Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Performance (1970)

          Some releases from the year 1970 barely qualify as ’70s movies, not only because they were filmed and/or completed in 1969 but because the style and themes of the movies are tethered to the preceding decade. Performance epitomizes this conundrum even more than most 1970 releases, since the picture was actually made in 1968 but not commercially distributed until two years later. Nonetheless, because of the date on which it reached screens and because of important connections to various threads of ’70s cinema—notably the picture’s status as the directorial debut of English provocateur Nicolas Roeg—Performance merits consideration in this space. If I sound reluctant to engage with this particular film, I have my reasons. Having seen Performance two or three times over the years, I’ve always found the thing to be boring, indulgent, and silly. Yet at the same time, I regularly meet intellectually formidable people who revere the movie. So even though Performance is not remotely to my liking, I acknowledge the film’s unique power over certain discriminating viewers.
          Produced in the UK and co-directed by Roeg, who also served as cinematographer (his former profession), and Donald Cammell, who wrote the bizarre script, Performance depicts the collision of two unlikely characters. One of them is Chas (James Fox), a thug in the employ of a London gangster; the very first scene gives us a hint of his kinky inclinations, because he’s shown having a bondage-filled sexcapade with a girlfriend. After a criminal scheme goes awry, Chas flees his neighborhood for the safety of a different part of town, giving friends time to seek a passport for his planned travel to America. Dyeing his hair and adopting a fake name (the first of many games the film plays with identity), Chas seeks lodging in a flat owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a onetime rock star now living as a recluse with two girlfriends, Lucy (Michele Breton) and Pherber (Anita Pallenberg).
          Whereas Chas’ old life was decidedly conventional—natty suits, short hair, tidy grooming, and heterosexual dating—Turner’s existence blurs cultural lines. Not only does Turner seem willing to have sex with anything that moves, but Turner also wears feminine clothes and makeup while lounging about his house in a perpetually drugged state. Determined to remain out of sight from the hoodlums who are pursuing him, Chas spends all his time with Turner and the ladies, eventually sampling the household’s various carnal, hallucinogenic, pharmaceutical, and sartorial delights. By the end of his time in the strange enclave—which is decorated like a cross between an opium den and a whorehouse—Chas has indulged in cross-dressing, drugs, and (perhaps) gay sex.
          The “perhaps” in the preceding sentence brings us to the defining aspect of Performance, which is the disjointed and surreal storytelling style Cammell and Roeg embraced not only here but also in their subsequent films. (After this collaborative endeavor, the duo separated; Roeg enjoyed a significant career, but Cammell remained a cult figure.) Right from the start, Performance is filled with tricky edits and shots that distort perception—sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is happening, sometimes it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s happening, and at all times, it’s anybody’s guess why things are happening. Especially when the movie gets completely bizarre toward the end, with a drug-addled sequence of Jagger singing in character to a roomful of naked gangsters while Cammell and Roeg splice in shots from the past, the future, and who-knows-where, Performance becomes the cinematic equivalent of a drug experience. All of this is compounded by a mind-fuck of an ending that combines murder and the possible transference of identity.
          I’m sure devoted fans of the movie can defend Performance’s fragmented storyline in at least two ways (by offering a linear explanation or by saying that the movie explores themes that run deeper than linear understanding), but for me, Performance still seems garish, noisy, and overwrought. What I won’t argue with, however, is the notion that Performance is a film of ambition and substance. Whether you dig it, therefore, depends on how effectively the filmmakers seduce you into deciphering their narrative hieroglyphics.

Performance: FREAKY

Monday, December 30, 2013

Necromancy (1972)

During the post-Rosemary’s Baby boom, countless filmmakers generated schlocky thrillers mixing sex with the supernatural, although only a few of them actually generated movies worth watching. More typical of the trend is this bland offering from director Bert I. Gordon, best known for silly monster movies including The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977). Featuring a campy plot that’s almost entirely predicated on the heroine being an idiot, Necromancy tells the story of an evil Satan worshipper who wants to harness a young woman’s occult powers in order to bring his deceased son back from the grave. In principle, this concept should be strong enough to support an acceptable frightfest. In practice, however, Gordon makes poor storytelling decisions at every single turn, creating a movie that lacks momentum and overflows with moments that either don’t make sense or fail to engage interest. Even with scenes of all-nude rituals and human sacrifices, Necromancy is dull. Lovely Pamela Franklin, who fared better in later ’70s horror movies—including the creepy theatrical feature The Legend of Hell House and the kitschy telefilm Satan’s School for Girls (both 1973)—stars as Lori, a young woman who moves to the small town of Lilith with her husband, Frank (Michael Ontkean). Upon arrival, Lori discovers that Frank’s employer, Mr. Cato (Orson Welles), is a Satanist with a messianic sway over all of Lilith’s permanent residents. Then Lori learns that she and Frank are expected to join Mr. Cato’s coven, which engages in debauchery and witchcraft. But does Lori, who is already tormented by the loss of a baby, leave town? No, she hangs around until she’s roped into a murder/suicide scenario. Whether she escapes is of zero consequence, because the characters in Necromancy are as forgettable as the storyline. To its credit, Necromancy has quasi-atmospheric photography, a tasty electronic score that’s akin to the sort of mood music later featured in John Carpenter’s movies, and a couple of trippy dream/hallucination sequences. Yet these elements aren’t nearly reason enough to watch the movie, especially since the slumming Welles gives an absurd performance complete with a ridiculous fake nose and an unidentifiable accent. The only magic this movie contains is the ability to put viewers to sleep.

