Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

          “There’s some kinda crazy going on that’s not right,” Minnie Moore exclaims during a harrowing argument with her would-be paramour, Seymour Moskowitz—and that pretty much sums up the problems with this shambling character piece written and directed by indie-cinema icon John Cassavetes. The original anti-Hollywood auteur, Cassavetes practiced a unique style of filmmaking in which actors built improvisations around his scene ideas, resulting in pictures short on story but long on unique behavior. In Minnie and Moskowitz, however, the behavior veers way too far in the direction of absurd hysterics and repetitive melodrama. So instead of seeming incisive and intimate, the picture feels shapeless and shrill.
          The basic story of lonely, middle-aged museum curator Minnie (Gena Rowlands) stumbling into love with eccentric parking-lot attendant Seymour (Seymour Cassel) is innocuous enough, but the characters spend so much time enmeshed in shrieking arguments that it’s as if they live in some parallel Method-acting universe where every emotion is expressed via primal-scream therapy or simply repeating the same words over and over again. (This excess gets even more tiresome during lengthy cameos by familiar character players Val Avery, Timothy Carey, and Cassavetes himself, all of whom play frightening grotesques.)
          The title characters are in nearly every scene, either alone or together, so the picture belongs to Cassavetes regular Cassel and the director’s real-life wife, Rowlands. Cassel’s performance is undisciplined and wild, a string of colorful but unbelievable behaviors assembled into a hodgepodge that feels less like a character than an overeager audition reel. Rowlands offers her usual grounded work, but the storyline saddles her with irritating behaviors like drinking to excess and talking about her feelings in such introspective detail that her stupid life choices feel incongruous with her personal insights.
          The idea that these characters are compatible with each other is the movie’s biggest and least convincing contrivance, more or less rendering the whole enterprise moot, and the film is so monotonously screechy that it’s a relief when the director’s mother, Katherine Cassavetes, shows up for a funny but stereotypical featured role toward the end of the picture as Seymour’s overbearing Jewish mother.

Minnie and Moskowitz: LAME

Monday, May 30, 2011

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

          “Pure Imagination.” The title of this sweet Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley song, as performed by wizardly candy-maker Willy Wonka, says everything about why the exuberant musical fantasy bearing the character’s name is so deeply beloved by audiences: With its flamboyant characterizations, outrageous visuals, and whimsical attitude, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of the most purely imaginative children’s movies ever made. And thanks to tart touches like Gene Wilder’s amazing performance as Wonka–to say nothing of one of the freakiest boat rides in movie history–the picture leavens its touchy-feely narrative elements with edges of real darkness.
          The story, for the few who haven’t read the book upon which it is based, seen the picture itself, or slogged through the shoddy remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), begins when reclusive candy-maker Wonka announces a contest in which the prizes are tours of his never-before-seen factory. Public mania ensues, with candy-industry competitors scheming to get peeks inside Wonka’s works, millionaires buying up contest entries to ensure their children win, and kids everywhere dreaming they might get lucky. The story then focuses on one such dreamer, the sweet but desperately poor Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), and sure enough he gets a “golden ticket.”
          Accompanied by his good-hearted grandfather (Jack Albertson), Charlie joins a gallery of strange children and their guardians for a weird adventure inside Wonka’s fantasy-land factory, which is staffed by orange-faced and green-haired little people called Oompa-Loompas. As the story progresses, children who exhibit unsavory qualities like gluttony and greed get kicked off the tour in colorful ways, and Charlie discovers an unexpected destiny.
          Geared toward spectacle in every aspect of its production, the movie is not for every taste; some of the songs are so twee that they’re more sugary than the onscreen candy, and the scary bits like the aforementioned boat ride are too intense for many young viewers. Yet the idea of a land with edible rivers and trees is irresistible, the special-effects sequences like Mike Teevee’s cathode-ray comeuppance are clever, and Roald Dahl’s screenplay retains the most important themes from his 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The script also bursts with playful wit, like this eternal line: “Violet, you’re turning violet, Violet!” Best of all, Wilder is wonderful from start to finish. His unforgettable entrance sets a (candy) bar that he regularly meets and surmounts; his Wonka is capricious, judgmental, punitive, and ultimately transformative.
          So in short, if you can watch this movie without wishing you were Charlie, then you’ve forgotten what it meant to be a child.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: RIGHT ON

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fire Sale (1977)

At his best, Alan Arkin is a one-of-a-kind actor who blends humor, intelligence, and sensitivity into vibrant performances. At his worst, he’s a screamer whose characterizations are abrasive in the extreme. Unfortunately, Fire Sale—the second theatrical feature Arkin directed—plays to his worst instincts on every level. Arkin’s acting in the lead role is loud and whiny, he lets other actors deliver numbingly overwrought performances, the film’s jokes are insultingly stupid, and every character is so unpleasant that even at 88 minutes (including a lengthy animated title sequence) the movie goes on way too long. One of those “madcap” comedies about a bunch of people whose insane behavior collides in an allegedly humorous fashion, Fire Sale stars Arkin and Rob Reiner as the sons of an aging Jewish retailer (Vincent Gardenia). Arkin is a ne’er-do-well high school basketball coach, and Reiner is the heir apparent of the family’s foundering department store. Various subplots involve Arkin’s offensive scheme to “adopt” a black teenager who can serve as a ringer for his basketball team, Reiner’s plan to burn down the family business for an insurance settlement, and crazy uncle Sid Caesar’s escape from a mental institution to conduct a military mission because he thinks it’s still World War II. Despite the presence of so many comedy pros, Fire Sale somehow manages to be completely obnoxious and unrelentingly boring at the same time. Thanks to competent technical execution, it’s not the worst comedy of the ’70s by a long shot, but it’s still truly unwatchable.

