Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Million Page Views!


I’m happy to announce that Every ’70s Movie has now accrued over 1 million page views, and that traffic is holding steady at a respectable average of 40,000 page views per month. Thanks so much to loyal readers and to visitors. As always, donations are greatly appreciated, since they help keep the ’70s fun coming, and it’s a special pleasure to communicate with readers via the comments function. FYI, based on my research of titles that meet the blog’s criteria, Every ’70s Movie is now in the second half of its lifespan, with over 1,300 reviews posted to date. That means hundreds more are yet to come, so keep reading and keep spreading the word!

Bone (1972)



          One of the reasons B-movie auteur Larry Cohen’s career is so unique is that he often invested his work with more social significance than was necessary. After all, the easy path when making exploitation flicks is simply to concentrate on girls, gore, and guns—all of which were elements of Cohen’s movies. Yet Cohen regularly delivered something extra, namely satirical commentary about culture, politics, and race. Therefore, even if Cohen’s handling of lightning-rod material is occasionally clumsy or even crude, he deserves lots of credit for endeavoring to imbue his drive-in pictures with meaning. Cohen’s 1972 movie Bone, for instance, fuses comedic and dramatic aspects in an offbeat manner. Originally subtitled A Bad Day in Beverly Hills, the movie begins with a bizarre sequence of a car dealer named Bill (Andrew Duggan) hallucinating about auto wrecks while acting in a cheesy TV ad. This sets the tone for Cohen’s exploration of how fantasy and reality collide when the fairy-tale existence of rich Beverly Hills whites is disrupted by the intrusion of a black criminal scarred by racism.
          Specifically, Bill and his unhappy wife, Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten), lounge around the pool one afternoon until Bill discovers a rat stuck in the pool’s drain. Then Bone (Yaphet Kotto), a towering African-American dressed in ragged clothes, appears from nowhere. Mistaking him for an exterminator, Bill asks Bone to remove the rat—which he does, by hand. Turns out the invader was casing the joint for a robbery, so Bill is sent away from the house to collect cash while Bone holds Bernadette hostage under threat of rape and murder. After this intense setup, Cohen takes the story in unexpected directions, presenting not only Bernadette’s Stockholm Syndrome-style fascination with her tormentor but also Bill’s craven attempts at maneuvering the situation for maximum advantage. Cohen’s goal, of course, is to skewer myths: the black man as savage; the suburban white man as heartless opportunist; the unsatisfied white woman as easy prey for a virile African-American; and so on.
          None of this quite works, simply because Cohen’s attempts at dark humor result in arch characterizations that are hard to believe, but Bone boldly engages a number of controversial issues. (Cohen even riffs on horny hippies by way of an odd sexual interlude between Bill and an eccentric girl played by Jeannie Berlin, known for her role in the 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid.) And even though Bone eventually loses narrative focus, it hangs together on a performance level. Duggan and Van Patten capably incarnate different shades of self-loathing, and Kotto plays a huge range of qualities—at various times, his character is cunning, funny, philosophical, and sadistic. FYI, Cohen fans should pay close attention to the scenes set in Bill’s mansion, since Cohen used his own palatial Beverly Hills home as a location.

Bone: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Haunts (1977)



Part low-key psychological thriller and part over-the-top slasher picture, Haunts fails to generate or sustain much interest, despite the best efforts of director/cowriter Herb Freed to spin a complex thread of mystery and tragedy. Aside from the most fundamental problem, which is that the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, Haunts suffers from an amateurish lead performance and schlocky production values. Moreover, Freed lacks the sophistication to make his most provocative flourishes work. For instance, when the lead character, a tormented farm girl, dreams of sex while manipulating the udder of a goat, the shots of her hands covered with milk seem pornographic instead of suggestive. One gets a sense that Freed was after something a bit more than mere shock value, but he’s hamstrung by his own artistic limitations. When the story begins, heroine Ingrid (May Britt) discovers the aftermath of a brutal murder in which scissors were used as a weapon. Thereafter, Ingrid becomes a pariah among locals who suspect she was involved in the crime, and she experiences hallucinations that cause her to doubt her own innocence. So, even as an intrepid sheriff (Aldo Ray) tries to identify the real killer, Ingrid worries about the potential for violence in everyone she encounters, from lovers to neighbors to relatives. Alas, viewers are likely to be even more confused than the protogonist, because Freed creates such a jumble of delusions, fake-outs, and twists that it’s hard to follow what’s happening. (The film’s last 30 minutes feel like a succession of rough-draft endings, each of which contradicts preceding story material.) Moreover, the constant wobbling between atmospheric scenes and blunt vignettes creates tonal dissonance. The only element of the film that feels coherent is Pino Donaggio’s eerie score, which is so assertive as to become distracting. Leading lady Britt is forgettably attractive, though her Scandanavian accent lends some novelty. Besides Ray, the other notable actor in the cast is Cameron Mitchell, who normally plays villains but essays a sympathetic role in Haunts, as Ingrid’s uncle. Alas, he’s misused—since Mitchell is the wax-faced heavy whom cheap producers hire when they can’t afford Jack Palance, why not exploit his innately creepy qualities?

