Sunday, March 18, 2018

Big Time (1977)

          Noteworthy as the lone venture into film production and screenwriting for legendary Motown singer-songwriter William “Smokey” Robinson, Big Time is an amateurish but mostly pleasant blaxploitation comedy that benefits greatly from a funky soundtrack composed by, naturally, the estimable Mr. Robinson. The picture also has three appealing actors in leading roles. Christopher Joy gives an amusing turn as a low-rent hustler who gets into trouble by messing with the Mob’s money. Roger E. Mosley is equally entertaining as a crook with a pimptastic wardrobe, who may or may not be as tough as he seems. And leading lady Jayne Kennedy, playing an insurance investigator who goes undercover to catch Joy’s character committing a crime, is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter if her performance is merely adequate—after all, the description “merely adequate” could just as easily apply to Big Time itself, so why not enjoy the sights and sounds that make Big Time bearable?
          Eddie Jones (Joy) is a con artist specializing in fake accidents (think neck braces and frivolous lawsuits). A string of bad decisions have left him in debt to J.J. (Mosely), who threatens violence if Eddie doesn’t make good. In a typical scene, J.J., who has his initials inscribed on vanity plates and on custom-made gold teeth, compels Eddie to leap from a moving car even though Eddie’s wearing only a towel. Desperate, Eddie enlists his buddy Harold (Tobar Mayo) for help running schemes to earn quick cash. Meanwhile, Eddie woos Shana (Kennedy) after a meet-cute during an accident, and he’s too dim to recognize her hidden agenda. Eventually, Eddie stumbles onto a crime scene and steals a suitcase full of cash. This upsets mobsters, who are portrayed as a bunch of fat Italians sitting around a table covered with pizzas.
          Once the FBI enters the storyline, things get confusing fast, so during a good 30 minutes of Big Time, it’s difficult to track who’s doing what to whom and why. Also distracting: The way Shana’s partner delivers most of his lines in a bad Humphrey Bogart impersonation. Presumably influenced by the gently narchic vibe of Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies from the mid-’70s, Big Time is blaxploitation without degradation, which counts for something. The language is gentle, the racial portrayals aren’t especially vulgar, the violence is tame, and Kennedy maintains her dignity by never wearing less than a bikini. So even though Big Time is dopey, it’s an amiable romp set to a slick Motown groove, and every third or fourth attempt at a joke nearly connects.

Big Time: FUNKY

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977)

          If you want a conscientious examination of Howard Hughes’ early adventures in Hollywood, read no further. This tawdry biopic, released to capitalize on public interest after Hughes’ death in 1976, transforms the making of Hughes’ notorious war epic Hell’s Angels (1930) into something out of Penthouse Letters. Once Hughes (Victor Holchak) gets an eyeful of buxom starlet Jean Harlow (Lindsay Bloom), he makes a bet that if he can transform her from a bit player to a movie star, she’ll sleep with him. What ensues is a feature-length flirtation driven by vulgar banter and sensationalistic events. (For example, Jean rubs ice on her nipples before shooting a scene in order to get a reaction from a lifeless costar.) As co-written and directed by B-movie guy Larry Buchanan, Hughes and Harlow offers caricatures instead of people, cheap gags instead of situations, and weak attempts at salt-of-the-earth wit instead of real dialogue. That the picture is mostly watchable can be attributed to the traffic-accident appeal of the real history being depicted, and also to Bloom’s zesty performance as a woman who’s seen it all but still wants to believe in something better.
          The picture begins with the premiere of Hell’s Angels, during which Howard and Jean fret about the reactions of the audience and those of Hollywood censor Will Hays (Royal Dano). Then Hughes and Harlow flashes back to episodes from the making of Hell’s Angels. When Jean first meets Texas oil heir Howard, he’s already sunk $2 million into his movie and churned through directors. Once he assumes helming chores himself, Howard identifies Jean as a possible female lead, even though she moonlights as a hostess in a brothel. Naturally, Jean assumes the offer comes with strings, but instead Howard makes the salacious bet. Throughout a production cycle fraught with difficulty, the two run hot and cold with each other. They also share their deepest ambitions and fears. In a typically clunky line of dialogue, Howard opines: “We’re both just a couple of a country kids trying to make it in this hellhole of Hollywood.” Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes, avatars of morality in a cesspool? Whatever you say, Mr. Buchanan.
          The film’s most entertaining scenes feel like renderings of apocryphal stories, as when Howard berates veteran filmmaker Howard Hawks (Adam Roarke) for poaching stunt performers. Other vignettes work simply because Bloom, who enjoyed an undistinguished career in B-movies and TV shows, channels cynicism so effectively. (As a curvy blonde in ’70s Hollywood, one imagines that Bloom had plenty of life experience to use as inspiration for her performance.) Holchak, who also worked extensively in TV, looks the part and has a few sincere moments, but let’s just say his portrayal of Hughes is not definitive. Ultimately, how palatable you’ll find this picture depends on your appetite for showbiz lore, because Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell is a tacky rendering of a compelling story.

Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell: FUNKY

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Single Girls (1974)

Featuring the sort of lurid plot that later powered episode after episode of Charlie’s Angels, this sleazy drive-in picture tracks a serial killer who stalks visitors at a Caribbean resort where guests overcome sexual hangups by sleeping with each other. Naturally, all the female guests are twentysomething babes and most of the male guests are middle-aged. In one scene, the psychobabble-spewing proprietor of the resort encourages his guests to free themselves by “milling,” which involves turning off the lights so everyone can grope freely. This experiment goes awry when someone either bites or cuts a buxom young woman’s breast. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Codirected by the exploitation-flick brain trust of married couple Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, The Single Girls works about 40 percent of the time, delivering cheap thrills and nudie shots by way of coherent storytelling. The rest of the time, the movie ambles from one disassociated vignette to the next. Therefore, one’s tolerance for this sort of thing depends entirely on how much joy one is able to derive from watching ladies scream, screw, shower, and strip. Although the movie has a few proper dramatic scenes, mostly involving the trouble that sexy redhead Allison (Claudia Jennings) has with a possessive ex-boyfriend, those bits come across like filler, no matter how hard the appealing Jennings tries to give a real performance. Incidentally, Jennings also starred in the Sebastians’ next opus, ’Gator Bait, which was released later in 1974.

The Single Girls: LAME

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Tiger by the Tail (1970)

          Twisty thriller Tiger by the Tail is damn near the perfect Christopher George movie, inasmuch as the film’s shortcomings parallel George’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor. In the same way that George looks and sounds like the ideal macho leading man, thanks to his hairy chest and square jaw, Tiger by the Tail has the ingredients for fun escapism: betrayal, chases, drama, gunplay, money, murder, sex. Yet in the same way that George’s acting ability withers upon close inspection, since his performances always rely on mannered line deliveries and stiff poses, Tiger by the Tail has zero happening below the surface. The characterizations are shallow, the plot is far-fetched, and the thrills feel like callbacks to moments form other (better) movies. Note how the credits trumpet the first major appearance of a starlet named Charo—in her handful of scenes as the performer in a local bar, the future Love Boat regular comes across like a poor substitute for Brigitte Bardot, as if any curvy European blonde will suffice.
          Regarding the plot, Steve Michaels (George) returns from Vietnam to a Southwestern resort town, where he immediately clashes with his older brother, Frank (Dennis Patrick), the manager of a racetrack. During a brazen robbery, Frank is killed. Steve gets framed for the crime, sparking a battle of wits between Steve and erudite Sheriff Chancey Jones (John Dehner)—can Steve prove his innocence before Chancey gathers enough circumstantial evidence to put Steve away? Naturally, there’s a million bucks at stake, too.
          The scenes between Chancey and Steve strike sparks, even if screenwriter Charles A. Wallace gets carried away with the lawman’s lofty dialogue, so it’s disappointing whenever Tiger by the Tail gets mired in uninteresting peripheral material. Scenes with Charo dancing and singing are dull, while those with Tippi Hedren as Steve’s old flame aren’t much better. Tiger by the Tail also has way too many characters, with Lloyd Bochner, Alan Hale Jr., and Dean Jagger rendering disposable performances. Furthermore, the movie drags at 109 minutes seeing as how it doesn’t have enough real story to support that much screen time. Yet all these flaws reinforce why Christopher George was the right man for the job. A better movie would have attracted a better actor, and vice versa.

