Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blacula (1972) & Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)

          For a few funky years in the early ’70s, the blaxploitation genre was so popular that it produced subgenres including a string of campy horror movies whose titles were urbanized puns on the names of classic monsters. The first and best of these flicks is Blacula. Starring Shakespearean-trained actor William Marshall, whose elegant bearing and resonant voice class up the inherently trashy surroundings, Blacula transposes tropes from Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula into a modern African-American milieu. The story begins in Transylvania circa the 1700s, when Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) greets two visitors from Africa, Prince Mamawulde (Marshall) and his beautiful wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). They seek the counts assistance in abolishing slavery. Bad host that he is, Dracula responds by taking a chomp out of Mamawulde’s neck and burying the prince, cursing him to eternal half-life beneath the earth. Two hundred years later, screaming-queen antique dealers buy the contents of Castle Draculaincluding Mamawulde’s coffin—and take the goods to Los Angeles, leading to the release of the long-buried Mamawulde. Black-on-black bloodsucking ensues as the vampire meets and woos Tina (also played by McGee), whom he believes is the reincarnated Luva.
          Capably directed by William Crain, Blacula moves along at a good clip and stays focused on the tragic storyline, while still delivering such blaxploitation signifiers as pimptastic clothes, streetwise trash talk, and wah-wah guitars on the soundtrack. The picture also boasts one or two genuine jolts, and the gloomy finale has a hint of an emotional punch. This isn’t sophisticated stuff by any measure, but Blacula is moderately better than one might expect—and, hey, the fact that Mamawulde sprouts bitchin’ sideburns every time his blood gets boiling adds an extra blast of campy ’70s flava.
          In addition to triggering inferior ripoffs  (please avoid Blackenstein at all costs), Blacula inspired a quickie sequel with less  kitschy charm than the original, even though Marshall reprises his role. (Bob Kelijan, director of the underwhelming Count Yorga pictures, puts Marshall through his paces.) Bearing the fabulously lurid title Scream, Blacula, Scream, the foll0w-up suffers from a drab script and a dull second act. The story begins when a dying voodoo queen bequeaths her power to her apprentice, Lisa (Pam Grier), instead of her closest relative, the craven Willis (Richard Lawson). Eager for payback, Willis uses voodoo to summon Mamawulde, who promptly turns Willis into a vampire slave. (That’s what you get for thinking you can control a vampire,) Mamawulde meets and becomes smitten with Lisa—understandable, given Grier’s casting—and he asks her to cure his vampirism with that voodoo that she do-do. Unfortunately, it takes forever to get that far into the narrative, and the whole movie is so enervated that even Grier’s formidable charisma is stifled. Except for some tribal-drum-led tension during the movie’s climax, Scream, Blacula, Scream fails to get anyone’s blood pumping, which might explain why Blacula never returned for a third adventure.

Blacula: GROOVY
Scream, Blacula, Scream: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Marjoe (1972)

          An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Marjoe offers a mesmerizing glimpse behind the curtain of big-time American evangelism, and the backstory of the movie is fascinating. In the late ’40s, a child named Marjoe Gortner became known as “the world’s youngest evangelist,” receiving ordination and performing weddings when he was still four years old. (Marjoe features incredible archival footage of the towheaded young Gortner performing feverish sermons.) The son of a Californian preacher, Gortner ended up becoming his family’s primary breadwinner until his teenage years. Convinced his parents had siphoned the money he snookered from gullible audiences at revival meetings, Gortner set off on his own until his mid-20s, when he returned to the revival circuit expressly for the purpose of making cash.
          This film documents Gortner’s final revival tour, because by the time he was asked to participate in the movie, Gortner had decided to quit hustling rubes and become an actor. Thus, Marjoe is equal parts confessional, exposé, and reportage. About half the screen time comprises exciting scenes of Gortner working rural audiences with his frenetic stage presence, and the rest features Gortner in hotel rooms and other locations revealing the methodology of those who prey upon the Pentecostal circuit. The level of cynicism in these private scenes is staggering. “If I hadn’t gotten into evangelism heavily, I probably would’ve been a rock singer, because I enjoy working a microphone,” Gortner remarks, explaining that he copies moves from Mick Jagger. ”I enjoy getting it off onstage, but I really wish I was getting it off as a rock star or an actor, which is something I have to get into.” At one point, the filmmakers show Gortner and his business associates giggling while they count donations backstage after a rally, literally giddy from the high of ripping off susceptible patrons.
          In one of the film’s most striking devices, Gortner describes gimmicks that work onstage, like laying on hands and speaking in tongues, and the picture cuts to Gortner demonstrating those maneuvers; it’s bracing to see big-time religion reduced to showbiz slickness. Somehow, the movie elicits a certain amount of sympathy for Gortner, who was pushed into evangelism before he was old enough to choose his own way, even though his motivation for reentering the Pentecostal world as a grown-up was morally bankrupt. “I am a hype,” he says, “but I don’t feel that I’m a bad hype.” True to his word, Gortner quit the ministry after the tour featured in Marjoe, embarking on an unsuccessful singing career before transitioning to acting with appearances in the disaster movie Earthquake (1974) and assorted B-movies and telefilms.

Marjoe: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Last Tycoon (1976)

          Despite an impressive literary pedigree, the participation of a legendary director, and the presence of a high-wattage cast, The Last Tycoon is a lead balloon of a movie, so overcome with its own importance that barely any traces of life show through the artificially imposed veneer of highbrow seriousness. Were it not for the inherently lurid storyline, and the ease with which the varied film professionals involved in the piece skewer their own industry, the picture would be a chore to watch. As is, The Last Tycoon is bearable though not particularly enjoyable.
          Based on an unfinished novel by Jazz Age scribe F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was completed by editors for posthumous publication, The Last Tycoon is a veiled biography of Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg, the brilliant but physically frail MGM executive of the 1930s. In Fitzgerald’s narrative, Thalberg becomes the fictional Monroe Stahr (played in the movie by Robert De Niro), a ’30s studio executive struggling to keep various projects on track despite egomaniacal stars, labor unrest among screenwriters, and romantic entanglements.
          Director Elia Kazan surrounds De Niro with a constellation of stars, so the cast includes Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Nicholson, Donald Pleasence, and Peter Strauss. In fleeting moments, the script (by esteemed British playwright/screenwriter Harold Pinter) gives these actors material worthy of their skills, as in the tense scenes between Stahr and a crass union organizer (Nicholson). Sequences pulling back the curtain of the Golden Age filmmaking process have some zing as well, since it’s fun to watch Stahr screen rushes of in-progress films and bark out instructions for improving lackluster footage.
          Alas, Stahr’s professional life is only partially the focus of the movie, since Kazan devotes inordinate amounts of screen time to stultifying romantic scenes. It doesn’t help that De Niro gives a weirdly lifeless performance. One suspects De Niro wanted to work a different groove after several years of playing volatile characters, but he’s restrained to the point of catatonia throughout much of The Last Tycoon; combined with Kazan’s chaste camera style and Pinter’s characteristically terse dialogue, De Niro’s non-acting becomes deadly dull. Plus, there’s the basic problem of the source material never having been properly completed. Although the movie’s narrative runs a full course, it’s anybody’s guess whether this was the actual story Fitzgerald would have told if he finished his novel.