Haunts: LAME

Monday, April 28, 2014

When the Legends Die (1972)



          Arguably the best film to emerge from the mini-boom of rodeo movies in the early ’70s, this small-scale drama hits a number of interesting notes at once. In addition to servicing the public’s fleeting appetite for stories about men who prove their bravery by riding monstrous bulls, the picture also speaks to very ’70s themes related to the Native American experience and the travails of small men trapped by self-destructive life choices. Adapted from a novel by Hal Borland, When the Legends Die tracks the sad adventures of Tom Black Bull (Frederic Forrest), an 18-year-old Yute Indian who lives among whites but lacks a strong sense of social belonging. This emotional state makes Tom susceptible to the machinations of Red (Richard Widmark), a drunken rancher who sees a financial opportunity in Tom’s skill with animals.
          After snookering Tom with a line about fame and fortune, Red convinces the young man to become a bull rider, and then pushes even harder after Tom survives a harrowing ride that results in the death of a bull. Red dubs his young charge “Killer” Tom Black, exploiting demeaning stereotypes and thereby shaking Tom’s already wobbly self-image. Dazzled by money, notoriety, and women, the impressionable Tom plays into his role, intentionally pushing more bulls to their deaths until his conscience starts to nag at him. This, naturally, creates a rift between Tom and his unscrupulous mentor, and the film comes into its own by depicting the ways in which Tom and Red are changed by the distance that grows between them.
          Even though When the Legends Die traffics in clichés to some extent—always a risk when trying to lend fresh nuances to archetypal stories—the restraint of the filmmaking and the sensitivity of the acting make the piece believably mournful. Screenwriter Robert Dozier employs admirable economy, and director Stuart Miller stays out of the material’s way, presenting action and performance in an unvarnished fashion. Widmark, whose latter-day work tended toward woodenness, does some of his finest acting here, dramatizing the pathetic lifestyle of a loser who hitches a ride on a winner. Furthermore, Widmark’s natural stoicism suits the character, defining the macho precipice from which Red will inevitably fall. Forrest, whose erratic career has included everything from enthusiastic overacting to somnambulistic underacting, hits a great pocket, as well. The naturally melancholy set of Forrest’s features, accentuated with lighting and makeup to make him appear more Native American, gives a strong sense of vulnerability—seeing Red toy with Tom’s emotions is like watching someone kick a puppy.
          Ultimately, the most distinctive aspect of When the Legends Die may be the one that separates it from many other rodeo flicks. Except for a few fleeting passages during which viewers are meant to share in Tom’s triumphs, the film generally makes rodeo life look cruel, exploitive, and seedy. Whereas films including Sam Peckinpah’s lovely Junior Bonner (also released in 1972) treat brono-busting as a metaphor representing the realization of male identity, When the Legends Die depicts the sport as a form of modern-day gladiatorial carnage. The obvious parallels to white America’s historical mistreatment of the frontier, and of the living things found there, are resonant but never overstated.

When the Legends Die: GROOVY

Sunday, April 27, 2014

1980 Week: Battle Beyond the Stars



          Roger Corman’s most successful attempt at riding the coattails of Star Wars (1977), this somewhat enjoyable space adventure represents an important juncture in several cinematic careers. It was the last of several projects that John Sayles wrote for Corman, because Sayles graduated to working for bigger producers in addition to writing and directing his own independent films. Perhaps more significantly, Battle Beyond the Stars was the first big FX job for James Cameron, who was just a handful of years away from directing his first proper feature, The Terminator (1984). Both men contributed strong elements to Battle Beyond the Stars, notably Sayles’ dry wit and Cameron’s visual ingenuity, but that shouldn’t give anyone the impression that Battle Beyond the Stars is a good movie. Quite to the contrary, it’s typical Corman junk, rushed and silly, but it has better production values than one might expect, and the combination of a familiar plot and a lively cast generate some interest.
          After all, the movie is a shameless sci-fi riff on The Magnificent Seven (1960), which in turn was a remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai (1954), so the underlying narrative is rock-solid even if the campy execution is not.
          Battle Beyond the Stars revolves around farmers who live on the planet Akir and are terrorized by an interstellar villain named Sador (John Saxon). The farmers send one of their own, naïve young Shad (Richard Thomas), into space so he can hire mercenaries. Eventually, Shad gathers a crew including Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin hiding from outer-space authorities; Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), a Valkyrie seeking battlefield glory; Space Cowboy (George Peppard), an intergalactic trucker with a grudge against Sador; and others, including the predictable coterie of anthropomorphized robots. Hiring Magnificent Seven veteran Vaughn accentuates the connection to the earlier film, as does James Horner’s rousing score, which emulates the spirit of Elmer Bernstein’s famous Magnificent Seven music.
          As should be apparent by now, very little in Battle Beyond the Stars is even remotely original, and the movie’s recycled quality is as problematic as the episodic story structure. Making matters worse is the all-over-the-map acting. Peppard gives an amiable turn as the wisecracking antihero and Vaughn is suitably icy as the killer seeking redemption, but Danning is amateurish and Saxon operates on moustache-twirling autopilot. (In Danning’s defense, the voluptuous actress contributes some of the most spectacular cleavage ever seen outside of a Russ Meyer movie.) Even the effects are a mixed bag. While some design elements are interesting, Corman cuts far too many corners, so battle scenes that should be epic end up feeling anticlimactic. Plus, the movie falls victim to the usual sci-fi foible of too many goofy-sounding names and silly-looking aliens. Still, Battle Beyond the Stars has enough colorful elements to merit a casual viewing, especially for space-opera junkies.

