Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hanover Street (1979)


          While not a career zenith for any of its major participants, except perhaps leading lady Lesley-Anne Down, Hanover Street is a respectable World War II romance filled with old-fashioned themes of heroism and sacrifice. The movie’s reliance on narrative coincidence is a problem, and one wishes writer-director Peter Hyams had moved past archetypes to investigate his characters more deeply, but Hanover Street delivers much of what it promises—the stars are attractive, their onscreen love affair is complicated by unusual circumstances, and the movie spins inexorably toward an action-packed climax. So, even though it’s all a bit rudimentary in conception, the full package—accentuated by David Watkin’s shadowy cinematography and John Barry’s plaintive musical score—goes down smoothly.
          Harrison Ford, giving the most satisfying performance of his wilderness years between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), stars as David Halloran, a U.S. pilot stationed near London circa 1943. After a quick meet-cute with British nurse Margaret Sellinger (Down), David persuades his new acquaintance to join him for a long afternoon of tea and conversation. Although they fall in love almost instantly, Margaret reveals she’s married—but then the trauma of being caught in an air raid pushes them together. They begin an affair. This affects both of their lives badly, because David loses his combat edge while worrying about when he’s going to see Margaret again, and Margaret introduces a chill into her marriage to Paul Sellinger (Christopher Plummer). Paul was a teacher during peacetime, but he’s now an officer with British Intelligence—and when he feels Margaret drifting away, he recklessly volunteers for a mission behind enemy lines, hoping to win back her respect.
          The coincidence with which Hyams merges the fates of these characters stretches believability, but Hyams commits wholeheartedly to the ensuing melodrama, and the second half of the movie—when the story shifts from romance to thrills—is brisk and tense. As far as the actors go, Ford sulks a bit too much, though he’s sufficiently dashing during action scenes to compensate for his moodiness; and if Down fails to provide much substance behind her mesmerizing beauty, that’s acceptable as well, since she’s primarily meant to be an object of desire. Plummer is, predictably, the picture’s saving grace, lending elegance, humor, and vulnerability to his characterization. FYI, Hanover Street is far more palatable than the similarly themed Yanks, which was released later the same year—although the latter picture, directed by John Schlesinger, is more sophisticated, it’s a lifeless museum piece compared to Hyams’ fast-moving crowd-pleaser.

Hanover Street: GROOVY

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Rose (1979)


          Beautiful in moments, harrowing in others, and soulful despite a derivative origin and a preponderance of clichés, The Rose is best remembered as the vehicle that drove singer/actress Bette Midler to international superstardom. In addition to providing Midler with her biggest hit song to date (the film’s poetic title track), The Rose earned the entertainer her first Oscar nomination. Combined with several other Oscar nods and a sold box-0ffice performance, this amount of success represented an unlikely turn of events for a project that seemed destined to fail. Originally developed as a biopic of the late, great rock singer Janis Joplin, the project was fictionalized when negotiations for the use of Joplin’s likeness and music came to naught; furthermore, the producers failed to hire eccentric British director Ken Russell, who had scored a major hit with the rock musical Tommy (1975) and therefore seemed the safe bet for this sort of material.
          Yet these setbacks turned out to be fortuitous, since moving away from Joplin’s life story allowed the screenwriters to create a self-contained mythos for their protagonist, and losing Russell led the producers to Mark Rydell, whose sensitive direction grounds the movie in a way Russell never would have attempted. None of this is to say The Rose is a great movie—quite the contrary, it’s rather average in terms of narrative content, since the storyline essentially throws various rock & roll signifiers into a Cuisinart. However, the picture has coherence thanks to Midler’s impassioned performance, Rydell’s unwavering focus on the tragedy of a performer’s downward spiral, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s elegant cinematography. So, even though The Rose is a simultaneously tarted-up and watered-down version of Joplin’s journey, it’s emotionally arresting.
          The actual plot is simple—as raunchy blues/rock singer Mary Rose Foster becomes famous, the pressure to deliver consistent success drives her toward drinking, drugs, and philandering. By the time she’s a superstar known simply as “The Rose,” her fragile self-image has crumbled, so she rushes toward self-destructive oblivion. The ineffectual men sharing her life include Houston Dyer (Frederick Forrest), a sweet boyfriend whose affections aren’t enough to pull Mary Rose back from the brink, and Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), a domineering manager whose ambition and greed outstrip his concern for Mary Rose’s welfare.
          The Rose takes its seediness seriously, so Midler is often presented as unattractively as possible, both in terms of her slovenly physical appearance and her screeching tirades during binges. Midler makes these unseemly aspects watchable with the commitment of her acting, though just barely so—were it not for Midler’s innate likability, which shines through even at the worst of times, Mary Rose would be a completely unsympathetic character. After all, one can’t help but ask why Mary Rose doesn’t simply quit when things get awful. Alas, The Rose doesn’t go that deep, so we’re left with a finely textured surface—which is probably enough, at least for a single viewing.
          As for the music, it’s a mixed bag, even though Midler’s vocal performances are astounding from start to finish. The best hard rockers are covers of “real” songs (“Fire Down Below,” “Stay With Me,” “When a Man Loves a Woman”), but the ersatz numbers composed for the movie work fine. And if the title song is a bit too gentle for a Joplin-esque singer’s set list, that’s easy to overlook since Midler’s rendition has so much feeling.

The Rose: GROOVY

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Piranha (1972)


Starring drive-in stalwart William Smith, Piranha is a grungy thriller produced in South America that bears no relation to the cult-fave 1978 Joe Dante flick of the same name. (In fact, not a single killer fish appears onscreen in this movie, excepting the one featured in a stock shot running beneath the main title.) The gist of the piece is that an adventurous American nature photographer, Terry (Anha Capri), heads to Venezuela for work, accompanied by her brother, womanizing party boy Art (Tom Simcox). They hire Jim (Peter Brown) as a guide, but soon fall into the web of Caribe (Smith), a swaggering gringo who promises to help the crew find interesting photographic subjects, like a remote diamond mine. In its broadest strokes, the plot of Piranha is okay—Terry’s got baggage from childhood trauma, Jim’s romantically interested in Terry, Caribe is an operator with a secret agenda, and so on. Plus, since it turns out Caribe is actually a psycho trying to draw Terry away from civilization so he can rape her and kill her companions, it’s not as if the picture wants for dramatic content. The problem, or at least one of them, is the directionless script and the padded running time. Piranha contains perhaps 30 minutes of purposeful(ish) dramatic scenes, and the rest of the picture comprises endless montages of jungle animals, primitive locals, and other National Geographic-type material. There’s even an interminable motorcycle race. Compounded by the amateur nature of the acting—excepting Smith, who is as menacing as possible given the movie’s stupid dialogue—the narrative dead weight makes Piranha a long journey not worth taking.

