Monday, December 31, 2012

The Winds of Kitty Hawk (1978)

          One doesn’t generally reach for the word lyrical when describing a ’70s TV movie, but the adjective suits The Winds of Kitty Hawk, which dramatizes the adventures of flight innovators the Wright Brothers with a touch of poetry thanks to evocative locations, a lilting musical score, and a quietly insistent leading performance by Michael Moriarty. How much artistic license was taken with facts about the Wrights and their competitors is a discussion for another space, but whether or not The Winds of Kitty Hawk is wholly accurate, it’s a gently compelling drama. Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the story sprawls across several summers during which the driven Wilbur Wright (Moriarty) and his indefatigable brother, Orville (David Huffman), visited the titular location in the Carolinas to refine their groundbreaking flying machines.
          The scenes taking place in Kitty Hawk are the film’s most engrossing, because the otherworldly location of endless sand dunes buttressing an ocean accentuates the magic involved with advancing the human species. As the picture makes clear, the Wrights didn’t invent flying machines, but rather perfected them in important ways; this nuance powers the plot, because the Wrights are in a race with other inventors to register the crucial first patent on a fully realized airplane. For example, just when the Wrights seem close to a breakthrough, they fall into competition with fellow aviation innovator Glenn Curtiss (Scott Hylands), whom the film portrays as stealing his best ideas from the Wrights and thereby snowing millionaire Alexander Graham Bell (John Randolph) into backing a Curtiss vehicle instead of a Wright Brothers vehicle.
          As directed by the prolific TV helmer E.W. Swackhamer—who obviously benefited from better material than he usually got—the picture does a fine job of balancing character study with procedural minutia. So, just as the picture contrasts the superhuman determination of Wilbur with the more grounded pragmatism of Orville, the picture toggles comfortably between small scenes of the Wright Brothers working out mechanical specifics with larger scenes of, say, Curtiss and Wilbur squaring off in high-stakes flying contests. The film’s re-creations of early planes merit special mention, because whether these vehicles are shown in long shots via miniatures, in close-ups via partial mockups, or in medium shots via full-size replicas, the illusions The Winds of Kitty Hawk creates are just good enough to give viewers a sense of what it must have been like to rise from the sand dunes and cruise along air currents. Designed as a loving tribute to the Wright Brothers, rather than a probing examination, The Winds of Kitty Hawk is more inspirational than educational—but it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Winds of Kitty Hawk: GROOVY

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nashville (1975)

          At the risk of losing my bona fides as an aficionado of ’70s cinema, I’m going to commit an act of heresy by saying that Nashville leaves me cold. I’ve sat through all 159 endless minutes of Robert Altman’s most celebrated movie twice, and both times Nashville has struck me as an overstuffed misfire that unsuccessfully tries to blend gentle observations about the country-music industry with bluntly satirical political content. Altman has said he was originally approached to make a straightforward film about country music, and that he said yes only on the condition he could spice up the storyline, but I can’t help feeling like the movie would have been better served by someone with a deeper interest in the principal subject matter.
          Obviously, the fact that Nashville is one of the most acclaimed films of its era indicates that I hold a minority opinion, and it must be said that even the film’s greatest champions single out its idiosyncrasy as a virtue. Furthermore, there’s no question that the way that Altman takes his previous experiments with roaming cameras and thickly layered soundtracks into a new realm by presenting Nashville as a mosaic of loosely connected narratives represents a cinematic breakthrough of sorts. Taken solely as a filmic experiment, the picture is bold and memorable. But for me, Nashville simply doesn’t work as a viewing experience, and I have to believe that Altman wanted his film to captivate as well as fascinate.
          I have no problem with the fact that many of Altman’s principal characters are freaks whom he presents somewhat condescendingly, including disturbed country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely); egotistical Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson); heartless womanizer Tom Frank (Keith Carradine); irritating British journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin); pathetic would-be songstress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); and so on. Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury balance the extreme characters with rational ones, such as cynical singer/adulteress Mary (Cristina Raines); long-suffering senior Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn); and sensitive singer/mom Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). Furthermore, Nashville is mostly a story about showbiz, a milieu to which odd people gravitate and in which odd people thrive.
          I also freely acknowledge that Nashville has many vivid scenes: the humiliating sequence in which Sueleen is forced to strip before a room of cat-calling men whom she thought wanted to hear her sing; the incisive vignette of Carradine performing his Oscar-nominated song “I’m Easy” to an audience including several of his lovers, each of whom believes the tune is about her; and so on. Plus, the acting is almost across-the-board great, with nearly every performer thriving in Altman’s liberating, naturalistic workflow. And, of course, the sheer ambition of Nashville is impressive, because it features nearly 30 major roles and a complicated, patchwork storytelling style held together by recurring tropes like a political-campaign van that rolls through Nasvhille broadcasting straight-talk stump speeches.
          My issue with the movie has less to do with the execution, which is skillful, than the intention, which seems willful. It’s as if Altman dares viewers to follow him down the rabbit hole of meandering narrative, and then flips off those same viewers by confounding them with elements that don’t belong. The ending, in particular, has always struck me as contrived and unsatisfying. Anyway, I’m just a lone voice in the wilderness, and I’m happy to accept the possibility that Nashville is simply one of those interesting films I’m doomed never to appreciate. Because, believe me, watching it a third time in order to penetrate its mysteries is not on my agenda. (Readers, feel free to tell me why you dig Nasvhille, if indeed you do, since Id love to know what Im apparently missing.)