The Last Tycoon: FUNKY

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

          Go figure that a movie about a military operation that was thwarted by excessive ambition would itself be thwarted by excessive ambition. Based on the doomed World War II campaign code-named Operation Market Garden, which was staged in late 1944 by Allied forces eager to maximize the gains of D-Day by ending the European component of the war with a push across Holland into Germany, A Bridge Too Far features one of the most impressive all-star casts of the ’70s, in addition to spectacular production values and a few powerful depictions of heroism and tragedy. Furthermore, the movie deserves ample praise for bucking war-movie convention by dramatizing a campaign that didn’t work. And, indeed, the theme evoked by the poetic title—sometimes, just one X factor stands between glory and ignominy—comes across in several key performances. Yet occasional glimpses of effective storytelling do not equal a completely satisfying movie, and A Bridge Too Far fails on many important levels when analyzed in its entirety.
          The movie is hard to follow, because it tracks too many characters in too many locations, and because, quite frankly, director Richard Attenborough fails to give greater dramatic weight to crucial moments. Everything in A Bridge Too Far is presented with almost exactly the same measure of gravitas, so Attenborough squanders interesting potentialities found throughout the movie’s script, which was penned by two-time Oscar winner William Goldman. Clearly, Attenborough and Goldman were both stymied, to a degree, by the sheer scale of the undertaking; producer Joseph E. Levine made it plain he wanted this movie to equal the 1962 epic The Longest Day, another all-star war picture based on a book by Cornelius Ryan.
          Yet while The Longest Day had the advantages of a triumphant subject (D-Day) and a receptive audience (moviegoers still embraced pro-military themes in the early ’60s), A Bridge Too Far is a far different creature—a story of battlefield hubris made at a time when America was still reeling from the traumas of the Vietnam War. So, even if the movie possessed a clearer narrative, chances are it still would’ve been the wrong movie at the wrong time.
          Having said all that, A Bridge Too Far has many noteworthy elements. The subject matter is fascinating, since Ryan’s book itemized the innumerable strategic errors made by the Allies in planning Operation Market Garden—beyond problems of scale, since the campaign involved things like an air drop of 35,000 paratroopers, the plan was so contingent upon component elements that if any one piece of the plan failed, the whole campaign would collapse. Therefore, the movie is a study of men who represent the margin of error that Operation Market Garden cannot afford—whether they’re Americans, Brits, or Poles, the soldiers in this movie try to achieve the impossible even when it’s plainly evident success is beyond their grasp.
          The most vivid moments involve Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins as British officers trying to hold the Dutch town of Arnhem for days on end despite a crippling lack of reinforcements and supplies. Robert Redford dominates a key sequence in the third and final hour of the movie, playing an American officer who leads a seemingly suicidal charge across a heavily fortified river in broad daylight. Maximilian Schell makes an elegant impression as a German commander capable of mercy and ruthlessness, while Dirk Bogarde is appropriately infuriating as Schell’s opposite number on the Allied side, a British general who refuses to acknowledge the possibility of failure.
          Unfortunately, many promising characterizations are merely sketches: Actors Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould, Gene Hackman, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, and Liv Ullmann each have colorful moments, but all are badly underutilized. And as for James Caan, his entire showy sequence could have been deleted without affecting the story, since his subplot feels like a leftover from a World War II movie actually made during World War II. Ironically, though, his are among the film’s most memorable scenes.

A Bridge Too Far: FUNKY

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

“I never did manage to see Invasion of the Bee Girls,” the film’s screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, notes in his autobiography, The View from the Bridge. “Maybe one day. People who see it on my résumé keep telling me it is a camp classic, but I never know what this means or if it’s a good thing.” Rest assured, Mr. Meyer, it’s not a good thing. According to Meyer’s account, producers hired him to flesh out their basic notion of a horror movie in which women prey on men. He provided a fanciful story about an experiment that gives women insect-like appetites; these women then suck life energy from male victims during sex. While it’s rather difficult to imagine a worthwhile movie emanating from that storyline, Meyer’s subsequent sci-fi credits (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Time After Time, and so on) justify giving him the benefit of the doubt. In any event, Meyer describes being aghast when he was shown a rewritten version of his original screenplay, and if the finished film is any indication, his reaction made sense. Invasion of the Bee Girls is a cheap-looking, lurid, silly thriller with barely any trace of character development or narrative momentum. In place of these qualities, the movie has naked chicks screwing men to death, to the accompaniment of the kind of funked-out music one might hear in a low-rent strip club. Wandering through this sensationalistic sludge is reliable B-movie actor William Smith, who plays a detective investigating mysterious murders until he’s captured by Dr. Susan Harris (Anitra Ford), the psycho who transformed a bevy of babes into a coven of killers. Invasion of the Bee Girls offers a few kitschy distractions for fans of grimy drive-in cinema, including an endless array of breasts and some bizarre sci-fi imagery once the film decamps to Harris’ trippy lair, but unless that sounds like enough to keep you interested, take Meyer’s lead and avoid this bargain-basement clunker.

Invasion of the Bee Girls: LAME

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Woodstock (1970)

