Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Green Room (1978)

          A dark character study extrapolated from the writings of Henry James, François Truffaut’s The Green Room tells a twisted love story through the prism of grief so powerful it compels a man to all but withdraw from the human experience. Adding to the tragedy of the piece is the irony that loss brings the protagonist into intimate contact with a woman who is broken in the same way, but not to the same degree; therefore, the promise of renewal hovers over a story about a man resigned to oblivion. Tackling these grim themes in his characteristically literary style, Truffaut crafts an experience that is sometimes more intellectual than it is visceral, so some viewers will find the piece icy and perhaps even impenetrable. For those willing to accept Truffaut’s disinterest in striking crowd-pleasing chords while performing this particular sonata, The Green Room is intriguing.
          Set in the 1920s, the picture stars Truffaut as Julien Davenne, a World War I veteran haunted not only by the war but also by the death of his beloved wife. While working as an editor for a newspaper that has fallen from popularity—one of the film’s myriad metaphors representing decay—Julien pursues his real passion, which is building a shrine to his late spouse. The “green room” of the title includes photographs and souvenirs, so on a spiritual level, the room represents a space where Julian can imbibe his wife’s essence until he’s intoxicated. Wallowing inside the green room is the only pleasure that Julien allows himself, because the rest of his life is fraught. He shares lodgings with a housekeeper, whom he tasks with errands that Julien considers beyond his emotional capacity, and with a deaf-mute boy, whom Julien traumatizes by showing slides depicting war dead.
          The implication is that Julien has disappeared so deeply into an abyss of mourning that he’s like a black hole sucking other objects in with the force of his gravitational pull. Julien even extends animus beyond the grave, because when a luminary of his former acquaintance dies, Julien alienates his publisher by writing a eulogy that takes the form of a poison-pen letter. The only glimmer of brightness in Julien’s life is his relationship with Cécilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye), an assistant at an auction house. He meets her while reviewing estate-sale artifacts in order to find something that once belonged to his wife. Later, once Julien discovers that Cécilia is also paralyzed by loss, he draws her into a plan for building a grander shrine than the green room, a massive vault honoring all of Julien’s friends and loved ones who have died.
          The Green Room is simultaneously obvious and subtle. On a surface level, the film is a scientific study of the way grief can conquer life if given fertile ground in which to plant its bitter seeds. On a deeper level, however, the film is about human connection. One gets the sense, for instance, that Julien exhausted his full measure of love while building a world with his wife, so her death snuffed a flame inside of him. Seen from that perspective, the arc of Julien’s relationship with Cécilia has a cosmic quality, if one is willing to belabor a metaphor—she’s a celestial object drawn by the magnetism of the aforementioned black hole, and she not only resists the invitation to disappear but also tries to find a spark inside the dead star that she can reignite.

The Green Room: GROOVY

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Avanti! (1972)

          It seems fair to call Avanti! not only the best of Billy Wilder’s four ’70s features, but also his last truly satisfying movie—although such remarks may strike readers as damning with faint praise, since Wilder’s late-career output is unquestionably inferior to the classics he made in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Indeed, Avanti! pales next to, say, Some Like It Hot (1959), but, quite frankly, what comedy doesn’t? That said, Avanti! compensates for significant shortcomings with copious amounts of charm, cleverness, and wit. Although the picture never scales comic heights, instead generating mild amusement from start to finish, it puts across a farcical love story with credibility and sensitivity. Just as importantly, Avanti! reteams Wilder with his most frequent leading man, Jack Lemmon, the perfect interpreter for Wilder’s brand of male angst.
          The story takes place in Italy, where American businessman Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Lemmon) travels to collect the remains of his father, recently killed in a car crash. Before long, Wendell realizes that his father died alongside a female companion, whose daughter, Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), travels to Italy to claim her mother’s body. Myriad complications prevent Wendell from achieving his simple goal. Pamela agitates to have the bodies buried in Italy, because that’s where her mother and Wendell Sr. met for annual trysts over the course of a decade. Italian bureaucrats smother Wendell with paperwork. Gangsters steal the corpses in order to extort money. Meanwhile, Wendell slowly evolves from being a fussbudget preoccupied with propriety into an emotional being vulnerable to Pamela’s appeal, echoing the way Wendell Sr. changed during his visits to Italy. Everything in the story is contrived and schematic, of course, but it works. Or, to place a finer point on the matter, it works well enough.
          Adapting a play by Samuel A. Taylor, Wilder and frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond expertly coordinate a slew of running gags, weaving comedy and romance together with grace and style. What their adaptation sorely lacks, however, is economy—Avanti! runs a preposterous 140 minutes, with myriad scenes that could easily have been omitted or at least trimmed. The movie is never boring for more than a moment or two, but the narrative bloat diminishes the overall impact. So, too, does the fixation on Pamela’s weight, which, to modern sensibilities, seems as Neanderthal as the film’s overt statements to the effect that all successful men are entitled to mistresses. As always in Wilder’s films, adultery is a joke instead of a cruel betrayal. Still, Lemmon and Mills come off remarkably well, as does Clive Revill, an Englishman dubiously cast as an Italian hotel manager; for a film suffused with authentic local flavor, thanks to alluring location photography and lovely Italian music, Revill’s casting is a false note, albeit an inoffensive one.