Nashville: FUNKY

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sheba, Baby (1975)

Produced at the tail end of the blaxploitation boom—and in the waning days of leading lady Pam Grier’s initial popularity—this lackluster action flick is quite a comedown after the funky heights of previous Grier joints including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Pam plays Sheba Shayne, a Chicago-based private investigator who returns to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, when she gets word that her dad is being hassled by local gangsters. Before long, Sheba’s dad falls victim to gun-toting thugs, so Sheba—with a little help from her pop’s business partner, Brick Williams (Austin Stoker)—unloads you-messed-with-the-wrong-mama vengeance on crime boss Pilot (D’Urville Martin) and his associates. Grier spends Sheba, Baby talking tough while looking great (her knockout figure is on ample display in costumes like the wetsuit she wears for the movie’s last half-hour), but Sheba, Baby is unmistakably second-rate. The dialogue is trite, the production values are mediocre, and the supporting performances are awful. Even the requisite funk/soul soundtrack, often a saving grace for shaky blaxploitation movies, is uninspired. Grier’s nomrally forceful acting falls victim to the general crappiness, because she often seems as if she’s delivering lines she’s just learned—it almost feels as if the movie comprises rehearsals instead of takes. Director/co-writer William Girdler was far more comfortable with in the horror genre, and after making this picture, he banged out a trio of demented creature features (from the campy 1976 gorefest Grizzly to the wigged-out 1978 supernatural flick The Manitou). For Sheba, Baby, he’s unable to conjure the needed vibe of frenetic violence and urban grime—the picture moves too slowly, the textures all feel phony—and it doesn’t help that Sheba, Baby is rated PG instead of R. Really, what’s the point of trafficking in a sleazy genre if not to present sleaze?

Sheba, Baby: LAME

Friday, December 28, 2012

Report to the Commissioner (1975)

          Back in my college days, when I lived in Manhattan, I was friendly with an NYPD homicide detective who was also a movie buff, and he hipped me to this little-seen drama, praising it as one of the most accurate depictions he’d ever seen about how ugly the gamesmanship within a police force can get. And, indeed, even though Report to the Commissioner is fictional—it’s based on a novel by James Mills—the picture radiates authenticity. Extensive location photography captures the dirty heat of summertime New York City; intense performances burst with streetwise attitude; and the vicious storyline is driven by cynicism, duplicity, and politics. Told in flashback following some sort of terrible clusterfuck of a shootout at Saks Fifth Avenue, the picture reveals how an ambitious undercover detective and a rookie investigator cross paths, with tragic results.
          Michael Moriarty, appearing near the beginning of his long career, stars as hapless Detective Bo Lockley, a newcomer to the NYPD investigative squad who gets paired with a seen-it-all partner, African-American Richard “Crunch” Blackstone (Yaphet Kott0). In a telling early sequence, Lockley watches Blackstone lean on black suspects, even going so far as to spew racial epithets, which clues Lockley into the level of moral compromise required of NYPD lifers. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Lockley, undercover narcotics cop Patty Butler (Susan Blakley), a pretty blonde WASP who uses her looks to undercut suspicions that she’s a police officer, gets a lead on a well-connected dealer named Thomas “Stick” Henderson (Tony King). Smelling an opportunity for a high-profile bust that will help his career, Butler’s commanding officer, Captain D’Angelo (Hector Elizondo), approves a dangerous plan for spying on Stick. Soon afterward, Lockley gets pulled into the situation—without being given crucial information—and things go to hell. The movie climaxes with a tense hostage situation inside Saks, during which high-ranking cops put more energy into covering their asses than saving innocent victims.
          This is dark stuff, making Report to the Commissioner a fine companion piece to Sidney Lumet’s various ’70s pictures about cops and criminals in New York City. And while Report to the Commissioner is far from perfect—the script meanders into subplots and some of the characters could have been consolidated for the purpose of clarity—the movie has myriad virtues. The atmosphere sizzles, with cinematographer Mario Tosi using haze filters and wide lenses to depict grungy exteriors and sweaty interiors. Director Milton Katselas, best known as an acting teacher, demonstrates a real gift for integrating actors into spaces and thereby creating verisimilitude. Best of all, though, are the film’s potent performances. Blakely’s sharp in a smallish role, King is physically and verbally impressive, and Moriarty’s weirdly twitchy energy is compelling. Furthermore, it’s hard to beat the roster of eclectic supporting players—beyond Elizondo and Kotto, the picture features Bob Balaban, William Devane, Dana Elcar, Richard Gere (in his first film role), and Vic Tayback. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Report to the Commissioner: RIGHT ON