          Even though it’s a documentary about the quintessential ’60s event, Woodstock is among the essential movies of the ’70s. As endless historians have noted, the movie captures a moment that had already slipped into history by the time the film was released, since the slaying at a notorious Rolling Stones concert in Altamont effectively snuffed the peace-and-love dream exemplified by ’60s music festivals. The poignant experience of beholding a utopian vision that was destined to remain unrealized lends bittersweet gravitas to Woodstock. However, the movie would have been remarkable under any circumstances. Given tremendous access to the preparation and execution of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, filmmaker Michael Wadleigh and his crew captured the gradual birth of the so-called “Woodstock Nation.”
          Sprawling over three hours and, thanks to tricky split-screen editing, sometimes sprawling across three different frames, the movie follows an approach that’s simultaneously phantasmagoric and straightforward. Simple scenes, like lyrical vignettes of hippies bathing in ponds, are presented as unvarnished reportage, while the most incendiary music performances, like the Who’s speaker-blasting set, get the full visual-assault treatment. Wadleigh displays remarkable sensitivity toward the material, treating each sequence in just the right way, so viewers can savor the illusion of being at the festival. Plus, by condensing three days into three hours, the movie becomes much more than just a filmed concert—it’s a freewheeling dissertation on the way a generation hoped to change the world for the better. For instance, when promoters finally acknowledge the obvious by starting, “It’s a free concert from now on,” the film cuts to kids pushing down chain-link fences and storming the grassy hills of the festival area. Seeing this moment is like watching flower children topple the divisive us-and-them structures of the Establishment.
          Great personalities populate the movie, from mellow, vest-loving promoter Michael Lang to toothless hippie hero Wavy Gravy, and the unforgettable musical moments are countless. A “scared shitless” Crosby, Stills and Nash playing their first-ever concert. Jimi Hendrix serenading an early-morning crowd with his wailing take on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Bands like Canned Heat, Santana, and Ten Years After jamming as if their survival depends on finding the right groove. It’s all amazing, and it’s all right there, captured by Wadleigh’s team and assembled by an editing crew that included a young Martin Scorsese. Few documentaries have captured significant historical events as completely and with such an appropriate aesthetic approach. Therefore, as if being the most important rock movie ever made wasn’t enough, Woodstock is also, arguably, the definitive look at ’60s counterculture, in all of its gloriously grubby excess.

Woodstock: OUTTA SIGHT

Friday, May 25, 2012

Catch-22 (1970)

          Director Mike Nichols once described the “green awning effect” of becoming a successful auteur. By notching two huge successes in the late ’60s, Nichols convinced Hollywood he knew how to connect with audiences. To test his newfound power, Nichols pitched a movie about a green awning outside a building—the movie would simply show the awning so viewers could watch different people pass underneath. According to Nichols, some executives actually expressed interest in this awful idea because they were so hungry to be in the Mike Nichols business.
          The “green awning effect” helps explain why Paramount Pictures gave Nichols a then-massive $17 million budget to adapt Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. A dreamlike satire of military bureaucracy and the inherent madness of war, the book features a disjointed timeline and a large cast of characters, so Catch-22 is the quintessential “unfilmable” novel. Nonetheless, Nichols and his Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry took a crack at the material, imposing a linear narrative by focusing on the many attempts of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) to escape his duty as a World War II bomber pilot stationed on an island in the Mediterranean.
          Specifically, the movie’s storyline explores Yossarian’s frustration with the length of his military tour and the “catch-22” rule that prohibits him from quitting. A “catch-22” is a guideline whose pretzel logic makes resolution impossible, so Yossarian can’t claim that bombing runs are driving him mad, because the Army declares that anyone capable of recognizing his own insanity must be sane and therefore suitable for combat.
          Unfortunately, the movie itself gets caught in a catch-22: Since the lack of a conventional structure is what makes Heller’s novel work, any attempt to align the book’s events into a straight-ahead progression inherently reduces the novel’s power. Worse, the movie of Catch-22 is a discombobulated mess from a tonal perspective, careering recklessly between absurdist jokes and somber tragedy. Yet Nichols’ massive ambition is not resigned to storytelling, because he also strives to outdo Orson Welles in terms of outlandishly complex tracking shots. Some of Nichols’ images are startling, like unbroken takes in which actors are synchronized with explosions and plane movements, but they make Nichols seem like a cocky show-off. For a director whose incisive focus on character is considered a key virtue, succumbing to auteur hubris is especially embarrassing.
          It doesn’t help that the “comedy” Henry and Nichols put onscreen is more strange than funny; in a typical scene, a military functionary laments that a particular soldier has been killed because it says so on a clipboard, even though the soldier is standing right next to him and repeatedly announcing that he’s alive. Given that Catch-22 came out the same year as the incendiary military satire M*A*S*H, this sort of Brechtian contrivance feels outdated.
          Despite such massive problems, Catch-22 is never boring. The widescreen cinematography by David Watkin is beautiful, with abstract images like a horrific death scene immediately burning themselves into viewers’ brains. (Believe me, if you see the movie, you’ll know which scene.) Furthermore, the cast is impressive, even though actors drift in and out of the movie so randomly that they can’t deliver full-blooded performances.
          Among the most prominent actors, Martin Balsam plays a hard-driving commander, Bob Newhart plays a nervous subordinate, Anthony Perkins plays a compassionate chaplain, and Jon Voight plays a wheeling-and-dealing first lieutenant. Others in the sprawling ensemble include Richard Benjamin, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Paula Prentiss, and Martin Sheen. Screenwriter Henry pulls double-duty by playing a supporting role, and the director in whose shadow Nichols walks, Orson Welles, shows up for a few scenes as a blustery general.
          Catch-22 is a fascinating case study in what happens when a director is given carte blanche, but despite consistently glorious production values and momentary flashes of brilliance, the movie can best be described as a beautiful disaster.

Catch-22: FREAKY

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

          There’s a bit of wish-fulfillment inherent to Kramer vs. Kramer, which depicts a modern man rising to the occasion when an unexpected divorce suddenly transforms him into a single parent, since statistics don’t paint the prettiest picture of men caught in that situation. Yet even if the film tweaks reality by portraying star Dustin Hoffman’s character as a man of superlative integrity, Kramer vs. Kramer features many emotional truths. The movie succinctly expresses the ennui of an era when divorce rates spiked to unprecedented levels, in part because married women inspired by the feminist movement began exploring social roles beyond that of homemaker. No other ’70s picture did a better job of exploring the ambiguous moral issues faced by adults struggling to balance familial responsibilities with self-realization.
        Hoffman stars as Ted Kramer, a fast-rising New York City ad man whose life is thrown off-kilter when his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), announces that she’s ending their marriage. Caught in the middle is the Kramers’ young son, Billy (Justin Henry). As the story progresses, Ted must leave his careerist/narcissist shell in order to handle caretaking tasks for which Joanna was previously responsible, and it’s to Hoffman’s great credit that he lets himself be completely unattractive during early scenes; rather than immediately realizing he took his wife for granted, Ted explodes with rage. In the signature moment, Ted burns his hand on a frying pan and throws the pan to the ground, but instead of yelling “Damn it!” he yells “Damn her!”
          Hoffman delivers a compelling performance filled with contradictory emotional colors, effectively sketching the outline of a complete human being. And despite appearing in far fewer scenes, Streep matches him on every level. (Her character returns with a vengeance when Joanna sues Ted for custody of their son.) Streep’s mixture of fragility and strength as a woman trying to align her maternal and spiritual needs is formidable, demonstrating how the intricate emotional life of women is something that men like Ted cannot ever fully comprehend. Adding to the indelible impression Streep makes here, the actress is also at her most radiantly beautiful.
          Writer-director Robert Benton, who adapted this movie from a novel by Avery Corman, was never this sharp elsewhere, even though he was involved with several fine pictures before and after Kramer vs. Kramer. Working with famed cinematographer Nestor Almendros, Benton built an intimate cushion around his actors and photographed the movie with gentle warmth; the sum effect of these directorial choices is that the characters never lose primacy and the story never loses focus. Even when minor characters played by skilled actors including Jane Alexander, George Coe, and a young JoBeth Williams drift through the story, Benton’s attention never departs the core theme of a man, a woman, and a child riding the currents of confusing social change.
          While the picture has its detractors, some of whom rightly questioned the plot’s use of Joanna as a villain, Kramer vs. Kramer received countless accolades, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffman), and Best Supporting Actress (Streep). It also holds up beautifully today, a heartfelt story made with immaculate craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera.

