Monday, January 31, 2011

The Honkers (1972)

Unremarkable in every regard, this character study of a self-involved rodeo rider pales when compared to the similar films Junior Bonner and When the Legends Die, both of which were released in the same year. However The Honkers does feature two highly watchable stars, James Coburn and Slim Pickens, and it gets credibility points for following a bleak storyline toward an ending that’s both downbeat and restrained. Coburn stars as Lew, an aging cowpoke who spends so much time on the road that his marriage to long-suffering Linda (Lois Nettleton) is permanently endangered. When he’s away from home, dallying with married women in between bronc-riding competitions, Lew travels with a chummy rodeo clown named Clete (Pickens), who does his best to keep Lew from getting killed on the job or in the brawls Lew instigates in his downtime. When the movie begins, Lew has just returned home for a spell between rodeo tours, so he tries to pick up the pieces of his marriage and to strengthen his relationship with his teenaged son, Bobby (Ted Eccles). Meanwhile, the stable-but-boring Royce (Richard Anderson) quietly woos Linda away from her wayward husband, and a beautiful young heiress, Deborah (Anne Archer), tries to tempt Lew into her bed. The story becomes a question of whether Lew will choose the straight and narrow or remain on his destructive course, and to the filmmakers’ credit, Lew stays true to his unsympathetic colors from start to finish. Unfortunately, nothing he does is especially interesting, so the solid character work is wasted on ordinary vignettes of redneck rambunctiousness and rodeo wrangling. Additionally, Coburn doesn’t have anywhere near the depth necessary for the lead role, so he’s outshined by Nettleton’s believable angst and by Pickens’ homespun gravitas; in fact, seeing Pickens play one of his few fully developed dramatic roles is the best reason to see the movie. The Honkers isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, either.

The Honkers: FUNKY

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Audrey Rose (1977)

The ’70s supernatural-cinema boom produced a number of provocative films that were more thoughtful than horrifying, and Audrey Rose is a good example. Adapted by Frank De Felitta from his own novel, the story concerns haunted Englishman Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins), who believes a 10-year-old girl living in New York is the reincarnation of his daughter, who died in a horrific car accident. Hoover’s obsession with the girl, Ivy Templeton (Susan Swift), traumatizes her parents, Janice (Marsha Mason) and Bill (John Beck). Complicating matters is the fact that Ivy keeps having seizures, creating the impression that she’s “reliving” Audrey’s death. While this might sound like a solid setup for a creepshow, the filmmakers have larger ambitions. Veteran director Robert Wise, whose résumé includes the restrained fright classic The Haunting (1963), methodically follows the story through a lengthy court trial and an epic hypnosis sequence, eschewing cheap jolts for intense discussions about the comparative values of eastern and western spirituality. So while the movie is mostly a bust as a thriller, it’s interesting as an existential conversation piece. Mason is touchingly fraught as a mother in an impossible situation; her reaction shots during the hypnosis scene are especially potent. Hopkins’ performance veers into strange directions, with flitting hand gestures and overly musical line deliveries, so it’s hard to determine whether he succeeded at creating something otherworldly or failed at creating something believable. Either way, he’s oddly entertaining. Beck is his usual stolid presence, supporting Mason without calling much attention to himself, and Swift is okay, doing a Linda Blair-lite routine. Slow and long but generally interesting, Audrey Rose gets points for trying to do something out of the ordinary.

Audrey Rose: FUNKY

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Escape to Athena (1979)

Escape to Athena should be a tasty wedge of cheese, based solely on the eclectic cast and the fact that helmer George P. Cosmatos (The Cassandra Crossing) knows how to make entertaining trash. Set during World War II, the movie features Sonny Bono, Claudia Cardinale, Elliot Gould, David Niven, Stefanie Powers, Roger Moore, Richard Roundtree, and Telly Savalas as guards and inmates at a German prison camp on a Mediterranean island. The muddy screenplay, based on a story co-written by Cosmatos, tries to weave together a plan to derail an impending Nazi onslaught, a quest to liberate oppressed locals, and a scheme to steal ancient relics—while still leaving room for comedy and romance—but in trying to play every possible crowd-pleasing note, Cosmatos creates an absolute mess. Not only are the ample charms of the cast wasted, but sumptuous location photography by British DP Gilbert Taylor, of Star Wars fame, is squandered on inconsequential and occasionally nonsensical scenes. Miscasting and tonal inconsistency are the biggest problems. Moore, clearly eager to try something different between 007 movies, plays a stately Austrian commandant who resents his Nazi superiors, but he gives an atrocious performance: His accent is pathetic, and he tries to come across as likeable and menacing at the same time, so his work is indecisive and sloppy. Bono is such an intrinsically ’70s figure, sporting the same shaggy shoulder-length hair and drooping walrus moustache he wore in his countless TV appearances with Cher, that he’s a walking anachronism. And the scenes featuring Elliot Gould as a fast-talking American showman, complete with straw boater hat and vaudeville hucksterism, are decidedly unfunny. Making matters worse, some of the top-billed players, notably Cardinale, Niven, and Roundtree, get lost entirely because their roles are underwritten and lack distinct impact. It’s true that a few of the action scenes are passable, and Powers is appealing-ish as a showgirl using her wiles to make the best of a bad situation, but neither of these elements feels compatible with the other. Despite its obvious eagerness to please, Escape to Athena is so undisciplined that watching the cavalcade of lame humor, random stars, and sporadic action eventually becomes numbing.

Escape to Athena: LAME

Friday, January 28, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

          Despite being one of the seminal dramas of the 1970s and an almost universally praised Oscar winner for Best Picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has its detractors, not least of whom was the late Ken Kesey, who wrote the book upon which the film is based. Kesey, a counterculture legend who extrapolated the narrative from his experiences as a participant in LSD experiments at a military hospital, said he never saw the picture because the filmmakers informed him they were taking liberties with his story. Notwithstanding Kesey’s misgivings, Cuckoo’s Nest is an extraordinary piece of work that might not necessarily capture Kesey’s unique voice, but substitutes something of equal interest and power. Jack Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a prison inmate who feigns insanity to dodge a work detail, then gets sent to a mental asylum for his trouble. Once there, he becomes the charismatic leader for a group of lost souls, uniting them against their common enemy: tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
           Under the audacious and sensitive direction of Milos Forman, a Czech native who lost his parents in the Holocaust and fled Czechoslovakia during a violent communist takeover, Cuckoo’s Nest plays out as a profound metaphor about the hardship and necessity of fighting fascist regimes; McMurphy personifies the rebellious soul of the free populace while Ratched represents the heartless machine of the oppressive overmind. The mid-’70s were just the right moment for this intense counterculture statement, and what makes Cuckoo’s Nest so extraordinary is that it meshes its idealistic themes with raucous entertainment. Whenever McMurphy leads his fellow patients in mischief, he’s like a high-art version of the sort of anarchistic rabble-rousers Bill Murray played in his comedy heyday. This irresistible charm (both McMurphy’s and Nicholson’s) makes the downbeat path the story follows totally absorbing, just like the work of the splendid cast makes ensemble scenes intimate and vivid.
          Fletcher and Nicholson won well-deserved Oscars, and they’re matched by artists working in top form: Actors Brad Dourif and Will Sampson are heartbreaking as two key patients; composer Jack Nitzsche’s score is subtle and surprising; and the loose, documentary-style images by cinematographers Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler are indelible. Incidentally, Cuckoo’s Nest netted Michael Douglas his first Oscar, because he produced the film, and watch out for future Taxi costars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as two members of McMurphy’s merry band.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: OUTTA SIGHT