Fire Sale: SQUARE

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Wild Geese (1978)

          An old-fashioned adventure story that could have been made in the ‘50s or even earlier, if not for its focus on ’70s-era African politics, The Wild Geese is a rousing action thriller with just enough attention to characterization that its climax has an emotional punch. More importantly, the picture features a unique combination of larger-than-life Brits playing larger-than-life roles: Welshman Richard Burton, Irishman Richard Harris, and Englishman Roger Moore play a trio of aging mercenaries hired to rescue a revolutionary African leader from political imprisonment.
          The story unfolds in classic men-on-a-mission fashion. Nefarious banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) hires alcoholic ex-Army man Col. Allen Faulkner (Burton) to free African political prisoner Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) from an unnamed African country because Limbani is slated for execution. Distrustful of his new employer but in need of a paycheck, Faulkner recruits a team including pilot Shaun Flynn (Moore), strategist Rafer Janders (Harris), drill sergeant Sandy Young (Jack Watson), and displaced South African Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger). The vignettes of Faulkner building his crew are breezily entertaining, though screenwriter Reginald Rose and director Andrew McLaglen layer ominous foreshadowing into the derring-do bits to lay the groundwork for what’s coming later.
          The rescue mission goes well, but then the group’s getaway plane takes off prematurely, leaving the mercenaries and the liberated Limbani alone in enemy territory. Damn that double-crossing Matherson! This juncture is when the picture gets really exciting, because the soldiers have to fight their way through a jungle filled with heavily armed troops in order to seize another plane and escape. The movie pays clumsy lip service to social consciousness when Coetzee becomes Limbani’s bodyguard, forcing a racist white man to learn grudging respect for a saintly black man, but The Wild Geese is less about politics and more about macho militarism: By the end of the movie, nearly every character has mowed down opponents to save his mates.
          With its corny musical score, which could have been lifted from an old RAF training film, The Wild Geese is unapologetically retro, and the storyline is so schematic that some will find it trite. Nonetheless, McLaglen’s sure hand with the action scenes, combined with the easy chemistry that the three leads have with each other and a surprisingly poignant climax, make The Wild Geese a fun romp with much more substance than the average shoot-’em-up.

The Wild Geese: GROOVY

Friday, May 27, 2011

H.O.T.S. (1979)

One doesn’t expect much from a teen sex comedy, and yet nearly every movie belonging to the genre manages to disappoint even those low expectations, because in the course of delivering teen sex, the low-budge sleazoids behind movies like H.O.T.S. inevitably forget to deliver actual comedy—or, for that matter, much of anything beyond fleeting moments of titillation. In the deeply uninteresting H.O.T.S., several female students at a fictional college called Fairenville University—which, of course, is commonly abbreviated as “F.U.”—decide to get revenge after they’re refused membership in a snotty sorority because of nerdiness, poverty, or unattractiveness. They form a new sorority called H.O.T.S. and scheme to seduce every man on campus so the rich bitches of the evil sorority are left lonely. There could have been the germ of a satirical notion somewhere inside this idea, but in the hands of the soft-core panderers who made this movie, the premise is merely a reason for crude jokes about things like bumbling gangsters, an off-course parachutist, spiked food and the resulting gastrointestinal torment, unruly animals, a wet T-shirt contest, and, because nothing succeeds like excess, a game of topless football. (Admittedly, the last bit is impressive, after a fashion, for the sheer amount of flesh on display.) It’s a measure of this picture’s ambition that the biggest name in the cast is Partridge Family vet Danny Bonaduce, playing a would-be stud who ends up in bed with a seal. (Don’t ask.) The starlets in H.O.T.S. have attractive bodies that they’re not shy about displaying, so viewers craving loving shots of large breasts will thrill as D-cups runneth over. Viewers craving more than that will be left C.O.L.D.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

          Before venturing into the wilds of his fantastic ’70s character pieces, director John Huston punched the clock on this turgid espionage thriller, a half-hearted effort so overstuffed with plot twists and supporting characters that it’s borderline incomprehensible. One of those murky Cold War stories in the vein of John Le Carre’s books, The Kremlin Letter dramatizes efforts by American spies to recover a controversial letter in which a U.S. official agrees to help the Russian government derail China’s nuclear ambitions. The first half of the movie depicts the convoluted process by which the Tillinger Foundation, a front for the CIA, recruits a spy with a photographic memory to lead a covert op inside Russia; next comes the spy’s campaign to build a team of specialists for the mission.
          The unanswerable questions pile up immediately: Why isn’t a properly trained spy available? Why is a newbie entrusted with recruiting accomplices? Why can’t normal channels like bribes and double agents be used to recover the letter, especially since both tools are used for other purposes throughout the movie? The Kremlin Letter never solves any of these mysteries, and one gets the impression the filmmakers were so bogged down in the convoluted plot they barely understood which scene they were shooting on any given day. So as a story, The Kremlin Letter is a complete waste.
          As quasi-sophisticated entertainment, however, it has some amusing moments. Honey-voiced Orson Welles pontificates pleasantly about politics. Bitchy All About Eve star George Sanders plays a cranky old queen, right down to a scene performed in drag. Barbara Parkins essays a sexy thief who demonstrates her skills by opening a safe with her feet while dressed in a leotard. The movie also boasts some kinkiness; Max von Sydow, at his most unnerving, plays a sadistic Russian enforcer with a soft side for his crazed wife, a pain freak who likes rough sex with gigolos. (Cinematic footnote: Playing von Sydow’s wife is Bibi Andersson, his costar in numerous Ingmar Bergman movies.)
          None of this even remotely adds up at the end, and laconic leading man Patrick O’Neal seems far too bored with the material to have much of an impact, but some scenes are quite interesting to watch. The movie’s best element, by far, is onetime Have Gun–Will Travel star Richard Boone as Ward, the amiable overlord of the American operation. Gleefully blending bloodlust and chattiness, he presents the movie’s most interesting vision of a sociopathic spook.

The Kremlin Letter: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Land That Time Forgot (1975) & The People That Time Forgot (1977)

          Based on a novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot is executed with amiable B-movie aplomb. The outlandish tale begins in the Atlantic Ocean during World War I, when a U-boat sinks a British ship. Survivors from the wreck, conveniently led by American submarine expert Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure), manage to hijack the U-boat, only to have the German commander (John McEnry) covertly steer the ship due south, instead of toward America. Soon, the U-boat reaches Antarctica, where the submarine cruises through a tunnel beneath an iceberg and emerges in, well, the land that time forgot: a continent-sized valley populated by cavemen and dinosaurs. You can pretty much figure out what happens next. Sworn enemies have to work together for survival against hostile natives and hungry dinosaurs, and before long everyone’s in trouble because the land that time forgot is about to go kablooey thanks to persnickety volcanic activity. Hate when that happens!
          A joint presentation of U.S. drive-in supplier American International Pictures and cheapo English outfit Amicus Productions, The Land That Time Forgot is silly but fun, a fast-moving lark with laughably bad special effects, so there’s plenty of harmless amusement to be found watching the heroes and their primitive buddies battle carnivorous mega-reptiles. Discriminating adult viewers won’t have a whit of interest in The Land That Time Forgot, but those who remember the joy of getting whisked away by goofy matinee attractions will get a nostalgic charge out of the flick.
          Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting any sort of a charge out of the sequel The People That Time Forgot, which cops a few tricks from the playbook of the original Planet of the Apes film series. Like the first Apes sequel, The People That Time Forgot kicks the previous film’s leading man into a minor supporting role and goes for a simultaneously darker and more simplistic story. And like the first Apes sequel, The People That Time Forgot lacks nearly everything that made its predecessor enjoyable.
          Patrick Wayne stars as Ben McBride, an adventurer who travels to the site of the first movie in order to find his lost friend, Tyler. Soon Ben and his companions hook up with a sexy cavewoman, Ajor (Dana Gillespie), who somehow has immaculate makeup and a push-up bra built into her animal-skin costume. Excepting an amusingly goofy mid-air fight between an biplane and a pterodactyl, dinosaurs mostly take a backseat to the creepy primitive tribes who capture Ben’s crew. And whereas the first picture had all sorts of plot complications stemming from things like how to fuel the U-boat for an escape voyage, the second picture is just a series of insipid cliffhanger moments, and the production design is so tacky it would barely pass muster in an episode of Land of the Lost.

