Wednesday, November 30, 2016

L’Innocente (1976)

          Italian director Luchino Visconti died just months before the premiere of his final film, the grim period melodrama L’Innocente. (Advertising materials in English-speaking territories bore the translated title The Innocent.) In some ways, the picture makes a fitting cinematic epitaph, since it touches on issues of class and morality that infuse Vischonti’s more celebrated films, but in other ways, it’s a comedown from the intellectually ambitious triumphs of The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971), and Conversation Piece (1974). By comparison to those films, L’Innocente is a lurid soap opera without enough thematic weight to support its narrative extremes. The picture also suffers for inconsistent acting among the leading players, because American actress Jennifer O’Neill delivers merely serviceable work. (During post-production, O’Neill’s dialogue was dubbed into Italian by another performer.) Costar Laura Antonelli gives a more impressive performance, though her many nude scenes are distracting; as always, Antonelli’s erotic presence receives more attention than her respectable acting skills. Of the three principal players, only leading man Giancarlo Giannini truly elevates the material, investing his role as a borderline sociopath with real menace.
          Taking place in Italy circa the late 1900s, L’Innocente tells a simple story about lust, pride, and revenge. The marriage of rich Italians Guiliana (Antonelli) and Tullio (Giannini) has gone cold, not least because of Tullio’s open-secret affair with another wealthy aristocrat, Teresa (O’Neill). As tension grows because Teresa finds her position as the other woman more and more untenable, Giuliana begins an affair of her own with Filippo (Marc Porel). He treats Giuliana with respect, and their intimacy burns with a passion long missing from Guiliana’s marriage, hence the extensive bedroom scenes between Filippo and Guitliana. Despite having taken her for granted, Tullio becomes jealous of his wife’s newfound romance, and his jealousy informs the dark events of the movie’s second half.
          Based on a novel by Gabriele d’Annunzio, L’Innocente could easily have been presented as a taut morality tale running perhaps 90 minutes. As directed by Vischonti with his usual stately pacing, the movie loses intensity at regular intervals, even though the final half-hour, which is filled with horrific tragedy, commands attention. The question, of course, is whether the preceding hour and a half is enough to pull viewers along. For some, the answer will be yes, thanks to sumptuous costuming and production design, in addition to Giannini’s performance, the beauty of the leading ladies, and the general tawdriness of the storyline. For others, getting through the film’s slow stretches to reach the climax will require considerable willpower. And if there’s a profound theme buried inside L’Innocente, beyond trite assertions about how selfish men pay terrible costs for living empty lives, it’s not immediately apparent after one viewing.

L’Innocente: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Tormentors (1971)

Answering the question of how many over-the-top plot elements is too many for one bad movie to contain, The Tormentors is a biker movie about neo-Nazis and a would-be Christian messiah, with an orgy and a revenge angle thrown in for good measure. To be fair, this synopsis makes The Tormentors sound like a lost Russ Meyer flick, and, indeed, had Meyer applied his wild energy to the same material, he could have rendered something shamelessly exciting. Alas, director David L. Hewitt (credited as “B. Eagle”) provides lethargy instead of stimulation, so even with an abundance of action, intrigue, sex, and violence, The Tormentors is boring to watch, its scant 88 minutes comprising a cinematic ordeal. The film’s acting, camerawork, dialogue, and pacing are all terrible, and the characters run the depressing gamut from ciphers to clichés. The execution is so overall rotten that Hewitt even manages to make the aforementioned orgy dull. Here’s the setup. After his fiancée is killed by an organization called “The Fourth Reich,” Dan (William Dooley) tells police he wants justice. (Conveniently, cops know the neo-Nazis were responsible but can’t make charges stick.) Dan pretends to be a wannabe Nazi and infiltrates the group, which is some hybrid of a biker gang and a political organization. Meanwhile, “Fourth Reich” leader B. Rockwell Kemp (Bruce Kimball) frets that he can’t win over the local hippie kids because they’re preoccupied with a guy who calls himself “The Messiah.” This dude dresses in robes, wears a beard, and preaches about peace and love. Predictably, Kemp tells Dan to prove his loyalty by killing “The Messiah.” One gets the sense that writer James Gordon White periodically forgot he was writing a revenge picture, getting distracted by assassination schemes, conspiracies, internal squabbles, and even the sorry spectacle of a pain-freak fräulein torturing a distaff traitor. It’s all very random and stupid and ugly, with only the final 20 minutes or so providing the compensatory value of cartoonish excess. 

The Tormentors: LAME

Monday, November 28, 2016

Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971)

          Assembled by activist filmmaker Emile de Antonio partway through Richard Nixon’s first term as U.S. president, Millhouse—the title of which oddly mangles Nixon’s middle name, Milhous—seems peculiar when encountered outside its original context. At the time of its release, the intention was presumably to remind viewers of how crafty and ruthless Nixon could be, thereby galvanizing opposition as the president geared up for his 1972 reelection campaign. In that sense, Millhouse: A White Comedy is something of a precursor to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Yet while Moore’s film endures as a vital record of the left’s reaction to changes in American policies that occurred during George W. Bush’s first term, outlasting its original utility as election-season propaganda, de Antonio’s picture was already obsolete by the time Nixon left office in disgrace. Given the seismic repercussions of the Watergate scandal, the issues explored in Millhouse seem trivial by comparison. Furthermore, while it’s impossible to mistake Millhouse for a loving tribute, the picture is not explicitly damning, so a Nixon fan could easily watch the movie, dismiss a few talking-head criticisms, and revel in Nixon’s resourcefulness.
          As for the subtitle A White Comedy, whatever significance de Antonio saw in those words has been lost with the passage of time, beyond the obvious irony of suggesting that Nixon’s political scheming is a laughing matter.
          In any event, Millhouse provides a succinct compendium of Nixon’s greatest hits prior to his successful 1968 bid for the presidency. Accentuating Nixon’s shiftiness right from the first frames, de Antonio begins with the famous 1962 press conference following Nixon’s loss in a California gubernatorial race, featuring the infamous words, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” This moment showcases Nixon’s persecution complex, his tendency toward grand political gestures, and his unfortunate habit of making statements that later proved disingenuous if not outright dishonest. Thereafter, de Antonio uses newsreel footage and other preexisting material to track Nixon’s ascendance from a law career to the U.S. Senate, his 1953–1961 tenure as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vide president, his failed campaigns of 1960 and 1964, and finally his 1968 election.
          Consuming the largest amount of screen time is the full “Checkers” speech, a notorious TV appearance during which Nixon exhaustively explained his finances while trying to keep his VP run viable. Woven into de Antonio’s film are many tales of Nixon smearing personal enemies as pinkos. For those on de Antonio’s side of the political fence, especially those with knowledge of Nixon’s overall history, this stuff is enough to make the blood boil, or at least simmer. And that, more than anything, is the reason Millhouse has aged so poorly—the filmmaker’s bias renders the picture too one-sided to serve as political history, and yet the lack of a powerful viewpoint makes it feel almost toothless.

