Saturday, April 30, 2011

Heartland (1979)

          So naturalistic that it almost feels like a documentary, Heartland exemplifies a certain speciality of American independent cinema, the rural survival story. Tackling subject matter far too educational in nature for treatment in a Hollywood production, the picture tells the simple tale of a woman who moves to a small ranch in the American frontier, circa 1909, to serve as the live-in housekeeper for the ornery proprietor of a one-man ranching operation. As years pass, the duo’s pragmatic arrangement grows into something like a romantic bond, but their union is tested by challenges including bitter winters, financial problems, livestock deaths, and a troubled pregnancy. All of this plays out in crisp dramatic vignettes set almost exclusively on the ranch, which means that the picture’s visuals are limited to stark panoramic shots of empty fields and claustrophobic interior scenes taking place in the rancher’s cabin.
          Accordingly, the picture’s watchability rises and falls on its acting and its attention to detail, and both are excellent. Conchata Ferrell, who later achieved notoriety as the sarcastic housekeeper on the sitcom Two & a Half Men, stars in Heartland, playing one of her only leading roles. Leavening her signature sass with a layer of historically accurate repression, she’s independent and tough without seeming like a superwoman, which makes the grit her character shows in horrific circumstances all the more impressive. Ferrell’s costar is the priceless Rip Torn, giving one of his most restrained performances; although the violence that often punctuates his acting is visible under the skin of his character, Torn comes across as a man toughened by necessity, not personal inclination. Barry Primus appears fleetingly, and with much soft-spoken charm, as a ranch hand occasionally in Torn’s employ.
          The script, which reflects meticulous research more strongly than creative dramaturgy, was based on a series of letters written by the real-life frontier woman whose experiences inspired the story, and as such the picture consistently opts for melancholy realism over happy contrivance. Heartland is like a textbook chapter come to life, painstakingly illustrating what a single woman’s lot was like at a particular moment in history. The approach speaks well of the filmmakers’ intentions but makes Heartland feel slow for viewers accustomed to flashier storytelling—as helmed by journeyman director Richard Pearce, the picture gritty and substantial almost to a fault. Ultimately, however, Heartland’s integrity raises it almost above reproach, even though it’s more edifying than entertaining.

Heartland: GROOVY

Friday, April 29, 2011

Breakthrough (1979)

          Watching Richard Burton’s physical decline had been a spectator sport since the mid-’60s, when the ravages of his alcoholism really started to become evident, so by the late ’70s it was mostly just depressing to watch the once-virile actor sleepwalk through lame movies looking like the ghost of his former self. In the World War II thriller Breakthrough, Burton looks especially desiccated, an effect only worsened by the enervated feel of the whole project. A quasi-sequel to the Sam Peckinpah war story Cross of Iron (1977), this picture eschews the moral ambiguity of Peckinpah’s picture for old-fashioned melodrama about a good German trying to help the Americans win the war.
          In 1944, after the Nazis have suffered insurmountable losses in Russia, a German general (Curt Jurgens) joins a cabal of officers planning to kill Hitler and then negotiate peace, so he asks freethinking soldier Rolf Steiner (Burton) to convey information about the plan to Allied officers. Steiner connects with a sympathetic American colonel (Robert Mitchum), who then involves his superior officer (Rod Steiger). However fate intervenes, as does an odious Nazi (Helmut Griem) unwilling to acknowledge that the war is already lost.
          Everyone in this movie looks bored and disconnected, so each actor gives an isolated performance that director Andrew V. McLaglen doesn’t even bother to unify with the other performances. Burton spits out lines quickly, like he can’t wait to walk off camera and drink; Mitchum delivers dialogue flatly, as if he’s simply repeating words that were fed to him before the camera rolled; and Steiger bludgeons his scenes with characteristic bulging-vein intensity. The only moments that have flair are the buddy-movie exchanges between the lead characters and their second-in-command guys (Burton has Klaus Lowitsch and Mitchum has Michael Parks).
          To say that Breakthrough gets off to a slow start is an understatement: The first half-hour of the movie is borderline unwatchable because nothing happens. Steiner doesn’t even get hip to the big plan until the picture is well underway, and then, when things are supposed to get exciting, somnambulistic acting and rote combat scenes add up to tedium.
          It’s amazing that just a year before shooting this turkey, Burton and McLaglen collaborated on the robust action picture The Wild Geese (1978), but apparently their efforts shouldn’t be judged entirely on the evidence of the existing version of Breakthrough. After being released in Europe in 1979, the picture went through several edits (and titles) before limping onto a few American screens in 1982. The currently available version runs a scant 95 minutes (the original was closer to two hours), and the only thing more ghastly than the print quality is the amateurish music score. Given the lifeless performances, however, it’s hard to imagine than any amount of post-production sweetening could have turned this misbegotten flick into something special.

Breakthrough: LAME

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cross of Iron (1977)

          Gonzo filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was already starting to lose his creative way when he made the World War II actioner Cross of Iron. By the mid-’70s, he had become such a substance-abusing hellraiser that his productions were nightmares for nearly everyone involved, and Cross of Iron represents his last hurrah as a serious filmmaker. (He cranked out two more features before his death, but both were embarrassments.) As chaotic and overindulgent as the man who made it, Cross of Iron is also clever, disturbing, and provocative, a flawed psychological drama that could have become a masterpiece had it been executed with more discipline.
          Based on a novel by Willi Heinrich and penned by a trio of writers including Hollywood veteran Julius Epstein (Casablanca), the picture follows the adventures of Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), a valiant German soldier fighting on the bloody Russian front. Brave, smart, and respected by his men, Steiner would be officer material if he didn’t have a problem with authority, so he quickly gets into a battle of wills with his new commander, Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell). A pompous Prussian aristocrat who lacks combat experience, Stransky is an ambitious monster determined to win an Iron Cross by any means necessary. When Stransky tries to claim credit for a heroic charge that was actually led by another man, Steiner emerges as the only eyewitness who can disprove Stransky’s boast, so Stransky abandons Steiner’s platoon in enemy territory when the Germans call a general retreat from the front.
          And that’s just one of the threads in this complex movie: There’s also a subplot about Steiner adopting a young Russian boy as his platoon’s ward, an intense sequence in which Steiner convalesces after suffering shell shock, and a sensitively depicted relationship between cynical Col. Brandt (James Mason) and his idealistic right-hand man, Capt. Kiesel (David Warner). As with most Peckinpah pictures, Cross of Iron unfurls as a bloody phantasmagoria. The dramatic scenes are tight and controlled, with Peckinpah drawing consistently interesting work from his gifted cast, and by contrast the action scenes are disjointed and surreal; during the shell-shock sequence in particular, Peckinpah employs impressionistic editing techniques to replicate Steiner’s fragmented state of mind. There’s also plenty of the director’s signature slow-motion violence, so be prepared for shots of viscera exploding in lingering detail.
          As a result of this multifaceted storytelling, Cross of Iron is dense and uneven. At one extreme there’s an excruciating scene of Stransky goading two soldiers into confessing their homosexual proclivities, and at the other extreme there’s an over-the-top sequence of Steiner’s platoon taking a group of female Russian soliders captive; the level of sexual violence in the latter sequence is predictably gruesome.
          Yet even with all of this transgressive material, the film’s strongest element is a running commentary on the nature of war. By dividing the military mind into a group of sharply individualized characters, the story illustrates how the battlefield both invites and nurtures insanity. Steiner is a strange sort of noble anarchist, bound by a deep sense of loyalty to his men but disdainful of everyone in the upper ranks and virtually oblivious to the politics driving the war. Stransky is a self-serving opportunist not only willing but sadistically eager to make others die for his greater glory. The conflict between these two men becomes more and more heated as the film advances, until finally they’re thrown together in a darkly ironic climax.
          That the picture ends on an ambiguous note, instead of definitively resolving the story, says as much about Cross of Iron’s virtues as it does about the film’s failings. The film raises a hundred probing questions even as it piles on lurid war-movie thrills, then dumps all of this information onto the audience so viewers can sort through the muck and find whatever they find. Cross of Iron is a fascinating mess.