Battle Beyond the Stars: FUNKY

Saturday, April 26, 2014

1980 Week: Death Watch



          Toward the end of the meditative sci-fi drama Death Watch, Max Von Sydow shows up for an extended cameo as a professor who has rediscovered an obscure medieval composition by Robert de Bauleac. Later, when the piece’s jagged strains accompany scenes of characters battling over a dying woman’s right to privacy, the juxtaposition is weirdly perfect. This fusion of image and music becomes even more fitting when one discovers that neither Robert de Bauleac for his composition ever existed—the man was an invention of cowriter/director Bertrand Tavernier’s creative team, and the music was generated by the film’s, composer, Antoine Duhamel. Such elaborate flourishes explain why Death Watch is so interesting, even though the film is strange and undisciplined.
          In the near future, when death by disease has become rare, a young woman named Katherine (Romy Schneider) gets a terminal diagnosis from her doctor. Soon, callous TV executive Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) contrives to film Katherine’s last days for a nonfiction series called Death Watch. In order to secure intimate footage without Katherine’s knowledge, Vincent persuades a cameraman, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), to have his eyes replaced with cameras. Roddy insinuates himself into Katherine’s life and surreptitiously records their road trip across the European countryside. Based on a novel by David Compton, the story of Death Watch is riddled with logical inconsistencies. For instance, since Katherine signs a contract with Vincent to participate in Death Watch, why is secret filming necessary? Furthermore, at 128 leisurely minutes, Death Watch is way too long.
          Nonetheless, the movie is compelling, prescient, and surprising. Rather than simply condemning crass consumerism, Tavernier’s movie asks questions about the individual’s right to live and die according to principles. Katherine spends the whole movie extricating herself from people who want her to be someone other than herself, in essence choosing authenticity over fakery even as she sells authenticity to create fakery. So, even though Tavernier ultimately fails to unify the provocative elements of Death Watch into a clear statement, he raises enough interesting issues to make the experience worthwhile.
          It helps that Death Watch is a beautiful-looking movie, with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn capturing grim vistas of burned-out cities, elegant tableaux of Old World interiors, and painterly panoramas of verdant landscapes. (The picture was shot entirely in Scotland.) The leading performances are a mixed bag, with Schneider inhibited by sketchy English and Keitel caught between awkward attempts at romantic-lead charm and clumsy Method-style freakouts. Supporting players fare better, notably Stanton, who is effective as a soulless corporate weasel, and Von Sydow, who steals the picture with his commanding presence. Death Watch is an odd movie filled with superfluous scenes, but the narrative bloat gives Tavernier time to cast a hypnotic spell.

Death Watch: GROOVY

Friday, April 25, 2014

1980 Week: Dressed to Kill



          Two of the least admirable qualities of Brian De Palma’s directorial style coalesced in this quasi-controversial thriller—his atrocious onscreen treatment of women and his shameless borrowings from Alfred Hitchcock’s bag of cinematic tricks. Beyond transposing a number of key elements from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Dressed to Kill is so hyper-sexualized that the picture’s extremes overshadow its meritorious elements. At its best, Dressed to Kill is pure cinema, with De Palma using only images, music, and sound effects for long stretches of screen time. These dialogue-free passages have a certain allure, even though the nonverbal bits are so simplistic that the film occasionally seems designed to communicate to children—that is, if children could watch a hard-R thriller with close-ups of razor blades slicing flesh, as well as nearly pornographic images of female masturbation. Yet that’s De Palma in full bloom, placing sophisticated techniques in the service of puerile subject matter.
          Dressed to Kill begins with Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an unappreciated housewife living outside New York City. Desperately lonely, she comes on to her shrink, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who politely and professionally refuses the advance. Then Kate meets a handsome stranger and has a hot tryst with a tragic outcome—walking away from her lover’s apartment, Kate gets assaulted and killed by a mysterious assailant. The only witness to the murder is prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), who teams up with Kate’s teenaged son, Peter (Keith Gordon), to find the killer. Dr. Elliott gets dragged into the mix when it becomes apparent the murderer might be a patient.
          One of several movies that De Palma wrote in addition to directing, Dressed to Kill works fairly well as a whodunit, thanks to clever misdirection on De Palma’s part, but it fails in many regards as entertainment. Succumbing to a characteristic weakness, De Palma loses control of the story for long periods by indulging in visual excess, whether it’s the “shocking” opening sequence of Kate pleasuring herself or the endless scene of Kate and her would-be lover pursuing each other in a museum. With Ralf D. Bode’s gauzy cinematography and Pino Donaggio’s string-driven score creating a cottony milieu, De Palma generates something that walks a fine line between mainstream moviemaking and soft-core porn. The movie also suffers from a severe Caine shortage—the top-billed player isn’t in the movie all that much, and he sleepwalks through his scenes. Dickinson approaches her raunchy role with great verve, and Allen’s streetwise sexiness is appealing, but there’s a vacuum at the center of the movie. Nonetheless, Dressed to Kill is an important part of De Palma’s Hitchcock-tribute cycle; while his next Hitch homage, Blow Out (1981), is a much better movie, Dressed to Kill is a pure statement of impure thoughts.

