Tuesday, November 30, 2010

All That Jazz (1979)

          Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2  (1963), All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s arresting rumination on the limitations of his own character and talent, seen through the prism of an onscreen doppelganger. The movie depicts a tumultuous chapter in the life of film director/choreographer/theater director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), who juggles the challenges of transforming a hokey stage musical into something fresh with long hours spent obsessively refining his latest movie, a biopic about a comedian that echoes Fosse’s Lenny (1974). Gideon also juggles intense relationships with several women, including a wife (Leland Palmer) and a girlfriend (Ann Reinking) driven to distraction by Gideon’s infidelities. Yet the protagonist’s true love might actually be Death, portrayed as an angelic beauty by Jessica Lange, because since his earliest days as a youth performer in raunchy burlesque shows (as shown in stylized dream sequences/flashbacks), Gideon’s been fascinated by the high-wire act of risking disastrous failure in order to chase extraordinary success. He’s also deeply aware of his own shortcomings, afraid of being discovered as a fraud who squanders his talent, and, as one insightful friend notes, terrified that in the final analysis, he might be—horror of horrors!—“ordinary.”
          The plentiful parallels to Fosse’s real life accentuate just how unflattering a self-portrait Fosse paints: Gideon is a perfectionist, philandering, pill-popping pain in the ass whom friends and colleagues somehow love anyway, because he’s so damn interesting and talented. So like Gideon, Fosse does a high-wire act, seeking to balance ego-tripping narcissism and merciless self-analysis. As a result, All That Jazz a film of rare psychological complexity and depth. Scheider gives the most nuanced and surprising performance of his career, beautifully depicting every contradictory aspect of the main character; the decidedly nonmusical performer even dives headfirst into a full-on musical number, and looks graceful guiding dancers through their moves (with a cigarette dangling from his lips, Fosse-style). Fosse cast real-life dancers Palmer and Reinking in the principal female roles, because their characters communicate with Gideon through exquisite body language, and few films integrate dance as fully into storytelling as All That Jazz, which seethes with the eroticism of artists whose bodies are their lives.
          Fosse justifies his razzle-dazzle reputation by presenting tasty clips from Gideon’s film-in-progress as well as a handful of jaw-dropping musical numbers, the standout of which is “Take Off With Us,” a nudity-drenched showstopper about casual sex that only the wicked Fosse could conceive and execute. All That Jazz tends to polarize viewers, with some dismissing it as an overwrought exercise in navel-gazing, but I’m among the partisans who consider it one of the sharpest character studies ever filmed. Watch for Wallace Shawn in a funny bit as a bean-counting producer, John Lithgow as a pompous theater director forever overshadowed by Gideon’s accomplishments, and the great actor/dancer Ben Vereen as an entertainer who takes showbiz obsequiousness to an otherworldly extreme.

All That Jazz: OUTTA SIGHT

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) & The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) & Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

          British comedian Peter Sellers first played nincompoop policeman Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther (1963), but really hit his groove with the sequel, A Shot in the Dark (1964), for which he and director Blake Edwards elevated Clouseau’s ineptitude to a giddy level of farcical perfection. So it’s disappointing to view The Return of the Pink Panther in close succession with its predecessors, because the 1975 reunion of Edwards and Sellers is a minor effort for both men. All the usual tropes are here (animated title sequence, smooth scoring by Henry Mancini, glamorous European locations), but the filmmaking is enervated. The jokes are moronic, repetitive, and telegraphed; the camerawork is flat except for an exciting heist at the beginning; and the storyline is a pointless rehash of the original 1963 movie, with Christopher Plummer blandly essaying a role originated by the debonair David Niven. As for Sellers, he seems bored, and there’s not nearly enough of Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s insane boss/nemesis, Dreyfus.
          The 1976 follow-up The Pink Panther Strikes Again is much better, though by this point Sellers’ characterization is becoming overly reliant on elaborate makeup and goofy costumes. The James Bond-ish plot is silly fun, with Dreyfus escaping from a mental institution and threatening global destruction with a super-powerful laser beam unless Clouseau is surrendered to him, and the movie benefits from its supporting players: Lom’s cheerful-maniac routine is delightful, and Lesley-Anne Down smolders as a Russian agent. Strikes Again is too long, but that’s true of all of Edwards’ Panther movies, and while comic inspiration is in short supply, some of the gags are terrific, like Clouseau’s attempt at dentistry.
          The series ran out of gas with Revenge of the Pink Panther, which relies on insipid disguises (Sellers dressed as a gargantuan mobster), stupid puns (a shopkeeper whose surname is Balls), and tedious plotting about a crime boss conspiring to kill Clouseau. Lom’s comic mojo is defused when his character is “cured,” Dyan Cannon is wasted in a decorative role, and series supporting player Burt Kwouk (Clouseau’s manservant Cato) gets stuck in a series of foolish slapstick gags. Even the usually reliable Mancini contributes lackluster work, from the disco-ish version of the main theme that plays over the opening credits to the corny vaudeville-style number that accompanies the Hong Kong-set climax.
          After Sellers died in 1980, Edwards pillaged outtakes from various Panther movies for a pair of awful ’80s sequels, and more recently Steve Martin took over the Clouseau role in a pair of critically drubbed comedies.

The Return of the Pink Panther: LAME
The Pink Panther Strikes Again: FUNKY
Revenge of the Pink Panther: LAME

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)

Although Burt Reynolds filmed hours upon hours of cowboy stories for film and television in the ’60s, he only starred in one Western during his peak period of the 1970s and early ’80s, and the picture pales in comparison to similar films of the same period starring Reynolds’ buddy Clint Eastwood. Part of the problem is an episodic storyline with too many villains, and part of the problem is the movie’s indecision about whether it’s an action picture with a romantic subplot or a romantic drama with action scenes. It also doesn’t help that the misogyny quotient is off the charts. Reynolds plays Jay, an outlaw reeling from the rape and murder of his Native American wife, Cat Dancing. When Jay’s accomplices Billy (Bo Hopkins) and Dawes (Jack Warden) kidnap a woman (Sarah Miles) they find wandering in the wilderness, Jay prevents the thugs from raping her, and takes her with him when he abandons the gang. The woman, Catherine, is running from her monstrous husband, Crocker (George Hamilton), so eventually Jay and Catherine are stalked by Dawes, Crocker, and even a bounty hunter (Lee J. Cobb), whom Crocker hires. It’s all very convoluted, and the idea that Catherine falls for Jay because he reveals his tragic past is trite. Making matters worse, Reynolds and Miles lack chemistry, so the only sparks are between Reynolds and Warden, whose climactic confrontation is memorably brutal. A priceless actor no matter how he was cast, Warden contributes one of his most odiously villainous performances in Cat Dancing, so he’s almost worth the price of admission. The location photography is handsome, especially scenes in a snowy forest toward the end of the picture, but the narrative’s stop-and-start-rhythm prevents Cat Dancing from building up a head of emotional steam. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing: FUNKY