Tiger by the Tail: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Interval (1973)

Merle Oberon, a major Hollywood star of the 1930s and ’40s, attempted a comeback by producing and starring in this May-December romance. First the good news. Oberon and costar Robert Wolders subsequently married, remaining together until she died in 1979. Now the bad news. Interval overflows with ridiculous dialogue, tawdry implications, and unrealistic behavior. At least during early scenes, Oberon’s character is meant to come across as an eccentric who’s seen it all and therefore exists on some higher plane of consciousness, pursuing spiritual fulfillment above all else. Yet she actually comes across as a delusional woman fighting a pointless battle against time. Not helping matters is the obvious work that Oberon had done on her face over the years, some of which stemmed from a much-publicized accident in the 1940s; Oberon’s skin is so taut that it looks like wax, and her eyes are perpetually opened so wide that she seems either frightened or surprised by everything she sees. As for the plot, Serena (Oberon) tours Mexico and meets strapping young artist Chris (Wolders). He falls for her instantly, but she resists, so they have platonic dates and share absurd patter. Chris: “Do you like secrets?” Serena: “Only if they’re never explained.” She bonds with plants and snakes, describing nature as “a rest from people.” And when Chris finally compels Serena to express her love for him, he exclaims, “I’m somebody!” Amid this silliness, Serena has flashbacks to a past trauma. None of it connects emotionally or logically, even when Serena helpfully explains the movie’s title: “We’re all caught in the same interval, between being born and dying.” In other news, water is wet.

Interval: LAME

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Georgia, Georgia (1973)

          The celebrated writer Maya Angelou only penned two original screen stories in her lifetime, the script for this obscure theatrical feature and the teleplay for a 1982 TV movie called Sister, Sister. (Make what you will of the similar titles.) Georgia, Georgia is thoroughly discombobulated. In some scenes it’s an interracial romantic melodrama bordering on camp, complete with a subplot about a queeny manager romancing a hotel clerk who looks like a Swedish version of Dracula. In other scenes, Georgia, Georgia is a dead-serious meditation on issues related to the Vietnam War. And every so often, the picture leaves reality behind for impressionistic passages linking pretentious images with odd sonic counterpoints. Notwithstanding the presence of the same actors and characters from beginning to end, Georgia, Georgia seems like a collection of clips from several different movies.
          Georgia Martin (Diana Sands) is an American pop singer traveling through Sweden with her manager, Herbert (Roger Furman), and her caretaker, Mrs. Anderson (Minnie Gentry). News of Georgia’s arrival sparks interest among a community of American deserters, all of whom are black, because they hope to involve her in their cause, with the ultimate goal of persuading the Swedish government to grant political asylum. Meanwhile, Georgia participates in a photo shoot with Michael Winters (Dirk Benedict), an American living in Sweden. He’s white, so when Georgia begins to demonstrate romantic attraction to Michael, Mrs. Anderson becomes concerned. No interracial hanky-panky on her watch.
          It’s possible that some gifted director could have guided Angelou through revisions and thereby pulled the disparate elements of Georgia, Georgia together. Stig Björkman wasn’t the guy for the job. (In his defense, Björkman rarely makes films in English—which, of course, raises the question of why he was hired in the first place.) For long stretches, Georgia, Georgia is painfully dull because the character motivations are nonsensical and the onscreen actions are repetitive. Furthermore, many supporting actors give amateurish performances—and to note that Benedict is not in the same league as Sands is to greatly understate the situation. Then there’s the dialogue. Periodically, Angelou gets incisive, as when Mrs. Anderson says that Georgia “kinda kicked the habit” of embracing blackness. Yet for every line that works, a dozen don’t. For instance, Georgia exclaims, “I’m not gonna do anything but stay black and die!” That’s a good line for a character who hasn’t already been established as denying her African-American identity.
          It gets worse. During a love scene, Michael says to Georgia: “You taste like mystery.”
          At its most ridiculous, Georgia, Georgia gives both leading characters Bergman-esque contemplation scenes. In Georgia’s vignette, she wears a cape and walks by a lake at dusk while Sands recites poetry on the soundtrack. In Michael’s vignette, he stares into the mirror while raunchy burlesque music plays. However, these scenes aren’t nearly as bizarre as the ending, which won’t be spoiled here. Suffice to say that the finale elevates Georgia, Georgia from muddled to outrageous. For seekers into the cinematic unknown, this picture’s out-0f-nowhere ending makes the whole viewing experience worthwhile. Georgia, Georgia might be a mess, but when it matters, the movie isn’t timid.

