Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Serpent’s Egg (1977)

          Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had such a consistent and singular voice that, generally speaking, even his misfires feel like attempts at scaling the same thematic mountain atop which he made his most important discoveries. Proving there’s an exception to every rule is The Serpent’s Egg, one of two English-language pictures that Bergman directed and the closest thing to a Hollywood movie that Bergman ever made. Disjointed, meandering, and stiff, the picture seems like one of Bergman’s signature psychological dramas until it evolves (or devolves) into a conspiracy thriller with a hint of science fiction. Worse, The Serpent’s Egg has elements that are highly derivative of Bob Fosse’s extraordinary musical Cabaret (1972), even though Bergman was usually an artist whom others emulated, not the other way around.
          Reading about the circumstances surrounding The Serpent’s Egg provides some illumination, since Bergman was a tax exile from Sweden at the time he collaborated on this picture with American star David Carradine and Italian producer Dino Di Laurentiis. Sometimes, less-than-ideal situations push artists toward unexpected creative breakthroughs. In this case, it seems adversity bested Bergman.
          In 1923 Germany, American circus acrobat Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) reels from the suicide of his brother and performing partner, finding himself adrift and nearly penniless in a foreign land at a time of growing anti-Semitism. Abel finds comfort by spending time with his brother’s ex-wife, dancehall performer Manuela (Liv Ullman), but fate appears to have chosen Abel for a punching bag. As he wrestles with depression, looks for work, and half-heartedly investigates his brother’s life and death, Abel has a number of strange and/or violent encounters until discovering a conspiracy involving medical experimentation. As in Cabaret, the idea is to foreshadow the evil looming over Germany in the years preceding World War II. Yet while Cabaret found a perfect set of characters and metaphors to illustrate the means by which a society succumbs to tyranny, Bergman flails about while looking for something to ground his slapped-together storyline.
          At his best, Bergman created believably complicated individuals and drilled down into their psyches—so to say that he’s out of his element staging fist fights and mad-doctor scenes is to offer a considerable understatement. Nonetheless, The Serpent’s Egg looks as exquisite as any other Bergman production, mostly because Bergman’s regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, creates remarkable atmosphere and texture. Furthermore, Bergman’s muse, Ullman, renders a committed performance despite playing a role that borders on the nonsensical. As for Carradine, he seems lost, with the script’s contrived scenarios and stilted dialogue precluding him from manifesting his usual naturalism.

The Serpent’s Egg: FUNKY

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fly Me (1973)

Although it was not produced by Roger Corman, the disjointed and distasteful drama/thriller Fly Me is similar to many exploitation flicks that Corman’s New World Pictures released in the early ’70s. Set in the Far East, the movie follows the format established by New World’s “sexy nurses” films—three attractive young women who share the same profession experience parallel adventures loaded with sex, danger, and more sex. Specifically, three stewardesses travel from L.A. to Hong Kong (even though the movie was shot in the Philippines). Wholesome blonde Toby (Pat Anderson) tries to date a man she met during her flight, even though her pushy mother (Naomi Stevens) tagged along to keep Toby virtuous. Boy-crazy Sherry (Lyllah Torene) sleeps with the wrong guy, ending up the captive of white slavers. And formidable Andrea (Lenore Kasdorf) balances romantic intrigue with martial-arts brawls until she, too, encounters the white slavers—while working alongside law-enforcement officials. Directed by prolific Filipino-cinema hack Cirio Santiago, Fly Me offers campy escapism in one scene, heavy drama during the next, and a steady stream of leering nude scenes. In fact, the movie opens with Toby stripping in the back of a taxicab while she changes into her flight-attendant uniform, even as the driver (played by B-movie stalwart Dick Miller) nearly crashes the car while ogling his nubile passenger. Later, Andrea gets into a martial-arts fight during which her blouse is conveniently ripped, revealing a see-through bra. And we haven’t even gotten to the bondage scenes. Fly Me is crass, dumb, and tedious all the way from takeoff to landing.

Fly Me: LAME

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sandcastles (1972)