Dressed to Kill: FUNKY

Thursday, April 24, 2014

1980 Week: The Nude Bomb



          Just as the original 1965-1970 TV series Get Smart was a direct spoof of the early James Bond movies starring Sean Connery, this disappointing feature-length continuation of the series is a direct spoof of the ’70s Bond pictures with Roger Moore. The notion of poking new fun at 007 probably sounded good on paper, especially after the blockbuster success of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), but the reasons why The Nude Bomb doesn’t even remotely work are myriad. Firstly, Moore’s Bond movies had already reached the stage of self-parody by the time The Nude Bomb was released. Secondly, Universal Pictures devoted such a meager budget to The Nude Bomb that the studio couldn’t hope to properly lampoon the lavish production values with which ’70s Bond flicks are associated. Thirdly, comedy had moved in a new direction between the end of Get Smart and the release of this feature; although the makers of The Nude Bomb feebly attempt to coarsen the Get Smart brand by adding sex jokes and swear words, the whole enterprise feels hopelessly antiquated. Fourthly and fatally, The Nude Bomb simply isn’t very funny; the pratfalls and puns and sight gags that provided mild amusement on the small screen aren’t nearly big enough to sustain interest on the big screen.
          And those are just the big reasons why The Nude Bomb, well, bombed.
          Among the many small reasons are the absence of beloved Get Smart costar Barbara Feldon, the inclusion of a stupid main plot about a terrorist who wishes to eradicate the world’s clothing so he can outfit people in ensembles of his own design, and the general schlockiness of the production. How schlocky? The movie’s big chase scene literally takes place on the Universal Studios Tour. (That said, old-school nerds will enjoy seeing footage of the tour’s short-lived Battlestar Galactica attraction.) Don Adams, reprising his starring role as inept secret agent Maxwell Smart, does what’s expected of him and nothing more, landing most of his lines well but failing to surmount the innate stupidity of the movie. Subbing for Feldon, actresses Pamela Hensley, Andrea Howard, and Sylvia Kristel provide pale imitations of Bond-girl sexiness because the women are hamstrung by the movie’s family-friendly tone. As for the picture’s villain, Vittorio Gassman has scenery-chewing fun with his role, though he too gets subsumed into the project’s overall mediocrity. So, while devoted fans of the original show might find a nostalgic chuckle here and there, it’s probably wiser to leave happy memories alone—or to fast-forward and watch the enjoyable franchise reboot Get Smart (2008), with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

The Nude Bomb: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

1980 Week: The Island



Despite the massive success of two films based on his books, Jaws (1975) and The Deep (1977), all it took to derail the building of Peter Benchley into a Hollywood brand name was the colossal failure of The Island. In fact, The Island did horrible things to the careers of nearly everyone involved, including star Michael Caine and director Michael Ritchie. Even though it was made on a significant budget of $22 million, the silly, turgid, and violent movie is little more than a second-rate exploitation flick, and the plot is so far-fetched as to border on camp. The “hero” of the piece is a prickly UK-born journalist named Blair Maynard (Caine), who travels to the Caribbean in order to solve the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Inexplicably, given the possible dangers of the mission, Maynard brings along his estranged young son, Justin (Jeffrey Frank), hoping for some family bonding. The intrepid reporter soon learns that an island in the middle of the Triangle is home to an ancient band of French pirates, who have been attacking ships for centuries, building an insular society from plundered goods and perpetuating their line by inbreeding with a handful of females. The leader of the gang is a ruthless criminal named Nau (David Warner), who kidnaps Blair’s son and brainwashes the boy into becoming some sort of heir apparent. None of this makes much sense. Yet the ludicrous nature of The Island’s plot wouldn’t matter all that much if the movie provided thrills. Unfortunately, Ritchie was asleep at the wheel, filming events in the flat visual style of a ’70s TV show and letting performers veer into cartoony excess. Caine, for instance, delivers one of his patented “when all else fails, scream” performances. The film’s costumes and sets look cheap and random, with no overriding design aesthetic connecting the elements, and the story’s decent into Straw Dogs-style malarkey about a civilized man turning savage feels trite and unsavory. Worst of all, the movie’s dialogue is often alarmingly stupid. (There’s a reason Benchley’s original scripts for Jaws and The Deep were rewritten by professional screenwriters, but at least he shouldered the blame for this one alone.) Ultimately, the best thing about The Island may be the film’s slam-bang poster, which promises supernatural excitement that is not present in the movie itself.

The Island: LAME

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

1980 Week: Hide in Plain Sight



          This quiet film dramatizes a traumatic circumstance drawn from real life—in the early days of the FBI's Witness Relocation Program, a Buffalo, New York, factory worker suffered unexpected collateral damage when his children disappeared overnight. At the beginning of the story, Frank Hacklin Jr. (James Caan) has a dodgy relationship with his ex-wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), who has become romantically involved with a small-time gangster named Jack Scolese (Robert Viharo). Frank tolerates the situation because Ruhie has custody of the two small children she had with Frank, and he deeply loves his kids. Meanwhile, Frank is just beginning a new romance of his own, with a schoolteacher named Alisa (Jill Eikenberry). After Jackie pulls a brazen robbery and gets caught, revealing how little loyalty Jackie’s mob cronies feel for him, slovenly local cop Sam Marzetta (Kenneth McMillan) and uptight federal agent Jason Reid (Josef Sommer) offer a new identity in exchange for testimony. Jackie takes the government’s deal, marries Ruthie, and decamps to parts unknown with the Hacklin kids.
          Unfortunately, nobody tells Frank what’s happening, so for a time he doesn’t even know whether his children are alive or dead. Over the course of the movie, Frank battles his way through government red tape with the sincere but useless assistance of attorney Sal Carvello (Danny Aiello) and with unwavering support from Alisa, whom Frank marries. The ordeal stretches on for years, culminating with chases across various state lines once Frank becomes desperate.
          Simply because it explores topical subject matter in a soft-spoken style that blends intimacy with righteous indignation, Hide in Plain Sight could easily have been a TV movie. Instead, it not only stars big-screen tough guy Caan but also represents the actor's first and only directorial effort. Caan’s work behind the camera is solid if not necessarily revelatory; one can imagine any number of capable filmmakers taking the material to at least this level of intensity, if not beyond. Therefore, what makes the synthesis of Caan's acting and directing interesting is the degree of restraint that he displays throughout Hide in Plain Sight. For an actor whose style is defined by macho volatility, it's noteworthy that he elected to underplay the bulk of his performance, and that he guided fellow actors toward similar quietude.
          That single directorial choice is what saves Hide in Plain Sight from being a issue-of-the week melodrama, since Caan creates an environment that feels like it’s populated by real people doing real things, with real emotional consequences. Could another filmmaker have hit harder? Sure. But could another filmmaker just as easily have made the narrative feel saccharine and trite? Absolutely. So perhaps Caan was exactly the right guy to make this movie. In any event, the reward for throwing his weight behind a meaningful true story is that Hide in Plain Sight is one of Caan’s most admirable films, a small gem nestled inside his impressive filmography.