Millhouse: A White Comedy: FUNKY

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)

          One of the most fascinating true-crime stories in American history concerns Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old Massachusetts spinster who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892. Her trial, which involved issues of diminished capacity and women’s suffrage, became a topic of nationwide conversation, and Borden’s acquittal was shocking in the face of damning circumstantial evidence. This respectable made-for-TV drama depicts all the key moments from the historical record, then uses creative license to explore Borden’s mind. In this interpretation, which reflects ’70s ideas about feminism and psychology, Borden was an abused woman who struck back in a moment of temporary insanity. Beyond this lurid take on history, two things make The Legend of Lizzie Borden interesting: The film’s straightforward style gives way to horror-flick intensity during the climax, and Elizabeth Montgomery’s performance in the leading role is bold.
          Written by William Bast and directed by the reliable Paul Wendkos, The Legend of Lizzie Borden is divided into chapters with ominous titles, from “The Crime” to “The Accusation” to “The Ordeal,” and so on. Replicating the way the world heard about the killings without context, the movie opens with a housekeeper discovering gruesome crime scenes. Soon Borden stands accused, since she was in her father’s house at the time of the killings and cannot provide an alibi. Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) gets the job of prosecutor. The film then weaves between trial scenes and flashbacks, slowly unveiling the nature of Borden’s twisted relationship with her father, Andrew (Fritz Weaver). A malicious zealot, he berates his adult daughter constantly and, at one point, murders her pet birds seemingly for the pleasure of inflicting pain. The filmmakers also imply incest. Adding intrigue is the presence of housekeeper Bridget Sullivan (Fionula Flanagan), who suspects Borden of committing the murders, and that of Borden’s sister, Emma (Katherine Helmond), who fears the worst but hopes for the best.
          Montgomery, known for her wholesome turn as a domesticated sorceress on the 1964–1972 sitcom Bewitched, commits wholeheartedly to playing Borden. Walking through most scenes with a faraway look in her eyes, Montgomery conveys the sense of a woman uncomfortable in her own skin, her occasional emotional outbursts representing futile attempts to draw pity from an intolerant father. Montgomery’s patrician quality serves the project well, making it hard to distinguish her character’s coldness following the murders from the normal reserve of the upper class. Moreover, Montgomery embraces the perverse eroticism of the story—during the unnerving climax, she strips naked before claiming victims, so blood splatters across her lissome form each time she swings her character’s infamous axe.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden: GROOVY

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Too Hot to Handle (1977)

More sexploitation junk from the husband-and-wife team of filmmaker Don Schain and actress Cheri Caffaro, the folks responsible for three movies about libidinous private detective Ginger McAllister, Too Hot to Handle is a would-be thriller set in the Philippines. Caffaro plays an assassin named Samantha Fox, who lives on a yacht between completing high-priced hits. She often uses sex to lure victims, as when she coaxes a dude into a bedroom before tying him up and covering his head with a plastic bag. In another scene, she woos a lesbian cosmetics magnate into a mud bath, then suffocates the woman with electrodes normally used for skin rejuvenation. Pursuing Samantha from one crime scene to the next is policeman Domingo De La Torres (Aharon Ipalé). Schain tries for James Bond-style banter between Samantha and her dogged pursuer, but Schain’s predilection for sleaze ensures the dialogue never leaves the gutter. (Upon sensing Domingo’s sexual interest, Samantha says, “Promise if you rape me, you’ll work the case.”) While Too Hot to Handle has a coherent storyline and Schain employs extensive location photography to up the production values, there’s nothing here for a self-respecting viewer to enjoy. The martial-arts scenes are terrible, with the frail-looking Caffaro badly miming chops and kicks, and the sex scenes are tacky. Schain’s idea of clever cross-cutting involves juxtaposing Caffaro writhing with shots of a real cockfight. Throughout, Caffaro provides the same strange screen presence she did as Ginger McAllister. Gangly and tan, with bleach-blonde hair, she’s neither curvaceous nor particularly sexy, so her appeal presumably stems from being thin and uninhibited. And even though she tries to fill her line deliveries with badass attitude, she’s hopelessly inept.