Georgia, Georgia: FREAKY

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Farmer (1977)

          Despite being released by a major studio, The Farmer is a decidedly minor entry into the annals of ’70s revenge cinema. Starring and produced by Gary Conway, best known for his roles on the TV series Burke’s Law and Land of the Giants, this picture has a somewhat offbeat premise, inasmuch as the setting is the 1940s and the protagonist is a World War II veteran. (Vigilante flicks about Vietnam vets were more common in the ’70s.) Eventually, The Farmer tumbles into the familiar Death Wish rabbit hole, featuring sexual assault as a plot device and showcasing close-quarters ultraviolence. Those who enjoy grungy pictures in which villains get perforated by sawed-off shotguns will get their kicks from The Farmer. Those who prefer action stories that are grounded in believable characterization will find the film frustrating, because for its first hour, The Farmer tries to tell a relatively credible story, even though the filmmakers have a clumsy way of integrating subplots. Yet once the main narrative kicks into gear, The Farmer becomes a dreary compendium of brutality.
          Kyle Martin (Conway) returns from World War II as a decorated Army sergeant, only to discover his backwoods homestead in disrepair. Kyle’s father died broke, and the farm’s African-American caretaker, Gumshoe (Ken Rendard), isn’t up to the task of maintaining buildings and equipment. Kyle sets to work even as foreclosure looms. Then big-city gangster Johnny (Michael Dante) crashes his car near the farm. Kyle rescues him. After recovering and heading home, Johnny sends slinky moll Betty (Angel Tompkins) to deliver a gift of $1,500, which buys Kyle some time without fully covering his debts. Later, after a particularly nasty turn of events, Johnny sends Betty to hire Kyle as a hit man.
         The plot basically works in a contrived sort of way, but the execution is substandard. By lingering too long on peripheral scenes during the first hour, the filmmakers take forever to get the engine running, and thereafter they mostly adhere to trite formulas. Predicting which characters will die, for instance, requires little effort on the part of the viewer. That said, The Farmer has some interesting moments; not every revenge flick has both a grotesque rape scene and several playful Shirley Temple references. The Farmer also boasts a genuinely ridiculous ending, so there’s a treat in store for those who make it through the whole film.

The Farmer: FUNKY

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Truckin’ Man (1975)

          Enjoyable garbage that plays like a cheapo version of the same year’s White Line Fever, this cheerfully mindless actioner is about a young man who takes over his father’s sole-proprietor trucking operation while exploring the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death. Shot with the ugly lighting of spot-news coverage from local television of the same era, Truckin’ Man suffers the usual blights of under-budgeted drive-in schlock. The acting is dodgy, the narrative is trite, and the stunts are laughably amateurish. Good thing the pacing is so zippy. Running just 81 minutes, Truckin’ Man (sometimes known as Trucker’s Woman) never has time to wear out its welcome. More importantly, the film never aspires to be anything more than disposable junk. The hero beats up bad guys, gets laid, and spews cocksure dialogue. Add in the requisite amount of kitschy ’70s clothing and décor, and you’ve got the ingredients for a craptastic viewing experience.
          After his father’s funeral, Mike Kelly (Michael Hawkins) starts driving the family rig while poking around the trucking scene to see what’s what. Jake Fontaine (Jack Canon) runs the local terminal like a Mafia boss, pressuring drivers into bad deals and using violence to punish those who rebel. Mike quickly identifies Jake as the bad guy. He also romances Karen (Mary Cannon), only to discover that she is Jake’s daughter. Events proceed in a predictable manner, and the closest the picture gets to idiosyncrasy is the supporting character who performs novelty songs filled with malapropisms. (Trivia Alert No. 1: That character is played by Sigourney Weavers uncle, Doodles Weaver. Trivia Alert No. 2: Future TV/film notable Larry Drake portrays a morally conflicted galoot named “Diesel Joe.”) Oddball elements aside,  Truckin’ Man mostly comprises a steady stream of country tunes, macho posturing, and unimpressive stage combat, served with a side of leisure suits and plaid blazers. That’s a ten-four, good buddy.

