Monday, February 29, 2016

Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970)

Even by the bottom-feeding standards of director Al Adamson’s usual fare, Hell’s Bloody Devils is unwatchable garbage. Apparently a slapped-together compendium of footage from two (or more) incomplete features, the movie is part biker flick, part espionage caper, part romance, and part brain-melting sludge. Watching this picture is like staring at a TV that changes its own channels, because scenes stop abruptly, characters drift in and out the picture, and the vibe toggles between clean-cut ’60s (some of the footage was shelved for years) and sleazy ’70s. At its weirdest, the movie stops dead when two characters visit a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise for lunch and Colonel Sanders himself enters frame to ask the characters how they’re enjoying their meal. Familiar actors John Carradine and Broderick Crawford make fleeting appearances in Hell’s Bloody Devils—or, to put a finer point on it, in The Fakers, the espionage picture that Adamson commenced in the ’60s and repurposed for about half the footage of Hell’s Bloody Devils. Whatever. Hell’s Bloody Devils cuts from pointless vignettes of bikers festooned with Nazi regalia to a truly bewildering storyline about an Israeli secret agent teamed with a U.S. operative to do—something. Eventually, the spy stuff leads to a chase scene through a theme park, which comprises drab shots of people running through crowds to the accompaniment of overbearing music. Presumably, diehard schlock archivists have catalogued the components of this disastrous film’s ironic appeal, but for mere mortals, this is about as wretched as grade-Z cinema gets.

Hell’s Bloody Devils: SQUARE

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Les Miserables (1978)

          There are so many adaptation of Victor Hugo’s deathless 1862 novel that it’s impossible to call any one version definitive; from the celebrated stage musical to the various film adaptations to the novel itself, there’s a Les Miserables for any taste. In fact, there’s even a Les Miserables for those who prefer their cinema ’70s-style, thanks to this sturdy made-for-television production starring the underrated Richard Jordan as long-suffering hero Jean Valjean and veteran screen villain Anthony Perkins as dogged Inspector Javert. Efficiently directed by Glenn Jordon and intelligently scripted by John Gay, this version of Les Miserables delivers the familiar characters, moments, and situations with an acceptable replica of human emotion. Jordan achieves more than Perkins (who is mostly relegated to sneering), but the combination of a melancholy musical score, solid production values, and the vibrancy of Hugo’s incredible narrative makes this trek through familiar terrain worthwhile.
          Presenting a somewhat faithful adaptation while adding a few bits, deleting many more, and generally streamlining the storyline of the novel, the picture begins in France circa 1796. Poor Frenchman Jean steals a loaf of bread from a store window in order to feed his starving family, but he’s captured and sentenced to five years in prison. As more and more years are added to his sentence, Jean attempts to escape several times until finally breaking free once he’s reached middle age. Prison commandant Javert, well aware of Jean’s resilience, considers it a personal failure when Jean escapes. Upon gaining his freedom, Jean reverts to thievery for survival—until an encounter with a saintly clergyman gifts Jean with both wealth and the determination to live righteously. Jean becomes a successful businessman under an assumed name. Then, once fate brings him back into Javert’s orbit, Jean realizes that his liberty is tenuous. The situation is further complicated by the onset of the June Rebellion and by Jean’s selfless choice to become the guardian of an orphaned girl.
          Even though the filmmakers excised plenty of material, the telefilm of Les Miserables contains a lot of story, so the filmmakers wisely focus on the most dramatic scenes. Jean saving a fellow prisoner from certain death. Jean’s epiphany with the clergyman. Jean’s tense standoffs with Javert, during which they debate the value of the individual versus the need for social order. Jordan does some lovely work, showcasing his charismatic blend of masculinity and vulnerability, though he’s burdened with overly ornate dialogue and, in later scenes, questionable old-age makeup. Perkins, meanwhile, play-acts the role of Javert instead of inhabiting the character’s hatefulness; that said, Perkins is such a pro that his sour expressions add weight whether or not they’re backed by real intentionality.
          It’s easy to complain about episodes that get glossed over, and this probably shouldn’t be anyone’s first exposure to the story because certain things end up feeling too pat and predictable. However, there’s enough human feeling pumping through the piece—both from the DNA of Hugo’s novel and the earnestness of Jordan’s take on the leading role—that this Les Miserables comes across like meaningful entertainment instead of just another musty literary adaptation.

Les Miserables: GROOVY

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Texas Detour (1978)