Avanti!: GROOVY

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Death Dimension (1978)

It’s time to put your brain on lockdown once more, because that singular purveyor of low-budget cinematic stupidity, Al Adamson, is at it again. Death Dimension, the title of which has no discernible significance, is a sci-fi/espionage/martial-arts thriller starring the unfortunate Jim Kelly, a skilled athlete whose ascension to stardom following Black Belt Jones (1974) was impeded by his inability to act. Death Dimension—which is also known in some quarters as Black Eliminator, Freeze Bomb, The Kill Factor, among other titles—tells the loopy story of a scientist who hides designs for a weather weapon in a microchip, then surgically implants the microchip into the forehead of his pretty assistant. Once the scientist is killed, the assistant becomes a target. Assigned to protect her or recover the research or whatever—because, really, who cares?—is LAPD detective Ash (Kelly). Portraying Ash’s boss is George Lazenby, who starred as James Bond in one movie, and the 007 connection continues with the movie’s villain, “The Pig,” who is played by ex-Bond villain Harold “Odd Job” Sakata. Sort of. Keen ears will notice that Sakata’s dialogue was dubbed by character actor James Hong. And so it goes. Death Dimension jumps from one pointless scene to the next, stopping at regular intervals for Kelly to effortlessly defeat hordes of opponents; this is one of those dimwitted action movies in which the hero becomes a target for every bad guy in the world the instant he accepts his dangerous assignment. For added spice, Death Dimension contains lots of misogynistic material, including a bizarre scene during which “The Pig” uses a snapping turtle as an interrogation tool by holding its snout close to a woman’s breast. “One bite, and he’ll make you flat-chested!” If you watch Death Dimension after having perused these remarks, you have only yourself to blame.

Death Dimension: LAME

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dirty Duck (1974)

Two years after Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat became the first X-rated cartoon, Dirty Duck—sometimes known as Down and Dirty Duck or Cheap—arrived to test the public’s appetite for even more counterculture weirdness involving anthropomorphized animals. Like the iffy sequel The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, also released in 1974, Dirty Duck proved that X-rated animal pictures were not a growth industry. Crude on every level, Charles Swanson’s Dirty Duck pairs ugly, low-budget animation with tiresome content. Made in collaboration with eccentric rock duo Flo & Eddie, better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of the Turtles, Dirty Duck features numerous original Flo & Eddie songs, and Volman and Kaylan play the leading voice roles. Kaylan portrays an insurance-company drone named Willard, who dreams of not only escaping his demeaning professional life but also of scoring with women. Thanks to convoluted circumstances involving a suicidal madam, Willard becomes the guardian of a talking duck, who is voiced by Volman. Despite the title, most of the screen time is devoted to Willard and his sexual fantasies. (In one bit, Willard’s penis magically assumes the size and shape of a bullet train as it pummels the nether regions of a compliant female.) Nothing in Dirty Duck is amusing or titillating, since Swanson conveys something like a teenaged boy’s snickering attitude toward sex, and the filmmakers often try so hard for boundary-pushing hipness that they stumble into pointless vulgarity; a song praising sexual experimentation suggests that viable lovemaking partners might include a tree or a corpse. Even the self-referential music jokes are disposable, notably an image of Frank Zappa (whom Flo & Eddie occasionally supported) and a snippet of “My Sweet Duck” to the tune of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Ultimately little more than a hardcore Water Mitty rendered with grungy visuals, Dirty Duck deserves its obscurity.

Dirty Duck: LAME

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Who? (1973)

          Check out the bizarre storyline of this obscure Cold War thriller, which was produced in the UK. The American scientist supervising a top-secret project has an auto accident while traveling in East Germany. Recovered by Russian spies, the scientist is given a metallic mask and various metallic prosthetics to replace the parts of his body that were destroyed. Then, six months after the accident, the Russians surrender the scientist to American authorities, who must determine whether he’s really the missing scientist before returning him to top-secret work. After all, since the man no longer has a human face, his identity is open to question. Not only is this story predicated on technology that doesn’t exist, but the makeup/mask effect that’s used throughout the film is absurd. Actor Joseph Bova, playing the disfigured scientist, wears a cheap-looking silver skullcap, complemented with goofy silver makeup. Seriously, the Tin Man costume in The Wizard of Oz (1939) was more convincing, and that picture was made more than three decades earlier. The physical appearance of this critical character is so distracting that it nearly dooms the entire film.
          Yet it’s not as if Who?—which is sometimes marketed as Robo Man—suffers just one major flaw. The movie is problematic from top to bottom. Elliot Gould gives a disinterested performance in the nominal leading role, playing an FBI agent tasked with determining the true identity of the metal man. Trevor Howard, grossly miscast, employs an all-over-the-place accent while portraying Gould’s Soviet counterpart in deliberately perplexing flashbacks that are intercut throughout the movie. Worst of all is the movie’s entire first hour, which portrays the metal man’s time in FBI custody. This interminable stretch features one drab dialogue scene after another, an issue exacerbated by the fact that Bova can’t make facial expressions thanks to his makeup. Things pick up slightly once the metal man is set free, because the filmmakers draw the pathos of this unfortunate fellow’s circumstances to the surface. One might even go so far as to call parts of the movie’s final half-hour soulful—even though the film never surmounts its inherent awkwardness.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Disco Fever (1978)