Kramer vs. Kramer: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

China 9, Liberty 37 (1978)

          Even though the movie as a whole is deeply problematic, there are things to like in China 9, Liberty 37, the last feature cult-fave director Monte Hellman made before entering the wilderness years of his peculiar career. A soft-spoken cowboy drama, the picture is nominally a spaghetti Western because it was shot in Europe, co-produced and co-written by Italians, and stars an Italian hunk whose dialogue is dubbed (badly) into English. Yet the film’s key supporting actors are native English speakers, and Hellman’s sensitivity to American idioms lends a degree of credibility. So, while China 9, Liberty 37 has many of the usual storytelling hiccups that bedevil spaghetti Westerns, it’s possible to see the framework of a better movie beneath the dodgy façade. The story begins when an outlaw named Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is offered a choice: He can die by hanging or agree to kill a miner named Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates), whose refusal to sell his land is causing headaches for a railroad company. Clayton consents to murder Matthew, but upon arriving at the miner’s homestead, Clayton finds Matthew to be so welcoming that pulling the trigger becomes difficult. Furthermore, Clayton falls for Matthew’s sexy young wife, Catherine (Jenny Agutter).
          There’s nothing particularly fresh in this plot, the characters aren’t especially well-developed, and the dialogue can tend toward triteness. Furthermore, Hellman’s images are rather drab, even though the great Italian cinematographer Giusseppe Rotunno brightens the director’s uninspired frames with warm lighting. Therefore, what makes the picture work, at least to the modest degree that it does, is the humanity of Hellman’s storytelling and the textured quality of Oates’ performance. While not completely eschewing his signature gruffness, Oates gets to paint with softer colors than usual, so it’s poignant to see his character realize he’s a target. As for his costars, Agutter is alluring and tough while Testi is an impressive physical specimen but nothing more. Yet even when hindered by choppy writing and iffy acting, Hellman keeps the focus on simple human dynamics. Thus, China 9, Liberty 37 ends up having several worthwhile elements, even if they’re probably outnumbered by the film’s myriad weaknesses.

China 9, Liberty 37: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Last American Hero (1973)

          Based on a nonfiction story by Tom Wolfe, which was in turn based on the career of real-life NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, The Last American Hero is a solid character piece elevated by the documentary-style realism of its racing sequences and by uniformly good acting. The screenplay, by William Roberts, is a bit on the thin side, relying on broad characterizations and a hackneyed structure, but the aforementioned strengths help smooth over shortcomings in the writing.
          Jeff Bridges stars as Junior Jackson, the movie’s fictionalized version of Johnson. He’s a willful young man living in the Deep South, working in the family business of running moonshine. Junior’s skill behind the wheel comes in handy for evading cops, but because local police know all about the Jackson’s operation, Junior’s father, Elroy (Art Lund), is in and out of jail on a regular basis. When the legal bill related to one of Elroy’s arrests exceeds what the family can afford, Junior steps up deliveries but also joins demolition-derby races organized by an unscrupulous promoter (Ned Beatty).
          Soon, Junior graduates to the big time of the NASCAR circuit, where he competes with a super-confident champion (William Smith) and courts a racetrack groupie (Valerie Perrine). The story gains dimension once Junior starts running with a big-city crowd, because his aspirations to independence and integrity wither upon exposure to pressures like the need for sponsorship. In particular, Junior gets into an ongoing hassle with Burton Colt (Ed Lauter), a hard-driving entrepreneur who sets usurious terms and expects humiliating deference. All of this interesting material serves the concept encapsulated by the Jim Croce-sung theme song, “I Got a Name,” because the thrust of the story is Junior’s search for identity.
          Bridges is great, as always, winningly essaying Junior’s transition from naïveté to worldliness, and the supporting actors fit their roles perfectly. Lund and Geraldine Fitzgerald provide earthy gravitas as Junior’s parents, while a young Gary Busey adds an impetuous counterpoint as Junior’s brother. Perrine, all blowsy exuberance, captures the damaging caprice of a woman caught in fame’s tail winds, and Smith is understated as a man who realizes his moment in the spotlight is slipping away. Lauter rounds out the principal cast with his petty villainy, providing a formidable obstacle for the hero to overcome.
          Much of the credit for this ensemble’s work must go to director Lamont Johnson, whose handling of the movie’s visuals is as strong as his guidance of the actors. Though usually an unassertive journeyman, Johnson surpasses expectations by elevating Roberts’ humdrum script into something memorably humane.

The Last American Hero: GROOVY

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Black Stallion (1979)

          Quite possibly the most beautiful-looking family film ever made, The Black Stallion is the jaw-dropping directorial debut of Carroll Ballard, a onetime UCLA classmate of Francis Ford Coppola and a longtime member of the Godfather auteur’s Bay Area filmmaking collective. (Coppola executive-produced this movie.) Ballard, who cut his teeth as a second unit cinematographer for projects including the first Star Wars movie, reveals considerable directorial skill in The Black Stallion, as well as a preternatural gift for creating evocative visuals. In fact, Ballard’s images, captured by the extraordinary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, are so powerful they compensate for the film’s trite narrative.
          Adapted from Walter Farley’s beloved 1941 novel, which launched a twenty-book series that was published over the course of four decades, The Black Stallion depicts the adventures of a World War II-era American youth named Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno). Traveling the Middle East via ocean liner with his father (Hoyt Axton), Alec discovers that a gorgeous black stallion is stabled aboard the ship for transportation. He bonds with the horse by feeding it sugar cubes.
          When the ship is attacked and sunk, killing passengers including Alec’s father, Alec drifts to shore on a deserted island, the black stallion his only fellow survivor. Alec rescues the horse by freeing it from bonds that have tethered it to the ground, and the horse returns the favor by rescuing Alec from a cobra. The two form a wordless friendship, with Alec riding the magnificent animal across the island’s idyllic beaches. This first half of the movie, which has barely any dialogue, is miraculous. Not only do the film’s trainers move the horse through so many complicated maneuvers that the illusion of an intentional performance is created, but Ballard’s shooting style mimics documentary-style spontaneity. Using natural light for halos and silhouettes, Ballard conveys infectious wonderment at the beauty of the natural world.
          Predictably, the movie loses some of its luster in the second half, after Alec and the horse are rescued and returned to the everyday world. Scenes of Alec trying to readjust to normal life with his mother (Teri Garr) are poignant, but Alec’s dynamic with retired jockey Henry (Mickey Rooney) is pat: Henry agrees to stable the black stallion on his farm, recognizes the horse’s incredible racing potential, and trains Alec to become a jockey. Although Reno is consistently appealing and Rooney is uncharacteristically restrained, Ballard fails to make Alec’s quest for racetrack glory as compelling as the island sequence. Nonetheless, the racing scenes have flair, and they probably offer relief to viewers who find earlier scenes too self-consciously artistic. Yet even when the story is at its weakest, the pictorial splendor of this movie never fails to inspire awe.
          An almost completely different creative team generated a sequel, The Black Stallion Returns (1983), with only Garr and young leading man Reno returning from the principal cast of the previous film, but The Black Stallion Returns failed to recapture magic.