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Man and Boy (1971)

          After scoring in the ’60s as a comedian and TV star, Bill Cosby tried expanding his popularity to movies in the early ’70s, beginning with this Western about a former cavalryman who embarks on a dangerous quest with his young son. Perhaps because the movie cast Cosby in a purely dramatic role, Man and Boy failed to connect with audiences, but it’s actually a fairly strong piece of work, blending life lessons with violent action and rich characterizations. As the title suggests, the story is shot through with themes of male identity, and specifically African-American male identity; throughout the movie, the protagonist uses deeds instead of words to convey notions of duty, honor, integrity, and loyalty in a world that expects black men to behave like second-class citizens. As directed by journeyman TV helmer E.W. Swwckhamer, Man and Boy makes the most of a thin budget by employing vivid locations and a lively supporting cast. Reliable players including Yaphet Kotto, Dub Taylor, and Henry Silva enliven small roles, while young George Spell, who plays the protagonist’s son, effectively conveys the experience of a youth discovering the troubling complexities of the adult world.
         In the first act, we meet Caleb Revers (Cosby), a proud man struggling to make his small farm viable, despite meager resources and pressure from racist neighbors. Through a fortunate circumstance, Caleb comes into possession of a fine horse, which aggravates whites who resent blacks becoming property owners. One day, because of carelessness on the part of Caleb’s son, Billy (Spell), the horse is stolen, so Caleb takes Billy on a trek to recover the animal. Most of the film depicts their adventures out on the frontier. An encounter with an old enemy of Caleb’s turns violent, forcing Billy to grapple with the idea of standing up to thugs, and a visit with a lonely widow who comes on to Caleb stretches Billy’s understanding of the way men and women relate to each other. During the picture’s final act, the travelers cross paths with a black outlaw named Lee Christmas (Douglas Turner Ward), giving Billy a harsh view of life outside the law.
          In some ways, Man and Boy is obvious and schematic, as if the filmmakers made a list of lessons they wanted George to experience, then contrived a narrative situation for each lesson. And, indeed, the storytelling hits a few bumps as the storytellers move too conveniently from one episode to the next. But because screenwriters Harry Essex and Oscar Saul avoid easy sentimental payoffs, the picture feels relatively credible and tough all the way through. Cosby’s performance helps create the desired illusion. Imbuing his portrayal with equal parts idealism and world-weariness, Cosby creates a portrait of a man with one foot in the cold truths of everyday reality and another foot in the empowering possibilities of dreams. Regrettably, Cosby’s next attempts at drama netted similarly middling results, though he’s excellent in the TV movie To All My Friends on Shore (1972) and intriguing in the theatrical action picture Hickey & Boggs (also 1972), so he mostly ditched serious acting once he returned to comedy in the mid-’70s. It would have been interesting to see how his dramatic chops evolved.

Man and Boy: GROOVY

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hannie Caulder (1971)

          After spending a few years making insipid pictures that promised (and delivered) little more than ogling shots of her bikini-clad body, Raquel Welch decided to prove she could act by tackling more serious roles beginning with Hannie Caulder, a nasty little Western made by Tigon British Film Productions on location in Spain. Shortly a trio of slovenly brothers (played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin) botch a bank robbery and escape into a desert, they stumble across a small ranch owned by the title character and her husband. The brothers kill the husband, gang-rape Hannie, and leave her for dead. In one of the movie’s many overly convenient plot contrivances, conscientious bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp) happens upon the ranch soon afterward, then agrees to teach Hannie about guns so she can track down and murder her assailants. Predictably, they fall in love while she trains, and just as predictably, circumstances ensure that Hannie must confront the brothers without Thomas by her side. Excepting an interlude during which Hannie and Thomas hang out with a philosophical gunsmith (played by Christopher Lee), that’s more or less the extent of the story.
          Thanks to the considerable skills of director/co-writer Burt Kennedy, the picture moves along at a good clip, frequently exploding with bursts of brutality, and the film looks terrific. Yet the story is trite and even periodically nonsensical; virtually no explanation is provided for a shootout at the gunsmith’s home or for the presence of a mysterious gunfighter played, silently, by Stephen Boyd. This narrative opacity makes the movie seem more and more vapid as it speeds toward an insipid climax. Unsurprisingly, the picture’s biggest shortcoming is also its biggest attraction, and that’s Welch. Her performance comprises posing rather than acting, so she’s never more than a beautiful physical presence. That said, Borgnine, Elam, and Martin are enjoyably repulsive as they bicker and whine their way across the frontier, and Culp is terrific as the bounty hunter. Calm, prickly, and wise, his characterization commands the screen, so Hannie Caulder rises when he’s present and wanes when he’s not.

Hannie Caulder: FUNKY

Thursday, November 25, 2010

El Condor (1970)

Excitement is in short supply throughout most of El Condor, a lurid south-of-the-border adventure costarring former NFL star Jim Brown and spaghetti-Western guy Lee Van Cleef. Apparently the fact that Brown’s modern persona was preposterously anachronistic in his previous Western, 100 Rifles (1969), wasn’t enough to deter producers from pairing him with Van Cleef, whose squinty toughness made him seem right at home in a long string of low-budget oaters. But given the loopy narrative of El Condor, credibility obviously wasn’t a priority. In the story, an escaped convict (Brown) and a crusty prospector (Van Cleef) persuade a band of Apache Indians to storm a castle in 19th-century Mexico, ostensibly for revolutionary purposes but really because the Anglos want to steal gold that’s hidden inside the castle. The buildup to the siege is quite dreary, because scenes establishing the buddy-movie dynamic include such unpleasant vignettes as a “comedy” bit of the heroes getting tarred and feathered. But the actual siege, which takes up the last half-hour of the movie, is trashy fun—shots of the invaders using handheld metal claws to climb the outer walls of the castle, à la Spider-Man, are awfully cool. The siege also includes a show-stopping scene with lovely ’60s/’70s starlet Marianna Hill, who holds an entire army in her thrall by disrobing in full view of the entire castle. B-movie icon Larry Cohen was one of the screenwriters, so his style of cheerful sensationalism is prevalent throughout the picture, and director John Guillermin contributes his usual elegant camerawork. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