Piranha: SQUARE

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bugs Bunny: Superstar (1975)


          You might think a fluffy documentary tracing the origins of a popular cartoon character could evade controversy. You’d be wrong. Although it only includes about 30 minutes of original material (the rest of the movie comprises full-length vintage cartoons), Bugs Bunny: Superstar managed to aggravate long-simmering tensions among the mad geniuses behind Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Porky, and the other Looney Tunes mainstays. Watching the movie today, it’s not hard to see why—Bob Clampett, one of several prolific Looney Tunes directors, hosts the movie in scripted sequences that suggest he single-handedly oversaw the creation of every major character. Considering the equally important roles of animators including Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones, Clampett’s amiably megalomaniacal dominance of Bugs Bunny: Superstar is a major disservice to film history. However, if you can tolerate Clampett’s inexplicable narcissism, Bugs Bunny: Superstar is mildly entertaining.
          The documentary bits, which are narrated by Orson Welles, feature Clampett in an office filled with artifacts like animation cels and character-model statues. He shares interesting trivia, such as the number of cels used in an average ’40s Looney Tune—10,000 drawings for seven minutes of screen time—and he introduces wonderful home-movie footage of the animators who kept “Termite Terrace,” the building on the Warner Bros. lot where the ’toons were made, lively. Clampett’s contemporaries, including Freleng and Jones, appear during brief interview clips, mostly spewing platitudes about how much they enjoyed the working environment at Termite Terrace, so Clampett—with his loud, patch-covered windbreaker and his helmet-like hairpiece—emerges as the only memorable non-animated figure. (Even voice actor Mel Blanc and music composer Carl Stalling, both of whom were crucial to the greatness of Looney Tunes, are relegated to sidekick status.)
          As for the shorts featured in the movie, they’re okay—although even mediocre Looney Tunes are entertaining, Clampett-directed work is favored to a fault. (Seriously, where are the Chuck Jones-helmed masterpieces including What’s Opera, Doc?) Anyway, while Bugs Bunny: Superstar wasn’t actually produced by Warner Bros., Warner Bros. built on the documentary’s minor success by making additional Looney Tunes anthologies, beginning with the 1979 release The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, a compilation flick assembled by Jones; further anthology pictures were released in the ’80s. As for Bugs Bunny: Superstar, it’s best viewed today as an interesting museum piece, since various DVD bonus-feature docs produced by Warner Bros. in the 2000s tell the Looney Tunes story with greater accuracy.

Bugs Bunny: Superstar: FUNKY

Friday, July 27, 2012

Goldengirl (1979)


          If nothing else, the sports drama Goldengirl delivers on its title—the film is crammed with adoring shots of leading lady Susan Anton, a gleaming Amazon with a lustrous blonde mane. Yet Anton, while not exactly horrible, is the picture’s weakest link. The fault is not entirely hers, since screenwriter John Kohn and director Joseph Sargent failed to provide her with a fleshed-out role—but because Anton is in nearly every scene, her superficiality defines the movie.
          Story-wise, Goldengirl is a cautionary tale with a touch of sci-fi. During the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, top sports agent Jack Dryden (James Coburn) is asked to join the team preparing Goldine (Anton) for an unprecedented feat—winning three gold medals in sprinting events. As Jack is shown around a remote mountaintop training facility, we learn that Goldine—nicknamed “Goldengirl”—has been conditioned from childhood for Olympic victory. Her adoptive father, Serafin (Curt Jurgens), is an obsessed Germanic scientist whose work may or may not have begun during the Third Reich’s grotesque eugenics experiments.
          Jack is considered crucial to the Goldengirl team because he’s got the connections to line up millions in endorsement deals if she wins all three medals, thus recouping the money that’s been invested in her. The more the story progresses, however, the more apparent it becomes that Serafin is a lunatic who’s been pumping Goldine full of dangerous hormones for years, simply to gain an international spotlight with which to showcase his crackpot theories about human evolution.
          Based on a novel by Peter Lear, Goldengirl could (and should) have been a provocative conspiracy movie, with the innocent Goldine caught in the machinations of commerce and megalomania. Unfortunately, the film is diffuse and passive, so no real tension develops until the last 30 minutes, when it’s revealed that running is dangerous to Goldine’s health. It’s also incredibly distracting that Anton looks nothing like an athlete—she’s lean but soft, and she wears dense mascara even during major races. Furthermore, the name actors surrounding Anton—in addition to those mentioned, Leslie Caron plays a shrink and Robert Culp plays a journalist—perform their paycheck gigs indifferently. Compounding Goldengirl’s second-rate status is the fact that America didn’t actually participate in the 1980 Olympics—after this picture was filmed, the U.S. pulled out of the Moscow games in response to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Goldengirl: FUNKY

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Earthquake (1974)


          Pure junk that nonetheless provides abundant guilty pleasure, Earthquake was a pinnacle of sorts for the disaster-movie genre. Executive producer Jennings Lang was recruited by Universal Pictures to copy the formula that Poseidon Adventure mastermind Irwin Allen had perfected at rival studio 20th-Century Fox, so Lang commissioned a thrill-a-minute script (co-written by Mario Puzo) and hired a large ensemble of mid-level actors. The resulting movie, as produced and directed by fading studio-era helmer Mark Robson, is a cheesefest replete with bad acting, horrible clothes, and ridiculous storylines. However, since those are exactly the kitschy qualities that fans of the disaster genre dig, Earthquake became a major hit, earning nearly $80 million despite costing only $7 million. Therefore, Earthquake represents the disaster genre in full bloom.
          While there’s not much point in discussing the actual plot—there’s a giant earthquake in L.A., in case you haven’t guessed—listing a few of the characters should give the flavor of the piece. Leading man Charlton Heston plays Stewart Graff, a businessman whose rich father-in-law, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), offers him a company presidency in exchange for staying married to shrewish Remy Royce-Graff (Ava Gardner); meanwhile, Stewart is screwing around with a younger woman, Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold). Bullish police offer Lou Slade (George Kennedy, of course) spends most of the movie watching out for Rosa (Victoria Principal), a busty young woman who wears her hair in some sort of Latina Afro, because she’s mixed up with a motorcycle-riding daredevil (Richard Roundtree) and a psychotic stalker (Marjoe Gortner). Oh, and Walter Matthau plays a bizarre cameo as a drunk dressed in head-to-toe polyester, complete with a flaming-red pimp hat.
          Virtually every melodramatic cliché from ’70s cinema is represented somewhere in Earthquake, which treats seismic activity as a cosmic metaphor for the uncertainty of life. And by “metaphor,” I really mean “narrative contrivance,” because the script for Earthquake exists far below the level of literary aspiration; this movie’s idea of storytelling is stirring up trite conflict before adding tremors that kill people in exciting ways. However, some of the big-budget effects scenes are enjoyable in a tacky sort of way, and the histrionic nature of Heston’s and Kennedy’s acting keeps their scenes jacked up to an appropriately goofy level of intensity. Plus, during its most outrageous scenes—picture Roundtree performing Evel Knievel-style motorcycle stunts as Principal cheers him while wearing an undersized T-shirt that displays his logo across her ample bosom—Earthquake embraces its low nature by providing shameless distraction.