          Here’s a strange one. Made for TV and shot on video, Sandcastles is a supernatural love story about a ghost who sorta-kinda returns from the dead to complete unfinished business, and sorta-kinda returns from the dead because in the final moments of his life, he met the woman of his dreams. Starring the impossibly young and pretty duo of Bonnie Bedelia and Jan-Michael Vincent, both of whom give wide-eyed performances full of vague longing, the movie has a truly strange feel because of its recording medium. Sandcastles inevitably suggests a daytime soap opera, especially when saccharine music bludgeons emotional scenes, and one gets the impression that certain scenes were filmed “live” with multiple cameras, rather than via conventional step-by-step, single-camera coverage.
          Furthermore, the plot is so contrived and overwrought that it’s a wonder significant people became involved. Vincent was already on his way to becoming a movie star when he made Sandcastles, and director Ted Post had already directed theatrical features including the Clint Eastwood western Hang ’Em High (1986) and the sci-fi sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). Suffice to say, his work here lacks the vitality he displayed in those features.
          Set in northern California, the ridiculous plot of Sandcastles revolves around a restaurant called Papa Bear’s. The kindly owner, Alexis (Herschel Bernardi), is best friends with a dreamy young artist named Michael (Vincent), so Michael is aware that Papa Bear’s is in financial trouble. Alexis’ wife, Sarah (Mariette Hartley), encourages Alexis to ask regular customers for donations, and the plan succeeds. Michael is entrusted with taking checks to the bank, getting a cashier’s check for $20,000, and returning with the check. Somewhat inexplicably, Michael trades the cashier’s check for cash and starts running off with the money. Then he gets second thoughts and heads back to Papa Bear’s, hitching a ride with jackass salesman Frank (Gary Crosby).
          Yet just shy of Papa Bear’s, Frank gets into an accident with a car driven by young musician Jenna (Bedelia). Michael is thrown from Frank’s car, and Frank flees the scene. While Jenna comforts Michael as he dies, the two experience love at first sight. Alexis arrives at the scene just after Michael’s body is removed by authorities, so he takes in the distraught Jenna, unaware of her connection to his friend. Circumstances also leave Alexis with the impression that Michael has absconded with the $20,000. Jenna mopes around the beach near Papa Bear’s, where she meets Michael—whom she doesn’t recognize from the accident—and they share romantic encounters while Michael slowly realizes that he’s been resurrected in order to set things right at Papa Bear’s. And so it goes from there.
          Even describing the plot is exhausting, so you can imagine what a slog it is watching the thing. Still, Bedelia and Vincent are compelling because of the sweet innocence with which they play their absurd roles, and the whole project is so peculiar that it’s oddly fascinating. There aren’t many movies like Sandcastles—and that’s probably a good thing.

Sandcastles: FUNKY

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hollywood High (1976)

An abysmal sex comedy that’s basically porn without the courage of its convictions, Hollywood High depicts the exploits of four teenaged girls who spend all their time having sex, talking about sex, or teasing men who want to have sex with them. With their figures crammed into bikinis, crop tops, short shorts, or nothing at all, the starlets portraying these ladies giggle like morons, lifelessly recite lines of inane dialogue, or merely bounce up and down while director Patrick Wright’s camera circles and probes their curves. Watching Hollywood High is a bit like encountering one of those horrific infomercials that used to run on late-night TV for Girls Gone Wild videos. Hollywood High imagines a world in which pulchritudinous young women have nothing in their brains but lust, and relish displaying their bodies to any males in their immediate vicinity. Yuck. The “story” of the picture concerns the girls’ quest for a fresh place to make out with their boyfriends, since they’ve exhausted the possibilities of locker rooms, tents, vans, and so forth. Concurrently, the girls have adventures including a sexual encounter with a dwarf mechanic, a meet-cute with a Mae West-type aging movie star, and a food fight in a burger joint. Typical of this wretched flick is the scene in which one of the ladies responds to a ringing telephone by saying, “If that’s Charles Bronson, ask him if his tallywacker wants some poontang!” Oh, and a greasy-haired tough guy refers to himself as “Fenzie” and “The Fenz.” Shameless! Hollywood High delivers lots of sun and skin, accompanied by hopelessly generic rock music, but this movie is so gleefully exploitive that it probably constitutes some sort of cinematic sex crime.

Hollywood High: SQUARE

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Catch My Soul (1974)

          Mixing folk songs, religious allegories, Shakespeare, and show tunes, the unique musical Catch My Soul is an interesting attempt at . . . something. Originally presented on the London stage by writer/producer Jack Good, Catch My Soul was billed as “the rock Othello.”  Once Good and producer Richard M. Rosenbloom set out to make a film version, they hired folksinger Richie Havens to play the leading role, while retaining Lance LeGault from the original stage cast to portray the scheming Iago. Film actors Season Hubley and Susan Tyrell were added to the mix, along with singers Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett and Tony Joe White. Overseeing this eclectic cast was director Patrick McGoohan, better known as an actor in such projects as the 1960s TV series The Prisoner. This was his only feature as a director.
          Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the picture depicts the travails of an evangelist named Othello (Havens). While living with a commune alongside the demonic Iago, Othello falls in love with and marries the angelic Desdemona (Hubley). Iago, whom the film portrays as a manifestation of Lucifer, foments strife by making Othello believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Othello’s friend, Cassio (White). Betrayals, lies, recriminations, and tragedy ensue.
          Alternately titled Santa Fe Satan, this picture suffers from an overabundance of thematic ambition and a shortage of credibility. Jumping onto the ’60s/’70s bandwagon of meshing counterculture imagery with religious parables makes Catch My Soul feel heavy-handed from the first frame to the last, which neutralizes most of the subtleties of the underlying text. At the same time, the storytelling is fragmented, as if McGoohan was unable or unwilling to shoot scenes in proper continuity, and the acting is wildly uneven. Havens, appearing in his first dramatic role, has a quietly authoritative presence but seems awkward while delivering dialogue. Hubley and White barely register, and Tyrell lends her signature eccentricity to a role that ultimately feels inconsequential. (In making room for tunes, the filmmakers gutted Shakespeare’s text.) The film’s standout performance comes from the man who acclimated to his role onstage. For those who only know LeGault from his villainous role in the ’80s TV series The A-Team, watching him in Catch My Soul is startling. Not only can he sing, with a voice as low and dark as an icy wind howling through a cavern, but he’s lithe and loose, and his sleepy eyelids give his visage an otherworldly quality.
          Whereas the film’s tunes are forgettable—though each hits roughly the correct note of menace or longing or wonderment—the picture’s visual component is not. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, a three-time Oscar winner, shoots the hell out of Catch My Soul, whether he’s infusing desert scenes with scorching color or sculpting eerie nighttime images from creative juxtapositions of hot accent lights and ink-deep shadows. Although Catch My Soul doesn’t consistently command or reward the viewer’s attention, the virtues of certain elements ensure that every so often, something dynamic happens.

