Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Black Hole (1979)

          By the late ’70s, a decade after Walt Disney’s death, the movie company bearing his name had lost the marketplace dominance it enjoyed during Walt’s heyday. Although the animation division remained adrift until 1989, Disney’s live-action unit began a brief but daring creative renaissance in 1979. That’s when the studio jumped onto the Star Wars bandwagon with The Black Hole, a dark sci-fi adventure story boasting opulent special effects and a memorably brooding music score by the great John Barry. The story involves a wonderfully absurd contrivance: In the year 2130, a deep-space exploration ship encounters a black hole and discovers that a long-lost spaceship, the Cygnus, is somehow locked in a permanent orbit over the mouth of the black hole. Our intrepid heroes enter the Cygnus and discover that megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) controls the ship with an army of robots. When Reinhardt tries to shanghai the heroes into participating in a mad scheme, they rebel and trigger a chain of events that sends all of the movie’s main characters plunging into the black hole.
          The story is goofy and turgid, and the clumsiest fingerprint of the Disney brand is the presence of cutesy robots including the wide-eyed V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall). Furthermore, the acting and dialogue are laughably wooden, with unfortunate leading players Joseph Bottoms, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Anthony Perkins effortlessly upstaged by Schell, who works a florid Bond-villain groove. (Flattening the overwrought performance styles of both Borgnine and Perkins is a dubious sort of accomplishment.) As a piece of dramatic art, The Black Hole is, well, a black hole. As a compendium of vivid sensations, however, the picture is memorable. Barry’s music is grandiose and malevolent, expressing the vastness of space in such a powerful way that many scenes are genuinely unnerving. Some of the old-school optical effects are breathtaking, with exquisitely detailed spaceship models faring better than inconsistent greenscreen work.
          The Black Hole also boasts one of the weirdest climaxes in mainstream sci-fi cinema—a grim, phantasmagorical sequence illustrating the trippy horrors hidden inside the titular phenomenon. To say there’s disharmony between cutesy robots and a 2001-style head trip is an understatement, but if you’re an imaginative viewer willing to pick and choose which parts of this movie to enjoy, you’ll discover many superficial pleasures, as well as a few surreal ones.

The Black Hole: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Boulevard Nights (1979)

          An early exploration of Latino gang life in East LA, made before images of that particular subculture became familiar to mainstream audiences, the straightforward morality tale Boulevard Nights is not particularly audacious in content or execution, but the plain-faced style helps ease viewers into a rich world. Richard Yniguez, who deservedly caught some notice for the suspenseful telefilm The Deadly Tower (1976), is strong as Raymond Avila, an auto mechanic who escaped the gang lifestyle that infests his East LA neighborhood. He earns a decent living, enjoys the respect of his peers, and entertains dreams of opening his own shop some day. He’s also involved in longtime relationship with Shady (Marta DuBois), who has gone further than Raymond in escaping the barrio; she works in an office downtown even though she still lives in the ’hood.
          The only big impediment to their relationship is Raymond’s prolonged adolescence, because he loves to spend his weekends cruising the neighborhood boulevard, showing off the hydraulics in his souped-up lowrider—the only big impediment, that is, except for Raymond’s little brother, Chuco (Danny De La Paz), who’s so deep into the gang life that tragedy seems inevitable. As the story unfolds, Raymond tries to balance the joys of building a life with Shady and the trials of keeping Chuco out of trouble, a challenge exacerbated by Chuco’s drug problems and emotional issues; the younger Avila is so wired that he lets a scuffle with a rival gang snowball into a blood feud.
          Directed by journeyman Michael Pressman, written by Desmond Nakano, and produced by Tony Bill (who later made an equally sensitive story about life on the streets, 1980’s My Bodyguard), Boulevard Nights has the by-the-numbers professionalism of a good TV movie, and except for a healthy smattering of F-bombs, there’s little here that screams “major theatrical feature.” Nonetheless, the sincerity of the effort put forth by those behind and in front of the camera carry the day, making Boulevard Nights into an anguished statement that steers clear of bleeding-heart histrionics; instead of speeches about the terrors of gang life, the story presents everyday realities about life in a minority enclave that’s almost hermetically sealed from the outside world, with codes and values defined by factors including drugs, poverty, and racism.
          What makes the picture distinctive, aside from across-the-board good performances, is the lack of a white character functioning as an observer (or, shudder “voice of reason”). With very little fuss, the picture immerses viewers in a world that feels credible, though undoubtedly jacked up for dramatic purposes, thereby earning the emotional hit at the end of the story. Boulevard Nights isn’t a great film, but as one of the first mainstream productions to explore its subject matter, it’s admirably groundbreaking. (Available at

Boulevard Nights: GROOVY

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Doc (1971)

Yet another in the string of revisionist Westerns designed to upend romantic myths about legendary gunfighters, this soft-spoken drama takes a fresh look at tubercular outlaw “Doc” Holliday and his fateful friendship with lawman Wyatt Earp. Stacy Keach, seething with the quiet intensity that made him one of the most interesting leading men of the ’70s, stars as Doc, and Harris Yulin, better known for the character parts he’s played in countless movies and TV shows, costars as Earp. (A miscast and ineffectual Faye Dunaway appears as Katie Elder, Doc’s lover.) Although Doc covers the same events as most Earp stories—he ruthlessly wields his power as the lawman of Tombstone, Arizona, until a showdown with the violent Clanton clan becomes inevitable—the picture examines the events surrounding the notorious “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” from a new perspective. Yulin plays Earp as a cold-blooded opportunist using his badge to build a petty empire, and Doc is the thoughtful but troubled friend drawn into Earp’s grudge match. Written by celebrated newspaper columnist and novelist Pete Hamill, the script for Doc is probably too probing and sensitive for its own good—it’s one thing to strip archetypal heroes of their mythic power in order to reveal the flesh-and-blood people behind the legends, but it’s another thing to make them so blandly ordinary that they’re not interesting enough to sustain a feature-length narrative. Matters are not helped by the fact that director Frank Perry is calling the shots. At his best orchestrating pretentious oddities like The Swimmer (1968) and Play It As It Lays (1972), Perry offers no special flair for straight drama or, for that matter, the unique demands of the Western genre. So while admirable for its intentions, Doc isn’t exciting to watch or even particularly memorable, even though the richly textured performances by Keach and Yulin hint at what the movie could have been.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Heroes (1977)

