettes of slow-witted rednecks tromping around their backwoods hovels have a certain lurid appeal, but Pierce’s inability to deliver the horror-flick goods grows tiresome—since the picture comprises scenes of people reacting to something the audience cannot see, the whole movie is a tease.
          Worse, the movie feels padded, even though it runs less than 90 minutes. This is especially true when Pierce cuts to montages featuring godawful original songs. Yes, there’s actually a “Creature Theme,” a melancholy country ballad explaining the loneliness felt by the unseen monster. (Sample lyrics: “Perhaps he dimly wonders why/ there is no other such as I.”) Still, many ’70s moviegoers found The Legend of Boggy Creek sufficiently unsettling to make it a substantial hit—the movie earned a reported $20 million despite costing only $100,000 to make.
          An inevitable sequel followed in 1977, but Return to Boggy Creek was made without Pierce’s involvement; furthermore, Return to Boggy Creek is a fiction film rather than a fake documentary, and its also a kiddie movie. The plot concerns redneck children getting rescued from danger by a benevolent Bigfoot, and the biggest star in the cast is “Mary Ann” from Gilligan’s Island, the one and only Dawn Wells, who plays the kids’ worried mama. (Still cute as hell, by the way!) Interminably slow and stuffed with embarrassingly bad acting—the main character is played by amateurish teenager Dana Plato, who later achieved fame on the sitcom Diff’rent StrokesReturn to Boggy Creek is vanilla-flavored tripe of the least digestible variety. Apparently content to pretend Return to Boggy Creek didnt exist, franchise originator Pierce returned with an “official” sequel, 1985’s The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II, widely regarded as one of the worst movies of the ’80s. After Pierce died in 2010, a new gang of no-budget filmmakers created the quasi-remake The Legend of Boggy Creek (2011), a home-video production featuring a guy in a gorilla suit.

The Legend of Boggy Creek: LAME
Return to Boggy Creek: SQUARE

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Valachi Papers (1972)


          Although the mob drama The Valachi Papers hit theaters a few months after the explosive release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the movie’s origins date back to the early ’60s. In 1963, real-life Mafia soldier Joseph Valachi gave testimony before a Senate committee confirming the existence of the Cosa Notra in America, and during subsequent interviews and testimony, Valachi revealed secrets about the composition and conduct of U.S. crime families. Author Peter Maas, the true-crime expert who later wrote the nonfiction book that became Serpico (1973), gained access to Valachi during the last years of the criminal’s life and wrote a book called The Valachi Papers, which producer Dino Di Laurentiis turned into this film.
          Directed by Bond-movie veteran Terence Young, the picture jams four decades of murderous activity into 125 brisk minutes. The story begins with an aging Valachi (Charles Bronson) in prison, afraid for his life after receiving the “kiss of death” from godfather Vito Genovese (Joseph Wiseman). Willing to trade information for protection, Valachi spills his guts to short-tempered federal agent Ryan (Gerald O’Loughlin), triggering flashbacks that depict Valachi’s indoctrination and integration into the Genovese organization.
          The Valachi Papers has an awkward vibe because some of the scenes were shot with synchronized sound in English on American soil, while others were shot silently on Italian soundstages; the Italian scenes, per the norm of that country’s film industry at the time, are dubbed into English, leading to strange moments of Italian actors mouthing English words in a way that doesn’t quite match the soundtrack. And that’s not the only problem.
          A subplot about Valachi’s relationship with his girlfriend and eventual wife (played, of course, by Bronson’s real-life spouse, Jill Ireland) adds virtually nothing to the movie. Furthermore, the film’s most memorable scene (in which a mobster is castrated for sleeping with another gangster’s woman) was fabricated by the filmmakers in order to spice up the otherwise fact-based narrative. However, the biggest shortcoming of The Valachi Papers is the way the leading character’s nature shifts from one scene to the next.
          Sometimes, Valachi is depicted as an honorable man stuck in a dishonorable world, and at other times, he’s simply a hoodlum who prefers thievery to working for a living. One presumes the idea was to make Valachi seem sympathetic, but since the real-life man was a thug-turned-traitor, nobility was probably not high among his attributes. That said, there’s probably enough pulpy spectacle to make The Valachi Papers interesting to crime-movie fans: In addition to scenes of outlandish violence, the picture features arresting depictions of Mafia rituals, notably Valachi’s somber initiation.

The Valachi Papers: FUNKY

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Watership Down (1978)


          Notwithstanding a few Disney movies with unforgettable tragedies—we hardly knew ye, Bambi’s mother—the British bummer Watership Down might be the most depressing animated feature ever made. Adapted from Richard Adams’ popular fantasy novel, which was originally published in 1972, the film depicts the travails of a group of rabbits living in the English countryside.
          When the story begins, a young rabbit named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) has an apocalyptic vision of his clan’s warren being destroyed. Fiver and his older brother, Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), share the vision with their contemptuous leader, Chief Rabbit (voiced by Ralph Richardson), who dismisses their worries. Sure that danger is looming, Fiver and Hazel lead a group of friends away from the warren in search of a new life. So begins an adventure that involves ecological devastation, existential quandaries, lethal predation, reproductive angst, social strife, and other heavy issues.
          Written, produced, and directed by theater-trained Martin Rosen, Watership Down is an elegant piece of work. The illustration style aspires to both Disneyesque levels of pictorial beauty and unprecedented degrees of realism. Animals are drawn to resemble their real-life counterparts as closely as possible, while backgrounds comprise resplendent watercolor tableaux of foreboding fields and ominous skies. Combined with a moody musical backdrop supervised by Marcus Dods, the visuals create a downbeat atmosphere reflecting the constant presence of death in the lives of these worried little bunnies.
          However, the narrative of Adams’ novel is extremely complex, so even though Rosen somewhat simplified the tale, Watership Down is still a challenge to follow. Clarity is further diminished by the choice to depict the rabbits realistically—it’s often difficult to tell one character from the other. Nonetheless, the seriousness of the film’s approach is impressive. Representing a genuine attempt to use animation for adult storytelling, Watership Down features equal measures of despair and gore and intelligence, never once pandering to viewers with cuteness.
          When the movie reaches full flight, which isn’t too often, one can see the lyricism Rosen must have envisioned. The opening sequence, a super-stylized prologue depicting the history of the world according to rabbits, sets a high bar of concision and potency the movie never quite reaches again, though a mid-movie montage set to the ethereal theme song “Bright Eyes” (sung by Art Garfunkel) is highly evocative.
          The movie also benefits from a voice cast including such reliable British thespians as Joss Ackland, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern, and Roy Kinnear. (The less said about Zero Mostel’s screechy vocal performance as a helpful seagull, the better.) Briers and Hurt are especially good, infusing their work with palpable emotion.