The Black Stallion: GROOVY

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Death at Love House (1976)

Although it suffers from the rudimentary execution that doomed most ’70s TV movies to oblivion after their initial broadcasts, Death at Love House has such a kicky story that some enterprising soul could probably put together a worthwhile remake. Plus, the movie stars a pair of comfortingly familiar actors. Kate Jackson and Robert Wagner, respectively of Charlie’s Angels and Hart to Hart fame, play authors who take up occupancy in a gloomy Hollywood mansion while researching a book about long-dead ’30s actress Lorna Love, the mansion’s onetime owner. Joel (Wagner) is the son of Lorna’s lover, so when paranormal events suggest that Lorna’s spirit is roaming the grounds of the mansion, Joel begins to wonder if he’s being courted by a ghost. As happens in this sort of story, Joel starts to reciprocate the attraction by becoming obsessed with a giant portrait of Lorna. He also fantasizes about her in dream sequences featuring beautiful ’60s/’70s starlet Marianna Hill as the glamorous Lorna. This is all enjoyably undemanding stuff, right down to the obligatory subplot involving a creepy old caretaker (Sylvia Sidney) who serves the otherworldly whims of her dearly departed mistress. The idea of blending old-Hollywood glamour with the ’70s supernatural fad was novel, whether the credit goes to writer James Barnett or producer Hal Sitowitz, but a limp screenplay and perfunctory acting prevent the piece from realizing its potential. So, even though Jackson summons a smidgen more gravitas than the ever-wooden Wagner (and even though Hill is so sexy it’s easy to believe she can beguile from beyond the grave), it’s only a matter of time before Death at Love House tumbles into bad-movie chaos during the conclusion. Still, there are worse ways to spend 74 minutes (though not many) and the basic concept is memorable.

Death at Love House: FUNKY

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Legend of Bigfoot (1976)

          A certain shambling man-beast with oversized lower extremities was so prevalent in ’70s pop culture that he permeated not only fiction and nonfiction films, but also sensationalistic schlockumentaries that combined fabrications with facts. For instance, The Legend of Bigfoot purports to contain real footage of a Sasquatch, but the footage is so obviously juiced that only the most gullible viewers could be swayed. Presuming, of course, that any viewers can stay awake long enough to see the money shots. Overall, The Legend of Bigfoot is a tedious compendium of G-rated animal sequences, tied together with florid narration by the man who shot the images, Ivan Marx. Marx explains that he was working as an animal-control specialist when he started hearing rumors about Sasquatch sightings. He then spent months trying to find the elusive monster. So, about 25 minutes into this interminable record of his search, Marx includes a blurry shot of a silhouetted shape moving behind a tree line.
          Emboldened to get an even closer look, Marx keeps investigating, eventually becoming annoyed at his own lack of results. Thus, we’re treated to the following petulant voiceover: “I took a job up in the wilderness near Vosburg, Washington. I had to photograph a cinnamon bear in its natural habitat. You want a bear? Here’s a bear. Piece of cake. I always got what I set after. Except bigfoot.” The shots of the cinnamon bear are crisp, and in fact all of the images except those of the actors pretending to be Sasquatch are fine; the problem is they belong in some Disney nature documentary, not this supposedly thrilling journey into the unknown.
          Director Harry Winer, tasked with shaping Marx’s underwhelming footage, clearly had no choice but to pad The Legend of Bigfoot with nonsense. (For instance, we spend several minutes watching cute fox cubs cavort around Marx’s ranch.) Eventually, Marx gets another eyeful of monsters during the movie’s lifeless climax, triggering this narration: “I began to shake all over. I could barely keep hold of my camera.” And what’s featured in the accompanying shot (which, it should be noted, is perfectly steady)? That would be two silhouetted actors in bigfoot costumes washing their bodies in a forest stream. Whatever, man.

The Legend of Bigfoot: SQUARE

Friday, May 18, 2012

Oh, God! (1977)

          Gently satirizing the commercialization of religion and the changing role in everyday American life of traditional spirituality, Oh, God! became an unexpected hit during its original release. However, the movie plays like a time capsule today. In addition to exuding such sweetness that it seems hopelessly naïve by modern standards, the picture ends where a 21st-century take on the same material would begin. Yet because Oh, God! was made in an era when less was more, much of the film’s charm stems from the fact that it concludes before the central contrivance wears out its welcome.
          When we first meet Jerry Landers (John Denver), he’s a soft-spoken everyman working as an assistant manager in a grocery store and building a quiet life with his wife, Bobbie (Teri Garr), and their son. Jerry starts receiving mysterious invitations to meet with God, which he figures are gags. But then, one morning, God appears in Jerry’s home. Taking the unlikely form of a short 80-year-old in thick eyeglasses, a ball cap, and a windbreaker, he seems a lot more like an escapee from a senior home than an all-powerful deity, but after several meetings—and after the performance of tiny miracles like starting a rainstorm inside Jerry’s car—God makes a believer out of Jerry.
          Thereafter, He explains that Jerry has been chosen to be a modern-day Moses, spreading the word about God’s existence and reminding people about their responsibility to treat each other well. In addition to making Bobbie worry that her husband has lost his mind, Jerry’s claims of a divine mission put him in the crosshairs of skeptical religious scholars and of charlatans like Reverend Willie Williams (Paul Sorvino), a showboating evangelist whom Jerry calls out as a fake. The whole affair climaxes in an understated courtroom scene, during which Jerry challenges his critics with an appealing mixture of common sense and faith.
          As written by ace satirist Larry Gelbart, from a novel by Avery Corman, and as directed by light-comedy veteran Carl Reiner, Oh, God! is less about the tenets of Christianity and more about the role of decency in 20th-century society. As such, casting wholesome singer-songwriter Denver in the leading role was clever (even if fans later learned he wasn’t actually so wholesome). With his childish bowl-cut hairstyle and kind eyes, Denver seems like a personification of guilelessness. Conversely, Burns’ casting as God was effective on many levels. Funny, knowing, and sly, Burns comes across like the grandfather everyone would like to have, so it isn’t much of a leap to accept him as the Father everyone might like to have.
          Thanks to its enjoyable acting, gentle comedy, and humane themes, Oh, God! is an endearing flight of fancy for those willing to meet the movie on its own terms. The picture did well enough to inspire two sequels, Oh, God! Book II (1980) and Oh, God! You Devil (1984), but neither is worth much attention even though Burns reprised his title role for both movies.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mrs. Pollifax—Spy (1971)