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Outfit (1973)

A meat-and-potatoes action thriller that doesn’t spend too much time on distractions like character and nuance, this violent picture was written and directed by John Flynn from a novel by bestselling crime guy Donald E. Westlake (via his Point Blank alias Richard Stark). Robert Duvall stars as Macklin, a small-time hood who goes on a rampage shortly after getting out of prison, and somehow the fact that early-’70s Duvall looks like an accountant works in the movie’s favor; it’s as if some everyman you pass on the street is a closet killing machine. The plot is unnecessarily muddy, something to do with Macklin seeking revenge after his brother is killed by hoods who ripped off the Mob. But the execution is quite tasty, especially when Duvall teams up with amiable gunsel Cody (Joe Don Baker) to pillage various grimy Mob-operated establishments as a means of getting the attention of “the Outfit.” An unusually restrained Karen Black is along for the ride as Macklin’s love interest, and laconic Hollywood vet Robert Ryan gives one of his characteristically seething late-career performances as the ruthless Mob boss who wants Macklin taken out at all costs. Richard Jaeckel, Bill McKinney, and Sheree North add vivacity during Macklin’s stormy run-in with a trio of horny rednecks—the movie perpetuates the icky stereotype of predatory white-trash women who are perpetually in heat—and future Blade Runner costar Joanna Cassidy turns up in her first significant role, playing Ryan’s irritable arm candy. Flynn, who showed greater flair with his next revenge flick, Rolling Thunder (1977), keeps things moving briskly and maintains a consistently brutal tone, but the only thing that saves the picture from being forgettable is the presence of so many interesting actors. From the high-octane chase scenes to the methodical siege at the end, it’s all been done before. (Available at

The Outfit: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nightwing (1979)

Despite its atmospheric poster and fantastic title, Nightwing is one of the worst big-studio horror movies of the late ’70s. Tedious gobbledygook about a Native American cop and a white scientist investigating the killer bats laying siege to an Indian reservation in New Mexico, the movie pathetically tries to mesh comin’-at-ya scares with then-fashionable Native mysticism, and the picture is so laughably inauthentic that the two principal Native American characters are played by an Italian-American (Nick Mancuso) and a Jewish Philadelphian (Stephen Macht). Both try not to embarrass themselves, though the idiotic storyline makes that challenging; they mostly end up bulging their eyes to simulate intensity. This misfire also features sexy leading lady Kathryn Harrold in one of her few starring roles. For several years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Harrold eemed like she was one movie away from a big career, but Nightwing was among several embarrasing flops that impeded her momentum. Inexplicably, this turkey was directed by Arthur Hiller, whose filmography is dominated by sensitive dramas like Love Story (1970) and glossy comedies like Silver Streak (1976). There’s a reason he didn’t make any other horror movies, and that’s because Nightwing relies on cheap and derivative gimmicks like a scene that mimics the underwater-cage sequence in Jaws (1975)—suffice it to say that fake-looking bats swarming around a metal box that’s attached to a pickup truck in the middle of the desert doesn’t have the same oomph as a submerged Richard Dreyfuss steering clear of an enormous shark’s pearly whites. The end of Nightwing almost achieves a fever pitch of bad-movie kitsch, when Mancuso goes into some sort of drug-induced trance while summoning up the ancient spirits who’ve been driving the bats batty, but reaching that brief moment of amusing awfulness requires sludging through an hour and a half of unredeemable guano. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

Nightwing: SQUARE

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Comes a Horseman (1978)

Director Alan J. Pakula took a massive misstep after helming the Watergate-themed masterpiece All the President’s Men (1976), venturing into the world of cowboy drama for the pretentious and unsatisfying Comes a Horseman. Yet even with its profound shortcomings, the picture is interesting because of the caliber of talent involved, and because it’s fascinating to watch Pakula try to blend his dark, meditative style into the vibrant milieu of the revisionist Western. So even though this director and this genre aren’t even remotely a good match, Comes a Horseman boasts powerful moments thanks to rich atmosphere and strong performances, two qualities that distinguish all of Pakula’s films. Jane Fonda stars as a second-generation cattle farmer under pressure from a powerful rancher (Jason Robards) to sell her struggling operation so he can expand his empire. Into the story comes a horseman, obviously, who’s played by decidedly Eastern tough guy James Caan; casting city slicker Caan as a cowboy is one of the movie’s many bold stylistic experiments. Caan helps Fonda turn her farm around, leading to a violent confrontation with Robards and his operatives, since the villain is an omnivorous monster who won’t take no for an answer. Fonda is perfectly cast and quite convincing as a child of the frontier, Robards is entertaining if a touch cartoonish as a megalomaniacal baddie, and Caan struggles valiantly to blend into a genre that doesn’t suit him any more than it suits Pakula. All three leads, however, are upstaged by former stuntman Richard Farnsworth, who scored the first of his two Oscar nominations for his gruffly authentic performance as a wise old cowpoke named Dodger. He’s such a strong presence that scenes without him feel insufficient. Pakula benefits from moody photography by cinematographer Gordon Willis, and though neither Pakula nor Willis are particularly adept at shooting action—Willis is one of the great atmosphere guys, not a run-and-gun shooter—they create several memorably stark moments, like the film’s apocalyptic finale.