How much do titles matter? Let’s use this low-budget music movie as a case study. Although the picture has disco elements, including the principal location of a nightclub and a subplot about the rise of a wannabe disco singing star, the flick is not actually about disco. Rather, it’s about a nightclub owner who exploits a former teen idol, using his notoriety to gain publicity. While there isn’t a single original idea in the picture, the acting is adequate and the general arc of the piece is more or less satisfying in an empty-calories sort of way. (Anyone who’s ever encountered a story about an artist being asked to sell out will be able to predict the entire storyline.) Disco Fever even has something akin to credibility, since the main character is played by Fabian Forte, a real-life former teen idol. So here’s the problem with the title. Anyone buying a ticket for something called Disco Fever would, naturally, expect something in the vein of the previous year’s Saturday Night Fever. Thus, consumers willing to support any old movie with disco themes were hoodwinked, and the filmmakers who generated a borderline passable showbiz melodrama were precluded from reaching moviegoers who might be interested in the actual content of the picture. No big loss either way, but still. In any event, a couple of peculiar things about Disco Fever are worth mentioning. Famed radio personality and sometimes actor Casey Kasem plays the teen idol’s manager—making this the second of two movies in which Kasem served as Forte’s foil, the first being Soul Hustler (1973). Additionally, George Barris, the self-proclaimed “King of the Customizers” whose main claim to fame was creating the Batmobile for the 1960s Batman TV show, not only appears as himself in this movie, but he also wrote the story and served as one of the project’s executive producers. Holy Random Credits, Batman!

Disco Fever: LAME

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

          Until the 2004 premiere of Spamalot, the stage musical that he adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), this made-for-TV mockumentary was Eric Idle’s most noteworthy accomplishment outside of the work that he did as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. An elaborate spoof of the Beatles told in the form of a TV retrospective about a fictional band, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was written by Idle, who also co-directed the piece with Gary Weis, and he plays several roles. A couple of Idle’s fellow Pythons appear, as do several rock-music luminaries—including, wink-wink, one of the real Fab Four, George Harrison. Plus, since Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels produced the project, a number of Not Ready for Prime Time Players show up: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner.
          It would be exaggerating to say that the star wattage completely outshines the material, but that’s close to the truth—some scenes in The Rutles merely re-create famous Beatles moments and/or songs with only the slightest of comedic tweaks. Flip side, the best segments of The Rutles are enjoyably droll. Furthermore, the sheer verisimilitude of the piece, replicating everything from camera angles to costumes to songs, puts The Rutles nearly on par with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Zelig (1983) in terms of impressive mimicry.
          The “story” of The Rutles will seem awfully familiar. A group of kids form a scrappy band, become popular with female fans, cohere into a sophisticated musical unit, experiment with drugs and sociopolitical messages, and finally drift apart. (In sum, “a musical legend that will last a lunchtime.”) Although many famous songs are parodied (“Help!” is lampooned by “Ouch!”), many of the tunes are patchworks of Beatles-esque melodies and lyrics. Occasionally, the gags have satirical edge, as when the Beatles’ “Let It Be” is referenced by the Rutles’ “Let It Rot”; considering Paul McCartney’s misgivings about the Let It Be album and the link that project has to the Beatles’ final days, the “Let It Rot” gag has teeth. An even meaner joke of the same stripe is the runner about the Rutles’ manager being preoccupied with his clients’ tight trousers. Presumably Idle meant no disrespect to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was gay, but still—a bit nasty, that one. Conversely, Idle occasionally replaces historical figures with totally dissimilar characters, for instance featuring a distaff artist in Nazi regalia where one would expect to find an analogue for Yoko Ono.
          For all the care the filmmakers took in re-creating things, some of the best jokes are unrelated to the Beatles—one recurring bit involves Idle playing a TV host who endures an antagonistic relationship with his cameraman. Ultimately, The Rutles does little to tarnish the Beatles’ reputation, but the derivative nature of the piece, as well as the hit-0r-miss quality of the humor, defines The Rutles as a minor effort. Nonetheless, the Rutles concept has endured. Originally introduced during a sketch on a 1970s BBC show that Idle created, the Rutles regrouped in the late ’90s, starred in The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch (2002), and even became a touring band, usually with Idle’s musical partner and the cocreator of the Rutles concept, Neil Innes, occupying center stage. 

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash: FUNKY

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Blindman (1971)

          Energetic and fast-paced but also silly and a little bit trashy, this spaghetti western enjoys minor cult status because ex-Beatle Ringo Starr plays a supporting role. Yet Blindman is moderately enjoyable on its own merits. The plot is typical spaghetti-western weirdness, predicated on outlandish schemes and superhuman abilities, suggesting that star Tony Anthony (who also provided the story) studied the genre. Beyond the usual tropes of overwrought music and wild camera zooms, Blindman includes themes of heroism, pride, and revenge, all delivered by way of a lone-wolf protagonist who’s an artist with his six-shooters. As promised by the title, said protagonist is sightless, so every scene in which he hits a target is inherently ridiculous.
          Vigorously directed by Ferdinando Baldi, the picture begins with Blindman (Anthony) rolling into a small town looking for trouble. As in, he’s there to find a man named “Trouble.” Apparently that fellow knows the location of the 50 women whom Blindman purchased. To get Trouble’s attention, Blindman repeatedly shoots the bell of a church tower. After Blindman learns that the women were kidnapped by a criminal named Domingo, Blindman embarks on an adventure to recover his “property.” Turns out the ladies were imported from Europe as mail-order brides, so it’s not as if either Blindman or Domingo wants a personal harem; rather, they hope to sell the women for profit. Much of the picture comprises back-and-forth scenes during which Blindman takes the women from Domingo or vice versa, with Domingo’s brother, Candy (Starr), caught in between.
          Is this stuff as insane as it sounds? Yes and no. On a narrative level, Blindman is bizarre, since very little of what happens onscreen could actually occur in reality. Yet on an experiential level, Blindman lacks the fever-dream quality of, say, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western masterpieces. Anthony and Baldi take time to set up characters and situations, as if doing so will make the flick seem more credible. It does not. That said, Anthony, Baldi, and their collaborators muster a handful of decent action scenes, so the film moves along nicely. Still, there’s only so high this picture can fly, because the acting is merely serviceable, and because the film’s treatment of women is grotesque. Just because the story is set during a historical period when women were treated poorly doesn’t justify the incessant abuse of female characters or the myriad nude scenes.  