Necromancy: LAME

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Woyzeck (1979)

          Iconoclastic German director Werner Herzog was outrageously prolific in the ’70s, generating eight narrative features and five documentaries. Given this frantic pace, it’s inevitable that some of his projects got short shrift, and Woyzeck is an example. Herzog sped into production on Woyzeck literally just days after completing the filming of his soulful horror film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), using the same leading man, Klaus Kinski, and the same crew. As such, there’s a temptation to view the spare visual style of Woyzeck as a casualty of crew fatigue, especially since Nosferatu the Vampyre is one of Herzog’s most aesthetically lush films. Furthermore, the pacing and tone of Woyzeck lack Herzog’s usual lyricism, although his singular cinematic voice surges back to the fore in a climactic murder scene, which Herzog films with disturbingly ecstatic slow-motion. In any event, the themes of Woyzeck fit neatly into both the director’s grim filmography and the special body of work that Herzog and madman actor Kinski created together.
          Adapted from an incomplete play by Georg Büchner (which the author began writing in the mid-1830s), Woyzeck tells the sad tale of a soldier from a low social class who suffers humiliation at the hands of cruel superiors, a meddling doctor, and an unfaithful lover. On a deeper, metaphorical level, the protagonist also falls victim to the caprices of fate, God, or whichever force is responsible for his life of ignominy. The gist of the piece is that a basically good man can be driven to madness and violence by the emasculating machinations of society—exactly the sort of fatalistic material that Herzog and Kinski excelled at exploring.
          Set in a tiny German town in the 19th century, the picture tracks the myriad travails of Freidrich Woyzeck (Kinski). Belittled by his commanding officer (Wolfgang Reichmann), an aristocrat who considers Woyzeck virtually sub-human simply because Woyzeck is poor, Woyzeck is a scandalous figure because he raises a child out of wedlock with Marie (Eva Mattes). Later, the long-suffering soldier seeks aid from a doctor (Willy Semmelrogge), who prescribes nonsensical treatments such as eating a diet consisting solely of peas. Already prone to peculiar behavior, such as rushing through life at a hyperkinetic pace, Woyzeck succumbs to bleak delusions and eventually hears voices that give him instructions; this thread of the story culminates when Woyzeck receives “orders” to kill Marie, whom he learns is sleeping with a handsome drum major (Josef Bierbichler).
          Herzog never quite fully translates the allegorical, episodic nature of the source material into pure cinema, because much of the movie unfolds in long takes defined by a nearly stationary camera. Nonetheless, vitality of performance compensates for the lack of visual panache. In particular, no one plays crazy quite like Kinski. With his bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, and gleaming teeth bared like those of a jungle predator, Kinski is a vision of dangerous insanity in every frame, even when his character attempts to enjoy “normal” moments. The single act of casting Kinski gives Woyzeck innate credibility, even if Herzog’s script is mechanical and slight. This actor/director combination went to the same well many times, and most of their other efforts to chart the outer reaches of lunacy were more effective than Woyzeck. Nonetheless, whether it’s taken as a minor part of the Herzog/Kinski oeuvre, as a worthy attempt to complete a literary fragment, or simply as a bizarre study of one man’s descent into a sort of psychological hell, Woyzeck is a unique experience.

Woyzeck: GROOVY

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Friends (1975)

