Monday, February 28, 2011

Cabaret (1972)

          The Bob Fosse-directed masterpiece Cabaret is the quintessential musical for people who don’t like musicals, myself included. Not only does it tell a hard-hitting, provocative story instead of just delivering cheerful fluff, it’s a real movie that happens to have music instead of a contrived framework for musical numbers. Tunes arise naturally during moments in which characters believably break into song, like performances in the titular nightclub, so the numbers become a tool that Fosse employs, alongside brazen editing and meticulous camerawork, to take viewers into the minds of the characters.
          Adapted from a pair of musicals that were in turn based on autobiographical stories by the English writer Christopher Isherwood, who lived in Germany during the Third Reich’s rise to power, Jay Presson Allen’s Oscar-nominated script weaves the myriad threads of source material into a seamless whole, telling the story of how sexually confused Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York) learns life lessons with, and from, crass but vulnerable American songstress Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) during their eventful idyll in pre-World War II Berlin. Sally is the star attraction at the debauched Kit Kat Klub, and Brian is a new neighbor at her boarding house; after she draws him into her life with her overpowering personality, they enter into a complicated four-way psychosexual dynamic with wealthy Germans Maximilian (Helmut Griem), who is staunchly pro-Establishment, and Natalia (Marisa Berenson), who is Jewish.
          What unfolds is a disturbing story about people getting caught up in the momentum of insidious social change. Some become victims and some become villains, but none remain untouched by the world-shaking tragedy coming into focus around them. Tying all of these elements together are surrealistic scenes featuring the Kit Kat Klub’s unnamed Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), who functions as a perverse Greek Chorus complete with grotesque makeup and an immaculate tux.
          Fosse’s storytelling is astonishing from the first scene to the last, because he jumps from incisive subtlety to shocking directness at regular intervals, often in the same scene, and his legendary choreography skills infuse the film with a propulsive physicality. Whether he’s staging a comical number like “Two Ladies” or a quiet one like the moving “Maybe This Time,” Fosse adeptly integrates the themes of the musical interludes into the movement of the story, so Cabaret never feels like it’s stopping for a song. Yet even though the dancing is sensuous and spectacular, Fosse’s handling of quiet dramatic scenes is just as confident. Minelli and York have never been better than they are here, with Minelli blending soft colors into her brash persona, and York expertly depicting his character’s complicated mix of moral outrage and sexual longing. Grey is equally great, turning “Emcee” into one of the most enigmatically creepy characterizations of the early ’70s.
          The real star of the movie, however, is Fosse, and he doesn’t disappoint: His direction perfectly balances show-stopping impact and storytelling clarity, making the film as dazzling as it is insightful.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Walk the Line (1970)

          Gregory Peck’s campaign to complicate his image throughout the ’70s was admirable, and the public’s expectation that he would always play morally righteous characters gave him an edge whenever he ventured outside of his wheelhouse. Unfortunately, not all of the material he used for his experiments was worthy of the effort. I Walk the Line is a good example. A standard melodrama about a small-town Southern sheriff tempted from morality by the sexual charms of a moonshiner’s young daughter, the picture is salacious, but far too sluggish. Worse, Peck isn’t loose enough to convey the extremes of a man driven beyond his inhibitions by animal lust; instead of coming across as feverish, Peck comes across as psychotic. The blame for this atonal portrayal can probably be shared equally by Peck and by director John Frankenheimer, a wizardly storyteller when handling the right action/suspense material but a hit-and-miss filmmaker in the world of straight drama. Given that he specialized in generating close-quarters tension through mano-a-mano psychological warfare, Frankenheimer probably had no more business tackling this sort of simplistic Southern-fried pulp than his leading man did; Frankeneheimer doesn’t come close to creating the sort of sweaty, melodramatic aesthetic that would have kicked this thing into the realm of, say, Tennesse Williams-style hysterics.
          Still, the picture looks great, thanks to Frankenheimer’s characteristically slick camerawork and the participation of strong artists in front of and behind the camera. As the moonshiner’s daughter, Tuesday Weld brings more than enough wild sex appeal to make her role in the story convincing, and cinematographer David M. Walsh creates a glossy look capturing the untamed openness of the picture’s Tennessee locations. While the device of scoring the movie entirely with Johnny Cash songs is gimmicky, the Man in Black’s haunted drone is an effective sonic signifier for the torment inside the sheriff’s soul. The picture also benefits from supporting actors who sink their teeth into screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s meticulous dialogue. Charles Durning gives a sharp turn as Peck’s sly second-in-command, Ralph Meeker is appropriately odious as Weld’s pragmatic father, and Estelle Parsons suffers poignantly as the sheriff’s cast-aside wife. With all of this talent involved, I Walk the Line offers many rewards for the patient viewer, but lackluster storytelling keeps the picture mired in mediocrity.

I Walk the Line: FUNKY

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mandingo (1975)

          This lurid story of sex and violence in the slavery-era South stands alongside The Klansman (1974) as one of the most reviled race dramas of the ’70s. Shameless even by producer Dino De Laurentiis’ déclassé standards, Mandingo is an overwrought soap opera about Falconhurst, a 19th-century plantation owned by aging monster Warren Maxwell (James Mason). The callous patriarch is preoccupied with getting his son Hammond (Perry King) hitched so he can produce an heir, and with buying a Mandingan slave in order to breed “suckers” (a nasty slang term for black babies) who’ll fetch high price tags. However, most of the screen time is devoted not to the master of Falconhurst but to his son’s conflicted relationship with various slaves. Hammond falls in love with his “bed wench,” Ellen (Brenda Sykes), growing closer to her once he enters a loveless marriage with his drunken shrew of a cousin, Blanche (Susan George). Then, when Hammond buys a Mandingo named Mede (Ken Norton), who brings glory to Falconhurst by defeating opponents in brutal bare-knuckle brawls, Hammond buys into the delusion that he’s found a friend. When the threads of Hammond’s life converge in tragedy, however, his true nature as the son of a heartless slave owner emerges.
          Mandingo is a strange movie, because on a technical level, it’s executed with considerable artistry: Richard H. Kline’s shadowy cinematography, Maurice Jarre’s menacing main theme, and the evocative locations create an oppressive mood. Yet journeyman director Richard Fleischer lets scenes run wild, with George flailing and screaming like a wild animal, and the startlingly miscast Mason camping it up as a greasy old son of a bitch who constantly rests his feet against slave children because he believes doing so will cause his rheumatism to drain out of the soles of his feet. One major problem is that the movie never fully develops any of the slave characters, so the slaves come across as caricatured narrative mechanisms instead of people. And though it’s a given that the movie is tasteless, the inevitable scene when Blanche demands sex from Mede is beyond stereotypical, the bloody fight scene in the middle of the picture is beyond excessive, and Mede’s final fate is beyond vile. Mandingo also seems to take itself quite seriously, which is confusing: Did the people making this movie actually think they were tackling a serious subject with the appropriate respect? Still, Mandingo can’t be entirely dismissed because it’s watchable despite a fleshy 127-minute running time. That said, the semi-sequel Drum (1976) has the same lurid appeal without Mandingo’s pretentions to relevance.