Too Hot to Handle: LAME

Friday, November 25, 2016

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)

          For most of its running time, Orchestra Rehearsal is decidedly restrained, seeing as how it was made by Federico Fellini. Opening as a faux documentary, with the film camera standing in for the viewpoint of a crew making a TV special about the activities of a Roman orchestra, the picture progresses from light comedy to heated labor-themed satire and finally to a dose of Fellini’s signature overwrought symbolism. On one level, the movie is a simple study of group dynamics and a celebration of the intricate process by which orchestras create classical-music performances. It’s a valid endeavor made with intelligence and skill, but some of Fellini’s storytelling choices dull the picture’s impact.
          He spreads the focus around multiple members of the orchestra, with only the conductor receiving a measure of special attention because he’s ostensibly the villain driving the film’s slender excuse for a plot. Therefore, the movie doesn’t have a main character (beyond the collective entity of the orchestra), so the storytelling feels diffuse—each time Fellini lingers on remarks from this musician or that musician, the overall thrust of the piece falters. Even more problematically, at least in terms of generating conventional cinematic momentum, Fellini’s efforts to raise the stakes toward the end of the picture falter because viewers haven’t formed any special connections with the individuals who populate the story. Given its very short running time (the movie is only 70 minutes long), Fellini would have been better served presenting the piece as a slice of life without aspirations to dramatic impact.
          In any event, the action takes place inside the tomb beneath a 13th-century church. As an orchestra workshops several numbers for an upcoming concert, musicians bitch about their ostentatious conductor, debate which instrument is most important, and organize to defend the rights they previously gained through unionization. Some of this stuff is funny, as when two musicians fight about the personal space surrounding their chairs, and some of it is idiosyncratic, as when a male cellist derides the violin as an excessively feminine instrument. The movie sets up its premise fairly efficiently, then bounces from one random episode to the next until resolving into a melodrama once the conflict between the conductor and the musicians explodes. Fellini distributes screen time capriciously, lingering, for instance, on vignettes featuring an attractive female pianist. And once the final act arrives, Fellini succumbs to his customary appetite for cinematic excess, using flamboyant violence, grotesquerie, oversized props, and provocative sexual imagery to make points that could have been articulated more subtly. It’s hard to reconcile this overly stylized material with the talky stuff that came before.

Orchestra Rehearsal: FUNKY

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Gathering (1977)

          A Christmas drama that embraces family-friendly themes but eschews cheap sentimentality, The Gathering concerns a clan brought together by impending tragedy. When bullheaded, self-involved patriarch Adam Thornton (Ed Asner) receives a terminal diagnosis, he decides to visit each of his far-flung adult children one last time. He also resolves to make peace with his wife, from whom he is separated. Adam’s doctor forbids him to travel, so Adam’s wife, Kate (Maureen Stapleton), proposes a gathering at the family home instead. Yet because Adam finds the idea of pity appalling, he insists that his medical condition be kept secret. Kate calls the kids home, somewhat ingeniously letting them entertain fantasies that their parents will reconcile. From there, the drama proceeds methodically but with great speed. Adam’s children initially resist the idea of a gathering, some because they resent the way he treated Kate in the past, and some because they dread arguments. For one of Adam’s children, coming home is fraught with political implications, because Bud (Gregory Harrison) deserted the U.S. for Canada to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, a decision that caused a painful rift between Bud and his staunchly patriotic father. Other subplots are more pedestrian, as with the son-in-law embarrassed because he’s not a good provider and the eldest son embittered by his father’s withholding nature. Still, quite a bit of material gets crammed into 94 minutes.
          As directed by Randal Klesier, whose previous TV-movie successes include The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) and who soon graduated to big-budget features with Grease (1978), The Gathering is like a consolidated version of a soapy miniseries. Most of the characters and conflicts are indicated rather than fully explored, so critical viewers might find the picture superficial and unsatisfying. For those willing to accept the piece on its terms, the reductive approach works quite well. As the title suggests, The Gathering isn’t about the various aspects of tension within the Thornton family so much as it’s about the unique power of holiday get-togethers. For some of the siblings, returning home is about recapturing childhood. For others, it’s about settling scores. And for some, it’s about taking stock and, if possible, building bridges.
          The Gathering says something bittersweet about Christmas and, on a larger level, all the holiday celebrations that make the final months of the calendar emotional. Watching a year fade into the past forces one to ask what’s been gained and what’s been lost with the passage of time, and it reminds one to consider how the future can be made better than the past. Through the simple device of exploring a specific individual’s mortality, this effective telefilm expresses a humane message about impermanence and love. Asner’s performance drives the piece, his character’s warmth struggling to penetrate a gruff exterior, and Stapleton matches him with wounded compassion. Adept supporting players include Bruce Davison, Stephen Pressman, John Randolph, Gail Strickland, and Edward Winter, though the film’s biggest star may be composer John Barry. His exquisite main theme captures everything the picture tries to say about the difficulty people encounter when striving for transcendence. The Gathering received five Emmy nominations, winning one for Outstanding Special, and a sequel, The Gathering, Part II, aired in 1979.

The Gathering: GROOVY

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

         Cowriter/director Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire gets points for taking an unusual approach to bloodsucker mythology, but the film is ultimately too enervated and unsatisfying to merit serious attention. Therefore, it’s a somewhat pleasant change of place for hardcore consumers of creature features, and it’s a fairly restrained dose of sex and violence given that it issued from New World Pictures, Roger Corman’s B-movie factory of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The problem, of course, is that fans of sensationalized drive-in cinema rarely value restraint as a storytelling technique. So even though The Velvet Vampire has killings and topless shots, it’s not nasty enough to qualify as a genuine exploitation picture, and it’s not smart enough to qualify as an arthouse offering. None of this should leave the impression that The Velvet Vampire is awful. The movie has an eerie vibe, and it’s a kick to see a vampire flick in which the main character operates comfortably in daylight. However, the combination of sluggish storytelling and weak acting keeps the movie’s energy level dangerously low.
         Here’s the threadbare storyline. Ancient vampire Diane (Celeste Yarnall) meets an attractive young couple at an art gallery. They’re Lee (Michael Blodgett) and Susan (Sherry Miles). Diane invites the couple to visit her house in the desert, the only other resident of which is Diane’s foundling manservant, Juan (Jerry Daniels). Soon after the couple’s arrival, Diane puts the moves on Lee, who sleeps with his sexy hostess. Yet Diane also makes advances on Susan. Wedged between chastely filmed sexual encounters are trippy dream sequences, set to unnerving rock music with a Neil Young flavor, plus assorted murder scenes during which Diane feeds on victims. Had Rothman and her collaborators dug deeper into the material and explored Diane’s psychology, they could have generated something like The Hunger (1983), an erotic drama about a melancholy female vampire. Instead, The Velvet Vampire is drab and superficial. About the best Rothman can conjure is a vaguely kinky scene during which Diane sucks rattlesnake venom from Susan’s thigh. Regarding the film’s acting, Yarnall cuts an attractive figure without conveying much depth, while Blodgett and Miles are as interesting to watch as department-store mannequins.