Catch My Soul: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Vampire Hookers (1978)

Cheaply made, ridiculous, and tacky, this comedy/horror hybrid contains a few entertainingly awful sequences, and in fact the whole picture verges on so-bad-it’s-good splendor. For instance, the title song, which is set to a zippy ’60s-rock groove, features the outrageous lyric, “Vampire hookers—blood is not all they suck!” While on shore leave in the Philippines, U.S. sailors meet prostitutes who lure the sailors, one by one, to a crypt. Turns out the ladies are vampires in the thrall of Richmond Reed (John Carradine), a centuries-old monster. Each time a sailor disappears, his friends search for him, eventually leading to a showdown. Instead of playing this scenario for thrills, screenwriter Howard R. Cohen and director Cirio H. Santiago opt for campy jokes. The vampire brides bitch about how their master never takes them anywhere. Carradine’s character whines that his ladies are too high-maintenance. The vampires’ half-human henchman, a dim-witted thug played by Filipino-cinema stalwart Vic Diaz, mopes because he wants to become a vampire, punctuating most of his remarks with flatulence. (In one scene, he stinks up his own coffin so badly that he gags.) Some of the actors try to make the comedy elements work, including amiable Texas-born character actor Trey Wilson, who later found a niche in the ensemble of Bull Durham (1987). Unfortunately, starlets were cast for their looks and their willingness to disrobe rather than for their talent, and Carradine was decades past his prime when he made this picture. Still, the truly bizarre stuff in Vampire Hookers makes an impression, like the running gag of debating whether Shakespeare was a vampire, or the aforementioned title song. Vampire Hookers also includes one of the most excessive sex scenes you’ll ever encounter outside of a porno, not because it’s graphic but because it goes on forever, with a particularly virile sailor servicing all three vampire brides for a good 10 minutes of screen time 

Vampire Hookers: LAME

Monday, January 25, 2016

Fantastic Planet (1973)

          An animated science-fiction saga made in France, Fantastic Planet applies a novelistic approach to a cinematic genre that often devolves into predictable action/adventure formulas. The weird narrative of Fantastic Planet sprawls over decades of time, includes a vast number of bizarre concepts, and resolves into an allegorical statement about the need for beings to overcome differences. There’s a hero of sorts, but the protagonist of Fantastic Planet is more of a window through which viewers can observe the strange world in which the story takes place. Although there are action scenes, the real focus of Fantastic Planet is the trippy stuff about astral projection, the behavior of godlike aliens, and the savagery of primitive human cultures. That all of this material gets crammed into a scant 72-minute running time reveals one of the picture’s key problems—characterization is largely an afterthought. Ideas rule in Fantastic Planet, placing the film squarely within the sphere of overly cerebral fantasy fiction. If you want a movie that makes you ponder unusual notions, this one fits the bill. But if you want a movie that touches you emotionally, expect to be disappointed or at least frustrated.
          Briefly, the picture takes place on a distant planet where giant aliens called Traags keep humans as pets—a fully grown man is no bigger than a Traags’ hand. One particular human, Terr, is adopted by a Traag child while Terr is an infant. The Traag child outfits Terr with a slave collar that restricts Terr’s movements. Because of a malfunction, the slave collar allows Terr to understand Traag language, making Terr more intelligent and sophisticated than the other humans on the planet. Once he reaches adulthood, Terr flees Traag society and encounters wild humans, assuming a leadership role and leading a rebellion. Other elements percolate in the story, notably a trope of Traags exiting their corporeal forms while meditating, but that’s the overall gist.
          Fantastic Planet has a peculiar look, because the filmmakers created stop motion from elaborate line drawings—somewhat in the vein of Terry Gilliam’s old Monty Python animations. This inevitably limits expressiveness, since there’s virtually no facial movement. Furthermore, some of the imagery is so odd as to be silly, like the bit during which two humans duel by strapping lizards to their chests and letting the lizards have at each other. Huh? Some of the concepts in Fantastic Planet are interesting, though many are trite staples of the sci-fi genre, and the story concludes in a fairly satisfactory manner. Nonetheless, one suspects it was the combination of the funk/lounge score and the wild visual aesthetic that earned Fantastic Planet a U.S. release, rather than the virtues of the storyline. Interestingly, the U.S. version has subtitles, even though replacing the voice cast with English-speaking actors would have a fairly easy task, seeing as how the dialogue isn’t synchronized to lip movements.