          Sincere and well-intentioned but not particularly good, Heroes takes a seriocomic look at the traumas plaguing Vietnam-era combat vets trying to assimilate back into normal life. The picture is most noteworthy as a star vehicle for Henry Winkler, who was well into his phenomenally popular run as ’50s greaser Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984). Leaving the leather jacket and pomade behind, Winkler plays a delusional vet named Jack Dunne, who flees a New York City mental hospital to pursue his bizarre dream of opening a worm farm with several combat buddies. He lands on a cross-country bus, seated next to conflicted city girl Carol Bell (Sally Field), who has also fled Manhattan; she’s ditching her impending nuptials for reasons that are never particularly clear. What ensues is an odd sort of romantic comedy, with these mismatched souls getting closer to each other as they experience colorful adventures.
          One of these exploits is a long visit with Jack’s Army pal Ken Boyd (Harrison Ford), a simple-minded Midwesterner with a self-destructive streak; he spends his time entering (and losing) stock-car races when he’s not getting hammered and shooting off his M16 in the fields of his family farm. Jack and Carol also run afoul of an ornery bus driver (Val Avery) and the slimy denizens of a redneck bar. Excepting the visit with Ken, the movie’s episodes feel contrived and random, a problem exacerbated by screenwriter James Carabatsos’ vague characterizations and, especially, by the casting of Field and Winkler. Carabatsos can’t figure out how to balance between the film’s comedic and dramatic elements, so the movie’s tonal shifts induce audience whiplash.
          As for Field and Winkler, they’re so inherently likeable that it’s hard to buy them as edgy characters, and the script constantly undercuts their work by going for cutesy jokes at the expense of emotional reality. Nonetheless, Heroes isn’t bad so much as sloppy. Many stretches of the film are charming, and Field and Winkler conjure flashes of sweet intimacy whenever the storytelling calms down enough to let them do serious work. It’s also interesting to see Ford playing a character role instead of a lead, since Heroes was made before his ascension to superstardom in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He clearly relishes the hard work of inhabiting a troubled individual, and he has many strong moments.

Heroes: FUNKY

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Foxy Brown (1974)

After scoring at the box office with Coffy (1973), writer-director Jack Hill and blaxploitation queen Pam Grier delivered more sexed-up crime drama with Foxy Brown, a nasty flick about a woman taking on the mob. Yet while Coffy has force and momentum, Foxy Brown gets mired in a murky storyline. It’s also much more unpleasant than the previous film, thanks to a gruesome sequence in which the heroine is bound, drugged, and repeatedly raped. The storyline gets off to a bad start, because it’s never clear what Foxy does for a living or how she came to know Michael (Terry Carter), her lawman boyfriend. Plus, how does Foxy balance her relationship with a cop and her tight bond with a drug-dealing sibling (Antonio Fargas)? For that matter, when the hell did she learn how to fly a plane? To cut Hill some slack, Foxy Brown apparently began life as a Coffy sequel, and the director was instructed to transform Foxy Brown into a stand-alone film so late in the game that he wasn’t able to properly reconfigure key elements. Notwithstanding these issues, Foxy Brown has built a huge cult audience over the years. Much of the appeal, of course, stems from Grier’s formidable physical presence. She looks fantastic, whether she’s glammed up in a silky wig and evening dress or down-and-dirty in a giant Afro and head-to-toe leather, and she’s a relentless killing machine. The moment when she coils a wire hanger into a claw and gouges out a scumbag’s eye is memorable, as is the bit when she introduces a thug to the business end of a plane’s propeller. Fargas is almost as entertaining as Grier, jive-talking through a campy performance, and Coffy costar Sid Haig shows up briefly to infuse the picture with a welcome burst of nutjob energy. Yet while some elements are watchable, the movie as a whole is distasteful, and the main villain is awful: Every scene featuring the startlingly amateurish Kathryn Loder, as conniving madam Miss Katherine, is excruciating.

Foxy Brown: FUNKY

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sisters (1973)

          After cutting his teeth with a series of irreverent comedies that received marginal releases, director Brian De Palma found his calling as a fearmaker—and his first significant box-office success—by merging his lurid fixations with a cinematic style borrowed from Hollywood’s master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. An unnerving thriller about a reporter who believes she’s discovered that her docile neighbor has a homicidal twin sister, Sisters owes a huge debt to Hitch (right down to the use of composer Bernard Hermann), but it’s also an impressive demonstration of De Palma’s storytelling gifts. As the author of the film’s original story and the co-writer of its script, De Palma has his fingerprints all over this movie, and Sisters sets the template for his many subsequent sexually charged suspense flicks.
          The story is simple: Staten Island-based investigative reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) happens to look across the street during a frenzied murder in the apartment of French-Canadian model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). Collier calls the police, but after a skeptical cop (Dolph Sweet) fails to discover any evidence, Collier enlists a private detective (Charles Durning) to continue the investigation. The deeper Collier goes down the rabbit hole of her neighbor’s strange world, however, the more danger Collier invites. As in all of De Palma’s suspense flicks, the story is less important than mood and theme. With Hermann’s effectively bombastic score creating uncomfortable degrees of tension, De Palma sketches a world of biological abnormalities, dysfunctional sexuality, and rampant conspiracies; he also carefully sets the stage so Collier exists in a milieu of logic and rationality until circumstances quite literally land her in an insane asylum.
          Produced for drive-in suppliers American International, Sisters is brisk and sensationalistic, with plenty of gore and a smattering of nudity, yet it’s also finely crafted inasmuch as De Palma designs each frame with an architect’s precision. Despite dodgy cinematography and set decoration (De Palma later benefited from larger budgets and longer shooting schedules), editor Paul Hirsch’s wonderfully methodical pacing makes the most of the footage. So even though De Palma’s later suspense pictures are more visually impressive, few of them can match the no-nonsense economy of Sisters.

Sisters: GROOVY

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Only Game in Town (1970)

Nineteen-seventy was an interesting transitional year for American movies, because the gulf between traditional pictures rooted in Establishment mores and New Hollywood freakouts created in Easy Rider’s wake was gigantic. Accordingly, it’s amazing that interminable studio pabulum like The Only Game in Town was still being manufactured at the same historical moment as counterculture classics like M*A*S*H, but the fact that both movies were released in early 1970 demonstrates why the New Hollywood made the old Hollywood obsolete. The final film directed by studio-era great George Stevens (Giant, A Place in the Sun, Shane), The Only Game in Town is an unbearably talky adaptation of a play by Frank D. Gilroy (who also wrote the script) about the stormy romance between a Vegas showgirl (Elizabeth Taylor) and an inveterate gambler (Warren Beaty). Gilroy fills the movie with one endless scene after another taking place in the showgirl’s drab apartment, so the picture is a lethargic procession of pretentious conversations in a visually uninteresting setting. The writing is so trite that nearly every character adopts some measure of affected world-weariness; for instance, when the gambler makes a romantic declaration and doesn’t get a response, he quips, “I’m sorry, folks, there seems to be a breakdown in the audio portion of our program.” Dooming the entire endeavor is the catastrophic miscasting of the lead role. Though still very beautiful, Taylor is too old and, with all due respect, too heavy to play a showgirl; the filmmakers try to obscure her zaftig figure with glamour-photography tricks and shapeless dresses, which only exacerbates the problem. She’s also terrible in the movie, screeching during arguments and staring vacantly through the innumerable scenes in which her character struggles with indecision. Beatty’s signature mixture of cockiness and dithering makes sense for the gambler role, but even though he and Taylor are fairly close in age, he comes off seeming far too young as her onscreen paramour. Worst of all, Stevens lets this slight story ramble on for 113 excruciating minutes, making The Only Game in Town an ignominious finale to his important career.