The Velvet Vampire: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

          Apparently this movie helped inspire Robert Redford to become a champion for independent cinema, and, indeed, there’s much about The Whole Shootin’ Match that epitomizes the anti-Hollywood ethos. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film with a slight budget near Austin, Texas, the picture eschews modalities that make big-studio projects feel false and manipulative. Tracking the adventures of two rural losers as they bounce from one failed get-rich scheme to another, the film never leaves the confines of the characters’ small world, and it never introduces wild contrivances that radically transform the characters’ circumstances. Put bluntly, the story never goes anywhere, in the sense of advancing the protagonists from one level of being to the next; although the dudes in The Whole Shootin’ Match end the picture with a deepened friendship, they don’t evolve much, and they don’t learn valuable life lessons. Both would have happened in a Hollywood treatment of similar material. Yet The Whole Shootin’ Match should not be misconstrued as some vital chapter in the history of American independent cinema, except perhaps because of its impact on Redford’s attitudes. The two main characters are essentially rough-hewn versions of “types” viewers have encountered in countless other stories. They’re cousins to, say, the scamps played by Lee Marvin and Paul Newman in Pocket Money (1972). Additionally, because filmmaker Eagle Pennell employs a jokey style and favors tidy conclusions at the ends of scenes, The Whole Shootin’ Match has more Hollywood in its DNA than might seem apparent at first glance.
          Frank (Sonny Carl Davis) and Lloyd (Lou Perryman) are uneducated guys staring down the barrel of middle age with little to show for their time on Earth. They run a light-hauling business in between failed entrepreneurial endeavors. Frank is married to Paulette (Doris Hargrave), though that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with every compliant woman he encounters. In some ways, his friendship with Lloyd is the most important relationship in his life—they keep each other alive, spiritually speaking, by convincing each other that their next scheme will pull them from poverty, no matter how many previous attempts have ended in disaster. Emboldened by the advice he reads in a self-help book, Frank persuades Lloyd the trick to wealth is “getting your mind right,” so they apply their newfound philosophy to a polyurethane roofing business. Typically, this goes poorly, because neither man has the tactical or technical knowhow, much less the operating capital, necessary for making the business soar. And so on. Open-minded viewers can find things to like here, since the acting and locations have authenticity, as does the Texan vernacular (“I’m so dry I can’t even spit!”). Nonetheless, this is a matter of low risk and low rewards. Pennelll’s filmmaking lacks ambition, beyond the inherent challenge of making a movie from nothing, and the insights his story presents are neither new nor profound. 

The Whole Shootin’ Match: FUNKY

Monday, November 21, 2016

Funny Car Summer (1974)

          It’s a shame so few ’70s trends were the subjects of full-length documentaries, because it would be thrilling to explore definitive vintage docs on, say, disco, est, pet rocks, roller derby, and other wild subjects. Hell, even two of the most commercialized pop-culture phenomena of the ’70s, daredevil Evel Knievel and rock band Kiss, lack full-length nonfiction explorations from back in the day. The reason for this preamble is to set appropriate expectations for the sports-themed doc Funny Car Summer. Had every ’70s fad earned an in-depth exploration, Funny Car Summer would be disposable. Things being as they are, those eager to explore as many facets of the ’70s as possible make do with what’s available. In that context, Funny Car Summer is okay. It’s got some period flavor, and the slice-of-life scenes capture a bit of what it must have felt like to live in Squaresville, USA, during the longhair era.
          That said, how much you’ll dig this picture ultimately depends on how interesting you find drag racing. And, frankly, even the film’s treatment of its main subject might not be enough to hold your attention. As some disgruntled viewers note on IMDb, they saw this picture as car-crazy kids and were bitterly disappointed that racing footage comprises only a small portion of the picture’s running time. In lieu of shots on the track, most of the film concerns the day-to-day existence of professional drag racer Jim Dunn and his family. In a word, he’s boring, a dad with a colorful hobby. Documentarian Ron Phillips obviously spent a lot of time tracking Dunn’s competitive activities and family life, but Phillips was not rewarded for his investment. In the picture’s most absurd sequence, which is also the one revealing how little slam-bang material Phillips collected, the picture cuts between Dunn shaving and his wife, Pat, doing housework. Set to a cornball ballad with lyrics to the effect of “where would you be without me,” the scene trudges along for several pointless minutes.
          Not everything in Funny Car Summer is quite so dispiriting. While insufficient for purposes of entertainment, the racetrack shots are pretty good, especially when Phillips turns his camera onto fans and novelty vehicles. And though juicing crash shots with melodramatic music was unnecessary, the appearance of dynamic visuals helps rouse the movie from its stupor. Some perverse rep-house programmer would be wise to screen Funny Car Summer in tandem with the equally low-energy Derby (1971), about roller derby, just to see how many attendees could make it through both movies without falling asleep.

Funny Car Summer: FUNKY

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Kirlian Witness (1979)

Among the wilder branches of pseudoscience to gain popularity during the ‘70s was Kirlian photography, which supposedly allowed researchers to document emotional reactions from plants during exposure to stimuli. The folks behind The Kirlian Witness saw an opportunity to create an unusual thriller, so the hook of their movie is that the only entity present during a murder besides the killer and the victim is a potted plant, putting the onus on the victim’s sister to extract incriminating information from the leafy “witness.” This wacky idea might have made for an offbeat episode of some ’70s detective show, with Columbo or McCloud offering snide commentary until a surprising turn of events challenges skepticism. Taken to feature length, the concept falls apart, especially because the execution of The Kirlian Witness is lifeless. A low-budget indie shot in New York City, the picture has an attractive photographic style—very high-fashion telephoto—but the acting is inert, the pacing is deadly, the plotting is muddy, and the climax features a wannabe-serious scene of a young woman staring at a potted plant to the accompaniment of atmospheric piano music. Here’s the setup. Laurie (Nancy Boykin) operates an NYC plant shop with the help of a weird assistant, Dusty (Ted Le Plat). Both believe in communicating with plants. Laurie’s sister, Rilla (Nancy Snyder) doesn’t share her belief, and neither does Rilla’s tempestuous husband, Robert (Joel Colodener). One evening, someone attacks and kills Laurie. The police rule the death an accident, but Rilla believes otherwise, so she explores every aspect of her late sister’s life. This prompts her to discover a copy of The Secret Life of Plants, the 1973 nonfiction book that helped popularize the idea of talking to flora. Eventually, her investigation catches the attention of the killer, sparking new danger. Despite some okay scoring by Henry Mandredini, the movie is so flat that it often drifts into the realm of accidental self-parody.