          Following in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple character, author Dorothy Gilman introduced a sleuth of a certain age with her 1966 novel The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, launching a lengthy book series that continued through to 2000’s Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled. In Gilman’s storyline, Mrs. Emily Pollifax is a New Jersey widow so bored with her life that she volunteers to work as a spy for the CIA, declaring herself an ideal candidate for espionage because she’s expendable. Through comic circumstance, Mrs. Pollifax ends up getting a real assignment and performing her mission beautifully, leading to a new career. It’s not surprising this material caught the attention of aging actress Rosalind Russell, whose box-office luster had faded by the early ’70s. Using an alias, Russell wrote the screenplay for the first Hollywood adaptation of Gilman’s series, clumsily titled Mrs. Pollifax—Spy, as a showcase for herself. Given Russell’s commitment to the project, it would be heartening to report she crafted an offbeat gem. Alas, not so. Directed with supreme indifference by TV hack Leslie H. Martinson, Mrs. Pollifax—Spy grinds through a series of ridiculous episodes lacking originality and tension.
          Mrs. Pollifax’s entrance into the CIA is handled so quickly that no credibility is established, and then her adventure proceeds with so little momentum that it seems as if she’s on a vacation instead of a mission. Worse, Mrs. Pollifax—Spy doesn’t have a single funny joke. Russell’s inexperience as a writer dooms every scene, because she relies on comedic clichés and long-winded dialogue when cleverness and economy would work better. In fact, the whole picture feels like a trite domestic sitcom, because Mrs. Pollifax ends up imprisoned by Soviet soldiers alongside a fellow American spy (Darren McGavin); they banter their way through repetitive scenes as if they’re lounging poolside at a resort. Although McGavin survives this movie with his mischievous charm intact, supporting players including John Beck, Dana Elcar, and Harold Gould spend their screen time spewing pointless prattle. As for Russell, she’s bland in the extreme.

Mrs. Pollifax—Spy: LAME

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

MacArthur (1977)

          The reason this unremarkable drama exists couldn’t be more obvious: MacArthur was envisioned as a successor to the Oscar-winning military biography Patton (1970), since MacArthur presents another comprehensive survey of a World War II-era general’s career. Alas, all the genius and inspiration that touched the makers of Patton eluded the folks behind MacArthur, which ends up being the equivalent of a pleasant TV movie, notwithstanding the presence of expensive production values and a top-shelf leading man. Yet MacArthur finds itself wanting even in the person of its star, for Gregory Peck simply can’t muster anything resembling the complexity that George C. Scott brought to Patton. Peck doesn’t give a bad performance, but he doesn’t give a great one, either.
          The basic outline of MacArthur’s career as a commanding officer should be familiar to most viewers. While overseeing America’s forces in the Pacific during World War II, MacArthur was recalled to Washington, D.C., against his wishes. On his way out of the embattled Philippines, the corncob-pipe-smoking general boldly announced, “I shall return.” True to his word, MacArthur subsequently oversaw the liberation of the Philippines and seemed poised for even greater victories until President Truman ended World War II by dropping the world’s first two atomic bombs on Japan.
          When a fresh war in the Pacific broke out less than a decade later, MacArthur resumed his individualistic command style by leading troops in Korea, but he angered the powers-that-be so deeply with his insubordination that he was stripped of his command. Then, in 1951, he ended his military career with a famous address including the lines, “Old soldiers never die—they just fade away.”
          All of these high points are present in MacArthur, which aspires to provide a fully shaped narrative but falls into the trap of simply presenting exciting episodes. Nonetheless, the movie is quite watchable, thanks to Peck’s charisma, director Joseph Sargent’s unobtrusive storytelling, and the sweep of the film’s many battle scenes. The movie also boasts a secret weapon in world-class character actor Ed Flanders, who gives a memorably cantankerous performance as Truman. (Workaday actors rounding out the cast include Russell Johnson, Dan O’Herlihy, Dick O’Neill, and G.D. Spradlin.)
          As for Peck, he commits to the role with a plucked hairline and a somber demeanor, but he seems trapped between emulating the decency of his signature roles (notably To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch) and mimicking the hard edges of Scott’s unforgettable turn as Patton. To his credit, Peck has some fine moments, and he sticks the landing by delivering the “old soldiers” speech beautifully. One wishes, however, that the movie and its leading performance were as dynamic as the historical figure being examined.

MacArthur: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

          Nearly a decade after their astonishing first collaboration, 1972’s historical allegory Aguirre, the Wrath of God, German director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski reteamed for this audacious remake of a silent-cinema classic: F.W. Murnau’s 1922 frightfest Nosferatu. In addition to being one of the titanic works of early German film, the Murnau picture is infamous because the filmmaker didn’t get permission to adapt his story from Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. To disguise the source material, Murnau ditched Stoker’s character names and replaced the suave bloodsucker of the book with a ghoulish spectre whose pale skin, pointed ears, and talon-like fingers added up to a horrific vision.
          Herzog’s remake retains the look of the 1922 vampire, but by adding dialogue and a script filled with weirdly humanistic nuances, he transforms the monster of the original film into a pathetic creature. As played by Kinski with a beguiling mixture of pathos and villainy, Count Dracula (Herzog reverted to Stoker’s character names) is a desperately lonely being doomed to outlive everyone he knows and fated to survive on the blood of the very people whose company he craves.
          In this context, an existential love triangle develops between Dracula, the German real-estate agent who travels to Dracula’s castle, and the agent’s beautiful wife. Dracula subsists on the agent’s blood, and then he falls for the wife, who in turn risks sacrificing herself to the vampire’s bite as a way of releasing her husband from supernatural servitude. Herzog captures this bizarre dynamic in an appropriately odd style, employing lyrical montages of the European countryside and long dialogue scenes to convey a sense of otherworldly ennui.
          Yet Herzog’s most extravagant flourishes are the scenes depicting the terrible pestilence that arrives with Dracula when the ghoul relocates from his native Transylvania to Germany. According to the lore surrounding this movie, Herzog let thousands of rats loose into the town where he was shooting because he wanted “real” shots of vampire-loosed vermin stalking the streets; in addition to irking animal-safety experts, Herzog was reportedly chased from the town.
          Whatever the circumstances, there’s no question that Herzog captured something truly singular with his cameras: Nosferatu somehow manages to be one of the coldest vampire films ever made and also one of the most emotional. Kinski’s eccentric performance dominates, but New German Cinema stalwart Bruno Ganz provides a stalwart presence as the real-estate agent, and fearless French leading lady Isabelle Adjani (playing the wife) nearly qualifies as a special effect. In addition to providing offbeat soulfulness, she’s so beguiling that it’s easy to understand why she drives Dracula batty.
          Take note that Nosferatu is widely available in two versions, which were shot simultaneously. The incrementally superior German-language version is called Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, and the English-language version is a decent alternative for the subtitle-averse.