Mandingo: FUNKY

Friday, February 25, 2011

Greased Lightning (1977)

Easily mistaken for one of the myriad demolition-derby comedies that flooded theaters in the ’70s, Greased Lightning is actually a charming biopic about real-life stock-car racer Wendell Scott, a former bootlegger who rose through his sport in the ’50s and ’60s to become America’s first black stock-car champion. Made with an easygoing vibe and a strong pace by cult-fave director Michael Schultz, the picture stars Richard Pryor in one of his most amiable leading performances. While not completely suppressing his comic gifts, Pryor mostly plays it straight, combining the inherent exuberance of a thrill-seeker with the latent anger of a black Southerner busting through racial barriers prior to the Civil Rights era. The story begins just after World War II, when Wendell (Pryor) returns from the war to his tiny town of Danville, Virginia. He marries local girl Mary (Pam Grier), buys a taxicab, and starts a dodgy business driving the community’s mostly impoverished black residents to and from errands. Eager to make more money, Wendell joins his childhood buddy Peewee (Cleavon Little) running moonshine, soon becoming the scourge of local police with his prowess behind the wheel. When Wendell finally gets caught, he’s given a choice: rot in jail, or compete in a dangerous stock-car race where he’ll be a target as the only black competitor. Wendell chooses the race, thus beginning his storied racing career. Given Wendell’s colorful backstory, the movie loses a little of its novelty value once his racing career begins, but the picture is helped along by a solid cast. Grier is lovely and warm in one of her few non-sensationalized roles of the era; Little adds the same sharp timing he contributed to Blazing Saddles (1974); and Beau Bridges is amiable and loose as a good ol’ boy who unexpectedly joints Wendell’s pit crew. A major sequence about two-thirds of the way through the picture suffers because it’s mostly assembled from stock footage, and in general the movie streamlines Scott’s narrative to a fault, so everything plays out in the most sanitized and simplistic fashion possible. Nonetheless, the picture’s fundamentally interesting story and its thoroughly watchable cast make Greased Lightning a fun romp.

Greased Lightning: FUNKY

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dillinger (1973)

          Action auteur John Milius couldn’t have picked better subject matter for his maiden voyage behind the camera. A gun nut with an astonishing gift for imbuing dialogue with macho poetry, Milius clearly found kindred spirits in the real-life figures of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger and his relentless pursuer, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Crafting one of his finest scripts (high praise, considering he wrote Apocalypse Now and Jeremiah Johnson), Milius deftly parallels Dillinger’s heyday as the scourge of the Midwest with Purvis’ methodical annihilation of public enemies. Milius depicts Dillinger as a flamboyant iconoclast doomed by his greed and his sociopathic rage, and he depicts Purvis as a patient lawman who never hesitates when he gets a crook in his crosshairs. So even as the film hurtles through exhilarating crime-spree passages, there’s a sense of impending doom that colors everything down to leading man Warren Oates’ animalistic performance as Dillinger. As a result, the whole movie feels like a slow burn leading to the legendary explosion of violence that happened in 1934 when Purvis came face-to-face with his elusive quarry outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.
          Making the most of the minimal production resources available to this tightly budgeted American International Pictures production, Milius employs a spare visual style in order to focus on the Spartan elegance of his dialogue and the violent ballet of his expertly staged gunfights. Incisive lines permeate the picture, like Purvis’ plan of attack (“Shoot Dillinger and we’ll find a way to make it legal”) and a bystander’s rationale for why a group of strangers must be gangsters (“Decent folk don’t live that good”). Keeping his tendency for romanticism in check, Milius integrates ugly elements like Dillinger’s rough treatment of women, the excruciating deaths of gunshot victims, and the carnage visited upon innocent bystanders. So while the filmmaker clearly gets a charge out of the larger-than-life duel between Dillinger and Purvis, he can’t be accused of making the outlaw life attractive. Oates commands the screen, presenting a potent strain of dangerous charisma in every scene, and iconic Western actor Ben Johnson is a perfect complement as Purvis—Johnson’s stoicism sharply contrasts Oates’ hyperkinetic quality.
          Playing members of Dillinger’s gang are an eclectic bunch of actors, including Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Kanaly, Frank McRae, and John P. Ryan; the standout sidekicks are Geoffrey Lewis and Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom deliver funny, tragic performances. Cloris Leachman pops in for a tasty cameo as the infamous “Lady in Red” who accompanied Dillinger to the Biograph, and gorgeous pop singer Michelle Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) is unexpectedly good in her first real role, as Dillinger’s longtime girlfriend, Billie Frechette. FYI, a year after this feature was released, a TV pilot called Melvin Purvis: G-Man hit the small screen, with Dale Robertson taking over Johnson's role; Milius co-wrote the script and Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis was the producer-director. A second Robertson pilot, made by Curtis without Milius involvement and titled The Kansas City Massacre, appeared in 1975, but the proposed series never materialized.

Dillinger: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Daisy Miller (1974)

          Cocksure young director Peter Bogdanovich was poised for a fall after the back-to-back triumphs of The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), and the fall happened when the Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller hit movie screens in the summer of 1974. In addition to the usual jealousy surrounding anyone who achieves success, critics had their knives out because Bogdanovich had left his wife, producer Polly Platt, for Last Picture Show costar Cybill Shepherd, a former model.
          Therefore, when he cast his pretty lover in the title role of a major film, wags characterized Bogdanovich as a horny Svengali. And indeed, Shepherd isn’t right for the role: Though she later developed strong light-comedy skills, at the time she was too inexperienced to pull off such a daunting acting challenge. In her defense, the role could have bested far more seasoned performers, because Daisy has to come across as enchanting and infuriating at the same time. The character is a flirtatious, motor-mouthed American touring Europe in the late 19th century with her absent-minded mother (Cloris Leachman). She scandalizes other members of expat high society by keeping company with single men, including exasperated American aristocrat Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown), who desperately wants to defy convention by telling Daisy that he’s in love with her, even though she comes from a family of low birth.
          It’s easy to see what Bogdanovich and screenwriter Frederic Raphael were going for, and what they nearly achieve: The movie barrels through dense dialogue at such a fast clip that the filmmakers want viewers to be as breathless as Winterbourne, caught in the wake of Daisy’s reckless exuberance. The script is terrific—sly in some stretches, arch in others—and Bogdanovich uses the camera so precisely that the movie is as slick as any Michael Curtiz gem from the heyday of the studio era. Brown’s sad-eyed bewilderment anchors the movie perfectly, and Eileen Brennan is fabulous in an atypical role as his disapproving upper-crust aunt. Leachman is strong but underused as Daisy’s mother, sharply demonstrating in just a few scenes where Daisy got her gift of gab, and a very young James McMurtry (son of Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry, and now an acclaimed singer-songwriter), gives an amusing performance as Daisy’s wiseass little brother.
          But the whole movie ultimately rests on Shepherd’s shoulders, and she’s not up to the task. The actress gamely powers through the script’s mile-a-minute dialogue, and she lands some great loaded glances in isolated close-ups, but she never seems comfortable or real. Moreover, she’s so icy that it’s hard to believe men are falling over themselves to be with her. The genius casting for Daisy Miller would have been Goldie Hawn, presuming she could pull off 19th-century diction, or perhaps Diane Keaton. Alas, while Shepherd doesn’t give an awful performance by any stretch, she’s simply not playing on the same level as everyone else involved in the movie. This is a shame, since her performance holds the movie back from greatness; as is, Daisy Miller is admirable but not amazing.