The Land That Time Forgot: FUNKY
The People That Time Forgot: LAME

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

          Although he spent most of the ’70s writing for TV, sci-fi legend Richard Matheson acquitted himself nicely with the big-screen endeavor The Legend of Hell House, a smart blend of “old dark house” hokum and then-modern concepts about using scientific gadgets to record paranormal phenomena. The plot is standard nonsense about a team of experts confined in a haunted house for a set period of time, but that’s inconsequential because as with any proper scary movie, the main appeal is the vibe of the thing.
          The movie kicks off when an eccentric millionaire hires a respected scientist, Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), to debunk or prove claims that a gloomy British mansion is haunted. The mansion, known as the Belasco House, was the site of assorted grisly murders and torture scenes, so rumor has it the spirits of victims still roam the halls. Barrett agrees to move into Belasco House and run assorted scientific and non-scientific tests, with the aid of his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and two psychics, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin).
          Things get weird quickly, as the various investigators start feeling the effects of malevolent spirits, and the film presents a wide variety of phenomena: In addition to the usual bits like characters falling into reveries of otherworldly possession and objects moving seemingly of their own volition, there are kinky scenes of the female characters giving themselves over to unexpected sexual urges apparently triggered by the power of the house. Particularly when the investigators start discovering hard evidence of the horrible things that once happened in the mansion, The Legend of Hell House gets creepier still because it mixes the plausible and the supernatural to create an anything’s-possible mystique.
          Matheson, scripting from his own novel, and director John Hough break the picture into tidy chapters (it’s the sort of movie where every few minutes there’s a hard cut to an establishing shot with “Tuesday” or “Thursday” superimposed onto the frame), and the storytellers leave many creepy events unexplained so the characters (and the audience) get roped into the idea that something freaky is happening.
          McDowall gives an effectively twitchy performance as the most colorful of the paranormal investigators, his jangled nerves surfacing as a sort of tweaked charm, and the picture’s focus on modern trappings makes it feel different from standard haunted-house fare. Of special note among those modern trappings is the disturbing electronic score, created by the wonderfully named “Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of Electrophon Ltd.” And while it’s true that the plot crumbles under scrutiny—if the house is so damn haunted, leave!—criticizing an enjoyable creepshow for logical gaps seems unsportsmanlike.

The Legend of Hell House: GROOVY

Monday, May 23, 2011

At Long Last Love (1975)

          Director Peter Bogdanovich’s twin preoccupations with classic cinema and Cybill Shepherd, the model/actress for whom he left his wife in the early ’70s, collided in one of the most infamous flops of the decade, At Long Last Love. A sincere but wholly unnecessary homage to the champagne-and-caviar musicals of the Depression era, the film presents the uninteresting story of two swell couples trading partners back and forth as they serenade each other with dizzy ditties by the great Cole Porter. Displaying his usual meticulousness, Bogdanovich gets most of the details right (frothy patter, glossy interior sets, perfect evening dresses), but the film is far less than the sum of its parts.
          The characters are abstractions because all they do is cavort about and wait for money to appear from nowhere (some are penniless strivers faking affluence, others are spoiled wastrels with trust funds), which means it’s impossible to care about their romantic entanglements. The story takes forever to unfold, since each plot development, no matter how trivial, is explained in a full-length song. Ironically, Shepherd is the best thing about the movie, because while she’s a natural singer with a brassy voice, her costars Eileen Brennan, John Hillerman, Madeline Kahn, and Burt Reynolds display far less impressive vocal talents. (The other major player, Italian actor Duilio Del Prete, is a fine actor and singer, but he’s adrift as an unfamiliar foreigner in a sea of recognizable Hollywood faces.) Worst of all, Bogdanovich completely botches a key element of any successful musical: dancing. None of his performers has any real hoofing skill, so most of the numbers are delivered while characters sit in chairs or walk around lush estates. Dullsville, baby.
          Had the picture been faster, shorter, and infused with fleet footwork, it might have been a pleasant trifle. But as is, it’s nearly interminable. At Long Last Love bombed so badly that it nearly killed its directors once-blazing career. After making the much better Nickelodeon (1976), which was already in motion by the time At Long Last Love tanked, Bogdanovich spent three years in the wilderness before returning with Saint Jack (1979), the low budget of which reflected his diminished stature.

At Long Last Love: LAME

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

          Best known as the flick from which Quentin Tarantino borrowed the title for his 2009 World War II epic Inglorious Basterds, this Italian production is an enjoyably overstuffed riff on The Dirty Dozen (1967) and assorted other World War II men-on-a-mission flicks. Starring a pair of American B-movie stalwarts, Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson, The Inglorious Bastards borrows the basic plot device from The Dirty Dozen—soldiers incarcerated for various crimes end up redeeming themselves when thrust back into combat—then adds on narrative bits and bobbles from countless other flicks, resulting in an absurd plot that hurtles from one violent incident to the next.
          The story begins when M.P.s holding the convicts are killed in a Nazi air raid, freeing the “heroes” to roam the European countryside in search of freedom. Then, after assorted convenient plot twists, the protagonists take the place of a team of highly trained commandoes for a dangerous covert mission. Along the way, a series of colorful adventures ensues, most of which are pleasant diversions even if they’re not particularly believable. At the movie’s silliest moment, several of the convicts cozy up to a gaggle of German beauties who are splashing around in a country stream, only to have the nude women pick up machine guns and blast away at the Yanks when the frauleins realize their new friends aren’t from the fatherland.
          There’s absolutely nothing in The Inglorious Bastards that fans of World War II flicks haven’t seen before, from the comic-relief enlisted man who carries a secret stash of contraband goods to the tension between Williamson’s character and the racist G.I. played by Peter Hooten; furthermore, the acting is unremarkable, especially since a fair amount of the dialogue was dubbed sloppily. Nonetheless, The Inglorious Bastards is entertaining in a stupidly macho sort of way, thanks to the over-the-top plotting, some genuinely harrowing stunt work, and zesty ingredients like Williamson’s amusing swagger. (Providing the requisite ’70s kitsch factor, actor Michael Pergolani, who plays the comic-relief enlisted man, wears anachronistic shoulder-length hair and a ginormous ’70s moustache—why not?) There’s a reason this flick lodged itself into the brain of a young Quentin Tarantino, and the reason seems to be that The Inglorious Bastards is an eager-to-please sampler platter of escapist war-picture thrills.