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Murder by Death (1976)

          Because Murder by Death is a silly riff on vintage detective stories, it’s tempting to think the picture was intended to mimic Mel Brooks’ crowd-pleasing style of throwback spoofery, although it’s just as possible the film merely rode a mid-’70s boom in nostalgic crime films. Whatever the motivation for making the picture, the result is the same—Murder by Death is goofy but uninspired, a harmless romp that never quite achieves liftoff. Fans of detective stories will, of course, get more out of the picture than anyone else, because the film’s characters are gentle caricatures of famous literary sleuths. Casual viewers might simply enjoy the star power of the cast and the occasional glimpses of screenwriter Neil Simon’s signature wit. But, alas, this is a minor effort for everyone involved.
          The plot isn’t really worth describing, since it’s just a perfunctory contrivance, but the gist is that a mysterious millionaire named Lionel Twain (played by author/TV personality Truman Capote) invites a coterie of detectives to his estate and challenges them to investigate a murder that will take place during the detectives’ visit. Whoever solves the crime will get $1 million. The detectives include Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), based on Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man movies; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), based on Maltese Falcon hero Sam Spade; Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), based on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple character; Milo Perrier (James Coco), based on Christie’s Hercule Poiroit; and Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), based on Charlie Chan.
          Obviously, any film that attempts to put these diverse characters together isn’t striving for consistency or credibility—the Spade-esque character emanates from hard-boiled fiction, for instance, whereas the Thin Man types emerge from a bubbly light-comedy milieu. Rather, Simon and producer Ray Stark (abetted by undistinguished director Robert Moore) concentrate on stringing sight gags and verbal zingers together. Unfortunately, none of the humor is memorable, and the actors give such cartoonish performances that Murder by Death feels juvenile. Falk probably comes off the best, since his version of Sam Spade is fairly close to his Columbo role from TV, and Falk’s rat-a-tat interplay with his secretary, Tess (Eileen Brennan), has some energy. In sum, Murder by Death is exactly as clever and funny as its title, which is to say not very.

Murder by Death: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Night Moves (1975)

          Complementing outright throwbacks such as Chinatown (1974), several ’70s thrillers updated classic film-noir style with modern characters, settings, and themes. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves is among the best of these current-day noirs, featuring a small-time detective who has seen too much misery to muster any real hope for the human species. Nonetheless, like all the best noir heroes, he strives to do something good as a way of compensating for all the bad in the world, and thus ironically dooms not only himself but also the very people he’s trying to protect. Penn, whose erratic feature career peaked with a run of counterculture-themed pictures spanning from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to this film, was at his best orchestrating subtle interactions between complicated characters, and he does a terrific job in Night Moves of meshing bitter tonalities.
          A seething Gene Hackman stars as low-rent L.A. investigator Harry Moseby. An amiable idealist whose principles alienate him from the compromisers who surround him, Harry is married to Ellen (Susan Clark), who wants him to shutter his one-man agency and work for a big firm. Preferring to steer his own course, Harry focuses on his next case, which involves tracking down teen runaway Delly (Melanie Griffith), the daughter of a blowsy widow (Janet Ward) who, a lifetime ago, was a promiscuous Hollywood starlet. During downtime between investigative chores, Harry discovers that Ellen is cheating on him, so he’s only too happy to follow a lead on Delly’s whereabouts to Florida, a continent away from his troubled marriage. In the sweaty Florida Keys, Harry finds Delly living with her lecherous stepfather, Tom (John Crawford), and his sexy companion, Paula (Jennifer Warren). Also part of the mix is Quentin (James Woods), a squirrelly friend of Delly’s who works as a mechanic for film-industry stuntmen.
          Alan Sharp’s provocative script features murky plotting but crisp character work, so even when the story is hard to follow, moment-to-moment engagement between people is interesting. And since the film is driven by Harry’s zigzag journey from naïveté to despair and then to a misguided sort of optimism, each time he encounters some tricky new piece of information, his relationship with someone changes. Though Hackman was never one to play for cheap sympathy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Harry cast about for someone who deserves his trust, only to be disappointed again and again.
          Every performance in the movie exists in the shadow of Hackman’s great work, but all of the actors hit the right notes, with Griffith’s adolescent petulance resonating strongly. Composer Michael Small and cinematographer Bruce Surtees contribute tremendously to the film’s shadowy mood, and Penn achieves one of his finest cinematic moments with the picture’s desolate finale. Night Moves gets a bit pretentious at times, but when the movie is really flying, it becomes a potent meditation on the challenge of finding sold moral footing during a confusing period in the evolution of the American identity.