Daisy Miller: GROOVY

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Casey’s Shadow (1978)

          After scoring a hit by playing the coach of a misfit Little League team in The Bad News Bears (1978), it was inevitable that Walter Matthau would make more pictures costarring loveable urchins, and luckily, the first such movie is pretty good. Directed by the venerable Martin Ritt with his customary sensitivity, Casey’s Shadow is an old-fashioned story about a bottom-rung horse trainer named Lloyd Bourdelle (Matthau). The single father of three children, Lloyd lucks into possession of a promising foal fathered by a champion stud. Then Lloyd’s youngest son, Casey, bonds with the horse but runs it before its bones have fully grown, creating a permanent imperfection in one of the animal’s legs. Nonetheless, Lloyd nurses the horse, Casey’s Shadow, back to health and pins his hopes on winning a race with a $1 million purse. As word spreads about the horse’s promise, Lloyd gets offers for the animal from a pair of big-time horse breeders; trouble brews when one of the breeders employs devious means in order to eliminate potential competition. Lloyd even feels pressure from his children, who worry that Dad’s lust for a big paycheck might blind him to the danger Casey’s Shadow faces by running on its dodgy leg.
          As scripted by Carol Sobieski (Fried Green Tomatoes), Casey’s Shadow has an easy authenticity, from the colorful idioms of the Louisiana-bred protagonist to the racing jargon that’s expertly layered throughout the movie. Ritt shoots the picture with a loose touch that meshes staged interactions and documentary-style vignettes of life in the grandstands and paddocks, so even though the picture’s goal is to tug at viewers’ heartstrings, the filmmaking never feels cloying. The storytellers restrict manipulative bits of Casey weeping to a few key moments, and even though Lloyd’s characterization is inherently sentimental, the tasteful writing and Matthau’s cantankerous personality put the characterization across in an effective manner. It’s easy to believe that Lloyd is fundamentally decent, since he successfully raised three kids on his own, but he’s got an edge because that the filmmakers show him making a series of poor decisions. The young actors playing Lloyd’s kids are solid but unremarkable, and reliable utility players Whit Bissell, Harry Caesar, Murray Hamilton, Alexis Smith, and Robert Webber contribute fine work as various racing-world characters. It’s mostly Matthau’s show, however, and the contrast between his ornery vibe and the sweetness of the story gives Casey’s Shadow a highly watchable vitality.

Casey’s Shadow: GROOVY

Monday, February 21, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

          “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That snippet of voiceover, an excerpt from the apocalyptic interior monologue of New York City cabbie Travis Bickle, gets to the heart of what makes Taxi Driver so intense: Instead of simply throwing a monster onscreen for lurid spectacle, the psychologically provocative drama takes us deep inside a man who does monstrous things for reasons he considers unassailably virtuous. As brilliantly realized by director Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader’s astonishing script introduces viewers to Vietnam vet Travis (Robert De Niro), an insomniac loner cruising the nighttime streets of the city within the self-imposed prison of a metal coffin on four wheels. His unique vantage point exposes him to the worst the city has to offer, the junkies and pimps and psychos, so his PTSD and whatever else is cooking inside his troubled brain compel him toward a “righteous” mission with a body count. Disturbing but mesmerizing, Travis’ journey is a profound exploration of the ennui chewing at the outer edges of America’s collective unconscious.
          The story elements are simple but audacious. Travis becomes preoccupied with two women, a polished campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and an underage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). So disassociated that he can’t remember how to relate to people normally, Travis takes Betsy on an excruciatingly awful date to a low-rent porno movie, and presents himself as Iris’ savior even though she doesn’t believe she needs to be saved. Zeroing in on men he perceives as enemies, Travis targets Betsy’s politician boss and Iris’ pimp, leading our “hero” to arm himself for battle with an arsenal of illegal handguns. By the time Travis sits alone in his apartment, practicing his quick-draw with a cannon-sized pistol and a shoulder holster while delivering his infamous “You talkin’ to me?” soliloquy, viewers know they’ve been drawn into a nightmare.
          Scorsese’s camerawork and dramaturgy are extraordinary, infusing scenes with lived-in reality while never departing from the dreamlike stylization that makes Taxi Driver feel like a horrific fable; with the heavy shadows of Michael Chapman’s photography and the pulsing waves of Bernard Hermann’s insidious score, Scorsese achieves something like cinematic alchemy. In front of the camera, De Niro gives a selfless performance that channels Schrader’s vision of a lost soul who can’t differentiate idealism from insanity, becoming a figure of almost otherworldly menace. As the opposite ends of Travis imagined romantic spectrum, Foster nails the ephemeral idea of a jaded innocent, while Shepherd’s chilly inaccessibility is perfectly fitting. Comedian Albert Brooks provides helpful levity as Betsy’s coworker, Peter Boyle adds worldliness as one of Travis’ fellow cabbies, Harvey Keitel lends seedy color as Iris’ pimp, and Scorsese appears in a startling cameo that illustrates how deeply he saw into the meaning of this allegorical phantasmagoria.
          A breakthrough for everyone involved, Taxi Driver plays out like the anguished cry of a society in need of deliverance, filtered through the twisted worldview of someone damaged and discarded by that very society.

Taxi Driver: OUTTA SIGHT

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

          An exploitation flick whose importance to film history far outweighs its cinematic values, Boxcar Bertha is famous because it’s the movie that turned Martin Scorsese into a professional director. Prior to shooting this low-budget Bonnie and Clyde rip-off for producer Roger Corman, Scorsese’s film experience included studying and teaching at NYU as well as making a grimy black-and-white indie feature. Watching Boxcar Bertha, it’s easy to see the growing pains that Scorsese experienced once he was let loose with experienced actors and a proper camera crew. The story isn’t of particular interest, especially because the screenplay is so thematically formless and sloppily paced, but the gist is that after Depression-era drifter Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) falls in love with outlaw union organizer Bill Shelly (David Carradine), they form a band of robbers with several other misfits. This sets the stage for assorted repetitive run-ins with the agents of a corrupt railroad magnate, H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine). There’s plenty of nudity and violence (to say nothing of cloying old-timey music), but there isn’t much coherence or fun—it’s all way too episodic and nasty.
          Former NFL player Bernie Casey stands out among the cast, because he makes credible leaps from amiability to intensity as the lone African-American in Bertha’s motley crew. And while David Carradine and Hershey are both earnest and somewhat invested, they’re held back by the script’s inconsistent characterizations; their characters are alternately crusaders and victims. The real interest for movie fans, of course, is in parsing the movie for glimmers of Scorsese’s filmmaking style. Aside from the director’s onscreen cameo (he’s one of Bertha’s whorehouse clients), his signature is most clearly evident during the ultraviolent finale, when Scorsese goes way overboard with religious imagery and experiments with inventive ways to photograph people getting killed. It’s also interesting to note the various scenes punctuated by seemingly random cutaways of static objects, since those shots reflect early attempts at a device for building physical environments that Scorsese perfected by the time he made Taxi Driver a few years later. Ultimately, however, Boxcar Bertha is a bit of a jumble, because its artiness undercuts its value as drive-in trash, and it trashiness undercuts its value as art.