Truckin’ Man; FUNKY

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Countdown at Kusini (1975)

          After helming three films in America, Ossie Davis ventured to Africa for his next two directorial endeavors, beginning with Kongi’s Harvest (1973), which explores a dictator’s efforts to neutralize a political rival. Countdown at Kusini attacks similar themes from the opposite direction, dramatizing the circumstances of a rebel leader hiding from enemies. Like Kongi’s Harvest, this picture represents an admirable effort to involve Africans in the filmmaking process, and it’s also politically insightful. However Countdown at Kusini shares shortcomings with its predecessor. The storyline is discombobulated, the themes are murky, and lengthy scenes of local color impede narrative momentum.
          Countdown at Kusini follows operatives who protect Ernest Motapo (Davis). Leah (Ruby Dee) is a slick undercover agent, and Red (Greg Morris) is an American jazz musician who moonlights as a spy working for Motapo. At one point, these two help smuggle Motapo from a neighboring country into his homeland, illustrating the danger he faces if his whereabouts become known. Naturally, a love story develops between Leah, who is wholeheartedly devoted to her cause, and Red, who is more ambivalent about risking death. Driving much of the plot is the presence of Ben Amed (Tom Aldredge), a sadistic mercenary determined to kill Motapo, not just because he’s been hired to do so, but also because Motapo once escaped him. Seeing as how four writers worked on the script, it’s no surprise the simple espionage-thriller premise at the heart of this movie gets crowded by discursive material, though it appears undisciplined editing contributed to the muddiness.
          The best scenes in Countdown at Kusini suggest the acerbic little potboiler the picture could have been. In one bit, Motapo operatives ask an arms dealer for a price break because their cause is righteous, and he expresses empathy—up to a point. “I would like Motapo even more,” he says, “if once a while his people paid their bills.” Similarly, scenes of Motapo interacting with family members provide surprising views on divided loyalties. Had this picture been whittled down from its sluggish 101-minute release version, the zip of the Dee/Morris scenes—chases, explosions, fights, romance—would have provided a structure supporting the more thoughtful Motapo scenes. Instead, Countdown and Kusini goes on and on and on, losing focus with each unnecessary flashback and each documentary-style montage of everyday African life.

Countdown at Kusini: FUNKY

Friday, March 9, 2018

My Old Man’s Place (1971)

          Possibly the first American theatrical feature to explore the impact of PTSD on vets returning from Vietnam, problematic drama/thriller My Old Man’s Place has a plot similar to that of The Visitors, a vastly superior picture released the following year. Both films dramatize the issue of soldiers bringing the war home with them by depicting close-quarters tension in remote areas. Yet while the Eliza Kazan-directed The Visitors has meticulous character work and a propulsive storyline, My Old Man’s Place is dubious and episodic. The personalities in this movie range from nonsensical to shallow to trite, and the narrative proceeds haphazardly—one gets the impression of filmmakers perpetually reaching for but not quite grasping heavy symbolism. Nonetheless, My Old Man’s Place is watchable thanks to its attempt at cultural relevance, and thanks to a couple of fine performances.
          At the beginning of the picture, three soldiers return to California from Southeast Asia. Trubee (Michael Moriarty, in his film debut) and Jimmy (William Devane) are combat buddies glad to be done with their military service, but Sgt. Martin Flood (Mitchell Ryan) thinks he might sign up for another tour of duty after a 30-day leave. Thoughtful Trubee and animalistic Jimmy spend time in San Francisco chasing women, then encounter Martin beating up a cross-dressing hustler. Presumably out of respect for a fellow veteran, Trubee and Jimmy offer Martin refuge on a farm owned by Trubee’s father, WWII vet Walter (Arthur Kennedy). The minute the group arrives at Walter’s farm, things turn sour. Walter has no use for Jimmy, a vulgar idiot, and doesn’t immediately notice that Martin is a tightly wound sadist. The situation worsens once Jimmy brings college student Helen (Topo Swope) to the farm. It’s giving nothing away to say the whole situation moves inexorably toward tragedy.
          Beyond the basic premise of war having different effects on different men, not much in My Old Man’s Place makes sense. It’s hard to imagine Trubee and Jimmy becoming friends, the idea they would glom onto the frightening Martin is bizarre, and Helen makes spectacularly stupid decisions. Thus it’s pointless trying to watch My Old Man’s Place as a proper story. Better to absorb the picture as a clumsy effort to engage with something provocative. To that end, Moriarty’s casting is just right, since he effectively captures anguish. Casting Kennedy, a star from a simpler time in movies, works just as well, because his presence illustrates the generation gap. Ryan is good, too, infusing his restrained characterization with unnerving madness. The performer who misses the mark most widely is the usually reliable Devane, because he’s distractingly cartoonish playing a crass simpleton.