Night Moves: GROOVY

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

          Bold, majestic, and provocative, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera about the final days of Jesus Christ’s life first appeared on the marketplace as a 1970 concept album, the success of which led to stage productions in London and New York, and finally to this film. Offering a challenging psychological interpretation of Christ’s journey from man to messiah, the Rice/Webber narrative focuses largely on the relationship between Jesus, who is portrayed as a good man struggling with extraordinary obligations, and Judas, who wrestles with the question of whether his friend is divine or vainglorious. Furthermore, the Rice/Webber narrative delves into the complex politics of Christ’s time, with Jews and Romans battling for power in Jerusalem while trying to keep Christ and his apostles from upsetting the status quo. This is heavy stuff for a rock opera, but Rice (lyrics) and Webber (music) were up to the task, creating a muscular song cycle filled with distinctive melodies, emotional moments, and with-it phraseology—Scripture for the Woodstock generation.
          At its most powerful, the music in Superstar is transporting. Fitting the audacious nature of the source material, director Norman Jewison—whose immediately preceding film was another successful stage-to-screen adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof (1971)—uses a daring visual style for the movie version of Superstar. The film begins with the main cast arriving in a remote desert via bus, wearing modern-day clothing and unloading props including a giant crucifix; this contrivance gives Jewison license to mix artifice and realism throughout the movie, and it humanizes the performers as vessels for delivering their characters’ feelings, rather than pretenders to divinity.
          Once the story proper begins with Judas’ anguished number “Heaven on Their Minds,” sung with scalding intensity by Carl Anderson, the tone for the piece is set: Jewison films the number simply, juxtaposing Anderson’s dramatic posturing with the merciless contours of the film’s stark Middle Eastern locations. Rising to Anderson’s level, the whole cast performs Superstar with superhuman energy, resulting in kinetic dance numbers and searing vocal turns; from Yvonne Elliman’s lilting “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (Mary Magdalene) to Ted Neely’s wailing “Gethsemane” (Jesus), one sequence after another radiates passion. In fact, the singing gets a bit too enthusiastic sometimes, with Neely pushing himself so hard it sometimes seems like the veins in his neck are about to explode. Similarly, scenes including Anderson’s rendition of the signature Judas song “Blood Money” veer into melodrama.
          But with Jewison’s good taste providing just the right framework—simple sets, sly anachronisms—the best elements of the show dominate, and weaker ones are discreetly obscured. So, while true believers have spent decades arguing about whether Superstar is respectful or sacrilegious, the film’s entertainment value is beyond reproach, and the way the picture examines the charged sociopolitical time in which it was made through the prism of Christ’s life is remarkably imaginative.

Jesus Christ Superstar: GROOVY

Monday, December 24, 2012

Quadrophenia (1979)

          After the success of Tommy (1975), director Ken Russell’s flamboyant adaptation of the Who’s first “rock opera” LP, it was inevitable that someone would tackle the British band’s follow-up opus, Quadrophenia. And while Franc Roddam’s movie of Quadrophenia is more grounded and mature than Russell’s silly phantasmagoria, Roddam’s movie is just as unsatisfying as its predecessor. Set during the clashes that erupted in the ’60s between two factions of British youth culture—old-school “Rockers” in leather jackets and new-style “Mods” in natty suits—the picture is primarily a straight-ahead dramatic presentation, but it features a few fanciful scenes that feel like early music videos, and in one or two key moments, Who songs on the soundtrack directly correlate to what’s happening within the frame. So it’s not a musical, but then sometimes it is a musical—sort of.
          As if this indecisive approach wasn’t sufficiently distracting, the script (credited to three writers, though the real underlying author is Who tunesmith Pete Townshend) suffers from an overabundance of symbolic events and a shortage of narrative momentum. As does the LP on which the picture is based, the movie follows Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), an angry young Mod who resents his job, his parents, and any other entity that represents authority. Yet for all his seemingly iconoclastic rebellion, he’s a joiner in a big way, driving the same scooter and wearing the same garb as all of his Mod mates. After a series of disillusioning events—most of which are triggered by Jimmy’s obnoxious behavior—Jimmy becomes alienated from every aspect of society, not just authority figures.
          The last half-hour of the picture starts to finally feel as if it’s going somewhere, with potent Who numbers including “5:15” and “Love Reign O’er Me” accompanying shots of a drugged-out Jimmy leaving civilization behind to experience a vaguely defined epiphany on the White Cliffs of Dover. Had the picture concluded with more definitive imagery, the whole story might have felt more purposeful. Alas, Quadrophenia comprises little more than well-photographed narrative meandering. There’s some great stuff here and there, like re-creations of nightclub excitement and street-fight chaos, and the acting is generally good; beyond the intense Daniels and the appealing leading lady Leslie Ash, the picture features a young Ray Winstone, as Jimmy’s ill-fated Rocker pal, and future rock god Sting, in a small role as a charismatic Mod. But given the halfhearted blending of the drama and musical genres, the diffuse quality of the screenplay, and even the hard-to-penetrate working-class British accents, Quadrophenia is not an easy movie to love.