Boxcar Bertha: FUNKY

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

          A charming Western comedy in the vein of Howard Hawks’ cowboy classics, this amiable picture pairs two of the genre’s greatest stars, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, in a lively story that both pokes fun at their wholesome images and suits their advanced ages at the time the movie was made. John O’Hanlan (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are graying cowpokes working on a Texas ranch when John receives word that he’s inherited a business from his late brother. They travel to Wyoming, where they discover the business is actually a brothel, much to the chagrin of aw-shucks John. Aghast at the idea of running a house of ill repute, John decides to close the Cheyenne Social Club, which makes him a pariah among the business’ loyal patrons, but then he discovers he can’t cash out his inheritance. Furthermore, when the club’s sunny madam, Jenny (Shirley Jones), is attacked by a client, John’s sense of Texas justice kicks in and starts him down the road of developing a proprietary interest in the ladies’ welfare. Unfortunately for John, his noble actions make him a target for a huge clan of no-good varmints, meaning an extended stay in Cheyenne would be hazardous to his health.
          Smoothly directed by studio-era Hollywood pro Gene Kellly, the dancer/filmmaker of Singin’ in the Rain fame, The Cheyenne Social Club is unabashedly old-fashioned, even with a handful of modern touches like location photography and brief nudity, so the dialogue gets a bit corny at times, there’s a great deal of sitcom-style patter between the stars, and the plotting is slick and uncomplicated. The Cheyenne Social Club also features the most whitewashed portrayal of prostitution this side of Pretty Woman (1990), which might make it unpalatable for some viewers. The cheerfully vanilla picture undoubtedly felt archaic in an era of revisionist Westerns, but seen with modern eyes, it’s as diverting as anything Hawks or Henry Hathaway helmed in the heyday of big-screen oaters. Fonda amusingly undercuts his heroic image by portraying a fellow more inclined to run from a fight than run into one, and Stewart uses his signature flummoxed stammer to great effect as a character unaccustomed to being a “man of property.” The Cheyenne Social Club isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy so much as it’s a lighthearted yarn with comic touches, but that’s a good thing: The picture delivers a broad spectrum of entertainment, from action to jokes to romance, over the course of 103 amiable minutes.

The Cheyenne Social Club: GROOVY

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Other Side of Midnight (1977)

          Adapted from a bestselling novel by shlockmeister Sidney Sheldon, The Other Side of Midnight provides a snapshot of Hollywood at a cultural crossroads. With its epic running time, international locations, and opulent production design, the romantic tragedy is a glossy example of old-school Hollywood escapism—yet the film’s abundant smut represents a concession to modern tastes. As a result, Midnight isn’t suited for either of its intended audiences: It’s way too sleazy for fans of classic Hollywood melodrama, and it’s way too ponderous for moviegoers craving exploitation. Although the picture runs a preposterous 165 minutes, the story is very simple. Poor French girl Noelle (Marie-France Pisier) learns to use sex to her advantage in the years leading up to World War II. During the war, she falls in love with a caddish American pilot, Larry (John Beck), who abandons her and later marries an American publicist, Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Hungry for revenge, Noelle seduces a super-rich Greek tycoon, Costantin (Raf Vallone), then uses his money to cause problems for Larry, eventually hiring him as the pilot for her private jet. Once the ex-lovers reunite, things get predictably ugly until the movie reaches its ridiculous conclusion.
          Why the film needs almost three hours to communicate this information is a mystery, but the strange thing is that Midnight isn’t exactly boring. There’s just enough bitchery, scheming, and sex in every sequence to keep things moving along. The problem is that it’s all so inconsequential. Noelle doesn’t engender much sympathy, and though very pretty, Pisier is cold and vapid. Larry is a one-dimensional asshole, a narrative shortcoming not overcome by Beck’s shallow performance. It’s even difficult to root for Catherine, despite the fact that Sarandon easily outclasses the rest of the cast with her earnest work; her character is written so poorly that Catherine is alternately mousy, shrewish, and stupid. To cut the unfortunate actors some slack, the fault is really in the underlying material, a storyline so contrived that viewers get hit with one scene after another like the following exchange between Noelle and her father. After Noelle refuses the sexual advances of an employer, dear old dad scolds her thusly: “War is coming. Beauty is your only weapon. Use it. Let the hand under your dress wear gold, and you will be that much ahead of the game.” Classy!
          FYI, The Other Side of Midnight earned footnote status in film history because of an unusual aspect of its release. Twentieth Century-Fox execs were so confident the picture would be a hit, they demanded that every exhibitor showing the film also book a picture for which the studio had much lower expectations, a sci-fi adventure titled Star Wars. Suffice it to say that The Other Side of Midnight was as much of a box-office bust as Star Wars was a box-office bonanza. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on

The Other Side of Midnight: LAME

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Choirboys (1977)

          The weirdness of this comedy-drama adapted from a Joseph Wambaugh novel about debauched L.A. police officers is epitomized by one particular scene. Hot-tempered redneck cop Roscoe Rules (Tim McIntire) wakes up by a pond in L.A.’s MacArthur Park after passing out from heavy drinking (the characters call their drunken revels “choir practice”). Roscoe looks down and discovers that a duck is, well, enjoying Roscoe’s private parts with its beak. All around Roscoe, his fellow officers bust out laughing. Turns out that practical-joke-loving cop Francis Tanaguchi (Clyde Kusatsu) found Roscoe drunk, opened Roscoe’s zipper, and laid a trail of breadcrumbs from the pond to Roscoe, thereby luring the frisky foul. Unspooling across 119 deranged minutes, The Choirboys zigzags wildly between sub-Animal House humor like the duck scene and horrific moments like the opening sequence, in which Roscoe taunts a potential suicide by shouting, “Go ahead and jump, bitch!” until she does exactly that.
          The theme of this wildly overstuffed ensemble picture seems to be that anything goes if you’re wearing a badge, so one storyline involves a sensitive cop (Perry King) who gets his kicks through S&M, while another follows a Vietnam vet (Don Stroud) perpetually on the edge of a complete meltdown. And then there’s the nerdy beat cop (James Woods) enlisted to entrap hookers because he looks like an accountant, and the fat slob named “Spermwhale” (Charles Durning), whose grudge match with his overbearing superior officer gets serious when the lieutenant threatens Spermwhale’s pension. Most of the storylines include some sort of raunchiness, like the cringe-inducing scene of a slow-witted cop sliding under a glass table to “kiss” the nether regions of a female officer sitting on the table, and the picture also has more than its share of physical and psychological violence. At one point, a mischievous vice cop (Vic Tayback) taunts Roscoe with put-on homosexual advances, triggering a gay-panic freakout in which Roscoe mercilessly pummels the vice cop until other officers intervene.
          What makes all of this so odd is that venerable director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) exerts absolutely zero control over the movie’s tone. Pathetically sad moments are played for laughs, idiotically silly scenes are played straight, and the film’s sympathies seem to lie with its most depraved characters. The indescribably inappropriate music by Frank DeVol only accentuates the strangeness; DeVol’s sunny tunes punctuate sequences the way rimshots accompany a nightclub comic’s routine, though often with no apparent connection to the actual content of the sequences. Eventually, a plot of sorts emerges from the chaos, but even that is so distasteful as to seem utterly perplexing: The “heroes” scheme to cover up the accidental killing of the most sympathetic character in the movie. The Choirboys is loaded with colorful events and interesting actors, but it’s a sure sign of trouble when the never-subtle Burt Young, playing a disgusting vice cop named “Scuzzi,” gives the most disciplined performance in the movie.