Comes a Horseman: FUNKY

Monday, January 24, 2011

Foul Play (1978)

The first movie that Chevy Chase made after bailing on Saturday Night Live to pursue a big-screen career, the comic thriller Foul Play was one 1978’s biggest hits. Handsomely produced and breezily entertaining, it’s so light and superficial that it sometimes threatens to float away, but with Chase and Goldie Hawn exhibiting terrific comedic chops, it’s a tasty serving of empty calories. Hawn stars as a San Francisco librarian who stumbles upon plans for an assassination attempt, and Chase plays a smart-aleck police detective who slowly discovers the conspiracy based on the sketchy evidence she brings to his attention. The two fall in love, naturally, to the tune of Barry Manilow’s bombastic theme song “Ready to Take a Chance Again”—which is to say that Foul Play is the ’70s equivalent of the romantic farces Hollywood used to make so well back in the studio-era heyday of the ’30s and ’40s. After scoring as a screenwriter with Harold and Maude (1971) and Silver Streak (1976), Colin Higgins got the green light to direct his own screenplay for Foul Play, and while his technique lacks subtlety, he serves the material well with brisk pacing and the good taste to keep his actors from playing the material too broadly; the vacuous storyline also allows Higgins to fill the movie to bursting with banter, plot twists, and sight gags. Chase and Hawn are charming, because both actors steer clear of their usual excesses: Chase is uncharacteristically unassuming, and Hawn plays a grown-up intellectual instead of a young twit. Furthermore, Higgins gives several supporting characters room to shine. Dudley Moore nearly steals the movie as a diminutive lothario who keeps crossing paths with Hawn, and the long scene in which he unveils his tricked-out bachelor pad is a great example of a comedian humiliating himself for the sake of a joke. Burgess Meredith is colorful and exuberant as Hawn’s eccentric landlord, and ace character players including Billy Barty, Don Calfa, and Brian Dennehy pop up in smaller roles. Though it gets a bit windy at 116 minutes, Foul Play is a respectable throwback to the glory days of Hollywood piffles, and the maiden voyage for a screen duo that should have collaborated more frequently. Chase and Hawn only did one more movie together, the almost-as-amusing Neil Simon romp Seems Like Old Times (1980).

Foul Play: GROOVY

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

          If you, dear reader, want an example of the sort of film whose limited charms can win me over, then I present to you The Wilby Conspiracy, a contrived thriller unique only in the most inconsequential of ways. Set in apartheid-era South Africa, this potboiler concerns a black-power activist (Sidney Poitier), recently released from a brutal incarceration as a political prisoner. Thanks to a series of convenient plot twists, he ends up on the run with a shady Brit played by Michael Caine, and the two pursue a hidden treasure (literally) that can save them both. In other words, never mind the story. The fun, at least for me, is in the moment-to-moment details. Poitier finds an effective channel for his over-the-top intensity; Caine is entertainingly bitchy; Niccol Williamson slays as the heartless, quick-witted Afrikaner cop hot on the duo’s trail; and composer Stanley Myers contributes a muscular score performed on assorted ethnic instruments.
          Under the smooth guidance of TV-trained director Ralph Nelson, Caine and Poitier make a dynamic combination, because each plays for the cheap seats in a way that’s compatible with the other’s exclamation-point style. Their Defiant Ones-style bickering, right down to the sequence in which they’re chained together, is a fun blast of macho, sweaty, and vaguely homoerotic adventure. The plot moves along at a terrific clip, zooming from one vibrant location to another, with highlights including a run-in at a crowded movie theater and a tense showdown outside a digging site.
          Featuring many passages of sharp dialogue—usually in the form of Williamson’s withering sarcasm—The Wilby Conspiracy is an exciting ride even if the destination is of no particular interest. Oh, and for extra-special ’70s flava, watch for Persis Khambatta, later to achieve sci-fi stardom as chrome-domed Lt. Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Wearing a full head of hair, she plays a medical professional sympathetic to Poitier’s cause, and they hook up in a weirdly overwrought sex scene. The Wilby Conspiracy is the kind of zesty escapism for which Saturday afternoons are made, and it’s just adult and smart enough to savor without feeling guilty afterwards.

The Wilby Conspiracy: FUNKY

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) & Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

          In the years between Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the mid-’80s ascension of the storied Eisner/Katzenberg regime at the Walt Disney Company, the iconic studio’s live-action offerings drifted further and further away from the standard cutesy wholesomeness of Uncle Walt’s day. One of the strangest examples is Escape to Witch Mountain, a sci-fi adventure about super-powered orphans following a mysterious instinct to seek out a remote location—while also trying to evade the conniving corporate tycoon who wants to exploit their abilities. Even though the story is told in the standard spoon-fed Disney manner, the plot is so inherently cryptic and fraught with danger that Escape to Witch Mountain is as much of a thriller as it is a fantasy, and the revelation at the climax of the story (though wholly predictable) is an offbeat twist on the customary Disney happy ending. The movie isn’t especially exciting, but it’s brisk and distracting in a comic-book sort of way, and it almost completely avoids the cloying clichés of cute-kid movies because the young characters at the center of the movie are so strange.
          Among the strong grown-up supporting cast, Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence bring their considerable skills to bear as the creepy villains, while Eddie Albert is rock-solid in a thankless role as the kids’ accidental guardian, summoning credible disbelief as he slowly unravels the mystery of the kids’ origin. Starring as the children are ubiquitous ’70s TV players Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, both of whom adequately portray anxiety and disorientation while demonstrating bizarre abilities like telekinesis and telepathy; the faraway looks in their eyes sell their characterizations in a way their limited acting abilities cannot. The FX are strictly old-school, which gives the movie a quaint charm except in the rickety climax, when crappy process shots become distracting, but the novelty of the whole enterprise makes Escape to Witch Mountain watchable throughout.
          The sequel Return from Witch Mountain isn’t anywhere near as interesting. In the perfunctory storyline, Eisenmann’s and Richards’ characters return from the seclusion they entered at the end of the first picture for a vacation in L.A., where they’re discovered by crooks who try to exploit them. Despite the presence of impressive actors—the main crooks are played by Bette Davis and Christopher Lee, both looking bored as they deliver pedestrian dialogue—Return gets bogged down in overproduced slapstick, a drab subplot about Richards getting adopted by the nicest street gang in existence, a trite contrivance in which Eisenmann is turned into an automaton, and a generally overlong running time. However, it’s fun to see character players like Anthony James (Vanishing Point) and Jack Soo (Barney Miller) in major roles, and the climactic showdown between Richards and the mind-controlled Eisenman has some edge—too little, too late, though. In the where-are-they-now department, Richards returned to pop-culture prominence in 2009, when she and Eisenmann did cameos in the franchise reboot Race to Witch Mountain, and in 2010, when she joined the cast of the odious reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Escape to Witch Mountain: FUNKY
Return from Witch Mountain: LAME