Quadrophenia: FUNKY

Sunday, December 23, 2012

99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)

          On paper, this action thriller about a hit man drawn into a web of underworld intrigue is completely pedestrian—the story features standard tropes like an antihero rescuing his innocent girlfriend from a fellow hit man in the employ of a mobster whom the antihero has alienated. However, simply describing the plot of 99 and 44/100% Dead doesn’t account for the batshit-crazy storytelling style that director John Frankenheimer uses from start to finish, or the surreal nature of the picture’s awkward attempts at black comedy. On some level, this movie aspires to blend elements of comic books, film noir, and satire into a singular approach—but since the elements clash with each other, and since the movie compounds this problem with dissonant flavors like amateurish supporting players and goofy music, the end result is an odyssey into inexplicable weirdness.
          Richard Harris, adorned with a strange Prince Valiant haircut and gigantic eyeglasses, plays Harry Crown, a hit man hired by gangster Uncle Frank Kelly (Edmund O’Brien) to settle a turf war in some unnamed American city. Uncle Frank wants Harry to rub out goons in the employ of Uncle Frank’s rival, Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). Meanwhile, Harry is trying to build a life with saintly schoolteacher Buffy (played by vapid model-turned-actress Ann Turkel, Harris’ real-life companion at the time). Also mixed into the storyline are Tony (David Hall), a junior-level crook whom Harry adopts as a sort of apprentice, and Baby (Kathy Baumann), Tony’s voluptuous young girlfriend.
          Frankenheimer treats the whole movie like a comic strip, so gangsters wear stylized outfits—think pinstriped suits and wide-brimmed hats—while Harry brandishes a pair of matching pistols with pearl handles. The setting is a city seemingly populated only by warring gangsters, so gunfights and murders take place in plain sight, and violent scenes are “ironically” scored with upbeat music and cheerful whistling. Everything in 99 and 44/100% Dead is overwrought in the clumsiest way, so the tone of the picture is captured by a scene in which Harry’s arch-enemy torments Baby.
          The villain of the piece is hit man Marvin “Claw” Zuckerman (Chuck Connors), who is missing a hand and therefore carries around a briefcase filled with bizarre prosthetic attachments. Arriving in town and demanding a sexual plaything, Marvin is furnished with Baby, who wears a barely-there yellow dress so sheer her nipples seem as if they’re trying to achieve liftoff. While Baby watches, Marvin affixes whips and other prosthetics to his stump, scowling and threatening Baby with cartoonish dialogue. And so it goes from there—take the standard elements of a crime film, jack them up on crank, and you’ve got this very strange moment in the career of one of action cinema’s greatest directors. 99 and 44/100% Dead isn’t Frankenheimer’s oddest film—that honor belongs to 1996’s insane The Island of Dr. Moreau—but it’s close.

99 and 44/100% Dead: FREAKY

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Last Valley (1970)

          Though he’s best remembered as the author of sweeping historical novels including 1975’s Shogun, James Clavell also enjoyed a significant career in film, co-writing The Great Escape (1963) and directing To Sir, with Love (1966), in addition to working on several other projects. Notwithstanding his subsequent screenwriting contributions to TV adaptations of his books, however, Clavell’s last film work was writing, producing, and directing the intense epic The Last Valley. Big on every level, from the scale of its visuals to the scope of its themes, the picture has many admirers among fans of historical dramas, partly because it dramatizes an obscure chapter in world events and partly because it treats its subject matter with intelligence and respect.
          Set in the early 17th century, the movie involves minor players in the Thirty Years War, a conflict revolving around religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants. Based on a novel by J.B. Pick, Clavell’s screenplay takes place in a secluded, sparsely populated German valley. When the story begins, a mysterious man named Vogel (Omar Sharif) flees through plague-infested Europe until stumbling onto the valley, which has escaped the ravages of illness and war. Unfortunately, a roving armada of mercenaries, led by a character known only as the Captain (Michael Caine), finds the valley at the same time.
          The Captain’s soldiers claim the valley as their private empire, demanding food and women in exchange for not slaughtering the locals. As the convoluted narrative unfolds, the Captain plays his subjects against each other to tighten his stranglehold, with Vogel emerging as the voice of compassion when a local aristocrat (Nigel Davenport) and a local priest (Per Oscarsson) rail against the Captain’s oppression—and the officer’s cavalier attitude toward religion. God is a major topic of discussion throughout the movie, which gets heavily philosophical during many long interludes of extended dialogue; although Clavell spices up the picture by with bloody vignettes at quasi-regular intervals, The Last Valley is primarily an intellectual exercise.
          Unfortunately, vague characterizations diminish the story’s potential impact. Vogel is a cipher, and the Captain so clearly represents Big Ideas that he never emerges as an individual. A clash in acting styles is problematic, as well: Caine tries to employ his usual virile naturalism, but he’s held back by the metaphorical quality of his role and by his shoddy German accent, while Sharif preens through a competent but superficial performance. Still, the pluses outweigh the minuses. Clavell presents many handsome 70mm vistas, and John Barry’s muscular score amplifies the story’s emotions. Furthermore, while The Last Valley sometimes seems like a dry history lesson, the film’s merciless final act underscores the insanity of shedding blood in God’s name.