The Choirboys: FREAKY

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

          The opening moments of this Depression-era action story set the disjointed mood. After Marty Robbins sings a corny theme song over a montage of a freight train barreling through the wilderness, the train pulls up to a water tower, and a hobo sneaks aboard one of the junctions between cars. Once the train restarts, a thuggish railroad cop known as Shack (Ernest Borgnine) spots the hobo and slams the poor schmuck in the head with a lead hammer, sending him under the train to become a mutilated corpse. Then composer Frank De Vol’s weirdly upbeat music pops in, like the whole sequence was a comedy vignette. As proven by peerless movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967), director Robert Aldrich knew his way around action sequences. However, he often erred tonally, and Emperor of the North Pole shows off the strengths and weaknesses of his filmmaking. The sequences of danger on the rails are thrilling, but the overlong movie wobbles awkwardly between lighthearted adventure and brutal suspense. After far too much preamble, the main storyline pits Shack against a veteran rail rider called “A No. 1” (Lee Marvin), who sets out to become the first hobo to ride Shack’s train without getting killed. As a result, most of the picture comprises scenes of A. No. 1 and a young cohort, Cigarette (Keith Carradine), hopping on and off the train in between violent skirmishes with Shack.
          Had the movie been whittled down to just 90-ish minutes of exciting mano-a-mano action, the flick would have been killer, but instead, viewers get meandering scenes of A No. 1 hanging out in hobo camps and harassing Baptists. Marvin is his usual cruelly cool self, all grizzled attitude and manly presence, and Carradine complements him with overbearing youthful arrogance, but it’s mostly the bad guy’s show. As played by boisterous bull Borgnine, Shack is memorable monster, defending his train with insane vigor—in one especially vivid throwaway scene, Shack glances at a coworker who just died on the job and growls the epithet “useless bastard” before getting back to his own work. Despite its flaws, Emperor of the North Pole is solid stuff for the intended audience: The Oregon location photography by old Hollywood pro Joseph Biroc is impressive, the actors do a fair number of their own stunts on moving trains, and the final confrontation between Borgnine and Marvin is frightening for its sheer malevolence.

Emperor of the North Pole: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Halloween (1978)

          Filmmaker John Carpenter secured his legendary status with this brutally efficient thriller, which reigned for several years as the most successful independent film of all time, turned Jamie Lee Curtis into a movie star, and established the slasher movie as a major force at the box office. After Halloween, the formula of horny teenagers getting stalked by mystery men wielding butcher knives became a gruesome cliché, but it Carpenter’s deft hands, the original movie is a merciless exercise in audience manipulation. Co-written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, the movie opens with a famously lengthy point-of-view sequence depicting the first horrific episode in the career of demented killer Michael Myers. (If you don’t know the kicker to this vignette, I won’t spoil it for you.) The film picks up years later, when Myers escapes from a mental institution and returns to his hometown for a murderous rampage. Meek babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and haunted psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) stand in his way, so the harrowing narrative asks whether Strode and Loomis can stop Myers’ killing spree before becoming victims. Much has been written about the deeper psychological implications of the movie, and the film is crafted with such a Spartan approach to characterization that it’s tempting to play critical-interpretation games.
          But even without the justification of higher purpose, Halloween is a must-see for its minimalistic style. Cinematographer Dean Cundey uses huge anamorphic-widescreen frames to lend grandeur to simple locations like suburban streets and the interiors of teenagers’ bedrooms; Carpenter creates disquieting atmosphere with simple devices like having the killer enter the soft-focus backgrounds of shots; and Carpenter propels the film with the beloved synthesizer score he composed and performed. Speaking of the music, the main-title theme alone, with its relentless rhythm track and brooding melody, is a huge component of the film’s elemental power. Whereas many subsequent slasher flicks substituted elaborate gimmicks for real inspiration, Halloween features just a few choice contrivances, like grimly artistic murder tableaux and Myers’ creepy disguise, a hood the filmmakers created by modifying a cheap William Shatner mask. Among the actors, Curtis hits all the right notes, moving from shy and sweet to terrified and tough, while Pleasence is entertainingly deranged (“Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.”). An unforgettable demonstration of what a visionary director can accomplish by locking into the right subject matter, no matter how meager the available production resources, Halloween comprises equal measures of high art and low sensationalism. It’s also, not coincidentally, a great ride.

Halloween: RIGHT ON

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

          Otto Preminger, a venerable Austrian filmmaker and actor who did significant work from the mid-’40s to the early ’60s, lost his creative way somewhere around the time he directed the disastrous farce Skidoo (1968), a tone-deaf riff on LSD. Continuing his inept exploration of youth-culture themes, Preminger next filmed Marjorie Kellogg’s novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, a heartfelt story about three damaged young people who form a surrogate family outside of the hospital where they met. In the hands of the ham-fisted aueteur known as “Otto the Ogre,” however, Kellogg’s intimate tale becomes clumsy melodrama in the worst possible taste. The main characters are presented as freaks only capable of relating to other freaks, except for occasional “normal” folks who pity them, and when Preminger cuts loose with a fantasy sequence in the middle of the picture that’s meant to illustrate a disturbed mental state, he reveals how antiquated his filmmaking style had become: Preminger’s idea of cutting-edge dream imagery is an over-choreographed, over-lit, overproduced production number.
           And it’s not as if the film starts well and goes awry, because the first 20 minutes are a traffic jam of bad and incongruous ideas. During the opening credits, Pete Seeger (!) appears on camera to wander through the Sequoia National Forest (!) and warble a melancholy folk song. Then we cut to a hospital that inexplicably treats every different kind of patient in the same ward, because lined up next to each other are burn victim Junie Moon (Liza Minnelli), paraplegic Warren (Robert Moore), and seizure-prone mental patient Arthur (Ken Howard). It’s Junie’s last day in the hospital, so the movie flashes back to her “origin story.”
          Some time back, even though she was a happenin’ young chick who knew her own mind, Junie went on a date with an uptight dude named Jesse (Ben Piazza), then ignored the obvious warning signs when he refused to dance at a nightclub and instead took her to a cemetery, where he asked her to strip while he spewed obscenities at her. (Preminger prudishly blots out the obscenities with dissonant jazz solos on the soundtrack, and this goes on forever.) Then, because Junie still hasn’t figured out that Jesse is a nutter, she lets him take her to a junkyard where he knocks her to the ground. In Preminger’s finest moment of atrocious direction, Junie writhes on the ground for several moments while Jesse methodically seeks out and cracks open a car battery, from which he leaks acid all over Junie’s face and arm.
          The film never gets any more rational than that fusillade of horrible scenes, even as it settles into trite soap-opera dynamics once the three misfits start living together. Junie’s the assertive loudmouth tortured by how people react when they see her burns; Warren’s the clichéd mincing homosexual whose portrayal constitutes a hate crime; and Arthur’s the gentle giant who reacts to everything like an oversensitive child. As these unbelievable characters, Minnelli, Howard, and Moore give ferociously awful performances. James Coco, exercising a bit more restraint than the leads, enters the mix as a fishmonger who befriends the trio, and smooth cat Fred Williamson shows up as a resort-town stud who gets Warren’s queeny heart racing. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is about as wrong as wrong gets, right down to the implication that the homosexuality can and should be cured by heterosexual nookie.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon: FREAKY