The Only Game in Town: SQUARE

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)

          Contextualizing the strange religious epic Brother Sun, Sister Moon requires a close look at the timing of its release. Arriving well over a decade after the boom in big-screen Bible pictures ended, the film has no relation whatsoever to the stodgy spectaculars of the Chuck Heston era. Instead, Franco Zeffirelli’s lush movie is completely of its early-’70s moment, because it’s an unabashed celebration of hippie idealism. Depicting formative events in the life of the man who became St. Francis of Assisi, the film tracks young wastrel Francesco (Graham Faulkner), the son of a wealthy merchant in 13th-century Italy.
          Returning from war traumatized, Francesco slowly discovers a divine connection with the natural world, then experiences a full religious epiphany. He gives away all of his possessions to become a beggar living in communion with flora and fauna, then rebuilds an abandoned church and forms a community of like-minded monks, all of whom shun the material world for the spiritual realm. When Francesco’s popularity invokes the violent ire of local leaders, the humble monk treks to Rome for an audience with Pope Innocent III (Alec Guiness), seeking guidance or punishment, whichever the pontiff deems necessary.
          Zeffirelli unfurls this deceptively simple story across 135 leisurely minutes, and there’s an organic logic to his approach—like his main character, the director stops to smell the roses at every juncture. Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a rapturously beautiful movie in terms of visuals, with one painterly widescreen shot of a gorgeous outdoor location after another. The costumes are ornate to the point of being art objects, and even the romantic leads of the film are so beautiful that their physiques are like graceful sculptures. As if these flourishes didn’t sufficiently underline the parallels Zeffirelli wants to draw between St. Francis’ back-to-nature spiritualism and the dreams of the flower-power generation, the director enlisted Scottish minstrel Donovan (Mr. “Mellow Yellow” himself) to infuse the picture with a series of twee story songs commenting on the action.
          Donovan’s tunes are crucial not only to the narrative (since much of Francesco’s journey is internal), but also to the enveloping counterculture vibe of the movie; listening to Donovan trill fruity lyrics about “jubilant joy” and other altered states illuminates the film’s design and themes. Brother Sun, Sister Moon has a handful of straightforward dramatic scenes, like those between Francesco and his incurably materialistic father, but much of the movie comprises airy montages of beautiful young Faulkner flitting about in wheat fields and other picturesque locations while Donovan sings on the soundtrack.
          So even though the story eventually comes to a head in the moving scene between Francesco and the pope, during which Guiness effectively portrays his character’s massive but fleeting psychological change, there’s no question that Brother Sun, Sister Moon is so precious and slight that it frequently threatens to evaporate. Still, one can’t argue with the film’s humanistic intentions, and the beauty of Zeffirelli’s images is similarly irrefutable. Brother Sun, Sister Moon may not be the transformative experience the director presumably envisioned, but it’s passionate and unique.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Overlord (1975)

          A quasi-experimental film offering an expressionistic view of the World War II experience, Overlord was assembled by director Stuart Cooper from a combination of original dramatic scenes and vintage documentary footage; the nonfiction material was created in the 1940s for British training films, with many scenes photographed during the actual D-Day invasion. (The operation centered around the Normandy landing was code-named “Overlord,” hence the film’s title.) Hushed and ruminative, the picture follows the emotional journey of a young Englishman, Tom (Brian Stirner), as he prepares for military service. Flashing backward and forward with dreamlike abandon, and often settling into long montages assembled from documentary footage, Overlord unfolds with the scattershot rhythms of discombobulated thought, which suits the material but challenges the viewer in more ways than one.
          On a superficial level, many stretches of Overlord are quite dull, since nothing in particular happens onscreen; although every moment in the picture contributes to the overall mood, the dramatic scenes are frequently perfunctory, and the montages linger too long, as if Cooper can’t bear to cut from compelling reality to contrived fiction. On a deeper level, however, the picture is tricky to watch because it’s so unrelentingly grim and opaque. Even when Tom and his fellow soldiers aren’t articulating their fears about the war, which they do often, Cooper stages scenes with oppressive soberness and stylization. In one vivid sequence, for instance, a love scene between Tom and a pretty paramour is presented as if she’s a mortician preparing his body for burial, not a lover undressing him for intimacy.
          Whether all of these affectations work is of course a judgment call for each viewer, but there’s a reason Overlord failed to find U.S. distribution when it was first released, despite having won two prizes at the 1975 Berlin International Film Festival. The picture is cold and quiet, though occasionally very beautiful, and it often gets lost in its own lyricism. As a result, it’s slow going even with a brisk 83-minute running time. Recalling nothing so much as a student film, given the intentionally grainy black-and-white photography and the parade of unfamiliar actors, Overlord is pure cinema art rather than commercial entertainment. To Cooper’s credit, that important distinction gives the movie inherent value, though it’s hard to say whether the film actually accomplishes its goals since it’s unclear whether Cooper was going for a pure mood piece or something with more concrete emotional impact.

Overlord: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Snapshot (1979)

A strange stalker picture from the land Down Under, Snapshot stars Aussie starlet Sigrid Thornton as Angela, a hairdresser whose transition into modeling has disastrous results. Directed by Simon Wincer, a veteran of Australian television who later scored with the miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989) and the family favorite Free Willy (1993), Snapshot feels like several different movies jammed into one package. The thriller material, which is supposed to be the film’s main focus, is the least effective: With Aussie composer Brian May contributing awful disco-era backing music, Thornton runs around looking frightened while assorted weirdos chase after her and leave sick mementoes like dead animals and shredded clothing. All very standard stuff, and not done particularly well. Of greater interest (comparatively speaking) is the character material delving into the psyches of Angela and the people in her world. Thornton, who has an endearingly wounded quality in Snapshot, enjoys strong moments interacting with her character’s bitchy best friend, needy ex-boyfriend and overbearing mother, so she somewhat effectively conveys a young woman trying to form her own identify. Unfortunately, this interesting-ish stuff gets smothered in silliness, from the expected (the stalking scenes) to the unexpected (several visits to a discotheque at which a queeny drag performer sings bizarre songs). The movie also features what may be the most excessive repetition of a nude shot in movie history; a topless photo of Angela taken for an advertisement becomes a major plot point, so it’s shown literally hundreds of times, particularly during a scene in which a room is entirely papered with reproductions of the image. Despite offering such lurid extremes and fleeting moments of surprising credibility, Snapshot is such a jumble that it’s a chore to endure.