Cross of Iron: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Valdez Is Coming (1971)

          The presence of iconic leading man Burt Lancaster is the only thing that separates this revenge-themed Western from dozens of similar movies, and even though Lancaster is miscast as a Mexican-American lawman, the actor’s signature intensity adds gravitas to the thin storyline. Based on one of Elmore Leonard’s many pulpy Western tales, Valdez Is Coming depicts a bloody campaign by a Mexican sheriff named Valdez (Lancaster) to get justice from a wealthy rancher, Tanner (Jon Cypher), who killed a man for trumped-up reasons and left the victim’s widow penniless. Tanner is romantically involved with Gay (Susan Clark), the widow of another murdered man, so Valdez kidnaps Gay in order to gain leverage over his enemy.
          Not only is this set-up unnecessarily convoluted, it’s also ineffective: The movie is supposed to be fueled by Valdez’ obsessive desire for justice, but the lawman’s connection to the injured parties is so tangential that it doesn’t make sense for him to antagonize the powerful and ruthless Tanner. The story gains credibility when Tanner instructs his underlings to abuse Valdez and the lawman’s friends, thereby deepening the hero’s motivation, but because the picture proceeds from a weak premise, everything that follows feels contrived.
          That said, Valdez Is Coming has enough blood, sweat, and tears to satiate the appetites of undemanding fans of ’70s Westerns. So even though the story isn’t especially interesting or persuasive, there are lots of close-ups of sneering villains, wide shots of perspiring men trudging through brutal deserts, and briskly edited scenes of Lancaster picking off Tanner’s men at a great distance with his reliable Sharps Carbine. The actors supporting Lancaster generally contribute undistinguished work, but Richard Jordan makes the most of his multidimensional role as a would-be gunslinger who waffles between overbearing arrogance and pathetic weakness.

Valdez Is Coming: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Car Wash (1976)

Best known for the disco theme song by Rose Royce that became a No. 1 pop hit, Car Wash is a silly ensemble comedy about the goings-on among the African-American workers at a Los Angeles car wash, so the focus is on cartoonish jive talk, contrived slapstick, and meandering musical sequences. A steady stream of catchy funk/disco tunes fills the soundtrack (Motown Records hitmaker Norman Whitfield did the music), and the picture is so overstuffed with characters that things move along at a steady clip, but the storyline runs the gamut from juvenile to pedestrian. As written by Joel Schumacher, who later became the A-list director of such glossy piffles as The Lost Boys (1987), Car Wash tries to generate gags from such unlikely sources as a would-be revolutionary (Bill Duke) spewing militant aphorisms; a sassy drag queen (Antonio Fargas) exuding lascivious attitude; a disgruntled cab driver (George Carlin) trying to find the hooker who skipped out on a fare; and a fast-talking evangelist (Richard Pryor) strutting around with three female vocalists (the Pointer Sisters) literally singing his praises. This is the sort of movie in which the titular location functions as a conveyer belt for delivering one random character after another, which means the piece lacks anything resembling cohesion or dramatic drive. The script really shows its strain with idiotic recurring characters like the bitchy Beverly Hills mom (Lorraine Gary) whose son won’t stop puking, and the redneck car-wash worker (Jack Kehoe) who frets that he might have gotten VD. Car Wash has fleeting moments of interest, but whatever virtues the film has are overshadowed by groan-inducing moments like the scene in which characters argue about who has to clean dog excrement off the sidewalk. Sample dialogue: “Don’t gimme no lip, pick up the shit!”

Car Wash: LAME

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Omen (1976) & Damien: Omen II (1978)

          A massive box-office hit exploiting the post-Exorcist craze for supernatural horror but opting for cartoonish violence over gut-wrenching realism, The Omen is fabulously entertaining nonsense. Producer Harvey Bernhard saw dollar signs when a clergyman acquaintance pondered what might happen if the antichrist emerged in modern times, so Bernhard commissioned a pulpy script by David Seltzer and hired promising director Richard Donner, who had not yet become an A-lister. The story they tell involves American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), who adopts a mysterious infant when his own son is stillborn. The ambassador unwisely hides the truth from everyone, including his wife, Kathy (Lee Remick). But once young Damien (Harvey Stephens) reaches his seventh year, things get messy—people around the child die gruesomely, and a crazed priest tries to convince the ambassador that his “son” is an inhuman beast sired by a jackal.
          The plot crumbles under scrutiny (the antichrist’s bodyguard is a small middle-aged woman?) but the movie’s supernatural deaths are appealingly preposterous. Peck grounds the picture with anguished determination, and Billie Whitelaw is all kinds of creepy as Damien’s nanny. Gangly British actor David Warner adds an enjoyable presence as a doomed photographer, and Leo McKern is memorably kooky as the dude who says Damien’s gotta die. The real knockout element is Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score, which uses eerie chants like “Ave Satani!” (Latin for “Hail Satan!”) to infuse scary scenes with palpable menace. All in all, The Omen is fun stuff.
          The picture’s first sequel, Damien: Omen II, actually makes more sense from a narrative perspective than its predecessor—teenaged Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) accepts his destiny while being raised by his uncle (William Holden), a corporate giant whose empire the antichrist stands to inherit. However, Damien is less exciting and far less novel than the previous picture. Having said that, the perfectly cast Scott-Taylor is quite disturbing as he grows more and more comfortable in his unholy skin, plus Holden is always watchable, and the death scene involving an icy lake is memorably frightening.
          The original Omen series concluded with The Final Conflict (1981), a grim installment featuring Sam Neill as grown-up Damien trying to prevent the Second Coming, although a quasi-related telefilm called Omen IV: The Awakening followed ten years later, and the original film was pointlessly remade in 2006.