If you ever make the mistake of watching multiple ’70s movies from Crown International Pictures in succession, you will quickly discover why Crown is a poor cousin to its famous competitor in the exploitation-movie market, American International Pictures. Whereas AIP’s movies are, generally speaking, brisk and lurid, Crown’s flicks are often slow and tedious. As a case in point, consider this interminable road movie about two Vietnam vets who hit the open road in a mobile home with their girlfriends. Jesse (Richard Hatch) is a salt-of-the-earth type who’s ready to settle down with Kathy (Susanne Benton), but Pat (Doug Chapin) is an unhinged sociopath who takes his long-suffering gal, Jo Ella (Ann Noland), for granted. As the quartet drives across the Southwest, Pat tries to convince Jesse to ditch the girls so they can buy motorcycles and travel the country together, Easy Rider-style. At one point, Pat even goes so far as to lead Kathy toward a rattlesnake in the hopes she’ll get bitten and die. Later, Pat pushes Jesse and Jo Ella together, hoping their infidelity will ruin Jesse’s plans for marriage. Alas, the story seems much more interesting in synopsis form than it does as an actual movie, because writer Arnold Somkin and director Noel Nosseck lack the imagination and subtlety that would have been required to make this particular narrative believable. This storytelling problem is exacerbated by the vacuous acting one finds in most Crown releases. Hatch, best known for his work in soaps and in the original Battlestar Galactica series, is miles ahead of his costars in terms of craft—and, with all due respect, if Richard Hatch defines the upper echelon of an acting ensemble, that’s a problem. As a result of the iffy filmmaking and shoddy performances, Best Friends is dull and repetitive, comprising long scenes of actors “behaving” because they haven’t anything else to do; worse, when the movie finally generates events, which doesn’t happen nearly often enough, character motivations feel contrived instead of credible. The picture eventually winds its way toward the requisite ’70s bummer ending, but even that underwhelms, taking far too much screen time to deliver far too little content.

Best Friends: LAME

Friday, December 27, 2013

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

          Among the various cinematic tropes that emerged during the ’70s, my least favorite is the presentation of rape as spectacle. A sensitive touch is required to ensure that sexual abuse reaches the screen with its innate violence undiluted, rather than being transformed into titillation. Unfortunately, the film genre in which rape most regularly appears—low-budget exploitation cinema—is not known for sensitivity. For instance, I Spit on Your Grave pairs the act of rape with the escapist element of an absurd revenge scheme. Story-wise, I Spit on Your Grave is threadbare in the extreme. New York City-based fiction writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) drives to a country house she’s rented for the summer. Shortly after her arrival, Jennifer is assaulted and raped by a quartet of local scumbags. Then Jennifer methodically exacts deadly revenge, one victim at a time. That’s literally the entire story. Writer-director Meir Zarchi largely eschews characterization, and his visual style is reminiscent of porn, a textural effect that’s compounded by the stilted acting of his amateurish cast. Furthermore, each sequence drags on in what feels like real time. This lugubrious pacing relates to an aspect of I Spit on Your Grave that’s both disturbing and effective. During the grisliest scenes—of which there are many, since each of Jennifer’s mulitple sexual assaults is filmed a separate event, with its own overture and aftermath—Zarchi generates a grotesque sort of “reality” simply by lingering long enough to observe each unit of action. Viewers are never granted release by tasteful editing.
          Later, once the picture shifts into revenge mode, Zarchi’s storytelling becomes unpleasant in a different sort of way. Whether he’s focusing on the gory result of Jennifer slicing a man’s erect penis or showcasing the blood that churns in water after a victim meets the business end of an outboard engine, Zarchi films violence as not only catharsis, but as something like jubilation. Therefore, I Spit on Your Grave achieves a measure of cultural significance because the politics and psychology of anyone who would participate in making such a movie—and those of anyone who would embrace the experience of watching the thing—is morbidly fascinating. While Zarchi’s clumsy film lacks the perverse poetry of other extreme ’70s shockers, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it is a cousin to those movies. As such, it can’t be discounted even though by many measures, it’s a cruel and vulgar enterprise; the mere existence of something as nasty as I Spit on Your Grave invites scrutiny of the culture that generates and consumes such artifacts. Proving that point is the longevity of the brand. I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, and the new version did well enough to warrant a sequel, I Spit on Your Grave 2 (2013).

I Spit on Your Grave: FUNKY

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Great American Beauty Contest (1973)

          Like so many things bearing the Aaron Spelling brand name, this brisk TV movie about backstage intrigue at a fictional beauty contest is the equivalent of junk food—it tastes good at first, but regret kicks in almost immediately. The Great American Beauty Contest is very much a product of the producer who later subjected the world to Charlie’s Angels, because the movie comprises one scene after another showcasing vapidly attractive young women. On the plus side, the picture isn’t as sleazy as one might think, since there’s only one fleeting sequence of the contest’s swimsuit competition, and the lovelies in the cast represent an appealing collection of ’70s actresses. Spelling regular Farrah Fawcett is present and accounted for, as are Kathy Baumann (a buxom starlet in various B-movies), Susan Damante (of the Wilderness Family pictures), and Joanna Cameron (of the Saturday-morning superhero show Isis), among others. (Watch for a brief, wordless appearance by glamazon actress/singer Susan Anton in the final scene.)
          Although each of the aforementioned startlets gets plenty of screen time, the actual star of The Great American Beauty Contest is the elegant Eleanor Parker, best known as the Baroness in the classic family film The Sound of Music (1965). She plays Peggy, a onetime pageant winner who now runs the contest. When the picture begins, Peggy and her handlers greet various contestants, including Angelique (Damante), an innocent who believes in the fairy-tale myth of pageants; Gloria (Cameron), a quasi-militant feminist hoping to win so she can deliver an anti-pageant speech during her coronation; Pamela (Tracy Reed), an African-American upset about being treated as a “token”; and T.L. (Fawcett), a wild girl who enters the contest on a lark. Also in the mix are movie producer Ralph (Louis Jourdan), who serves as a judge and expects sexual favors from wannabes, and Joe (Larry Wilcox, later of C.H.i.P.S.), T.L.’s rambunctious boyfriend.
          Considering that The Great American Beauty Contest runs only 74 minutes (the standard length for early-’70s TV movies), Spelling and his collaborators include an abundance of “plot,” making up for in quantity what the project lacks in quality. Rest assured, however, that not a single frame of The Great American Beauty Contest will amuse, delight, or surprise. Instead, the picture functions like the broadcast of a real beauty contest—it invites the male gaze with a steady procession of bright teeth, lustrous hair, sexy curves, and twinkly eyes. And it’s hard to get too strident about a movie that not only features Fawcett doing an atrocious harem-girl dance, but also features characters commenting on the awfulness of said dance. In other words, The Great American Beauty Contest may not be an experience in truly guilt-free ogling, but it’s close.