Hide in Plain Sight: GROOVY

Monday, April 21, 2014

1980 Week: Superman II



          This post begins a new feature on Every ’70s Movie: Periodically, entire weeks of posts will be devoted to noteworthy theatrical releases from 1980, since nearly every 1980 movie was either written or produced in the '70s. For instance, today’s film is a direct sequel to one of the most beloved blockbusters of the '70s, and production on Superman II commenced years before the picture hit theaters. As the saying goes, we will return to our regularly scheduled program next Monday . . .
          Since very few sequels surpass their predecessors, second films that come anywhere close to matching the appeal of first films are rightfully viewed with great admiration. A fine example is Superman II, which combines key elements from Superman (1978) with an increased emphasis on action and humor. If Superman was the prelude, Superman II is the main event, delivering gigantic battles loaded with Super-flying, Super-punching, Super-kicking, and such. Better still, the movie is also funny and romantic. Superman II is far from perfect, of course, and learning about the project’s torturous backstory helps explain why. Nonetheless, even after the current era’s onslaught of superhero cinema, Superman II remains one of the most purely enjoyable comic-book movies ever made. As directed by Richard Lester (and, partially, Richard Donner), the picture never forgets to be fast and frothy.
          Picking up a thread from the prologue of Superman, the sequel focuses on three Kryptonian criminals, led by the cruel General Zod (Terence Stamp), who escape captivity when their outer-space prison explodes. The aliens travel to Earth and take over the planet, because Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve) has relinquished his superpowers in order to enjoy mortal love with reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Yet through the magic of Kryptonian science, Superman is able to reclaim his abilities in time to combat the evil troika. The three-against-one odds ensure lots of property damage while the characters duke it out in downtown Metropolis with fists, found objects (watch out for that bus, Superman!), and heat vision. Also woven into the mix is beloved baddie Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who tries to help the Kryptonians defeat Superman in exchange for—well, that’s a droll one-liner better discovered than described.
          Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind originally planned to shoot Superman and Superman II simultaneously, with Donner directing both pictures. Budget and schedule overruns derailed that scheme, and once the Salkinds resumed production on the sequel in the wake of Superman’s box-office conquest, relations with Donner had chilled. Enter Lester, who previously made the wonderful Musketeers movies for the Salkinds. Lester integrated his signature style of light farce to various scenes, juicing the rom-com textures of Clark Kent sequences and layering sly sight gags into Superman vignettes. Excepting the intermittent nature of Hackman’s presence (the actor shot a few sequel scenes with Donner but didn’t return once Lester took over), the integration of the two phases of production works quite well. It helps that Ken Thorne’s sturdy musical score creates unity (while integrating themes composed by John Williams for the first film), and that Reeve’s confidence in the leading role(s) grew exponentially between the Donner and Lester eras. He’s so smooth in this picture that he’s like Gary Cooper in tights.
          Superman II is filled with scenes both droll and exciting, from the systematic destruction of a small town to a memorable lovey-dovey bit at Niagara Falls. It all works, so long as one ignores the nonsensical way the filmmakers give Superman a new gadget or power every time they need to wriggle free of a narrative jam. Kidder locks into a charming screwball groove (she’s marvelous in the Eiffel Tower scene), Stamp gives great villain (“Kneel before Zod!”), and the movie feels like a logical summation of Superman rather than a random follow-up. Alas, the Superman film franchise faltered after Superman II and, as of this writing, has yet to recover. The final Reeve films of the ’80s were tacky, the 2006 reboot Superman Returns was too reverent to the 1978 original, and the 2013 re-reboot Man of Steel was too reverent to Superman II. Plus, the less said about the straight-to-video Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the better, since Donner wasn’t actually present for the entire making of Superman II. But, to borrow a phrase suited to the aforementioned Eiffel Tower sequence, we’ll always have Paris.