Earthquake: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

S*P*Y*S (1974)


          Funnyman Elliot Gould was so prolific during the ’70s that his screen career ran along several parallel tracks—highbrow projects with Robert Altman, cameos in all-star movies, and so on. Yet perhaps the most interesting angle of his ’70s output was his pairing with various costars in buddy pictures—during the ’70s, it seemed Gould was Hollywood’s sparring partner of choice. Gould did one picture each with Robert Blake, James Caan, and George Segal, but he only went down the buddy-movie road twice with one actor: Donald Sutherland. Sardonic New Yorker Gould and reserved Canadian Sutherland first teamed, of course, in Altman’s 1970 antiwar classic M*A*S*H, playing irreverent surgeons. Their reunion, unfortunately, is as forgettable as M*A*S*H was memorable. S*P*Y*S—which was given an asterix-laden title solely for the purpose of luring M*A*S*H fans into theaters—is a dull, inept, noisy espionage caper that wastes the talents of everyone involved. Gould and Sutherland play bumbling American secret agents stationed in Europe who realize they’ve been targeted for assassination. Disillusioned, the men join forces to exploit their international contacts for a get-rich scheme involving the sale of important government secrets. This precipitates an uninteresting parade of chase scenes, double-crosses, and sight gags.
          Directed by capable journeyman Irvin Kershner, whose movies always looked good even when they were dragged into mediocrity by lame source material, S*P*Y*S features handsome European locations, and most of the screen time is devoted to Gould and Sutherland exchanging banter. However, nothing clicks. The stars lack defined roles, so they’re forced to vamp through desperate physical and verbal shtick, and the plot is so convoluted and inconsequential it’s impossible to care what happens. (At its worst, the movie features Gould drugging Sutherland into a seizure so they can get out of paying for an expensive meal.) S*P*Y*S also features that true rarity—an atrocious musical score by the normally great Jerry Goldsmith. Dominated by an annoying synthesizer melody that sounds like it’s being played on a mechanized kazoo, the music feels like everything else in S*P*Y*S—a futile attempt to persuade viewers they’re seeing a comedy.

S*P*Y*S: LAME

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Living Free (1972)


          The 1966 movie Born Free won a slew of awards (mainly for its music) and engendered widespread goodwill for telling the inspiring real-life story of George and Joy Adamson, two English naturalists who, while living in Eastern Africa, raised three orphan lion cubs from infancy to adulthood. By the end of Born Free, which was adapted from Joy Adamson’s book of the same name, the leading characters had sent two of the grown lions to safe havens in European zoos but set their favorite, Elsa, free—in the movie’s memorable second half, the Adamsons teach Elsa how to hunt so Elsa can build a new life with a mate. Eventually, the lioness has three cubs of her own.
          Born Free had a profound impact on actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who portrayed the Adamsons and became animal-preservation activists themselves. McKenna and Travers starred in the fiction feature An Elephant Called Slowly and the documentary The Lions Are Free, both released in 1969, but the actors did not return to their signature roles once Born Free got a proper sequel, Living Free, in 1972. Instead, Susan Hampshire plays Joy and Nigel Davenport plays George in this gentle story about the Adamsons becoming the de facto guardians of Elsa’s cubs after Elsa dies from an infection. (Adding to this picture’s convoluted lineage, Living Free was adapted from a later book in Joy Adamsons’ series, rather than her immediate literary follow-up to Born Free.)
          Realizing that domesticating big cats probably wasn’t a great idea the first time around, the Adamsons decide to capture Elsa’s cubs and deliver them to the Serengeti Animal Preserve, where they can, well, live free. Thus, most of Living Free comprises scenes of the Adamsons trying to keep the cubs out of trouble and safely cage them for transport. This is a bit more interesting than it sounds, thanks to terrific footage of real cats and impressive location photography. Additionally, Hampshire and Davenport do a fair job of showing the cracks in their characters’ stiff-upper-life personas; the anxiety and frustration of attempting something nearly impossible wears on them. The ending is never in much doubt, since this is heartwarming family fare, but persuasive visuals more or less carry the day.
          After the release of Living Free, the Adamsons’ adventures shifted to the small screen for a short-lived 1974 TV series (titled Born Free); later, Elsa resurfaced in the 1996 TV movie Born Free: A New Adventure, with fresh characters taking the place of the Adamsons.

Living Free: FUNKY

Monday, July 23, 2012

Heaven Can Wait (1978)


          One of the most endearing love stories of the ’70s, Heaven Can Wait boasts an incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera. The flawless cast includes Warren Beatty, Dyan Cannon, Julie Christie, Vincent Gardenia, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, James Mason, and Jack Warden; the script was written by Beatty, Henry, Elaine May, and Oscar-winner Robert Towne; and the picture was co-directed by Beatty and Henry. With notorious perfectionist Beatty orchestrating the contributions of these remarkable people, Heaven Can Wait unfolds seamlessly, mixing jokes and sentiment in an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that’s executed so masterfully one can enjoy the film’s easy pleasures without feeling guilty afterward.
          Furthermore, the fact that the underlying material is recycled rather than original works in the picture’s favor—Beatty found a story that had already been proven in various different incarnations, cleverly modernized the narrative, and built on success. No wonder the film became a massive hit, landing at No. 5 on the list of the year’s top grossers at the U.S. box office and earning a slew of Oscar nominations.
          The story is fanciful in the extreme. After Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a second-string quarterback for the L.A. Rams, gets into a traffic accident, his soul is summoned to heaven by The Escort (Henry), an overeager guardian angel. Only it turns out Pendleton wasn’t fated to die in the accident, so in trying to save Pendleton pain, The Escort acted too hastily. Enter celestial middle manager Mr. Jordan (Mason), who offers to return Pendleton’s soul to earth. Little problem: His body has already been cremated. Pendleton adds another wrinkle by stating that he still intends to play in the upcoming Super Bowl. Eventually, Mr. Jordan finds a replacement body in the form of Leo Farnsworth, a ruthless, super-rich industrialist.
          Joe becomes Farnsworth—although we see Beatty, other characters see the industrialist—and Joe uses his new body’s resources to buy the Rams so he can play for the team. The delightful storyline also involves Joe’s beloved coach (Warden), Farnsworth’s conniving wife and assistant (Cannon and Grodin), and the beautiful activist (Christie) campaigning against Farnsworth’s ecologically damaging business practices.
          Heaven Can Wait is a soufflé in the mode of great ’30s screen comedy, featuring a procession of sly jokes, inspirational moments, and adroit musical punctuation. Every actor contributes something special—including Gardenia, who plays a detective investigating misdeeds on the Farnsworth estate—and the memorable moments are plentiful. Beatty’s legendary charm dominates, but in such a soft-spoken way that he never upstages his supporting players; Heaven Can Wait features some of the most finely realized ensemble acting in ’70s screen comedy. And, as with the previous screen version of this story—1941’s wonderful Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was adapted, like the Beatty film, from Harry Seagall’s play Heaven Can Wait—the ending is unexpectedly moving. Whatever Heaven Can Wait lacks in substance, it makes up for in pure cotton-candy pleasure.