The Omen: GROOVY
Damien: Omen II: FUNKY

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Night of the Lepus (1972)

          Viewed with the right attitude, the kitschy creature feature Night of the Lepus is fabulous. The right attitude, however, is a combination of irony and masochism, because by any rational appraisal, Night of the Lepus is one of the worst movies of the ’70s. Therein lies its appeal, because if you’re the sort of viewer who enjoys watching hapless actors and filmmakers trying to play a ludicrous idea absolutely straight, then you will experience transcendent joy during Night of the Lepus, a horror picture about giant bunny rabbits laying siege to a town in the American Southwest. As if the idea weren’t sufficiently preposterous on its own merits, the homicidal hares are simply normal-sized bunnies photographed on miniature sets. For good measure, the picture occasionally cuts to tricked-out shots of rabbits with liquid on their lips, ostensibly to create the illusion that the critters are either foaming at the mouth or reveling in a recent bloody kill. Ridiculous? Of course. Ridiculously awesome? You betcha.
          Stolid leading man Stuart Whitman and Psycho veteran Janet Leigh play scientists called in to help when frenzied (but initially normal-sized) rabbits overrun a private ranch. The scientists accidentally introduce a toxin that causes the rabbits to increase in size, so before long everybody is facing off with hares as large as bears. DeForest Kelley, better known as Dr. “Bones” McCoy on the original Star Trek series, appears somewhat ineffectually as Whitman’s boss, and his presence is another indication of the picture’s sky-high camp factor.
          It’s impossible to take a single frame of Night of the Lepus seriously, and most of the picture is so over-the-top absurd that it’s unintentionally entertaining. The slo-mo shots of bunnies stampeding through underground mines are as goofy as the scenes of actors pretending to be savaged by giant hares, and it’s all topped off nicely with a showdown outside a drive-in theater. “Lepus,” in case you’re wondering, is a scientific name for rabbits—apparently the title Night of the Bunnies was rejected. No matter what this cinematic disaster is called, though, the flick exemplifies so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking of the most sublime sort.

Night of the Lepus: LAME

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wanda Nevada (1979)

Peter Fonda made some truly inexplicable choices in the years after Easy Rider, and one of the most inexplicable was signing on as director and star of this lifeless Brooke Shields vehicle. Fonda plays a modern-day swindler roaming through the Southwest until he wins 13-year-old Shields in a poker game and gets embroiled in a silly quest for a vein of gold that an old drunk claims exists in the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to discern the intended audience for this movie, because while the plot is nominally a kiddie adventure in which the characters trot about on mules while encountering eccentric characters and evading a pair of incompetent crooks, several scenes depict adult men lusting after Shields. Even the basic relationship at the center of the story seethes with implied pedophilia, because it’s never clear if Fonda is Shields’ surrogate father or her would-be lover. Fonda’s performance is even more lackadaisical than usual, which is saying a lot, and Shields seems more suited to a sitcom episode than a feature film, given her canned showbiz-kid acting and jarring painted-lady makeup. (As Fonda says at one point, “I thought you were a good kid under all that hot sauce.”) The only thing that might have saved this picture is the depiction of colorful people who live and work in and around the Grand Canyon, but these minor characters are all contrived and uninteresting, despite being played by energetic actors. B-movie stalwart Severn Darden plays an incongruently pale bird watcher in a pith helmet and jungle khakis, giving a few moments of amusement with florid dialogue and outright perversion (he tries to buy and then seduce Shields); Fiona Lewis appears rather pointlessly as a photographer who gives Shields friendly encouragement; and an unrecognizable Henry Fonda shows up for a brief cameo as a sun-baked prospector. He’s got the right idea by getting the hell out of his son’s misbegotten movie as quickly as possible. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Wanda Nevada: LAME

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cuba (1979)

          It’s hard to decide if Cuba is a great idea executed poorly, or simply a case of terrific execution masking the absence of any central idea whatsoever. In either case, the Richard Lester-directed romantic/political thriller is frustrating, because despite incredible production values and a strong cast, the film is rudderless. When Cuba begins, it seems as if the main story will involve British mercenary Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) getting drawn into the drama of 1959 Cuba, just before rebel forces led by Fidel Castro staged a successful coup. Dapes was hired by the endangered Batista government to train soldiers for their battles against the rebels, and Dapes quickly realizes he’s on the wrong side of history. His situation gets even more complicated when he encounters Alexandra (Brooke Adams), a young woman with whom he once had an intense love affair, and who is now the wife of a playboy Cuban aristocrat (Chris Sarandon).
          The lovers-in-wartime premise is vaguely reminiscent of Casablanca, but unlike that classic film, Cuba can’t decide whether it’s an examination of geopolitics or simply a torrid love triangle. As a result, the movie bounces from one tonal extreme to another, creating a disjointed narrative and neutralizing any real emotional involvement on the part of the audience. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the acting and filmmaking are so consistently good. Lester employs clever grace notes, such as tossed-off dialogue by peripheral characters and fussy background action, in order to generate a palpable sense of place and texture. He also works in his trademark sight gags, usually at the expense of pudgy character actor Jack Weston, who plays a crass American developer trying to score a big deal before Cuba implodes.
          Supporting player Hector Elizondo is terrific in a more serious role, as Dapes’ military handler; Elizondo’s knowing glances and sly asides communicate volumes of worldly cynicism. Denholm Elliot, Lonette McKee, and Chris Sarandon are equally effective in less nuanced roles. As for the leads, Adams looks spectacular throughout the picture, even if her character is written in such a confusing way that Adams is precluded from portraying consistent behavior. Connery pours on the manly-man charm, and he’s actually quite effective in his scenes with Adams, displaying more sensitivity than he usually integrates into his performances, but the story weirdly sidelines his character until the climax.
          Still, even with these catastrophic flaws, Cuba has indisputable virtues. The location photography by David Watkin is vivid, and the script by frequent Lester collaborator Charles Wood is witty. One typically tart dialogue exchange occurs between Weston and a prostitute. Weston: “Don’t you Cubans know that time is money?” Prostitute: “I do.”