The Great American Beauty Contest: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Record City (1978)

Having spent a couple of years as a record-store employee, I can understand the impulse Hollywood filmmakers had during the vinyl era to make movies about LP peddlers. So far, however, only the 1995 release Empire Records has come close to capturing the party vibe at a music store when it’s buzzing with customers. More typical of Hollywood’s efforts to tart up the retail life is this awful comedy from 1978, featuring such stellar talents as Ruth Buzzi, Rick Dees, and Larry Storch. An ensemble story depicting the musical and sexual adventures of clerks, customers, and visitors to a fictional store, Record City is a slick but tacky production featuring jokes at the expense of feminists, gays, nerds, prostitutes, seniors, and swingers, among others. Tame and unfunny from start to finish, Record City comprises a barrage of stupid gags. For instance, real-life radio personality Dees plays a DJ named “Gordon Kong,” who works a King Kong-influenced persona; wearing an animal-print cape and one arm of a primate costume, Gordon arrives at Record City with an entourage of backup singers to perform his novelty song “Get Down Gorilla,” in the vein of Dees’ real-life hit “Disco Duck.” Later, supporting player Ted Lange, of Love Boat fame, performs the disco jam “Make Way for the Lover.” Surrounding these “highlights” are scenes featuring Frank Gorshin as a robber who wears costumes including a nuns’ habit; various vignettes of Michael Callan as the store’s horny owner, who gets annoyed when employees play his “balling music” over loudspeakers; and a climactic sequence in which a cleaning lady (Buzzi) inadvertently electrocutes half the people in the store. Oh, and there’s a running gag of an angry feminist (Deborah White) repeatedly kneeing a co-worker (Tim Thomerson) in the groin because she mistakenly blames him every time someone else pinches her ass. To round out your picture of Record City, the sole music-industry cameo is provided by eccentric Texas troubadour Kinky Friedman, who plays himself as a debauched putz—when he meets a young woman who bears a passing resemblance to singer John Denver, he implies she used to be Denver and then squeezers her breasts to compliment her new gender.

Record City: LAME

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

          One of Hollywood’s most glorious careers began a steady downward slide with this intelligent but overwrought riff on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved fictional detective. Billy Wilder, who directed and produced the film in addition to co-writing the script (with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond), was probably the wrong person to make a Holmes movie, simply because Wilder’s career was filled with so many brilliantly original stories and witty adaptations. In other words, making a new iteration of a familiar character was beneath his talents. Further confounding expectations is the misleading title, since The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is more of a mystery than a character piece. (The 1976 Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution dug far deeper into the detective’s psychological makeup.) Another caveat regarding The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is that the movie is far too long given its trifling narrative. Released at 125 minutes but originally envisioned as being even longer, the picture represents a tendency toward cinematic bloat that troubled Wilder throughout the last decade, give or take, of his career.
          Taking these disclaimers into consideration, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is perhaps best characterized as frustrating but rewarding for viewers who are willing to accept narrative detours.
          The clever story begins with a long preamble about Holmes’ amusing meeting with a Russian ballerina, which leads to an elaborate mistaken-sexuality joke at the expense of Holmes’ best friend, Dr. Watson. Wilder stages these farcical scenes beautifully, and the prologue introduces viewers to the enchanting world of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, courtesy of Christopher Challis’ painterly cinematography and Miklós Rósca’s resplendent music. Nonetheless, the whole sequence is superfluous. After the prologue, Wilder unveils his main story, a larky caper involving a beautiful Belgian amnesiac; ancient Scottish castles; nefarious monks; clandestine operations of the British government; Holmes’ secret-agent brother, Mycroft; and, after a fashion, the Loch Ness Monster. Had Wilder simply filmed this surprising story, without the prologue, and given the piece a less ponderous title, the public reception of this movie might have been much different. (Changed, too, might have been the studio’s attitude toward the project, since MGM reportedly ordered the removal of large sections from Wilder’s first cut.)
          Yet another problematic aspect of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the casting. To be clear, British stage actor Robert Stephens does a fine job as Holmes, filling his characterization with erudite bitchiness that feels like a logical extension of Basil Rathbone’s classic take on the role. Similarly, Colin Blakely is wonderful as Watson, dependable in a pinch but flummoxed by Holmes’ wilder schemes and occasionally, for comic relief, prone to buffoonery. Furthermore, French actress Geneviève Page’s beauty and poise define her character as a formidable companion for Holmes, which pays off nicely at the end of the movie, and it’s a kick to see horror star Christopher Lee in one of his straightest roles, as Mycroft. Clearly, Wilder cast without taking the U.S. box office into consideration. (American ticketbuyers responded in kind, avoiding the film in droves.) Viewed as a career move, Wilder’s choice to eschew Hollywood stars was reckless, but viewed from the perspective of cinematic artistry, it was prudent—especially given the dexterity with which Wilder’s actors tackle his wonderfully intricate dialogue.
          In sum, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not for everyone, but it’s an interesting museum piece that overflows with sophistication on many levels.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: GROOVY