Snapshot: LAME

Monday, June 20, 2011

Little Big Man (1970)

          The kind of cinematic oddity that could only have been made on this lavish a scale during the New Hollywood era, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western Little Big Man is as entertaining as it is completely bizarre. Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, the film tells the story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who claims to be the only white survivor of the Little Big Horn massacre that claimed the life of notorious Indian fighter Gen. George Custer. As the ancient Crabb relates his story to a doubting interviewer (William Hickey), the picture flashes back to Crabb’s childhood and then presents wild episodes from his life leading up to the slaughter at Little Big Horn. Along the way, Crabb spends time personifying virtually every archetype of the Old West, from gunfighter to snake-oil salesman to town drunk. Most of Crabb’s recollections detail his upbringing by Cheyenne Indians—after his parents were killed during a Pawnee raid, young Crabb was adopted by a Cheyenne elder named Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George).
          Crabb’s story is outrageous, and part of the charm of Little Big Man is that it doesn’t matter whether you buy into the myth or even the possibility of the myth—the point is reconsidering Old West iconography from the fresh perspective of the Plains Indians, rather than the usual viewpoint of the “civilized” whites who systematically eradicated those Indians.
          Hoffman’s casting is pure genius, not only because he gives such a funny and humane performance, but also because the sight of him slathered in war paint is so incongruous; the juxtaposition that Hoffman creates in every single frame underscores the film’s mischievous intentions. And even if Jack is ultimately somewhat of a cipher—the blank screen onto which the film’s political agenda is projected—other major characters are presented so clearly and cleverly that a full emotional experience emerges.
          Several Native American actors lend authenticity to featured roles, with Robert Little Star adding absurd humor as a flamingly gay Indian, and Ruben Moreno lending intensity as Crabb’s main rival in the Cheyenne community. Chief Dan George’s deadpan line deliveries are perfect for the vivid character of Old Lodge Skins, a man utterly at peace with his understanding of the universe (“I’ve never been invisible before!”); George was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Faye Dunaway, at her most beautiful, gives a nuanced performance by playing a woman in her prime and, later in the story, gone to seed; she appears as the wife of a religious nut who takes in an adolescent Crabb after he’s separated from the Cheyenne. Jeff Corey is sly as a twitchy but endearing Wild Bill Hickock, and Martin Balsam lends campy amusement as Mr. Merriweather, Crabb’s unlucky mentor in the snake-oil business.
          Best of all is Richard Mulligan as Custer—he plays the general as a megalomaniacal loon given to pronouncements like, “Are you suggesting the reversal of a Custer decision?” Since Mulligan has to, in essence, personify the theme of white hubris, it’s impressive that he delivers such an individualistic performance while playing a symbol. (At the time of the picture’s release, Little Big Man was seen as a veiled indictment of America’s involvement in Vietnam; the film’s thematic content is a bit more malleable when viewed with modern eyes.) Plus, even though Crabb is an intentionally chameleonic character, Hoffman is terrific in a wild range of settings. He’s sweet as a young man trying to find his way in a new world, ridiculous as a duded-up gunfighter called “The Soda Pop Kid,” and finally resolute once tragedy drives him to ensure that Custer meets an unhappy end.
         Little Big Man moves at an impressive pace throughout its 139 minutes, and it pulls off that special New Hollywood trick of blending wild tonal extremes into a weirdly coherent whole. Alternately harrowing and hilarious, its as unique as its protagonist.

Little Big Man: RIGHT ON

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Short Eyes (1977)

          The grim prison melodrama Short Eyes teems with authentic behavior and dialogue, and with good reason: Writer Miguel Piñero adapted the script from his own award-winning play, which was in turn extrapolated from a turbulent youth spent in and out of jail. Short Eyes depicts the tumult that arises in a men’s lockup when the prisoners discover a new inmate is a pedophile. As directed by Robert M. Young, a socially conscious filmmaker whose fictional work reflects his background in documentaries, Short Eyes is a gritty travelogue through the complex social dynamics formed by prisoners, and the picture is infused with gruesome textures. So even though the piece features passages of men bonding through pastimes like music and cockroach races, there’s no risk of glamorizing the prison experience.
          Quite to the contrary, Piñero and Young present a horrifying milieu in which danger is omnipresent, the exchange of sexual favors for protection is an everyday reality, and racial divisions are so regimented that there’s a table in the day room for the blacks, one for the Puerto Ricans, and one for the whites, who in this environment are the oppressed minority. There’s also a harshly enforced caste system, with pedophiles at the very bottom, meaning they’re fair game for abuse and violence.
          Piñero introduces several vivid characters, from the speechifying black revolutionary whose boasts eclipse his desire for real violence, to the hot-tempered Puerto Rican drug addict forever angling to make the prison’s youngest inmate his sexual plaything. At the center of the story is Juan (Jósé Pérez), a thoughtful con who adheres to the prison’s class divisions but uses diplomacy to defuse pointless conflicts. So when child-molester Clark Davis (Bruce Davison) arrives in the cellblock, Juan tries to understand Clark instead of leaping to judgment. In the picture’s most harrowing scene, Clark unloads his secret history, describing in excruciating detail how he finds his victims. Juan’s reaction to Clark’s purging is a complex mixture of anger, bewilderment, compassion, disgust, and rage, so it’s painful to watch prison’s hive-mind distill its collective response into a brutal form of vigilante justice.
          Although Short Eyes is undoubtedly amped up for dramatic effect, as seen in the prisoners’ tendencies toward revelatory encounter-group dialogue exchanges, the picture is fascinating and nauseating at the same time. The whole cast is strong, with Davison going deep into the abyss of his tortured character and Pérez providing a strong thread of anguished humanity. Future indie-cinema fave Luis Guzmán appears in a tiny role, and singers Freddie Fender and Curtis Mayfield (who also did the score) show up as inmates; each performs a tune in the day room.