Friday, January 21, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

          Steven Spielberg’s second career-defining megahit in a row, following 1975’s Jaws, is in some ways an even more extraordinary demonstration of his gifts than its predecessor, because for much of the film Spielberg has to create excitement around unseen phenomena. Utilizing an arsenal of camera tricks, sophisticated special effects, and pure storytelling wizardry, Spielberg manufactures a vivid sensation that something unprecedented is unfolding, which generates relentless tension as viewers wait for the payoff. And then, in the jaw-dropping finale, he unleashes an onslaught of visual spectacle so overpowering that it justifies all the intense foreshadowing. One of the few films for which Spielberg received sole screenwriting credit, Close Encounters grew out of the director’s fascination with the idea of extraterrestrial life, and more specifically the idea of what might happen upon first contact between humankind and beings from another world.
          Although this subject had already been explored in countless films and TV shows, Spielberg approached the concept with such reverence that Close Encounters remains the definitive movie of its type, even though it’s really just a feature-length prelude to an unknown adventure that happens after the closing credits. Abetted by a masterful production team, Spielberg shapes the story (to which writers including Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Paul Schrader made significant but uncredited contributions) to include meticulous detail extrapolated from reports of real-life UFO sightings, as well as a plausible illustration of how the world’s military and scientific communities might react in the event of “close encounter,” to say nothing of imaginative depictions of how aircraft flown by outer-space visitors might manifest.
          Tying the film together is the character of Roy Neary (Schrader’s invention, according to some reports), an everyman who becomes obsessed with finding the truth after his pickup truck has an astonishing run-in with an alien craft. Richard Dreyfuss plays Neary to wrenching effect, depicting how the character’s quest for facts is a desperate need to prove he hasn’t gone insane—and a search for personal identity greater than that of an anonymous working stiff. Melinda Dillon and Teri Garr, as the two women in his life, provide earnest counterpoint and sharp comic relief, respectively, while Bob Balaban and iconic French filmmaker Francois Truffaut stand out among the scientific types who cross Neary’s path. Close Encounters includes some of the most exciting scenes Spielberg ever filmed, like Dillon and Dreyfuss busting through a military barrier to reach the natural wonder of Devils Tower in Wyoming, and it also features some of the funniest, like Dreyfuss’ experiments with a mound of mashed potatoes. So while Close Encounters is not for every taste (some fret the ending doesn’t go far enough, others complain it goes way too far), it’s a remarkable experience for those who, like Neary, want to believe.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: OUTTA SIGHT

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dan Candy’s Law (1974)

Given my affection for Canadian Westerns, Donald Sutherland, and obscure ’70s dramas with Native American themes, it pains me to report that the only film featuring all three things is almost completely uninteresting. Originally titled Alien Thunder and wisely renamed for American release, Dan Candy’s Law follows easygoing Mountie Dan Candy (Sutherland) as he tracks a fugitive Cree Indian called Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis) across the vast, wintry landscapes of the Saskatchewan province circa the late 1800s. Almighty Voice’s original crime was slaughtering a government-owned cow to feed his family, but then he killed Candy’s partner (Kevin McCarthy) during an attempted arrest, and fled in fear with his pregnant wife. Director-cinematographer Claude Fournier shoots the Canadian wilderness well, capturing the harsh majesty of untamed open spaces, and he’s aided greatly by Georges Delerue’s plaintive score. But the film’s script is useless, an endless string of perfunctory scenes in which Candy treks across Canada while he talks about doing things that are more interesting than anything he actually does. We also see vignettes of Almighty Voice and his extended family living off the land while avoiding capture, but the movie never properly develops the theme of Native people trying to reclaim some measure of their lost sovereignty. Toward the end of the picture, Sutherland briefly tries to do some sort of unhinged-avenger thing, but his attempt is undercut by hapless direction; the broad tonal shifts in Sutherland’s performance from anger to exuberance seem forced instead of natural, because it’s never clear whether Candy is driven by decency or vengeance. Tootoosis and Chief Dan George lead an ensemble of Native supporting players, and though all of them add authenticity, none gets to do anything viewers haven’t seen in a zillion similar films. The pace of Dan Candy’s Law picks up briefly during the requisite bleak finale, but since the film hasn’t built up an emotional head of steam, the denouement feels arbitrary instead of powerful.

Dan Candy’s Law: LAME

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Real Life (1979)

After bringing cinematic style to the small screen, Albert Brooks brought TV style to the big screen. Comedy auteur Brooks gained mainstream attention by creating offbeat short films for early seasons of Saturday Night Live in the mid-’70s, then graduated to features with Real Life, a satire of invasive documentary series like PBS’ groundbreaking 1973 show An American Family. Brooks plays an unflattering character who is also named Albert Brooks, a shallow Hollywood hustler who travels to Phoenix with a plan of spending a year shooting the normal activities of a normal American family. He’s accompanied by a crew of cameramen wearing absurd helmet-like cameras (the movie’s best running gag), and a pair of psychiatrists who observe the filming to ensure the subject family isn’t “adversely affected” by the experience. Suffice it to say that Brooks’ overbearing behavior exacerbates tensions in the subject family, turning the filming process into a soul-crushing nightmare. As the heads of the subject family, Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain give immaculate performances, coming across as such pedestrian and uncomfortable individuals that they’re completely believable. More importantly, the ordinary-people vibe they generate is a sharp comedic counterpoint to Brooks’ showbiz-asshole narcissism. J.A. Preston steals all his scenes as Dr. Ted Cleary, one of the shrinks, because his utter disgust with Brooks gives viewers an outlet for their own frustrations with the protagonist’s insufferable behavior. The intentionally amateurish filmmaking technique is a drawback, and the long stretches of the movie that merely lay narrative pipe are dull, but the most outrageous scenes—like a cringe-inducing vignette of equine surgery and a series of hilarious conference calls with an unseen movie-studio executive—are inspired. A prescient meditation on the genre we later came to know and loathe as “reality TV,” Real Life is also noteworthy as the first major statement from one of comedy’s most intelligent voices.