El Condor: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Catlow (1971)

Who knew the world needed a grisly Louis L’Amour adaptation featuring a nude scene by Mr. Spock? What’s that you say? The world didn’t need a movie like that? Well, too bad, because for better or worse (mostly worse), Catlow exists. And forty years down the road, I’m sure Leonard Nimoy is thrilled. Yul Brynner plays the title character, an outlaw who gets wind of when and where a group of Confederate soldiers are transporting a shipment of Mexican gold. Catlow’s decision to make a play for the loot puts an understandable strain on his friendship with a U.S. Marshal (Richard Crenna), so chrome-domed Catlow finds himself in the crosshairs of the law, the Confederates, and even a hired killer (Nimoy). Seeing the once-and-future science officer of the starship Enterprise in an offbeat context is about the only novelty value that Catlow offers, because it’s a shoddily produced and thoroughly mean-spirited Western made at a time when such films were churned out by the dozen, especially in Europe. Brynner does his usual stoic bit and Crenna delivers his standard clenched-teeth performance, so only Nimoy gets an opportunity to do something outside his wheelhouse. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do anything with that opportunity. For all of about five minutes, it’s a kick to see him in a full beard, grimly mowing down everyone in his path, but he doesn’t have a character to play, and his performance is restrained to the point of catatonia. (I blame the circumstances, because he was great in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) The only moment Nimoy gets lively is the aforementioned bare-ass bit, a nasty brawl that begins when his character is taking a bath, but Catlow is so poorly made that in half the shots of this scene, Nimoy’s wearing an anachronistic black Speedo, while in the other half sloppy editing leaves Nimoy adrift in compromising angles. When a scene filled with technical errors is the only one that makes an impression, that’s generally not considered a good sign.

Catlow: LAME

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

A film that only seems odd when compared to the lily-white stories that comprise the majority of its genre, this mildly groundbreaking black Western casts director-star Sidney Poitier as a classic American archetype: the gun-toting savior. Playing a wagon master who escorts groups of African-American pioneers from the (barely) free South to the wide-open spaces of the West shortly after the Civil War, Poitier matches his signature traits of dignity and poise with the X factors of a hot temper and an itchy trigger finger. Thrown together with a con man posing as a preacher (Harry Belafonte), Poitier’s Buck cuts a swath through the pale-faced monsters out to kill his people for the sin of wanting to live free. The mix of righteous indignation and badass gunplay is no more peculiar than similar juxtapositions found in a hundred other films with white casts, but the novelty of this film’s particulars gives Buck and the Preacher a strangely compelling energy. It helps (a lot) that the lurid story rushes along at a fast clip, one brisk scene after another strung together by a funky score dominated by a countrified mouth harp. Belafonte is entertainingly demented in his role (check out the way he hides his gun in a hollowed-out Bible), genre stalwart Cameron Mitchell contributes an odious presence as the picture’s main villain, and Civil Rights-era stalwart Ruby Dee offers a grounding presence in her smallish role as Buck’s perpetually endangered significant other.

Buck and the Preacher: FUNKY

Monday, November 22, 2010

Billy Two Hats (1974)

Competently made but forgettable, Billy Two Hats was part of Gregory Peck’s ongoing campaign to grow beyond his noble onscreen persona. Whereas in more extreme endeavors like The Boys from Brazil (1978), he went completely against type by playing villains, in Billy Two Hats he stretches by playing an outlaw with an accent. But even though Peck’s Scottish brogue came naturally, given his family’s roots in the British isles, Alan Sharp’s limp screenplay keeps him from achieving liftoff. It doesn’t help that Peck is tethered, buddy-movie style, to Desi Arnaz Jr., a former child actor whose transition to grown-up roles was not a cause for celebration. The story is standard stuff about an outlaw named Deans (Peck) and his hot-blooded half-breed sidekick Billy (Arnaz) getting chased across the frontier by dogged Sheriff Gifford (Jack Warden). The only novel aspect of the narrative is that for much of the picture Deans is unable to walk, so Billy drags him around the desert while the older man reclines in a cot. This creates lots of opportunities for the Scottish rascal to regale his companion with monologues, and Peck’s voice is such a gorgeous instrument that some of the chatty bits are entertaining; he also cuts a great figure with his thick black beard and sloppily bundled clothing, even when confined to the cot. Warden and David Huddleston acquit themselves well in bland roles as Wild West meanies, and because it’s a mid-’70s Western, high-adventure lyricism steadily gives way to “meaningful” gloom. But, alas, there’s nothing here that wasn’t done more effectively in a dozen other movies. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Billy Two Hats: LAME

Sunday, November 21, 2010

All the President’s Men (1976)

          Easily one of the most important American films of the ’70s, this spellbinder about the Washington Post reporters whose coverage of the Watergate break-in helped topple Richard Nixon works as an exciting character piece, a meticulous journalism procedural, and a taut political thriller. Producer-star Robert Redford, deep into a run of great movies that proved he was more than a pretty-boy leading man, nurtured the project from day one. He prodded real-life Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to adapt their Watergate stories into the nonfiction book All the President’s Men, which was released in 1974, and coached them through shaping the book’s narrative. For the film adaptation, he recruited screenwriter William Goldman (who won an Oscar for his work) and director Alan J. Pakula, both of whom contributed enormously to the magic act of generating suspense even though everybody already knew the ending. The development of the picture was rocky. At one point the real Bernstein and his then-girlfriend, Nora Ephron, wrote a draft of the script without Goldman’s knowledge, fabricating a scene portraying Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as a kind of journalistic secret agent who worms his way past a secretary to reach an elusive source. The scene made it into the final picture, and Goldman has lamented that it’s the only made-up moment in the story.
          Despite the offscreen intrigue, All the President’s Men is a watershed moment for its participants. From Redford and Hoffman to Goldman and Pakula to composter David Shire and cinematographer Gordon Willis, everyone involved does some of their best-ever work. Beautifully capturing the haphazard beginnings of the investigation, when Woodward (Redford) wasn’t even sure he’d found a real story, and frighteningly depicting the private conversations among men who realized they were about to take down a commander-in-chief, the movie is as fascinating about process as it is entertaining. Among the spectacular supporting cast, Jason Robards is the Oscar-winning standout as gruffly principled editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook is chilling as government informant “Deep Throat,” who meets Woodward a series of shadowy parking garages. Jane Alexander, Martin Balsam, Stephen Collins, Nicholas Coster, Robert Walden, and Jack Warden all excel in smaller roles. As for the above-the-title players, Hoffman and Redford generate palpable oil-and-water friction. Among the many great things this movie offers, perhaps most impressive is the fact that the film never forgets—or overplays—the importance of the history it depicts. Not exactly the easiest needle to thread, but All the Preisdent’s Men accomplishes the task gracefully.