The Kirlian Witness: LAME

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Catholics (1973)

          An intriguing look at the debate between progress and tradition within an organized-religion community, the made-for-TV drama Catholics benefits from a terrific leading performance by Trevor Howard, excellent supporting work from Martin Sheen, and immersive location photography that gives a strong sense of place for a story set on a remote island off the Irish coast. Adapted by Brian Moore from his own novel, the story concerns a centuries-old abbey where monks under the leadership of the Abbot (Howard) make waves by reverting to old ways. They perform masses in Latin and, more controversially, embrace classical teachings of Christ as purely divine. Progressive priest Father Kinsella (Sheen) arrives from Rome with orders to pull the monks into the 20th century by adopting English-language masses and integrating the notion of Christ’s dual nature, neither purely divine nor purely mortal. Kinsella makes analogies to a similar resurgence of traditionalism in Lourdes, France, circa 1858, when Catholics claimed to behold visions of the Virgin Mary. Giving the story scope and urgency is the popularization of the abbey’s old-school practices, because Catholics devoted to the old ways make pilgrimages to the island, thereby setting off alarm bells in the Vatican.
          Catholics is a simple story, and of course it will be of special interest to those who adhere to the faith named in the title. Even for secular viewers, however, the movie has dramatic heft and intellectual dynamism.
          Howard, whose Irish brogue wavers periodically, delivers a characterization encompassing authority, defiance, doubt, and self-loathing. (Explaining how some of these qualities emerge would reveal the story’s most important turn.) His performance neatly embodies the narrative’s overall tension by presenting an individual caught in a theological crisis. Some of the actors playing monks under his command sketch distinct characterizations, as well, though they are brushstrokes in the painting for which Howard’s role provides the dominant color. Sheen, whose real-life devotion to Catholicism became widely known in the years following the initial broadcast of Catholics, is perfectly cast in many ways. Handsome and young, he’s a stark visual contrast to the craggy old men of the monastery, and his gift for making every line feel fresh and sincere ensures that his character never comes across as an automaton sent from Rome to squash rebellion. Accordingly, Catholics has neither a clear hero nor a clear villain, so the battle driving the story is a fair fight between men of differing perspectives, with the fate of one troubled soul in the balance. Later broadcast in the UK, under the alternate title Conflict, this picture is small—a title card on the American version humbly identifies the project as Catholics: A Fable—but it casts a large thematic shadow.

Catholics: GROOVY

Friday, November 18, 2016

Honky (1971)

          Race-relations melodrama Honky is an indie production with all the slickness of a Hollywood feature, including a sprightly score by Quincy Jones. The movie starts out innocently enough, tenderly depicting the unexpected romance between a white high-school athlete, Wayne (John Neilson), and his sexy black classmate, Sheila (Brenda Sykes). Very quickly, however, Will Chaney’s script—adapted from a novel by Gunard Solberg—takes a weird left turn. Eager to make quick cash dealing grass, Sheila announces to her new boyfriend that she needs money to buy a supply of weed. In a long scene that’s staged like the climax of a heist movie, Wayne uses a forged signature to get the money from his small trust account at a local bank. More crimes follow, including breaking and entering and grand theft auto, so eventually the couple decides to leave their small New Jersey town for California. During their travels, they become victims of crime instead of perpetrators. By the time it’s over, Honky peppers its dubious storyline with stereotypical portrayals of blacks, conservatives, gays, and transvestites. Try finding another picture that features a gentle interracial love scene, violent rednecks, and the startling vision of future Happy Days mom Marion Ross complaining about “coons.”
          Like so many clumsy pictures about race from the ’60s and ’70s, Honky tries so hard to convey progressive attitudes that it ends up becoming inadvertently offensive. It’s defeated by its own aspirations to significance. The way the movie derails is a shame, because in many ways, Honky is impressive. Director William A. Graham and his collaborators give the picture a glossy look and, when the plot isn’t wandering off on pointless detours, a zippy pace. Leading lady Sykes is beguiling, though she was already in her 20s when she made the picture. Supporting players including John Fiedler, Lincoln Kilpatrick, and William Marshall deliver strong work in tiny roles, while Matt Clark lends his reliable brand of rural villainy to the climax. What’s more, that Jones music is pretty sweet. Alas, the central relationship stretches credibility just as much as the plot does, a problem exacerbated by the filmmakers’ tenuous grasp on with-it lingo. For example, Honky contains the following exchange. “Don’t get hung up on my hangup.” “I’m getting caught in your hangup?” “Your ego is.” Wow. Honky is alternately exciting, involving, and sexy, but, seeing as how the crux of the picture involves a white guy learning about the black experience, it’s hard to reconcile the film’s meritorious elements with the filmmakers’ backwards-looking portrayal of African-American characters as criminals, freaks, Uncle Toms, victims, and vixens.

