Thursday, June 30, 2016

Black Angels (1970)

It almost goes without saying that most biker movies are terrible, since nearly all of them were low-budget exploitation flicks, but it’s still dismaying to encounter a flick like Black Angels, which has meaty moments but is so discombobulated, grungy, and vapid that it lacks  impact. In fact, it’s even difficult to identify the main character, not that any of the people onscreen emerge as distinct individuals. As for the title, while Black Angels features a scooter club exclusively comprising African-Americans, they’re not the main focus. Plus, whenever the term “black angel” is used in dialogue, it’s a derogatory term referring to insidious cops. Whatever. The picture gets off to a confusing start when an African-American biker breaks the window of a bedroom where a white biker is making out with his mama. An epic chase through Los Angeles ensues, with some cool POV shots, but things get even murkier thanks to choppy editing and incomprehensible screen direction. The takeaway is that biker-hating cop Lt. Harper (Clancy Syrko) saw the whole chase and its explosive conclusion. Lt. Harper then visits an all-black gang and an all-white gang, hoping to foment conflict so the bikers kill each other. Or something like that. Lots of stuff happens, though the importance of events and the relationships between them are not explained well, but every so often a colorful piece of dialogue pops. When a biker bitch-slaps a queeny delivery guy, the victim’s prissy reading of the line “Oh, that smarts!” is perfect. Later, when biker Frenchy (John Donovan) mockingly urinates on thuggish Big Jim (James Whitworth), Big Jim exclaims, “This time I’m gonna kill you, Frenchy, you filthy, no-good, egg-suckin’, finger-lickin’, snot-pickin’, scuzzy-faced rat!” Finger-lickin’? Really? The picture also includes a racially charged rape scene (“Soul brother, we gonna have us a honky tonight—a dynamite honky!”), lots of fuzzy-guitar rock music, and a bizarre climax involving a rumble, a baby, snakes, and a mountain lion.

Black Angels: LAME

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Who Killed Mary Whats'ername? (1971)

          An offbeat mystery set in one of New York’s seedier neighborhoods, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername depicts the unlikely adventures of a diabetic ex-boxer who investigates the death of a hooker. The reasons why he embarks on this dangerous odyssey are somewhat opaque, though lip service is given to the notion that he feels morally compelled to pick up the slack when the NYPD lets the case go fallow; furthermore, the hooker lived in the same building as the ex-boxer, so there’s a vague connection. Still, this paucity of emotional/logical grounding creates a challenge for viewers trying to groove on the movie’s immersive downtown atmosphere, because not being unable to understand the basic premise of a picture is like having an itch you can’t scratch.
          That nettlesome problem aside, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername is interesting because it’s so bleak and grimy, and because the film places a familiar type of story within an unfamiliar milieu. Adding to the unusual nature of the piece is the presence of actor Red Buttons in the leading role. Although primarily known as a comedian, he gave a number of credible dramatic performances, such as his turn in the picture that immediately precedes this one on his filmography, the grim dance-marathon saga They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). Buttons brings an appealing combination of toughness and vulnerability to Who Killed Mary Whats’ername?, so even when it’s tricky to fully grasp (or believe) what’s happening onscreen, it’s possible to empathize with and root for his character.
          A retiree with health problems, Mickey (Buttons) lives in a sketchy neighborhood where he easily makes both friends and enemies. He clashes with bullies and bonds with honest folks. Among Mickey’s acquaintances is Christine (Sylvia Miles), a blowsy hooker whom he rescues from an assault. She offers him a freebie and he politely declines, accentuating the impression that he’s something of an inner-city white knight. After Christine’s friend Mary is murdered, Mickey decides to solve the crime, enlisting aid from a motley crew including Christine, seemingly decrepit barfly Val (Conrad Bain), aspiring filmmaker Alex (Sam Waterston), and even Mickey's own daughter, Della (Alice Playten). The idea seems to be that when authorities fail them, these fringe-dwellers form their own makeshift society, bringing justice—and with it a sort of dignity—to a lawless place.
          Befitting its muddled storyline and themes, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? has a queasy vibe. The photography is clunky and grainy, all harsh lighting and jarring zooms, while the jazzy score has the quality of melancholy lounge-lizard music. Combined with the declassé setting and subject matter, these stylistic flourishes give Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? a certain peculiar credibility. This picture lives in the gutters and shadows where polite films fear to tread, even though the execution is fairly tame by ’70s standards. Ultimately, it’s hard to know for whom this movie was made, since the film isn’t edgy enough for the grindhouse crowd, even though it’s far too skanky for mainstream viewers. Given the givens, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? is a moderately interesting hybrid of high and low narrative aspirations.

Who Killed Mary Whats’ername?: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Satan's Children (1975)

This lethargic supernatural picture seems as if it wants to be a thriller or even an outright horror picture, though it badly misses the mark. The gist is that a young man leaves a dysfunctional household, endures victimization by criminals, and finds a place among a cabal of Satanists. Pervading the movie are equal measures of homoerotica and homophobia. Awkward! Filmed on grungy stock, performed by lifeless amateurs, and set against a backdrop of thrift-store production design, Satan’s Children has the look of bad ’70s porn and the vitality of a drivers-ed movie. Furthermore, because so much of the narrative involves seedy sexual material, from rape to a physical relationship that borders on incest, and because innumerable scenes depict characters suffering abuse for the sin of homosexual attraction, the movie sends a hopelessly convoluted message. At times, the picture seems like nasty fundamentalist-Christian propaganda equating gayness with evil. Yet because the “hero” of the piece finds his bliss by serving the Lord of the Underworld, it’s not as if Satan’s Children qualifies for the Bible Belt stamp of approval.  In any event, viewers able to slog their way through the whole movie might find moments arrestingly weird. In one scene, young protagonist Bobby (Stephen White) tells coven leader Simon (Robert C. Ray II) that he’s offering his soul to Satan. “He doesn’t want it,” Simon replies on Lucifer’s behalf. “You’re a loser.” Ouch. In another scene, when Simon returns from a trip, he checks in with coven member Sherry (Kathleen Archer), who asks, “Did you have a nice trip?” “Okay, I guess,” Simon shrugs. “Did you have a nice hanging?” Dull Satanists passing the time with chitchat—who the hell knew such a thing existed?