Fantastic Planet: FUNKY

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Magician of Lublin (1979)

          As evidenced by the dozens of horrible movies that he coproduced as a partner in Cannon Films, Menaham Golan was a filmmaker who believed in excess. Yet his directorial efforts prove that he possessed some small measure of skill, and that he occasionally gravitated toward worthwhile subject matter. In the war between the two halves of his cinematic identity, however, it seems the vulgarian always came out on top. Consider The Magician of Lublin, a film version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel. The cast includes Alan Arkin, Louise Fletcher, Lou Jacobi, Valerie Perrine, and Shelley Winters. The opulent production values include vivid re-creations of Poland circa the early 1900s. And the lofty storyline touches on anti-Semitism, greed, lust, and mysticism. Alas, virtually nothing in The Magician of Lublin works. Even when the occasional scene is moderately well-written, some directorial choice makes the moment feel false. And whenever Golan reaches for metaphor, he renders clumsy and grotesque melodrama. Seeing as how The Magician of Lublin is about a man capable of charming nearly everyone he meets, this is a spectacularly charmless movie.
          Arkin plays Yasha, an obnoxious magician trying to secure lucrative performance contracts even as he juggles multiple romantic entanglements. He keeps company with a whore (Perrine), maintains a sham marriage to a troubled woman (Maia Danziger), and dreams of running away with an aristocrat (Fletcher) who makes it plain she wants a rich husband because her daughter requires costly medical care. All the while, Yasha strings people along with promises of the great things he will do in the future. The storyline gets strange and tragic as the movie grinds through its 105 sluggish minutes, and it’s virtually impossible to care about anyone onscreen. Arkin’s character is an overbearing liar. Fletcher comes off like a zombie, generating zero chemistry with Arkin. Winters is in full harpy mode, spitting and squawking like she was zapped with a cattle prod before every take. Compounding the extremes of these performances, Golan bludgeons every scene with the same flat loudness, ensuring that the narrative lacks either a point of view or a sense of purpose. The Magician of Lublin is exhausting to watch, and the viewer is left with nothing of consequence after the experience.

The Magician of Lublin: LAME

Saturday, January 23, 2016

In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976)

          Another nonfiction winner from the folks at Sunn Classic Pictures—if by “winner” one means a ridiculous celebration of pseudoscience that presents hypotheses and rumors as if they’re stone-cold facts—In Search of Noah’s Ark explores various dubious claims that remnants of the Bible’s most famous ship rest atop Turkey’s Mount Ararat. While beardy host Brad Crandall describes “evidence” and theories with his persuasively stentorian voice, the filmmakers use documentary techniques, interviews, and stock footage to make their wildly unsupported claims seem credible. As with Sunn Classic’s docs about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, etc., the storytelling style is designed to excite the viewer’s imagination. First, the central premise is broken into units. Second, outlandish remarks and visuals “support” the veracity of each unit, with Crandall saying things like, “Now that’s impressive evidence.” Third, Crandall proceeds to the next unit, as if the previous item is no longer open to doubt. The guiding notion is that if X, Y, and Z are true, then the overarching premise (which comprises X+Y+Z) must also be true.
          In the ’70s, nobody shoveled bullshit quite as vigorously as Sunn Classics.
          In Search of Noah’s Ark begins with a cheaply rendered dramatization of the Noah story. To the accompaniment of Crandall’s narration, Noah receives commands from God, builds his ark despite scorn from neighbors, gathers two specimens of each living creature on Earth, and endures a catastrophic flood before opening his ark and repopulating the planet. The would-be comedic bits of a chimpanzee herding animals onto the ark are as underwhelming as the low-budget FX used to depict the ark floating across an endless ocean. After 25 minutes of this stuff, Crandall leads viewers into the meat of the picture. The presence of sediment in various global locations “proves” that water once covered the planet. The discovery of salt atop Mount Ararat “proves” the ocean once rose to the mountain’s peak. And so on. In one glorious bit, a scale model of the ark is set upon the waves of a laboratory tidal pool, demonstrating the seaworthiness of such a vessel. Wow.
          Eventually, the picture settles into its longest stretch, describing various expeditions to the top of Mount Ararat. Using photos, re-creations, and stock footage, the filmmakers relay eyewitness reports from folks who saw the ark atop the mountain. Fuzzy aerial photos and questionable analysis of wood samples further “corroborate” the findings. In Search of Noah’s Ark is as silly as it sounds, but the fun of these Sunn Classic explorations stems from embracing the “What if?” dimensions of the human experience. Setting aside the question of whether or not 1976 viewers took In Search of Noah’s Ark seriously, they showed up in droves to screenings—the picture grossed an astonishing $55 million, becoming one of the year’s most successful movies.

In Search of Noah's Ark: FUNKY

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dracula’s Dog (1978)

Dull and silly, Dracula’s Dog—sometimes known as Zoltan: Hound of Dracula—lives down to its ridiculous title. Although the film has a fair amount of visual polish given its shoestring budget, the script is so unrelentingly brainless that the movie elicits boredom more than any other reaction. In the goofy opening scene, Russian soldiers excavating a cave discover a crypt bearing the family name “Dracula,” and a coffin spills from the crypt. For no discernible reason, a soldier opens the coffin, discovers a figure with a stake through its heart, removes the stake, and then watches as the figure reconstitutes into a Doberman with vampire fangs. The dog kills the soldier, pulls another coffin from a crypt, and removes the stake from the figure in that coffin, reconstituting half-human/half-vampire henchman Veidt Smith (Reggie Nalder).. Instead of reviving their old master, Veidt and the dog decamp to Los Angeles, where they seek out Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), last survivor of the Dracula family line. Does any of this make sense? No, and neither does the “plan” of stealing Michael’s blood for some nefarious purpose. Much of the picture comprises drab scenes of Veidt watching Michael enjoy a camping trip with his family, and then telepathically commanding the dog to make mischief once the sun goes down each night. Even with the occasional scene of the dog chomping onto the neck of a human or another dog, this picture is numblingly boring, especially because the rinky-dink musical score is such an assault on the ears. Compounding these problems, it’s embarrassing to watch the great José Ferrer trudge through idiotic subplot scenes while portraying a Van Helsing-type pursuer.  