Honky: LAME

Thursday, November 17, 2016

My Boys Are Good Boys (1978)

A combination heist thriller and youth drama, My Boys Are Good Boys is awful in that it lacks consistent style, narrative credibility, and a viable theme. Nonetheless, some viewers might find the movie strangely interesting because three actors from another era participate. Their scenes are old-fashioned but slick, whereas vignettes concerning the activities of juvenile delinquents (which comprise the bulk of the running time) are relatively contemporary. These disparate elements clash badly, but that’s what gives My Boys Are Good Boys its minor train-wreck appeal. The nominal protagonist is working stiff Bert Morton (Ralph Meeker). His son, Tommy (Sean Roche), is the ringleader for a group of underage inmates. One day, they immobilize guards at their reformatory and escape so they can rob an armored truck. Bert is the truck’s driver, so the crime is fraught with Oedipal issues. Had this story been executed with any real skill, it could have been provocative. Alas, cowriter-director Bethel Buckalew is borderline incompetent, and Meeker, who also produced the picture, torpedoes the project with a lifeless non-performance. Costarring with Meeker are fellow Hollywood veterans Ida Lupino (as Bert’s wife) and Lloyd Nolan (as a dogged investigator). Despite Meeker’s low energy, these three create a veneer of studio-era professionalism. Separately, scenes with Tommy and his young accomplices recall The Bad News Bears (1976), with a diverse group of crude kids making mischief. Inexplicably, these teenaged thieves gain a bottomless supply of knockout gas and, just for good measure, a smoke grenade. Oh, well. The film’s title connects to a pair of horrid elements, the countrified theme song and a bizarre monologue delivered by reformatory guard Harry Klinger (David Doyle). That this relatively minor character vocalizes the moral of the story is typical of the film’s discombobulated nature.

My Boys Are Good Boys: LAME

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1979)

          Presenting a weird fusion of modern explicitness and old-fashioned storytelling, the racially charged melodrama Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff is interesting not because of cinematic quality—in many ways, it’s an embarrassingly bad piece of work—but because of its peculiarity. Based on a novel by William Inge that came out in 1970, the movie would have seemed hip and provocative if released, in virtually the exact same form, the same year as the novel. What a difference a decade makes. Arriving at the end of the ’70s, the film seems stylistically ancient, the acting and camerawork as stiff as screenwriter Polly Platt’s on-the-nose dialogue, and the sexual stuff, while still fairly bold for a mainstream movie, lacks the power to truly shock. Viewed outside of its original historical context, the film fares even worse. Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff is too well-intentioned to qualify as a so-bad-it’s-good atrocity, and yet it’s also far too wrongheaded to work as legitimate entertainment.
          Set during 1956 in the small town of Freedom, Kansas—the name of the town accurately indicate the degree of the movie’s subtlety—Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff opens by exploring the life of 35-year-old schoolteacher Evelyn Wyckoff (Anne Heywood). A neurotic virgin, she’s so edgy about her lack of sexual experience that she has periodic breakdowns and suicidal thoughts. In moments of clarity, she’s a respected educator and a passionate advocate for progressive causes. After her physician, Dr. Neal (Robert Vaughn), suggests getting intimate with a man is the cure for what ails her, Evelyn tries, unsuccessfully, to hook up with a lecherous bus driver named Ed (Earl Holliman). Meanwhile, she explores her difficulties with a shrink, Dr. Steiner (Donald Pleasance). And then, almost completely out of nowhere, a young black janitor named Rafe Collins (John Lafayette) rapes Evelyn in her classroom. That’s when the story spins in bizarre directions. Instead of reporting Rafe to authorities, Evelyn becomes his lover, participating in steadily more humiliating trysts even as the risk of discovery increases.
          Listing everything that rings false about Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff would take quite a while, but, briefly, the title character’s psychological state defies understanding, the portrayal of the Rafe character is startlingly racist, and the integration of a Red Scare subplot doesn’t work. Yet Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff is weirdly compelling, at least for the cinematically adventurous. Even though Heywood’s performance is rigid and unbelievable, she’s watchably odd. Carolyn Jones, late of TV’s The Addams Family, gives a fine if too-brief turn as Evelyn’s best friend. And the film’s technical presentation is excellent in a museum-piece sort of way. Rarely have such lurid scenes been captured with such uptight professionalism.

Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Seven Beauties (1975)

          A nasty piece of business from Italy’s provocative Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties tells the grotesque story of a man who survives a violent life as a pimp only to become an inmate in a World War II concentration camp. The film is so deliberately vulgar that the climax involves the protagonist struggling to summon an erection with which to service a morbidly obese prison matron, even though she’s a despicable sadist. One of the overt themes in the challenging picture is that only whores can survive life on the sidelines of a war. Given Wertmüller’s proclivity for threading leftist politics into her narratives, it’s a fair statement of sorts; her movies depict the world as a battle zone pitting the apathetic against the engaged, with her sympathies clearly favoring the engaged. Therefore, a generous reading of Seven Beauties might identify the protagonist as a representation for everything Wertmüller finds craven in society. After all, the movie begins with a weird tone poem/dedication listing various types of people: “The ones who don’t enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh, yeah. . . . The ones who listen to the national anthem. Oh, yeah. . . . The ones who at a certain point in their lives create a secret weapon: Christ. Oh, yeah.”
          Seven Beauties is a Grand Statement, but it’s not the easiest one to decipher.
          The movie jumps back in forth in time, juxtaposing the main character’s civilian life with his military experience. Prior to the war, Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) is a sharp-dressed hustler who seems conflicted about the carnal adventures of his sisters. He carries the pejorative nickname “Seven Beauties” because each of his siblings is unattractive. Pasqualino spends lots of time yelling at his sisters for their low morals, even though he’s a criminal. In one of the film’s many tasteless sequences, the dismembering of a corpse is played for laughs. In another, Pasqualino rapes a mental patient. If you’re wondering what the point is of watching a monster like Pasqualino, I don’t have a good answer for you.
          The protagonist’s wartime experiences are gruesome. Inside the concentration camp, he watches a rotund matron (Shirley Stoler) push inmates past their physical and psychological limits, then bonds, sort of, with a poetic activist named Pedro (Fernando Rey). That character’s ultimate fate is so vile as to approach the realm of perverse comedy. As noted earlier, the crescendo of the picture involves Pasqualino trying to gain favor with the matron through sex. Throughout Seven Beauties, Wertmüller devotes as much energy to provoking revulsion as she does to showcasing ideology. The sheer number of repugnant images and situations is distracting, as is dissonance between content and style.
          Like all of Wertmüller’s movies, Seven Beauties is beautifully photographed, and the production design is impressive. Moreover, frequent Wertmüller collaborator Giannini contributes his usual impassioned work. Seven Beauties is among Wertmüller’s most acclaimed films, having garnered accolades including four Oscar nominations, so, clearly, discerning viewers found much worth examining here. To these eyes, however, the picture has not aged as well as some other Wertmüller’s efforts. Seven Beauties speaks with more confidence than clarity, though a hint of the picture’s deeper meanings might come from Rey’s character, who claims that “a man in disorder is our only hope.” Disorder is something that Seven Beauties has in abundance.