Superman II: RIGHT ON

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stone (1974)



          Just as the biker-movie craze was losing steam in the U.S., where it originated, the genre found new life Down Under. Yes, Stone is an Australian flick about two-wheelers and the violent men who ride them, complete with bar brawls, a biker funeral, drug-trip montages, senseless violence, unexpected poeticism, and, of course, the beloved combination of compliant chicks and plentiful booze. Stone starts like gangbusters and has a somewhat enjoyable action finale, but it goes slack in the middle once the filmmakers realize they’re run out of plot. Thus, Stone is not only a loving tribute to American biker movies but also a stylistic cousin to them—because, after all, most U.S. biker movies fall apart in the middle, too. It’s all about fighting, freedom, and fucking, man, so we don’t need your rules and your structure. Can you dig it?
          In Stone, someone is systematically terminating members of an outfit called the Grave Diggers, so an undercover cop is assigned to ride with the gang until the culprit (or culprits) can be identified. Predictably, the bikers resist the intrusion of an outsider, but when muscle-bound policeman Stone (Ken Shorter) proves his mettle in a fight, the Grave Diggers cautiously accept him into the fold. Turns out the folks behind the assassinations are business-suited conspirators who want the bikers eliminated because one of the Grave Diggers witnessed a political assassination. Further complicating matters is the fact that the biker who saw the event, hulking Toad (Hugh Keays-Byrne), was so wigged out on acid at the time of the murder that he’s not sure whether what he saw really happened.
          Obviously, the plot is not the big draw here—but what Stone lacks in substance, it makes up for in scuzzy style. The Grave Diggers all look believably filthy and wasted (real Aussie bikers participated in the making of the film), the “kills” are flamboyantly nasty, and it’s a kick to see the behaviors of American motor clubs transposed to the environs of coastal Australia. In particular, it’s amusing to hear typical I-gotta-be-me biker speeches rendered in Aussie accents. (Imagine feasting your ears on this spiel: “Whoever got you’s gonna get got, too . . . ol’ Satan’ll be in there with you, so you’ll be all right.”) Stone also benefits from a handful of snazzy design flourishes, like the boxy sidecar driven by a Grave Digger during the funeral, or the crazy eye-patch/missing tooth ensemble sported by biker Dr. Death (Vincent Gil). Furthermore, Stone is slathered front-to-back with crunchy rock music courtesy of Billy Green. Given the low expectations that reasonable folks bring to the biker-movie genre, Stone satisfies with its piquant mixture of lurid elements. If tested by any higher standards, however, the picture would be found wanting.

Stone: FUNKY

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Young Graduates (1971)



The ’70s-era operating principles of B-movie factory Crown International Pictures remain mysterious to me, because while other companies occupying the same low rung of the film industry during the ’70s regularly cranked out fast-paced potboilers, Crown International instead made turgid melodramas padded with pointless montage sequences. The unanswerable question, of course, is whether Crown’s projects represented misguided attempts at real movies or whether the company sold its products in bulk, meaning that more minutes translated to more money. In any event, those who view multiple Crown endeavors from the ’70s suffer mightily. For instance, even though The Young Graduates is fairly restrained by Crown standards, seeing as how nudity and violence are kept to a minimum, there’s not much to command attention. Marketed as a satirical referendum on the sexual practices of ’70s teenagers, The Young Graduates is really the story of one dippy high school student, Mindy (Patricia Wymer), who seduces a young teacher named Jack (Steven Stewart). Since Jack is married, much of the film’s action concerns the couple’s efforts to keep their romance secret. This thread of the story is not interesting. Later, once Mindy discovers she might be pregnant, the impetuous lass skips town for an adventure with her best gal pal, Sandy (Marly Holiday). Alas, their would-be getaway turns into a nightmare, because the girls fall into the clutches of a biker gang/cult/drug ring/whatever. This thread of the story is not interesting, either. Other segments of The Young Graduates feature dancing, drag racing, pot smoking, skinny-dipping, and other ho-hum pastimes, so the whole movie suffers from a catastrophic lack of urgency. The acting is mostly quite stiff (future notables Bruno Kirby and Dennis Christopher do what they can with underwritten roles), the cinematography is relentlessly flat, and the music is punishingly ordinary. In sum, The Young Graduates is far too bland and forgettable to merit genuine contempt; one can merely note with a sigh the existence of the thing before moving on to more rewarding activities, like cleaning out lint traps or clipping fingernails.

The Young Graduates: LAME

Friday, April 18, 2014

Impulse (1974)



          The would-be horror movie Impulse, which concerns a psychopath who makes his living by swindling gullible women with shady investment opportunities, was doomed to become an exercise in camp the moment William Shatner was cast in the leading role. For example, the lead character’s signature gesture is placing his pinky on his lower lip, so whenever Shatner gets caught in a homicidal fury, he delivers florid dialogue while mimicking a baby with a binky. Suffice to say, the effect is more comedic than chilling. And so it goes throughout Impulse, because at nearly every turn, Shatner reduces his characterization to something infantile, even though he’s supposed to seem dangerous. In one special moment, Shatner strings up a victim by a noose, then dances around the victim and swats the dangling body like it’s a punching bag. Making matters worse, Shatner’s ridiculous costumes include the staggering ensemble of a striped wife-beater T-shirt accompanied by red bell-bottomed slacks and a wide belt. Wow.
          The story begins with a bizarre prologue, during which young Matt Stone watches a WWII veteran attempt to rape Matt’s mother. Setting the pattern for his life, Matt “impulsively” murders the man with the samurai sword the man brought back from Japan. (The prologue also introduces the pinky-in-the-mouth trope.) Afterward, the movie cuts to the present day, revealing that adult Matt (Shatner) is a smooth-talking swinger who uses women for money, then kills the women once they’ve outlived their usefulness. One day, Matt meets a little girl named Tina (Kim Nicholas) and gives her a ride home from school. During the ride, Matt runs over a dog. Yet when Tina shares this anecdote with her sexy single mom, Ann (Jennifer Bishop), Ann scolds Tina for lying. Meanwhile, Ann’s best friend, blowsy socialite Julia (Ruth Roman), meets Matt and decides to fix him up with Ann. You get the idea.
          A final thread of the story involves Matt’s criminal connection to Karate Pete—played by Harold Sakata, best known as “Odd Job” from the 007 flick Goldfinger (1964)—because ex-con Karate Pete demands a piece of Matt’s earnings as a kind of protection money. Although Bishop and Roman try valiantly to deliver legitimate performances, every scene with Shatner is so innately silly that Impulse is impossible to take seriously. Sakata’s acting is terrible in a different way, just plain old-fashioned incompetence, but he appears in only a few scenes. All in all, Impulse is quite shoddy, but thanks to its high quotient of unintended humor, it makes for a somewhat amusing 82 minutes.