All the President’s Men: OUTTA SIGHT

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) & The World’s Greatest Lover (1977)

          The comedy world suffered a blow when Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder stopped collaborating in the mid-’70s, because Brooks never found a better leading man, and Wilder never found a better director. A good example of how badly these men needed each other is The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. A farcical mystery written and directed by Wilder, the movie features several members of Brooks’ stock company (Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Wilder), and it looks great (thanks to cinematographer Gerry Fisher). Better still, the basic idea of famed sleuth Holmes using an idiot sibling as a decoy is clever and fun. (The movie’s title is meant ironically.) Unfortunately, the gags run the gamut from insultingly stupid to numbingly stupid: Feldman and Wilder dancing at a formal ball with their rear ends exposed; Feldman, Kahn, and Wilder doing a cringe-inducing dance number called “The Kangaroo Hop” (twice); Wilder and British comedy stalwart Roy Kinnear fighting with an oversized glove and an oversized shoe for weapons. It’s all so painful that when cameo player Albert Finney shows up to ask a rhetorical question—“Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?”—the answer is clear. Only the consummate skill of the players makes Smarter Brother borderline tolerable.
          Wilder went the auteur route again for The World’s Greatest Lover, which is shockingly awful. A period piece about a talent search for a silent-movie heartthrob in the mode of Rudolph Valentino, Lover is filled with moronic slapstick (like an endless gag involving an overflowing bathtub), and Wilder’s performance is atrocious. He spends nearly every scene screaming and bulging his eyes, so he looks like he’s receiving electroshock therapy instead of acting. Playing his wife, Carol Kane tries to ground a few scenes with her offbeat sweetness, but she was obviously instructed to match Wilder’s manic energy to the best of her ability, so she ends up mugging and screaming as well. Supporting Wilder once again, DeLuise goes way over the top in his costarring turn as a psychotic studio executive, and his preposterous hairstyle is just about the only amusing thing in this unbearable movie. Great poster, though!

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother: LAME
The World’s Greatest Lover: SQUARE

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chandler (1971)

So miscast that his unique screen persona is suffocated, roughly made and distinctly Southern everyman Warren Oates stars as a modern-day private dick in Chandler, a lesser entry in the seemingly endless series of ’70s thrillers paying homage to classic film noir. Directed and co-written by Paul Magwood, who for obvious reasons never made another movie, Chandler features many of the usual private-investigator tropes, but sluggish pacing and an incoherent storyline make it almost unwatchable. On the plus side, the movie looks good and features several colorful actors (Leslie Caron, Scatman Crothers, Gloria Grahame, Mitchell Ryan). Additionally, the leisurely camerawork provides lingering looks at such Los Angeles landmarks as Olvera Street and Union Station circa the early ’70s, but you know a movie is in trouble when the scenery is more interesting than the story. The inconsequential plot is the usual gobbledygook about a tough gumshoe falling for the dame he’s supposed to observe, and many of the film’s scenes are so casual—like Oates’ chatty introduction to Caron on a train bound for Monterey—that it feels like the filmmakers shot the actors hanging out on set instead of performing dramatic scenes. Even with this loose storytelling approach, Chandler manages to make the experience of watching Oates boring, which is quite an accomplishment given his eccentric dynamism, and suffice to say nothing sparks between him and Caron, who seems like she’s from a different universe. Apparently gallons of bad blood were spilled after filming ended: The movie was re-edited without the director’s participation, so huge chunks of story were excised; the first composer was fired and a new score was installed; and Caron sued to get her name over the title. It’s possible a good movie was buried inside the raw material, but the version that survives is confusing and dull, of interest only to noir nuts and Oates obsessives.

Chandler: LAME

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Exorcist (1973) & Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