Heaven Can Wait: RIGHT ON

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Norliss Tapes (1973)


          Despite overseeing the TV movies The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), producer Dan Curtis wasn’t involved with the short-lived series derived from those pictures, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Undaunted, Curtis produced and directed a feature-length pilot for a copycat project titled The Norliss Tapes. Although the proposed series never materialized, the Norliss Tapes feature survives today, via syndication and home video, as a stand-alone thriller featuring Curtis’ favorite monster, the vampire. (Lest we forget, Curtis created the cult-fave bloodsucker soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966 to 1971.) While The Norliss Tapes is unquestionably derivative, it’s a decent little shocker with a solid cast of reliable B-level actors.
          When the picture begins, publisher Sanford Evans (Don Porter) visits the home of an author who’s gone missing, then finds recordings related to the author’s in-progress book. As Evans listens to the tapes, we see flashbacks depicting weird events the author, David Norliss (Roy Thinnes), witnessed. In true Curtis fashion, things get spooky fast, with little left to the imagination. It turns out Norliss was contacted by a woman named Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), who claimed to have seen her dead husband rooting around their house as a vampire/zombie/whatever. (Curtis presents this vignette with full-on monster makeup, offering a nastier jolt than one might expect from a small-screen flick.)
          Meeting Ellen starts Norliss down the road of investigating nefarious types who are bringing the dead back to life for mysterious reasons. Along the way, Norliss encounters a sexy spiritualist (Vonetta McGee), a disbelieving sheriff (Claude Akins), and, eventually, a demon trying to enter the mortal world. Curtis crams a lot of enjoyably silly stuff into 74 minutes, so even though Thinnes is a forgettable leading man, it’s easy to see where this material could have gone with a more dynamic star. It doesn’t hurt that Dickinson looks fantastic, and that Curtis was adept at boosting production value with low camera angles and shadowy lighting. The Norliss Tapes won’t linger very long in your memory, but it’s fun to watch once.

The Norliss Tapes: FUNKY

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Starcrash (1978)


How bad is Starcrash? To paraphrase the Bard, let us count the ways. First, there’s the discombobulated, idiotic storyline—an interstellar smuggler gets sent to the monster-filled home world of an evil wizard in order to rescue the son of an outer-space emperor, aided only by a band of outlaws and robots. Yep, it’s all the main signifiers from the previous year’s blockbuster Star Wars, thrown into a blender and transmogrified into nonsense. (Proving the makers of Starcrash have no shame, the flick even features low-rent light sabers.) Then there’s the garish production design, which blends Buck Rogers-style camp (the heroine spends most of the movie in an outer-space bikini) with sub-Star Wars mechanization, resulting in an aesthetic jumble. Next come the godawful special effects, ranging from chintzy stop-motion monsters to weak spaceship shots. And finally, there’s the abysmal acting, which is exacerbated by sloppy dubbing: B-movie stalwarts including Marjoe Gortner, David Hasselhoff, Caroline Munro, and Joe Spinell hiss and preen through ridiculous performances. Throw all of these elements together, and you’ve got junk so dreadful that even producer Roger Corman, whose company released the picture in the U.S., should have been embarrassed. Made in Italy, and variously titled in different international territories as Scontri stellari oltre la terza dimensione and The Adventures of Stella Star, the picture is nominally a showcase for leading lady Munro, a raven-haired beauty who first caught notice in Hammer horror flicks and a kitschy Sinbad picture. She fills out her barely-there costume nicely, but her bug-eyed acting diminishes her appeal considerably. Even more painful than enduring Munro’s work, however, is watching Christopher Plummer’s stupid cameo as the emperor—could he possibly have been paid enough for this humiliation? And for that matter, how the hell did the producers get A-list music composer John Barry, already a three-time Academy Award winner at this point, to do the score? Mysteries, to be sure, but not worth investigating.

Starcrash: SQUARE

Friday, July 20, 2012

La cage aux folles (1978)


          A clever, kind-hearted comedy whose social significance might be lost on new viewers encountering the movie today, La cage aux folles was among the first widely seen movies to treat gay characters as normal people. In fact, straights who disapprove of homosexuality are portrayed as behind-the-times dinosaurs. Seeing as how the movie was released in 1978, this worldview might have represented wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers—or, if nothing else, the insular perspective of progressive Europeans—but it’s hard to argue with the uplifting energy of a humanistic picture about people who find happiness by staying true to themselves.
          Based on Jean Poiret’s play and adapted for the screen by a team including Gallic comedy specialist Francis Veber, the French-Italian movie is set in St. Tropez. Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) runs a gay burlesque club called La Cage Aux Folles, whose star attraction is Renato’s longtime companion, Albin (Michel Serrault). Although Renato is a debonair impresario who only presents his homosexuality through flashy clothing and the occasional effeminate gesture, Albin is a full-on screaming queen. Not only does Albin perform in drag, but Albin is also a hysterical diva prone to temperamental meltdowns. Nonetheless, Renato and Albin are deeply in love, and they’ve done a wonderful job raising Renato’s son, Laurent (Rémi Laurent), whom Renato fathered with a female friend. When Laurent becomes engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician, the politician insists upon meeting his future son-in-law’s parents, so Renato agrees to “play it straight” for the duration of a dinner.
          This being a sly farce, things don’t go according to plan, but even as gender-bending high jinks ensue, the movie never loses touch with its gentle message of tolerance and understanding. Serrault and Tognazzi are wonderful in every scene, balancing each other perfectly; Serrault’s girlish squeals play off Tognazzi’s slow-burn reactions. Playing the politician and his wife, Michel Galabru and Carmen Scarpitta paint with softer colors, though Galabru does a great job of keeping a one-note character from seeming monotonous. Adding an enjoyable dash of lunacy is Benny Luke as Jacob, Renato’s swishy butler—his scandalous maid’s costume is among the movie’s funniest sight gags. Like many ’70s comedies, La cage aux folles moves at a leisurely place while describing a slight story arc, but the finale is so emotionally satisfying that the gradual buildup feels appropriate.
          La cage aux folles has enjoyed a long life in various media around the world. Two sequels followed, La cage aux folles II (1980) and La cage aux folles 3: ‘Elles’ se marient (1985); an American musical adaptation of Poiret’s original play, crafted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, opened on Broadway in 1983; a big-budget American remake of the 1978 film, titled The Birdcage, was released in 1996; and the Fierstein-Herman musical was successfully revived in 2004, and then again in 2010, with a world tour following in 2011.