The Last Valley: GROOVY

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blue Sunshine (1978)

          There’s a great story to be told about the lingering aftereffects of ’60s experiments with LSD, but Blue Sunshine is not that story. Instead, it’s a so-so horror picture in which an interesting concept gets bludgeoned by uninspired execution. The movie begins at a party, where several young adults listen to their friend Frannie (Richard Crystal) sing tunes and tell jokes. Then someone playfully yanks Frannie’s hair, revealing that he’s wearing a wig and that his scalp is bald except for a few patches of stringy hair. Frannie flees the party, only to return later in a crazed state and kill two women who are lingering at the location after the party has nearly ended. Discovered by Jerry (Zalman King), another late-to-leave party guest, Frannie runs from the party house to a nearby highway and gets run over by a truck. Through unfortunate circumstance, Jerry ends up under suspicion not only for the maniac’s death but also for the murders of the two women.
          Thus, in the mode of a conspiracy thriller, Jerry becomes a fugitive determined to explain why his friend went crazy—a quest that gains urgency when he realizes that others have experienced similar homicidal breakdowns. Eventually, with the covert help of his pal David (Robert Walden), a physician with knowledge of illegal drugs, Jerry realizes the psychotic episodes involve users of a form of LSD called “Blue Sunshine,” which was sold years ago by Edward (Mark Goddard), who is now a respectable citizen running for Congress. Predictably, Jerry has a hard time proving his wild theory that a fast-rising politician is responsible for the spread of a mind-altering substance that destroys its users.
          Although writer-director Jeff Lieberman’s filmmaking is relatively slick—his camerawork is calm and sensible, his storytelling lucid—he can’t really overcome confused intentions. On one level, the picture is a dark drama about the dangers of amateurs creating their own brands of LSD. But on every other level, Blue Sunshine is a tacky horror flick, complete with scenes of housewives freaking out and attacking their children with butcher knives. Plus, the acting runs the gamut from terrible to workmanlike—nobody in the cast of Blue Sunshine is particularly credible except for Walden, a fine character player known for All the President’s Men (1976) and the TV series Lou Grant (1977-1982). King, who later produced and/or directed myriad  ’80s and ’90s softcore movies, is an especially weak link, offering bug-eyed intensity instead of real acting. And while the murder scenes are undeniably creepy, they’re also a bit goofy, with each murderer suddenly revealing a bald scalp before shifting into pyschosis.

Blue Sunshine: FUNKY

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

          Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia represents director Sam Peckinpah’s worldview at its most unforgiving—instead of presenting violence alongside his usual themes of honor and masculine identity, Peckinpah uses this movie to present violence as its own unique force of nature, an insidious virus that destroys everyone it touches. Even the very texture of the film seethes with hatred and malice, because Peckinpah eschews the macho lyricism of his other work for a style as down-and-dirty as that of any low-budget exploitation film. Watching the picture, viewers can smell the sweat on every character’s skin, just like the rank odor of death permeates the grisly storyline.
          Set in Mexico, the movie begins with a crime lord (Emilio Fernandez) torturing his own daughter to find out who impregnated hear. Learning that the culprit is the crime lord’s protégé, Alfredo Garcia, the villain issues the horrific command featured in the movie’s title. Eager for the reward the crime lord is offering, two white mercenaries (played by Robert Webber and Gig Young) begin searching for Garcia, eventually landing in a seedy bar where retired U.S. Army vet Bennie (Warren Oates) works as a manager and piano player. Bennie learns about the bounty on Garcia and confronts his lady, Elita (Isela Vega), a prostitute who’s been two-timing Bennie by sleeping with the elusive Garcia. Elita says Garcia recently died in a car wreck. His craven lust for money and revenge surging, Bennie invites Elita for a road trip without explaining that he plans to exhume Garcia’s body, remove the head, and collect the crime lord’s bounty.
          This being a Peckinpah film, things get complicated and ugly once Bennie embarks on his mission—a miserable cycle of betrayal, murder, rape, and theft leads Bennie inexorably toward a bloody standoff with the crime lord, whom the twisted Bennie identifies as the source of his misery.
          Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckipah unleashed, a vicious story without heroes or victims, just schemers who pay horrible costs for crossing other schemers. Since Peckinpah was a self-destructive man who battled with nearly everyone in his life, from close friends to the many enemies he made, it’s impossible not to see the parallels between the subject matter of this relentless movie and Peckinpah’s bleak outlook on his own doomed life. And just as the filmmaker made a mess of his offscreen existence, he keeps Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia loose, constructing a storyline with co-writer Gordon Dawson that meanders from one low-down vignette to the next; the implied message is that no matter how bad life gets, it can always get worse.
          Delivering this message with perfect clarity is Peckinpah favorite Oates, giving the best performance of his singular career. Dishonest, fidgety, volatile and yet somehow weirdly human, Oates’ Bennie is an unforgettable figure—his slovenly pursuit of crazed “justice” dramatizes what happens when a man’s better angels get strangled by greed, jealously, and other petty impulses. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a chaotic movie marred by rampant misogyny, script irregularities, and technical imperfections—but in a strange way, these flaws amplify the movie’s vision of a world without moral order.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Brilliant Career (1979)