          Since its spectacularly successful release on December 26, 1973, the public has been divided on The Exorcist, with one audience contingent praising the picture as a powerful drama about faith and another excoriating the movie as sensationalist trash. The beauty of The Exorcist is that both interpretations are justified. While the heart of writer William Peter Blatty’s novel and screenplay is a probing exploration of the notion that definitive evidence of the devil implicitly proves the existence of God, the amped-up grotesquerie of director William Friedkin’s movie is as pandering as the content of any exploitation movie. In fact it’s the very tension between the dark and light impulses of the film that makes it so fascinating and so true to its deepest themes: Like the characters in the story, the film has to battle through the pea soup and spinning heads of manifested evil to reach a hopeful conclusion.
          The movie unfolds simply, with distraught mom Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn) seeking first medical and then religious help when her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), devolves into a condition that might be demonic possession. The little girl urinates in front of company, flails violently, and spews guttural obscenities, all while her body disintegrates into a horrific mess of pallid skin, scars, and sores. Helping Chris combat the deterioration are an anguished young priest, Karras (Jason Miller), and a world-weary exorcist, Merrin (Max Von Sydow). Providing a sort of comic relief is the caustic police detective (Lee J. Cobb) investigating a murder for which the possessed child might have been responsible.
          Friedkin’s aggressive verité style imbues the provocative story with as much realism as possible, given the focus on special effects and supernatural occurrences, and he’s aided by powerful performances and a technical crew committed to creating vivid atmosphere. Burstyn is spectacular as a mother in an unimaginable situation, making every scene she’s in emotionally credible, and Miller, a genuinely tortured sort offscreen, fills his performance with such intense emotional pain that some of his anguished moments are as hard to watch as the film’s goriest scenes. The movie is filled with classic moments, from the subtle (Burstyn walking down a Washington, D.C., street while Mike Oldfield’s eerie instrumental “Tubular Bells” plays on the soundtrack) to the vulgar (Regan’s obscene use of a crucifix). So while it’s impossible to say for certain whether the movie is inherently exploitive or inherently provocative, it’s also impossible to deny the film’s otherworldly power.
          The same cannot be said for the picture’s first sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, an insipid mixture of old ideas that worked better the first time and new ideas that should have been nixed at the development stage. Unwisely working a trippy sci-fi/fantasy groove, director John Boorman leads an impressive but slightly embarrassed and narcotized cast through one profoundly silly scene after another. (Newcomers Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, and James Earl Jones join returning stars Blair—newly curvy but still chipmunk-cheeked—and Von Sydow.) The initial story hook is intriguing, with the Vatican dispatching a priest to investigate whether Merrin was a godly man or a heretic, given his record of spectacular exorcisms, but things spin quickly spin out of control. Not only does the sequel plot indicate that Regan is still possessed, rendering the previous film moot, but Boorman weaves in a bizarre subplot about a primitive African village and its locust-centric religious beliefs.
          Boorman and master cinematographer William A. Fraker shoot nearly everything on soundstages, including scenes in African wheat fields, so the whole movie feels bogus and odd. Seriously, what’s the deal with that high-tech hospital featuring so many transparent walls it resembles a county-fair funhouse? At one point, Jones wears an elaborate bug-shaped helmet, complete with giant eyes. In another scene, 17-year-old Blair lures 51-year-old Burton into bed. And the dialogue! Consider the scene where Regan meets Sandra, a little girl played by future Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato. “I’m autistic,” Sandra says. “I can’t talk. What’s the matter with you?” (Never mind that she can talk, or that the filmmakers don’t understand how autism works.) “I was possessed by a demon,” Regan replies. “It’s okay. He’s gone.” Despite being a complete dud as a horror show, Exorcist II: The Heretic is so exuberantly goofy that it’s a sumptuous feast for those who consume movies ironically; bad cinema doesn’t get much better.
          Franchise creator Blatty wisely pretended Boorman’s film didn’t exist when he wrote and directed 1990’s The Exorcist III, the first worthy successor to the original film. As fans of this series know, there’s a lot more to the story of subsequent Exorcist flicks, but that’s a topic for another day.

The Exorcist: RIGHT ON
Exorcist II: The Heretic: FREAKY

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Its status as the ultimate midnight movie unassailable, Rocky Horror has become critic-proof by this point, because people who love this campy musical and its accompanying audience-participation circus couldn’t care less whether the film meets anyone’s standard of “quality cinema.” Seen with the right crowd, Rocky Horror is a blast, because exuberant fans in fishnets cavort onstage while toast flies through the theater and everyone interacts with the movie’s dialogue. Seen without a crowd at all, the movie loses much of its appeal, if not its debauched singularity. The insipid story, which writer-costar Richard O’Brien and director-cowriter Jim Sharman transposed from O’Brien’s stage musical, is a pervy mash-up of horror-flick clichés, replacing the usual mad scientist with Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.” (That’s the planet Transylvania, of course.) The songs are fun, especially the irresistible “Time Warp,” but the jokes are groaners and the wink-wink “we know we’re in a bad movie” vibe gets tiresome. Still, enthusiastic performances abound. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play Brad and Janet, white-bread paramours who fall into Frank-N-Furter’s lascivious clutches, and both actors vigorously sell the movie’s gimmicks. Sarandon also looks amazing, spending much of the picture in various states of undress. Meat Loaf sings the hell out of his small role as Eddie, an unlucky biker, and Charles Gray is droll as the movie’s caustic narrator. But it’s really Tim Curry’s movie, because he’s outrageous as Frank-N-Furter. A drag queen with bulging eyes and an overripe libido, Frank-N-Furter might be cinema’s most cheerfully obscene character. So while Rocky Horror may not be “quality cinema,” it delivers enough demented pleasure that it’s worth seeing at least once—especially with diehard fans who know the movie’s raunchy routines by heart.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: FREAKY

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

          A strange meditation on the nature of man adapted from a Yukio Mishima novel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea earned a certain degree of notoriety during its original release because of rumors that costars Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles weren’t faking when they shot their love scenes. Setting aside the fact that the scenes in question are tame by modern standards, it’s a shame this dark drama is mostly known for risqué content—for while the love story between a lonely English widow (Miles) and a world-weary American sailor (Kristofferson) is intense, another thread of the story is much more interesting. The widow’s son, Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn), is a disturbed teenager who has fallen under the influence of an even more disturbed peer, known only as “Chief” (Earl Rhodes). Chief lords over a small clique of malicious youths, because he’s a sociopath who envisions himself the only child capable of seeing dark truths about the merciless adult world.
          Writer-director Lewis John Carlino—who scripted the equally offbeat films Seconds (1966) and Resurrection (1980)—helms this picture with a sure hand, using graceful camera moves, slow dissolves, and an intimate score to create a poetic mood. He’s especially strong at filling the scenes of Chief’s clique meeting in secret places with foreboding. Richly hued cinematography by Douglas Slocombe enlivens Carlino’s stark frames, and the two use magnificent coastal locations in Devon, England, to great effect.
          Kristofferson’s restrained acting style matches the movie’s cryptic vibe, and Sarah Miles’ tendency toward weirdly indistinct facial expressions suits the piece as well, indicating that her character is lost in a world of dreams and longing. However, two adolescent performers dominate the picture. Kahn’s haunted stares are worthy of a Kubrick movie, and Rhodes works a disturbing Aryan-youth groove that makes him compelling in a stomach-turning sort of way. In sum, the narrative road this movie travels is guaranteed to polarize viewers, but for those who accept the piece as a dark parable, Sailor is a provocative experience.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea: GROOVY