Blindman: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Point of Terror (1971)

With apologies for the crudeness of this remark, I suggest that ’70s-cinema fans adopt the following policy when considering which movies to watch: If it’s Crown, flush it down. The misbegotten sprawl of the Crown International Pictures release Point of Terror explains why. Firstly, the movie isn’t a horror film, despite the misleading poster and title. Rather, it’s a soapy melodrama about a wannabe pop singer who falls into the web of a murderess. Secondly, the movie suffers flaws that are common to the myriad low-budget clunkers bearing the Crown brand—the acting is inconsistent, but mostly awful; the direction occasionally rises from incompetent to perfunctory; and the script is a big, oozing blob of nothing, peppered with a few nuggets of trashy stimulation. Peter Carpenter, a blank-faced stud also credited (or blamed) with creating the film’s story, stars as lounge singer Tony Trelos. One day, he meets rich dame Andrea Hilliard (Dyanne Thorne), the sex-starved wife of a paralyzed record executive. Despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, Tony sleeps with Andrea in exchange for a recording contract. Complications ensue, including a murder and the arrival of Andrea’s hot daughter, Helayne (Lory Hansen). Most of this crap unfolds like an episode of some Aaron Spelling series, all histrionic acting and overwrought dialogue, punctuated with campy sex and violence. About the only novel element is cinematographer Robert Maxwell’s addiction to color gels, since some scenes are as multichromatic as a harlequin convention. It should also be said that Thorne’s performance reaches a special peak of atrociousness—we’re talking full-on screeching harpy—during the final showdown between Andrea and Tony.

Point of Terror: LAME

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)

          Viewed from a rational perspective, the hard-to-classify exploitation flick Poor Pretty Eddie is pure trash, combining showbiz ennui with murder, rape, and stereotypes. Viewed from a more adventurous perspective, watching Poor Pretty Eddie is like patronizing an all-you-can-eat buffet with nothing but junk food—everything might seem tasty at first, but indigestion is sure to follow. The loopy plot begins with African-American pop singer Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams) taking a break from the celebrity grind. Unwisely venturing alone into the Deep South, Liz experiences car failure near a roadside motel/restaurant, so she walks onto the property—even though it looks like a junkyard—to seek help. First Liz meets hulking handyman Keno (Ted Cassidy). Then she meets handsome but smarmy Eddie (Michael Christian), the kept man of the facility's owner, Bertha (Shelley Winters). Despite many red flags, Liz sees no choice but to stay until Eddie and Keno fix her car. This draws her into a sordid situation.
          Aging and overweight, Bertha runs her place like a fiefdom and builds her life around Eddie, even though she doubts his loyalty. Sure enough, Eddie lusts after Liz and rapes her the first night she's in the motel. Liz confronts Bertha with this information the next morning. That’s when things get really ugly: Bertha’s okay with Eddie using Liz as a plaything so long as that keeps him docile. When Liz seeks help from local authorities—grotesque rednecks played by Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens—her nightmare escalates.
          Even with this potboiler of a plot, Poor Pretty Eddie wanders into tangential weirdness at regular intervals, notably Eddie’s inept, Elvis-inflected performance of a country song. Furthermore, certain scenes include trippy intercutting and superimpositions, vignettes of gruesome violence are rendered in loving slow-motion, and the overarching aesthetic is surpassingly vulgar. In the most extreme sequence, shots of Eddie raping Liz are intercut with shots of rednecks forcing pigs to have sex, all to the accompaniment of a folksy love song. Oddly, the film’s performances are not as gonzo as the storytelling. Winters does her usual share of screaming, but she also imbues her pathetic characterization with a measure of pathos. Similarly, Christian’s portrayal of Eddie has a disquieting little-boy-lost element even though Eddie is unquestionably a monster. As for Uggams, she works a straightforward exploitation-flick groove while tracking a victim-turns-violent arc, lending Poor Pretty Eddie a touch of blaxploitation attitude.
          All of this makes for a strange vibe, and not a pleasant one; Poor Pretty Eddie is fascinating in that old can't-look-away-from-a-traffic-accident sort of way. Weirder still? The film’s producers, capping what appears to have been a wild production experience, released Poor Pretty Eddie in several different versions under multiple titles, including an almost completely re-conceived and re-edited cut bearing the name Heartbreak Motel. After all, it’s better to recycle trash than to simply throw the stuff away, right?