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

The overripe genre of Satan-worship flicks and the florid persona of character actor Strother Martin should be a winning combination, but, alas, the tiresome evidence presented in The Brotherhood of Satan suggests otherwise. Martin, who perfected a certain type of oily Southern villainy in pictures like Cool Hand Luke (1967), only played leading roles in two pictures, both of which were misbegotten horror projects. In the snake-themed Sssssss (1973), Martin effectively broadened his range by playing a tweaked scientist, but here, he’s heinously miscast as the sort of aristocratic evildoer generally played by darkly European types like Christopher Lee. In the story, Don Duncan (Martin) is a modern-day warlock leading a coven of elderly devil-worshippers who want to slip their souls into the bodies of the children they’ve been kidnapping; after a local sheriff (L.Q. Jones) uncovers the creepy plot, he confronts the bad guys in an overwrought finale. Hampered by a disjointed script and a very low budget, The Brotherhood of Satan meanders through one dull and/or nonsensical scene after another, never building any real momentum. Despite the colorful premise, the picture isn’t exciting or scary, nor is it enough of a cinematic trainwreck to induce much unintentional laughter. It’s just boring, even during the climax of Martin spewing a ridiculous speech filled with “thees” and “thous” while dressed in a campy high-priest costume. Martin’s commitment to the role can’t be denied, however; for no discernible reason, the denouement includes a fleeting shot of Martin proudly opening his robe to reveal that he’s, well, disrobed.

The Brotherhood of Satan: SQUARE

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

California Split (1974)

          While gambling movies in the ’50s or ’60s often focused on extraordinarily gifted characters like the Cincinnati Kid and “Fast” Eddie Felson, the 1974 gambling movie California Split takes a different tack by depicting a pair of pathetic losers who luck into a hot streak even though viewers know they’ll probably blow all of their winnings in short order. Directed by Robert Altman at his most restrained—for once, he doesn’t get lost in a maze of trifling subplots—the picture tracks the eventful friendship of Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Walters (Elliot Gould).
          Bill is a magazine writer who regularly skips out on his job in order to bet at the track or in a gambling parlor, and Charlie makes his meager living hustling people like jocks at the local basketball court and rubes at a neighborhood poker joint. Bill has big problems, because he’s deep in debt to a bookie, and he’s an addict obsessed with the high of winning. Charlie’s more easygoing, a good-time guy who lives with two women. As the story unfolds, Bill and Charlie become drinking buddies and then gambling partners, because Bill decides to enter a gambling contest with a big prize but he needs money from Charlie for his opening stake.
          Although most gambling pictures explore the dramatic question of whether the heroes will win or lose, Altman is more interested in observing the behavior of these amiable but troubled souls. Working from the only script that journeyman actor Joseph Walsh ever wrote, Altman occasionally indulges his affection for weirdness (watch for a pointless scene involving a cross-dresser), but he mostly stays on point with incisive scenes showing the growth, corruption, and demise of an opportunistic friendship.
          Gould and Segal mesh well, joking and scatting through Altman’s naturalistic frames so comfortably that the whole movie feels unscripted, even though the story has inexorable momentum. Gould pulls off a deft trick by showing that Charlie is simultaneously irresistible and intolerable, a self-serving schmuck with innate charm, and Segal deftly illustrates that Bill is a desperate soul who only comes alive when he’s indulging his wild side. The strongest aspect of California Split is its unusual tone, because the film comfortably drifts between insightful drama (notably the terrific final scene) and sharp comedy (like the bit in which Gould negotiates with a stick-up man). Loaded with insight and witCalifornia Split is easily one of Altman’s most underrated pictures.

California Split: GROOVY

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Projectionist (1971)

Well-meaning but clumsily made, writer-director Harry Hurwitz’ homage to the movies concerns a New York City movie-theater projectionist whose fantasy life runs amok as he imagines himself into various scenarios inspired by the movies he shows. The premise is straightforward, and Hurwitz clearly delineates the different elements (“real” scenes are in color, fantasies are in black-and-white), but the picture’s jumbled tone and pointless narrative add up to tedium. The “real” scenes are the most effective, with Hurwitz’ grainy low-budget photography lending seedy realism to vignettes inside a projection booth and a theater lobby, as well as scenes of the projectionist (Chuck McCann) strolling around bad old Times Square or relaxing in his tiny hovel of an apartment. In fact, the movie is probably too effective at conveying the dismal nature of the projectionist’s life: The character always seems one bad experience away from going postal, especially when he’s getting yelled at by his skinflint boss (Rodney Dangerfield). The second layer of the picture, comprising original fantasy footage shot by Hurwitz, is the least effective. The overweight McCann dons a silly superhero suit to portray “Captain Flash” in broadly comic bits inspired by serials and silent movies. These scenes go on forever, and McCann’s mugging feels desperate. Even more problematic are gimmicky scenes cutting new shots of McCann into clips from Casablanca (1942) and other Hollywood classics—a device executed with much more flair a decade later in the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). The Projectionist has some fans in the cinephile crowd, who appreciate the picture’s film-geek nostalgia and handmade quality, but for most viewers, Hurwitz’ sole feature will simply seem amateurish and dull.

The Projectionist: LAME

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hunting Party (1971)

          One of the most vicious movies I’ve ever seenwhich is saying a lot, believe methis grisly British flick opens by introducing Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman), a wealthy rancher who gets off on beating his wife, Melissa (Candice Bergen), during sex. When this charmer and his sleazy buddies take off on a luxurious hunting trip, Melissa wanders over to a small schoolhouse to keep herself occupied. Along comes rough-ridin' outlaw Frank Calder (British madman Oliver Reed) and his gang, who kidnap Melissa and head off toward the frontier. Frank keeps his cronies from raping Melissa because he wants her to teach him to read. Meanwhile, Brandt hears what happened and enlists his hunting buddies to help track down the scoundrels. Thing is, Brandt figures Melissa's been tarnished, so he decides to take her out with one of the fancy rifles he uses to bag prey from a safe distance. As Hackman’s character devolves from meanie to monster, Frank evolves from scummy to sensitive. Sort of. Because, see, he wins Melissa's heart by raping her, which she secretly enjoys because it's the first time she’s ever been with a real man.
          But wait—there’s more! The movie was shot in Spain, which allows the picture to inexplicably shift from palm-tree-dotted plains to high desert, and in true spaghetti-Western style, The Hunting Party features a faux-Morricone score that’s beyond overbearing. During this bizarre picture’s goofiest sequence, Frank taunts a starving Bergen by eating peaches obscenely in front of her, all to the strains of cringe-worthy "comical" music. Plus, as was the cinematic fashion of the time, Brandt turns totally psychotic about halfway through the picture, leading to endless slow-mo bloodbaths. The Hunting Party is unconscionably mean-spirited, but it’s not boring. Quite to the contrary, it’s arresting in a nauseating sort of way, offering prime evidence of Hackman’s disturbing ability to incarnate unstable sons of bitches, and equally telling images of Reed portraying animalistic charisma. So if sadism is your bag, then The Hunting Party is your movie.