Monday, November 15, 2010

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Solidly secured in the cinematic firmament as one of the most insane movies ever made, director Russ Meyer’s not-really-a-sequel to the sexy soap opera Valley of the Dolls (1967) is the only rock-and-roll musical ever made about corporate intrigue, homosexuality, mutilation, Nazis, rape, and homicidal transsexuals. It’s also one of the most feverishly edited films you’ll ever see, cramming a miniseries’ worth of overheated plotting into 109 mondo-bizarro minutes. The storyline concerns the travails of all-girl rock group the Carrie Nations in late-’60s L.A., their music career ascending even as their interconnected personal lives spiral into debauchery and tragedy. The narrative, however, is really just a means for Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, Roger Ebert!) to present scene after scene about their favorite fixation: breasts. The movie’s cast is filled with buxom young women surrounded by swarthy old men, horny young men, and predatory lesbians, all of whom are driven wild by their craving for mammaries. (Even the script’s predominant gay man worships the bulging pectoral muscles of the Adonis he desires.) The movie unspools as a manically paced phantasmagoria of screeching arguments, trippy musical numbers, lurid party scenes, and deranged violence; it’s a symphony of cinematic excess. There’s a remote possibility that Meyer and Ebert were after some sort of histrionic statement about the extremes of the psychedelic era, but the joyful hedonism of their endeavor is best expressed by the exclamation, “It’s my happening, and it freaks me out!” That line was later repurposed by Mike Myers in one of his Austin Powers joints, but even with his mojo workin’, Austin never grooved on any happenings as supremely weird as the deranged climax of BVD, which weaves together a whacked-out Third Reich refugee, a tender girl-on-girl love scene, and a gender-bending murder spree.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: FREAKY

Sunday, November 14, 2010

. . . tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . (1970)

Gotta love a Southern racial-tension flick that begins on a day hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement—as shown by an egg actually frying on the pavement. That opening scene perfectly captures the pulpy entertainment value of this drama starring Jim Brown, George Kennedy, and Fredric March. Brown plays Jimmy Price, the first black man elected sheriff of a small Deep South community, and Kennedy plays John Little, the white predecessor who angrily surrenders his badge. Camping it up with amusing details like taped-together cigars and a Colonel Sanders string tie, Hollywood veteran March is along for the ride as the mayor who tries to keep his town from exploding after Price’s polarizing election. The plotting is arch (Price alienates half the town by arresting a white man, and the other half by arresting a black man), but the pacing is swift and the performances seethe with sweaty intensity. Brown’s low-key persona and Kennedy’s combustive style make for a fun combination, and they’re surrounded by vibrant personalities: Clifton James plays a strutting redneck who grows a conscience, Bernie Casey plays a hot-headed townie resentful of Price, and veteran varmints Anthony James and Dub Taylor lurk around the periphery of scenes, adding Southern-fried flavor. The movie’s wildly inappropriate music adds to the overripe appeal, like the random use of “Gentle on My Mind” during a scene of Price chasing down a drunk who killed a six-year-old girl in a traffic accident. Oddly pitched ’70s cinema doesn’t get much better than that, except perhaps when Brown forces a straight face for lines like, “I’m the sheriff. Not the white sheriff, not the black sheriff, not the soul sheriff, but the sheriff.” (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

. . . tick . . . tick  . . . tick . . . : FUNKY

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Corvette Summer (1978)

There’s nothing quite so dreary as an exploitation movie that isn’t actually exploitive, except perhaps an exploitation movie that wears out its welcome with an excessive running time. Unluckily for all concerned, Corvette Summer is both. Though packaged as a sexy car flick with exuberant young stars, it’s actually a tedious comedy adventure hampered by screechy lead performances. Notable as the first movie Mark Hamill made after Star Wars (1977), Corvette Summer tracks the adventures of Kenneth (Hamill), a high school student who travels the Southwest trying to recover a stolen car—the tricked-out Corvette he lovingly assembled for auto-shop class. Along the way, he encounters wanna-be hooker Vanessa (played by an emaciated young Annie Potts), and they run the requisite gauntlet of halting sexual encounters, screaming arguments, and sitcom-style misunderstandings. Kenneth also crosses paths with various uninteresting characters like a con man, a car thief, and a Vegas gambler. Partridge Family redhead Danny Bonaduce is in the mix as one of the hero’s high-school pals, and it’s a sad comment on the movie that his scenes are the most entertaining. Corvette Summer should be amusing and campy, with its disco score and slapstick gags, but Hamill and Potts are so unpleasant they suck the life out of the thing. Hamill is way too petulant and intense in every scene, and Potts’ line deliveries range from purring to whining to shouting. Oddly, the worst aspect of Corvette Summer is that it’s well-made: Director Matthew Robbins, who later helmed the excellent fantasy flick Dragonslayer (1981), is so focused on efficient camerawork and storytelling that he forgets to loosen up and have fun. As a result, Corvette Summer is stuck in neutral for 105 forgettable minutes.

Corvette Summer: LAME

Friday, November 12, 2010

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

The early days of John Carpenter’s career are sort of like the warm-ups to a great athletic feat: Each time he tried to leap his way into Hollywood, his attempt was more impressive until he finally achieved spectacular success. First came Dark Star (1974), a student film expanded to feature length, and the one that finally did the trick was Halloween (1978). But in between, Carpenter earned considerable acclaim, especially in Europe, for a nasty piece of work titled Assault on Precinct 13. An unabashed riff on the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo (1959), Assault is a deceptively simple piece about urban crazies laying siege to a police station the night it’s set to be decommissioned. Ostensibly motivated by revenge, the killers really represent a kind of all-encompassing nihilistic dread, closing in on a handful of virtuous characters as inexorably as the night itself. While that might seem like heady metaphorical stuff for a low-budget thriller, much of what makes Carpenter so interesting is his ability to infuse films with genuine menace instead of stock fright-show tropes. Assault also demonstrated that in his own perverse way, Carpenter’s a damn funny son of a bitch, because the picture is filled with humor so black it’s almost shocking. And then there are the  unequivocally shocking moments, like the notorious ice-cream cone scene. (You’ll know it when you see it, believe me.) Although the picture's characters are mostly ciphers, Assault includes a prototype for the sort of anarchistic loners that permeated later Carpenter films, because tough-talking convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is like a rough draft for Snake Plissken, the tough-talking convict Kurt Russell played in Escape from New York (1981). Napoleon’s who-gives-a-fuck swagger is potent, his interplay with the unfortunate cop in charge of the police station is entertaining, and he gets some of the movie’s best lines (“Can’t argue with a confident man”). As did many of Carpenter’s early pictures, Assault features a minimalistic, moody score by the director himself, using a lonely electric piano and skittering synth sounds to envelop the whole story in an ominous cloud.