The Inglorious Bastards: FUNKY

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Prime Time (1978)

The creators of this atrocious comedy strung together a group of lame sketches under the premise that some unknown anarchistic force hijacked the American airwaves in order to beam subversive content into the nation’s boob tubes. The level of humor here is indicated by an ad for a Candid Camera-type gotcha show called The Shitheads, in which unsuspecting participants have buckets of excrement dropped onto their noggins. If that doesn’t sufficiently warn you away from investigating Prime Time, consider the ad for “Stay Down,” an aerosol erection suppressant with the unfortunate side effect of uncontrollable flatulence. Every so often, the movie triggers a reaction with its audacity. The best-executed sketch is probably the celebrity sports show in which two hunters (one of whom is played by Warren Oates!) climb to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin, then open fire for “The Charles Whitman Invitational,” named after the crazed sniper who killed 16 people from that tower in 1966. The filmmakers include a few brief interstitial bits of things like government officials trying to stop the pirate broadcast, but the movie rises and falls on the quality of the gags, and the gags are consistently juvenile, obvious, and unfunny, with homophobic and racist overtones thrown in for good measure. Even appearances by familiar faces—among them Joanna Cassidy, Fred Dryer, Kinky Friedman, Dick O’Neill, and Harry Shearer—aren’t enough to generate interest. The Groove Tube (1974), Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), and even the deranged Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979) did this sort of thing so much better.

Prime Time: SQUARE

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

This brutal Western began life as a project for writer-director Samuel Fuller, but the tough-guy auteur was reportedly canned after butting heads with leading man Richard Harris. Although Harris’ volatility produced his fascinating screen persona, the Irish-born actor’s out-of-control alcoholism and violent temper made him a monster of a collaborator during this era—and also more or less eliminated subtlety as a performance option. In other words, The Deadly Trackers is yet another picture in which Harris screams most of his role. The story concerns a sheriff (Harris) chasing the bank robbers who killed his family. Harris’ character is accompanied on his journey by a Mexican cop (Al Lettieri) who doesn’t share his bloodlust, and there’s quite a bit of chatter about Harris’ character being a pacifist. There’s also some attempt at exploring moral relativism by contrasting the righteous indignation of the Harris character with the rampant greed of the lead bank robber (Rod Taylor). What this thematic material was like in Fuller’s original vision is anybody’s guess, but in the final product, the pacifism element is merely an excuse for cheap slow-burn tension predicated on the question of how far Harris’ character will go for revenge. Since stories about gunfighters who don’t really want to draw their weapons are as old as the Western genre, there’s nothing here that viewers haven’t seen before, and as usually happens when directors are changed partway through production, the film lacks coherence and drive. So while there are a few intense confrontations and the picture has a handful of reliable B-movie supporting players (including the indestructible William Smith as an especially savage crook named “Schoolboy”), everything about this mean-spirited misfire is so trite that the picture disappears from the brain as soon as it’s over.

The Deadly Trackers: SQUARE

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Logan’s Run (1976)

          For many fantasy fans of a certain Gen-X vintage, Logan’s Run is the most beloved sci-fi film of the ’70s—with the notable exception of a certain George Lucas-directed blockbuster. Featuring a terrific premise, exciting action sequences, memorable production design, and a musical score filled with far-out electronic sounds, Logan’s Run has an intoxicating vibe. So even though the cheese factor is high, thanks to questionable special-effects miniatures and a generally dated aesthetic, the picture still works as stylish escapism.
          Based on a novel by George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan, the story introduces a 23rd-century society comprising a series of interconnected domes that contain climate-controlled luxury environments. By day, the society’s gorgeous young citizens perform easy jobs aided by pervasive technology. By night, they engage in culturally acceptable hedonism, trading sexual favors without emotional hang-ups. The only catch is that when each citizen reaches the age of 30, he or she must enter a violent arena called the Carousel, in which strivers who fail to reach the prize of “renewal” die on the spot.
          The citizens are so narcotized by their easy lives that no one questions their built-in expiration dates except “runners,” rebels who flee the domes to join a secret underground. Logan-5 (Michael York) is a “sandman,” a gun-toting cop employed by the city’s computerized overlords to hunt and kill runners as a means of maintaining order. When Logan discovers a clue about the runners’ hidden citadel, Sanctuary, his lifespan is abruptly abbreviated so he can go undercover as a runner—a harsh move that eventually turns Logan against his former superiors.
          Logan’s Run is filled with imaginative details, like the high-tech “New You” plastic-surgery salon that predicts laser-guided medical procedures (and features a sexy Farrah Fawcett-Majors as a receptionist). York and leading lady Jenny Agutter, who plays Logan’s fellow runner, make an attractive couple, their posh English accents lending the film a certain elegance, and Richard Jordan is frighteningly impassioned as Logan’s friend-turned-pursuer. Yet it’s the visuals that impress the most, because the filmmakers ingeniously converted a modernist shopping mall into the interior of the domed city, then created similarly vivid environments for the Carousel, the den of a group of animalistic street urchins called “cubs,” and even the ice-covered cavern of an overbearing robot called Box.
          Like a great old Jules Verne yarn, Logan’s Run is a fast-moving adventure that introduces one wild situation after another, and the whole story is anchored by Logan’s relatable journey from conformist to anarchist. Logan’s Run may be silly and stilted, but it’s also a great ride with a handful of resonant ideas thrown in for good measure. FYI, small-screen hunk Gregory Harrison slipped on the sandman spandex for a short-lived series adaptation, also called Logan's Run, which ran on CBS for most of the 1977-1978 season.