My Old Man’s Place: FUNKY

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bush Mama (1979)

          Context is everything. When it was released in 1979, indie drama Bush Mama was part of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement, which involved black filmmakers providing unvarnished glimpses at street life. Like the most celebrated example of this movement, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (which was completed in 1975 but not commercially screened until 2007), Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama explodes with cultural authenticity and sociopolitical anger, so its myriad flaws, ranging from grubby black-and-white photography to a meandering screenplay, matter less than the relevance of the material. In the context of the late ’70s, Bush Mama might have seemed revelatory. Seen today, it comes across as amateurish and repetitive, even though issues explored in the film are just as important as they were in 1979, if not more so.
          Set in an L.A. neighborhood plagued by crime and poverty, Bush Mama concerns Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), a wife and mother struggling to get by. Her husband, T.C. (Johnny Weathers), is a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. Cops arrest T.C. on bogus charges, and he gets sent to prison. Then Dorothy must not only care for their child, but also decide what to do once she learns she’s pregnant again. Much of the film cuts back and forth between realistic scenes of Dorothy at home and stylized scenes of T.C. in prison. The Dorothy scenes feature clashes with social workers and encounters with friends who are similarly bedeviled by problems stemming from systemic racism. The T.C. scenes have a beat-poetry feel, with inmates delivering long speeches about oppression from behind bars. Taken together, these plot threads explain how and why Dorothy becomes radicalized, thereby articulating the underlying ethos of the L.A. Rebellion itself.
          Viewed as an artifact of vintage political art, Bush Mama is endlessly interesting because it juxtaposes humanistic and purely rhetorical elements. Viewed as proper cinema, Bush Mama much less impressive—though it must be noted that, like Killer of Sheep, this is essentially a student film. Gerima made Bush Mama while completing his MFA at UCLA circa 1975, four years before the movie gained a theatrical release. Perhaps that’s why some of the most effective moments in Bush Mama are the simplest. Whenever Gerima trains his camera on Jones quietly existing, the weight on her character’s shoulders painfully visible, he expresses as much truth as he does in long monologues.

Bush Mama: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Team-Mates (1978)

Another shapeless late-’70s teen sex comedy that hides an exploitive nature behind a pseudo-feminist premise, Team-Mates doesn’t get a proper storyline until about a third of the film is over, and even then, the plot is secondary to loosely connected vignettes featuring feathered hair, pizza joints, and vans. Plus, like so many other drive-in duds of the same era, Team-Mates is a sex comedy without enough sex to satisfy the target audience, and without much in the way of real comedy. Pretty teen Vicki (Karen Corrado) gets tired of the way her football-player boyfriend, Brian (Max Goff), cheats on her with other girls, so instead of dumping him, she tries to earn his respect by demanding and receiving permission to try out for the boys’ football team. After all, Vicki’s the star kicker of the girls’ squad. Had that premise been the sole focus of Team-Mates, the movie could have become a passable battle-of-the-sexes romp. Instead, the flick gets mired in dumb subplots about anxious virgins, classroom shenanigans, and out-of-control parties. As for the main theme of gender equality, it receives lip service by way of clunky declarations from Vicki (“I want to be recognized as an individual!”). That the climax of the movie involves Vicki trying to score car rides to a big game indicates the overall witlessness of the picture. Incidentally, those who enjoy showbiz footnotes will dig learning that one scene in Team-Mates features Estelle Getty as a teacher flummoxed by a student who puts out a classroom fire by urinating, and that another scene features a drunken James Spader face-planting into a cake. Relatively speaking, these are high points.