The Hunting Party: LAME

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Coffy (1973)

          Pam Grier’s status as the queen of blaxploitation movies was secured by her appearance in Coffy—even though she doesn’t give a particularly good performance, she creates an indelible image. Tall, gorgeous, outrageously built, and believably ferocious, she’s a cartoonish vision of empowered womanhood, a superheroine sister with a shotgun mowin’ down every rotten mother*#@%er who does her wrong.
          Just as Grier’s performance is a triumph of attitude over skill, Coffy is more about vibe than cinematic virtues. Writer-director Jack Hill’s narrative is as simplistic as a pulpy comic-book story, portraying Grier as an indomitable avenger cutting a swath through the criminal underworld in order to exact revenge against the system that caused her younger sister to become a brain-damaged addict. Feeling like she’s unable to affect real social change in her day job as a nurse, Coffy (Grier) moonlights as an adventurer, using her wiles to penetrate criminal organizations.
          Coffy soon sets her sights on King George (Robert DoQui), a flamboyant pimp who also deals the nastiest junk in town. So, naturally, Coffy goes undercover as one of King George’s working girls, allowing Hill to put Grier into a series of barely-there outfits, and giving the director an excuse for epic catfights involving screeching hookers who are threatened by the buxom new arrival. Meanwhile, top-level criminal operator Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus) takes an interest in Coffy, at least until his underlings realize she might not be what she seems.
          And so it goes through a series of standard detective-story beats: Coffy digs for evidence, schemes her way out of trouble when she’s trapped, and ultimately confronts the baddest bad guy in the climax. It all goes down smoothly, after a fashion, since Hill’s filmmaking is crudely entertaining and since the director doesn’t skimp on exploitation elements. Coffy overflows with boobs, gore, vulgarity, wah-wah funk music, and horrific ’70s fashions. (DoQui’s pimp outfits are particularly heinous.)
          The movie has lots of lunkheaded exuberance, especially when Sid Haig shows up as Vitroni’s most sadistic lieutenant. Bearded, chrome-domed, and nearly always wearing a sick smile, Haig is Grier’s opposite number, an image of animalistic fury driven by base impulses instead of righteous ones. He’s also weirdly funny, and undoubtedly a big part of why Coffy has enjoyed decades of devotion from its cult of fervent fans.
          Brisk and brutal, Coffy is only incidentally a feminist statement, since it’s really just unapologetic trash—the picture is so shameless in its pursuit of cheap thrills that it has a kind of gutter-level integrity. That it also happens to feature a powerful female protagonist who retains her femininity and sensitivity amid horrific circumstances is an added bonus.

Coffy: FUNKY

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Breezy (1973)

          Clint Eastwood’s choice to direct this soft-spoken romantic drama was one of the first clues that he wanted his career to include more than just action pictures. Instead of the usual Eastwood tropes of cops and cowboys, the movie depicts May-December sparks between a teenaged hippy, Breezy (Kay Lenz), and her much-older Establishment paramour, Frank (William Holden). For viewers who can look beyond the skeeviness of a sexual relationship between a 19-year-old and a man three decades her senior, Breezy is pleasantly entertaining if a bit overlong and schematic. While Frank’s embarrassment at being perceived as a cradle-robber is one of several predictable plot complications, the intelligent script by Jo Heims tries to define the main characters as individuals instead of mere archetypes.
          Adding some much-needed edge, both characters acknowledge ulterior motives in the early days of the relationship, because Breezy needs a meal ticket and Frank’s excited by the prospect of a nubile partner. As her name suggests, Breezy is a breath of fresh air when she drifts into Frank’s life, because she’s as hopeful as he is cynical. Therefore it’s believable that their relationship falters whenever they venture into public—he lives by society’s rules, and she doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any rules at all. Holden, smartly cast because he was an aging matinee idol who could still believably appeal to a younger woman, delivers a characteristically professional performance; he hits all the right notes, but not with any extraordinary flair. Lenz is appealing, though she struggles with making her moon-eyed character seem like more than just a male fantasy, and there’s some irony in the fact that Lenz later found her groove portraying cynics.
          Employing long takes, gentle dissolves, and a few tastefully lyrical montage sequences, Eastwood shows his versatility by delivering the exact opposite of the stoic cinematic violence for which he was known at the time, so Breezy is most interesting as a transitional chapter in his titanic directing career: It’s the first movie that Eastwood directed without also appearing as an actor, notwithstanding a wordless blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Yet Breezy also merits examination as an awkward attempt to grapple with the early-’70s generation gap. Though the picture cops out in the end, it captures some things quite well, like the portrayal of Frank’s buddy Bob (Roger C. Carmel), whose midlife-crisis lust for young flesh speaks to a deeper bewilderment about what happens when the promise of youth fades into painful abstraction.

Breezy: FUNKY

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lady Ice (1973)

Calling Lady Ice a routine heist movie is an insult to routine heist movies, because this lifeless flick has all of the trappings of the genre but none of the appeal. Donald Sutherland plays an insurance-company investigator who romances a rich young woman (Jennifer O’Neill) in order to prove she’s a fence for stolen jewels. Sutherland seems game for playing a suave secret agent, flirting his way through a charming performance as a cocksure operator who may or may not be out of his depth, but the vapid script generates neither excitement nor suspense, so Sutherland ends up treading water. However O’Neill, the wholesomely beautiful ex-model who made such a memorable impression in Summer of ’42 (1971), is amateurish. Though she’s enchanting when she smiles with her impossibly white teeth contrasting her deeply tanned skin, she’s boring when she speaks because of her inability to invest dialogue with emotion or reality. Had the film given her anything interesting to do, the shortcomings of her performance might not have been as obvious, but then again, there’s a reason why less than ten years after Summer of ’42, O’Neill had slid so far down the Hollywood ladder that she spent 1979 costarring with the likes of Lee Majors and Chuck Norris. The great Robert Duvall shows up in Lady Ice as well, though just barely, in a small and underwritten role as a cop trailing Sutherland’s character, and the film’s other appeal is extensive location photography showcasing the sights of Miami and Nassau. But thanks to paper-thin characters, a rudimentary storyline, and long stretches in which nothing much happens, Lady Ice isn’t worth examining for hidden virtues.