La cage aux folles: GROOVY

Thursday, July 19, 2012

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) & The Organization (1971)


          Seeing as how the Oscar-nominated thriller In the Heat of the Night (1967) is best remembered today for its bold portrayal of race relations—when a racist white character slaps a black detective, the black detective shocks onlookers by slapping the racist back—it’s peculiar that both sequels to In the Heat of the Night are so tame by comparison. Although these follow-up films superficially delve into racial politics, they’re primarily action-packed police procedurals. In fact, it’s hard to think of another movie series in which latter titles bear so little stylistic and thematic resemblance to the original picture. Even the home base of the series’ hero changed from the first movie to the second: When audiences first encountered Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), he operated out of Philadelphia, yet in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and The Organization, he’s a member of the San Francisco Police Department.
          Moreover, while the original film is an intelligent drama with sophisticated camerawork and music, Tibbs is basically a blaxploitation picture, with its gritty urban setting and percolating score. The Organization tacks in yet another direction, presenting a straightforward cop story. If not for the continuity of Poitier appearing in all three movies, it would be hard to recognize any tether between them.
          Of the sequels, Tibbs is moderately better simply because it offers a sensationalistic stew of sleazy storylines. (Say that three times fast!) Tibbs is assigned to find out who killed a prostitute, but he’s conflicted because the prime suspect is his pal, Logan Thorpe (Martin Landau), an activist priest working for liberal causes that Tibbs supports. The effective supporting cast includes the always-entertaining Anthony Zerbe as a violent pimp, plus TV favorites Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Garry Walberg (Quincy, M.E.). Moreover, the picture introduces the recurring characters of Tibbs’ wife (Barbara McNair) and children, who were absent from the first picture; while grounding the detective in everyday reality, the normalcy of these characters also drains some of Tibbs’ mythic qualities. It doesn’t help that the script, credited to Alan Trustman and James R. Webb, twists awkwardly toward an overheated finale. Tibbs isn’t bad, as disposable police thrillers go, but it’s hardly a worthy extension of In the Heat of the Night.
          The next picture, written by Webb and John Ball, the author of the original novel In the Heat of the Night and therefore the creator of the Tibbs character, goes lighter on the skeeviness while drifting into the bland mainstream of everyday cop pictures. The convoluted narrative of The Organization involves Tibbs investigating a company that’s fronting for a drug operation, and there’s a bit too much screen time devoted to Tibbs’ home life, accentuating the undercooked nature of the main storyline. Plus, the more filmmakers pulled Tibbs away from racially charged milieus, the more it became apparent that Tibbs wasn’t a particularly strong character. The novelty of his first appearance, and to a lesser degree his second, was defined by his clash with racist power structures. Stripped of this powerful opposing force, Tibbs is just another onscreen tough guy with a badge.
          As such, it’s not surprising the franchise went fallow after these two diverting but forgettable pictures; although Ball continued writing novels and short stories about Tibbs well into the ’80s, the character didn’t reappear onscreen until 1988, when In the Heat of the Night was adapted into a moderately successful TV series. Troubled actor Howard Rollins played Tibbs until Rollins was fired from the show in 1993, and the series continued for two more years without the character.

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!: FUNKY
The Organization: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)


          One of the most enduring documentaries of the ’70s and a paradigm for activist nonfiction filmmaking, Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. is a fiery indictment of big business and an inspiring tribute to the resolve of working people. Kopple and her crew spent years gathering the footage from which this 103-minute feature was carefully assembled, and the time they invested is evident onscreen. The filmmakers were welcomed into the community of coalminers who toil in the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, so Kopple’s cameras captured every stage of a lengthy strike that erupted into violence. Overworked, underpaid, and subject to occupational hazards like black lung disease, the miners struck to improve their lot but were met with callous indifference from the Duke Power Company.
          During the worst of the conflict, guns were openly displayed by both factions, so the climax of Kopple’s film is the community-wide reaction to the (offscreen) killing of a worker during a strike-related fight. The idea that a labor protest could lead to bloodshed in the supposedly civilized era of the mid-’70s speaks to Kopple’s prominent but understandable bias: Although Harlan County, U.S.A. is presented as straightforward reportage, lacking narration or other onscreen commentary from third parties, Kopple plainly uses the film to champion the oppressed workers she befriended. Driving this point home, the few Duke Power representatives who allow themselves to get captured on film come across as such heavy-handed thugs (or such unfeeling machines) that it’s impossible not to root for the impoverished, poorly educated locals kept under Duke Power’s collective thumb.
          Furthermore, it’s impossible not to get roused by the rebel spirit of Kentuckians like the woman who proclaims, without any trace of hyperbole or irony, “If they shoot me, they can’t shoot the union outta me.” Especially in the context of side issues like the discovery of corruption among United Mine Workers of America, a heartbreaking subplot within Harlan County, U.S.A., it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Kopple’s movie is one-sided propaganda. The issues of right and wrong are so clearly drawn in the conflict Harlan County, U.S.A. captures that none could argue Kopple aligned herself with the wrong side. This is documentary filmmaking of the noblest kind, serious work made by people who want to change the world for the better.

Harlan County, U.S.A.: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rolling Thunder (1977)


          Based one of the many violent scripts Paul Schrader penned during his breakthrough period (Heywood Gould rewrote the screenplay), Rolling Thunder concerns Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a Vietnam vet who returns home to Texas after years in P.O.W. captivity. Numbed by torture, Rane has difficulty reintegrating into normal life, a problem exacerbated by the fact that his son doesn’t remember him and by the fact that his wife, who thought Rane was dead, is now engaged to another man. Thus, when thugs murder Rane’s family and mutilate him, Rane focuses his anger into a bloody revenge mission. Considering that Rane also has a hook for a hand throughout most of the movie, this is awfully pulpy stuff. Had Rolling Thunder been produced by, say, Roger Corman instead of Lawrence Gordon—who was just beginning a long career making smart, big-budget action flicks—the film could have become gruesome and sleazy.
          Instead, Gordon recruited sophisticated collaborators including director John Flynn, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and composer Barry DeVorzon, and the team created a thriller of unusual restraint. Rolling Thunder is a character-driven slow burn, because the film spends as much time depicting the hero’s devastated mental state as it does showcasing his lethal force. So, while generating tension is always the priority—witness several bloody brawls, as well as the unforgettable scene in which bad guys jam Rane’s hand into a kitchen-sink garbage disposal—Gordon’s team also makes room for nuance.
          For instance, the visual style that Cronenweth employs, which anticipates the tasty mixture of deep shadows and piercing beams of light that he later brought to Blade Runner (1982), is a strong presence—it’s as if the movie’s characters swim through an ocean of danger and menace. Furthermore, the Gould/Schrader script features terse dialogue exchanges that reflect Rane’s anguished mindset.
          Playing one of his few leading roles in a big theatrical feature, Devane is perfect casting. With his downturned mouth and heavy brow, he looks bitter even when he’s smiling, so once his eyes are hidden behind the aviator glasses he wears in many scenes, he seems believably dangerous; the sight of him in full bloodthirsty flight, a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and a hook in place of the other, is hard to shake.
          Flynn surrounds Devane with equally well-chosen supporting players. Linda Haynes is naturalistic and tough as a waitress who becomes Rane’s travelling companion; reliable figures including Luke Askew, James Best, and Dabney Coleman infuse small roles with texture; and Tommy Lee Jones nearly steals the movie with his icy performance as Rane’s trigger-happy sidekick. In fact, Jones’ chilling delivery of the line “I’m going to kill a bunch of people” epitomizes the film’s clinical aesthetic, just like the priceless scene of Jones enduring inane family-room chatter crystallizes why some vets find it impossible to adjust once they’re “back in the world.” (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Rolling Thunder: GROOVY

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bound for Glory (1976)