Texas Detour is not without its low pleasures. The contrived story of three Californians who become victims while trapped in a small town, the picture is predicated on stereotypes and stupidity, as per the norm for drive-in schlock. Yet the movie knows just which lizard-brain responses to provoke, so the evil guys do evil things, the heroic characters do heroic things, and the sexy starlet gets naked. There’s also an abundance of vehicular action, including a couple of dirt-bike scenes. Much of this is set to original songs by Flo & Eddie, formerly of the Turtles, whose tunes mimic popular Me Decade musical styles. (One number, “The Big Showdown,” is a fair simulacrum of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run vibe.) Alas, the picture’s shortcomings greatly outnumber its trashy thrills. The story begins with the McCarthy siblings—twentysomething Clay (Patrick Wayne) and teenagers Dale (Mitch Vogel) and Sugar (Lindsay Bloom)—venturing from L.A. to Nashville, where Clay has a job doing stunt work on a movie shoot. The McCarthys are run off the road by crooks who steal their van, so the siblings hitch a ride with creepy redneck Beau Hunter (Anthony James). After even creepier Sheriff Burt (R.G. Armstrong) takes their crime report, the McCarthys accept an offer of hospitality from Beau, who lives on the ranch owned by his dad, John (Cameron Mitchell). While on the ranch, Clay falls for Beau’s sister, Claudia (Priscilla Barnes), even as circumstances wend inevitably toward Beau raping Sugar. Reprisals ensue. As in their other films of the same period, Barnes is ornamental and Wayne is wooden, so it falls to Armstrong and James to inject Texas Detour with individuality. There’s only so much they can do, seeing as how the movie’s dialogue was apparently composed for the benefit of viewers perplexed by language past the first-grade level.

Texas Detour: LAME

Friday, February 26, 2016

Brothers (1977)

          Edward Lewis, a prolific producer who worked alongside Kirk Douglas on films including Spartacus (1960), took an unlikely detour into screenwriting for this project, a fictionalized dramatization of the relationship between Black Power activist Angela Davis and a prison inmate whose extended incarceration had racial overtones. In the historical event, Davis was arrested but exonerated for helping the inmate secure firearms that were used in an escape attempt. In the script, which Lewis cowrote with his wife, Mildred (the duo also produced), the characters representing Davis and various convicts are portrayed as victims of an oppressive white culture, employing anarchy and violence as the only available means of self-preservation. The peculiar thing about Brothers, however, is that it lacks the incendiary quality of other films about the Black Power movement. The picture unfolds like a straightforward docudrama, and the tension between agitprop intentions and restrained execution leads to middling results.
          Charismatic as always, Bernie Casey stars as David Thomas, a young black man with the misfortune of occupying the passenger seat of a getaway car after his friend unexpectedly robs a gas station. Convicted as an accomplice, David is given a heavier jail term than expected. He becomes radicalized soon after his arrival in prison, because his cellmate, Walter (Ron O'Neal), preaches the Malcolm X gospel. This resonates with David, given his unfair treatment by the legal system. Later, when Walter receives horrible abuse from racist guards, David becomes an activist by printing an underground prison newsletter fomenting rebellion against white authority. David’s activities are brought to the attention of Paula Jones (Vonetta McGee), a college professor/activist who visits David in prison and eventually falls in love with him. The two perceive themselves as revolutionaries whose cause justifies any risk.
          Even with supercharged subject matter, Brothers fails to generate much heat. Casey is excellent, subtly conveying righteous anger, and McGee’s combination of beauty and intensity makes her performance highly watchable. Yet director Arthur Barron’s pacing is sluggish, and the soundtrack comprises lots of drab jazz noodling, exacerbating the picture’s overall sleepiness. By the time the movie resolves into a melodramatic finale, it has lost energy instead of gaining it, so the final scenes lack the emotional punch they should have. Nonetheless, Brothers represents a sincere attempt at exploring radical politics from a compassionate and thoughtful perspective. Moreover, Angela Davis’ life experience is so endlessly fascinating that even a clumsy rendering of her exploits has inherent interest.

Brothers: FUNKY

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Supercock (1975)

No, you haven’t accidentally wandered into the porn section—Supercock is an action/comedy about cockfighting, hence the film’s video-release title, Fowl Play. Shot in the Philippines with American actor Ross Hagen in the leading role, Supercock aspires to be a feel-good saga about a scrappy athlete who proves his mettle. As for the plot, it’s simple: Down-on-his-luck cowboy Seth Calhoun (Hagen) takes his favorite rooster, “Friendly,” to the Philippines for the first International Cockfighting Competition. Little problem. Actually a few of them. First, Seth is merely the trainer of the athlete in question, so the whole underdog angle is a cheat. Second, it’s not as if a chicken cares about winning prize money. Third, cockfighting is a death sport, so not only must “Friendly” kill his competitors, but he’s in mortal danger every time he fights. Kinda difficult to root for Seth if he regularly imperils his pet. Some movies seal their fates at the conceptual stage, and Supercock is one of them. Whereas the offbeat Monte Hellman drama Cockfighter (1974) accentuated the horrific aspects of this particular sport, Supercock plays the pointless murder of animals for laughs. Similarly, the movie’s idea of a joke—as in, the one idea that gets recycled ad nauseam—involves jamming the word “cock” into dialogue. “He has the biggest cock I’ve ever seen!” “My dear Mr. Calhoun, I must take a look at your cock.” Despite its crudeness and stupidity, Supercock isn’t badly made, at least in terms of technical execution. Moreover, the action bits, which range from chases and fist fights to various cockfighting scenes, are passable. Nonetheless, Supercock is a superdud as a comedy, and it’s so fundamentally wrongheaded as to be distasteful.

Supercock: LAME

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Two Million Page Views!