Satan's Children: LAME

Monday, June 27, 2016

Female Trouble (1974)

Trash-cinema auteur John Waters took a step backward with this picture, perhaps because he knew he couldn’t get any more outrageous than he did with his first color film, Pink Flamingos (1972). And since he returned to form with his next picture, the giddily perverse Desperate Living (1977), it’s probably best to regard Female Trouble as a minor effort from a prolific period. As always during Waters’ early days, the star of the show is rotund transvestite Divine. He plays a teenager (!) named Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home. Soon afterward, she has a tryst with a scumbag named Earl Peterson. He’s also played by Divine, leading to the strange image of Divine, dressed as a man, humping Divine, dressed as a woman. (Oh, the things a resourceful filmmaker can do with body doubles.) Anyway, Dawn becomes a hardened criminal and gives birth to Earl’s baby, not necessarily in that order, so adventures ensue, leading to Dawn’s final showdown with the law. Waters has said the picture was inspired by his conversations with an imprisoned member of the Manson family, and that’s telling. Whereas in other pictures Waters celebrates societal rejects looking for acceptance, in Female Trouble he crosses a line by celebrating irredeemable sociopaths for no edifying reason. Partially because of this thematic problem and partially because the story is episodic and weak, Female Trouble drags, no pun intended. There’s plenty of Waters’ usual repulsive stuff, but none of it feels truly brazen. Sure, some of the lines are enjoyably crude (“I wouldn’t jump in a bed that had been defiled by you—I’d sooner jump in a river of snot!”), but too much of Female Trouble comprises such pointlessly grotesque imagery as the shot of dark skidmarks staining (male) Dvine’s tighty-whities while he screws (female) Dvine. So by the time Waters recycles the image of a performer shooting a gun at an audience, previously seen in Multiple Maniacs (1970), it’s clear he’s running on some very unpleasant-smelling fumes.

Female Trouble: LAME

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Goodnight, My Love (1972)

          A clue about the right way to watch the made-for-TV detective flick Goodnight, My Love is contained in the title, which is basically a rephrasing of the moniker adorning Raymond Chandler’s classic Philip Marlowe novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940). This picture is a love letter to Chandler, nothing more and nothing less, so even though it’s highly entertaining, stylishly photographed, and verbally witty, it’s not to be mistaken for a truly original piece of work. That said, paying homage to the film-noir literature and movies of yesteryear was a veritable cottage industry in the ’70s, and Goodnight, My Love was ahead of the curve, arriving a year before Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and two years before Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). This project wasn’t the first neo-noir, since projects including Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971) came earlier, but it wasn’t riding in the back of the bandwagon, either.
          In any event, Goodnight, My Love is significant beyond its connection to similar genre pictures, because its among the earliest directing credits for Peter Hyams, a unique populist with a distinctive pictorial style. (He’s among the few Hollywood directors to occasionally serve as his own cinematographer.) Although his stories often crumble toward the end, Hyams has a great flair for pithy dialogue and he’s fantastic at presenting sardonic tough guys, two skills that emerged fully formed here and that suit the noir milieu perfectly. Richard Boone, all craggy bulk and sleepy-eyed cynicism, plays Francis Hogan, a low-rent private dick in 1940s Los Angeles. His partner is Arthur Boyle (Michael Dunn), a little person with a big mouth, and they spend most of their time trying to scam free meals off creditors until a glamorous dame walks into the office. (Isn’t that always how these stories start?) She’s Susan Lakely (Barbara Bain), and her boyfriend has gone missing. Francis and Arthur take the case, eventually uncovering a convoluted conspiracy involving rotund gentleman criminal Julius Limeway (Victor Buono channeling Sidney Greenstreet).
          Yet the narrative is secondary to the style here, as Hyams fills scenes with bitchy repartee that his excellent leading actors deliver in the ideal deadpan mode. Bain is arguably the weak link, a bit long in the tooth to play what amounts to an ingénue role, though that doesn’t matter a whole lot since Hyams is more interested in the amusing rhythms of boys squaring off against each other as friends, enemies, or some combination of both. Goodnight, My Love is also photographed with extraordinary artistry for a TV movie of its vintage, because Hyams mounts ambitious tracking shots and employs imaginative lighting schemes by illuminating actors with practicals scattered throughout his sets.
          In every way except perhaps the most important one—conveying a resonant theme—Goodnight, My Love is an impressive first outing, and it’s also a wonderful showcase for onetime Oscar nominee Dunn. A fabulous actor who always escaped the limitations of novelty roles and seized opportunities like this one to play everyday people, he died less than a year after Goodnight, My Love was broadcast, although this was not his final onscreen performance. 