Real Life: GROOVY

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lipstick (1976)

The notorious revenge thriller Lipstick has a gruesome first act and a hilariously overwrought finale, but the middle of the picture is so earnest that it’s as if elements of a sleazy exploitation flick were grafted onto either end of something respectable. In other words, it’s a classic example of pure WTF cinema. The story follows fashion model Chris McCormick (Margaux Hemingway), who is brutally raped by Gordon Stuart (Chris Sarandon), the favorite teacher of Chris’ teenaged sister, Kathy (Mariel Hemingway). The movie stacks the deck from the get-go, because Gordon is an obvious nutjob who composes violently avant-garde music, and he leers like a dog in heat when joins Kathy to watch one of Chris’ provocative photo shoots, so it’s not as if nuance is the order of the day. A humiliating trial follows the rape, and during the trial, a firebrand assistant DA (Anne Bancroft) fails to get a conviction—then, when Gordon crosses paths with the McCormick sisters once more, a bloody showdown ensues. Handsome photography (by Bill Butler and William A. Fraker), plus intense performances by Bancroft and Sarandon, aren’t enough to overcome the movie’s shamelessness. This Dino De Laurentiis production is infamous for its bad taste, evidenced by a rape scene that’s grotesque for the wrong reasons: The filmmakers keep sneaking peeks at Chris’ disrobed body. And yet the long trial sequence, which takes up a third of the movie, effectively demonstrates how Chris gets raped all over again, only psychologically this time, by Gordon’s merciless attorney (Robin Gammell). Unfortunately, any temptation to cut the movie slack is obliterated by the over-the-top climax, in which (spoiler alert!) Gordon rapes young Kathy while her older sister’s working nearby, prompting Chris to chase Gordon with a hunting rifle while wearing a cherry-red ball gown.

Lipstick: LAME

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sounder (1972)

          A graceful Depression-era drama about dignity and struggle, Sounder is grounded in authentic period detail, humanistic themes, meticulous character work, and a strong sense of place. Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, who each received their only Oscar nominations for this movie, play the parents of an impoverished sharecropping family in 1933 Tennessee. When Nathan Lee Morgan (Winfield) steals food to keep his family alive, he’s given a harsh one-year prison sentence, forcing Rebecca (Tyson) and the children to pick up the slack with arduous farm work. The story focuses on Nathan Lee’s oldest son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), who sets out on a long journey with the family dog, Sounder, to visit his father at a prison work camp. During his travels, David Lee meets a kind young teacher, Camille (Janet MacLachlan), who offers to take the boy into her home so he can study at a better school. Notwithstanding the intense scene of Nathan Lee’s arrest, during which Sounder is shot at by a trigger-happy deputy, director Martin Ritt and his team eschew narrative pyrotechnics in their sensitive adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s novel. Instead, they opt for a steady rhythm of one quietly convincing scene after another, letting emotions take center stage, somewhat in the style of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
          Hooks is a comfortable presence who neither detracts from nor elevates the movie, but Tyson and Winfield are moving. Winfield in particular evokes such intense feelings of anguish, emasculation, frustration, and pride that he’s a dominant presence even during the long sequences in which he’s unseen. Tyson, meanwhile, personifies endurance and strength, demonstrating how Rebecca finds the stamina to keep her family together. Bluesman Taj Mahal, who also provided the film’s score, appears in several scenes as a friendly neighbor always ready to entertain with his battered National guitar. If Sounder has a shortcoming, it’s that the movie is somewhat Pollyannish with its theme of the decent people in the world outnumbering the haters. For a story set in the Jim Crow South, that’s a heartening thought but not exactly a credible one.
         Following a respectable sequel made by a different team (1976’s Sounder, Part 2), Sounder was remade for television in 2003, with Hooks graduating from juvenile leading player to grown-up director; Winfield co-starred, delivering one of his last performances before he died in 2004.

Sounder: RIGHT ON

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Europeans (1979)

          I’ve never forgotten a remark that Martin Scorsese made while addressing my class at NYU’s film school: Asked about Merchant-Ivory films, which were peaking in popularity at the time, Scorsese said the films reminded him of “Laura Ashley wallpaper.” Then and now, I couldn’t agree more. Even though the myriad literary adaptations created by director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawler Jhabvala are intelligent and tasteful, I find them so restrained as to induce catatonia. Case in point: the soft-spoken Henry James adaptation The Europeans, which set the somnambulistic template that Merchant-Ivory followed throughout ensuing decades.
          In the turgid drama, attractive actors play repressed upper-crust characters amidst gorgeous vintage clothing, location, and props. (There’s a reason a critic once characterized Merchant-Ivory pictures as “real estate porn.”) Lee Remick plays Eugenia Young, a spirited lady of leisure from the continent who shows up unannounced at the lush Massachusetts estate of her puritanical cousin, Mr. Wentworth. Eugenia and her brother, Felix, cause all sorts of tumult in the Wentworth household, because the patriarch’s adult offspring are fascinated by Eugenia’s seemingly liberated ways. And while that simple plot should be a springboard for effective culture-clash drama, the Merchant-Ivory team treats the material in a way that’s both painfully polite and painfully page-bound.
          Actors move slowly through static compositions, barely adjusting their facial expressions or vocal rhythms while speaking reams of perfectly grammatical dialogue, so the piece lacks almost any detectable excitement. In fact, Wentworth actually warns one of his daughters against getting excited, which makes sense for his character but explains why viewers craving stories about warm-blooded human beings should seek their cinematic fancy elsewhere. As Wentworth says, “We’re to be exposed to peculiar influences. We should employ a great deal of wisdom and self-control.”
          There’s no disputing the historical accuracy of that sentiment, but the dialogue demonstrates how little is done to translate James’ nuanced observations about class differences into actual dramatic conflict. Remick is solid, if a touch affected, and Lisa Eichhorn matches her spunk and luminosity, while Wesley Addy is effectively stern as Wentworth. Yet despite sincere acting and fine behind-the-camera craftsmanship, The Europeans is not a cause for (ahem) excitement.

The Europeans: FUNKY

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hearts of the West (1975)

One of several nostalgic ’70s movies set during the early days of Hollywood filmmaking, Hearts of the West is a flawed but charming romantic adventure boasting clever characterizations and a terrific cast. Jeff Bridges stars as Lewis Tater, a naïve Iowan obsessed with becoming a Western pulp writer in the mode of Zane Gray. Through convoluted circumstances, he ends up making his way to Los Angeles circa 1930-ish, where he falls in with a group of crusty cowboy types who make their living doing stunts for a low-rent production company. The rangy story involves an avuncular veteran stuntman with a mysterious past, an eccentric book publisher, gun-toting con men, a hot-tempered studio boss, a wisecracking secretary, and other colorful types. Even with such an overstuffed plot, writer Rob Thompson and director Howard Zieff try to give every character unique flavor, like the unlucky stuntman who always takes the first bullet in onscreen gunfights. As was the case in many of his early pictures, Bridges is powered by enthusiasm and raw talent rather than refined skill, and it’s unfortunate that the dorky vocal style he adopts makes his work feel contrived in comparison with the naturalistic acting of the other players. Blythe Danner, at her liveliest and loveliest, is endearing as the secretary, and Alan Arkin connives and shouts his way through a funny performance as the mood-swinging studio boss. Donald Pleasence contributes memorable weirdness in his brief turn as the publisher, and the rest of the cast is filled out by impeccable character players including Matt Clark, Herb Edelman, Burton Gilliam, Anthony James, Alex Rocco, and Richard B. Shull. Topping all of this off is the venerable Andy Griffith, giving a loose and authoritative performance as the veteran stuntman; in a series of plot developments reflecting this picture’s surprising depth, Griffith’s character takes Tater under his wing but then grows to occupy an unexpected role in the young man’s life. Hearts of the West has big problems (the cartoonish music score is awful, the pacing is inconsistent, and the story relies on overly convenient plot twists), but it’s thoroughly appealing nonetheless. (Available at