Team-Mates: LAME

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Legend of Earl Durand (1974)

          This low-budget rural adventure is based upon a real-life 1930s fugitive named Earl Durand, a mountain man who was arrested for poaching, made a brazen escape from jail, and led authorities on a manhunt lasting nearly two weeks. Before committing suicide, Durand killed four law-enforcement officers. The Legend of Earl Durand portrays the title character as a backwoods Robin Hood who kills government elk to help feed local poor people, so his reason for evading capture is, theoretically, continuing his good deeds. Since the filmmakers never quite figure how to express that concept, The Legend of Earl Durand churns and spins through a painfully overlong 110-minute running time. One wishes for the brisk fable this could and should have been. Still, even with its considerable flaws, not least of which is an ugly visual style—flat lighting and haphazard angles—The Legend of Earl Durand is watchable more often than it isn’t. The presence of Slim Pickens, Albert Salmi, Martin Sheen, and Keenan Wynn in supporting roles helps a lot. As for fair-haired leading man Peter Haskell, he comes across as a shabby substitute for Robert Redford, clearly the sort of image the filmmakers were after.
          Awkwardly framed with cutesy spoken/sung narration, the movie gives Durand a sympathetic origin story by way of a prologue depicting his youth, then cuts to the protagonist in full robbing-from-the-rich mode. His main adversary, manhunter Jack McQueen (Salmi), is portrayed as a sadist with political ambitions, so the thematic deck is unfairly stacked. In early scenes, Durand romances a pretty librarian and occasionally brings her little brother along during adventures; throughout the first half of the picture, Durand is as menacing as Sheriff Andy Taylor. Things get a bit tougher once the manhunt begins—for instance, Wynn plays a retired Army officer who zooms over the Grand Tetons in a biplane, then commands a posse armed with primitive rocket launchers. Wynn blusters well, Pickens reliably essays a likeable idiot, and Sheen supercharges the scenes in which he plays a simple-minded Durand accomplice. So while there’s a lot to dislike here, there’s also a fair amount to appreciate.

The Legend of Earl Durand: FUNKY

Monday, March 5, 2018

Northeast of Seoul (1972)

          In terms of originality and quality, Northeast of Seoul is a bust. The narrative is muddy, the thrills are trite, and the way Hollywood stars interact with foreign culture is about as authentic as an episode of The Love Boat. There’s also something innately comical about presenting corpulent ’60s star Victor Buono as a man of action. Having said all that, Northeast of Seoul is enjoyable if you’re receptive to its tacky pleasures, such as Buono creeping through a mansion like a ninja or running through forests like he’s James Bond on a secret mission. Nothing about Northeast of Seoul bears the slightest resemblance to human reality, so while the picture isn’t quite camp, it’s thoroughly silly.
          Set in Korea, the movie concerns the search for a priceless ancient sword. Some parties want it for purposes of historical preservation, others want it because of its value on the black market, and still others want it because it’s purported to imbue its possessor with magical powers. Flanaghan (John Ireland) is a down-on-his-luck American working as a tour guide, since he knows Seoul as well as most natives. At the beginning of the picture, he attends a funeral and reconnects with Portman (Buono), an American art dealer based in Seoul, and Katherine (Anita Ekberg), an international woman of mystery. Long ago, they were partners with the man who just died, so when they get a tip that someone has found the long-missing Kuguro Sword, they team up again to find the artifact.
          Borrowing style and themes from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and its myriad imitators, Northeast of Seoul portrays a tenuous alliance among untrustworthy people, with each scene introducing a new betrayal. This results in a storyline that’s always eventful but rarely clear—the filmmakers seem to believe that as long as lots of things are happening and people regularly jab each other with pithy dialogue, explanations are unnecessary. Ireland does a fair job channeling Humphrey Bogart-style cynicism, and Buono, as always, injects his villainous characterization with playful humor. Ekberg contributes the least of the three marquee names, but her presence is amusingly incongruous. Also of interest is extensive location photography throughout Seoul and the surrounding areas, as well as the use of classical Korean instruments on the soundtrack.

Northeast of Seoul: FUNKY

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Man Who Would Not Die (1975)

One way to set appropriate expectations for this cheaply made mystery/thriller is to note that leading man Alex Sheafe, who spent much of his career appearing on soaps, comes off as a poor man’s Gil Gerard. Yes, that’s how low the bar is set. Set and filmed in the Caribbean, The Man Who Would Not Die tells the confusing story of Marc Rogers (Sheafe), a seaman who stumbles into intrigue. First he signs on to captain a private ship for a cruise to Miami, only to have his patron die of a heart attack midway through the voyage. Then he becomes the target of a police investigation when, after returning to shore, the first mate from that trip is murdered. Later still, Marc gains unwanted attention from a Mafia enforcer (Kennan Wynn), who believes the patron didn’t actually die and that Marc knows the whereabouts of stolen Mob loot. And just to make things even more complicated, Marc gets entangled with women including the widow of the fellow who died—or didn’t die, or whatever. Because, you see, the gist of The Man Who Would Not Die is that the dude who hired Marc was a fugitive, so he assumed many false identities—and therefore, some of the people who die in the story might or might not be persons whose names the fugitive used. Making a story this twisty work requires both a light touch and a sharp mind, qualities that co-writer/director Robert Arkless does not manifest. Therefore, even though this picture runs only 83 minutes, it’s so episodic and insipid and sluggish that a better title would have been The Movie That Would Not Die.