Goodnight, My Love: FUNKY

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Arnold’s Wrecking Co. (1973)

          Considering that he’s spent most of his career as a screenwriter of violent action movies—Commando (1985), Die Hard (1988), and so on—it’s surprising to note that Steven E. de Souza began his career as the auteur/star of a low-budget comedy about potheads becoming entrepreneurs. Arnold’s Wrecking Co. is very much a product of its time, so the film’s counterculture attitude, satirical jokes at the expense of big business, and wall-to-wall weed gags say more about the climate of the early ’70s than they do about anything else. That said, stoner humor finds new converts with every generation, so it’s easy to imagine modern tokers deriving some amusement from this inexpensively made and very short movie. Straights can play along, too, although the way the movie devolves into aimless and repetitive plotting is likely to test the patience of viewers who are not under the influence. After all, there are only so many times one can hear a version of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus that substitutes the word “marijuana” for “hallelujah” before the parody wears thin.
          The lackadaisical hero of the piece is Kenny (played by de Souza himself), a youth so slothful he eats cereal from the box to avoid having to wash a bowl. Excited about taking a trip with his buddies, he’s bummed when his mom says that Kenny is expected to entertain his dorky cousin, Arnold (Mike Renshaw), for an extended period. Yet things take a turn when Kenny persuades Arnold to get high for the first time. Arnold runs the numbers and realizes there’s a fortune to be made selling weed if standard corporate practices are applied. Sure enough, he founds a hugely successful weed company alongside Kenny and Kenny’s stoner buddies. De Souza constructs a lot of jokes by combining pot references with allusions to Establishment culture—the pot company gives out prizes to its 1,000th customer, and a testimonial dinner is held for top employees. Some of this is droll and some of this is dull, but what de Souza lacks in directorial flair, he makes up for in spunk. So even though Arnold’s Wrecking Co. is absurdly padded—seriously, what’s with the montage depicting the gang’s visit to a zoo?—the movie is consistently irreverent and upbeat.

Arnold’s Wrecking Co.: FUNKY

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brain of Blood (1971)

Further proof that Al Adamson’s movies are akin to the slime that pools on the floors of movie theaters as beverages and butter congeal with body fluids, Brain of Blood has some moments of unintentional humor simply because it’s so spectacularly stupid, but slogging through 90-ish minutes of schlock is too high a price to pay for an occasional chuckle. Title notwithstanding, the plot is best described as brainless. In the fictional country of Khaleed, a ruler named Amir recruits an American surgeon to transplant Amir’s brain from his own dying body into a healthy new one. Inexplicably, the doctor doesn’t bother to line up a fresh body before Amir dies, so he’s forced to deposit the brain into the skull of a hulking murderer. Meanwhile, conspirators try to prevent Amir’s resurrection, Amir’s bimbo girlfriend schemes with the doctor, and the murderer stalks women. Full disclosure: It’s highly probable the preceding description contains inaccuracies, since Brain of Blood is so discombobulated and uninteresting that tracking the story is challenging. Anyway, here are some of the ironic delights that Brain of Blood has to offer. Amir’s body is stored in head-to-toe tinfoil. The disembodied brain looks like (and probably is) a clump of hamburger. The murderer’s post-surgery facial look resembles a cottage-cheese-textured skullcap. Amir’s lover is played by a woman who looks like a retired Las Vegas stripper, thanks to her helmet of bleach-blonde hair and leathery skin. There’s a dwarf assistant who periodically sports a jaunty golf cap. The doctor chases after the murderer while carrying a gadget that resembles a Dustbuster. And so on. Although Brain of Blood has a couple of extreme moments, notably many closeups of scalpels cutting flesh, it’s not anywhere near violent enough to thrill fans of gore. If you’re a fan of bores, then, well, you’re in luck.

Brain of Blood: SQUARE

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Special Delivery (1976)

          Had it been executed with more clarity and sophistication, the crime picture Special Delivery could have become either a clever farce or a tense melodrama. As is, it’s a muddle containing a few elements that are pleasant to watch. The main story hook is pretty good—during his escape following a bank robbery, a crook dumps a bag of cash into a mailbox, then must wait until the evening’s last mail collection for the box to be opened so he can reclaim his cash. Unfortunately for the crook, several people become aware of his plan, meaning that he must battle his way through assorted schemers and villains. Unfortunately for the audience, Special Delivery gets mired in several uninteresting subplots, and even the main action—a romance involving the crook and a beautiful woman who saw him stash the loot—fizzles because the second-rate actors playing these characters lack both individual fire and shared chemistry.
          The picture is murky right from the get-go, because during the very long heist sequence that opens Special Delivery, it takes a few minutes to discern that Jack Murdock (Bo Svenson) is the lead character. Once Jack and his buddies stage their wild escape—it involves a grappling hook and a window-washing platform—director Paul Wendkos unwisely cuts to flashes of Jack’s combat service in Vietnam. Way to keep things light! Then, after the momentous dropping of the loot into the mailbox, the movie cuts to several minutes of action involving a junkie, Graff (Michael C. Gwynne), who saw the drop and imagines scoring a payday. Thanks to this sort of narrative meandering, leading lady Cybill Shepherd, playing the woman who saw the drop from her apartment window, doesn’t show up until half the movie is over.
          And so it goes from there. In one scene, Shepherd and Svenson share bland flirtatious dialogue. In another, Gwynne delivers a gritty and wired performance that belongs in a more serious movie. And by the time everything comes together, it’s as difficult to care about what’s happening as it is to determine whom we’re expected to follow. Will the real protagonist please stand up? Shepherd looks great, coasting through a vapid role as a city girl who wants more from life, but Svenson is serviceable at best, and the flick wastes supporting players including Gerrit Graham, Robert Ito, and Vic Tayback. That said, if you’ve been looking for a movie that includes future Real Housewives star Kim Richards as a kid accusing random men of being perverts—and also features future soap-opera icon Diedre Hall as a scantily clad masseuse—then this Special Delivery is for you.