Monday, December 23, 2013

Stony Island (1978)

Before embarking on his brief run as a top-notch director of Hollywood action movies, a streak that culminated with The Fugitive (1993), Chicago filmmaker Andrew Davis made his feature debut with this low-budget drama about the formation and travails of a fictional R&B band from the Chicago enclave Stony Island. While Stony Island is a sloppy piece of work because the story is dull and meandering, the musical sequences drag on endlessly, and the narrative lacks a clearly defined central character, the film does offer ample texture. Davis shoots Chicago beautifully, whether he’s using wide lenses to capture painterly panoramas of urban decay or using telephoto lenses to create magical backgrounds filled with twinkling out-of-focus lights. Alas, much of the visual style Davis employs for Stony Island seems more suitable to the action movies he later directed (think dark and gritty), so many scenes in Stony Island feel oppressively heavy. It’s as if the he-man filmmaker inside Davis was fighting to break free, even though the mandate for Stony Island should have been to craft a loose, upbeat story about a musical family taking shape. Interestingly, Stony Island features early appearances by a number of people who later achieved notoriety. Sultry ’80s starlet Rae Dawn Chong plays a backup singer; feature/TV stalwart Dennis Franz gives a funny turn as an amiably sleazy crook; and Susanna Hoffs, subsequently the lead singer of the beloved LA girl band the Bangles, plays the female lead. (A teenager when she shot her non-singing role in Stony Island, Hoffs is the daughter of the picture’s co-producer/co-writer, Tamar Hoffs) Yet the actual star of Stony Island is one Richard Davis, a pleasant-seeming type who disappears into the background whenever any other actor is onscreen with him; although he ostensibly plays the visionary who puts the Stony Island Band together, Davis doesn’t command attention anywhere near as well as Gene Barge, who plays the group’s saxophonist and de facto impresario. Nonetheless, the lack of a dynamic primary figure becomes somewhat irrelevant during the movie’s many performance scenes, which showcase the interplay between musicians and singers as they lay down funky jams. Taken as a period piece infused with emerging talent, local color, and tasty tunes, Stony Island is intermittently edifying. Taken as a proper movie, Stony Island is a groove in search of a melody.

Stony Island: FUNKY

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Opening Night (1977)

          Indie-cinema godhead John Cassavetes cranked out his singular movies at a steady pace throughout the ’70s, culminating with this epic rumination on the dissipation of a middle-aged woman’s psyche—not be confused with the director’s previous epic rumination on the dissipation of a middle-aged woman’s psyche, A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Yet while that film earned two Academy Award nominations and is now considered something of a zenith achievement for Cassavetes’ improvisational style, Opening Night is easily the filmmaker’s most interminable movie of the ’70s, running a bloated 144 minutes without ever once revealing to the audience what’s causing the central character’s emotional spiral. As with all of Cassavetes’ films, Opening Night has many champions (the picture earned two Golden Globe nominations), but it’s telling that the picture was such a huge flop during initial engagements that it didn’t receive a proper theatrical release until the ’80s. By the time Opening Night was completed, Cassavetes had already made five previous auteur pieces laden with shapeless angst, including two starring his real-life spouse Gena Rowlands, so the public appetite for the director’s uniquely self-indulgent art had clearly been exhausted.
          Rowlands plays an actress named Myrtle, who’s doing out-of-town previews for an upcoming Broadway show. Following a performance one night, Myrtle encounters a loving but troubled fan (Laura Johnson). Immediately thereafter, the fan dies in a traffic accident that Myrtle witnesses. This event spins Myrtle into a series of meltdowns, from alcoholic binges offstage to bizarre ad-libs onstage. Myrtle’s behavior worries the show’s costar (Cassavetes), playwright (Joan Blondell), and producer (Ben Gazzara), among others. The majority of Opening Night comprises dull, repetitive scenes of Rowlands acting strangely; sometimes she seems obnoxious, and sometimes she seems unhinged. Viewers are also subjected to excerpts from the trite play that Myrtle’s rehearsing. Whereas A Woman Under the Influence slid its title character’s dissipation into a narrative about a marriage under stress, Opening Night fails to surround Myrtle with formidable characters, so it’s as if everyone else in the movie exists only to watch Rowlands’ flamboyant acting. (Incidental scenes of Gazzara’s character with his wife, played by Zohra Lampert, don’t amount to much.) In the end, Opening Night seems more like a parody of Cassavetes’ more-is-more aesthetic than an actual example of the filmmaker’s craft.