          A beautifully made biopic with a few peculiar flaws, Bound for Glory represented yet another artistic high point for editor-turned-director Hal Ashby, whose ’70s output was as eclectic as it was impressive. This time, Ashby tackled the life story of pioneering American folksinger Woody Guthrie, whose enduring anthem “This Land Is Your Land” reflected his humanistic fascination with the downtrodden people he met during his vagabond adventures circa the Great Depression. Perfectly timed to tap into counterculture themes of reappraising priorities and questioning authority, Bound for Glory could easily have become a vanilla celebration of an iconic singer. Instead, it’s a rougher piece, demonstrating the strange conflict between Guthrie’s devotion to “the people” and his inability to fulfill familial obligations.
          The story begins in small-town Texas, with Woody (David Carradine) working as a freelance sign painter even though his real passion is playing music (he moonlights as a honky-tonk band’s guitarist). After one day too many without making a living wage, Woody skips out on his wife (Melinda Dillon) and becomes a hobo, stealing rides in the cargo cars of westbound trains as he makes his way toward the promised land of Southern California. Along the way, Woody sees enough deprivation and hardscrabble dignity to inspire a lifetime’s worth of original songs, and he finds himself drawn to the plight of the working men who are oppressed by callous business owners.
          Once in California, Woody is radicalized through his friendships with a fruit picker (Randy Quaid) and a union-organizing country singer (Ronny Cox). Picking up a guitar again after a long musical drought, Woody starts writing incendiary rabble-rousers. Then, after he’s hired to perform on the radio, he stumbles into an existential crisis when he’s forced to choose between integrity and a steady paycheck. The willingness on the filmmakers’ part to display Guthrie’s unattractive qualities gives Bound for Glory gravitas, complicating our idea of what Guthrie represents.
          This storytelling choice also gives Carradine the most multidimensional role of his career. He seizes the opportunity with a vibrant performance, crooning and philosophizing his way to an earthy incarnation of Guthrie’s troubadour spirit. Ashby surrounds Carradine and the rest of the strong cast with wonderfully evocative physical details, from the antiseptic milieu of recording studios to the heartbreaking ugliness of labor camps. Capturing all of these rich visuals is cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a diehard lefty who actually knew the real Guthrie back in the day; Wexler’s graceful camera movements and naturalistic lighting make Bound for Glory look like classic Depression-era photographs come to life.
          That said, Bound for Glory has strange shortcomings. Ashby bizarrely cast Dillon in two roles (she also plays a country singer who performs on the radio with Guthrie), and the ending isn’t particularly satisfying. One gets the impression Ashby couldn’t decide whether Guthrie was a heel or a hero, or both. But if the worst that can be said about a movie is that it embraces ambiguity, is that really much of a criticism?

Bound for Glory: GROOVY

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Chrome and Hot Leather (1971)


The premise of this drive-in flick sounds like the kind of hypothetical inquiry jacked-up dudes might debate in a bar: “Who’d win in a fight, bikers or Green Berets?” Dramatizing a battle between these unlikely adversaries ensures that Chrome and Hot Leather has plenty of hand-to-hand combat, macho swaggering, and vehicular mayhem. It’s all a bit outlandish and silly, to be sure, and the plot is simultaneously lame-brained and overwrought, but there are enough biceps, chains, guns, machines, and weapons in this movie to keep any fan of tough-guy cinema happy. What’s more, the picture is decorated with a coterie of attractive ’70s starlets and a steady onslaught of hard rock. Things get started when wholesome teenagers Helen (Ann Marie) and Kathy (a young Cheryl Ladd, billed as “Cheryl Moor”), unluckily end up on a country highway at the same time as a motorcycle gang called the Devils. One of the bikers whacks the girls’ car with a chain, spooking the girls and causing them to fatally drive off a cliff. Afterward, Kathy’s fiancé, Vietnam vet Mitch (Tony Young), finds out what happened and determines to track down the gang. To aid his quest, Mitch recruits his Army buddies (one of whom is played, without much flair, by R&B legend Marvin Gaye), and the soldiers go undercover as a biker gang. Eventually, Mitch targets the Devils’ muscle-bound leader, T.J. (William Smith), gaining information about him by seducing T.J.’s main squeeze, the nubile Susan (Kathy Baumann). And so it goes—Chrome and Hot Leather never escapes the familiar routine of bar brawls, meaningless sex, and open-road riding, but the picture is so jam-packed with lurid sensations that it moves along nicely. Smith, as always, cuts a formidable figure, so he blows nearly everyone else off the screen—not the biggest accomplishment—although Baumann’s considerable physical charms make an impression. This is awfully low-rent stuff, but since that’s the point, Chrome and Hot Leather must be considered a grimy sort of success.

Chrome and Hot Leather: FUNKY

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975) & The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1978) & Mountain Family Robinson (1979)


          Writer-producer Arthur R. Dubs carved a minor niche for himself in ’70s by making a series of documentaries and fiction films celebrating the American frontier, and his most enduring creation is a three-movie series about a modern family that moves from Los Angeles to the Rocky Mountains. Harmless and well-meaning, these G-rated pictures boast spectacular location photography and terrific footage of real animals, even if the acting and storytelling leave a bit to be desired. The first and best picture in the series is The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, which does a solid job of emulating the Disney nature-flick formula, but without the sickly-sweet extremes that make some Disney pictures unpalatable.
          The movie begins in smog- and traffic-shrouded L.A., where construction worker Skip Robinson (Robert Logan) realizes he’s had enough. Skip asks his wife, Pat (Susan Damante Shaw), if she’s willing to leave city life behind, and she says yes. The Robinsons pack up their two young children and their dog, and then relocate to a remote lakeside homestead. During the first movie, which takes place over a summer and early fall, the Robinsons build a cabin, survive close encounters with bears and cougars, and take in stray animals including a pair of orphaned bear cubs and a raccoon. They also forge a friendship with a mountain man named Boomer (George “Buck” Flower).
          Excepting some awful songs played over montages, The Adventures of the Wilderness Family tells a simple story without distracting adornment, and the respect both the characters and the filmmakers show for the dangers of the wilderness grounds the piece in a gentle version of reality. Additionally, the film’s breathtaking Colorado locations make it easy to understand why the Robinsons decide, at the end of the picture, to stay in their new home despite the impending arrival of winter and all the challenges that implies.
          Three years passed before Dubs and his crew returned to Colorado to film the lackluster sequel The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family. Although the second movie supposedly picks up just weeks after the end of the first film, the actress playing the Robinson daughter was recast, and the replacement performer is about six years older than her predecessor. Huh? Worse, the second movie includes the kinds of syrupy excesses Dubs avoided the first time around. Way too much time is spent on cutesy animal antics and sentimental Boomer scenes (his crusty old heart melts when he becomes a surrogate grandfather to the Robinson kids).
          Furthermore, the crises powering the storyline are beyond contrived. The climax is especially absurd—when Skip leaves the house after a blizzard to fetch help for Pat, who is suffering from pneumonia, wolves attack the cabin and one of the Robinsons’ pets knocks over a lamp, starting a fire, so a bedridden Pat and her two children are left alone to fight flames and ravening predators. The only reason the second movie is borderline passable is the presence of still-impressive production values.
          However, it all goes wrong in the third flick, Mountain Family Robinson, which is so lacking in narrative substance that Dubs pads the running time with endless montages of things like full-costume Fourth of July picnics; gardening sessions livened up with square dancing; and idyllic runs through fields of flowers. Worse, the songs—which are never good in Wilderness Family movies—become truly noxious in Mountain Family Robinson, with a cloying vocal group proclaiming again and again how wonderful it is for wonderful people to live a wonderful life in a wonderful place. Yeah, we got it, already.