Seven Beauties: FUNKY

Monday, November 14, 2016

Holocaust 2000 (1977)

          Derivative Eurotrash noteworthy for featuring an American star in the leading role and for venturing into fairly extreme places, Holocaust 2000—sometimes known as The Chosen, Lucifer’s Curse, and Rain of Fire—is among the most enjoyably stupid ripoffs of The Omen (1976). Despite being quite slick on some levels, thanks to lavish production values, Erico Menczer’s vivid cinematography, and Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully gonzo score, the picture suffers from an atrocious screenplay and erratic direction. Things get so bad at one point that the film stops dead so Douglas can stand in place while voiceover of previously spoken expository dialogue repeats several times, lest the audience somehow miss the incredibly obvious implications of the storyline. And yet in the movie’s weirdest scene, pure narrative goes out the window as director Alberto De Martino lets loose with an apocalyptic dream sequence featuring visions of the end times intercut with, believe it or not, scenes of an anguished Douglas running across a desert while fully nude. File under “Things You’ve Never Seen,” cross-referenced with “Things You Never Particularly Wanted to See.”
          The ridiculous plot goes something like this: As American developer Robert Caine (Douglas) struggles to get plans for a Middle Eastern nuclear plant approved by reluctant government officials, prophecies and tragedies reveal that the plant is actually a scheme wrought by the antichrist, who, naturally, happens to be Caine’s adult son, Angel (Simon Ward). Yep. Angel. And Caine, as in “and Abel.” In other words, forget the mechanics of the dopey script. Grooving on the storyline’s broad strokes is more than sufficient, because the perverse fun of watching Holocaust 2000 involves laughing at Douglas’ overwrought performance—while secretly acknowledging that, every so often, his intensity gives real edge to the movie—and marveling at the abuse good taste endures in the name of disposable entertainment.
          One subplot involves assassination attempts on the life of a Middle Eastern prime minister, and this narrative thread culminates with a graphic beheading scene involving an errant helicopter blade. It’s as if the filmmakers studied the famous decapitation bit in The Omen, then asked how they could reconfigure the scene to add a provocative connotation. Never mind that the last thing the world needed was another depiction of political violence in the Middle East. Even more dubious is a long sequence set inside a mental institution—while shockingly gory and unquestionably unnerving, the sequence plays like a grindhouse homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). That’s not to say Holocaust 2000 utterly lacks imagination. A scene of Douglas caught on a flood plain while the water line rises with supernatural speed is memorably creepy, and the final act of the film echoes the all-is-lost vibe of The Omen, albeit without the benefit of ingenious storytelling. Holocaust 2000 is shameless crap, no question, but if you like your stories dark and pulpy, you may find yourself going along for the ride.

Holocaust 2000: FUNKY

Sunday, November 13, 2016

1980 Week: One-Trick Pony

          Back in his Simon & Garfunkel days, Paul Simon wrote and recorded a tune called “Fakin’ It,” which speaks to the feeling many successful people have about being imposters in their own lives. The specter of “Fakin’ It” looms large over One-Trick Pony, to date the only film Simon has written and the only one in which he’s played a starring role. Although “Fakin’ It” doesn’t appear in the movie, the notion of being a poseur pervades the movie. On a superficial level, the film bursts with authenticity, because Simon plays a singer-songwriter and performs many songs that he wrote for the movie. Yet the layers of artifice are myriad. Whereas Simon emerged from a phenomenally successful duo in order to become a phenomenally successful solo artist, his character, Jonah Levin, endures a humbler experience. A one-hit wonder for a ’60s protest song, Jonah gigs in small clubs and delivers material his label doesn’t like. Therefore the movie’s antagonistic forces include not just the crass music executives who want to inhibit Jonah’s artistry but also Jonah’s bullheaded determination to follow his muse.
          Johah’s journey is believable and realistic, but Simon wrote himself into a corner. Had he told an autobiographical story about the travails of a successful musician, critics and fans might have eviscerated him for whining about life in an ivory tower. (That fate certainly befell Neil Diamond, who made his disastrous movie debut in a remake of The Jazz Singer about two months after One-Trick Pony was released.) By tacking the other way and telling a fictional story about a struggling musician, Simon invited accusations of condescension. After all, what does a guy collecting royalties for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” know about privation? The damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario is exacerbated by the sense of privilege innate to the film’s existence. Must be nice to write your own star vehicle and get a big-studio budget.
          If all this behind-the-scenes bitching seems tangential, there’s a reason to focus on backstory: The onscreen content of One-Trick Pony is so slight it barely exists. Jonah tours with his band, and the guys complain about rapidly dwindling paychecks. Jonah sorta-kinda makes amends with his ex-wife (Blair Brown). Jonah accepts a lucrative gig at a nostalgia show, bolstering his fear that he is, indeed, a “one-trick pony” whose best work is behind him. Jonah does some new recording with an asshole producer (played by real-life rocker Lou Reed) who tarts up Jonah’s simple songs with ghastly choirs and strings. Can Jonah reconcile his need for income with his quest for integrity?
          Some moments are quite interesting, with director Robert M. Young employing a sedate storytelling style that generates a strong sense of realism. Rip Torn does marvelous work as a callous record executive, and Simon fronts a hot band for renditions of solid tunes including “Ace in the Hole” and “God Bless the Absentee.” (The film’s best-known song, “Late in the Evening,” appears over the opening credits.) Additionally, the nostalgia-concert sequence features lively performances by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Sam & Dave, while the B-52’s show up in another scene. The problem, beyond the piffle of a storyline, is that Simon is merely adequate as an actor—everyone else is more compelling, except when Simon sings. So on nearly every level, Simon is fakin’ it: He’s not a real actor, he’s not a real screenwriter, and he’s not telling a real story. The irony is that One-Trick Pony doesn’t come across as a vanity project, but rather a sincere attempt by an important artist to explore the possibilities of a medium with which he is not familiar.