Nosferatu the Vampyre: RIGHT ON

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Astral Factor (1976)

So drab it sat on a shelf for nearly 10 years after being completed, The Astral Factor is a thriller about an imprisoned murderer who masters paranormal skills including astral projection and invisibility. Armed with these new abilities, he escapes jail and begins killing women who testified against him. Despite this colorful premise, The Astral Factor offers nothing of interest except for the presence of attractive B-level actresses. The acting is lifeless, the direction is amateurish, and the story is as dull as it is insipid. Robert Foxworth tries to add a little swagger to his leading role as the cop tasked with tracking down the paranormal psycho, but since the climax of the picture involves him shooting an M-16 at the empty space where he imagines the unseen murderer to be, it’s not as if Foxworth ever really had the option of retaining his dignity. Playing the killer, Frank Ashmore is so bland he barely exists onscreen; Ashmore spends most of his time scowling in way that makes him seem constipated instead of homicidal. The various lovelies decorating the movie fare even worse. Marianna Hill appears for one scene as a shrewish actress, while Stefanie Powers appears at regular intervals as Foxworth’s bimbo girlfriend. (Powers’ character refers to herself in the third person, so she makes perky announcements like, “And now, Candy is gonna cook you a birthday dinner!”) Playing the largest female role, a robotic Elke Sommer struts around in bikinis and other revealing outfits during her “performance” as a sexed-up eyewitness. It’s all a tease, however, because The Astral Factor lacks genuine titillation in the same way it lacks genuine suspense. When The Astral Factor was finally released in the mid-’80s—going straight to video, of course—it was retitled The Invisible Strangler. By any name, it’s junk.

The Astral Factor: SQUARE

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hollywood on Trial (1976)

          Arguably the best examination of the Hollywood blacklist yet captured on film, this solidly made documentary features interviews with many key figures who survived that awful episode. Clearly explaining why the changing attitudes of a post-WWWII America, film-industry labor disputes, and opportunistic lawmakers collided in the purging of communists and other left-wingers from the film industry, Hollywood on Trial gives heroes a venue for recalling their shining moments and lets villains cement their ignoble legacies. Tremendous archive footage takes viewers back to the tense days of Congressional hearings in which movie stars and studio executives stupidly claimed that commies were trying to take over the picture business; this same footage shows the famed Hollywood Ten, the first professionals banned from employment for political reasons, derailing their own defense by condescending to their persecutors. And then, in contemporary interviews, most of the Ten reveal the wisdom gained through the passage of time, while still issuing righteous fire.
          Given his oversized personality, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo provides some of the more memorable moments, his pithy parade of polysyllables amply displaying why under-educated executives perceived him as uppity back in the day. It’s riveting to watch the great man in twilight, knowing that he and his colleagues went to jail on matters of principle before finally undermining the blacklist in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Yet the most poignant footage is probably that of director Edward Dmytryk, the lone member of the Hollywood Ten to recant his original testimony and “name names” as a prerequisite for returning to work. Watching his face as Dmytryk tries to defend his indefensible actions is simultaneously edifying and excruciating; one sees glimmers of ambivalence, indignation, regret, and shame.
          It’s also infuriating to see archive footage of right-wingers like Walt Disney, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon, since it’s impossible to discern which of them believed he was addressing a genuine social threat and which knew he was simply union-busting. The venerable actor/director John Huston provides narration for the piece, which has the simplistic visuals of a ’70s TV special but more than enough historical significance to generate consistent interest.

Hollywood on Trial: GROOVY

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Amityville Horror (1979)

          In 1975, the Lutz family moved into a beautiful home in the Amityville neighborhood of Long Island, but the house came with a dark history: A mass murder took place there a year before the Lutzes’ arrival. According to the best-selling book that Jay Anson wrote about this notorious real-life incident, the Lutzes heard, saw, and smelled a variety of unexplained phenomena, leading them to believe their house was possessed. Anson took a lot of heat for presenting the Lutzes’ account as pure fact, and director Stuart Rosenberg’s sensationalistic movie adaptation pushes things even further. The Amityville Horror has some scary moments, but the scenario is so overwrought—it’s as if the Lutzes took a sublet from Satan—that the picture regularly creeps into unintentional comedy.
          The main problem is that George Lutz (James Brolin) and his wife, Kathy (Margot Kidder), seem like the dumbest people ever to cross a movie screen. As soon as they move into their home, they start experiencing weird apparitions and sensations, but instead of gathering their three young children and running for safety, they summon a priest (Rod Steiger) to bless the house. The priest endures a horrific scene while the house traps him in a stifling upstairs room that fills with flies. Yet when the priest tells the Lutzes to vacate the house, they ignore the advice. Just a thought: If the demonic voice in your home says, “Get out,” it’s probably a good idea to comply. But, of course, if the big-screen versions of the Lutzes demonstrated any common sense, the movie would be over very quickly.
          Sandor Stern’s silly screenplay tries to weasel around this unworkable plot contrivance by suggesting that George has lost his will to the evil force occupying the house, and Brolin delivers the concept through a performance of embarrassing excess. In his signature moment, a bug-eyed Brolin howls, “Oh, mother of God, I’m coming apart!” Truth be told, Brolin actually outdoes costar Steiger in the bad-acting department, and that’s saying a lot. (As for Kidder, who should have been building on her sassy performance in the 1978 blockbuster Superman, shes wasted in a vapid victim role.)
          Exacerbating its other flaws, The Amityville Horror is fairly dull through most of its running time, even though the production values are pretty good (the ooze dripping from the walls is enjoyably icky) and the wacky highlights are memorable. Nonetheless, lackluster storytelling didn’t stop the picture from becoming a major hit. The Amityville Horror earned nearly $90 million at the box office, and it kicked off a cycle of sequels and remakes that has continued well into the 21st century. Apparently, audiences are as reluctant to vacate the house at 112 Ocean Avenue as the Lutzes were.