The Man Who Would Not Die: LAME

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Only Way (1970)

          Readily available data on this World War II drama is contradictory, with some sources indicating it’s a Danish production, others describing it as an international coproduction, and still more sources claiming the picture is American (even though the credits plainly state it was shot in Denmark). Adding to the confusion, two of the primary actors are English, whereas most of the players are Danes. Oh, and good luck nailing down when (if ever) the picture was released theatrically in the US. Nonetheless, The Only Way merits attention in this space since it’s a respectable film featuring Jane Seymour’s first significant big-screen role.
          Set in and around Copenhagen circa the 1940s, the movie dramatizes the travails of the Stein family as the German occupation of Denmark escalates. Patriarch Morten (Martin Potter) is a violin dealer who recently acquired a valuable antique instrument, and his daughter, Lillian (Jane Seymour), is a ballet teacher. After Lillian learns from friends that the Nazis plan to evacuate all Jews from Copenhagen, she tells her father it’s time for the family to flee, but he stubbornly refuses, believing that acquiescence to the Third Reich will empower their totalitarian rampage. What ensues is a slow-burn thriller as Morten, Lillian, and members of their extended family take different postures on the issue at hand, leading to domestic strife. Meanwhile, friends of the family explore possible escape routes even as the Nazis tighten their anti-Semitic net. At the same time, opportunists exploit and threaten the Steins.
          Benefiting greatly from extensive location photography, solid period costuming, and workmanlike performances, The Only Way is never less than palatable—yet it’s rarely more than that. The characterizations are thin, the script often sidelines the Steins to focus on peripheral characters, and obvious opportunities for creating deep interpersonal conflict are ignored. The movie starts with Morten refusing to face reality and never really advances that theme until the very last shots. Similarly, despite spending a fair amount of time introducing Lillian’s love for dance, her relationship with the arts ultimately has little impact on the plot. Still, nearly any film celebrating the heroism of WWII resistance has inherent worth, and it’s interesting to watch Seymour as an ingénue prior to her sexualized breakout role as a Bond girl in Live and Let Die (1973).

The Only Way: FUNKY

Friday, March 2, 2018

Ride the Hot Wind (1971)

Faced with the familiar conundrum of crafting a new image as an adult, former Mickey Mouse Club child star Tommy Kirk signed on to play a disgraced Vietnam veteran in this downbeat drama from cowriter/director Duke Kelly, who never made another theatrically released film. Conceptually, Ride the Hot Wind is rich. Kirk plays Captain Gregory Shank, a character inspired by William Calley, the real-life American officer responsible for the My Lai massacre. In Ride the Hot Wind, Gregory is accused of orchestrating a My Lai-type slaughter, then tried and briefly imprisoned by the Army. All the while, he claims innocence. After enduring abuse in military prison, Gregory tries to start fresh in civilian life, but his past haunts him—employers fire Gregory once they learn his true identity, strangers drag him into brawls, and women can’t handle his emotional baggage. Eventually, Gregory finds a new tribe with a group of bikers, but that situation turns sour when the bikers’ propensity for pointless violence leads to a crime spree and then a manhunt by police who assume Gregory is the ringleader. One wishes Kelly had sold his concept to reputable producers, thus resulting in a better script, a proper budget, and more impressive casting. Just imagine a slick version of Ride the Hot Wind starring, say, Bruce Dern—I mean, like, wow, man. Despite obviously trying hard, Kirk is not anywhere near that level. His acting is as inconsistent and labored as Kelly’s direction and scripting, so Ride the Hot Wind in a deeply underwhelming (and sometimes unintentionally funny) viewing experience. What a bummer of a missed opportunity.

Ride the Hot Wind: LAME