Lady Ice: LAME

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

          Almost everything that made the New Hollywood moment important is captured in Five Easy Pieces, which exudes rebellious attitude through everything from its esoteric themes to its intimate filmmaking style. Grounded by director/co-writer Bob Rafelson’s incisive understanding of the ennui that drove the late ’60s/early ’70s counterculture, and elevated by Jack Nicholson’s complex leading performance, the picture is a vivid snapshot of personal crisis. Seething with ambition, Nicholson attacks his first major leading role, exploding in famous moments like his confrontation with an uncooperative waitress, but he’s actually best during quiet moments, communicating the angst broiling inside his character.
          At first glance, Robert Dupea (Nicholson) seems like every other blue-collar guy on the job at an oil field, because he lives with a simple-minded waitress, Rayette (Karen Black), and spends his nights bowling with pals including a redneck co-worker (Billy “Green” Bush). Yet Robert is actually a highly educated blueblood slumming among the working class as a way of hiding from his past, so when a looming tragedy draws Robert back into the fold of his uptight family, we discover the reason he feels so tortured: Robert doesn’t belong where he is, doesn’t belong where he was, and just plain doesn’t belong.
          Whereas many ’60s counterculture flicks showcased characters rebelling against tradition by trying to form new lifestyles, Five Easy Pieces explores the painful predicament of someone so ill at ease in his own skin that he might end up searching forever without finding the right situation. Robert Dupea, therefore, joins Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1967’s The Graduate) as one of the quintessential characters of the era, in that he represents a swath of progressive-minded youths who are unable to tolerate what they perceive as the artifice of their parents’ generation but too sophisticated to cohabitate with working stiffs.
          This profound theme of alienation manifests in several powerful images, like the moment when Robert steps out of his car during a traffic jam, climbs onto a moving truck to play the piano stacked among the furniture, and keeps on playing as the truck zooms down an off-ramp, leaving Robert’s car behind. Nicholson locks into this aspect of Robert’s character perfectly, sketching an individual who longs for moments of connection—through music, sex, or anything.
          The picture doesn’t downplay the inherent narcissism of the character, because Robert is consistently abusive to everyone he encounters. He’s especially cruel to Rayette, a dumb sexpot forever spinning her Tammy Wynette records. Robert is ashamed that he’s dating someone beneath his intellectual station, so she becomes the psychological punching bag for his self-loathing. All of this is heady stuff, and if Five Easy Pieces never really advances from one place to the next—it’s a character study, not a narrative per se—then that’s the point.
          Rafelson’s storytelling was never this focused again, screenwriter Carole Eastman (writing as Adrian Joyce) failed to recapture the quality of Five Easy Pieces in subsequent work, and Nicholson would spend the next couple of decades overacting before finding his way back to subtlety. Accordingly, Five Easy Pieces is more than just a significant cultural artifact. It’s a document of a nearly perfect collaboration between director, actor, and writer, all tackling the right subject matter at the right moment.

Five Easy Pieces: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Last Rebel (1971)

          Cocky New York Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath was virtually assured a screen career thanks to his photogenic looks and widespread popularity. Like many other athletes-turned-actors, however, Namath wasn’t able to complement his charm with dramatic skill. He got by on bravado when he played a trash-talking biker in the colorful action flick C.C. and Company (1970), but wasn’t able to pull off the same trick in the misguided Western The Last Rebel. Lazily utilizing his offscreen persona to play a runaway Confederate soldier, he seems not only anachronistic but also way too upbeat given his character’s grim circumstances. (One gets the sense that being the real Joe Namath around this time was a nonstop party, which might explain his disinterest in acting like anyone other than Joe Namath.) It doesn’t help that the film’s story is thin and trite, or that the characterizations don’t make much sense.
          Confederate soldiers Matt (Jack Elam) and Hollis (Namath) escape from Union pursuers and free a black man, Duncan (Woody Strode), from a lynching. The three then form a criminal gang. Huh? Aren’t they all trying to avoid attention because they’re fugitives? The exploits of these roving dudes mostly comprise getting card sharp Hollis to a gaming table, whereupon Hollis wins a small fortune and refuses to divide the winnings to Matt’s satisfaction. This triggers a blood feud between the two men. Again, huh? As to why any of these things happen, your guess is as good as mine.
          The Last Rebel proceeds in a linear fashion, so it’s not a complete logistical quagmire, but so many events go unexplained that the movie starts to take on a surreal quality, with unmotivated actions piling atop one another. At its weirdest, the picture includes a seduction scene that rips off the famous dinner sequence in Tom Jones (1963), but in lieu of that film’s flirtatious editing, The Last Rebel simply intercuts shots of a smirking Namath with close-ups of two women molesting their food lasciviously. Compounding the peculiarity of the whole enterprise is the fact that it was shot in Italy (with no attempt to make the locations look American), and the fact that the horn-driven rock score was cut by members of the venerable band Deep Purple. Period authenticity was not a priority.

The Last Rebel: LAME

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Running (1979)

          Yet another product of the post-Rocky boom in feel-good sports flicks, this by-the-numbers character piece follows the travails of Michael Andropolis (Michael Douglas), a loser in his early 30s who’s determined to compete in the Olympic marathon. Writer-director Steven Hilliard Stern doesn’t come close to getting viewers in Andropolis’ corner, because the backstory Stern offers for his protagonist is contrived, irritating, and unconvincing: The character quit law school and med school, derailed his marriage to long-suffering Janet (Susan Anspach), and acts out childishly whenever anyone tries to impose authority on him. The character is supposed to be an I-gotta-be-me ’70s iconoclast, but he comes across as nothing more than a spoiled brat. Particularly egregious is a silly scene in which Andropolis berates a clerk at an unemployment office for having the temerity to take her coffee break, as if Andropolis is entitled to righteous indignation after losing a job he treated contemptuously.
          The distance-running stuff in the movie is better than the character material, but not by much; Stern’s idea of a training montage is a string of scenic shots depicting Douglas jogging through city streets while a supposedly uplifting musical theme drones on the soundtrack. Yet even with all of these flaws, Running isn’t awful. Quite frankly, it isn’t enough of anything to warrant a strong reaction one way or the other. Attractive location photography by Laszlo George helps make the film palatable, as do sequences filmed in the Montreal Olympics Stadium that was constructed for the 1976 summer games.
          The main appeal, however, is Douglas, who was just coming into his own as a movie star in the late ’70s. He’s in every scene, and it’s interesting to watch him working out the mechanics of how to command the screen with his signature swagger. He doesn’t get much help from Anspach, a sincere and sunny performer whose unremarkable feature career peaked in the ’70s. Making stronger contributions are reliable character player Chuck Shamata, who does a fine job as an opportunistic car salesman angling to cash in on Andropolis’ moment, and Lawrence Dane, who gives a charged performance as Andropolis’ embittered coach. Running is also noteworthy(ish) for featuring several interesting folks in early small roles, namely comedians Eugene Levy and Robin Duke and dramatic actors Gordon Clapp and Giancarlo Esposito. All in all, Running is pleasant to watch—and then immediately forgettable.