The Adventures of the Wilderness Family: GROOVY
The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family: FUNKY
 Mountain Family Robinson: LAME

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sunburst (1975)


Even by the low standards of evil-redneck flicks, Sunburst is atrocious. Dull, terribly acted, and tonally schizophrenic, the picture is more than halfway over before anything of significance happens, and even the introduction of an actual plot is insufficient to generate interest. The picture begins on a college campus, where wholesome coed Jenny (Kathy Baumann) hooks up with sensitive stud Robert (Peter Hooten). The couple travels to the mountains to visit a pal, Michael, who quit school for a simpler life in the wilderness. And that, more or less, is the first 40 minutes of the movie, which comprises one uneventful scene after another, interspersed with montages set to fruity ballads. (And let’s not forget the pointless sequence featuring ’30s crooner Rudy Vallee as a shopkeeper whom the young lovers encounter.) Eventually, while Jenny and Robert take a romantic skinny-dip in a mountaintop lake, they’re spotted by a pair of mouth-breathers (played by James Keach and David Pritchard) who speak to Jenny and Robert and strongly imply threats of sexual violence. Demonstrating spectacular stupidity, the heroes head to Michael’s seemingly abandoned cabin, rather than fleeing to someplace safe, and spend the night screwing. Sure enough, the rednecks show up with knives to beat the crap out of Robert and rape Jenny. The next morning, Michael (played by a very young Robert Englund) finally appears. The future Freddy Krueger must summon a straight face for insipid speeches like this one, appraising Jenny’s post-assault mood: “She’s doing the right thing. She’s putting it together for herself without words. She’s just into herself.” Yeesh. Onetime Miss Ohio Baumann is sexy but vapid, Hooten’s spacey look makes him seem detached, and Keach and Pritchard deliver cartoonish performances. (Sample Keach dialogue: “I suggest that you go right over there in those bushes and wizzle your lizard!”) Whether in its original form or its ’80s video incarnation (bearing the alternate title Slashed Dreams), this flick is to be avoided at all costs.

Sunburst: SQUARE

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Destructors (1974)


          A thriller without any real thrills, The Destructors is nonetheless quite watchable simply because of narrative economy, production values, and star power. Shot on location throughout picturesque Marseille and Paris, the movie zips along at a strong pace, throwing together an assassin, a drug dealer, and a pair of policemen in a plot filled with deception and intrigue. The film has enough beautiful women, fast cars, and shootouts at unusual locales for a James Bond flick, and its cast is topped by three big names: Michael Caine, James Mason, and Anthony Quinn. Plus, as photographed by the great British DP Douglas Slocombe, the movie is slick and occasionally beautiful, with scenes set at dusk featuring particularly interesting qualities of light. What’s missing? Well, that would be tension, of course.
           It’s hard to tell whether screenwriter Judd Bernard or director Robert Parrish dropped the ball, but whatever the case, The Destructors might be the politest movie ever made about killers. Nobody ever seems especially upset about being targeted for murder, and only Caine summons a smidgen of intensity during his most dangerous scenes. Still, if likeable actors and pretty locations are enough to make so-so romantic comedies palatable, can’t those qualities be enough to make a so-so thriller palatable?
          The story itself isn’t the problem, because the same narrative material treated with more passion could have rendered livelier results. Steve Ventura (Quinn), an American drug-enforcement agent stationed in Europe, decides to seek revenge for the murders of several colleagues by operatives of an aristocratic French drug kingpin, Jacques Brizzard (Mason). Acting on a sly tip from a French cop, Ventura hires jet-setting hit man John Deray (Caine)—who turns out to be an old friend of Ventura’s—to kill Brizzard. Deray then seduces Brizzard’s sexy daughter, Lucienne (Maureen Kerwin), as a way of gaining access to the highly protected criminal. Meanwhile, Ventura figures out a way to snare Brizzard legally, so he tries to call off the hit. Double-crosses and other twists ensue.
          Caine is great fun as Deray, all smiles during off-hours and all business when taking out victims—his handling of a rooftop hit is pricelessly nonchalant—and Mason is appropriately oily in his small part. However, Quinn is just awful, mugging and quipping his way through an amateurish performance. He’s not quite enough to sink the movie, though it sure seems as if that’s his goal. FYI, watch for former JFK speechwriter Pierre Salinger, in one of his only acting roles, playing an extended cameo as Ventura’s boss. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

The Destructors: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Outrageous! (1977)


          Despite its exclamation-point-adorned title, this independent Canadian production is really more offbeat than outrageous. A lively drama based on the real-life friendship of a drag queen and a mentally ill woman, the picture sketches a relationship defined by mutual need and unwavering support. So, even though the movie’s sympathetic exploration of gay life is historically noteworthy, at its heart the film is a sweet tribute to the power of friendship. Outrageous! was adapted from a semiautobiographical short story by Margaret Gibson, who shared a Toronto apartment in the early ’70s with her friend, Craig Russell, a hairdresser-turned-female impersonator. Russell plays the character he inspired, “Robin Turner,” and Hollis McLaren plays the character based on Gibson, “Liza Connors.” When the story begins, Liza has just been released from a long stay in a mental institution, so she arrives at Robin’s doorstop hoping for a place to crash until she gets her life in order. Devoted and understanding, Robin takes Liza in and becomes a support system while she deals with an overwhelming barrage of depression, hallucination, medication, and unfulfilling sexual encounters.
           Meanwhile, Robin finds his groove as a female impersonator in Canadian nightclubs, dressing up in opulent costumes to portray Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and Barbara Streisand. After he gets fired from his salon job for being too “out,” Robin relocates to New York for a shot at the showbiz big time. Liza stays behind because she’s become pregnant, and Robin promises to send for her once he’s established in Manhattan. The resolution of this peculiar situation underscores the movie’s theme about companionship trumping adversity. Written and directed by Richard Benner, Outrageous! has a handmade vibe—think choppy editing, low-rent cinematography, and unglamorous locations—but the storytelling is sincere and the leading performances reflect deep commitment. Russell’s drag numbers obviously provide most of the film’s entertainment value, though it’s odd whenever the movie cuts from heavy dramatic moments to extended scenes of Russell prancing around a nightclub stage. Nonetheless, the movie was enough of a cult hit that a sequel (titled Too Outrageous!) was released in 1987.