          “I can’t lose myself in somebody else’s life when I haven’t lived my own yet,” remarks spirited Aussie lass Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career, a sensitive exploration of feminist themes set in Australia circa the late 1800s. When we first meet her, Sybylla (Judy Davis) lives on a farm with her working-class parents, but she improbably envisions a “brilliant career” as a writer. Sybylla believes her situation has improved when her parents, unable to support her any longer, send her to live with a wealthy relative, Grandma Bossier (Aileen Britton), but Grandma is an imperious snob with little tolerance for Sybylla’s artistic aspirations. The two clash regularly because Grandma wants Sybylla to become a proper young lady, whereas Sybylla insists on speaking her mind, no matter whom she offends.
          Meanwhile, Sybylla meets Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a member of the upper class, and the two embark on a sort of romance—Harry expresses his admiration for Sybylla’s iconoclastic nature, but Sybylla articulates myriad reasons why she’s not ready to marry. One of her hang-ups is a belief that she’s ugly, which causes her to doubt the sincerity of Harry’s affections, and another is her narcissistic assumption that she’s too “clever” (her word) for the rest of the world to understand. Throughout My Brilliant Career, Sybylla makes reckless choices that feed her thirst for experience but complicate every other aspect of her life. For instance, after Sybylla lingers outside during a rainstorm and catches a cold, she gets a scolding from her grandmother: “Now you see the consequences of wild and extravagant behavior.” And yet wild and extravagant behavior is all the heroine craves, even if that means sacrificing traditional notions of happiness, i.e. marriage.
          Adapted from a popular 1901 novel by Miles Franklin and directed by Aussie filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (this was her first feature-length fictional project), My Brilliant Career is consistently insightful, restrained, and tasteful, so Sybylla’s stridency never carries over into the tone of the movie itself; rather, Armstrong observes the protagonist with admiring detachment. To its credit, the movie avoids reducing supporting characters to stereotypes, which would have put Sybylla on a pedestal, and as a result, Sybylla emerges as the most interesting kind of feminist icon—a complicated woman who sometimes works at cross-purposes with herself as she struggles to blaze a new path.
          Davis, in her first major film role, presents her character’s fierceness without playing for sympathy, and Neill, who already had several films to his credit by the time he made My Brilliant Career, comfortably essays the role of a forward-thinking man unwilling to make demands of a woman. Like so many costume dramas about subtle shifts in social structures, My Brilliant Career will be too dry and slow for many viewers, with lots of scenes of people in evening dress speaking politely to each other. Yet in terms of thematic content and the movie’s place in the history of female-directed cinema, My Brilliant Career is a work of minor but indisputable importance.

My Brilliant Career: GROOVY

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Phase IV (1974)

          While it may be hard to envision an art movie about super-intelligent ants wreaking havoc on human victims, Phase IV is just such a film—a creature feature that balances creepy-crawly horror moments with elegantly realized compositions and a weird sort of metaphysical wonderment. Sure, it’s easy to slag the film for being opaque on many levels, since the (human) characterizations are virtually nonexistent and the ending is a cerebral freakout in the 2001 tradition, but Phase IV is too ambitious and interesting to dismiss. Obviously, the most noteworthy thing about the picture is that it’s the sole directorial effort of Saul Bass, the celebrated graphic designer who created numerous posters and title sequences for filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger; accordingly, it’s fascinating to watch Phase IV for sequences in which powerfully minimalistic images such as rows of symmetrical objects evoke Bass’ aesthetic.
          Yet it’s unfair to simply categorize Phase IV as a visual exercise, because on some unknowable level, the movie is about something provocative—a meditation on the inevitability of man losing supremacy over the Earth, perhaps. Plus, the picture is quite exciting, speeding through an eventful story in just 84 minutes (the length of the most widely available version), and Bass’ attention to detail generates a handful of memorable scenes. The story is as bare-bones as one of Bass’ striking posters: Two scientists establish an outpost in a remote desert to study ants that have inexplicably joined forces to overrun local livestock. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) is an obsessed researcher fascinated by the insects’ emotionless collective endeavors, while his associate, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), is excited by the challenge of using mathematical analysis to translate the insects’ “language.” Setting up a fortress-like dome that’s hermetically sealed to avoid contact with ants, the scientists soon find themselves under siege, so they employ chemical toxins as a defense measure. Meanwhile, a young woman (Lynne Frederick) who defied an evacuation order for the surrounding area seeks refuge with the scientists.
          As the movie progresses, the ants grow more resourceful in their attacks on the scientists, Hubbs becomes more megalomaniacal, and Lesko grows determined to flee, taking the young woman with him. Phase IV is interesting from start to finish, if only to see what a truly clinical horror film looks like, and the best sequence is a triumph of visual storytelling—worker ants carry a crumb-sized sample of a deadly toxin back to their queen, even though each ant can carry the sample only a short distance before dying from exposure. Then, after the sample finally reaches the queen, she ingests the substance and produces a new, genetically engineered brood—it’s the whole cycle of evolution played out in a handful of minutes. Sure, one wishes Phase IV had a more concrete ending, but there’s a lot to be said for leaving viewers with tantalizing mysteries to ponder.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Starting Over (1979)