Hearts of the West: GROOVY

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dirty Harry (1971) & Magnum Force (1973) & The Enforcer (1976)

          In the years following the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision, which laid out the rights of persons arrested by police, an outcry rose from crime victims and others incensed by what they perceived as kid-gloves treatment given to accused criminals post-Miranda. Hollywood responded with films including Dirty Harry, a powerful action movie about a vigilante cop who personifies the “shoot first, ask questions later” ethos. Pacifists hate the very idea of this franchise, maligning Dirty Harry’s violent exploits as fascist pornography, but despite the diminishing sophistication of later entries in the series, the first movie (and to a lesser degree the second) are as thought-provoking as they are exciting. Segueing gracefully from his triumphs in a string of European-made Westerns, ascendant star Clint Eastwood is unforgettable as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, because his mixture of seething anger and swaggering confidence perfectly illustrates the film’s concept of an archaic gunslinger adrift in morally ambiguous modern times.
          Eastwood’s mentor, B-movie specialist Don Siegel, directs the first film, Dirty Harry, with his signature efficiency, briskly and brutally dramatizing Callahan’s pursuit of the “Scorpio Killer” (Andrew Robinson) as well as the policeman’s clashes with bosses including a politically opportunistic mayor (John Vernon). The legendary “Do I feel lucky?” scene is a perfect introduction to Callahan’s perverse attitude, and Eastwood and Siegel really soar in the climax of the film, when they reveal how little separates Callahan and the killer, ethically speaking; though the fine line between cops and crooks later became a cinematic cliché, it was edgy stuff in 1971. So whether it’s regarded as a social statement or just a crackerjack thriller, Dirty Harry hits its target.
          The first sequel, Magnum Force, features a clever script by John Milius, with Callahan facing off against a cadre of trigger-happy beat cops who make him seem tame by comparison. Milius’ right-wing militarism sets a provocative tone for the movie, forcing viewers to identify the lesser of two evils in a charged battle between anarchistic forces. Hal Holbrook makes a great foil for Eastwood, his chatty exasperation countering the star’s tight-lipped stoicism, and fun supporting players including Tim Matheson, Mitchell Ryan, and David Soul add macho nuances to the guns-a-blazin’ thrills. (Watch for Three’s Company starlet Suzanne Somers in a salacious bit part.)
          The last of the ’70s Dirty Harry flicks, The Enforcer, gets into gimmicky terrain by pairing Callahan with his worst nightmare, a female partner, but the producers wisely cast brash everywoman Tyne Daly (later of Cagney & Lacey fame) as the partner; since she’s not Callahan’s “type,” it’s believable that even with his Neanderthal worldview, he develops grudging respect for her once she holds her own in a series of chases and shootouts. The movie makes terrific use of Alcatraz as a location for the finale, but a bland villain and an undercooked plot make the film a comedown. After The Enforcer, Eastwood wisely took a break from the Dirty Harry character, returning several years later for a pair of uninspired ’80s sequels.

Dirty Harry: RIGHT ON
Magnum Force: GROOVY
The Enforcer: GROOVY

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

Scads of shameless producers pounced on the success of Star Wars (1977) by cranking out low-budget crap stuffed with robots and spaceships, so there’s a lot of competition for the title of worst Star Wars rip-off. By most measures I can summon to mind, however, the misbegotten Canadian turkey The Shape of Things to Come may be the winner in this particular sweepstakes. Clumsily adapted from an H.G. Wells novel and boasting not only a profoundly awful screenplay but also a completely halfhearted approach to acting, directing, production design, and storytelling in general, this is the sort of dorky tedium that gives space opera a bad name. Set in the standard sci-fi milieu of the postapocalyptic future, the movie details a battle between government officials in New Washington, a human HQ on the surface of the moon, and cape-wearing megalomaniac Omus (Jack Palance), who uses his army of robots (Palace pronounces the word as “row-butts”) to hoard supplies of a life-giving medicine found only on his remote outpost of Delta 3. Several heroic types from New Washington launch an experimental new vessel to overthrow Delta 3, leading to battles between interchangeable human characters in goofy bodysuits and cheaply constructed robots who look like dudes waddling around in tricked-out garbage cans (actually, they probably are dudes waddling around in tricked-out garbage cans). The rudimentary musical score is produced so badly that it sounds like it’s being played off a warped LP, and the producers believe that shooting everything with cheap gimmicks like star filters will make images look otherworldly. The acting is consistently atrocious, from Palance’s usual phoned-in ghoulishness to Carol Lynley’s bland earnestness, and it’s hard to appreciate the handful of decent spaceship shots since they’re repeated ad nauseum and intercut with hopelessly static interiors. Lethargic, stilted, and uninvolving, The Shape of Things to Come is pure spacejunk.

The Shape of Things to Come: SQUARE

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The White Buffalo (1977)