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bad Company (1972)

Continuing the groove of their previous scripts Bonnie and Clyde (1968) and There Was a Crooked Man . . . (1970), screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman explore colorful crooks from yesteryear in Bad Company, a soft-spoken adventure following a pair of hapless young Civil War-era draft dodgers (Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown) who become outlaws in the wilderness that eventually became middle America. Benton also made his directorial debut with the picture, which is tasteful and understated almost to a fault. A very ’70s story about wandering losers who puff themselves up with bluster and pretense, the movie is gorgeously photographed by Gordon Willis (The Godfather) as a series of moody tableaux, and composer Harvey Schmidt links the film’s episodes with an old-timey score played on solo piano. Presenting the picture as a museum piece delivers sumptuous artistry but sometimes undercuts the wit of the storyline; moments with potential to explode into broad comedy, like a ridiculous brawl in a kitchen, play too seriously because of the gravitas of the photography and storytelling. Yet some funny bits connect just like they should, especially the scenes with priceless character player David Huddleston as the cranky leader of an incompetent criminal gang. Tonal peculiarities aside, Bad Company has many admirable qualities: The dialogue is appealing and authentic from start to finish; Bridges and Brown effectively inhabit their respectively arrogant and sensitive characters; and a very young John Savage appears as one of the heroes’ ill-fated cohorts. Somewhat randomly, Bad Company also contains a tart homage to legendary All About Eve writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who helmed Benton and Newman’s script for Crooked Man. As the capper to his final scene, Huddleston spouts a line that infamous cynic Mankiewicz often used to describe himself: “I’m the oldest whore on the block.” Like many things in Bad Company, the line is slightly out of place but nonetheless memorable.

Bad Company: GROOVY

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Demon Seed (1977)

Taking the crazed-computer menace of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in a depraved new direction, this strange thriller is based on a Dean Koontz novel, but bears the unmistakable signature of its director, Donald Cammell, notorious for co-directing the perverse cult classic Performance (1970). Even within the confines of a big-budget Hollywood movie, Cammell lets his freak flag fly throughout Demon Seed, which features an anguished Julie Christie as a woman who gets imprisoned, tortured, and impregnated (!) by a sentient computer. The source of her misery is her scientist husband (Fritz Weaver), who creates a supercomputer called Proteus IV; the computer’s desire for physical life prompts Christie’s artificial-intelligence insemination. Much of the movie comprises two-character scenes with Christie and Proteus, which mostly manifests as lava-lamp patterns on computer screens, so Christie’s main costar is unseen actor Robert Vaughn, who provides Proteus’ voice without much vigor. Adding a hallucinatory feel are long electronic-animation montages by Frank Mazzola, and Proteus’ eventual physical manifestation as a weird cube/diamond thing that extends long tendrils of geometric shapes. These trippy sequences are like Yes album covers come to life. However the movie suffers from idiotic plotting and long dull stretches, plus the miscasting of two behind-the-scenes players: Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler and frequent Peckinpah composer Jerry Fielding both contribute great work that belongs in a different, less bizarre movie. As for Christie, she flails through scenes that would be impossible for anyone to play, and seems embarrassed by her surroundings. So although Demon Seed is pretty damn weird, grounding elements like Butler’s crisp cinematography, Christie’s emphatically expressed anguish, and Vaughn’s overly explanatory voiceovers tether the movie to earth when it clearly wants to drift into even weirder territory.

Demon Seed: FREAKY

Friday, February 11, 2011

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


          The praise lavished on this bloated Agatha Christie adaptation (including six Oscar nominations and one win) has always mystified me, because while Murder on the Orient Express is a handsomely made film with an intelligent script and an amazing cast, it’s still just a contrived and methodical whodunit. It appears that much of the picture’s novelty derived from the fact that it was a throwback not only to a beloved Hollywood genre, but also to a more sophisticated time in terms of diction, fashion, and manners; somewhat like the aesthetically pleasing accoutrements of the same year’s Chinatown, this film’s glamorous production values and swellegant ’30s costumes were a change of pace from the gritty realism that dominated early ’70s cinema. Furthermore, Murder on the Orient Express is that rare all-star jamboree in which each actor has something interesting to do, with several performers receiving impressive showcase scenes, and even elaborate subplots, during the course of the movie’s lumbering 128 minutes. One could never accuse Murder on the Orient Express of shortchanging the audience.
          As for the story, which screenwriter Paul Dehn adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, it’s ingenious but not necessarily persuasive, and the lack of any real emotional heft means the experience of watching Murder on the Orient Express is all about luxuriating in production-design eye candy, piecing together clues, and savoring star power. Set in 1935, the movie finds Christie’s urbane detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) riding the famous train mentioned in the title. Poirot becomes enmeshed with a group of people including wealthy American Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), so when Ratchett gets stabbed to death early in the journey, Poirot and Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam), an executive with the company that owns the train, join forces to determine which passenger was responsible for the crime. The gimmick, as per the Christie formula, is that everyone in a confined space is a suspect, so the closer the investigation gets to the truth, the greater the danger becomes for everyone involved. Despite the film’s posh trappings, this is not highbrow stuff.
          Worse, Murder on the Orient Express is tedious, at least from my perspective, and director Sidney Lumet’s overly respectful treatment is part of the problem. Treating Christie like Shakespeare is as absurd as, say, treating John Grisham the same way. There’s simply no reason for this empty spectacle to sprawl over such a long running time. Giving credit where it’s due, however, Murder on the Orient Express is a visual feast. The clothes, linens, and table settings make the titular train seem like a rolling four-star hotel, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth uses his signature haze filters to make everything look painterly—to a fault, because sometimes it’s hard to distinguish details. But the biggest selling point, of course, is the high-wattage cast. Beyond those mentioned, players include Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won an unexpected late-career Oscar for her work), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York.