Poor Pretty Eddie: FREAKY

Monday, March 21, 2016

Eagle in a Cage (1972)

          Less a fact-based recitation of historical events and more a poetic meditation on power, Eagle in a Cage explores the final phase of Napoleon Bonaparte’s extraordinary life. Granted asylum by the British Empire following his legendary defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the small island of St. Helena, where he died six years later. Millard Lampell’s script, a version of which was first produced for television in 1965 with Trevor Howard starring, condenses the early days of the St. Helena incarceration into a tight drama filled with political machinations and sexual intrigue. Lampell’s version of Napoleon is not a man resigned to ignominy, bur rather a virile conqueror scheming to reclaim his position as Emperor of France. Among the many liberties that Lampell takes is suggesting that Napoleon made a brazen escape attempt, even though history indicates that Napoleon suffered debilitating health problems throughout his time on St. Helena.
          Its relationship to the truth notwithstanding, Eagle in a Cage bursts with energy, ideas, and lofty language. Furthermore, UK actor Kenneth Haigh gives a lusty performance in the leading role, imbuing Napoleon with ego, lyricism, and malice. (The fact that Haigh doesn’t even attempt a French accent is distracting, and so is the unexplained casting of African-American actor Moses Gunn as Napoleon’s principal aide.)
          Much of the story concerns Napoleon’s friction with Sir Hudson Lowe (Ralph Richardson), the haughty soldier charged with supervising Napoleon’s incarceration. Emboldened by the opportunity to humiliate a legendary figure, Lowe represents the effect that proximity to greatness has on weak people. Conversely, Lord Sissal (John Gielgud), the British aristocrat who arrives late in the story to tempt Napoleon with the offer of a return to limited power, represents the sadistic application of leverage, since he’s a callous snob. Shown in contrast to these two characters, Napoleon occupies complicated middle ground. He evaluates everyone he meets on merit, belittling the craven and embracing the bold, and yet he succumbs to avarice whenever the promise of reclaiming lost glory appears.
          Haigh captures all of those nuances well, even when Lampell’s script wanders into such discursive bits as long scenes involving Madame Bertrand (Billie Whitelaw), a companion of Napoleon’s whose relationship with the deposed monarch is never clearly articulated. Scenes with Betty Balcombe (Georgina Hale), essentially a groupie infatuated by Napoleon’s charisma, are more pointed. Ultimately, Eagle in a Cage is an odd sort of a picture, because it has the iffy production values and jumpy editing of a low-budget production even though it also has the grown-up subject matter and sophisticated dialogue of a prestige film. One can’t help but wonder if plans to recruit a leading actor of greater notoriety, perhaps Richard Burton or someone of his ilk, ran aground. Whatever the backstory, Eagle in a Cage is consistently intelligent and thoughtful, a mannered study on the afterglow of conquest, with the specter of death never far away.

Eagle in a Cage: GROOVY

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Summer Camp (1979)

In the spirit of trying to say one positive thing about the rotten sex comedy Summer Camp, director Chuck Vincent and his collaborators avoided implications of youth exploitation by telling a story about characters in their twenties, rather than teenagers. Accordingly, the film’s numbing barrage of nude shots and sex scenes is distasteful without being truly creepy. That said, Summer Camp has virtually no redeeming values, even though the overarching plot is more or less coherent. Among myriad other problems, this sex comedy is neither erotic nor funny, and in fact some sequences are grotesque. For instance, campers participate in a “Fantastic Feces Contest,” with top honors awarded to the camper whose output is most prodigious. Similarly, one character is a hot-to-trot young woman who comes on to every man she sees, which leads to not only myriad simulated encounters but also to crude remarks about premature ejaculation and the like. Another character—the requisite beer-drinking slob in the John Belushi mode—explains that he’s nicknamed “Horse” because of what he claims to be an impressive endowment. Set to awful disco music, Summer Camp has a workable premise, because Camp Malibu’s director (Jack Barnes) invites past campers to a 10-year reunion in the hopes of persuading the young adults to help raise funds for the struggling camp. Yet the moment the campers arrive, Vincent—who made X-rated porn films prior to Summer Camp—spirals into heavy petting, panty raids, voyeurism, and (shudder) folk music sung around a campfire. For what it’s worth, trash-cinema queen Linnea Quigley, at this point just a few years into her long career, plays one of the sex-crazed campers.

Summer Camp: LAME

Saturday, March 19, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)

          Considering that a 1930 black-and-white adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first films to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s no surprise that Hollywood avoided revisiting the story for decades. Once cameras rolled on a fresh take, albeit for television, restrictions on what could be shown had relaxed sufficiently for the 1979 version of All Quiet on the Western Front to play rougher than its predecessor. Particularly when viewed in the “uncut” extended version that was released theatrically in Europe, the 1979 All Quiet on the Western Front is much bloodier than Lewis Milestone’s 1930 feature. It’s also much less poetic, though it nearly matches the earlier film in terms of scope.
          The story follows a group of German soldiers during World War I as they evolve from new recruits to battle-hardened veterans. At the center of the piece is Paul Baumer (played by Richard Thomas of The Waltons), a gentle artist who learns to kill out of necessity. The story tracks Paul’s relationships with many people, including fellow enlisted men as well as cruel training officer Himmelstoss (Ian Holm) and pragmatic NCO Katczinsky (Ernest Borgnine). The Himmelstoss character represents ambitious conformists whose participation in the military brings out inhumane qualities, and the Katczinsky character represents the challenges faced by those who wish to survive war with their souls intact. Per the forceful but schematic architecture of Remarque’s storyline, Paul finds himself pulled between these extremes—as well as other impulses—while he resists the circumstances that could otherwise compel him to become a callous killing machine.
          Though his work is earnest and rigorous, leading man Thomas is the weak link in this production, hitting voiceover lines too mechanically and playing scenes too obviously. By contrast, Borgnine, Holm, and Donald Pleasance—who plays a schoolteacher with dubious notions of nationalism—all come across as nuanced and subtle. Generally speaking, All Quiet on the Western Front commands and rewards attention. Cinematographer John Coquillon and director Delbert Mann create a rich widescreen look with much more texture than the average ’70s telefilm, composer Allyn Ferguson layers scenes with suitably ominous music, and the picture contains several startling images. Rats chewing on corpses. A dazed man begging mercy for wounded horses. Lines of soldiers dropping from gunfire as they climb out of trenches. It’s all quite potent, from the unexpected significance of what happens to a wounded soldier’s boots to the grim final images that succinctly express Remarque’s antiwar themes.