          The further producer Dino De Laurentiis stretched logic and taste in order to emulate the monster-on-the-loose success of Jaws (1975), the more demented his copycat movies became. The producer’s 1976 remake of King Kong made sense because it built upon an established brand and because special-effects technology had evolved since the release of the original Kong four decades previous; similarly, the producer’s 1977 killer-whale thriller Orca made sense because it was about a big fish with big jaws. But The White Buffalo, which is about exactly what the title suggests, is weird as hell from start to finish, not least because it’s hard to imagine De Laurentiis believing that audiences would be terrified by the prospect of a melanin-deficient grazing animal.
          The wackadoodle plot involves Wild Bill Hickcock (Charles Bronson) teaming up with Crazy Horse (Will Sampson)—no, really!—to pursue the demonic white buffalo that haunts Hickock’s dreams. Written by Richard Sale, who adapted his own novel, the story portrays Hickock (traveling under the alias James Otis) as a haunted man who spends much of his time hiding behind wrap-around sunglasses. Many nights, he wakes screaming and sweating because he envisions a white buffalo charging at him, so Hickock travels to the Black Hills on a visionquest. Along the way, he runs into a crusty prospector pal (Jack Warden), who claims to have seen the last living white buffalo and offers to guide Hickock toward the bleached beastie. Once these two venture into the wilderness, they cross paths with Crazy Horse, who has his own reasons for chasing the critter: The buffalo ravaged his village and killed his daughter, so Crazy Horse must kill the monster in order to set his daughter’s soul free.
          None of this makes much sense—especially since director J. Lee Thompson moves the story along so fast that plot twists stack up like the layers of a fever dreambut for aficionados of peculiar ’70s cinema, what really matters is the bizarre texture of this eminently watchable movie. Most of the monster scenes were shot on soundstages, leading to surreal nighttime sequences set in fake snowy forests, and the FX shots of the buffalo are so brazenly fake that they take on a kind of dreamlike power. (The gory sequence in which Crazy Horse’s village gets trampled is particularly disorienting.) Yet the creepiest element of the movie is unquestionably John Barry’s menacing score: As he did with De Laurentiis’ Kong remake, Barry uses sweeping string arrangements and bold horns to give a silly story gravitas. When the movie is really cooking, Barry’s rattling music and Thompson’s swerving camera moves add up to something quite potent. That said, it’s a shame the middle of the picture gets bogged down in subplots, with the titular terror kept offscreen for far too long until resurfacing during the epic climax.
          The oddness of The White Buffalo is accentuated by all-over-the-map acting: Bronson is characteristically grim; Sampson offers as dignified a performance as he can given the circumstances; and supporting players including John Carradine, Kim Novak, Slim Pickens, and Clint Walker contribute salty flavor. Thrown together, the disparate elements equal a truly strange film, even by the high weirdness standards of De Laurentiis’ other ’70s monster mashes. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The White Buffalo: FREAKY

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Three Musketeers (1973) & The Four Musketeers (1974)

          Though previously known for the irreverence of, among other things, the invigorating movies he made with the Beatles, Richard Lester revealed great gifts as a director of adventure films with this epic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ deathless novel The Three Musketeers, which producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind divided into two movies (more on that in a moment). Depicting how enthusiastic bumpkin D’Artagnan (Michael York) finds his place amid a group of elite 17th-century swordsmen, then inadvertently helps spoil a conspiracy within the French ruling class, Lester’s sprawling project mixes lowbrow comedy and grandiose swashbuckling to great effect. The silly stuff includes lots of bedroom farce and pratfalls, while the derring-do material features everything from amusingly preposterous stunts to genuinely unnerving swordfights.
          Getting into the weeds of the dense storyline would require more space than is reasonable to allot here, but the yarn goes something like this. After befriending three musketeers in service to France’s King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed by Richard Briers), D’Artagnan discovers that Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) is conspiring to gain power by revealing that Louis’ bride, Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin), is having a secret affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). Caught in the middle of the intrigue is royal dressmaker Constance (Raquel Welch), with whom D’Artagnan falls in love. Also featured are two of the cardinal’s devious agents, formidable swordsman Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and vicious assassin Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway). This pulpy scenario begets a gleefully overstuffed cinematic experience.
          The project’s unusual tonal mix is exacerbated by sometimes jarring transitions between sequences—one gets the sense of filmmakers trying to put over an audacious contrivance by overwhelming viewers with a nonstop procession of spectacular moments. (Things get particularly dizzying in The Four Musketeers, which breezes past myriad glaring plot holes.) Still, Lester’s effervescent approach to staging, camerawork, and editing is almost as dazzling as the project’s sumptuous production design and costuming. Better still, both films overflow with entertaining performances.
          Playing the story’s romantic lead, York is appropriately overzealous and sincere. Conversely, top-billed Oliver Reed—as the leader of the musketeer band—imbues the narrative with a captivating blend of intensity and world-weariness. Few filmmakers captured Reed’s singular combination of poetry and savagery better than Lester does here. As for the project’s leading ladies, Welch gives an appealingly unaffected performance in a mostly comic role, Dunaway imbues a monstrous villain with icy elegance, and Geraldine Chaplin capably services a minor but important role as an adulterous royal. Heston gives a respectable faux-Shakespearean turn while Lee surprises by actually landing jokes in addition to providing the expected element of imposing menace. On the topic of comic relief, Roy Kinnear is delightfully silly as D’Artagnan’s long-suffering servant.
          While some viewers may justifiably resist Lester’s erratic dramaturgy, the herky-jerky alternation between schtick and melodrama keeps things lively. And even when the pace lags, the movies are treats for the eyes because of David Watkin’s wondrous cinematography. His lighting is so subtle that one is often hard-pressed to spot traces of artificial illumination; moreover, because Lester employs long lenses and loose framing, Watkin’s visual approach lends a naturalistic quality.
          Originally shot as one lengthy feature, the Musketeers saga was bifurcated by the Salkinds—providing an unpleasant surprise for the actors, who had been paid for just one movie. Considerable legal wrangling ensued. The Salkinds refined their strategy by shooting 1978’s Superman and 1980’s Superman II simultaneously with director Richard Donner, this time revealing to everyone beforehand that two movies were being made, but that didn’t work out perfectly, either; production of the second picture was halted partway through and then restarted, at a later date, with Lester replacing Donner. Lastly, although 1977 flop The 5th Musketeer is unrelated to the Salkind/Lester pictures, much of the original team regrouped for 1989’s flop threequel The Return of the Musketeers. The death during production of series comic foil Kinnear cast a pall over the piece and expedited Lester’s retirement from moviemaking.

The Three Musketeers: GROOVY
The Four Musketeers: GROOVY

Monday, January 10, 2011

Love Story (1970) & Oliver’s Story (1978)