Assault on Precinct 13: GROOVY

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Orca (1977)

I’ve only been traumatized by two movies, both of which were horror pictures I saw when I was too young to handle them. Alien (1979) sent me running to the lobby when I first saw it at age 10; I didn’t get past the chest-burster sequence until I revisited the picture years later. Orca, on the other hand, messed me up so badly when I saw it at 8 years old that I’ve never had the nerve to watch it again. My memory of the picture is so vivid, however, that I can safely categorize the Dino De Laurentiis production as a nasty bit of post-Jaws fishploitation suitable only for the most masochistic of moviegoers. Richard Harris, well on the way to burning his career to a crisp, plays a whaler who yanks a pregnant female orca onto his boat, then watches in horror as she gives birth while suspended over his deck, dropping her offspring right in front of him. Harris shoves the dead baby whale into the waves while the daddy orca (the paterfishmalias, if you will) glowers at Harris. And so begins one of the most outrageous revenge tales in cinema history; rather like the execrable Jaws: The Revenge (1987), Orca asks viewers to believe that a fish will seek out people who matter to a particular human and then chomp those people out of spite. (One of the victims is a pre-“10” Bo Derek, whose lovely leg becomes a Shamu appetizer.) If memory serves, the climax of the movie involves Harris standing on an ice floe until the orca hits the thing with its tail, sending Harris sailing into the side of an iceberg. If you’ve got the stomach to watch this grisly flick in order to confirm or disprove my recollection, be my guest. As for me, I’m still trying to wash this deranged movie from my eyes more than thirty years later. Oh, and for the full-on post-Jaws De Laurentiis treatment, don’t deny yourself the equally bizarre experiences of King Kong (1976) and The White Buffalo (1977).

Orca: LAME

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi TV series Star Trek (1966-1969) limped through three ratings-challenged seasons on NBC, then became a moneymaker in reruns during the ’70s. Several attempts to revive the franchise for television failed, including a one-season animated series, but when Star Wars (1977) became a monster hit, Paramount dug the Enterprise out of mothballs for a big-screen adventure. Then Roddenberry picked a story without enough action, the studio hired a director prone to overlong running times, and special-effects delays kicked the budget into the stratosphere. As a result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a lumbering monolith running over 130 minutes, with none of the swashbuckling joie de vivre that distinguished the TV series’ best installments. All of the original actors returned—James Doohan, De Forest Kelly, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, George Takei—but neither they nor newcomers Stephen Collins and Persis Khambata were given anything fun to do. Instead, the Enterprise crew is sent to investigate a gigantic energy cloud that’s creeping toward Earth, swallowing everything in its path. So rather than battling intergalactic baddies, the crew spends most of the movie watching weird celestial phenomena and talking about philosophy. For anyone but devoted fans of the franchise, the movie is close to interminable. Having said that, Star Trek: The Motion Picture can’t be entirely discounted because it’s a landmark for musical scoring and visual effects. Long FX sequences of the Enterprise in a docking station, a close encounter with a wormhole, and a trip through the energy cloud’s interior chambers are filled with gorgeous flourishes, even if the scenes are dead weight from a narrative perspective. And throughout the picture, Jerry Goldsmith’s music is magnificent: His rousing main-title fanfare became the franchise’s musical signature throughout the ’80s, and his use of an electronic instrument called a “blaster beam” gives scenes related to the energy cloud a truly otherworldly feeling. The story’s twist ending has a certain existential kick, too. None of this is quite enough, however, to compensate for the picture’s needlessly humorless tone or for such cringe-worthy false notes as Khambata’s stiff performance. (Even Shatner, believe it or not, is too restrained here.) On the plus side, Nimoy lends enjoyable gravitas, and the revival of the franchise set the stage for many delightful subsequent adventures, beginning with the infinitely superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Star Wars (1977)

           First off, the title of the damn movie is Star Wars, not Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. No matter how much writer-director George Lucas enjoys rewriting history, there was no way he could have known when he was shooting this film that he would get to make one sequel, much less two sequels and three prequels. Thus, despite its eventual status as the first installment of a long-running franchise, the beauty of the original Star Wars is that it’s a complete, self-contained statement about the thrill of a young man discovering his destiny—and one of the film’s many charms is the parallel between Lucas and guileless protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Just as Luke becomes an intergalactic hero by embracing previously unknown possibilities, Lucas changed the film industry by combining old-fashioned storytelling with groundbreaking FX.
          The basics of the story are familiar to most moviegoers: When agents of the evil Intergalactic Empire kidnap rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), her trusty robots R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) are sent to recruit aging Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to rescue her. Circumstances instead lead the robots to young Luke, a restless orphan living with his aunt and uncle on a remote farm but dreaming of life as a star pilot, and eventually Luke delivers the robots to Kenobi and discovers their true mission. When soldiers from the Empire wipe out Luke’s family, he joins Kenobi on the quest to rescue Leia, and sets out on the path to becoming a Jedi Knight, which is sort of an outer-space samurai with supernatural powers. Viewers also learn about the Force, an energy field binding everyone in the universe together; Jedis get their powers by channeling the Force.
          The heroic crew soon expands to include self-serving smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his hirsute first mate, a gigantic alien called Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Their journey leads them to the Death Star, a massive space station, where they must confront villains including the Jedi Knight-turned-bad Darth Vader (physically performed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones). Along the way, Luke finds a surrogate father in Kenobi, a comrade-in-arms in Han, and a love interest in Leia. This is all fun stuff, of course, but the story is really just part of the appeal; with Lucas at the height of his visionary powers, the real magic of Star Wars is in the physical reality and the storytelling.
          At the risk of hyperbole, there’s simply no explaining what a thrill it was to discover this movie as a child of the ’70s. The production values were intoxicating, and the mixture of archetypes and classic themes made Star Wars feel like a tale that had existed for generations. Yet perhaps the sheer confidence of the filmmaking was the most overpowering aspect on first blush: Leaping from one colorful cliffhanger to the next, the movie was edited to travel as fast as any of the spaceships Lucas put onscreen. At the time, Star Wars hit youthful bloodstreams like a cinematic sugar rush, but with something deeper underneath.
          During my interview for the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, I was asked why I thought the first film had such an impact on kids my age. I noted that the mid-’70s was a murky time in American life, with Vietnam and Watergate topping the list of recent front-page downers, and Star Wars was a much-needed infusion of optimism. As a boy feeling the effects of social change (this movie was released around the time my parents’ marriage became a ’70s statistic by ending in divorce), I think I was primed for the hopeful idea that some Force for good existed in the universe. The movies staggering box-office returns, and the decades of devotion showered upon the Star Wars franchise by millions of Gen-Xers, indicate I wasn't alone in my reaction.
          You begin to see why it’s difficult to completely set aside larger examinations of this deceptively simple movie, since anything embraced by untold millions means something, whether good or bad—but beyond its pivotal place in ’70s sociology, Star Wars is simply one of the great rides in the history of popcorn cinema. The monstrous spaceship swallowing the tiny rebel vessel at the top of the movie. The otherworldly cantina. The outer-space dogfights. Han Solo’s last-minute heroism. Darth Freakin’ Vader. Escapist adventure doesn’t get any better, even if the actors (including the preceding plus Hammer veteran Peter Cushing) have to struggle through wooden characterizations and tongue-twisting dialogue. With John Williams’ indelible music giving coherence to all of Lucas’ mad-tinkerer ideas, Star Wars is pure cinematic pleasure from start to finish. And if it means something to you, as it does to me, then so much the better.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Deadhead Miles (1971)