Watership Down: GROOVY

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)


          A closely observed character drama with a few thriller elements thrown in for added tension, The Romantic Englishwoman has all the hallmarks of director Joseph Losey’s best work: evocative European locations, immaculate performances, subtle writing, and an undercurrent of menace. So, even though the story is nominally about Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson), the dissatisfied wife of successful novelist Lewis (Michael Caine), it’s also about Thomas (Helmut Berger), a German freeloader who claims to be a poet but really makes his living as a drug courier. These characters muddle through life, the Brits narcotized by their boring routine and the German energized by the dangerous unpredictability of his existence, until their collision produces an emotional explosion with lasting repercussions.
          Elizabeth, for instance, is so tired of Lewis’ withholding quality that she does things like walking across her lawn naked in full view of a neighbor—anything to rebel against the numbing status quo. When she meets Thomas while on holiday in Germany, Elizabeth inadvertently broadcasts so much need that Thomas senses an opportunity. Then, after Thomas loses a drug shipment and flees the continent to avoid reprisal, he arrives at Elizabeth’s doorstep pretending to be a fan of Lewis’ work. Handicapped by an artist’s ego, Thomas savors the younger man’s fawning attention (well, as fawning as this cold-blooded operator can be), even though Lewis senses the physical charge sparking between his houseguest and his wife.
          Working his signature slow-burn vibe, Caine meticulously illustrates the way Lewis drives himself crazy with visions of his wife’s possible infidelity; when Elizabeth and Thomas finally consummate their attraction, it’s as if Lewis has perversely willed the event into being. Jackson, flying high during the most vibrant stretch of her career, paints a complex portrait of a woman driven by guilt, insecurity, longing, and regret—she’s a loving mother to her young son, but also a short-tempered harridan who attacks her nanny when she believes the nanny has captured Thomas’ affections.
          The Romantic Englishwoman takes its time getting where it’s going, so the first hour of the movie often seems repetitive and unfocused. However, once all the pieces are in place, the second hour gains intensity because romantic intrigue is coupled with the threat of Thomas’ drug-business associates targeting him for revenge. One might argue that Thomas Wiseman, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based and cowrote the script with Tom Stoppard, should have cut a few subplots to make the story flow more smoothly, and it’s true that Losey indulges his penchant for slow pacing by exploring narrative discursions. Nonetheless, when The Romantic Englishwoman connects, it’s quite potent, particularly in the domestic scenes of Elizabeth and Lewis pouring salt in each other’s psychological wounds.

The Romantic Englishwoman: GROOVY

Friday, April 6, 2012

Las Vegas Lady (1975)


Unless you’ve got a soft spot for one of the leading actors, or nostalgic affection for vintage footage of Sin City, there’s little reason to explore the low-budget heist thriller Las Vegas Lady. Ineptly written, poorly acted, and unattractively photographed, it’s a tedious mélange of clichés strung together by a vacuous storyline that the filmmakers can’t even bother to present coherently. The gist of the piece is that Lucky (Stella Stevens), a longtime resident of Las Vegas, agrees to rob the “bank” for a high-stakes card game on behalf of a mysterious benefactor. She recruits a trapeze artist (Linda Scruggs) and a waitress (Lynne Moody) for help, then struggles to hide her activities from her boyfriend (Stuart Whitman), a security guard at the casino Lucky plans to rob. As with most drive-in dreck from the Crown International assembly line, Las Vegas Lady makes very little sense. Since Lucky seems to be friendly with virtually everyone in Vegas, why can’t she make a regular living? And since her boyfriend just put a deposit on a ranch outside of town, why doesn’t she just leave Vegas with him to start a better life? More importantly, given that Lucky is not a career criminal, why was she recruited in the first place? (The only credential she ever mentions is that her breasts can distract men, which is true enough.) The picture’s wheezy plot is merely a set-up for a twist ending, but the twist is even more befuddling than what came before: Once you discover the identity of Lucky’s benefactor, you’ll wonder why he went to so much trouble. Anyway, everything in this movie is thoroughly dull and inconsequential, and the excitement level is dangerously low from the convoluted opening to the silly shoot-’em-up climax. Stevens looks great and Whitman provides a comfortingly macho presence, but their appeal isn’t nearly sufficient to justify enduring this movie. (The rest of the cast is forgettable, though Stevens’ son, future B-movie hunk Andrew Stevens, appears briefly.) In the vernacular of its location, Las Vegas Lady rolls a snake-eyes.

Las Vegas Lady: LAME