          James L. Brooks was at the apex of his spectacular run as a TV showrunner when he penned his first theatrical feature, Starting Over. Adapted from a novel by Dan Wakefield, the movie is shot through with the same funny/sad humanism Brooks brought to his award-winning TV shows—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, etc.—so even though Starting Over features a trio of brand-name actors and was helmed by A-lister Alan J. Pakula, the movie is primarily a showcase for Brooks’ sharp observations about human frailty. (Brooks and Pakula co-produced the picture.)
          Stepping way outside his comfort zone and scoring with a charming performance, Burt Reynolds plays Phil Potter, a magazine writer who is abruptly dumped by his wife, Jessica (Candice Bergen), a beautiful narcissist embarking on a new career as a singer-songwriter. Suddenly thrown back into the dating scene, Phil takes solace in the company of his amiable brother, Mickey (Charles Durning), a touchy-feely psychiatrist. Mickey introduces Phil to divorced schoolteacher Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh)—this happens during a funny scene involving mistaken identities and foul language—and they become a couple after a few false starts. However, their second-time-around romance is complicated when Jessica decides she wants Phil back.
          Sensitively examining the complexities of relationships during an era of shifting gender roles, Starting Over is smart and touching, with likeable people riding the amusing currents of confusing situations. Brooks’ dialogue is incisive, and his ability to shift the tone of a scene from ominous to promising and back again is spectacular; although Starting Over is one of Brooks’ lightest efforts, essentially just a romantic comedy made with exemplary skill, the movie is filled with insights and wit.
          It’s also filled with great acting. Reynolds ditches his usual macho swagger to play an everyman trying to find his way through life without hurting anyone—thereby ensuring he causes lots of inadvertent damage—while his female counterparts play to their respective strengths. Bergen revels in humiliating herself for the sake of a joke, especially when giving cringe-inducing performances of her character’s songs, and Clayburgh takes neuroticism to a Woody Allen-esque extreme. The women also create distinctly different personas, so it’s easy to see why Phil’s torn. Durning makes a great foil for Reynolds, and supporting players Frances Sternhagen, Mary Kay Place, and Austin Pendelton enliven minor roles.

Starting Over: GROOVY

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness (1971)

          The Pursuit of Happiness is yet another middling drama about angst-ridden ’70s youth culture that ends up feeling less like a sensitive tribute to a thoughtful generation and more like a condescending satire of mixed-up kids. Gangly Michael Sarrazin plays William Popper, a New York City college student from a privileged family. He lives with hippie activist Jane Kauffman (Barbara Hershey), and he uncomfortably straddles her world of ideals and his family’s world of Establishment values. Driving in the rain one night, William accidentally hits and kills an old woman who steps into traffic. He’s arrested. William’s sensitive father, artist John Popper (Arthur Hill), arrives on the scene to help William through his legal troubles, but the family’s stern lawyer, Daniel Lawrence (E.G. Marshall), drips contempt for William’s screw-the-man attitude.
          Ignoring Daniel’s advice to keep his mouth shut, William makes a scene during his first hearing—he gives a naïve speech about how the legal system isn’t interested in empirical truth—and gets thrown into prison. All of this confirms William’s impression that society is broken; as William whines at one point, “There’s a nervous breakdown happening in this country, and I don’t want to be part of it if I don’t have to.” Also thrown into the mix is William’s loving but racist grandmother (Ruth White), the personification of small-minded Old Money.
          Based on a book by Thomas Rogers and directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), this picture means well but undercuts itself. William isn’t truly an idealist; rather, he’s a slacker uninterested in committing to anything. Thus, when William breaks out of prison and tries to flee the country, his actions don’t seem charged with us-vs.-them significance. Sure, the filmmakers communicate the central idea that William resents the game he’s being asked to play (feign adherence to Establishment values, and you can get away with anything), but William is so passive that he’s the least interesting person who could have taken this journey. Sarrazin’s perfunctory performance exacerbates matters, as does the blunt screenplay. The movie also leaves several promising storylines unexplored, so characters including a crusty detective (Ralph Waite), an imprisoned politician (David Doyle), and a mysterious pilot (William Devane) pass through the story too quickly. Each of them, alas, is more interesting than the protagonist.

The Pursuit of Happiness: FUNKY