Running: FUNKY

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Wind and the Lion (1975)

          After making a name for himself by writing a number of imaginative films and then proving his directorial skills with the gangster flick Dillinger (1973), manly-man auteur John Milius swung for the fences with The Wind and the Lion, a grandiose adventure story in the David Lean tradition. Despite containing many powerful big-canvas visuals and exploring the collision between global tensions and personal agendas, the movie is undercut by, of all things, a sloppy script. Milius has always excelled at creating audacious scenes and memorable characters, but left unchecked, his stories get so ambitious that they lose focus. That’s certainly the case in The Wind and the Lion, which uses as its very loose inspiration a mostly forgotten historical incident.
          In 1904 Morocco, outlaw Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (Sean Connery) kidnaps American Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen) and her two children. Although ostensibly seeking ransom for his hostages, the sly Raisuli actually wants to trigger an international crisis in order to topple Morroco’s government, which is controlled by various European factions. Meanwhile, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) is campaigning for re-election, so he sends troops to rescue Eden, even though Roosevelt’s Secretary of State (John Huston) argues against getting involved. As if that wasn’t enough material, the picture also depicts the dangerous dithering of Morroco’s head of state (Marc Zuber); the pragmatic negotiations of an American diplomat (Geoffrey Lewis); and the valiant soldiering of a U.S. Marine captain (Steve Kanaly). To say that the story gets muddled is an understatement.
          Nearly every individual scene in The Wind and the Lion is of some interest, but taken together, they feel like disconnected episodes. The stuff with Roosevelt and his operatives is comical because Milius portrays Roosevelt as a blowhard more preoccupied with his hobbies than his job. The military material with Kanaly’s character is a rousing throwback to the stylized action films of the Douglas Fairbanks era. And the main story is a mess: Connery is absurdly miscast as a North African, and Bergen barely has any role to play. As such, their scenes ring false, especially when viewers are expected to believe they’ve bonded. So as either an international romance or an ambitious study of complex geopolitical issues, The Wind and the Lion is more windy than lionhearted.
          But as a beautifully filmed action movie, however, it’s quite effective. The scenes of Raisuli and his minions fighting on horseback are thrilling, particularly the mid-movie showstopper during which Raisuli single-handedly rescues Eden from a gang of thugs. The movie’s finale is even more spectacular, with two different battles taking place simultaneously as scimitars flail against Gatling guns. Moreover, even the dodgiest sections of this movie have considerable appeal: Bergen looks fantastic, Connery is regal, Kanaly is contagiously exuberant, and Keith is thoroughly amusing. One wishes these elements hung together more effectively, but there’s a lot to enjoy in The Wind and the Lion nonetheless.

The Wind and the Lion: FUNKY

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Joe Kidd (1972)

          Possibly Clint Eastwood’s least interesting Western, this threadbare action flick has an impressive pedigree—celebrated novelist Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay, and macho-cinema veteran John Sturges, of The Magnificent Seven fame, directed. Despite the participation of these boldfaced names plus that of Robert Duvall, who plays the heavy, Joe Kidd tells a forgettable story unimaginatively, so it’s only watchable because of production values, star power, Lalo Schifrin’s assertive score, and Bruce Surtees’s robust cinematography. Also working in the movie’s favor is brevity, since Joe Kidd runs just 88 minutes. After a lugubrious first act, the story gets going when rapacious developer Frank Harlan (Duvall) hires former bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Eastwood) to track Mexican revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxon), whose rabble-rousing has interfered with Harlan’s schemes. Beyond some minor drama involving Joe’s shifting allegiances, there’s not much more to the plot, so lots of screen time gets consumed by macho posturing and lengthy sequences of characters stalking each other. A probing exploration of frontier morality this is not. One can find glimmers of Leonard’s signature pulpy style in Kidd’s bitchy dialogue, but while the best Leonard-derived Westerns have rock-solid conceits (see both versions of 3:10 to Yuma), the storyline of Joe Kidd is leisurely and unfocused, with characterizations—usually a Leonard strength—given depressingly short shrift.

          The movie looks good enough with Surtees behind the lens, though it seems he was asked to light sets more brightly than he usually does and he’s hampered by Sturges’s stodgy compositions. As for the actors, Eastwood conjures a few mildly amusing tough-guy moments, for instance when his character casually sips beer while watching a shootout. Duvall does what he can with a role so trite and underwritten it would stifle any actor, though his trope of mispronuncing the name of Saxon’s character conveys an appropriate level of arrogance. The wildly miscast Saxon snarls lines through a silly Spanish accent, and he also fails to demonstrate the charisma one might expect from a grassroots leader—one imagines that Leonard envisioned a more nuanced portrayal. Adding minor colors to the movie’s canvas are Paul Koslo, Don Stroud, and James Wainwright, who play nasty hired guns. Anyway, while some of the shootouts in Joe Kidd are moderately entertaining, the fact that such incidental details as the use of unusual firearms and an appearance by Dick Van Patten as a hotel clerk stick in the memory more than the main narrative underscore why the watchword here is unremarkable.

Joe Kidd: FUNKY

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Network (1976)

          There’s a reason why sophisticated contemporary screenwriters from Billy Ray to Aaron Sorkin bow at the feet of playwright-screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and the script that best exemplifies that reason is Network, Chayefsky’s audacious satire about a TV personality who becomes a pop-culture phenomenon by going insane while America watches. By the mid-’70s, Chayefsky was a veteran dramatist with credits dating back to the ’50s heyday of live TV, and his reputation was such that his words reached the screen more or less untouched. For Network, Chayefsky let loose with all of his literary powers, constructing an outrageous plot, symbolic characters, and wordplay so dense and dexterous that each monologue is like a high-wire act.
          Network is filled with such esoteric verbiage as “multivariate” and “sedentarian,” and the ideas the script presents are as elevated as the language. In the story, network-news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) gets sacked for low ratings, then responds by announcing on air that he plans to commit suicide. His stunt triggers a ratings spike, but concerns his deeply principled boss and best friend, news-division chief Max Schumacher (William Holden). An ambitious executive from the network’s entertainment division, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), sees an opportunity to exploit Beale’s breakdown. Backed by Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the omnivorous lieutenant of the corporation that just bought the network, Diana seizes control of the nightly news broadcast and turns it into a circus act featuring crazies like Howard and “Sybil the Soothsayer.”
          Concurrently, Diana makes a deal with a terrorist organization to film its insurrectionist crimes, so before long the network’s top two shows are the vulgar “news” show and the brazen “Mao Tse Tung Hour.” Firmly situated as the story’s drowned-out voice of reason, Max is briefly seduced by the lure of slick sensationalism—he ends up in Diana’s bed even though he’s married—but once he comes to his senses, all he can do is bear witness as primetime becomes a madhouse.
          Director Sidney Lumet, unobtrusively serving Chayefsky’s script, tells the story with methodical precision, orchestrating a handful of astonishing performances. Finch gets the showiest role, ranting through moments like the famous “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech; the actor died just before receiving an Oscar for the role. Holden, his once-gleaming features ravaged by years of drinking, is a vivid personification of an idealist-turned-cynic, and his runs through long speeches are as graceful as they are muscular. Dunaway, burdened with the most overtly symbolic characterization in the piece, is so chillingly soulless that she makes the contrivances of her role seem necessary and urgent. Duvall, adding an almost Biblical degree of rage to his previously muted screen persona, is layered and terrifying. And Ned Beatty, who pops in for a cameo as Duvall’s boss, blows away any memories of his usual bumbling characters by portraying a sociopathic corporate overlord.
          Network is filled with nervy scenes, like the vignette of network executives negotiating a contract with gun-toting terrorists, and the climax is thunderous. And although it comes awfully close, Network isn’t perfect; some scenes, like Max’s confrontation with his wronged wife (Beatrice Straight), are overwritten to mask their triteness, and Max’s final monologue to Diana summarizes the picture in a manner that’s contrived, obvious, and unnecessary. But even in that scene, arguably the most film’s laborious, Chayefsky’s language is intoxicating: In the course of excoriating the reductive nature of television, Max laments that “all of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Especially since most of Chayefsky’s bleak predictions about television have come true since Network was released, this profound film has lost none of its elemental power.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Skyjacked (1972)

          Perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve spent too many years exploring the dark recesses of ’70s cinema, but the only way I can classify Skyjacked is to label it the second-best ’70s movie about Charlton Heston rescuing an out-of-control airplane. For while Skyjacked has a few entertainingly campy scenes, the picture can’t hold a kitschy candle to the wonderfully awful Airport 1975. The fact that I can draw such distinctions should indicate how high my tolerance is for so-bad-it’s-good ’70s trash, and it should also tell you to avoid Skyjacked at all costs if your tolerance is lower than mine.
          As the title suggests, this flick is a numbingly simplistic thriller about a nutty Vietnam vet hijacking a passenger plane in a storyline that brainlessly follows the standard disaster-movie playbook. Square-jawed Heston stars as manly-man pilot Captain Henry “Hank” O’Hara, who has to protect his passengers from the heavily armed shenanigans of tweaked ex-soldier Jerome Weber (James Brolin). The hijacker’s motivation has something to do with wanting to defect to Russia, but it’s not as if one expects this movie to go deep into characterization. A typically random assortment of actors gets caught in the crossfire, including Claude Akins, Susan Dey, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, Mariette Hartley, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, and Leslie Uggams, none of whom should consider this a high point in their screen careers.
          Despite the presence of capable pulp director John Guillermin behind the camera, Skyjacked is so generic that it’s almost undistinguishable from several other made-for-TV and theatrical features about the same subject matter—in fact, it’s especially easy to get Skyjacked mixed up with the carbon-copy telefilm Mayday at 40,000 Feet (1976), featuring David Janssen’s clenched teeth in place of Heston’s rigidly hinged pearly whites. The problem is that instead of going overboard with ludicrous characters and situations, Skyjacked is quite dull for most of its running time. The movie doesn’t come alive until the silly climax, when Brolin and Heston physically fight for control of the plane; Brolin is so screamingly awful, and Heston so outrageously overwrought, that the movie briefly enters bad-movie bliss. But even with that fleeting moment of amusement, Skyjacked is merely a footnote to a subgenre that never produced much in the way of meritorious cinema.

Skyjacked: LAME

Thursday, April 7, 2011

It’s Alive (1974) & It Lives Again (1978)

          Arguably the most enduring creation of B-movie auteur Larry Cohen’s colorful career, the It’s Alive franchise depicts the bloody rampages of killer mutant babies born with claws, teeth, and bad attitudes. Surprisingly, the first picture is as much of a melancholy tragedy as it is an out-and-out horror show. Frank Davis (John P. Ryan) is a successful Los Angeles PR man expecting a second child with his easygoing wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell). Yet as he stands outside the delivery room waiting for news, Frank hears screams and then sees a doctor stagger out, bloodied and dying. Frank runs into the operating room and discovers an abattoir, because his “child” came out of the womb and killed the whole surgical staff before escaping. This outrageous scene sets the tone for the whole picture, and indeed the whole franchise, by turning a universal experience into a nightmare. The scene also initiates a disquieting odyssey during which Frank becomes a social pariah, Lenore loses her mind, and the escaped “infant” racks up a horrific body count.
          Cohen’s filmmaking style is unpretentious to a fault, with many sequences marred by dodgy cinematography, but he’s aided immeasurably by the participation of legendary composer Bernard Hermann (Psycho). Hermann layers the film with one darkly insinuating theme after another, creating uncomfortable levels of menace and suspense that accentuate Cohen’s scheme of juxtaposing normalcy and the supernatural. This effect is aided by Ryan’s tightly wound performance; the actor does a great job of conveying angst beneath a veneer of stoicism. So while Rick Baker’s creature FX are a bit on the goofy side, and while some viewers may quibble about the lack of any scientific explanation for the killer-baby phenomena, It’s Alive has an undeniable mood all its own.
          Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the first sequel, It Lives Again. Once again written and directed by Cohen, the picture meanders through a contrived storyline that lacks the insistent momentum of the first picture. Ryan returns as Frank Davis, only this time he’s part of an underground group helping couples pregnant with killer mutant babies like the one Davis’ wife delivered. In trying to aid one particular young couple (Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd), Davis runs afoul of a government operative (John Marley) assigned to annihilate the killer mutant babies as they’re born. Intrigue and mayhem ensue, but the excitement level is never particularly high, and by the time two killer mutant babies escape for a rampage, the picture has settled into a dreary rut of people waiting around for haphazardly staged attacks.
          Cohen resurrected his infantile monsters one more time for the 1987 threequel It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, and the original picture was remade in 2008.

It’s Alive: FUNKY
It Lives Again: LAME

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Neptune Factor (1972)

The ’70s generated plenty of “bad” movies that are fun to watch, and on first blush one might expect The Neptune Factor to fall into that category. A thriller about the crusade to rescue a group of people from an underwater research station surrounded by giant sea creatures, the picture should offer a kitschy sci-fi spin on The Poseidon Adventure. Not so. Instead of campy melodrama in the Irwin Allen mode, this interminable flick features bored actors reciting pointless dialogue on cheap sets, plus ridiculous “special effects” shots of real fish swimming around poorly photographed miniature models of submersibles. Were it not for the presence of recognizable actors, this would seem like an inept student film that somehow found its way into the mainstream marketplace. The plot, which makes the picture sound much more exciting than it actually is, involves an undersea lab getting dislodged from its normal position by an undersea earthquake. A high-tech submarine is dispatched to rescue (or recover) the scientists in the lab, resulting in a handful of close encounters with “giant” sea creatures living in the ocean’s lower depths. Painfully boring on its way to becoming absolutely forgettable, The Neptune Factor stars a quartet of actors not generally known for safeguarding their cinematic legacies: Ernest Borgnine, Ben Gazzara, Yvette Mimieux, and Walter Pidgeon. Suffice it to say that none surmounts the worthless material, although Borgnine tries to keep things watchable with his usual indiscriminate intensity. The other performers merely sleepwalk through the stupidity, although it’s amusing to watch Gazarra strut around with his signature smugness—what, exactly, is there to be smug about when you’re sharing the screen with the residents of a household aquarium?

The Neptune Factor: SQUARE