Dracula’s Dog: LAME

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Greaser’s Palace (1972)

          The story of Christ has provided artists with fertile subject matter for more than two millennia, with interpretations running the gamut from reverent to scandalous. In the ’60s and ’70s, progressive storytellers drew parallels between the Gospel and hippie-era counterculture (Jesus Christ Superstar, et al.). Others took even more license, like the folks behind the so-called “acid western” Greaser’s Palace. Directed by fringe-cinema luminary Robert Downey Sr., Greaser’s Place sets the Christ parable in an Old West milieu, though the picture features myriad anachronisms. The movie offers abundant sex and violence while portraying a Jesus surrogate as a flamboyantly dressed song-and-dance man with an overactive libido, but Downey’s shock-value tactics render middling results. Greaser’s Palace is a needlessly weird retelling of an enduring narrative, rather than a fully conceived and purposeful interpretation.
          The movie opens with a dancehall girl (played by the director’s wife, Elsie Downey) crooning a song about virginity to a roomful of lust-addled frontier types. Then a dude wearing a head-to-toe white sheet beneath a cowboy hat picks a fight with a young man, putting out a cigar on the young man’s chest. The young man is Lamy “Homo” Greaser (Michael Sullivan), son of the local overlord, Cholera Greaser (Luana Anders). As a result of his constant physical abuse, Larry dies. Around the same time, a mystery man wearing a zoot suit parachutes from an empty sky into an open field. He’s Jesse (Allan Arbus). Jesse comes across the dead Larry and resurrects him. Then Larry proclaims, “I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.” So begins a meandering tale pitting the messianic Jesse against the monstrous Greaser.
          Downey, who also wrote the script, ventures onto bizarre tangents, including a scene of a grubby-looking dude humping a doll. Oddly sexualized images, such as men wearing nuns’ habits or a Native American girl running around topless, pass through the movie without much in the way of explanation or justification. The movie’s tone is all over the place, sometimes frivolous and sometimes horrific, and Downey’s use of Biblical signifiers seems deliberately perverse. Jesse performs an old-timey musical number that climaxes with his manifestation of stigmata. In another scene, Jesse tracks down his talent agent, who wears a globular spaceman helmet and seems to represent the devil. The list of peculiar sights and sounds goes on, and, the director’s son, future movie star Robert Downey Jr., appears briefly. Thanks to Peter Powell’s elegant cinematography, much of which comprises supple long-lens imagery, Greaser’s Palace may be Downey’s best-looking film, and the overall technical execution is quite slick. Nonetheless, given the outlandishness of the enterprise, Greaser’s Palace is surprisingly boring to watch, and it leaves only the faintest of impressions in its wake.

Greaser’s Palace: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Something Short of Paradise (1979)

          Full disclosure: I hate romantic comedies. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but the rigid structure of the genre drives me batty. Boy meets girl, or vice versa. Contrived complications ensue. Subplots involving best friends chew up screen time, masking the absence of legitimate narrative tension. And then, after the usual interrupted wedding or mad rush across town (rainstorm optional), boy apologizes for past misdeeds and declares undying love for girl, or vice versa. Yawn. One can argue that action movies and horror flicks and thrillers are just as predictable, but at least exciting things happen in those genres. Too often, rom-coms are mealy-mouthed nonentities on the order of Something Short of Paradise.
          An inoffensive picture manufactured by skilled people, it’s not a total dud, and leading lady Susan Sarandon makes a few scenes watchable thanks to her unique combination of beauty, charm, intelligence, and strength. But, man, is the storyline mundane. Furthermore, rom-coms only work if both the boy and he girl are interesting to watch. With all due respect to his impressive career in stand-up comedy and TV directing, leading man David Steinberg is no match for Sarandon. Whereas she comes across as believable and complicated, he comes across as forgettable and whiny. If you care whether his character gets together with Sarandon’s, then you have a higher degree of tolerance for this type of crap than I do. Steinberg plays Harris, the manager of a New York City arthouse cinema. Sarandon plays Madeline, a wannabe novelist slumming as a reporter. Introduced by friends, they date briefly and then separate because Madeline is afraid of commitment. Later, they reconnect when Harris’ theater hosts a retrospective for a French actor (played by Jean-Pierre Aumont) whom Madeline is assigned to interview.
          Per the genre formula, the picture also includes tepid subplots about the main characters’ best friends (played by Joe Grifasi and Marilyn Sokol), as well as the protagonists’ futile attempts at dating other people. The dialogue is jokey but not actually funny, the situations are lightweight without achieving effervescence, and Steinberg’s bland screen persona dampens Sarandon’s powerful sex appeal. In the end, it’s all just mush, a lot of talky scenes in search of a unique narrative hook. As the risk of using a phrase as trite as this movie, Something Short of Paradise is for Sarandon fans only.