Impulse: FUNKY

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)



          During his heyday, writer-director Paul Mazursky was so good at constructing incisive scenes filled with humor, insight, and pathos that it was frustrating whenever he got mired in self-indulgence. For example, Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a fictionalized account of his own transition from the provincial Jewish community in Brooklyn where he grew up to the bohemian wonderland of 1950s Greenwich Village, should be impossibly precious. After all, Mazursky includes characters based on his parents, dramatizes formative sexual experiences, and even re-creates the texture of early acting lessons. Executed without discipline and taste, Next Stop, Greenwich Village could have been nothing but a filmed diary entry. Yet Mazursky (mostly) applies the same rigorous techniques he employed when telling the stories of wholly fictional characters, so the movie is brisk, funny, lively, and surprising—except when it isn’t. And that’s where the issue of self-indulgence becomes relevant.
          After starting very strong, Next Stop, Greenwich Village gets stuck in a groove about halfway through its running time, because Mazursky includes such needless scenes as the lead character’s dream/nightmare of what it would be like to have his overbearing mother invade one of his acting classes. Furthermore, the exploration of crises that are experienced by the lead character’s downtown friends feels a bit forced. Were this the work of a lesser filmmaker, these problems would have been catastrophic. Yet since Next Stop, Greenwich Village represents Mazursky at his prime, they’re only minor flaws. The movie is so good, in the mean, that even sizable detours can’t subtract from the value of the journey.
          In terms of texture, Mazursky strikes a terrific balance between deglamorizing and romanticizing the New York City of his younger days. Scenes of cavorting through the streets with like-minded friends and of sharing a bed with a beautiful young girlfriend make the best moments of protagonist Larry Lipinksy’s life seem like pure postadolescent bliss, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, grim encounters with disappointment and heartbreak, to say nothing of incessant clashes with the aforementioned smothering mom, play out as epic suffering—which is often how young people perceive their own travails. In sum, Mazursky seems to get things exactly right whenever the movie clicks. He also, as always, benefits from extraordinary performances. An actor himself, Mazursky regularly drew the best possible work from his casts, creating a loose performance space in which players can easily blend their idiosyncracises with the rhythms of the text.
          Playing the Mazursky surrogate, leading man Lenny Baker is terrific, all gangly awekwardness mixed with youthful arrogance. Ellen Greene is sly and sexy as his quick-witted girlfriend, and Shelley Winters finds a perfect vessel for her uniquely voracious screen persona. Durable supporting players including Lou Jacobi, Mike Kellin, and Joe Spinell lend ample Noo Yawk flavor, while future stars Antonio Fargas, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Vincent Schiavelli, and Christopher Walken appear in secondary roles of various sizes. And if the movie ultimately lacks a satisfying resolution—since it’s really just a snapshot of a transitional moment—that’s inconsequential given how much sensitive entertainment the experience of watching the movie provides.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warhead (1977)


          Offering a textbook illustration of the need to imbue even the simplest films with proper character development and dramatic tension, the military thriller Warhead squanders a colorful premise and a unique location simply because the storytelling is so enervated. The movie’s just barely passable, thanks to the presence of a few violent action scenes, but, man, does Warhead seem amateurish at times. Cowritten and produced by Buddy Ruskin, whose principal claim to fame is creating the Mod Squad franchise, the picture stars humorless David Janssen as an American nuclear-weapons expect. Here’s the laughably contrived setup. After an American plane suffers mechanical problems and accidentally drops an (unexploded) experimental nuclear weapon near the Israeli-Jordanian border, Tony Stevens (Janssen), gets sent on a solo parachute mission with orders to find and defuse the bomb. Meanwhile, Israeli soldier Liora (Karin Dor), survives a sneak attack on a school bus by PLO guerilla Malouf (David Semadar). She gets teamed with Israeli commando Ben-David (Christopher Stone) to return to the scene of the crime and kill Malouf. Yet in the time Liora’s away from Malouf’s stomping grounds, Malouf finds Tony and the nuclear bomb. A struggle for control of the warhead ensues.
          Shot in Israel, the picture takes an extreme approach to sociopolitical stereotyping. Every Israeli citizen is portrayed as a saint, every PLO soldier is depicted as a rapist and/or murderer, and Tony—the sole American principal character—is depicted as the stooge of a warmongering superpower insensitive to the suffering of the noble Israeli people. It says a lot that the only scene in the movie with any idiosyncratic flair is the bit when a shlubby Israeli soldier (Art Metrano) castigates a fellow commando for sitting on the nuclear bomb. The location shooting adds a bit of flavor to the piece, especially during two minor scenes filmed at the Wailing Wall, but director John O’Connor exhibits precious little visual imagination, capturing dialogue scenes in static frames and photographing action in a rudimentary way. (The less said about the weird optical-spin transition the filmmakers employ to depict a rape, the better.) As always, Janssen trudges through the movie like’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, which is to say he performs every scene with exactly the same degree of all-purpose intensity. Warhead is frequently very silly, with its ample clichés and platitudes, but at least it’s brisk and coherent.