Short Eyes: GROOVY

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976)

Fleeting glimpses of a popular starlet in the altogether are the only quasi-redeeming values of Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, a lovers-on-the-run picture so unremarkable that calling it pedestrian would disparage the myriad lovers-on-the-run pictures that are uninspired but at least tolerable. Directed by hack extraordinaire Mark L. Lester, who never let the quest for quality impede his brisk shooting schedules, the picture concerns a young drive-in waitress with dreams of becoming a country singer. For no discernible reason, Bobbie Jo abruptly quits her job and runs off with a customer who imagines himself a modern-day outlaw in the Billy the Kid mode (because, apparently, Bobbie Jo figures a crime spree will land her on the Opry stage). Playing the outlaw of the title is the charmless Marjoe Gortner, a minor ’70s figure who appeared in a series of awful movies before eventually drifting out of public view; nothing he does here defines his absence from the screen as a cinematic tragedy. With such a major vacuum at the center of the film and with Lester’s filmmaking characteristically shoddy, all eyes fall on the film’s leading lady, Lynda Carter. As always, the actress best known as TV’s Wonder Woman is an amiable presence, and as always, she’s an absolute knockout. So if ogling Carter for 88 minutes sounds like fun, dive in, and you’ll be rewarded with a few brisk peeks at her celebrated torso. If you actually want an interesting movie to accompany your eye candy, then, sadly, you’re out of luck. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw: SQUARE

Friday, June 17, 2011

Man from Atlantis (1977)

          The first of four telefilms that introduced the lead character of a subsequent (and short-lived) series bearing the same name, Man from Atlantis is a no-nonsense fantasy that neither oversells its ludicrous premise by trying for heavy drama nor undercuts the premise by opting for camp. Patrick Duffy, later of Dallas fame, plays Mark Harris, a mystery man who washes ashore and seems close to death until marine researcher Dr. Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda Montgomery) dunks him in the ocean, where the water revives him. Turns out Mark is an unprecedented man/fish hybrid with incredible underwater powers—he ended up on the beach after a knock on the noggin rendered him unconscious—so the stalwart Navy admiral (Art Lund) who oversees Elizabeth’s funding quickly recruits Mark for a mission. It seems a number of international submersibles have disappeared into a deep oceanic trench, so Mark agrees to investigate on behalf of his air-breathing benefactress.
          He dives into the trench and discovers that a brilliant madman, Mr. Schubert (Victor Buono), has captured the missing vessels, pillaged them for parts, and brainwashed the crew members, all in pursuit of a loopy master plan. In other words, the plot is standard comic-book fare, and as such it’s best not to investigate the particulars too closely. That said, Man from Atlantis has drive and focus, moving at an assured but unhurried pace and featuring such soft-spoken characters that it’s a refreshing change from the usual histrionics of fantasy television. It helps, a lot, that Oscar-winning composer Fred Karlin contributes an atmospheric score and that much of the picture takes place underwater, lending a sense of grandeur.
          Sure, there’s a lot of silliness onscreen, like the bit in which Mark races a dolphin across a pool before leaping out of the pool and grabbing a fish from the dolphin’s human trainer, and the miniature FX for submarine scenes aren’t exactly top-shelf. But the main character is inherently interesting—the last of his kind, and all that—and the script, by Mayo Simon, presents outrageous concepts in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it’s easy to relax and enjoy the ride. None of the actors does much to get excited about, excepting the always-enjoyable Buono, who eschews his usual flamboyance for a quieter kind of menace; but then again, the wooden performances suit the piece’s unvarnished approach. FYI, an enjoyable Man from Atlantis cast reunion took place in 2012, and remarks about that event appear here(Available at

Man from Atlantis: FUNKY

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Black Caesar (1973) & Hell Up in Harlem (1973)

          Some of the most entertaining blaxploitation flicks inserted predominantly African-American casts into classic Hollywood genres, resulting in exciting cross-cultural friction. Black Caesar is one such picture, because pulp auteur Larry Cohen’s quickie crime drama offers a downtown spin on the classic Warner Bros. gangster flick. Fred Williamson, the cocky ex-football player who became one of blaxploitation’s most charismatic stars, plays Tommy Gibbs, a Harlem kid with good reasons for questioning authority: When he was young, Tommy was beaten half to death by a corrupt cop, McKinney (Art Lund). So after completing a long stretch in juvie, Tommy gets right to work building his underworld résumé.
          He whacks a mobster who’s been targeted for assassination, then uses that credential to muscle his way into the closed shop of the New York mafia. The movie’s stereotypical greasy Italian types are wary of getting in business with a black man, and sure enough Tommy ruthlessly squeezes out his local godfather in order to become a big boss. Then Tommy nabs incriminating ledgers detailing years of bribes to city officials, thus ensuring police won’t touch his burgeoning operation. In the classic gangster-movie tradition, everything Tommy does to improve his stature puts him in greater danger, and he also runs into domestic trouble when his wife, Helen (Gloria Hendry), starts fooling around with his best friend, Joe (Philip Roye).
          Though everything that happens in Black Caesar is clichéd and predictable, the movie works because it’s so energetic. Cohen’s run-and-gun style creates gritty excitement, since it’s clear he “stole” most of his shots while onlookers tried to figure out what the hell was happening. Furthermore, Williamson has so much swagger that it’s easy to buy him climbing the gangland ladder, and the score by R&B legend James Brown is fantastic, featuring standout cuts like “The Boss” and “Down and Out in New York City.” The filmmaking isn’t pretty, but the style suits the material.
          The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rushed sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, which hit screens just 11 months after Black Caesar was released. Though Hell Up in Harlem has an interesting central idea—after Tommy’s estranged father helps his son out of the jam Tommy was in at the end of the first picture, Papa Gibbs gets delusions of grandeur and tries to squeeze Tommy out of his own operation—the storytelling is disjointed and repetitive. Filled with endless montages of people getting whacked in gory detail, the movie feels incomplete, as if huge swaths of important footage are missing, and sloppily dubbed off-screen dialogue is used (ineffectively) to bridge narrative gaps. Some of the murders are entertaining from a camp perspective, like the scene of Tommy impaling a gangster with a beach umbrella, but a lengthy subplot about Tommy’s children being taken away from their mother is confusing and grim. Kudos to Cohen for striking while the iron was hot, but in rushing to meet marketplace demand, he killed any appetite for future Tommy Gibbs adventures.