Opening Night: LAME

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wake in Fright (1971)

          The ’70s produced several films about civilized men descending into barbarism, but most of these pictures were predicated on the notion of violence begetting violence. For example, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), the hero embraces brutality to protect his home from attackers. The disturbing Australian drama Wake in Fright—originally released in the U.S. as Outback—takes a different route. In this movie, a genteel teacher becomes stranded in Australia’s rugged interior, and then slowly begins to emulate the animalism of bored rural types who pass their time by drinking, fighting, gambling hunting, and screwing. Wake in Fright is a slow burn, but once things click about an hour into the film, the story assumes the quality of a nightmare. (Fair warning: If you find kangaroos adorable, you will have a hard time watching this picture’s gory hunting scenes, which feature real animals getting killed onscreen.)
          English actor Gary Bond, whose lanky frame and tanned skin make him look like a dark-eyed version of Peter O’Toole, plays John Grant, the instructor at a one-room schoolhouse in Tiboonda, Australia. On Christmas break, John heads for a vacation in Sydney by train, only to get delayed in the desolate city of Bundanyabba. While stuck in “The Yabba,” as the locals refer to the place, John loses all his cash gambling, so he has no choice but to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, those strangers include such outback eccentrics as “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence) and his drinking buddies. These wild men consume beer like normal human beings inhale oxygen, and their idea of a good time is driving around the countryside, killing animals, smashing private property, and throttling each other during vicious fistfights and wrestling matches. Yet as the days drag endlessly on, John falls into his new acquaintances’ behavior patterns. How deeply John travels into the moral abyss is best discovered while watching the movie, but suffice to say the John Grant who staggers out of “The Yabba” after his darkest night of sex and violence bears only a fleeting resemblance to the man who began the journey.
          Director Ted Kotcheff, a journeyman Canadian who made films in a startling variety of genres, shoots Wake in Fright stylishly, merging haunting standalone images—that shot of Pleasence with coins over his eyes!—with elegant camera movements during dialogue scenes. Throughout the picture, Kotcheff’s direction of actors, visuals, and sound is focused and purposeful. In fact, even though he made several films that were more accessible, including the sleek comedy Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) and the vivid actioner First Blood (1982), Wake in Fright might well be Kotcheff’s finest hour as a cinema artist.
          Perhaps because he’s not Australian, Bond lends a believable tension to the story, approaching the weirdness of the outback from an external perspective until his character is co-opted into madness. Pleasence channels otherworldliness as only he can, and he spices his role with ambiguous sexuality. (Kotcheff fleshes out the cast with a variety macho men and put-upon women, conveying the sense of rural Australia as a primeval battleground.) Wake in Fright is infused with vivid textures, from the coarse dirt beneath the characters’ feet to the humid air that makes everyone sweat relentlessly. Wake in Fright leaves many crucial narrative questions unanswered, but some of the images it presents are scalding.

Wake in Fright: GROOVY

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Hiding Place (1975)