Something Short of Paradise: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Quincy, M.E. (1976)

          There are certain TV shows for which I must confess inexplicable affection, and Quincy, M.E. is one of them. While certainly not a bad series—the receipt of 10 Emmy nominations during the show’s eight-year run indicates that it was a cut above the usual fare—Quincy, M.E. simply used a fresh gimmick to explore familiar murder-of-the-week terrain. The gimmick, of course, was forensic medicine, which is now commonplace on the small screen but which had not been the focus of a weekly TV show prior to 1978. Yet while the device of finding clues on corpses gave Quincy, M.E. novelty during its first few years, the real glue of the show was Jack Klugman’s delightfully cranky performance in the title role. Seemingly every week, the intrepid coroner lost his temper because someone failed to value human life as highly as the abrasive but saintly Dr. Quincy. Just as often, Klugman exclaimed some variation of the phrase, “It was murdah!” Good stuff.
          The show’s pilot movie, subtitled “Go Fight City Hall . . . to the Death,” provides 75 minutes of solid entertainment, with all of the show’s cast and tropes fully formed. When a woman is murdered on a Los Angeles beach, medical examiner Quincy finds perplexing clues, much to the consternation of hardnosed LAPD detective Lt. Frank Monahan (Garry Walberg), who’s all about closing cases quickly and therefore doesn’t have time for Quincy’s conspiracy theories. Yet the coroner is unstoppable when he detects something amiss at a murder scene, so Quincy connects the woman’s death to her job at City Hall, then finds a pattern linking the woman’s demise to the deaths of other City Hall employees. Quincy yells at people a lot, shaming them into supporting his investigation, and the pilot’s main running joke involves Quincy ditching his girlfriend, Lee (Lynette Mettey), in the middle of dates so he can pursue leads. Present and accounted for are series regulars Val Bisoglio, as Quincy’s bartender buddy, Danny; Robert Ito, as Quincy’s lab assistant, Sam; and John S. Ragin, as Quincy’s unctuous boss, Dr. Asten. (Pilot guest stars include Hollywood stalwarts Henry Darrow, Woodrow Parfrey, Hari Rhodes, and George Wyner.)
          Written by series creators Glen A. Larson and Lou Shaw, the pilot grinds through a few pedestrian sequences—including the requisite car chase—while also reaching unique high points like the scene in which Danny and Quincy get a prostitute drunk so she’ll stick her head into a noose for a medical experiment. If the mark of a good mystery show is the unconventional lengths to which the hero will go to answer difficult questions, this scene alone explains the appeal of Quincy, M.E. by combining Klugman’s mischievous charm with the character’s obsessive nature. Added bonus: The pilot contains the full scene from which producers extrapolated the show’s opening-credits vignette, featuring Quincy dissecting a corpse while police recruits faint.

Quincy, M.E.: GROOVY

Monday, January 18, 2016

Snuff (1976)

Setting aside the question of whether such movies actually exist, the notion of so-called “snuff” films—motion pictures containing records of actual murders—has enjoyed notoriety since the concept was introduced in the early ’70s. It seems this dark mythos emanates from lore surrounding the Manson Family, who purportedly made a snuff film. Therefore it’s no surprise that the first quasi-mainstream film to exploit whispers about snuff films was inspired by the Manson Family’s gruesome murder spree. In 1971, low-budget filmmakers Michael and Robert Findlay made a schlocky flick called Slaughter, in which a cult leader compels his sexy followers to invade a private estate and kill the occupants. Also woven into the Slaughter storyline are soap-opera elements involving a beautiful but lazy movie actress, her overbearing producer, and other unpleasant characters. The Findlays cut corners in every aspect of filmmaking, so the acting is atrocious, the storyline is virtually nonexistent, and the soundtrack was obviously (and poorly) created during post-production, meaning that nearly every line of dialogue is sloppily lip-synched. The Findlays’ endeavor was so disappointing that their distributor shelved Slaughter until someone had the idea to tack an even more sensationalistic ending onto the footage, and to imply through advertising that the newly rechristened Snuff contains documentary footage of a killing. While the story behind the making of Snuff is interesting, the movie is unwatchable. The bulk of the picture, comprising Slaughter footage, is boring and incoherent and sleazy. And the new scene at the end feels like an excerpt from one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ pointless gorefests—through the use of plainly fake FX, a woman is cut, dismembered, and disemboweled until she dies.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