More a series of vignettes than a story, the first original feature written by enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick follows an eccentric crook named Cooper as he drives a stolen big rig across the heartland, with a sardonic hitchhiker his sole companion during several peculiar misadventures. Alan Arkin, indulging his most flamboyant impulses, plays Cooper, while gangly Jeffersons costar Paul Benedict plays the hitchhiker, so the picture is infused with strange behavior, even by the permissive standards of ’70s cinema. Malick’s dialogue is equally bizarre. Consider this exchange between Cooper, popping Benzedrine to stay awake, and the hitchhiker. Cooper: “Sometimes I sit back, roll down the windows, and let Benny do the driving.” Hitchhiker: “Don’t they affect your brain?” Cooper: “I wish they would.” None of the individual episodes is especially memorable, except perhaps the random bit of Cooper trying to make time with a redneck woman until he realizes she’s chained to the furnace of her dilapidated shack, but the dialogue is flavorful throughout. “I got a good look at that feller—I see him again, I’m gonna stick ’im in the head with a fork.” Or, “I listen to the radio, and that’s how I learn about current events, most of which aren’t in the almanac.” Cooper is an inept sort of maniac, sparking loopy conversations with strangers and committing petty larceny everywhere he goes, but never accomplishing much of anything. The hitchhiker is a willing accomplice during most of the aimless journey, even though he never really gets the hang of tossing soda bottles at street signs the truck passes; Cooper’s a stone-cold pro at that. Interesting people float through the movie (watch for Charles Durning, Hector Elizondo, Loretta Swit, and cameo players Ida Lupino and George Raft), and director Vernon Zimmerman is an interesting Hollywood footnote because he made the amiable cult flick Fade to Black (1980). But the strongest appeal of this cheerfully pointless movie—which has never been released theatrically or on video—is spending 90 minutes inside a funhouse-mirror world of Malick’s creation.

Deadhead Miles: FUNKY

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971)

In actor Bruce Dern’s chatty autobiography Things I’ve Said, but Probably Shouldn’t Have, one of the chapters is titled “Star of the Second-Best Two-Headed Transplant Movie of 1971.” The man knows what he’s talking about. Whereas The Thing With Two Heads (which was actually released in 1972) is campy fun that tries to wring jokes from its absurd plot, Two-Headed Transplant plays the premise straight, with deadly results. Dern plays a riff on Dr. Frankenstein, but instead of obsessively performing an obscene experiment, he’s forced into the act by circumstances that make his character more or less sympathetic; this mealy-mouthed approach to dramaturgy underscores that the picture can’t decide what it’s trying to accomplish. Inappropriately plaintive (and poorly edited) music punctuates leisurely episodes leading to the fusion of a hulking simpleton with the head of a psychotic murderer. Why anyone might consider either patient a prime candidate for the operation is never properly explained in the godawful script, and by the time the bicranial creature starts its rampage two-thirds of the way through the movie’s dreary running time, it’s hard to care what happens next. Dern is on autopilot in this one, blandly reciting pointless dialogue and periodically trying to insert pathos into atrociously written and directed scenes. Famed DJ Casey Kasem appears as Dern’s bestie, which ups the kitsch factor but not the entertainment value, and the violent finale is so crudely shot that it’s hard to feel much of anything except shame for everyone involved.

The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant: LAME

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Super Fly (1972) & Super Fly T.N.T. (1973)

          Blaxploitation drama Super Fly has so much flavor and grit that it’s tempting to cut the picture slack despite its shortcomings. Vividly photographed on the streets of Harlem, the movie has atmosphere to spare, and the dialogue is so frozen-in-amber ’70s that almost every scene captures the period’s singular patois: “I got somethin’ real heavy to lay on you, man,” or “You don’t own me, pig, and no motherfucker tells me when I can split.” The storyline is nervy as hell, because the protagonist, Priest (Ron O’Neal), is an unapologetic coke dealer looking to make a giant score so he can leave hustling behind; whereas many blaxploitation flicks feature righteous dudes trying to keep drugs off the streets, Super Fly makes a provocative sympathy-for-the-devil statement. As Priest’s partner says in one of the picture’s best exchanges about the drug trade, “I know it’s a rotten game—it’s the only one the man left us to play, and that’s the stone cold truth.”
          The movie’s strongest elements are several driving funk/soul tunes by Curtis Mayfield, who performs onscreen in one sequence, and Priest’s pimp couture: silky mane, giant sideburns, Fu Manchu moustache, wide-brimmed hats, garish leisure suits, floor-length coats. But even with such vivid flourishes, Super Fly is slow going. O’Neal isn’t particularly charismatic or skillful, and director Gordon Parks Jr.’s style is amateurish: He spaces action scenes too far apart, employs utilitarian camerawork, and lingers on aimless bits like a poorly shot sex scene and a long montage of still photographs taken by his famous dad, Gordon Parks Sr., who kick-started the blaxploitation craze by directing Shaft (1971).
          A year after Super Fly scored at the box office, O’Neal returned to the character, and took over as director, for Super Fly T.N.T., which boasts some thoughtful dialogue by screenwriter Alex Haley but can’t overcome a sluggish storyline and dirt-cheap production values. The dull first half of the picture is set in Rome, and the slightly less dull second half is set in Africa, where Priest takes up a new trade as gunrunner. Random highlight of the sequel: Future Benson star Robert Guillaume belting out a full-length rendition of the operatic aria “O Sole Mio” in a Roman café. Go figure.

Super Fly: FUNKY
Super Fly T.N.T.: LAME