Murder on the Orient Express: FUNKY

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grizzly (1976)

          When you’re in the mood for 90 minutes of pure ’70s cheese, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more appetizing than the shameless Jaws rip-off Grizzly. As the title suggests, the movie depicts the rampage of a ravenous 18-foot bear through a national park filled with unsuspecting campers. Narrative logic isn’t exactly this picture’s greatest strength—so don’t ask why hunters have such a hard time tracking the bear, or why rangers can’t simply evacuate the park until the danger is past. Just go with the flow, and you’ll have a goofy good time, because the movie delivers all the requisite creature-feature clichés. The picture stars square-jawed ’70s guy Christopher George as the peace officer charged with protecting a small community from a hungry menace—except instead of a sheriff, like Roy Scheider’s character in Jaws, he’s a park ranger, so his jurisdiction is millions of acres of wild, mountainous forest. When a grizzly inexplicably appears in the forest and starts chomping on folks, George teams up with a bleeding-heart naturalist (Richard Jaeckel) and a good ol’ boy helicopter pilot (Andrew Prine) to hunt down the beastie, even though—wait for it!—a greedy politician (Joe Dorsey) stands in his way.
          Hewing to the Jaws formula allows the picture to toggle between bloody bear attacks and angry confrontations between the righteous ranger and his smarmy superior; the formula also facilitates Jaws-style scenes of manly men bonding out in the wild as they stalk their prey. The acting is erratic, the dialogue is terrible, and the storyline is the definition of predicable. Yet Grizzly has a certain kind of vibe. George is endearingly square, but Jaeckel and Prine bring pleasant degrees of crazy to their characters, and the location photography lends authenticity—the film’s many aerial shots, for instance, offer intoxicatingly lush tableaux. Better still, the thrills-per-hour ratio is pretty good, the PG-level gore gets the job done without succumbing to excess, and there are a handful of solid comin’-at-ya jolts. Further, it’s amusing to see how reverently the filmmakers copy Jaws, from the way Jaeckel’s naturalist character echoes Richard Dreyfuss’ shark guy in the earlier film, to the way Prine delivers a monologue about a bear attack in the style of Robert Shaw’s legendary U.S.S. Indianapolis speech in Jaws. For viewers with certain cinematic appetites (myself included), Grizzly is a nearly perfect specimen of ’70s drive-in shlock.

Grizzly: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Outlaw Blues (1977)

An enjoyable blend of redneck mayhem and music-industry satire, this amiable romp stars Peter Fonda as a jailed musician who performs his song “Outlaw Blues” for a country star visiting the big house, then watches in frustration as the star records the song without Fonda’s authorization and scores a hit. When Fonda gets out of prison, he confronts the star—who accidentally shoots his own foot during the resulting scuffle, then blames the injury on Fonda. Suddenly a fugitive, Fonda holes up with a sexy wanna-be music mogul, who makes a recording of Fonda performing “Outlaw Blues.” Soon that recording becomes an even bigger hit than the first one, making Fonda an outlaw and a pop star at the same time. Bill L. Norton’s breezy script delivers a fun premise and several interesting characterizations, even though the movie occasionally gets bogged down in repetitive chase scenes. Whenever the picture focuses on wigged-out Nashville types like the country star (James T. Callahan), the wanna-be mogul (Susan Saint James), and a sleazy label executive (Michael Lerner), it’s a fun travelogue of Fonda’s odyssey through a world with even less morality than prison, and the scenes of Fonda performing are so casual and warm that it’s easy to believe his character’s popularity. The title song is a catchy ditty, further embellishing the authenticity; incidentally, the tune was written by John Oates of Hall and Oates fame. Fonda is his usual laid-back self, letting the storyline do most of the heavy lifting, and Saint James is appealing as a liberated woman who’s still a sucker for a hard-luck case. Those chase scenes (involving boats, cars, and motorcycles) drag on endlessly, but they’re not enough to diminish the film’s low-key charm. (Available at

Outlaw Blues: GROOVY

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)

          By the late ’70s, cartoonish hard-rock outfit Kiss was making a fortune selling tacky merchandise to kids like me, who found their mixture of horror-movie costumes, simplistic songs, and supernatural mythology irresistible. There were action figures, comic books, lunchboxes, posters, and, to the band’s great dismay, a spectacularly awful made-for-TV movie. Despite high ratings, a bruising critical reception prompted the band to suppress the movie for many years, making bootlegs sought-after collectibles. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park finally got a legitimate DVD release in 2007, when entrepreneurial band bosses Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley decided that if anyone was going to make money laughing at Kiss’ disastrous dramatic debut, it should be Messers. Simmons and Stanley. In truth, when I first saw this thing on NBC a few days before Halloween 1978, I probably realized something was wrong—but didn’t care. As produced by cartoon mavens Hanna-Barbera, Kiss Meets the Phantom is a live-action onslaught of horror-movie tropes and juvenile jokes, making it feel like an extra-trippy episode of Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo franchise. What more could a ’70s kid want?
          When the story opens, the members of Kiss—portrayed in the movie as otherworldly superheroes—arrive to play a show at the Magic Mountain theme park near Los Angeles. They soon discover that a crazed scientist (Anthony Zerbe) is taking his skill for creating Disney-style animatronics too far, kidnapping teenagers and replacing them with robot lookalikes. How? Why? Don’t look for answers. Before long, the Kiss gang faces off with robot versions of themselves, exhibiting cheaply rendered superpowers like Simmons’ ability to breathe fire. A number of songs are performed onscreen, and many more appear on the soundtrack, so the constant barrage of clumsy visuals and hard-driving music (excepting the wimpy “Beth”) mesh with the nonsensical plotting to create a fever-dream vibe, because it’s hard to believe anything this weird ever got made, much less broadcast. A big part of the unintentional-humor appeal is that all four members of Kiss give terrible acting performances, so each scene feels more catastrophic than the last.
          FYI, the version of this movie that Kiss released in 2007 isn’t the as-broadcast original but rather a shorter cut released to European theaters under the moniker Attack of the Phantoms; I’m sure everyone reading this will weep at the thought of being deprived the unvarnished masterpiece I first saw in 1978.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park: FREAKY

Monday, February 7, 2011

Chinatown (1974)

          Screenwriter Robert Towne has famously described his masterpiece Chinatown as a story about “the failure of good intentions,” and that cryptic quip says a lot about the film’s enduring power. Superficially a straightforward film noir about an adultery investigation that unravels a far-reaching conspiracy and also ghastly personal secrets, the picture is fundamentally a profound statement about the impossibility of finding definitive moral high ground. And though this provocative thematic material is unquestionably Towne’s creation, the product of a native Los Angeleno’s preoccupation with his hometown’s sordid past, director Roman Polanski delivers the narrative in his uniquely cynical voice, embellishing the tale with uncredited screenwriting contributions, ingenious camerawork, and even a tart supporting performance. It’s a perfect blending of two cinematic alchemists. The central character is L.A. private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an ex-cop who now earns an undignified living peering through peepholes so he can catch wayward husbands and wives in flagrante delicto.
          Through convoluted circumstances that only become clear as the masterfully organized film unspools, Gittes comes into the employ of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the beautiful but chilly wife of a high-ranking official in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Partially through investigative skill, partially by dumb luck, and partially via sheer persistence, Gittes uncovers a scheme by Mulwray’s powerful father, Noah Cross (John Huston), to make money off the city’s insatiable thirst for water, and Gittes also uncovers shocking truths about the private lives of the Mulwray clan.
          The film’s haunting title refers to the idea that white cops keep a safe distance from internal conflicts in L.A.’s Chinatown district because they’re so ignorant of Chinese culture that they often stir up more trouble than they repair, simply by intruding where they don’t belong. This sad theme of irreparably twisted circumstances runs through every scene of Polanski’s deeply melancholy film. Whereas many lesser ’70s homages to classic film noir simply ape the saxophones-and-venetian-blinds surface of that venerable genre, Chinatown matches the surface plus the fatalistic foundation of noir; Chinatown then goes further still by using the trappings of noir to make an elegantly hopeless comment about the disconnectedness running through American society in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
          Towne won an Oscar for his work, and others on the team earned nominations for their equally excellent contributions: Dunaway and Nicholson got nods for their tragic portrayals, John A. Alonzo’s moody cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s elegiac score were recognized, and Polanski got a nom for his direction. Glaringly absent was recognition for Huston’s brief but unforgettable performance as heartless titan Cross. The way he intentionally mutilates the pronunciation of Gittes’ name, in that inimitably moist Huston growl, is one of the most vivid character details in any ’70s movie. Meditative and subtle, Chinatown is like the mystery it depicts: an enigma that becomes more fascinating and frightening each time it’s reexamined.