1980 Week: Raise the Titanic

An idea in search of a plot—to say nothing of meaningful characters—the lavishly produced adventure film Raise the Titanic offers virtually nothing of interest beyond the spectacular sequence promised by the title. At one point during the film, enterprising scientists do indeed use explosives and giant balloons to draw the wreck of the H.M.S. Titanic to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, an impressive visual brought to life by scale models, special effects, and a substitute vessel covered in decades of rust. (No real Titanic parts were harmed in the making of the picture.) Beyond these approximately 10 minutes of screen time, however, Raise the Titanic is a snooze. Based upon a novel by Clive Cussler, who disavowed the film because producer Sir Lew Grade employed a flotilla of screenwriters in the course of dramatically altering the storyline, Raise the Titanic revolves around the daft notion that a cache of secret weapons-grade minerals were stored aboard the famous “unsinkable” ship during its doomed maiden voyage. As viewers discover during endless dialogue scenes, myriad parties wish to recover the minerals because doing so would, in theory, change the balance of power in the Cold War. Giving the story a threadbare excuse for credibility, these various parties determine that the minerals cannot be salvaged from the ship because it rests too deep beneath the waves for divers or remote-controlled submersibles to enter. Had the filmmakers found a way to make the actual salvage mission the focus of the story, Raise the Titanic might have provided a few thrills. Instead, the film provides lots of dull intrigue on dry land and inside sea vessels before and after the titular event. Characters, complications, and motivations are forgettable and interchangeable. Grade must have written generous checks, however, because strong actors muddle their way through lifeless scenes: The cast includes Anne Archer, Alec Guinness, Richard Jordan, Jason Robards, David Selby, and M. Emmet Walsh. All play second fiddle to special effects, and not even John Barry’s glorious musical score is enough to lodge Raise the Titanic in the viewer’s imagination.

Raise the Titanic: LAME

Saturday, January 16, 2016

1980 Week: How to Beat the High Co$t of Living

          Cut from the same financial-panic cloth as Fun With Dick and Jane (1977) and 9 to 5 (1980), this adequate comedy depicts the extreme measures that three suburban women take in order to keep up with inflation even as their respective incomes fluctuate. Competently made and filled with strong actors, the piece ambles its way through uninspired episodes punctuated with weak jokes. Every actor in the cast has done better work elsewhere, and with all due respect to her terrific work on the small screen, How to Beat the High Co$t of Living quickly proved that Saturday Night Live alumna Jane Curtin was not destined to be a movie star. She’s droll and sexy in what amounts to the film’s leading role, but her costars—Jessica Lange and Susan Saint James—eclipse her in terms of glamour and pithiness, respectively. It says a lot about the picture that the most dynamic performances actually come from two supporting players, Richard Benjamin and Dabney Coleman.
          Cowritten and coproduced by Robert Kaufman, the movie takes a mosaic approach to explaining why three female friends end up in the same desperate situation at the same time. After Elaine (Curtin) is dumped by her husband, she’s left in a financial lurch because of her extravagant lifestyle. Meanwhile, divorcée Jane (Saint James) tries in vain to cover expenses for herself, her kids, and her aging father (Eddie Albert). And Louise (Lange) fares so poorly operating an antique store that her husband, a veterinarian named Albert (Benjamin), sues her in order to compel her into personal bankruptcy. Together, the women hatch a scheme to rob a “money ball” that’s on display in a local shopping center, so predictable shenanigans result from amateurs attempting a heist.
          Most of what happens in How to Beat the High Cost of Living is mildly amusing at best. Worse, the movie’s would-be sexy subplot—Elaine’s various encounters with a horny cop named Jack (Coleman)—culminate in a tacky scene of Elaine performing a striptease in the middle of the shopping center. Yes, the sexual politics of How to Beat the Cost of Living are so creaky that one of the film’s heroines saves the day by flashing her breasts. Curtin does well in edgy scenes but lacks warmth, Lange looks gorgeous but seems bored with the trite material, and Saint James fares best of the three by playing light comedy well. Unfortunately, the three women never quite gel into a cohesive unit.

How to Beat the High Co$t of Living: FUNKY

Friday, January 15, 2016

1980 Week: Die Laughing

          An ambitious but failed attempt at creating a Hitchcock-style caper flick for the teen demo, this overstuffed and underdeveloped comedy was a major misfire for leading man Robby Benson, who also coproduced the picture, in addition to writing and performing several songs for the project. Beloved by a generation of female fans for his blue eyes, glorious hair, and sensitivity, Benson was arguably the best actor of the whole ’70s teen-idol set, but he had a tricky time transitioning to grown-up roles. His turn as a young adult in Die Laughing was a half-hearted attempt at making the leap, because even though Benson’s character gets involved with life-or-death issues, he spends most of his screen time acting like an adolescent goofball.
          Set in San Francisco, the convoluted story begins with a shootout in a college laboratory. The scientist who escapes from the shootout ends up in a taxicab driven by Pinsky (Benson), a wannabe singer-songwriter. Thugs catch up with Pinsky’s cab and kill the scientist, but Pinsky escapes with a mysterious box the scientist had in his possession. Borrowing a page from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Pinsky flees the scene because circumstances give bystanders the false impression that Pinsky committed murder. This set-up begins a farcical chase story. Even as Pinsky evades killers and tries to learn why the scientist was killed (in order to clear his own name), Pinsky juggles changes in his romantic life and a series of high-stakes auditions with his band.
          Had Benson and his collaborators gotten a firm grasp on this material, Die Laughing could have been memorably intriguing and silly, very much in the vein of the Chevy Chase-Golden Hawn hit Foul Play (1978). Alas, Die Laughing director Jeff Wener doesn’t have anything close to the sure hand of Foul Play director Colin Higgins, so Die Laughing spirals out of control almost immediately. Beyond basic questions of logic and motivation, huge chunks of storytelling seem to be missing, and the movie’s kitchen-sink approach to physical and situational comedy comes across as desperate. Among other things, the picture includes a deranged taxi dispatcher who runs his company like a military operation, a shadowy figure who watches events from behind mirrored sunglasses, a trained monkey who somehow memorized the formula for a plutonium bomb, and an epic circus sequence that features Benson falling face first into huge piles of elephant excrement. Weirdest of all is the film’s bad guy, Meuller (Bud Cort). He’s a scrawny nerd with the grandiosity of a Bond villain, a raft of eccentricities, and a penchant for such strangely nonthreatening behaviors as squirting his adversaries with a water pistol.
          Despite the picture’s slick look and vigorous musical score, the story is so discombobulated that it’s hard to follow. Given that Benson and co-screenwriter Jerry Segal’s previous collaboration was the charming romance One on One (1977), it’s shocking that they missed the mark so widely. Similarly, it boggles the mind that costars Peter Coyote, Charles Durning, and Elsa Lanchester are wasted in small roles. Die Laughing is not without its virtues, such as Benson’s energetic performance of the hooky soft-rock tune “All I Want is Love” and the bizarre climax of Cort’s performance, but it’s a mess.