Special Delivery: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mirrors (1978)

Call them the unwanted children of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973)—various ’70s thrillers, some theatrical releases and some made for TV, about women bedeviled by supernatural forces. Among the least impressive examples is Mirrors, which has a connection to one of the aforementioned blockbusters because Mirrors leading lady Kitty Winn played a supporting role in The Exorcist. Although she’s a capable actress who periodically imbues moments with clarity and sensitivity, there’s a reason why Winn never became an above-the-title name, and that reason is on display throughout Mirrors. She often seems lost, as if she either doesn’t know what the script demands of her at that particular juncture, or knows but isn’t up to the challenge. Part of the blame, of course, must fall on the film’s director, Noel Black, whose career slid into mediocrity after his wonderful debut, Pretty Poison (1968). Black’s direction of Mirrors was unquestionably impeded by a poor script, but no matter the circumstances, his storytelling is borderline inept, and he evinces little flair for rendering jolts and suspense. Anyway, here’s the story. Marianne (Winn) and her husband, Philip (Peter Donat), visit New Orleans. He has asthma. She experiences weird visions, most of which involve mirrors, and she crosses paths with weirdos including an overly solicitous hotel manager. These folks belong to a voodoo cult of some sort. Philip dies, ostensibly of his asthma, but really, Marianne fears, because of her having angered the occult types. Her conspiracy theories land her in an insane asylum. The story never quite starts, instead lugubriously wandering through various suggestive episodes until viewers realize this is as good as it’s going to get, and it never quite ends, instead just sort of stopping, perhaps because Black ran out of ways to photograph mirrors. Actually, scratch that. He exhausts his visual imagination well before the movie sputters to a halt. As goes the direction, so goes this dull and unmemorable movie overall.

Mirrors: LAME

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mr. Mean (1977)

Back in the day, Fred Williamson was nothing if not industrious, banging out movies at a rapid pace regardless of whether he had stories worth telling; the guiding principle of his Po’ Boy Productions seemed to be exploiting Williamson’s marginal box-office power as much as possible before the party ended. Hence junk on the order of Mr. Mean, which Williamson reportedly cobbled together during downtime while acting in the Italian-made war picture The Inglorious Bastards (1978), even enlisting that film’s crew for help. Naturally, the pastiche story is not Mr. Mean’s strongest element, although it should be said that one is hard-pressed to identify anything about Mr. Mean that could be appropriately described as “strong.” The gist is that Mr. Mean (Williamson), whom everyone in the picture actually calls by that name, is an American hit man summoned to Italy because a mobster needs another mobster killed, but for political reasons cannot task his own people with the murder. Intrigue of some sort ensues. Almost completely bereft of characterization, emotion, logic, and momentum, Mr. Mean is a sloppy compendium of chase scenes, fights, macho posturing, and shootouts. However, don’t let the preceding list create the impression Mr. Mean is exciting. A typically pointless scene features Williamson, wearing a barely-there banana hammock, jogging in slow motion down a beach alongside a generic Eurobabe. Yes, even though Mr. Mean is ostensibly a thriller about an assassin, much of the picture feels like a keepsake of Williamson’s Mediterranean vacation, or, worse, a narcissistic celebration of beholding the glory that is Fred Williamson. If you dig Fred as much as Fred does, then you might find something to enjoy here. If not, then maybe the repetitive jams that R&B act the Ohio Players composed and recorded for the soundtrack will shake your groove thang.

Mr. Mean: LAME

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Andersonville Trial (1970)

          Calling this made-for-TV production of Saul Levitt’s Broadway play a movie is a bit of a stretch, seeing as how it’s essentially a videotaped recording of a live performance on a soundstage, but the cast is so colorful and the story is so arresting that The Andersonville Trial demands attention. Set four months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Levitt’s play dramatizes the real-life case of Captain Henry Wirz, the Confederate officer who oversaw a massive POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia, where 14,000 inmates died from abuse, deprivation, and exposure. In Levitt’s humanistic telling, Wirz was complicit in the deaths, but he also unfairly received the brunt of the North’s anger against the South following the Civil War, since he was the first Confederate officer tried for war crimes. Staging The Andersonville Trial for television soon after the My Lai massacre was undoubtedly a conscious choice on the part of the producers, because Levitt’s play explores the thorny issue of how conscientious soldiers struggle to reconcile military and moral obligations, a relevant consideration during the Vietnam era.
          George C. Scott, who played the leading role on Broadway, slipped into the director’s chair for this production, and William Shatner somewhat improbably inherited the part. Save for their flamboyance, it’s hard to imagine two actors who are more different. That said, Shatner attacks the part of prosecuting JAG Lt. Col. Norton P. Chipman with ferocity and passion. In fact, The Andersonville Trial may well contain the best visual record of Shatner’s capacity as an actor. Many of Shatner’s excesses are present here, but so, too, are his sometimes underrated gifts—he orates well, mostly eschewing his famous dramatic pauses, and he shifts nimbly from anger to anguish. If not a remarkable performance, it’s certainly a robust one.
          As the title suggests, Levitt’s play tracks several episodes during a long trial, with each act comprising an extended real-time vignette. The defendant, Wirz (Richard Basehart), is an oddity, a physically impaired European immigrant so proud of his blind service to Confederate orders that he finds the whole trial offensive and ridiculous. He represents the familiar notion that following orders absolves a soldier of personal responsibility for atrocities. Conversely, Shipman represents a higher form of justice, since his prosecution asks whether Wirz should have defied orders in the name of mercy.
          Levitt’s exploration of these complicated issues within the framework of an exciting courtroom duel makes for compelling viewing even though The Andersonville Trial runs two and a half hours. It is also to Levitt’s and Scott’s credit that so many mid-level actors deliver excellent work here. Jack Cassidy is smooth as Wirz’s exasperated defense attorney, Cameron Mitchell conveys an interesting mixture of condescension and dignity as the head of the military tribunal, and folks shining in smaller roles include Michael Burns, Buddy Epsen, and Albert Salmi. Attentive viewers will even spot a young Martin Sheen in a glorified walk-on role toward the beginning of the piece.