          Based on a memoir by concentration-camp survivor Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place details what happened when a Dutch family transformed their home into a safe haven for Jews during the German occupation of Holland, only to pay a horrific price for their altruism. Infused with probing theological conversations about how a merciful God can allow the existence of cruelty and suffering, The Hiding Place is a sermon in the form of a drama. Yet the unflinching way that director James F. Collier and his collaborators depict the hardships of war entirely from the victims’ perspective—no effort is made to humanize or “understand” the oppressors—gives the piece tremendous credibility. Ultimately, The Hiding Place is a story about the challenge of maintaining genuine faith when confronted with the worst of what humans can do to each other.
          The picture begins at the onset of the occupation, when Gentile patriarch Casper ten Boom (Arthur O’Connell) decides to take a stand against the Nazis who have invaded his homeland. Casper, a kindly grandfather who runs his family’s century-old clock shop, initially defies the Germans by wearing a gold star on his sleeve in solidarity with ostracized Jews. Later, accepting entreaties from the Dutch Resistance, Casper allows his family’s large home to be fitted with secret compartments capable of holding a large number of fugitives. Throughout the first half of the picture, Casper and his relatives—notably adult daughters Betsie (Julie Harris) and Corrie (Jeannette Clift)—justify their actions by articulating their love for Jesus. This first half also includes fraught relations between the ten Booms and some of their “boarders,” who appreciate the family’s courage but disagree with their Christian ideology.
          Midway through the picture, the Nazis discover that the ten Booms have aided Jews—although the Germans fail to find the people hidden inside the ten Boom household, all of the ten Booms are carted off to concentration camps. Thereafter, the movie becomes a survival story focused on the time Betsie and Corrie spend as prisoners in a work camp. (The focus also expands to include Corrie’s closest confidant in the camp, fellow prisoner Katje, played with fierce determination by Eileen Heckart.) The second half of The Hiding Place is filled with abuse and pain and tragedy, and yet through all her travails Connie tries to espouse her father’s ideals of surmounting earthly rigors through faith.
          The strongest virtue of The Hiding Place is that it never casts Corrie’s wartime ordeal in a nostalgic glow, as if the Holocaust was merely a test of faith; instead, the picture offers a clinical look at how one family, and by extension one individual, relied on religion to sustain humanity amid an inhumane situation. The anguished performances by Clift and Harris deliver this theme passionately, just as the unvarnished filmmaking by Collier and his technicians accentuates the terrifying reality of concentration-camp existence. Given its narrow focus, The Hiding Place is too long, even though each scene more or less justifies its own existence with some flourish of narrative or performance; furthermore, the picture probably didn’t need quite as many dialogue exchanges about theology. Nonetheless, this is powerful, sincere work about a subject that can never be explored in sufficient depth—and the movie also represents a fine tribute to an individual, and a family, possessed of extraordinary moral strength.

The Hiding Place: GROOVY

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)

          Given Edgar Allan Poe’s towering status as a cultural influence and literary figure, it’s interesting to note how few good movies have derived from his work. Excepting director Roger Corman’s stylish cycle of Poe movies starring Vincent Price, released in the ’60s, most attempts to translate the author’s macabre style into cinema have been middling at best. One problem with such projects—the reckless impulse to improve on Poe’s storytelling—is evident throughout Murders in the Rue Morgue, a sluggish horror film that is only peripherally related to the short story of the same name. Director Gordon Hessler and his screenwriters concocted a murky narrative featuring a handful of elements from Poe’s tale, such as a murderous primate and two generations of female victims. Predictably, much was lost in translation—Murders in the Rue Morgue suffers from a confusing script, dull pacing, and repetitive tropes. The picture has great production values, and it boasts the presence of lively stars Herbert Lom and Jason Robards, but it’s a slog to watch.
          Set in early 20th-century Paris, Hessler’s movie concerns Cesar Charron (Robards), producer/star of a Grand Guignol-type theater company that, when the story begins, performs a show called Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue at a theater called the Rue Morgue. (Clearly, “overkill” was the watchword during the writing process.) When several people in the theater company are killed, clues point to Rene Marot (Lom), a former member of the company long thought dead. Eventually, a connection is discovered between the gruesome death many years ago of Cesar’s first wife and the current bedevilment of her daughter, Madeline (Christine Kaufmann), who also happens to be Cesar’s current wife. There’s also some business involving a little person (Michael Dunn), who does creepy things like stalking Madeline, and a blustery but ineffectual police detective (Adolfo Celi).
          None of this makes much sense, especially since Hessler arbitrarily toggles between “present-day” scenes, dream sequences, and flashbacks; by the umpteenth time Hessler cuts to an ominous shot of a mysterious figure falling from the rafters of the theater, viewer fatigue is inevitable. Robards phones in his performance, but Dunn and Lom add florid villainy, while actresses including Kaufmann and Rosalind Elliot (who plays a doomed prostitute) furnish eye candy. Murders in the Rue Morgue includes some unconvincing gore (think waxy-looking severed heads), as well as a silly riff on Poe’s image of a primate running amok. In other words, the picture’s not without its lurid virtues—but the lack of a coherent storyline unquestionably relegates Murders in the Rue Morgue to the realm of misguided Poe movies.