Die Laughing: FUNKY

Thursday, January 14, 2016

1980 Week: Up the Academy

Following the success of Animal House (1978), which was associated with National Lampoon, another venerable humor publication saw its brand attached to a lowbrow comedy about kids making mischief. Yet while Animal House benefited from a clever script, an ingenious director, and a strong cast, the Mad magazine movie, Up the Academy, sprang from a terrible script, a presumably uninterested director, and a weak cast. Instead of the outrageous food fights and panty raids and toga parties of Animal House, this lifeless dud includes offensively stupid vignettes of flatulence, homophobia, stereotypes, and so forth. Admittedly, Mad’s comic strips and movie satires were never avatars of sophistication, but there’s infinitely more wit inside a single panel of, say, Spy vs. Spy than there is in all 87 interminable minutes of Up the Academy. As the title suggests, the picture takes place at a military academy, where several ne’er-do-well boys—all of whom have been sent to the school as punishment for misbehavior—clash with the institution’s demented commander, Major Liceman (Ron Leibman). Per the Animal House playbook, the punks split their time between chasing girls, partying, and scheming against their sworn enemy. The movie’s dimwitted tone is set right in the first scene, a riff on the famous opening of Patton, because the punchline of the first scene is a loud gaseous emission. Similarly, the scenes with weapons instructor Bliss (played by former Bond girl Barbara Bach) are beyond tacky. Wearing a shirt open to the navel, Bliss gives sexualized descriptions of weapons while stroking phallic objects including missile casings. Meanwhile, the boys in her classroom moan and squirm, and when a clueless student tries to ask a relevant question, his neighbor says, “Shut up—some of us are trying to come.” Yep, that’s what passes for a joke in these here parts. Overseeing this unfunny business is director Robert Downey Sr., a long way from his bold avant-garde movies of the ’60s and ’70s. One hopes he was paid well for demolishing his credibility.

Up the Academy: LAME

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

1980 Week: It's My Turn

          One of the quintessential leading ladies of the ’70s, Jill Clayburgh, fell out of fashion almost as quickly as she achieved star status. Yet over the span of several character-driven films, including this slight romantic comedy, Clayburgh built an important body of work that reflects many of the key issues driving the early women’s movement. The characters Clayburgh portrayed were confused, multidimensional, powerful, and sexy, demanding an equal share of life’s bounty even as they navigated the myriad ways in which changes to traditional gender roles complicated their relationships with men. So even though It’s My Turn is plainly inferior to Starting Over (1978) and An Unmarried Woman (1979), the films are all of a piece.
          Penned by first-time screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who later achieved a major success with Dirty Dancing (1987), It’s My Turn opens in Chicago, where Kate (Clayburgh) is a mathematics professor at a prestigious university. She lives with Homer (Charles Grodin), who shuns real emotional commitment because he’s still recovering from a divorce. Therefore, when Kate travels to New York for the second wedding of her father, kindly widower Jacob (Steven Hill), Kate is susceptible to the charms of Ben (Michael Douglas), one of the sons of Jacob's fiancée. A former professional baseball player whose career ended because of an injury, Ben is dashing and handsome and self-deprecating. Alas, he's also married. Nonetheless, Kate dives headlong into a whirlwind romance during the weekend of her father’s wedding, soon deciding that she wants to leave Homer for Ben. Naturally, Ben has something to say about this, hence the slender drama that ensues.
           Long on character and short on story, Bergstein’s intelligent script features dialogue vibrates with the narcissism and neuroticism of the Me Decade: “I really don’t want to live through every moment of another person’s life,” Homer whines at one point. More damningly, much of the film is bereft of genuine dramatic conflict, so things just sort of happen without recognizable consequences. There’s a reason why director Claudia Weill, who earned critical raves for her independently made first feature, Girlfriends (1978), transitioned to helming TV shows after making this, her only studio picture. On the plus side, It’s My Turn showcases Clayburgh and Douglas at the apex of their charisma, and the supporting cast (which also includes Beverly Garland, Charles Kimbrough, Daniel Stern, and Dianne Wiest) is excellent. It’s My Turn may be little more than a cinematic snack, but it has a pleasant flavor.

It’s My Turn: FUNKY