The Andersonville Trial: GROOVY

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Small Change (1976)

          Others may have different takes on his style, but to my way of thinking, François Truffaut was essentially a novelist who used film frames instead of words, because his best films combine innovative film techniques with traditional literary devices to convey painful and sweet truths about the human condition. As such, Truffaut’s work was often best when he locked into the perspective of a unique protagonist or, as in the case of romantic-triangle stories, an interlocked group of protagonists. Perhaps that’s why Small Change didn’t work for me. In addition to being a gimmick picture, since all the major characters are children, it’s an ensemble movie without a strong overarching storyline. To belabor the analogy to fiction writing, Small Change is like a set of loosely connected stories rather than the unified statement of a novel. Some of the picture’s vignettes are interesting, whether funny or sad or a combination of both sensations, while others make less of an impact. But the lack of truly complicated characters—an occupational hazard when exploring the lives of people whose personalities have not yet fully formed—means that Truffaut can’t really do what he does best. That said, even mediocre Truffaut is better than the finest work lesser filmmakers can render.
          Tracking the loosely connected lives of several children who attend a school in Thiers, France, Small Change—originally titled L’argent de poche, or Pocket Money—has moments of great humanity. The subplot of a poor child hiding the truth about his life in an abusive household is handled with sensitivity, and the subplot of a wide-eyed boy nurturing a crush on his friend’s sexy mom is playful and restrained. Perhaps most interesting scenes are those depicting the adventures of a boy who must aid in his paralyzed father’s caretaking. Yet some moments seem like clips from another movie. In one such scene, an infant climbs onto a windowsill to chase after a cat, and then several bystanders watch in horror from several stories below as the child tumbles from the window. The resolution of the scene makes zero sense dramatically or logically, although it sorta-kinda serves Truffaut’s theme about the resilience of children as compared to the selfishness and stupidity of adults. Small Change isn’t a bad picture by any measure, and some viewers will undoubtedly find it affecting and unique. For me, Small Change came across like a rhythm in search of a melody—I felt too strongly the absence of a distinctive central character, whose journey might have given clarity and focus to the picture’s meandering episodes.

Small Change: FUNKY

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Squeeze Play (1979)

By the low standards set by other films from director Lloyd Kaufman and his bargain-basement production company, Troma, the sports-themed sex comedy Squeeze Play is relatively coherent, telling the story of women forming a softball team in order to compete with their boyfriends, who often ignore the women so they can play ball. By any other standards, Squeeze Play is brainless, exploitive junk, a tiresome compendium of crude puns, dick jokes, topless shots, and, naturally, an epic-length wet T-shirt contest that concludes with a male spectator growing so excited that the contents of the beer bottle in his crotch explode forth in a geyser of white foam. And that’s not even the most vulgar ejaculation reference in the movie—at one point, Kaufman cuts from a scene of a man receiving oral sex to the nozzle of a soft-serve machine spewing vanilla ice cream. You get the idea. None of the actors in Squeeze Play is noteworthy, although some have an easy way with lighthearted comedy, but the lack of great onscreen talent hardly matters, since the characters are largely interchangeable. Similarly, the plot is threadbare. The guys ignore the girls, so the girls decide to beat the men at their own game, even if doing so requires such questionable tactics as employing cheerleaders in cutoff shirts whose gyrations and jiggles distract male athletes from their playing. In that sense, Squeeze Play is a typical example of how male ’70s filmmakers sometimes used quasi-feminist themes while trying to make objectification seem palatable. Even though Kaufman presents Squeeze Play with his characteristically irreverent, upbeat style, it’s hard to stomach a picture with so many closeups of breasts bouncing inside T-shirts, with an all-female team called “The Beaverettes,” and with an announcer remaking that a particular occasion is “a banner day for athletic supporters.”

Squeeze Play: LAME

Friday, June 17, 2016

Contract on Cherry Street (1977)

          Notwithstanding a two-year hiatus from showbiz, legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra spent most of the ’70s on music, letting his Oscar-winning acting career go fallow. That was probably a wise move, given the diminishing returns of such projects as the forgettable comedy Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). By the time Sinatra resumed acting for this TV movie, which runs two and a half hours and was originally broadcast over two consecutive nights, the wiry swinger of yesteryear was gone, replaced by a lethargic, middle-aged fellow wearing an unconvincing gray toupee. Although Sinatra’s performance in Contract on Cherry Street is not as distractingly halfhearted as the one he gave in his final starring role, the theatrical feature The First Deadly Sin (1980), it’s hard to know what might have drawn Sinatra to this project. The material is fine, a grim melodrama about cops working outside the law to gain the upper hand on criminals, but surely Sinatra could have secured a stronger role if his intention was to reboot his presence in Hollywood or to secure his legacy with a respectable elder-statesman performance.
          Based on a novel by Edward Anhalt, the slow-moving picture tracks the adventures of Deputy Inspector Frank Hovannes (Sinatra), the boss of an elite NYPD organized-crime unit. After seeing one too many crooks game the system by paying off the right officials, Frank and his people embrace a dangerous idea—why not murder a crook, frame another crook for the hit, and start a war so the bad guys kill each other? Naturally, this is easier said than done, so the cops face countless obstacles, ranging from sketchy informants to an unstable member of their own team. Plus, it turns out the criminals are more clever than the cops anticipated, so the more the cops push to start their war, the more they risk exposing their own scheme.
          There’s a nasty little potboiler buried inside this storyline, and someone like Sidney Lumet could have made a crackerjack thriller by collapsing the events down to a normal running time and giving the leading character more emotional shading. Unfortunately, bloat and shapelessness keep Contract on Cherry Street mired in mediocrity, and some of the ego-stroking indulgences associated with Sinatra’s participation hurt the movie. It’s one thing for Sinatra to have his own glamorous accent light during closeups, even though he rarely bothers to stand still, which is the trick for keeping such lighting effects subtle. It’s another to burden the movie with various scenes of the protagonist’s wife all but begging him for sex. Sinatra was 62 when the picture was broadcast.
          For all of its flaws, however, Contract on Cherry Street is basically watchable. The extensive location photography throughout New York City grounds the piece in a sense of place, and some of the supporting performances are strong. Reliable players Martin Balsam, Harry Guardino, and Henry Silva play cops, as does fresh-faced Michael Nouri, although Steve Inwood steals the movie as a twitchy informant/junkie. He belongs in the imaginary Lumet-directed version of Contract on Cherry Street, not this so-so slog.