Black Caesar: FUNKY
Hell Up in Harlem: LAME

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

          Between the end of the campy TV series Batman in 1968 and the arrival of the reverent feature Superman in 1978, cinematic treatments of superheroes tended toward buffoonery. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is a prime example, because it’s a failed attempt to create an ironic live-action cartoon. Although an awful movie by any rational criteria, Doc Savage is so wall-to-wall kitschy—one doesn’t get the impression anyone involved with the project had illusions of creating art—that the picture offers a mix of intentional and unintentional amusement. The title character is an international adventurer who first appeared in pulp magazines in 1933, then expanded to comic books and radio (though his popularity waned in the late ’40s, he’s still kicking around thanks to sporadic revivals in various media). An unfailingly virtuous good guy who fights crime from his gadget-filled headquarters inside the Empire State Building, aided by a quintet of colorful sidekicks called the Fabulous Five, Doc is such a straight arrow he makes Superman seem edgy by comparison, and he’s not so much super-powered as super-realized: He’s a paragon of mental, moral, and physical perfection.
          In Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, the character is presented with his original ’30s trappings intact while Doc and the Five trek to South America and investigate the murder of Doc’s father, a saintly missionary who uncovered a scheme to rob a Native tribe of its riches. The characterizations and plotting are painfully thin, the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and the production values seem intentionally artificial, as if brightly lit sets will sell the idea of a comic strip sprung to life. In the title role, Ron Ely is physically impressive—he played Tarzan in a ’60s TV series—though his performance style is closer to posing than acting. The rank-and-file character actors surrounding him are saddled with lame comic-relief bits that undercut any attempts to create credibility, and the film’s special effects are terrible, notably the animation for sequences of supernatural snakes floating through the air.
          What saves Doc Savage from being an unwatchable mess is an undercurrent of outright weirdness: One of the villains sleeps in an oversized crib and sucks his thumb; Doc’s slick logo is emblazoned on everything from his belt buckle to his private plane; and the film’s score comprises bombastic John Philips Sousa marches. Understandably, all of this Batman-style camp is a sore spot with hardcore Doc Savage fans—but even adherents must admit Doc Savage is such a silly property that the camp approach made sense. (After all, Doc’s verbose motto includes such easily parodied proclamations as, “Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.”) So whether this picture “honors” its source material or not, it has several audacious moments, like the ridiculous scene in which the various fighting styles used by Doc and an opponent are identified by onscreen text. (Available at

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Late Show (1977)

          After making his name by co-writing Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and other pictures, Robert Benton graduated to directing with the admirable Western Bad Company (1972), then tackled another beloved Hollywood genre with his sophomore effort. An homage to classic detective pictures, The Late Show proceeds from a decent premise: What happens when an old-school gumshoe right out of a ’40s private-eye flick gets thrown together with a hippie chick so peace-and-love ’70s that they barely speak the same language? Right from the beginning of the film, however, the premise is undercut by Benton’s undisciplined script, which wobbles between comedy, drama, and suspense; furthermore, logic takes a beating as characters make profoundly stupid decisions, survive impossible predicaments, and walk away from crime scenes as if nothing happened. And while it’s a given that engrossing mystery films can sometimes surmount nonsensical narratives (see 1946’s classic but incomprehensible The Big Sleep), The Late Show isn’t anywhere near entertaining enough to merit sorting through its unnecessarily convoluted plot.
          In addition to logic problems and tonal inconsistency, the movie is so slow-moving that it’s nearly interminable for viewers who don’t fall in love with the leading characters. On the plus side, Honeymooners icon Art Carney delivers a terrific leading performance as a crusty old private dick—his character is a tip of the fedora to the tough-but-decent investigators once played by Humphrey Bogart and the like. However, Carney’s costar, Lily Tomlin, comes across as an airheaded flibbertigibbet so preoccupied with “vibes” that it’s as if she’s transmitting from another dimension; she barely stops talking during her scenes, and nothing she says is remotely interesting. This makes the many Carney-Tomlin scenes forced and tiresome, whereas Carneys fleeting bits with comedy pro Bill Macy have a spark the rest of the picture lacks. As a result of its many flaws, The Late Show is a well-intentioned but dreary oddity that doesn’t come close to hitting the stylistic sweet spot.
          It should be noted, however, that the preceding represents a minority opinion; Benton received an Oscar nomination for his script, and Tomlin got a Golden Globe nod for her performance. The Late Show seems to have far more admirers than detractors, so if any of the above intrigues you, by all means, dig in and, as the saying goes, your experience may differ. For my part, I enjoy nearly everyone involved in The Late Show and was therefore surprised to find their combined efforts so thoroughly uninteresting—the disparate elements of the picture just didnt cohere for me.

The Late Show: LAME

Monday, June 13, 2011

Annie Hall (1977)

          Whether it’s viewed as the climax of Woody Allen’s early career as a self-deprecating comedian or the beginning of his later career as a serious filmmaker, Annie Hall is an extraordinary piece of work. Among many other things, Annie Hall is Allen’s first attempt at a Big Statement, simultaneously a deep exploration of one specific relationship and a microcosmic study of relationships in general. Furthermore, the picture contains two of the most vividly sketched characters in ’70s cinema, both of whom are fictionalized versions of the actors playing them: Annie Hall, the eccentric singer portrayed by Diane Keaton, and Alvy Singer, the neurotic comic portrayed by Allen.
          To the filmmaker’s great credit, neither character gets off easily, because both are depicted as fascinating people capable of infuriating behavior—and both are shown to be almost pathologically incapable of subverting their identities into the collective identity of a couple, despite being very much in love. (Allen had a lengthy real-life affair with Keaton, his costar in a string of beloved ’70s films.) Yet the bond between Alvy and Annie isn’t the film’s only romance; Annie Hall illustrates Allen’s devotion to the island of Manhattan by creating several hilarious fish-out-of-water scenes depicting Alvy gasping for air whenever he’s taken off the bedrock of New York City.
          The bits of Alvy disastrously trying to cook lobsters in a beach house and trying to drive in Los Angeles are tiny comic masterpieces, just as the interaction between Alvy and his sitcom-producer pal, Rob (Tony Roberts), articulates Allen’s contempt for the assembly-line approach to creating Hollywood pabulum. Some of the most vivid material in the picture involves Annie’s WASP family, particularly the unforgettably funny/creepy scenes of Annie’s brother, Duane (Christopher Walken), giving a speech about vehicular suicide—and then taking a terrified Alvy for a car ride.
          As the title suggests, however, the movie’s most memorable invention is Annie herself, a character so individualistic she inspired a fashion craze as women tried to mimic Keaton’s offbeat wardrobe of repurposed men’s clothing. Whether you find Annie appealing or irritating is a matter of taste, but it’s impossible not to appreciate moments like the scene in which Annie magically leaves her body during sex because she’s bored.
          Beyond Allen and Keaton, both of whom are at their very best, Annie Hall features a deep well of colorful actors in supporting roles, from featured performers Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, and Paul Simon (yes, the singer-songwriter) to bit player Sigourney Weaver, who makes her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screen debut at the end of the picture. Yet perhaps the funniest mini-performance in the picture is given by author Marshall McLuhan, who appears in a quintessential Allen moment: As Alvy waits in line at a theater, listening to a windbag pontificate about McLuhan’s media theories, Alvy wishes he could set the guy straight, so he yanks the real McLuhan from behind a poster, upon which McLuhan says to the windbag, “You know nothing of my work.”
          It’s a given that Allen’s movies aren’t for everyone, but Annie Hall winningly sets his intellectualism, narcissism, and neuroticism into a palatable framework by dramatizing the perils of being opinionated about everything; in a very important way, Annie Hall is the Allen movie for people who don’t like Allen movies, since it depicts the inability of a character very much like Woody Allen to comfortably exist in everyday life.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