All Quiet on the Western Front: GROOVY

Friday, March 18, 2016

Groupies (1970)

          Shot in a grungy, fly-on-the-wall style, the rock doc Groupies contains ample evidence of a subculture that has existed almost as long as rock music, that of compliant young women who offer sex in exchange for access to famous players. Some of the ladies captured on film by directors Ron Dorfman and Peter Nevard even gained notoriety of their own. These women include Pamela Des Barres, then known as “Miss Pamela,” who later wrote the definitive groupie memoir, I’m With the Band, as well as the “Plaster Casters,” who immortalized their trysts by making plaster impressions of men’s, ahem, instruments. For the curious, some of the casts are displayed onscreen, though no identifying text is provided.
          In fact, no identifying text is provided for anyone or anything in Groupies, and neither does the film include narration. As such, Groupies unfolds like a stream of disassociated raw footage. Except for shots of familiar musicians, including Joe Cocker and Ten Years After, it’s a mystery who is onscreen at any given time. This lack of information is among the chief reasons why Groupies is a minor historical artifact and nothing more. That said, Groupies tells a story despite the filmmakers’ best efforts to avoid doing so.
          In some vignettes, random women hang out with musicians, trying to one-up each other with outrageous behavior and/or proclamations of sexual availability; all the while, amused musicians watch the spectacle content in the knowledge that they’re getting laid once all the chitty-chat runs its course. Other scenes feature the groupies trying to explain their lifestyles. To a one, the justifications provided in Groupies are pathetic and vapid, so it often seems as if the filmmakers deliberately chose participants who came across as drunk, horny, loud, stoned, or stupid, if not all of the above. Is Groupies a celebration of sexual freedom or a condemnation of misguided young women? Either way, the doc destroys any romantic notions one might have about the groupie scene.
          Oddly, some of the film’s most interesting passages veer slightly off-topic. Sequences featuring male groupies—in San Francisco, naturally—are quite grim. A long scene of a drunk male groupie trying in vain to score with British singer Terry Reid is a symphony of weeping and whining leavened only by the erudite sarcasm of Reid’s drummer. Perhaps Groupies is best summarized by one participant’s introspective remarks: “I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Wow, you fucking whore, what are you into?’” 

Groupies: FUNKY

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mahler (1974)

          Some Ken Russell movies are consistently restrained and most of them are consistently crazy, but Mahler falls somewhere in the middle. About half the film uses straightforward dramatic scenes to explore the life of famed composer Gustav Mahler, who lived from 1860 to 1911 and contributed significantly to the classical-music canon. Bits and pieces are tweaked for comic effect, but most of these segments occupy the known universe. And then there’s the other half of Mahler—the one with the anachronistic Nazi imagery, the outrageous ethnic stereotypes, and the shock-value sex and violence. Based on the totality of Russell’s career, one suspects that’s the part of Mahler that spoke most deeply to the filmmaker’s soul. Even though he’d gone for the cinematic jugular many times before, once the mid-’70s arrived, he seemed almost pathologically incapable of resisting puerile narrative impulses.
          The trajectory of Mahler’s conventional storyline is fairly interesting, depicting how the young composer drifted away from the anti-intellectual influence of his family by embracing lessons about the beauty of nature. As the film progresses, Mahler (played as an adult by Robert Powell) faces such familiar rigors as balancing creative endeavors with paying gigs. He also endures humiliation from those who regard him as a second-rate successor to Richard Wagner. Most troublingly, Mahler navigates a complicated marriage to Alma (Georgina Hale), whom he unwisely takes for granted even though he knows she has an extramarital suitor. Eventually, the problems of Mahler’s life coalesce in the crucial moment when he converts from Judaism for Christianity in order to secure a lucrative job.
          This material should have been sufficient, but Russell gilds the lily—and then paints the thing bright, whorish red—with ridiculous dream/fantasy sequences. In the most epic of these, which is staged like a comedic silent film complete with title cards, Mahler wears an exaggerated Jewish-intellectual costume while facing Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis), the powerful and deeply anti-Semitic widow of Richard Wagner. Wearing a Nazi-dominatix costume, she whips Mahler, makes him jump through flaming hoops, forces him to eat the flesh off a pig’s head, and stands atop a mountain like a Teutonic demigoddess, a gigantic sword towering behind her. Need it be said that this silly film-within-a-film is such an excessive directorial indulgence that it nearly derails the whole movie?
          At least the film-within-a-film is amusing, just like the goofy visual reference that Russell makes to the Italian art film Death in Venice (1971), which featured an all-Mahler soundtrack. Incredibly, Powell retains his dignity throughout most of this film, delivering a credible performance as a diva who learns humility. Furthermore, Hale is spirited as Alma, and it’s hard to find fault with the soundtrack, which almost exclusively comprises selections from Mahler’s magnificent oeuvre.