Contract on Cherry Street: FUNKY

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

          The notion of an action hero accompanied on his or her adventures by a child has been around for centuries, so it’s not as if Japan’s popular Lone Wolf and Cub franchise, which originated with a graphic novel in 1970, exists in isolation. Still, Lone Wolf and Cub takes the notion to such a bizarre extreme that the franchise is noteworthy for its outrageousness. Set in feudal Japan, the underlying premise of the franchise involves a ronin—a samurai without a master—traveling the countryside accompanied by his infant child, slaughtering enemies with a sword while his sweet little boy watches from inside a pushcart. The combination of bloody violence and fatherly devotion is weirdly effective.
          Lone Wolf and Cub: Spirit of Vengeance was the first live-action iteration, kicking off a five-film series that ran its course by 1974. Three seasons of a Japanese TV show extended the brand to 1976, and subsequent iterations have included a videogame and another TV series in the 2000s, as well as myriad comics. Most U.S. audiences first encountered the franchise via Shogun Assassin (1980), which comprised portions of Sword of Vengeance and its first sequel, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), dubbed into English.
          Watching the first movie in its proper form, it becomes evident that the heart of the franchise is the central character, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who personifies the concept of an individual living by a personal code of honor. Meting out justice in an unjust world, he’s a cousin to Dirty Harry and to the Paul Kersey character in Death Wish (1974), although there’s also something of the counterculture seeker inside Itto’s soul. He pursues an ideal of duty and fairness and responsibility, even though the thirst for revenge drives most of his actions. The setup is a bit convoluted, but here goes. Itto once served as the official executioner for a shogun, but he became a pawn in a conspiracy. His wife was murdered, and an attempt was made on Itto’s life as well as that of his three-year-old son. Itto disavowed loyalty to the shogun, slaughtered his way through guards to gain freedom, and became a ronin. During Sword of Vengeance, Itto settles into his life as a wandering mercenary, even as he systematically kills those responsible for his circumstances. Woven into the narrative is a love story of sorts, since Itto becomes the champion and defender of a beautiful prostitute.
          As directed by Kanji Misumi, Sword of Vengeance is gory and stylish. Battle scenes involve geysers of blood and graphic dismemberment, with the Itto character displaying almost supernatural powers of swordsmanship. (In one scene, he kills two people who approach him from behind without either rising from a sitting position or looking in the attackers’ direction.) Misumi and his collaborators employ some dreamlike effects, amplifying the sense that Lone Wolf and Cub is some dark modern fable, and leading man Wakayama’s stoicism works well. Whether Sword of Vengeance is actually about something, beyond familiar macho themes, is anybody’s guess. However, the movie is consistently interesting and offbeat, offering a funhouse-mirror vision of samurai culture.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Angel Unchained (1970)

          Despite going slack for a while during the middle, Angel Unchained is a fair compendium of late ’60s/early ’70s signifiers thanks a plot that combines a biker gang, hippies living on a desert commune, and nasty rednecks who don’t like either of the preceding social groups. There’s not much in the way of thematic material, beyond the protagonist’s angst when he finds himself torn between the biker and hippie lifestyles, so it’s not as if director Lee Madden and his collaborators tried to reinvent the cycle-flick formula. That said, Angel Unchained has clearly defined characters, a paucity of seedy exploitation elements, and unhurried pacing, so it’s perhaps best described as a biker picture that people who don’t normally like the genre might find palatable. By the same measure, those who groove on wild scenes of scooter freaks unleashing mayhem would do well to get their kicks elsewhere, since Angel Unchained is tame by the genre’s normal standards. There’s a fair amount of brawling and drinking and riding, but the leading character is a thoughtful dude who takes a principled stand, rather than an outlaw who stirs up trouble by antagonizing authorities.
          The picture starts stylishly with a rumble at an amusement park, and then Angel (Don Stroud) says he’s ready to quit the biker-gang scene. He relinquishes leadership of his gang to Pilot (Larry Bishop), then hits the road until he encounters hippie chick Merilee (Tyne Daly). After Angel helps her out during a hassle with rednecks who dislike having a commune near their town, Merilee invites Angel to groove on their back-to-nature trip a while. Later, when the rednecks make serious trouble, Angel recruits his old biker pals for help, leading to an interesting strange-bedfellows passage during which the bikers and the hippies attempt coexistence. Nothing surprising happens in Angel Unchained, but the picture is shot fairly well, and the performances generally hit the right notes, although it’s peculiar to see Luke Askew—who usually played scumbags and thugs in the ’70s—portraying the leader of the hippie commune. That said, the scumbag quotient is more than amply filled by character actor Bill McKinney, who plays a violent biker named Shotgun with his usual gleeful menace.