Thank you to this blog’s loyal subscribers and also to casual visitors, because readership for Every ’70s Movie has reached another milestone—over 2 million page views since the blog launched in late 2010. Wow! One of the great pleasures of this project is interacting with readers through the comments function and the blog’s Facebook page. It’s amazing to realize how many folks out there have extraordinarily deep knowledge and memories of this unique time in cinema. I value comments that help ensure the utility of this blog by pointing out errors, I enjoy remarks that add nuances and trivia to my understanding of films being reviewed, and, of course, I greatly appreciate notes from people who simply want to say they dig the blog. Every ’70s Movie falls squarely within the labor-of-love category, seeing as how it doesn’t generate income, and while I’m determined to see the project through its logical conclusion, support is helpful and welcome. Hence a quick mention of this blog’s donation function. (See the PayPal icon in the upper-right corner of the homepage, just below my profile.) Based on my master list of titles that meet the blog’s criteria, I’m near the three-quarters mark, which means that tracking down many of the remaining films will require resources. The more you help, the more completely this project can survey the ’70s. Thanks again, and keep on keepin’ on!

Shock Waves (1977)

          The lingering image from this low-budget shocker depicts a squad of expressionless zombies wearing goggles and World War II SS uniforms as they emerge from bodies of still water, intent on spreading bloody mayhem. As one of the film’s supporting characters notes, “The sea spits up what it can’t keep down.” Utterly loopy in conception, and yet compelling because of its no-nonsense execution and the unnerving synthesizer music on the soundtrack, Shock Waves is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work. What the film lacks in depth and logic, it makes up for with menace and mood. And while writer-director Ken Wiederhorn is no John Carpenter, as evidenced by the unimpressive nature of Wiederhorn’s subsequent career, Shock Waves works quite well as an offbeat horror show.
          The picture begins when the crew of a sea vessel discovers Rose (Brooke Adams) floating alone on the ocean in a battered dingy. In voiceover, Rose describes the ordeal she just experienced. Along with several other folks, she took a pleasure cruise on a low-rent boat skippered by Captain Ben Morris (John Carradine). One night, Morris’ boat encountered the wreck of a massive ship. Soon thereafter, strange things started happening, culminating with the death of Captain Morris under mysterious circumstances and the scuttling of Morris’ boat. The passengers found refuge on a remote island, the only resident of which was a mystery man (Peter Cushing) with a scar across his face. Revealed as a former SS commander, the man explained the nature of the ship the passengers encountered. During World War II, the commander oversaw the “Death Corps,” a squad of genetically engineered zombie soldiers capable of breathing air and water. Deemed too dangerous for deployment, the “Death Corps” were decommissioned, and the commander sunk the boat containing his inhuman soldiers. For some reason, the “Death Corps” resurfaced at the moment that Morris’ boat arrived, and carnage ensued.
          The plot is ridiculous, and Weiderhorn succumbs to a few lowbrow impulses (such as squeezing Adams into a bikini for most of the picture). Nonetheless, Weiderhorn delivers a fair measure of creepy weirdness. Zombies stalk people through swamps. Survivors struggle to find hiding places in an old mansion, adding claustrophobia to the mix. Cushing unfurls the requisite expositional monologue. And so on. Thanks to its eerie music, familiar actors, grainy photography, and gruesome premise, Shock Waves could either haunt you or strike you as silly, depending on your receptivity to this type of dark fantasy. Either way, it’s vivid stuff.

Shock Waves: GROOVY

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Brute Corps (1971)

          Prior to bestowing qualified praise on Brute Corps, it’s important to note that the picture shares a problem with most of its exploitation-flick brethren, namely a horrific portrayal of women. The beautiful hippie chick at the center of the plot is introduced as a sexual object, saying things like “I like to ball—it’s the thing I do best in the world” and “I should have been a hooker.” Later, once she falls victim to the bad guys after whom the movie is titled, the hippie chick endures hours upon hours of gang rape. The filmmakers try to empower the character in the story’s final moments, but that’s a case of too little, too late. Having identified this picture’s ugliest aspect, now we can shift to the qualified praise—as simple-minded exploitation flicks go, Brute Corps isn’t the worst. The premise is slightly offbeat, there’s a smidgen of actual character development, and there’s a reasonable balance of action scenes and thriller sequences bordering on outright horror. Holding the whole thing together is a lively performance by the always-interesting Alex Rocco.
          The picture begins by introducing a group of soldiers traveling through the desert, and, in a separate thread, a pair of young hippies who meet while hitchhiking and subsequently become lovers. Turns out the soldiers are mercenaries passing through Mexico on the way to a job in South America. Things don’t go well for people who cross the mercenaries’ path, so, naturally, the filmmakers put the hippies and the mercenaries on a collision course. Although the male hippie escapes to seek help from ineffectual cops, the hippie chick’s best hope is Ross (Paul Carr), a mercenary who rebels against his companions’ vile behavior. Vilest of all is Wicks (Rocco), who memorably tries to buy a woman from her father, then acts affronted when he declines the overture. Oh, and fair warning—this film’s rotten soundtrack includes lots of fuzz-rock grooves that are way too upbeat for the subject matter. Adjust your tolerance for dissonance accordingly.