Logan’s Run: GROOVY

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Harry & Tonto (1974)

          A triumph of naturalistic acting, sensitive writing, and unobtrusive direction, Harry & Tonto is one of the best character studies of the ’70s, a kind-hearted but completely unsentimental portrait of an everyman knocked out of his staid routine. Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky employs his acting background to nudge performers toward interesting behavior that’s devoid of actor-ish affectation, and he orchestrates the simple story with easy confidence, gently accentuating key moments.
          The story begins when aging New York City widower Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is forced out of his apartment because the building is scheduled for demolition—police officers literally carry him out to the street in his favorite easy chair, which is not only a memorably sad/funny image, but also a tart metaphor representing the movie’s theme of seniors for whom society has little use. Harry is dead weight, and he knows it, so all he wants to do is be left alone so he can enjoy life in the company of his affectionate marmalade cat, Tonto, to whom Harry sings old-time songs and with whom Harry enjoys nostalgic “conversations.”
          After the displacement, Harry and Tonto move in with Harry’s adult son, Burt (Philip Burns), but when it becomes apparent that Burt’s house is too crowded with family, Harry embarks on a cross-country adventure, ostensibly to visit his two other grown children but really to search for a new identity. Throughout the picture, Mazursky sketches Harry’s personality by throwing this rich protagonist into contrast with colorful supporting characters. Although seemingly straight-laced and uptight on first glance, Harry is actually an intellectual with a deep curiosity about human nature, allowing him to bond with everyone from his spiritually confused grandson, Norman (Josh Mostel), who has taken a vow of silence and adheres to a strict macrobiotic diet, to a restless young hippie, Ginger (Melanie Mayron), who left her family to join a commune.
          It’s immensely pleasurable to watch Mazursky and co-writer Josh Greenfeld subvert expectations in one scene after another, because the further Harry gets from his old environment, the more he embraces surprises—the simple act of discovering a larger world revives him in a way he never anticipated. Offering a broad tonal palette, Harry & Tonto alternates humor, pathos, and satire, often in the same scene. Harry’s combative visit with his daughter, Shirley (Ellen Burstyn), is fascinating because it reveals what a different dynamic he has with each of his children, and his melancholy encounter with a sweetheart from his younger years, Jessie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is poignant because she’s lost in the ravages of dementia.
          Making Harry’s journey feel organic and purposeful is Carney, who won a well-deserved Oscar. Subtly employing the comic timing he displayed back in his Honeymooners days, Carney is brusque, inquisitive, and warm, portraying Harry as a man who learns to embrace change at an age when change is deeply frightening. It’s a beautiful performance, and Mazursky serves the performance well by crafting a brisk film that never lingers too long on any one sequence, instead building a strong head of emotional steam until the wonderfully bittersweet denouement.

Harry & Tonto: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Drive-In Massacre (1977)

For fans of ’70s cheese, the prospect of a low-budget slasher flick set at a drive-in theater—and bearing the cheerfully blunt title Drive-In Massacre—is tantalyzing. Unfortunately, this particular picture’s appeal ends there, because the amateurish movie squanders every bit of potential its concept promises. Directed by rank-and-file pornographer Stuart Seagall in one of his only legit-cinema offerings, Drive-In Massacre depicts an incompetent police investigation into a series of murders committed by a sword-wielding maniac. Because, of course, the most interesting part of any slasher flick is the police investigation. A cast of unknown (and mostly untalented) actors stumbles through perfunctory scenes in which a pair of overweight cops interrogate crazies and pervs who work and/or hang out at the drive-in where the murders are taking place. Inexplicably, the lawmen never think to close the drive-in, which would seem prudent since people who go there keep getting decapitated. So while the chubby policemen periodically chase suspects through suburbs near the theater, the killer keeps chopping heads and evading capture. Over the course of 74 mercifully brief minutes, virtually nothing of any interest happens, excepting perhaps some fleeting gore and an amusing-ish performance by chrome-domed actor Newton Naushaus as the drive-in’s irritable manager, for whom the murders are merely another workplace inconvenience. If for some reason your curiosity about this picture remains unsatisfied after reading these remarks, seek out this awful flick’s trailer, which crams every watchable moment of Drive-In Massacre into two and a half lurid minutes.

Drive-In Massacre: SQUARE

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cooley High (1975)

          An African-American alternative to American Graffiti (1973), this charming nostalgia piece depicts the highs and lows of teen life in the black housing projects of Chicago’s North Side during the mid-’60s. Writer Eric Monte based the script on his experiences as a student at the real Cooley High, an inner-city vocational school, and together with director Michael Schultz, Monte does a wonderful job of capturing the exuberance and vitality of a particular historical moment. Boasting a soundtrack filled with great Motown tunes, Cooley High doesn’t dwell on the challenged economic circumstances of its characters, but at the same time the picture doesn’t shy away from the dangers of ghetto life.
          Underachieving pseudo-intellectual Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) and swaggering basketball prodigy Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) know that unless they get bold or lucky, if not both, they could end up working in dead-end jobs like so many of the adults in their neighborhood, and they’re also painfully aware of the prevalence of street-level crime among their peers. Yet they’re still testosterone-crazed adolescents, so they think they’ve got the world figured out, they’re big on breaking rules, and they feel invincible. By focusing on universal coming-of-age rituals like joyriding in cars, skipping school, and trying to make time with pretty girls, Monte creates characters to which anyone can relate, even as he integrates the countless ultra-specific details that make Cooley High a unique study of a vibrant subculture as it existed for a fleeting moment in time.
          Turman is incredibly appealing, communicating that special mixture of arrogance and insecurity that distinguishes young men trying to carve out their own identities, and he’s also very funny, especially when his character tries to manage a complicated love life. Preach has a thing going on with Sandra (Christine Jones), a classmate who won’t let him get very far, but then he falls wildly in love with Brenda (Cynthia Davis), a gorgeous girl who rebuffs his advances until she discovers his interest in poetry. Cochise, on the other hand, is the guy every teenage boy wants for a best friend—a popular jock who’s always ready for an adventure, a fight, or a prank. Hilton-Jacobs, who later achieved fame as a regular on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, offers a tart counterpoint to Turman’s sweetness.
          Cooley High is filled with memorable scenes and characters, like the zaftig greasy-spoon proprietor who chases troublesome kids out of her place by brandishing a cleaver, and the story advances from high jinks to melodrama in a graceful fashion. So in addition to being one of the most important black films of the ’70s—an authentic, sensitive change of pace from the demeaning sleaze of blaxploitation—it’s one of the best pictures about teen life to emerge from any era.