Mahler: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Die, Sister, Die! (1972)

          Apparently placed on a shelf for several years after it was completed, the slow-moving thriller Die, Sister, Die! must have struck audiences as hopelessly old-fashioned when it was finally released in 1978—the movie doesn’t come close to delivering the type of sexually charged supernatural scares promised by the lurid poster art. In some respects, Die, Sister, Die! feels like an artifact from the genteel 1930s, perhaps because that's when composer Hugo Friedhofer, who created the picture’s dense orchestral score, began his career. However, don’t let the preceding description get you thinking that Die, Sister, Die! is some classical shocker in the Hitchcock mold; that level of narrative sophistication is well beyond the powers of producer-director Randall Hood and his collaborators. This forgettable picture offers nothing more than a creaky murder story, so while it’s not a screamingly bad cinematic experience, it’s so predictable and sluggish and stodgy that it disappears from memory immediately after it concludes, if not sooner.
          Here’s the setup. After aging society lady Amanda (Edith Atwater) attempts suicide, her craven brother, Edward (Jack Ging), fumes because her survival means he cannot collect the family inheritance. Edward hires a nurse, Esther (Antoinette Bower), who has a checkered past—she was driven from a previous job amid accusations of malfeasance. Edward instructs Esther to “let nature take its course” should Amanda attempt suicide again, offering a share of the inheritance in exchange. Complicating matters are Esther’s conscience, the investigative labors of a local physician, and Amanda’s personal demons. The reasons why Amanda wishes to die stem from intrigue involving Edward, their father, and a third sibling.
          Strangely, had the filmmakers exercised even more restraint—up to and including a different title—Die, Sister, Die! could have become a decent suspense picture. Alas, it suffers the familiar neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome, because it’s too trashy for discriminating viewers and not trashy enough for the grindhouse crowd. Oh, well. At least Friedhofer’s sturdy score is a pleasant sonic throwback.

Die, Sister, Die!: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972)

          There are three different versions of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, because director Adrian Maben has significantly recut the movie twice, so these comments do not regard the original 1972 version, which was only one hour in length. Rather, these comments pertain to the 2003 “director’s cut,” which is sometimes marketed as Echoes: Pink Floyd. What compelled Maben to tweak his work? Not least among the reasons is that Pink Floyd recorded and released The Dark Side of the Moon, one of the most successful albums in history, a year after Live at Pompeii hit UK theaters. In 1974, Maben expanded the movie for its U.S. release by including newly filmed documentary footage of the band recording Dark Side tracks. Three decades later, Maben altered the movie again by adding CGI effects and outer-space shots, the better to visually complement the band’s trippy sound. So while the “director’s cut” does not purely reflect the filmmaker’s original 1972 vision, it’s the richest incarnation of the film, especially for viewers who are not diehard Floyd fans.
          The core of all three versions, of course, is the Pompeii footage. The band’s four members circa 1971—bassist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason, guitarist David Gilmour, and keyboardist Richard Wright—convened inside an ancient amphitheater to perform several tunes while cameras rolled. Juxtaposing modern technology with surroundings from antiquity, Maben shot the band without an audience, so the only things onscreen besides the band and the decaying amphitheater are instruments, speakers, and the film crew. (Maben often cuts to wide shots in which camera operators are visible, than transitions to the angles taken from those camera positions—all very meta in a ’70s, mind-expansion sort of way.) Any record of an important band in its prime has inherent interest, so even if the tunes in the Pompeii footage are somewhat arcane (e.g., “A Saucerful of Secrets,” etc.), the band’s coldly professional musicianship is front and center.
         The Dark Side material, featuring fragments from “Brain Damage,” “On the Run,” and “Us and Them,” is perhaps even more interesting, though Maben’s languid cutting style can be infuriating—he’s a big one for lingering on things just a little too long. And what’s with flourishes like the shot of a volcano spewing? Buried amid the stylized visuals are off-the-cuff moments from the Dark Side sessions, during which band members hang out and hold forth. Worthy of special note are these casual remarks from Waters about then-new advances in recording technology: “More and more now, there’s all kinds of electronic goodies which are available for people like us to use if we can be bothered. . . . it’s all extensions of what’s coming out of our heads.” From your lips to the world’s ears, man.

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii: FUNKY

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Black Gestapo (1975)