Chinatown: OUTTA SIGHT

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sssssss (1973)

The storied producing team of David Brown and Richard Zanuck (Jaws) got off to an inauspicious start with their first release, the underwhelming mad-scientist flick Sssssss. The storyline, which takes quite a while to get moving, depicts the efforts of Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) to perfect a serum that turns people into snakes, because he considers snakes a superior life form to human beings. Stoner recruits an eager lab assistant, David (Dirk Benedict), and administers a series of mysterious injections under the ruse of “inoculating” David against bites from venomous serpents. Meanwhile, Stoner’s daughter, Kristina (Heather Menzies), falls for David and spurns the advances of mean-spirited jock Steve (Reb Brown); her involvement with David gets complicated when he starts growing scales, and let’s just say that Steve and snakes don’t get along. The cheaply made Sssssss isn’t out-and-out awful, because the storyline makes sense and there are commendable elements, including some intense music from composer Patrick Williams. However, the deadly serious storytelling keeps raising expectations that the movie is about to go someplace really creepy, but instead viewers get drab dialogue scenes and vignettes of Benedict smothered in ridiculous half-man/half-snake prosthetics. The producers wisely included lots of footage of real cobras and pythons and such, guaranteeing a reaction from the vast swath of the viewing public afflicted with some measure of ophidiophobia. Yet aside from seeing future Battlestar Galactica star Benedict before his roguish charm was fully cultivated, the main novelty is watching Martin play outside his wheelhouse. A world-class character actor usually cast as unsophisticated Southern creeps, Martin gets to play an academic in Sssssss, so it’s fun to see him depict admirable and even amiable qualities before he goes bonkers and starts siccing black mambas on people who get in his way. If you give this one a look, make sure to slog through to the ending, which includes one of the most poorly executed special-effects sequences you’ll ever see in a theatrical feature, plus one of the oddest downbeat endings in the annals of ’70s cinema.

Sssssss: LAME

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Zardoz (1974)

          When a movie opens with a giant floating head landing among a group of loincloth-wearing soldiers on horseback, and then the head lectures the soldiers about how the gun is good and the penis is bad before expectorating a shower of weapons and ammunition, you know you’re in for a party. And sure enough, writer-producer-director John Boorman’s sci-fi epic Zardoz is so earnest about delivering laughably nerdy futuristic concepts and visuals that it’s entertaining despite itself. It’s certainly not as if anyone can be expected to take seriously a movie in which Sean Connery delivers nearly his entire performance wearing nothing but bright-red diapers and a preposterous hairstyle comprising a handlebar moustache, massive sideburns, and a long braid Cher might covet.
          Describing the plot of Zardoz is a thankless task, because it’s one of those numbingly convoluted sci-fi flicks in which nearly every scene introduces another fantastical conceit, so the movie constantly digs itself in deeper by trying to explain itself. However the broad strokes are that in the 23rd century, mankind has gotten divided into a handful of telepathic immortals living inside a domed country estate, and hordes of flesh-and-blood “brutals” who occupy the rest of the post-apocalyptic planet. Connery plays Zed, a brutal who serves his god Zardoz by raping and killing fellow brutals, and Zardoz manifests as the aforementioned giant floating head. For reasons that get explained later, Zed sneaks into the floating head so he can travel back to its home base, where he learns that one of the immortals created Zardoz. The immortals’ society starts to splinter when Zed emerges, inexplicably, as a messianic leader.
          Boorman uses all sorts of hallucinatory imagery, like film projections onto walls and human bodies, plus angles shot through every semi-transparent texture imaginable. (My favorite contrivance is a scene photographed through rainbow-colored threads when Connery wanders through the works of a loom.) The costumes are straight out of a bad Star Trek episode, and the immortals favor chanting and silly hand gestures, so if there’s an interesting allegory buried inside Zardoz, it’s hard to dig it out from the ludicrous surface imagery. Connery spends a lot of his screen time staring blankly into the middle distance, like he can’t make any more sense of this stuff than viewers, and costar Charlotte Rampling lends little more than her icy beauty to a clichéd role as an “elevated” soul whose animal roots are showing through.
          With cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth giving the film a soft, otherworldly look, Boorman manages to conjure some beautiful tableaux, but he constantly goes overboard with gonzo moments like a nighttime riot featuring men in giant papier-mâché masks, tuxedoed oldsters moaning like zombies, hippies copulating in trees, and Connery wearing a wedding gown.

Zardoz: FREAKY

Friday, February 4, 2011

Red Sun (1971)

Revealing the pedigree of Red Sun should separate those who couldn’t care less from those who can’t get their eyeballs onto this movie quickly enough. Terence Young, the director of Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963), helms this zippy “East-meets-Western” that pits unlikely buddies Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune against cold-blooded bad guy Alain Delon, and Dr. No bikini girl Ursula Undress (ahem, Andress) is along for the ride as high-spirited eye candy. If that recitation doesn’t quicken your pulse, then move along to the next movie, but if it does, then praise the movie gods because, lo, ye have just been delivered a prime example of early-’70s manly-man action/adventure cinema. The convoluted plot begins when a train delivering the Japanese ambassador through the Old West is robbed by a group of bandits led by Delon. Overpowering sword-wielding bodyguards including Mifune, the thugs rip off an ancient samurai sword the ambassador was supposed to deliver to the U.S. president as a gift. During the robbery, however, Delon comes to a violent parting of the ways with his accomplice Bronson, so Bronson and Mifune join forces to kick their Gallic adversary’s derriere. The movie is loaded with action right out of the gate, and it delivers exactly what is promised, blending fistfights, gunfights, and swordplay in sequences like the stylish finale, wherein most of the major characters face off against the backdrop of a burning wheat field. At 112 minutes, Red Sun is longer than it needs to be, but the filmmakers devote a fair amount of that excessive screen time to giving Mifune’s character dimension (if a string of earnestly presented samurai-movie clichés, like the inevitable near miss with hara-kari, counts as dimension). Bronson and Mifune do their best to sell the story’s many contrivances, although their real focus is providing swaggering badass coolness, Delon is a solidly hissable villain, and Andress brings the requisite amount of sexy. Red Sun isn’t any kind of classic, but if you’re a fan of vintage action, this is the movie you never knew you wanted to see.

Red Sun: FUNKY