          The cinematic equivalent of Wonder bread, this by-the-numbers tearjerker somehow became one of the defining hits of the early ’70s, earning $100 million at a time when few movies ever hit that milestone, much less low-budget melodramas. Weirder still, when screenwriter Erich Segal was asked by Paramount to create a novel of his script as a means of drumming up pre-release hype for the film, the book became a runaway hit, eventually moving more than 20 million copies. That’s a whole lot of marketplace excitement for a movie whose opening voiceover reveals the vapidity of its narrative: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” The answer to that question is, apparently, little more than is actually contained within the question itself, because Love Story is 90 minutes of foreplay leading to a bummer ending. Obviously millions of people bought into the thin premise of excitable rich kid Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) falling for saintly working-class girl Jenny (Ali MacGraw).
          The repetitive, plot-deficient first hour comprises chipper scenes about young love set against the rarified backdrop of the Harvard campus (trivia lovers dig the fact that Oliver was partially inspired by two of Segal’s real-life Harvard homeys, Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones). The promising glimmer of a subplot about Oliver’s uptight dad (Ray Milland) disapproving of Jenny doesn’t amount to much; after papa detaches the couple from the family teat, Jenny works as a teacher to pay Oliver’s way through law school, after which he lands a cushy job at a law firm. The only inkling of drama arrives two-thirds of the way through the film, when Jenny’s unnamed fatal illness is discovered. Yet even the main event is all hearts and flowers, because Jenny slips away without so much as a cough.
          It’s to director Arthur Hiller’s credit that the picture moves quickly even though it’s running on fumes from start to finish, because he doesn’t get much help from O’Neal or MacGraw, neither of whom summons believable emotion (O’Neal is marginally better, but MacGraw is quite awful). Only the melancholy piano theme, by composer Francis Lai, really connects, especially in the movie’s one cinematically interesting scene: After Oliver gets the bad news, he wanders city streets in a montage set to car horns and snippets from Lai’s theme. Still, it’s hard to genuinely hate Love Story, in the same way it’s hard to hate Wonder Bread: Neither pretends to be anything but a spongy mass of empty calories.
          Seven years after Love Story conquered the box office, Segal published a follow-up novel, Oliver’s Story. In the 1978 film adaptation, O’Neal and Milland reprise their roles for a threadbare narrative about Oliver trying to love again two years after the events of the first film; meanwhile, Oliver’s dad tries to draw his son into the family textile business even though Oliver is satisfied with his work as a do-gooder attorney. Poor Candice Bergen gets the thankless job of playing the woman who tries to romance grief-stricken Oliver. In trying to generate believable relationship obstacles, Segal and co-writer/director John Korty rely heavily on soap-opera tactics. Marcy (Bergen) is a rich girl who accepts class divisions without guilt, whereas Oliver is a bleeding-heart type who feels anguished about coming from money. Although Korty shoots locations well, particularly during an extended trip the lovers take to Hong Kong, he can’t surmount the absurdly contrived narrative or the severe limitations of the leading performances. Handicapped by trite characterizations, Bergen and O’Neal seem robotic. And just when the film’s portrayal of Oliver as a saint becomes insufferable, the plot contorts itself to ruin Oliver’s second chance at love. Yet whereas Love Story earned enmity by being manipulative, Oliver’s Story merely earns indifference by being pointless.

Love Story: LAME
Oliver's Story: LAME

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Battlestar Galactica (1979) & Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)

          Writer-producer Glen A. Larson started developing the TV series that became Battlestar Galactica in the late ’60s, but didn’t get a green light until the success of Star Wars (1977) made space opera fashionable. To help recoup costs (reportedly $1 million per episode), Universal assembled chunks of early episodes into a theatrical feature, which was exhibited internationally beginning a few months prior to the series’ small-screen debut, then released in the U.S. less than a month after the series was cancelled. The feature is more than enough vintage Galactica for anyone but a hardcore fan, and devotees of the 2003-2009 Galactica reboot will find none of that series’ provocative psychodrama or topicality in the straightforward original. A pleasant overdose of goofy genre tropes, the 125-minute Galactica feature is filled with wooden actors playing stock characters amidst gaudy production design and Star Wars-lite battle scenes. 
          The story follows military commander Adama (Lorne Greene) as he leads a group of spaceships in flight from their devastated home worlds after a sneak attack by nasty aliens called Cylons. (The term “Cylon” refers to both robotic soldiers and their lizard-like overlords.) Various human characters struggle with food shortages, wartime trauma, and a host of other melodramatic crises, all while wearing action-figure-ready costumes. Enlivened by a fairly imaginative plot and the presence of polished guest stars including Ray Milland and Jane Seymour, Galactica moves along briskly, and some of the outer-space imagery is quite memorable, such as energetic scenes in which heroes launch their “Viper” spaceships out of tubes housed inside the titular warship. As for the stars, Greene and leading man Richard Hatch are painfully earnest, so Dirk Benedict fares much better as a swaggering pilot in the Han Solo mode, while John Colicos, who plays the main human baddie, chews scenery like a termite let loose in a lumberyard, making his performance a guilty pleasure. Although most of the scripting is clumsy and predictable, Battlestar Galactica never wants for spectacle.
          After Galactica was cancelled, Larson took another stab at televised sci-fi with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a retread of the old pulp/serial character. This time, Universal released a feature version of the pilot episode in the U.S. several months before the series debuted, generating a minor box-office hit in the process. Alas, the Buck Rogers movie is as tiresome as the Galactica movie is diverting. Gil Gerard plays the title character, a modern-day spaceman who falls into suspended animation until the 25th century, when he joins futuristic earth denizens in a galactic battle against a psychotic space princess and her various minions. As the princess, Pamela Hensley is all kinds of sexy, but the movie gets derailed by dopey flourishes including a campy dance sequence, horrible jokes, pervy costumes (must everything be skin-tight?), and a cutesy robot voiced by Mel Blanc. Whereas Battlestar aimed for the all-ages appeal of Star Wars by balancing cartoonish aliens and laser fights with grown-up sociopolitical themes (even if they were handled simplistically), Buck Rogers targets infantile viewers with incessant silliness. More than a few scenes make the viewer feel embarrassed for those responsible.

Battlestar Galactica: FUNKY
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: LAME

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Seven-Ups (1973)

After producing The French Connection (1971), Philip D'Antoni hopped into the director's chair for this no-frills companion piece to his previous triumph. Boasting the same gritty atmosphere as the earlier film (haphazard violence, homely character actors, garbage-strewn locations, thick Noo Yawk accents), the procedural was extrapolated from the experiences of real-life French Connection cop Sonny Grosso. Leading man Roy Scheider, yet another connection to Connection because he played a different character based on Grosso in the earlier picture, stands in for the real-life cop once again as a plainclothes detective named Buddy. When Buddy and the rest of his crackerjack unit (the “Seven-Ups” of the title) try to intercept a ring of kidnappers who are causing trouble by grabbing mobsters and holding them for ransom, the unit winds up in hairy situations including a genuinely frightening car chase from the scummy streets of '70s Manhattan to the idyllic curves of the Palisades Parkway. This was back in the post-Bullitt era when action directors were out to top each other’s car-chase sequences with ever more harrowing pursuits, so D’Antoni wisely entrusted his sequence to stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, the guy who previously cracked up cars for the aforementioned Bullitt (1968) and, you guessed it, The French Connection. The picture gets off to an awfully slow start, but be patient: Once that bad guy drives into the car wash, things start to get interesting. The tense dialogue scenes between Scheider and ’70s stalwart Tony Lo Bianco (playing a different role than the one he played in Connection) have a strong vibe, and throughout the picture Scheider is characteristically charismatic, sharpening the skills that turned him into a big-time movie star with Jaws two years after this project. Though short on plot and even shorter on character, The Seven-Ups has just enough action, anxiety, and authenticity to warrant a viewing.

The Seven-Ups: GROOVY