Brute Corps: FUNKY

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie (1972)

          The presence of the word “strange” in this film’s title represents truth in advertising, because the picture’s sole peculiar element—and it’s a doozy—is Rosalie herself, the sort of inexplicably clever wild child who exists only the imaginations of storytellers. Set in the remote deserts of the American southwest, the picture begins with a lyrically filmed burial scene that raises a zillion questions. The individual performing the burial is Rosalie (Bonnie Bedelia), and though viewers have not yet learned her name, she seems feral with her filthy burlap-sack dress and her ramshackle surroundings. (Never mind her immaculately groomed eyebrows and perfectly shaved legs.) Cut to Virgil (Ken Howard), a traveling salesman on his way to Los Angeles. He encounters Rosalie on a remote stretch of road, so he offers her a ride. She says she’s travelled some distance to reach her new home, a ranch owned by her grandfather.
          Virgil delivers her to the ranch, only to discover the place abandoned. Then Rosalie slashes his tires, knocks him unconscious, and breaks his leg so he can’t escape. (One can’t help but wonder whether Stephen King saw this movie and derived inspiration for his novel Misery, subsequently filmed as the 1990 Kathy Bates/James Caan movie of the same name.)
          Once Virgil regains consciousness, Rosalie explains her wacky plan to keep Virgil on the ranch forever as her lover, even though he’s a grown man and she’s just a teenager. Virgil tries various means of escape, but his immobility and the seclusion of the ranch are insurmountable obstacles. Adding to Virgil’s problems is Fry (Anthony Zerbe), a slovenly biker with the intelligence of a turnip and a tendency toward homicidal rage. Fry is obsessed with stealing a small cache of gold owned by Rosalie’s grandfather—who, if you haven’t surmised by now, is the fellow Rosalie buried in the prologue. Per the B-movie formula, director Jack Starrett and his collaborators put these lurid elements into a pot and wait for things to boil.
          The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie has some enjoyably grungy scenes, though the film is far-fetched and overlong. That said, acting more or less puts the piece across. Bedelia makes a ridiculous role as credible as possible, Howard conveys the necessary shades of uptight exasperation, and Zerbe has a blast portraying a foaming-at-the-mouth psycho. If nothing else, the sight of Bedelia driving her mule through the desert as it pulls a four-poster bed containing the prostrate Howard is memorably odd.

The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie: FUNKY

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Almost Summer (1978)

          Two decades before Alexander Payne made Election (1999), this picture from the unlikely source of Motown Productions depicted the lengths to which single-minded teenagers will go to win the office of student-body president. The core of this picture, which dramatizes the way a heartbroken young man uses sharp political instincts to sabotage the campaign of his ex-girlfriend, is emotionally believable and mildly satirical, with imaginative episodes and realistic dialogue. Yet the movie also contains vapid discursions that weaken the overall impact. Since the picture is rated PG, there’s not much exploitative material, which is a relief, but things like musical passages and a drab subplot about a wannabe singer choosing opportunism over love feel hackneyed by comparison with the thoughtful election storyline. Similarly, the performances are inconsistent, although the actors portraying the three most character deliver solid work.
          When the story begins, bright, popular, and sexy Christine (Lee Purcell) is running for class president against a hunky opponent whose political adviser is Bobby (Bruno Kirby), Christine’s clever but ethically challenged ex. When the hunk gets disqualified, Bobby scrambles to find a new opponent who can prevent Christine from winning the election. (In this movie, hell hath no fury like a man scorned.) Bobby recruits an underachiever named Darryl (John Friedrich), and then he contrives circumstances that transform Darryl into a formidable candidate. Naturally, this puts Bobby at odds with Christine’s new boyfriend, Kevin (Tim Matheson), a football star whose future hinges on winning a college scholarship.
          As directed by Martin Davidson, who made a number of interesting but problematic features (including the 1983 cult favorite Eddie and the Cruisers), Almost Summer is a scattershot affair that explores ambition, honesty, loyalty, and self-perception. About 60 percent of the movie works, and the remainder runs the gamut from forgettable mediocrity to pandering silliness (notably a pointless food-fight scene). Kirby is excellent, though, like many of his fellow cast members, he’s far too old to play a teenager; Purcell reveals endearing vulnerability even when trudging through overly contrived scenes; and Matheson effectively portrays a decent guy who periodically succumbs to egotism. Such is the nature of Almost Summer that for every satisfactory element, including a zippy theme song by the Beach Boys, there’s something weak, like the hokey ending.