A cult favorite not because of its excesses but because of its restraint, this eerie thriller is a great illustration of how much atmosphere resourceful filmmakers can generate even if they don’t have the budget for special effects. The story depicts a trio of hippies who take occupancy in a farmhouse somewhere in the Northeast, much to the chagrin of hostile locals. The hippies find a young woman squatting in the house and invite her to stay, soon realizing that she may be part of a supernatural cabal involving the unfriendly townies. What makes this interesting-ish is the mental state of the title character: Jessica (Zohra Lampert), one of the hippies, was just released from a mental institution because she’s plagued by hallucinations, so when creepy things start happening around the farmhouse and the town, her friends (and the audience) have good reason to wonder if the terrors are figments of her imagination. The devices that director John D. Hancock and his team use to create the picture’s disquieting tone aren’t especially subtle (unnatural music created on primitive electronic instruments, overlapping audio of the voices Jessica hears in her mind), but combined with Lampert’s strong performance, the devices get the job done nicely. A slight woman photographed to seem fragile and powerless, Lampert effectively uses flittering facial expressions and a distant smile to convey her character’s tentative grasp on reality. There’s a real feeling of menace from start to finish, and even if the payoff is less interesting than the buildup, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is better than the average ’70s shocker simply because of its artistic approach to scare tactics. The open-to-interpretation finale closes the movie on an appropriately queasy note—so while Let’s Scare Jessica to Death may not really amount to much, it’s a creepy ride.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death: FUNKY

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Breaker! Breaker! (1977)

Karate champion Chuck Norris took a baby step toward movie stardom by headlining this meagerly budgeted B-movie, which awkwardly meshes the martial arts, trucker, and vigilante genres. Given this slapdash approach and the movie’s crappy production values, it’s no surprise that Breaker! Breaker! has spent decades languishing in well-deserved obscurity. In fact, had Norris not subsequently achieved cinematic fame elsewhere, the picture probably would have fallen out of distribution entirely. Having said that, the movie has a promising hook—a redneck villain gets his backwater burg incorporated as a municipality called Texas City so he and his minions can use “official” traffic stops to rip off motorists and truckers. Norris plays a trucker whose little brother was last seen in Texas City, so he struts into town to find out the truth and, if necessary, issue swift-footed justice. There’s also a thread in the story about Norris calling in his brother truckers for help, resulting in a climactic scene of 18-wheelers literally mowing down the entire city. None of this hangs together well, so even though Breaker! Breaker! zips along (it’s barely 90 minutes), everything onscreen feels fake and meaningless. The fight scenes are absurd—Norris takes on what seems like the city’s entire male population at one point—and a crudely rendered subplot about a rural simpleton is especially pointless. Plus, while Norris fights impressively and exudes an easygoing likeability, he can’t act. The movie’s only interesting-ish performance is given by character actor George Murdock, as the city’s Shakespeare-spouting overlord, but his exertions are wasted because the movie as a whole is so forgettable.

Breaker! Breaker! LAME

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Medusa Touch (1978)

          One of the more unusual pictures to appear during the post-Exorcist boom in supernatural horror, The Medusa Touch is an imaginative thriller that quietly builds up a strong head of steam on its way to a genuinely frightening climax. Set in London, the movie begins when someone attacks British writer John Morlar (Richard Burton), leaving him in a coma; visiting French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) is assigned to investigate. The case immediately seems out of the ordinary because even though Morlar should be dead after the beating he received, his brain activity reflects superhuman stamina. Deepening the intrigue, Brunel meets with Morlar’s psychiatrist, Doctor Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who reveals that Morlar believes himself capable of willing disasters to happen.
          In flashbacks depicting Morlar at different ages, we see him “cause” the deaths of his parents, his classmates at a boarding school, and many others who were unlucky enough to cross his path. As the story progresses, Brunel becomes more and more convinced that Morlar actually does possess otherworldly powers, and that Morlar is planning to cause his most horrific disaster yet because his brain still functions while his body is barely alive. Based on a novel by Peter Van Greenaway, The Medusa Touch is much more than just a creepshow—it’s also a provocative exploration of morality, asking the question of what responsible citizens must do if they become aware of a monster in their midst.
          The cadaverous appearance and contemptuous performance style that Burton possessed later in life suits The Medusa Touch well: Burton looks like a walking incarnation of death. By the end of the movie, just watching him is unnerving, especially when he locks into the deadly stare he uses when “willing” mayhem into being. Ventura, a stocky and weathered Frenchman, offers a terrific complement to Burton’s darkness; he seems vital and humane, though experienced enough to acknowledge the limits of his own understanding. Remick’s chilly beauty adds another interesting flavor to the mix.
          Elaborate pre-CGI special effects come into play toward the end of the picture, and the vaguely surreal quality of the effects accentuates the storyline’s enigmatic quality. So even though The Medusa Touch isn’t particularly subtle, the precision with which the narrative’s various threads are introduced and connected becomes steadily more impressive as the climax approaches, giving the last act real power. So, like all of the most effective movies about supernatural horror, The Medusa Touch is ridiculous when considered from a rational perspective, yet quite engrossing when taken at face value.

The Medusa Touch: GROOVY

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Play It As It Lays (1972)

          A pretentious mood piece about a movie star experiencing and recovering from a mental breakdown, this adaptation of Joan Didion’s acclaimed novel is like a high-art version of a Jacqueline Susann novel: The only difference between Susann’s trashy showbiz stories and Didion’s take on sleazy Hollywood is that Didion examines the milieu from a sophisticated psychological perspective.
          Tuesday Weld, one of the fiercest actresses to ever grace the screen, tries valiantly to sculpt a complete character from the discombobulated narrative shards of an unnecessarily arty script by Didion and her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, but Weld is held back by the ponderous direction of art-house mainstay Frank Perry (The Swimmer). Similarly, a poignant performance by costar Anthony Perkins is squandered because the film is so preoccupied with European-style abstract editing and overt symbolism that it forgets to simply tell a story.
          Buried amid the auteur-ish muck is a standard-issue Hollywood tragedy about fragile actress Maria (Weld) suffering through a marriage to overbearing film director Carter (Adam Roarke). Maria’s traumas include an abortion; the mental problems of her young daughter, who is institutionalized; and her intense friendship with bisexual producer BZ (Perkins), a doomed drug addict.
          Didion’s book is highly regarded for capturing a moment when promiscuity, psychoanalysis, recreational drugs, and tremendous wealth allowed a generation of Hollywood professionals to indulge themselves to the brink of insanity, but even with Didion and her spouse penning the script, the film version lacks effective cinematic equivalents for Didion’s literary tropes. Therefore, scenes gasp for air while they’re being suffocated with “significance” that viewers can sense but not really understand; it’s easy to envision the sort of Bergman-esque angst that Perry was trying to capture, but he doesn’t have sufficient control over the material to hit that elusive target.
          Amid this slog of a movie, Weld comes off the best, since she has so many opportunities to reveal Maria’s inner demons, and Perkins runs a close second, personifying world-weary soulfulness. Roarke, a cult-fave actor known for offbeat flicks like Psych-Out (1968), gives a credible performance as a domineering artiste, but the script lets him down even worse than it does Weld and Perkins. Play It As It Lays is admirable for what it tries to accomplish, and deeply disappointing for how badly it fumbles the attempt.