Outrageous!: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Peeper (1976)


          Yet another film-noir spoof, as if there weren’t enough of those in the ’70s, Peeper is a trifle that goes down smoothly because of charismatic actors and skilled filmmakers, even though it’s among the least memorable pictures ever made by its participants. Director Peter Hyams, who tried his hand at several genres before eventually finding his groove with larky conspiracy thrillers in the late ’70s, wasn’t the right man to helm a lighthearted parody, so his assertive visual style clashes with the material from beginning to end. That said, screenwriter W.D. Richter (working from a novel by Keith Laumer) was in the early days of an equally eclectic career, so his script misses the mark just as widely as Hyams’ direction. Richter capably emulates some tropes of ’40s private-eye movies, notably caustic narration, but his screenplay isn’t clever or funny enough to make an impression. Nonetheless, Hyams’ sophisticated approach to image-making and Richter’s cockeyed dialogue style are interesting in any context, so their behind-the-scenes efforts ensure that Peeper has style, albeit not the correct style.
          Better still, Peeper has Michael Caine. Even though the charming Cockney rogue coasts through this picture, it’s pleasurable to listen to him deliver snotty rants like this one: “My having the photo bothers you, you being bothered bothers me, and the fact that I haven’t been thrown out of here sooner bothers me even more.” And, yes, the plot of Peeper is so murky that Caine’s speech actually makes sense in context. The gist of the story, which takes place in the ’40s, is that second-rate private eye Tucker (Caine) has been hired to find a man’s long-missing daughter, who is now an adult. Tucker discerns that the woman might have become part of the Pendergast family, a wealthy clan living in Beverly Hills, and Tucker sets his eyes on Ellen (Natalie Wood) as a likely prospect. Intrigue and shenanigans ensue, none of them particularly distinctive or intriguing, though the stars do exactly what’s expected of them. Caine is bitchy and suave, while Wood is aloof and gorgeous. So, if you want a minor jolt of star power delivered in attractive packaging, Peeper might entertain you—just remember to adjust your expectations.

Peeper: FUNKY

Monday, July 9, 2012

Patton (1970)


          Despite being bold, provocative, and smart, Patton should not have curried favor during its original release, since the movie arrived at the height of America’s misguided war in Vietnam. Surely, there couldn’t have been a worse time to release a feature-length tribute to one of World War II’s most famous American generals. Yet Patton is much more complicated than any hagiography, and the movie’s greatest strengths are undeniable. The script is insightful and witty, the direction and production values are impressive, and leading man George C. Scott’s performance ranks among the highest achievements in screen acting. The movie is imperfect, of course, suffering such flaws as an excessively long running time, but the audacity with which the filmmakers engage themes of hubris, militarism, and patriotism are still startling 40 years after the movie was made.
          Notwithstanding a riveting prologue (more on that in a minute), the movie begins in North Africa, when General George S. Patton Jr. (Scott) is first recruited to battle Germany’s “Desert Fox,” tank-division commander Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Volger). As the movie progresses, Patton is moved from Africa to the European theater, his battlefield victories overshadowed by his outrageous behavior. Gaudy and vainglorious, Patton openly cites his belief in reincarnation, describing himself as the latest form of a soldier who has existed during the great wars of previous centuries; although Patton bolsters his claims with brilliant strategizing, his otherworldly pomposity spooks subordinates and unsettles superiors.
          Worse, Patton behaves abominably when confronted with GIs he regards as cowards or shirkers. In one of the picture’s unforgettable moments, Patton loses his cool upon meeting an enlisted man hospitalized for shell-shock, a condition whose existence Patton denies—Patton violently slaps the GI and seems ready to shoot the young man until Patton is subdued by aides. Thanks to such transgressions, Patton never consistently occupies the forefront of the Allied command, so the movie tracks his humiliating slide from active duty to elder-statesmen status.
          Although Patton has a large cast of characters and a sprawling number of locations, it’s not precisely a war epic—rather, it’s an intimate character study that plays across a massive stage during wartime. So, while costar Karl Malden is a steady presence as Patton’s staunchest Army ally, General Omar Bradley, other actors in the movie serve as mirrors reflecting facets of Scott’s performance. Scott justifies this approach with a thunderous star turn. His Patton is funny, inspiring, intimidating, maddening, pathetic, strange, and a dozen other things, whether he’s melodically quoting ancient poetry or impotently shooting a pistol at a fighter plane during a strafing run.
          Director Franklin J. Schaffner does a remarkable job of keeping the story forceful and clear, often through the use of elegantly gliding camerawork; screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North provide brilliant dialogue and evocative vignettes; and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s clever score uses echoed horn figures to accentuate the idea of Patton as a figure from myth let loose on the modern world.
          Yet the film’s most indelible moment is also its simplest, the mesmerizing two-minute monologue that starts the movie with shocking directness. Stepping in front of a gigantic American flag, an ornately uniformed Patton barks out a hard-driving, vulgar speech about American can-do spirit, featuring a line that epitomizes the character’s philosophy: “No bastard every won a war by dying for his country—he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” FYI, Scott returned to his Oscar-winning role years later for an underwhelming TV miniseries, The Last Days of Patton (1986), though few consider that project a true sequel to the 1970 movie.

Patton: RIGHT ON

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thunder and Lightning (1977)


Yet another drive-in flick about rambunctious moonshiners, Thunder and Lightning would linger far below the pop-culture radar if not for the popularity of its leading actors, David Carradine and Kate Jackson. Working once again under the penny-pinching aegis of producer Roger Corman, Carradine pours on the rebellious charm to liven up the story’s aimless cacophony of chase scenes, explosions, and fist fights. In fact, Carradine is forced to contribute extra effort—if smirking can be described as effort, that is—because Charlie’s Angels spitfire Jackson is more or less a nonentity given the colorless nature of her co-starring role. Carradine plays Harley Thomas, a good ol’ boy whose graying uncles cook up moonshine that he delivers in his souped-up ’57 Chevy. Harley dates Nancy Sue Hunnicut (Jackson), a wealthy young woman who doesn’t realize her father, Ralph Junior Hunnicut (Roger C. Carmel), hides a massive moonshine operation behind the front of his legit soda-pop empire. Through the machinations of an unnecessarily convoluted story, Ralph Junior gets into trouble with the Northeast mafia, Harley gets into trouble with Ralph Junior, and everybody ends up chasing after a massive shipment of poisoned moonshine. The fast-moving picture also makes room for an alligator-wrestling preacher, a pair of incompetent Noo Yawk assassins, and Ralph Junior’s knuckle-dragging henchmen, two of whom are played by ’70s B-movie stalwarts George Murdock and Charles Napier. Although Thunder and Lightning is ostensibly a comedy, frenetic onscreen action is presented in lieu of actual jokes. Given the movie’s choppy editing, one suspects that director Corey Allen’s on-set camerawork was chopped apart during post-production to rev up the pacing, so if Thunder and Lightning ever had nuance (unlikely), it disappeared long before the movie hit screens. Still, the picture offers a few brainlessly diverting scenes, as well as some choice examples of redneck patois—like the moment when a motorcycle cop sees a pair of cars zoom by and exclaims, “Sweet kidneys of Christ, those boys were movin’!”

Thunder and Lightning: FUNKY