Almost Summer: FUNKY

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Guy from Harlem (1977)

Startlingly amateurish—we’re talking flubbed takes in the final cut, disjointed edits between shots that don’t match, and some of the worst acting ever recorded on celluloid—this late addition to the blaxploitation cycle is nearly a parody of itself. Starring lanky Loye Hawkins as a detective who becomes involved with several cases in Miami, The Guy from Harlem aspires to the attitude of Shaft but instead conveys the bargain-basement awfulness of an Ed Wood movie. The storyline comprises a number of uninteresting and unrelated episodes; the action scenes are spectacularly incompetent, with performers reacting to kicks and punches that didn’t land anywhere near them; and the dialogue is embarrassingly stupid (“You and I have the same color outfit—why don’t we go down to the disco tonight?”). The gist of the piece is that Al Connors (Hawkins), whom we’re reminded several times is indeed a guy from Harlem, is an African-American equivalent of Mike Hammer. Accepting assignments in his small office, which comes complete with a sassy/sexy secretary, Al protects an African princess and delivers ransom money for a mobster whose daughter has been kidnapped. In the first scenario, he sleeps with the princess when he should be guarding her, and in the second, he quits the job halfway through. Say what? Also thrown into this interminable mess of a picture are a couple of martial-arts scenes, which are exactly as incongruous as you might imagine.

The Guy from Harlem: SQUARE

Friday, February 19, 2016

Figures in a Landscape (1970)

          Any sketch of Figures in a Landscape is sure to intrigue adventurous cinefiles. Starring Robert Shaw, who also wrote the script, and the inimitable Malcolm McDowell, this cerebral action film was directed by the esteemed Joseph Losey, and it enigmatically depicts the travails of two men who run through rugged terrain while unnamed aggressors pursue them in a helicopter. All of this is photographed, with considerable artistry, in glorious widescreen. Alas, the gulf between the metaphorical masterpiece this description conjures in the imagination of the prospective viewer and the actual film is substantial. Figures in a Landscape is everything you might want it to be, and so much less.
          On the plus side, the film delivers one of Shaw’s most animalistic performances. (Rare is the project in which McDowell seems like the most restrained actor onscreen.) Additionally, some scenes have the intended quality of savage beauty, as when the two actors run from the helicopter while it buzzes them on a grassy hillside—the viewer can plainly see McDowell and Shaw in dangerous proximity to spinning rotor blades. On the minus side, Figures in a Landscape is excessively cryptic, because very few of the plot’s elements are explained. Yes, one can play all sorts of interpretive games with Figures in a Landscape, but there’s a fine line between creating mysterious art and simply befuddling viewers.
          Given the givens, a recitation of the plot is somewhat pointless, but at least the task can be completed quickly. When the movie opens, Ansell (McDowell) and MacConnachie (Shaw) are shown running through remote fields and hills with their clothes in tatters and their hands tied behind their backs. We learn very little about how they landed in this situation, though we do see the duo pursued by gun-toting mystery men in a helicopter. MacConnoachie, a rough-hewn war veteran, hopes to ditch the weak Ansell, but then—once circumstances allow the men to free themselves and secure weapons—Ansell gains possession of important resources. They press on together, surviving close calls with the helicopter and even encountering citizens and soldiers of the unnamed land through which they’re traveling, until forming a plan to storm their enemy’s stronghold.
          Even though Shaw delivers some lengthy monologues about his character’s wife, the lack of explanation for the characters’ predicament is maddening. As such, what Figures in a Landscape offers is atmosphere and intensity. The film is consistently eerie, thanks in part to the taut score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and the leading actors play moments quite well even if the sum is less than the parts. Obviously, viewers willing to fill in the blanks—or to let the blanks be—will derive more from the experience of Figures in a Landscape than those hoping for conventional pleasures. 

Figures in a Landscape: FUNKY

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dynamite Brothers (1974)

During the first few minutes of the blaxploitation/martial-arts mash-up Dynamite Brothers, it almost seems as if perpetually incompetent filmmaker Al Adamson might surpass his usual low standards by actually manufacturing passable B-movie trash. Following three minutes of enjoyably kitschy illustrated opening credits, the first scene is a straightforward showdown between high-kicking warrior Larry Chin (Alan Tang) and several adversaries. Then, alas, Adamson commences storytelling, and things go south fast. Without belaboring the various dimwitted plot elements, the gist is that Larry travels from Hong Kong to America in order to find his long-lost brother, only to end up handcuffed to Stud Brown (Timothy Brown), a tough-talking African-American arrested on bogus charges. The duo shares a brief, Defiant Ones-style escapade, then break their chains to join forces and fight drug dealers. The action sprawls across San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the plot grows more and more unfathomable as it expands to include a love interest for Stud as well as a corrupt cop played by Hollywood veteran Aldo Ray. Folded into the muck are fight scenes, exploitive female nudity, and a cringe-inducing scene during which Stud seduces a mute girl named Sarah by improvising a song featuring their names. Through it all, Adamson’s filmmaking is so sloppy that it’s often hard to follow screen action within continuous scenes, much less from one scene to the next. Even with fistfights, kung fu, sex, and the reliable character actor James Hong at his disposal, Adamson can’t sustain coherence for more than a few minutes at a time, if that.