          Unfortunately, this violent blaxploitation saga does not deliver the sharp analogy to Nazi Germany promised by its title and poster, because the paramilitary group at the center of the story is never show flexing political power. More specifically, the filmmakers provide so little context for group’s activities that it’s difficult to determine whether the group even has power. In the weirdly insular world of The Black Gestapo, uniformed gangs move freely throughout L.A. while carrying automatic weapons, organizing rallies, and roughing up victims. No explanation is given for how the paramilitary group came into being, so most viewers will spend the first third of the picture just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Then, once the movie reaches a tedious middle stretch pitting the group against the Mafia, things get even more confusing—and even more gruesome. During the Mafia scenes, The Black Gestapo degrades to rape scenes and a harrowing vignette in which the film's villain castrates an enemy with a straight razor. Suffice to say that the film’s political perspective—if it even has one—is as messy as the crime scene following the castration. Actually, one could take the analogy even further by saying The Black Gestapo has no balls, since the movie ultimately becomes a simplistic revenge flick about a deposed leader seeking payback against a former subordinate.
          Anyway, the gist is that General Ahmed (Rod Perry) founded something called the People’s Army for unknown reasons, presumably to do with empowering oppressed African-Americans. Soldiers in the all-black People’s Army wear khaki uniforms and red berets as they function like vigilante do-gooders. Ahmed’s second-in-command, Colonel Kojah (Charlie Robinson), determines that more must be done, so he employs violence to intimidate enemies. Hewing to the old absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely line, Colonel Kojah transforms his squad into stormtroopers, switching to SS-style uniforms and seizing power from Ahmed. All of this trudges along somewhat incoherently until the film's final act, when Ahmed stages a one-man assault on Kojah’s compound. This last bit, which comprises about 25 minutes of screen time, is fairly exciting in a Charles Bronson sort of way; Ahmed uses fancy weapons, martial arts, and trickery to literally defeat an army before confronting Kojah for a hand-to-hand brawl. Although The Black Gestapo is clumsily filmed, with cheap production values and way too many quasi-fisheye shots, the movie provides a decent dose of brainless violence once the filmmakers cease their fruitless attempts at storytelling.

The Black Gestapo: FUNKY

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Funeral for an Assassin (1974)

          Made in South Africa and released there in 1974, the no-nonsense thriller Funeral for an Assassin, which stars U.S. actor Vic Morrow, hit American screens in 1977. (The picture was an American/South African coproduction.) Largely ignoring the racial issues that defined apartheid-era South Africa, the movie delivers a serviceable plot about a criminal who escapes jail and kills a judge as a means of triggering a state funeral, where he intends to detonate an explosive and thereby kill as many high-ranking members of the South African government as possible. Tracking the criminal’s moves and rushing to prevent bloodshed is that beloved standby of crime films, the Lone Wolf police detective. Yes, excepting its country of origin, Funeral for an Assassin is as contrived and generic and predictable as the average episode of Kojak. The picture is not without its brainless appeal, some of which stems from Morrow’s grumpy performance as the criminal, but nothing in this passable-at-best flick will genuinely surprise or thrill viewers familiar with genre-movie tropes. That said, those seeking 92 minutes of undemanding intrigue will find what they want here.
         Morrow plays Michael Cardiff, an assassin who flees jail with the single-minded goal of obtaining revenge against the South African government. Peter Van Dissel plays Captain Evered Roos, an iconoclastic cop perceived by his superiors as being prone to conspiracy theories and reckless behavior. Accordingly, when Evered discovers clues suggesting that Michael is up to no good—even though Michael persuasively faked his own death—authorities are disinclined to believe Evered. Meanwhile, Michael moves through society with an absurd disguise, slathering his face, neck, and hands with blackface makeup. To the filmmakers’ minor credit, this masquerade eventually backfires on Michael, though every scene in which Michael passes for black strains credulity. Had the filmmakers made the next logical leap of giving Michael’s evil scheme racial overtones, or imbued Evered with an interesting attitude toward apartheid, Funeral for an Assassin could have become a thriller with a purpose. As is, it’s disposable pulp with the tiniest dash of local flavor thanks to extensive location photography. FYI, this picture should not be confused with Target of an Assassin, a 1977 South African film starring Anthony Quinn that was not released in the U.S. until the 1980s.

Funeral for an Assassin: FUNKY

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Winds of Autumn (1976)

          One of low-budget auteur Charles B. Pierce’s most frustrating movies, The Winds of Autumn demonstrates how Pierce was simultaneously his own secret weapon and his own worst enemy. A revenge-themed Western with an offbeat angle, inasmuch as the character seeking revenge is an 11-year-old boy from a Quaker community, the picture has Pierce’s usual slick widescreen look, and yet it also has Pierce’s usual enervated storyline. The movie begins when young Joel (played by the director’s son, Chuck Pierce Jr.) observes a band of thugs approaching his family’s homestead. Joel’s parents ignore the boy’s warnings, believing God will protect them. He doesn’t. After the inevitable massacre, Joel is offered refuge by neighbor Mr. Pepperdine (played by the film’s cowriter, Earl E. Smith). Hungry for vengeance, Joel steals guns from Mr. Pepperdine’s stash—turns out the fellow used to be a gunfighter—and starts tracking the thugs. Soon afterward, Mr. Pepperdine arms himself and pursues Joel, hoping to prevent further tragedy.
          Scenes of Joel trekking through the wilderness are picturesque but repetitive and sluggish, so the picture’s limited entertainment value stems from the presence of actors seasoned in playing rural varmints. Jack Elam plays the main heavy, and the always-colorful Dub Taylor plays a snake-oil salesman who is moderately important to the plot. Every scene follows predictable rhythms, from the friction between the villains to the incredible resolve of the virtuous characters. On the plus side, the movie has a couple of so-so shootouts, and there’s a whorehouse scene featuring several attractive starlets—however, because The Winds of Autumn is a family picture, neither of those scenes has much bite. Nor, in fact, does the movie overall. Getting back to the secret weapon/worst enemy notion, Pierce, a set dresser by trade, always makes his pictures look more expensive than they are, but he’s perpetually incapable of embellishing narrative concepts with similar flair.

The Winds of Autumn: LAME