Cooley High: RIGHT ON

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Murder on Flight 502 (1975)

Although he’s best known for overseeing such vapidly entertaining series as Charlie’s Angels and Starsky & Hutch, crapmeister Aaron Spelling also produced dozens of TV movies, most of which were justifiably banished to obscurity after their original broadcast runs. Encountered today, these telefilms are amusing artifacts from a bygone era, cinematic catnip for ’70s junkies who relish watching semi-famous actors swathed in head-to-toe polyester. Murder on Flight 502 is a prime example, because the mystery/thriller is disposable junk noteworthy only for its potluck cast. (Have Farrah, will travel!) The story begins when a commercial flight leaves New York for Europe and airline staffers discover that one of the passengers plans to murder someone on the plane. This standard catch-a-killer premise powered innumerable episodes of Spelling’s TV shows, because the set-up justifies cutting back and forth between various melodramas as viewers try to guess the villain’s identity. In lieu of actual thrills, the movie offers the kitschy spectacle of random actors grinding through the machinations of a trite plot: Ralph Bellamy as a surgeon who becomes a target because he once failed to save a patient; Polly Bergen as a drunken crime author savoring the proximity of real homicide; Danny Bonaduce as a wiseass kid prone to elaborate practical jokes; Sonny Bono as a sensitive singer-songwriter itching for a comeback after years out of the spotlight; Lorenzo Lamas as an international criminal afraid that he’s going to pay for his past crimes; Farrah Fawcett-Majors, her gleaming helmet of golden hair firmly in place, as a stewardess; Robert Stack as the sort of absurdly square-jawed pilot he satirized a few years later in Airplane! (1980); and so on. In short, watching Murder on Flight 502 is like watching a greatest-hits reel culled from various interchangeable ’70s detective shows, meaning the experience is either awful or awesome, depending on your degree of ’70s-TV masochism.

Murder on Flight 502: FUNKY

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Walkabout (1971)

          Iconoclastic British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg defined his cinematic identity with Walkabout, the first feature he directed alone. Previously, he earned notoriety as the cinematographer of stylish films including Petulia (1968), and he tested the directorial waters by co-helming the bizarre crime flick Performance (1970) with Donald Cammell. Yet Roeg’s distinct style of brainiac surrealism didn’t fully emerge until Walkabout, which presents an ostensibly simple story in such a complex fashion that it acquires myriad layers of meaning.
          The story involves two young children, a preadolescent boy and his teenaged sister, becoming stranded in the Australian outback. As they try to make their way toward civilization, they encounter a young Aborigine man on “walkabout,” the coming-of-age ritual in which he must wander the wilderness, and the trio forms a surrogate family until their inevitable separation. Within this straightforward framework, Roeg addresses burgeoning sexuality, cultural misunderstanding, the savagery of the natural world, and other provocative themes.
          Shooting with a documentarian’s eye for miniscule details like insects skittering across granules of sand, Roeg studies his characters and their environment meticulously; it’s as if he’s observing unexpected chemical reactions instead of interpersonal dynamics. The unusual nature of the film is evident right from the first important scene, when the children’s father drives his kids into the wilderness, opens fire on them with a gun, douses his body and car in gasoline, starts a fire, and shoots himself. In Roeg’s bleak cinematic universe, capricious fate is an everyday danger, so whenever his characters start to feel comfortable in their lives, a shock is never far behind.
          Working from a persausive script by Edward Bond, which was based on a novel by James Vance Marshall, Roeg shows equal interest in everything from the intuitive wanderings of the young boy’s nonstop chattering to the quiet naturalism of the Aborigine’s hunting-and-gathering lifestyle. The picture even cuts away periodically to snippets of native and foreign culture in Australia, glimpsing places tangentially related to the main characters.
          This is all very heady stuff for an outdoor-survival story, and yet the picture also makes room for the artsy leering that permeates so much of Roeg’s filmography. Roeg, who also photographed the movie, regularly lingers on leading lady Jenny Agutter’s body, particularly during a long nude swim, and this visual preoccupation is noteworthy given how intensely sexual Roeg’s subsequent pictures became.
          Although quite restrained by comparison to those subsequent pictures, Walkabout is nonetheless a strange film by comparison to, say, the average Hollywood release—the impressionistic editing moves the film along with offbeat rhythms, and the script refuses to employ simple paradigms like lampooning white culture’s foibles or venerating native culture’s virtues. As challenging as it is weirdly beautiful, Walkabout disallows easy interpretations.

Walkabout: GROOVY

Friday, May 13, 2011

Prophecy (1979)

Creature-feature stinker Prophecy is hilarious because no one involved seems to realize they’re making an awful movie. Set in northern Maine, the story concerns a clash between pollution-generating white folks and tree-hugging Native Americans, with a big-city physician (Robert Foxworth) and his knocked-up missus (Talia Shire) caught in between. So far, so good. But then the Natives start talking about a legendary nature spirit that’s angry with the way the local woods are being defiled, and the titular prophecy comes true when a pollution-spewed monster arrives to take out the reckless palefaces and anybody else who gets in the way of its goo-covered talons. Aside from a generally histrionic tone, the first clue the movie has gone off the rails is the appearance of Irish-Italian actor Armand Assante as a Native American; not only is he preposterously miscast, he overacts like someone put crank in his morning coffee each day. Foxworth is beardy and serious, offering a typical sane-in-a-world-gone-mad routine, while Shire tries to retain her dignity playing an underdeveloped character who’s mostly around to get endangered. Only the terrific Richard Dysart, playing an employee of the polluting mill, hits the right campy tone. John Frankenheimer, the venerable Manchurian Candidate director who spent much of the ’70s and ’80s making trash beneath his station, ensures unintentional humor by playing everything in Prophecy straight, like the scene of a giant mutated salmon leaping from the depths of a lake to chomp on a duck, or the absurd climax in which a mutated bear-thing tromps around while covered in glistening muck. Steadily building from silliness to outright stupidity, Prophecy is a must-see for fans of genre-movie train wrecks.

Prophecy: FUNKY

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Once Is Not Enough (1975)

          New cinematic freedoms in the ’60s and ’70s emboldened pandering producers to adapt trashy bestselling novels for the screen, resulting in a series of godawful epics based on pulpy books by the likes of Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, and Jacqueline Susann. A typical example of the breed is the Susann adaptation Once Is Not Enough, an overwrought melodrama about a beautiful young woman tormented by a daddy complex.
          Deborah Raffin stars as January, the teenaged daughter of a macho movie producer named Mike Wayne (Kirk Douglas). When the story opens, January is completing her lengthy recovery from a bad motorcycle accident, so when she finally returns home from the hospital, she discovers that Mike’s career has hit the skids, and that he recently married the super-rich Deidre Granger (Alexis Smith) in order to provide for January.
          This discovery sends January into an emotional tailspin—and eventually into the arms of Tom Colt (David Janssen), an alcoholic novelist who becomes a sexual surrogate for dear old Daddy. The sleazy storyline also includes Deidre’s lothario cousin (George Hamilton); Diedre’s secret lesbian lover (Melina Mercouri); and January’s promiscuous best friend (Brenda Vaccaro). These self-involved and/or self-loathing characters fight, scheme, and screw in an endless cycle until enough of them are either dead or neutralized to arrive at an arbitrary conclusion.
          Once Is Not Enough lacks any tangible relation to the real world, just like it lacks any sense of higher purpose, so the movie’s supposed entertainment value involves reveling in sleaze. The storyline of he-man Douglas emasculating himself by marrying for money offers some amusement, but it’s difficult to enjoy the principal narrative about January, which careers between her pseudo-incestuous preoccupation with her father and her odious sexual involvement with Tom, who’s forty years her senior.
          The screenplay, by Casablanca co-writer Julius J. Epstein, has a few zippy dialogue exchanges, but relies too much on Susann’s patois of contrived world-weariness. Similarly, the performances are erratic: Raffin is terrible (flat line readings, unconvincing emotional shifts), Douglas is okay (hammy but intense), and Vaccaro is great (bitchy, fragile, funny). A handful of worthwhile elements, however, are insufficient to justify the picture’s deadly 121-minute running time, so a more appropriate title would be Once Is More Than Enough.