Play It As It Lays: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tracks (1977)

          Iconoclastic filmmaker Henry Jaglom’s second feature, the Vietnam-vet drama Tracks, is infinitely more coherent than his previous film, the interminable A Safe Place (1971) but it suffers the same pretentious excesses as all of his films. To Jaglom’s credit, his interest in human behavior is broad and genuine, and he gives actors room to run wild with Method-style flourishes. But unfortunately for viewers, Jaglom’s stories amble from one angst-ridden episode to another while unpleasantly self-involved characters mope, scream, and whine about feelings that somehow remain mysterious even after being explained to death.
          Tracks stars Dennis Hopper, at his most gratingly unhinged, as Sgt. Jack Falen, a traumatized soldier escorting a friend’s corpse home for burial. Most of the picture takes place on a train as Falen heads toward his destination and kills time with a swinger (Dean Stockwell) who wants Falen to play wingman while he woos eligible ladies. Despite being inexpressive and moody, Falen somehow hooks up with an innocent hippie chick (Taryn Power) and a randy liberated woman (Topo Swope), which means that viewers get not one but two scenes of Hopper extending his tongue and flailing it at women’s faces in a soggy simulation of kissing.
          Between sexcapades, Falen engages in psychobabble-filled chats with assorted passengers, and he periodically succumbs to psychotic episodes in which he imagines seeing things like gang rape, which prompts him to whip out his sidearm and threaten people. When this pedestrian PTSD shtick reaches a climax, Hopper strips naked and runs through the train; a bit later, he gets off the train and climbs into a grave that he mistakes for a foxhole, at which point another freakout ensues. None of this has much impact, however, since Hopper is so creepy that it’s impossible to care what becomes of his character. Watching Tracks will make most viewers want to make tracks—away from the movie.

Tracks: LAME

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

1941 (1979)

          After scoring two ginormous hits in the mid-’70s, director Steven Spielberg fumbled with his epic World War II comedy 1941, which was considered a major commercial and critical disappointment upon its initial release. The wildly ambitious (and wildly uneven) film has since gained more public favor thanks to wider exposure on television and video, and that’s all to the good—1941 isn’t a masterpiece, but it isn’t an outright disaster, either. In fact, the picture boasts some of Spielberg’s most audacious filmmaking, from expertly handled miniature effects to outrageously ornate crowd sequences, and it’s also filled with entertaining performances. The whole thing doesn’t hang together, and the film is far too long, but 1941 overflows with beautifully executed episodes.
          Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis in a madcap style that borrows from the Marx Brothers and Preston Struges, among others, 1941 tackles unique subject matter: the paranoia that gripped America’s West Coast immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the story, civilians and soldiers alike ramp up defensive efforts like placing armed lookouts in the Ferris wheel of the Santa Monica Pier and situating gigantic anti-aircraft guns on the lawns of beachside homes.
          The all-over-the-map script is stuffed with subplots and supporting characters, and some of the threads are more interesting than others. The business of a German U-boat commander (Christopher Lee) and his Japanese counterpart (Toshiro Mifune) incompetently searching for the California coast is very silly, despite the caliber of talent involved, but when the Axis duo captures and interrogates an American redneck (Slim Pickens), enjoyable lowbrow comedy ensues. A wartime romance between a fast-talking soldier (Tim Matheson) and a sexy military secretary (Nancy Allen) is amusing and spicy, especially during an elaborate seduction scene that takes place in a plane that’s still on the tarmac.
          The goofy stuff involving two Saturday Night Live comics is okay, with Dan Aykroyd playing the leader of a buffoonish tank crew and John Belushi mugging as Capt. “Wild” Bill Kelso, a pilot zooming around the West looking for targets. Some of the best material involves a patriotic family headed up by Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), since this stuff slyly mixes domestic shtick with wartime high jinks. For sheer absurdity, however, it’s hard to beat the scenes with Robert Stack as a dopey general who cries watching the Walt Disney movie Dumbo.
          From start to finish, 1941 is unapologetically excessive, throwing explosions or hundreds of extras at the audience when simpler visuals would have sufficed, and things like narrative momentum and nuance get bludgeoned to death by the opulent production values. Still, the cast is filled with so many gifted actors (in addition to those already mentioned, look for John Candy, Eddie Deezen, Joe Flaherty, Murray Hamilton, Warren Oates, Wendie Jo Sperber, Treat Williams, and more) that even uninspired scenes are performed with consummate skill. The movie also looks amazing: Spielberg’s camerawork is intoxicatingly self-indulgent, since it feels like entire scenes were filmed simply to justify cool visuals, and peerless cinematographer William A. Fraker gives the whole thing a glamorous look. There’s even room for an energetic score by regular Spielberg collaborator John Williams.
          1941 is a mess, but it’s also a true spectacle.

1941: FUNKY

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

By the early ’70s, the whole spaghetti Western thing had gotten pretty wheezy, but that didn’t stop enterprising international producers from hiring American tough guys for more tedious slaughter in the arid plains, usually set to insanely overwrought music by Ennio Morricone or one of his numerous clones. In the forgettable A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, the old Dirty Dozen formula of convicts recruited for a suicide mission is applied to Civil War intrigue. At the beginning of the movie, Union officer Colonel Pembroke (James Coburn), an otherwise hard-as-nails military man, is pilloried by his superiors for surrendering a supposedly impregnable Union fort to ruthless Confederate officer Major Ward (Telly Savalas). Pembroke offers to redeem himself by retaking the fort, but the only men the Union will give him are a group of condemned scoundrels. To motivate these lowlifes, Pembroke claims that his real motivation is recovering $500,000 in gold from the fort, but it’s clear he’s compelled by something deeper. The eventual revelation of what’s driving Pembroke is potent enough that it should have been articulated at the beginning of the movie, because this simple revenge angle gives the story clarity it lacks until the revelation. However, murky motivation is the least of the picture’s problems, because the movie also lacks distinctive characterizations, interesting drama, and really much of anything resembling narrative momentum; between the set-up and the finale, all the characters do is quarrel and wander without much interference from outside parties. This makes A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die quite boring, no matter how effectively Coburn scowls from beneath his cowboy hat. Plus, as in most spaghetti Westerns, much of the dialogue is dubbed, with supporting actors clearly speaking Italian on-set. So while this movie may indeed provide a reason for its characters to live and a reason for its characters to die, it certainly doesn’t give viewers a reason to watch.

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die: LAME