Angel Unchained: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cinderella 2000 (1977)

          Usually, the closest thing to enjoyment that one can derive from watching a movie directed by Al Adamson is laughing at something unintentionally funny—a cheap-looking prop, a nonsensical plot twist, a terrible performance, whatever. Whereas the incompetence of some bad filmmakers is charming because they keep trying to achieve something that’s beyond their ability, Adamson’s brand of cinematic awfulness is mostly just tiresome. In that context, it’s almost heartening to discuss Adamson’s bizarre softcore sci-fi musical Cinderella 2000, because while it is unquestionably as schlocky as anything else bearing his name, at least Cinderella 2000 was designed to induce laughter. So even though very few people will actually laugh with the picture, seeing as how it’s stupid and tacky from beginning to end, at least viewers can laugh at the picture with a clear conscience. Any reaction is better than no reaction, right?
          Shot on a meager budget, Cinderella 2000 takes place in the year 2047, where The Controller (Erwin Fuller), a riff on Orwell’s Big Brother, has outlawed sex outside of government-sanctioned encounters. Naturally, this means the citizenry is horny, so folks break the rules whenever possible. Only vaguely related to this premise is a retelling of the Cinderella story. Wholesome-looking blonde Cindy (Catherine Erhardt) lives with The Widow (Renee Harmon), this film’s avatar for the wicked stepmother in the classic Cinderella story. The Widow’s daughters, black Bella (Bhurni Cowans) and white Stella (Adina Ross), won’t share their male lovers with put-upon Cindy, so she’s even hornier than everyone else. Yet because she’s the heroine, she’s more lonely than lustful, the notion being that she’s a potential savior who can reintroduce the concept of romantic love. Or something like that.
          Anyway, Cindy mopes in the forest one day until a spaceship (!) delivers her Fairy Godfather (Jay B. Larson), a singing-and-dancing queen who croons a number called “We All Need Love.” This is where Cinderella 2000 crosses the line from dopey to deranged. As the Fairy Godfather prances around the forest, he summons forest animals to demonstrate copulation. They appear in the form of two extras wearing leotards and creepy-looking bunny heads, and as the song drags along, these two hump while the soundtrack punctuates each thrust with a bouncy sound effect. Later in the number—which goes on forever—more forest creatures emerge, including a pair of extremely disturbing man-sized flowers.
          The musical style of Cinderella 2000 is all over the place, with some numbers sounding like show tunes and others sounding like R&B bump-and-grinds; the country ditty performed by a robot that’s upset about not being able to screw a computer is particularly cringe-inducing. Complementing the peculiar music is a generally cheap visual aesthetic, with characters wearing silly-looking sparkly costumes and garish makeup. Naturally, the acting is terrible, although the ladies who spend most of their screen time completely or partially naked have attractive figures. As for the film’s smut content, viewers should know better than to expect real erotica from Adamson, who had a special gift for draining the vitality from anything he captured on camera. Ladies writhe atop interchangeable studs, but the resulting imagery is about as hot as some National Geographic stag reel of actual stags.
          Nonetheless, Cinderella 2000 stands out among Adamson’s filmography because even though it’s low-budget crap, it’s ambitious low-budget crap. The movie fails at every single thing it tries, but at least Adamson left his comfort zone.

Cinderella 2000: FREAKY

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Whale of a Tale (1976)

          Perhaps because I don’t have children, I occasionally make the mistake of cutting kiddie movies slack if they’re harmless and they espouse positive values. Who am I to say where young viewers draw the line between tolerable and intolerable silliness? Even within that context, however, I’m comfortable saying that A Whale of a Tale is remarkably bad. Not only are the production values flimsy, and not only does the picture basically serve as a feature-length ad for the now-defunct California theme park Marineland of the Pacific, but the storyline involves so many inappropriate and implausible scenes that it’s enough to warp the perceptions of any child exposed to its 90 befuddling minutes.
          Yet in a perverse way, the unrelenting dumbness of A Whale of a Tale is what makes it such prime fodder for ironic viewing by grown-ups who are already so warped, myself included, that exposure to new stimuli can’t make any difference. For, lest this point not receive specific emphasis, A Whale of a Tale costars William Shatner and one of his most absurd hairpieces. Moreover, Shatner bonds with a little boy in vignettes so awkward that they recall the scene in Airplane! (1980) during which Captain Oveur asks Joey if he likes gladiator movies.
          The movie concerns a boy named Joey (Scott C. Kolden), who is obsessed with Marineland. He sneaks into the park so many times, marveling at the dolphin shows and fish tanks, that staffers know him by name. Seeking to cure Joey of his obsession, friendly marine biologist Dr. Jack Fredericks (Shatner) offers Joey a summer job as a part-time trainer, the idea being that Joey will tire of hard work and regular hours. Predictably, the plan backfires, because Joey bonds with Marineland workers and with a captive orca, despite myriad warnings from Fredericks that killer whales are dangerous.
          In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, Joey enjoys a lunch from McDonald’s—the film stops dead for a pointless scene of the kid purchasing his junkfood in real time—while the orca repeatedly leans out of its tank and tries to grab the food in its massive jaws. Or maybe the enormous mammal is trying to grab Joey. Either way, it’s played for laughs, and there are no adults around to protect Joey. Later, Joey’s Marineland friend Louie (Marty Allen), a portly fisherman, invites Joey to participate in a shark-hunting expedition. Naturally, that scene gets juiced with tacky music mimicking John Williams’ famous score for Jaws (1975). The takeaway is that the adults at Marineland are quite possibly the least responsible grown-ups in history, even though they’re portrayed as Joey’s happy-fun-time buddies, educating him with fun fish facts and teaching him the discipline of completing difficult tasks.
          Not every sequence of A Whale of a Tale is fraught with danger. Some are discomforting for a different reason. In one scene, Dr. Fredericks invites Joey to help him manipulate the tentacles of an octopus while the animal is massaged out of a stupor following transportation inside an icepack. The image of Shatner guiding Joey’s hands in the proper technique of stroking slimy suction cups is just as unintentionally suggestive as it sounds, especially since Shatner and young Kolden are the only actors present in the scene. But it’s all okay, apparently, because Dr. Frederick’s only romantic designs are on Joey’s single mom.
          Anyway, the movie wanders into truly uncharted territory during the finale, which makes zero sense. Joey gets the wrong impression that his aunt has come to Marineland with a mind toward removing him from his beloved job, so he steals a boat and flees into the ocean. Dr. Fredericks leads the ensuing search, and he authorizes the use of a trained dolphin to retrieve Joey, even though it’s possible the dolphin may simply swim out to sea and never return. The dolphin finds Joey, lets Joey throw a lasso around its neck, and then leads Joey back to safety. So on top of everything else, the title of this picture is misleading, since the crux of the story isn’t the orca bonding but rather the usual Flipper business of a finny savior. Call it a case of cinematic water on the brain.
          Oh, and here’s a tidbit for trivia buffs: A Whale of a Tale contains the only movie score ever composed by Jonathan Cain, keyboardist of the rock band Journey. Suffice to say there’s nothing here on the order of “Open Arms.”   
A Whale of a Tale: FREAKY