Dynamite Brothers: LAME

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Turkish Delight (1973)

          Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, later to scandalize Hollywood with the sexually provocative one-two punch of Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), first made noise on the international scene with Turkish Delight, an almost-explicit romantic drama that carried an X-rating during its original American release. Starring Rutger Hauer, the charismatic Dutch actor who earned global visibility over the course of several collaborations with Verhoeven, Turkish Delight is a something of a raunchy cousin to the American blockbuster Love Story (1970). Like that picture, Turkish Delight depicts young love tainted by tragedy. Unlike the Ali MacGrew/Ryan O’Neal tearjerker, Turkish Delight is an almost unrelentingly vulgar enterprise, thanks to abrasive characterizations, in-your-face storytelling, and startling onscreen content including excrement, full-frontal nudity, murder (in a dream sequence), projectile vomiting, and seemingly endless variations of sexual coupling.
          Verhoeven has always been a peculiar sort of a sensualist, and rarely has he indulged himself more than he does throughout Turkish Delight.
          Based on a novel by Jan Wolkers, Turkish Delight opens on debauched artist Eric (Hauer). Living in squalor and tormented by grim visions, he spends all his time wooing women back to his studio for aggressive sexual encounters, only to discard the women after he’s satisfied his urges. Before long, the film shifts to an extended flashback depicting Eric’s relationship with Olga (Monique van de Ven). They meet when Eric hitches a ride in her car. Moments later, Olga pulls over so they can have at each other. Afterward, Eric accidentally gets his penis caught in his zipper, leading to a strangely funny scene: Olga drives to a nearby farm and borrows a pair of pliers, so the farmer and his wife watch, aghast, as Eric frees himself, then hands over the pliers, now festooned with a chunk of bloody flesh.
          Similar shock-value moments permeate Turkish Delight. Eric finds a horse’s eye in a bowl of stew. He lovingly handles Olga’s feces, and he offers (twice) to drink her urine. Close-ups depict a dog taking a dump in one scene, maggots crawling on rotting food in another. Woven into this extreme material is an overwrought but well-acted romantic saga. Olga ignores her parents’ disdain for the penniless Eric because she loves him, but her mood swings drive them apart. Then, when Eric discovers that the cause of Olga’s emotional changes is a health crisis, he tries to reconnect with her.
          For some viewers, Verhoeven’s visceral style clearly elevated the experience of the film, because Turkish Delight enjoyed a rapturous response in the Netherlands. Reportedly the most successful film ever made in that country, Turkish Delight also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Indeed, some aspects of the movie are beyond reproach. The acting is excellent, the direction is forceful, and the harmonica-driven score by Rogier van Otterloo is evocative. Yet Turkish Delight is not for everyone. Some may find the gross-out stuff distracting and juvenile, while others will accept those elements as germane to a gritty depiction of intense love. 

Turkish Delight: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Birth of the Beatles (1979)

          The history of the Fab Four has been discussed and dissected and disseminated so many times that it’s become something of a campfire tale. John Lennon partisans have one version, Paul McCartney fans offer a different take, and so on. Birth of the Beatles offers yet another perspective—that of Pete Best, who was the Beatles’ drummer during the early years of 1960 to 1962, and was fired just months before the release of the band’s first hit single, “Love Me Do.” In this telling, Best was canned because he was more popular with female fans than Lennon or McCartney, although the historical consensus is that record-label execs felt the Beatles needed a stronger player, hence the hiring of Ringo Starr. Best served as a consultant for Birth of the Beatles, one of many reasons why every assertion the movie makes should be regarded with skepticism.
          Adherence to facts notwithstanding, Birth of the Beatles is a moderately entertaining musical biopic that gains strength as it trudges along. Early sequences, depicting the group’s formation in Liverpool, feel lively but anonymous, with lookalike actors simulating the mischievous behavior of five lads with greasy hair and leather jackets. The fifth, of course, is the other early Beatle, doomed bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Once Birth of the Beatles decamps to Germany, where the Beatles earned their performance chops in nightclubs, the storytelling gains potency. Items including the band’s friendship with German photographer Astrid Kircherr and Sutcliffe’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm are handled fairly well. More importantly, it’s during this passage that actor Stephen MacKenna, as Lennon, finds his groove in what amounts to the film’s leading role. Beyond simulating Lennon’s alternately fiery and playful stage persona, MacKenna captures textures ranging from belligerence to determination to self-pity to toughness. Furthermore, the rougher things get for the Beatles—disappointments, friction, the tantalizing promise of success—the more the intensity of the film grows.
         Produced by Dick Clark, the picture takes a sensible approach to re-creating the Beatles’ music, with the tribute band Rain performing on the soundtrack while the actors lip-sync onscreen. Yet Birth of the Beatles communicates very little that’s new to serious fans, while casual fans may find it disappointing that the movie ends with the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan performance, the group’s American breakthrough. (Years later, the period dramatized in Birth of the Beatles was revisited in the 1994 European film Backbeat.) Incidentally, Birth of the Beatles was released in scattershot fashion, hitting theaters in Europe and some American markets before airing on U.S. television.