The Amityville Horror: FUNKY

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Bad News Bears (1976) & The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) & The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978)

          Foul-mouthed and politically incorrect, The Bad News Bears presents a startlingly funny vision of childhood. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to include some of the movie’s edgier jokes in a contemporary film, and that’s a shame—screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie lend believable spark to their story by showing characters trading cruel epithets about disability and race. This warts-and-all approach elevates The Bad News Bears from being just another underdog tale in the classic sports-movie tradition; the movie is also a wicked look at growing up the hard way.
          The main adult character is Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a former minor-league player now gone to seed—he’s a rumpled drunk who works as a pool cleaner in Southern California. Buttermaker gets recruited to coach a newly formed Little League team, the Bears, which comprises rejects from other squads: bad seeds, minorities, nerds, runts, slobs. A paragon of insensitivity, Buttermaker is the worst possible person to corral this gang, since he’s as appalled by these losers as everyone else. To give the team a remote chance of success, Buttermaker enlists a pair of ringers.
          First up is 12-year-old pitcher Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O’Neal), whose mother used to date Buttermaker. She’s a wise-beyond-her-years handful, demanding endless financial perks in exchange for participating. Next, Buttermaker woos Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a local dropout who zooms around town on a Harley and makes a sketchy living with small-time scams. Watching the younger kids get schooled by the self-serving Amanda and Kelly is hilarious, especially since Buttermaker observes the whole pathetic spectacle with a mix of cynical detachment and whatever-works ruthlessness.
          The contrivance, of course, is that Buttermaker falls in love with the team because of how hard the kids try to please him, but Matthau’s unsentimental performance sells the illusion nicely. Better still, Ritchie does an amazing job with the ballpark scenes, using the strains of Bizet’s “Carmen” as a leitmotif for the Bears’ outfield ineptitude; these scenes are sly ballets of expertly staged physical comedy. Ritchie also pays careful attention to vignettes taking place off the field, ensuring that even minor characters are sketched beautifully.
          It helps a great deal that O’Neal was in the midst of her hot streak of precocious performances, and that Haley, in his breakout role, presented a memorable mixture of bravado and insecurity. Even the movie’s main villain, the super-competitive coach (Vic Morrow) of an opposing team, comes across as a fully realized individual, since the dynamic he shares with his long-suffering son speaks to the movie’s theme of what happens when winning eclipses other priorities.
          Predictably, the departure of key players behind and in front of the camera led to diminishing returns for the movie’s first sequel, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Written by Paul Brickman (who later wrote and directed Risky Business), Breaking Training is enervated and overly sweet but basically palatable. The story focuses on Kelly (still played by Haley) and his estranged dad, Mike (William Devane), who takes over as the Bears’ coach. Mike tries to rally the team for a big exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome, and a combination of formulaic plot elements and unwelcome sentimentality makes Breaking Training feel second-rate. Wasn’t eschewing the cheap emotionalism of traditional sports movies the point of the original film? Still, the interplay between the misfit kids, most of whom are played by the same actors, remains enjoyable, so group scenes are fun to watch.
          In fact, Breaking Training is a near-masterpiece compared to the final theatrical film of the original series, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan. Although original screenwriter Bill Lancaster returned for this entry, the gimmick of the Bears getting exploited by a slick promoter (Tony Curtis) feels forced, as does the uninteresting romantic subplot involving Kelly (once more played by Haley) and a pretty Japanese teenager. Even the game-time jokes start to feel tired by this point, so Japan is to be avoided by those who wish to leave their memories of the first picture untouched. The franchise soldiered on when CBS broadcast one season of a Bad News Bears TV series in 1979–1980, with Jack Warden playing Matthau’s old role of Morris Buttermaker. Then, in 2005, the Bears returned for director Richard Linklater’s pointless remake of the original film, with Billy Bob Thornton becoming the third actor to play Buttermaker.

The Bad News Bears: RIGHT ON
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: FUNKY
The Bad News Bears Go to Japan: LAME

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Grey Gardens (1975)

          Offering an unvarnished look at the freakish lives of two people existing on the fringes of society, Grey Gardens is a painful documentary from which many people derive pleasure, because Grey Gardens is a wellspring of quotable kitsch. In fact, many fans consider Grey Gardens a black comedy, though there’s nothing amusing about the facts behind the picture. In the early ’70s, a series of sensational magazine stories revealed that two relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in the disgusting wreck of an old Long Island mansion. Jackie O’s aunt, “Big Edie” Beale, was in her late ’70s and enduring the ravages of old age, while her daughter, Jackie O’s first cousin “Little Edie” Beale, was in her mid-’50s and apparently suffering from some type of mental illness. After the initial rush of embarrassing publicity, Jackie O helped the Beales financially but did not persuade them to vacate their mansion, known as Grey Gardens.
          Thereafter, documentarian siblings Albert and David Maysles received permission to film the Beales in their squalid environment, resulting in this celebrated movie. The Maysles took a decidedly verité approach, letting their cameras run as the Beales went about their grim daily routines, eating cat foot and rummaging through the excrement and garbage strewn around Grey Gardens. Raccoons slip through holes in the walls, standing water festers, and the whole building seems close to collapsing. Yet amid this horror show, the Maysles found an unexpected source of vitality: Little Edie, a delusional optimist who runs off at the mouth about her (bizarre) fashion choices and the glory of saner times.
          Even though we, as viewers, feel for Little Edie because she seems unable to recognize how far she’s fallen, there’s no denying she’s a compelling presence. In one of the movie’s most frequently quoted scenes, Edie explains why she’s assembled an outlandish outfit: “You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape, so I think this is the best costume for today.” Big Edie, meanwhile, is proud and sharp despite being a near-invalid, so the interactions between this strong-willed matriarch and her mercurial daughter are consistently arresting. Watching them bicker like any relatives forced into codependency makes their dynamic relatable even though their living conditions are unimaginable. Grey Gardens is compelling stuff, though for some viewers (myself included) it smacks of freak-show exploitation rather than simple anthropological curiosity.
          The cult of Grey Gardens expanded significantly in the late 2000s, when this documentary was adapted into a Broadway musical and an Emmy-winning HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. Additionally, the Maysles assembled unused footage from the original film into a feature-length companion piece titled The Beales of Grey Gardens, which was released in 2006.

Grey Gardens: GROOVY