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Cold Night’s Death (1973)

          Like so many of the creepy supernatural thrillers that were made for television in the ’70s, A Cold Night’s Death is roughly equivalent to an extended Twilight Zone episode in that it’s all about the elaborate setup for a freaky twist ending. Two inherent problems: 1) If the audience guesses the twist prematurely, it’s slow going from that point forward, and 2) There’s nowhere for the story to go once the business of setting up the premise has been completed. Sure enough, A Cold Night’s Death lags quite badly in the middle, even though it’s only 74 minutes long. Happily, the combination of an intelligent script, dense visual atmospherics, solid acting, and a weird electronic score compensate for the enervated narrative. Nothing in this picture is jump-out-of-your-skin scary, but A Cold Night’s Death is enjoyably eerie from start to finish. Frank (Eli Wallach) and Robert (Robert Culp) are researchers tasked with operating a laboratory installation that’s positioned atop a mountain. The brutal elevation? 14,000 feet. They’re rushed to the location ahead of schedule by helicopter, because ground-level administrators lose contact with the lab’s previous occupant. Upon arrival, Frank and Robert discover that their predecessor froze to death, leaving windows open so the various primates in laboratory cages nearly died from exposure, as well. Therefore, in addition to performing normal research, the scientists must solve the mystery of why their predecessor died.
          A Cold Night’s Death takes the slow-but-steady approach to suspense. The film’s palette is carefully controlled, mostly blues and grays to complement the massive show drifts outside the laboratory, and lots of scenes take place at night, with just one character awake and prowling through empty halls while trying to identify the sources of peculiar sounds. Culp and Wallach personify extremes effectively—Culp plays a deeply curious man open to the possibilities of the unexplained, whereas Wallach sketches a fellow who is rational to a fault. This, of course, leads to tension as the situation worsens, but it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t follow the obvious path of putting these two characters at each other’s throats on a regular basis. Instead, the scientists duel intellectually until circumstances force a confrontation. Through it all, the bleeps and chirps and twangs of Gil Melle’s otherworldly electronic score jangle the viewer’s nerves appropriately. And if the twist ending is so far-fetched as to be a little bit goofy, well, that’s an occupational hazard for storytellers operating in the realm that Rod Serling charted.

A Cold Night’s Death: FUNKY

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Nasty Habits (1977)

          Time has diminished much of the charm that the UK/US coproduction Nasty Habits might have possessed during its original release, because the satirical analogy the film draws between its storyline and the events of the Watergate scandal now feels contrived and tenuous. After all, the picture depicts the dirty tricks that an ambitious nun uses to win election to the office of abbess in a Philadelphia convent, and her nefarious techniques include an elaborate bugging system. In the late ’70s, when the details of Nixon’s White House bugging system were still fresh, the humor of Nasty Habits could have seemed pointed and sly. Seen today, the film thrives on its own merits, rather than as a commentary on current events, and those merits are slight.
          The picture’s main character is shrewd Sister Alexandra (Glenda Jackson), who leads a contingent of older, conservative nuns. Her rival for the abbess position is Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon), a pretty young blonde having a sexual affair with a Jesuit priest. Alexandra tasks her underlings with gaining incriminating evidence, so they obtain tape recordings of Felicity defying church doctrine and fomenting sedition. Not only does Alexandra win the election, but she also ejects Felicity from the convent. Upon resuming civilian life, however, Felicity launches public attacks against Alexandra, eventually becoming a folk hero for challenging a powerful institution. This turn of events triggers the movie’s closest parallels to Nixon, because reporters demand to hear Alexandra’s secret recordings, and her defiance to release them imperils her status.
          Polished in most technical regards and populated with fine actors, Nasty Habits goes down smoothly whenever the focus is Alexandra’s machinations. Jackson purrs complicated dialogue with mesmerizing authority. Complementing her are Anne Meara and Geraldine Page, who play Alexandra’s main co-conspirators. Less effective is Sandy Dennis, who plays a bumbling nun tasked with performing goofy undercover work. As for the bits with Penhaligon as Felicity, indifference seems the appropriate response. She’s spunky but unmemorable, and her character isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to energize the story. Moreover, the whole Nixon allusion is questionable because Alexandra isn’t an unhinged paranoiac like Nixon, but rather a smooth operator—so when Alexandra caps the movie by paraphrasing one of Nixon’s most famous quotes, the intended satirical flourish doesn’t quite connect. And that insufferably chirpy musical score by John Cameron? No thanks.

Nasty Habits: FUNKY