Once Is Not Enough: LAME

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Safe Place (1971)

          The counterculture-savvy production company BBS made several great films in its short lifespan, including Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971). However the company also made A Safe Place, the debut feature of iconoclastic writer-director Henry Jaglom. Simultaneously impenetrable and interminable, A Safe Place feels like a bad film-school experiment expanded to feature length, because it seems as if Jaglom shot a handful of heavily improvised (but altogether uninteresting) scenes, then tried to cut them together in a manner that imposed a pseudo-structure without draining the individual pieces of their spontaneous “life.” In other words, the picture is 90 excruciating minutes of actors spewing whatever inconsequential nonsense comes to mind while Jaglom photographs them from pretentious angles, often with weird objects placed in the foreground to provide out-of-focus texture.
          The leading player in the picture is the potent Tuesday Weld, who tended to flower in well-scripted material but flounder when cast adrift; she’s so “real,” in the self-important Method sense of the word, that we end up watching her wander through her conception of an ordinary day in the life of her vaguely conceived character, which is as tiring to watch as it is to describe. Weld spews hippy-dippy nonsense, drifts in and out of pointless dialects, and, of course, goes on unmotivated crying gags.
          Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles, apparently friends of Jaglom’s, appear in stupid running cameos. Nicholson mostly makes out with Weld in a series of quick vignettes, and considering the fact that he probably worked on the picture for all of an afternoon, rolling around with his beautiful costar must have been a pleasant way to kill time. Welles appears in silly bits as a magician performing simplistic tricks in Central Park, and it’s sad to see him looking so bloated and bored. As for this snoozefests helmer, Jaglom returned to filmmaking a few years later with 1977’s Tracks, and he’s been quite prolific ever since, making scads of pictures in the same loose, improvisational vein.

A Safe Place: SQUARE

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)

          The last movie directed by the great William Wyler, The Liberation of L.B. Jones is one of several nervy race-relations pictures made in the wake of In the Heat of the Night (1967). Like that Oscar-winning film, L.B. Jones is s a thriller exploring the dangers of a black man seeking justice in the South, only this time the protagonist is not a cop or even a lawyer, but rather an undertaker. In a small Tennessee community, L.B. Jones (Roscoe Lee Browne) is the most affluent black citizen, which generates grudging respect from well-to-do whites and seething resentment among poor whites. When Jones discovers that his years-younger wife, Emma (Lola Falana), is sleeping with a white cop, simple-minded redneck Willie Joe (Anthony Zerbe), Jones’ attempt to amicably dissolve his marriage unexpectedly triggers a fusillade of horrific violence.
          Based on a novel by Jesse Hill Ford, who co-wrote the script, the picture’s tricky plot weaves together nearly a dozen major characters, each of whom reflects a facet of racism or its impact. The formidable Lee J. Cobb plays Oman Hedgepath, the white lawyer Jones hires to handle the divorce; Hedgepath tries to resolve the matter outside of court by working angles with Willie Joe and the town’s do-nothing mayor (Dub Taylor), but he only makes matters worse. Lee Majors, of all people, plays Oman’s idealistic nephew, a clean-cut voice of reason whose words are drowned out by pervasive prejudice. And in the picture’s linchpin role, a very young Yaphet Kotto plays Sonny Boy, an angry young black man who has returned to his hometown after a long absence because he wants revenge against the racist white who beat him as a child. Barbara Hershey pops up in a tiny role as Majors’ wife, and dancer Fayard Nicholas, of the famed Nicholas Brothers, appears as well, in his only dramatic performance.
          Amazingly, The Liberation of L.B. Jones doesn’t feel overstuffed, although some actors are left gasping for screen time; the clockwork script allocates time wisely, sketching characters just well enough for viewers to understand why people choose their paths. Wyler orchestrates the various elements so that when things get ugly, horrible events explode like the stages of carefully coordinated fireworks display. Not everything that happens in the picture is credible, and the material portraying Emma as a capricious nymphomaniac is stereotypical, but The Liberation of L.B. Jones is filled with memorable nuances. It’s also filled with memorable acting, because the film’s cast offers a spectrum of performance styles. Browne is elegant and nuanced; Cobb is fiery and intense; Zerbe is wonderfully squirrely and perverse; and Kotto bounces between sweet and menacing, effectively portraying the wounded boy within the dangerous man. As for Falana, she’s so sexy that it’s easy to see why the men in her life are driven to distraction. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

The Liberation of L.B. Jones: GROOVY

Monday, May 9, 2011

Animal House (1978)

          The outrageous comedy Animal House belongs on any list of ’70s movies that changed the cinematic landscape (for better or worse), because ever since Animal House set the template, raunchy comedies about kids getting into mischief have been a staple at multiplexes. As is often the case, however, few imitators can match the energy of the original—Animal House is the Wagnerian opera of frat-house flicks, featuring debauchery and destruction on epic levels. Whether the picture is actually amusing depends on the viewer’s taste, of course, since the barrage of nocturnal panty raids and toga-party bacchanalias is inherently vulgar. Nonetheless, Animal House has a certain kind of lowbrow integrity because it never apologizes for its excesses; quite to the contrary, the picture proudly celebrates cretins and lowlifes.
          To make this anarchistic material palatable, the filmmakers smartly position the boys of Delta House as relatable underdogs, then stack the deck by making the straights who oppose the Deltas such insufferable pricks and prigs that there’s no choice but to root for the Deltas. Describing the plot of is futile, since the story isn’t the point, but the basics are that Delta House is the worst frat on campus, so the Deltas have to clean up their collective act or face expulsion by their mortal enemy, Dean Wormer (John Vernon). Far more important than the story are the raucous exploits of Boon (Peter Riegert), Bluto (John Belushi), D-Day (Bruce McGill), Flounder (Stephen Furst), Otter (Tim Matheson), Pinto (Tom Hulce), and the rest of the Deltas. Whether they’re jamming to “Shout,” destroying the school cafeteria in a gigantic food fight, or sneaking into sororities to stare at naked coeds, these misfits live for babes, booze, and brawls. Accordingly, the picture’s humor exists on a plane of adolescent wish fulfillment, so watching Animal House is like entering the testosterone-fueled dreams of a teenaged boy who thinks he’s invincible and that life should be a nonstop party.
          Sure, the picture has a few nods to social consciousness reflecting its setting in the early ’60s—mostly via Donald Sutherland’s smallish role as a with-it professor who espouses counterculture ideals in between nailing coeds—but the heart of Animal House lies in characters like Bluto, the slob who horrifies a “nice” girl by stuffing his face with mashed potatoes and then smashing his cheeks to spit out his food before announcing, “I’m a zit!” There’s no denying the crude power of this movie, which was made with great enthusiasm—and, thanks to director John Landis, considerable craftsmanship. Furthermore, the cast is uniformly good. Belushi’s take-no-prisoners performance transformed him from a TV star into a box-office attraction, Hulce is sweetly hapless, Matheson is cool and slick, McGill is a force of nature, Vernon nails his campy villain role, and a young Kevin Bacon is terrific as one of the clueless straights fighting the Deltas. Still, despite all the talent on display, it’s difficult to make a case that Animal House is about anything except glorifying bad behavior. Enjoyable though Animal House may be, it’s not particularly admirable.