Warhead: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kid Vengeance (1977)


          Go figure that B-movie tough guy Lee Van Cleef made not one but two cheap European Westerns costarring ’70s teen idol Leif Garrett. And while Garrett was merely a supporting player in God’s Gun (1976), he’s more or less the protagonist of Kid Vengeance—despite billing suggesting that either Van Cleef or blaxploitation badass Jim Brown plays the main character. Confusion about who’s more important to the storyline notwithstanding, Kid Vengeance is on the low end of passable, but at least that means it ‘s a hell of a lot better than the abysmal God’s Gun. Among other noteworthy differences, Kid Vengeance has a plot that makes sense. At the beginning the violent story, honest prospector Isaac (Brown) trades gold for cash, thereby catching the attention of thugs including McClain (Van Cleef), who leads a posse of savage men. After his first skirmish with would-be robbers, Isaac flees into the sun-baked wilderness and encounters the salt-of-the-earth Thurston clan, including Ma and Pa plus two kids. The kids are nubile Lisa (Glynis O’Connor) and wide-eyed Tom (Garrett). Once Isaac leaves them, the Thurstons get menaced by McClain’s gang; the thugs kill Pa, rape Ma, and kidnap Lisa for sale to slavers. Tom witnesses all of this and begins picking off the baddies with his bow and arrow. Eventually, Tom hooks up with Isaac, and the two join forces.
          The first half of the picture is sluggish, even with lots of bloodshed, partially because of lax storytelling and partially because Garrett’s an ineffectual screen presence as he lurks in high rock formations and watches bad things happen. Meanwhile, Brown is mostly kept offscreen for a good 40 minutes. On the brighter side, Van Cleef renders one of his signature phoned-in performances, but he plays evil so enjoyably that his lack of commitment doesn’t really matter. As for the other key players, O’Connor brings her customary sincerity and costar Matt Clark gives good varmint, as usual. (It’s a mystery why the producers bothered hiring John Marley, who plays McClain’s second-in-command, since his voice was replaced in dubbing to make him sound Mexican.) Kid Vengeance—which is also known by the titles Vendetta and Vengeance—isn’t the worst film of its kind, but no one will ever mistake it for a quality picture. And even though Kid Vengeance is occasionally described as a sequel to a previous Brown-Van Cleef flick, Take a Hard Ride (1975), the films are unrelated.

Kid Vengeance: FUNKY

Monday, April 14, 2014

Between the Lines (1977)



          Having worked in the alternative-newspaper business well past the historical period during which Village Voice-style periodicals enjoyed their highest degree of sociopolitical relevance, I naturally harbor some romanticism for the idea of scrappy young liberals covering culture and politics in ways that cut against the mainstream grain. Yet even with my predisposition, I found Joan Micklin Silver’s movie about this subject matter, Between the Lines, massively underwhelming. Despite credibility of authorship (screenwriter Fred Barron worked at weekly papers in Boston, where the film is set) and despite a strong cast (many of the film’s young actors later gained notoriety), Silver failed to generate any real excitement. One intrinsic problem is the use of an Altman-esque mosaic approach to storytelling, because Silver lacks the artistry and madness to needed to replicate the controlled chaos of Altman’s pictures.
          Another significant issue is the fact that most of the male characters are schmucks who treat women terribly. This accurately reflects the time period being depicted—the ’70s were lousy with studs who shrouded macho egotism behind sensitive-guy posturing—but it’s not much fun to watch dudes demean the ladies in their lives. And, of course, one should not discount the quandary that’s layered into the DNA of real-life alternative newsweeklies, which is the eternal risk of hipocracy. Music critics lambaste Establishment values while accepting free concert tickets; pretentious writers bemoan the inability of the public to recognize good work, while simultaneously angling to get publishing deals; and wide-eyed idealists advocate left-leaning social models even though they’re engaged in purely commercial enterprises.
          To its credit, Between the Line touches on all of these themes, but the film does so in such an inconsequential manner that it’s hard to develop any engagement while watching characters debate thorny topics. Worse, Silver proves unable to escalate onscreen events into full-on comedy—Between the Lines may generate a titter or two, but nary a guffaw emerges. In sum, the movie is easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. As for the plot, it’s painfully predictable—a heroic band of scrappy journalists struggles to maintain integrity after a money-grubbing publisher buys the paper for which they work. Cue blunt conversations about the “death of the counterculture.” Still, the cast is something. The male leads are Stephen Collins, Jeff Goldbum, and John Heard, and the leading ladies are Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, and Marilu Henner. Also present are Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, and Lane Smith. Silver gives each of these actors room to exercise his or her personal style, so Goldblum naturally dominates with his hyperkinetic intellectualism, and Heard grounds the endeavor by staking out the moral high ground (except when it comes to women).

Between the Lines: FUNKY