Birth of the Beatles: FUNKY

Monday, February 15, 2016

Virginia Hill (1974)

          Here’s an odd cinematic footnote: Seventeen years before he played a supporting role in Bugsy (1991), the whip-smart drama about real-life gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Harvey Keitel starred as Siegel himself in a 1974 TV movie called Virginia Hill. In real life, Hill was Siegel’s girlfriend for several years. As the title suggests, Virginia Hill tells the Siegel story from his companion’s perspective, exploring how a small-town girl ended up with the violent criminal who invented Las Vegas but then doomed himself by spending too much of the Mob’s money. Cowritten and directed by costume designer-turned-filmmaker Joel Schumacher, Virginia Hill crams too much material into its scant 74-minute running time, and Dyan Cannon disappoints in the title role. Among other problems, Cannon seems so self-assured from her earliest scenes that it’s hard to accept the way Siegel dazzles Virginia. Keitel isn’t much help, since he’s robotic except during one scene in which an enraged Siegel physically assaults his lover. (Violent rage, always a Keitel specialty.)
          After the introduction of a Congressional hearing that provides the movie’s wraparound structure, Virginia Hill gets underway with flashbacks depicting Virginia’s adolescence, when her acceptance of favors from male suitors made her a social pariah. Fleeing to the big city alongside childhood friend Leroy (Robby Benson), for whom Virginia assumes responsibility, Virginia becomes involved with gangsters Leo Ritchie (Allen Garfield) and Nick Rubanos (John Vernon). After earning the criminals trust, Virginia is tasked with spying on Siegel. Eventually, Siegel and Virginia develop real feelings for each other, so she’s with him when he envisions Vegas—and when he seals his fate. In terms of plot and themes, this stuff should be dynamite (as it was in Bugsy), but Virginia Hill is unrelentingly pedestrian. Cannon plays the role too abrasively for viewers to develop empathy, and there’s zero chemistry between her and Keitel. As for Schumacher, he was still a ways from the stylish pulp of The Lost Boys (1987) and the crowd-pleasing histrionics of his blockbuster John Grisham adaptations. 

Virginia Hill: FUNKY

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go (1970)

          A batshit-crazy conspiracy thriller that’s also a character drama and a broad comedy and a political drama and a travelogue—and probably several other incompatible things—The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go is about as much of a mess as you’ll ever encounter in the realm of movies involving brand-name Hollywood talent. The only theatrical feature that famed actor Burgess Meredith directed alone, this head-scratcher stars Broderick Crawford, Jack MacGowran, James Mason, and, in his first big-screen role, Jeff Bridges. Naturally, Meredith plays a part, as well. He and Mason portray Asians, complete with stereotypical makeup. Bridges plays a draft-dodger/wannabe playwright descended from James Joyce. These characters become embroiled in a wackadoodle plot about a high-tech laser cannon over which various criminals and governments seek to gain control.
          The title stems from a fantasy element, because the film suggests that Buddha, as in the actual deity, decides every 50 years to shoot humanity with a magic beam. The notion is that Buddha finds amusement by transforming one individual’s nature from his or her yin (e.g., good or bad) to his or her yang (the opposite of the preceding). As should be apparent by now, The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go is befuddling, incoherent, and random from its first frame to the last. Whereas some WTF movies bewitch viewers by functioning as windows into other planes of consciousness, The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go is merely a compendium of bad ideas that didn’t merit exploration. To wit, consider this monologue that Bridges delivers about two-thirds of the way through the picture: “I managed to split from the goddamned army, get shacked up good and safe with Ha Ling here—no sweat. I’m just writing, playing my music. Then you come along. My chick is thrown in jail, I start rough-trading faggots, blackmailing scientists, whipping around the air in helicopters, being chased by the CIA, super-macing Japanese bank presidents, getting slugged by a lesbian, spear-gunning a Chinese boogeyman!”
          In keeping with the film’s discombobulated style, the monologue trails off to nothing and the story moves onto the next pointless thing.
          Every aspect of The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go is wrong. The music is upbeat, even when the accompanying images depict murder and treachery. Many scenes look as if they were shot with synchronized dialogue, but the dialogue is absent from the soundtrack. Characters break the fourth wall by saying things like, “All Chinese villains offer tea and cakes before applying torture.” Every so often someone drops a lame joke, as when a joint is offered with the suggestion, “Puff—the magic dragon!” Homophobia and racism permeate the dialogue, while grungy nude scenes present Asian bit players as the human equivalent of set dressing. Through it all, Meredith exhibits no directorial vision whatsoever, seemingly trying a different camera style in every scene.

The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go: FREAKY

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Buckstone County Prison (1978)