One-Trick Pony: FUNKY

Saturday, November 12, 2016

1980 Week: Resurrection

          Ellen Burstyn’s crowning achievement in movies might be her multidimensional star turn in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), though strong arguments could be made for her fearless work in The Exorcist (1973) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Obscured by these famous movies is the offbeat gem Resurrection, in which Burstyn not only incarnates the complex facets of a fully rounded individual, but in which she explores realms beyond normal human understanding. As its title suggests, Resurrection is about a woman who dies for a brief time before returning to life, and upon returning from “the other side,” she gains supernatural healing powers. As Burstyn articulated in her autobiography, she’s been on a lifelong spiritual journey, so in some ways, Resurrection might be her ultimate role. It’s a problematic film that some viewers will find too incredible, and even fans of the picture are likely to quibble about plot points. Nonetheless, most of what happens onscreen in Resurrection is memorable and strange and touching.
          Burstyn, who received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for the picture, stars as Edna, an everywoman who experiences a terrible car accident. Her husband dies in the crash, but Edna rouses despite being legally dead for a period of time. Upon discovering her brush with morality has gifted her with special abilities, Edna gradually detaches from her old life and becomes a faith healer. She also falls in love with Cal (Sam Shepard), a deeply religious man whose beliefs allow him to accept the “miracle” of Edna’s supernatural power. Yet a schism grows in their relationship because Edna refuses to acknowledge God as the author of her destiny, which puts Edna on the road to the film’s powerful final act.
          Written by the imaginative Lewis John Carlino and directed by the reliable Daniel Petrie, Resurrection has a bit of a TV-movie feel, but the smallness of the presentation is perfect for the subject matter. By eschewing grandeur, Petrie keeps the focus on the turbulence that paranormal phenomena causes in Edna’s life and the lives of those around her. Seeing Edna do incredible things sparks revelatory reactions, with desperate people seeing Edna as the deliverance they crave, small-minded people seeing her as a personification of everything that frightens them, and spiritual people seeing Edna as proof that forces beyond man guide the universe. Through it all, Edna experiences a litany of surprising emotional changes, some of which are more believable than others, but the stark contrast the filmmakers draw between the person Edna was before her transformation and the person she is at the end of the story makes a powerful statement about human potential.
         Burstyn commits wholeheartedly to even the most outlandish scenes, thereby grounding the picture in simple emotional truth. The fine supporting cast, which also includes Roberts Blossom, Jeffrey DeMunn, Richard Farnsworth, Eva Le Gallienne (who received on Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress), and Lois Smith, helps weave a canvas of rural authenticity, with Shepard’s fire-and-brimstone ire providing a sharp counterpoint to Edna’s embrace of the mysterious. Resurrection is far from perfect, but it’s filled with ambiguities that provide fodder for fascinating conversations.

Resurrection: GROOVY

Friday, November 11, 2016

1980 Week: The American Success Company

          Writer-director William Richert displayed tremendous promise with his first fiction feature, Winter Kills (1979), a strange conspiracy thriller boasting an incredible cast and a lush look. Although the movie has as many problems as it does virtues, the style and verve of the piece seemed to bode well for Richert’s subsequent efforts. Alas, the filmmaker’s sophomore picture repeated nearly everything that was wrong with his debut while replicating virtually nothing that was right. Originally released in 1980 as The American Success Company but now primarily available in a director-approved recut version from 1983 more succinctly titled Success, the picture follows the misadventures of Harry (Jeff Bridges), a dorky young man who secures a comfortable life by marrying beautiful but cold Sarah (Belinda Bauer), the daughter of Mr. Elliott (Ned Beatty). Mr. Elliot runs the American Success Company, a doppelganger for American Express, so even though Mr. Elliot despises Harry, he ensures that Harry gets cushy executive jobs. Tired of being a doormat for his abusive father-in-law and his withholding wife, Harry assumes a new secondary identity as “Mack,” a flashy mobster who dresses in garish clothes, speaks in the Bogart/Cagney/Robinson mode, and walks with a cane. While pretending to be “Mack,” Harry purchases regular appointments with a sophisticated hooker, Corinne (Bianca Jagger), in order to improve his lovemaking. Concurrently, he contrives a scheme to embezzle money from his employer.
          As written by Richert and B-movie icon Larry Cohen, the script never explains Harry’s methods or motives in a satisfactory fashion, and the tone of the piece is awkward. Sometimes Richert goes for broad comedy and fails—the most effective running joke involves premature ejaculation—and sometimes Richert goes for high-minded satire, even though he misses that mark, as well. (In one scene, Harry, posing as “Mack,” proposes selling credit cards to an expanding market—little kids.) Beatty, Jagger, and John Glover give solid turns, benefiting from consistently written characterizations, but the leading performances by Bridges and Bauer are disastrous. Bridges clearly didn’t know whether he was playing a boob or a rake, and Bauer wobbles between incarnating a dolt and a shrew. Almost nothing works in The American Success Company, even with the wall-to-wall exposition of the 1983 version’s voiceover. Unsurprisingly, it took Richert years to score his next feature-directing gig, the middling teen-sex comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988). A decade after that, he helmed his last feature to date, an obscure 1998 version of The Man in the Iron Mask.

The American Success Company: LAME