Animal House: GROOVY

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dirty Little Billy (1972)

          With their grungy location photography and unsentimental stories, the revisionist Westerns of the late ’60s and early ’70s blended a classic American genre with contemporary American insouciance: The injection of counterculture edginess revitalized the cowboy genre by making audiences look at Western iconography in new ways. Dirty Little Billy is a solid example of the artistic inclinations that made revisionist Westerns so interesting. As its title indicates, the picture is an unvarnished study of gunslinger William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Instead of the romantic outlaw seen in previous films, this version of the character is a deranged man-child with a homicidal streak.
          Michael J. Pollard, the diminutive character actor who made a big splash in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), plays Billy as a creepy little troll perpetually covered in filth and perpetually grinning at some sick private joke. As the ramshackle movie unfolds, we see young Billy endure the rigors of a joyless home life before venturing off on his own, whereupon he falls in with brutal crook Goldie (Richard Evans) and compliant prostitute Berle (Lee Purcell).
          Far from glamorizing Billy’s exploits, the picture makes his odyssey seem miserable and sad, but the direction and screenplay are overly clinical, as if we’re studying Billy in a (contaminated) petri dish. Additionally, Pollard is way too weird to facilitate much audience connection. It’s as if the filmmakers were so determined to upend old romantic myths that they went out of their way to make Dirty Little Billy unpalatable. Making matters worse, the narrative is so episodic and slight that there’s very little momentum. Still, Dirty Little Billy is an admirable effort despite its off-putting qualities, simply because the filmmakers’ commitment to their vision is so complete—if their goal was to ensure that nobody who sees this picture perceives Billy the Kid the same way again, they succeeded. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)

Dirty Little Billy: FUNKY

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Quintet (1979)

          If you’re looking for a provocative science-fiction parable exploring questions about the future of humanity, then stay the hell away from Robert Altman’s Quintet. For even though the picture is indeed an enigmatic drama about life in a frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, the story is so devoid of clarity and excitement that viewers who can stay awake through its entire 118-minute running time deserve a merit badge.
          Directed, produced, and co-written by Altman, the film tracks the odyssey of Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter who visits his brother’s family when there aren’t any seals left to hunt. Essex’s brother lives in one of five desolate compounds situated in a wintry wilderness, so when a mysterious assassin kills the brother’s family (and Essex’s pregnant companion), Essex wanders through the five compounds trying to discover why his brother was murdered (he’s apparently not so concerned about the pregnant companion).
          The conspiracy that Essex unravels has something to do with a game called Quintet, which is the only pastime still enjoyed by humanity’s survivors. This prompts a number of incomprehensible speeches by Quintet experts Grigor (Fernando Rey) and Saint Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), who opine that the significance of the number five in the game of Quintet reflects the meaninglessness of life. If that sounds bewildering, don’t worry—it doesn’t make any more sense in context, and the speeches are doubly confusing because Rey and Gassman both have thick accents.
          Quintet is either amateurishly underwritten or pretentiously opaque, but it’s hard to care which since the movie is so numbingly uninvolving, despite elaborate sets covered in fake ice and interesting camera angles photographed through frosted glass and other murky surfaces. The actors look bored and confused, the pacing is deadly, and the music is distractingly weird, with thundering drums playing over quiet scenes as if loud scoring can somehow generate excitement. Worst of all, the movie takes itself way too seriously, resulting in a monotonous vibe that hits viewers like a narcotic.

Quintet: LAME

Friday, May 6, 2011

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

          One of the more offbeat titles in Burt Reynolds’ long litany of Southern-fried ’70s action/comedies, this charming-ish romp stars Reynolds as W.W. Bright, an amiable outlaw stealing and swindling his way through the Deep South in the 1950s. Through convoluted circumstances, he ends up enlisting a struggling country band called the Dixie Dancekings as accomplices in a series of nonviolent stick-ups. The musicians participate willingly because W.W. turns out to be a swell manager, using his gift of gab to trick promoters into giving the band better gigs and fatter paychecks.
          Among those pursuing the outlaws is a gun-toting religious nut named Deacon (Art Carney), whose presence lends an odd flavor to the movie’s requisite car chases. Carney goes way over the top with his performance, which seems like it belongs in a different movie than the one featuring easygoing Reynolds and his rhinestone-festooned buddies, and the film suffers because leading lady Conny Von Dyke lacks charisma.
          As directed by no-nonsense craftsman John G. Avildsen, the movie zips along at a strong pace, somewhat to its detriment; the picture is so thin on character development that audiences are expected to accept outlandish contrivances at face value. So, for instance, it’s a given that lead singer Dixie (Van Dyke) will fall for rascally W.W. simply because that’s what happens in movies, and it’s a given that Deacon is perpetually unable to capture W.W. simply because, well, that’s what happens in movies. The weak characterization makes everything that happens in the movie feel inconsequential, so even though several scenes are entertaining and the movie in general is quite watchable, nothing sticks in the memory very long after the last credit rolls.
          Still, for Reynolds fans, the picture offers plenty of cinematic comfort food, from the leading man’s wisecrackery to the presence of frequent Reynolds costars Ned Beatty, Jerry Reed, and Mel Tillis. Reed in particular stands out as the hot-tempered leader of the Dancekings, because his fights with W.W. for control over the band-cum-gang have more energy than other scenes; as the actors later demonstrated in projects like the blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit series, Reed and Reynolds have a smooth rhythm together.

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings: FUNKY