          Something of a backwoods equivalent to Roger Corman, South Carolina-based filmmaker Earl Owensby was on a roll by the time he made Buckstone County Prison (also known as Seabo), the grim story of a bounty hunter who suffers abuse after being wrongly incarcerated. An unpretentious storyteller with an affinity for drive-in fare, Owensby eliminated movie-star fees by casting himself in the leading roles of his early films, and he used outdoor locations and semiprofessional supporting players to stretch his budgets even further. His efforts gave birth to the self-sustaining E.O. Studios and eventually made Owensby a multimillionaire. Not a bad record of achievement, seeing as how most people have never heard of the man.
          Buckstone County Prison illustrates the pluses and minuses of Owensby’s modus operandi. After half-breed bounty hunter Seabo (Owensby) angers corrupt local authorities, he’s thrown in jail on trumped-up murder charges. Vicious Native American guard Jimbo (Ed Parker) beats the shit out of Seabo, among other inmates, apparently for the sole purpose of demonstrating Seabo’s toughness to the audience. Eventually, Seabo gains his freedom and participates in a manhunt for several convicts who escaped with the help of another bounty hunter, Reb (played by country singer David Allan Coe, who cut some tunes for the soundtrack). Additional story elements include a corrupt warden, a hooker with a heart of gold, and other hackneyed tropes. The characterizations and storyline are so simplistic that viewers could nap through several minutes and pick up the narrative without difficulty.
          Actors are cast to type, so most of them render perfunctory iterations of clich├ęs—the stuttering African-American man-child, the sneering warden in a seersucker suit, the madam made of brass, etc. Some of the players deliver adequate work and some don’t, but it’s all part of the same down-and-dirty vibe. As for Owensby’s turn in the title role, he’s a paunchy everyman who growls most of his lines through clenched teeth. At best, Owensby is a weak facsimile of a movie tough guy—he neither adds much to the experience nor takes much away. So it goes for the movie as a whole. With its copious violence and hissable villains, Buckstone County Prison is a mindless rendition of things that viewers have seen a million times before, and yet the picture unspools with a measure of heaviosity. For unapologetically derivative junk, Owensby’s opus is weirdly sincere.

Buckstone County Prison: FUNKY

Friday, February 12, 2016

Zero to Sixty (1978)

A noisy action comedy with distasteful implications of romantic attraction between a 16-year-old girl and a man old enough to be her grandfather, Zero to Sixty wastes a spirited performance by versatile film/TV leading man Darren McGavin on a wispy plot. Some might find the picture borderline watchable because it features lots of cartoonish characters and car chases, but the combination of pointlessness and stupidity is hard to overcome. The film’s setup is convoluted and questionable. Briefly, McGavin plays an everyman who loses his home and his job following a nasty divorce, then falls in with a motley car-repossession crew. He’s teamed with Larry (Denise Nickerson), an obnoxious teenaged girl who lives in a trailer, and they cruise Los Angeles trying to reclaim cars from deadbeats. A typical scene involves Larry seizing a motorcycle from a biker gang, the members of which pursue her until McGavin’s character shows up to pretend he’s a cop and wrangle Larry free from danger. The movie also supports a gruesome subplot inspired by the Jimmy Hoffa story, because the protagonists discover the body of a murdered labor leader in the trunk of a car. McGavin gives the kind of exasperated, frenetic performance that one might expect to find in a Disney movie, but none of the other performers match his deft style. Nickerson is so loud and overbearing that she's unpleasant to watch, and the same can be said of supporting players Joan Collins (as a glamorous deadbeat) and Sylvia Miles (as the boss of the repo crew). Adding to the film’s death-by-a-thousand cuts vibe, Lyle Waggoner shows up for one scene as a bartender whose flirty patter sends McGavin’s character into a gay panic, and the awful musical score waffles between dopey stings and disco-inflected muck.

Zero to Sixty: LAME

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

          Former stuntman Hal Needham scored two hits out of the gate as a director, because Needham’s buddy Burt Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Hooper (1978). Yet Needham’s first picture without Reynolds, the Wild West comedy The Villain (1979), was a dud. Perhaps that’s why Needham downgraded to TV movies before reteaming with Reynolds for the inevitable Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). The first of Needham’s telefilms, Death Car on the Freeway, is as laughably obvious as its title. Pitting an intrepid TV reporter against a psychopath who uses his vehicle to kill people while they’re driving, Death Car on the Freeway is enjoyably vapid made-for-TV dreck, with a parade of familiar actors enacting simplistic scenarios against a backdrop of automotive violence and explosive stunts. Always stronger at choreographing mayhem than guiding performances, Needham suffers for the casting of Charlie’s Angels beauty Shelley Hack in the leading role, because she offers only her usual robotic line readings. Similarly, the story is so formulaic and predictable that there’s never much suspense, except perhaps when Needham steps on the gas to simulate vehicular jeopardy. Still, with its lip service to women’s liberation and its stubborn insistence on showing a car wiping out every 15 minutes or so, Death Car on the Freeway never pretends to be anything but disposable entertainment.
          Hack plays Jan Claussen, a Los Angeles newscaster looking for a hot story. She connects two seemingly unrelated incidents and dubs a public menace “The Freeway Fiddler” because survivors recall hearing bluegrass music emanating from his van. (Yes, the film’s title is a misnomer, because the subject is actually a death van on the freeway.) Jan clashes with the usual opponents—an ex-husband (George Hamilton) who doesn’t believe in her potential, a stubborn cop (Peter Graves) who resents that she spotted a crime pattern before he did, and a kindly boss (Frank Gorshin) who can’t protect her from advertisers wary of the anti-automobile stance that Jan takes during editorials. And, yes, you read that right. Somewhere along the line, Jan morphs from a reporter to a public crusader, and she inexplicably determines that car ads linking speed with virility are the reason the Fiddler started attacking people. Better to ignore the plot twists while gawking at the cool chase scenes and the random guest stars. Others appearing in Death Car on the Freeway include Harriet Nelson, Barbara Rush, Dina Shore, Abe Vigoda, and Needham himself, who acts the small role of a defensive-driving instructor.

Death Car on the Freeway: FUNKY