Murders in the Rue Morgue: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Paper Chase (1973)

          If you have difficulty envisioning a gripping drama about the travails of first-year students at Harvard Law School, your suspicions will be validated—and undone—by The Paper Chase. While the movie is hardly the most dynamic film of the ’70s, it’s consistently interesting, and often very entertaining. Based on a book by John Jay Osborn Jr. and written and directed by James Bridges, The Paper Chase creates tension by treating naïve Minnesotan James T. Hart’s first year at Harvard as a character-defining quest. When we first meet James, he’s an amiable longhair prepared for hard work and ready for a little fun on the side; in fact, very early in the year, he becomes involved with Susan (Lindsay Wagner), a pretty young woman who lives near the Harvard campus.
          Yet James’ illusions of a smooth ride through school are shattered when he encounters Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), a demanding contract-law instructor. Defined by his open contempt for all but the most exceptional students, Kingsfield terrifies students previously accustomed to being considered the best and brightest. As the year progresses, James struggles to reach the “upper echelon” of the contracts class. Meanwhile, James continues his relationship with Susan—in the move’s least persuasive contrivance, she turns out to be Kingsfield’s daughter—and he wrestles with the strong personalities in his study group. For instance, James’ friend Kevin (James Naughton) represents the low end of Harvard’s academic spectrum, so poignant scenes depict Kevin buckling under pressure. Most of the picture, however, comprises James interactions with Kingsfield, whom the student alternately regards as a father figure, a guru, and a tormenter.
          While generally a solid movie, The Paper Chase is not without flaws. James is a bit on the insufferable side, with his unrelenting self-centeredness, although he’s leavened somewhat by the concern he demonstrates for Kevin. And if the rotten way James treats Susan serves a story purpose—demonstrating the problems law students face while seeking life/work balance—it’s not much fun to watch James act like a schmuck. The Kingsfield character is a bit of a cartoon, as well. That said, wonderful performances in key roles compensate for shortcomings. Bottoms fills moments with vulnerability and warmth, while Houseman—a veteran theatrical producer who made an astonishing transition to acting with this film—turns derision into an art form. (Houseman won an Oscar for his indelible performance.) Supporting players Naughton, Franklin Ford III, Edward Herrmann, Robert Lydiard, and Craig Richard Nelson (as the members of James’ study group) portray camaraderie and friction well. Only Wagner, best known for TV’s The Bionic Woman, underwhelms.
          The movie’s secret weapon is cinematographer Gordon Willis, the maestro behind the Godfather movies and myriad other ’70s classics; his elegant frames, filled with empty spaces and shadows, imbue the film with a sense of serious purpose. Bridges, marking his directorial debut, employs methodical pacing that lets Willis’ beguiling images weave their spell. All of this craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera elevates The Paper Chase into something that might be called sophisticated escapism. FYI, The Paper Chase became a TV series in 1978, running for four seasons (first on CBS and then on Showtime); of the actors from the movie, only, Houseman remained in place for the series, earning two Golden Globe nominations for reprising the Kingsfield role.

The Paper Chase: GROOVY

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Death by Invitation (1971)

You might think that making a low-budget horror movie with a simplistic plot—a woman seeks revenge on the descendents of the people who executed her ancestor on charges of witchcraft during colonial times—wouldn’t be all that hard. Establish the backstory, introduce the contemporary characters, and let the bloody fun begin. Implied in that formula, however, is a basic competence with filmmaking technique and storytelling, something first-time writer-director Ken Friedman was not able to provide for Death by Invitation. Even though it’s only 81 minutes, the picture endless, because Friedman alternates between interminable scenes of people talking about nothing and unexciting murder vignettes intercut with repetitive flashbacks. Yet even with all this chatter and visual exposition, the story still isn’t particularly clear until the final scenes, by which point any hope of generating audience interest (or suspense) has long since faded. Adding to the film’s myriad problems, Death by Invitation is photographed in the cheap style of a ’70s porno, only without the lurid distractions associated with that genre. Death by Invitation is about 90% talk, 9% tease, and—if one is being incredibly generous—1% payoff, in terms of sequences during which the results of the lead character’s murderous activities are revealed. Leading lady Shelby Leverington, who began a long career as a supporting actress after debuting in this movie, has a wholesome prettiness that a skilled director could have exploited for dramatic counterpoint; unfortunately, Friedman proves as clueless about shaping interesting performances as he is about every other aspect of cinematic endeavor. Seriously, if you can’t make something borderline watchable from an occult-themed story about an attractive murderess, do you have any business directing movies? The fact that Friedman has only helmed one other feature, the middling heartland drama Made in U.S.A. (1987), answers that question.

Death by Invitation: SQUARE

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Monkey Hu$tle (1976)

There’s an interesting and offbeat blaxploitation movie buried somewhere inside The Monkey Hu$tle, but the film’s meritorious elements are suffocated by an incoherent script and half-assed postproduction. For fans of actor Yaphet Kotto, the movie is worth a look because he gives a charming performance as a flim-flam man with funky jargon and a natty wardrobe; Kotto even seems like a credible romantic lead in his too-brief scenes with underused costar Rosalnd Cash. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t primarily about Kotto’s character—instead, The Monkey Hu$tle has about five different characters jockeying for pole position, just like the movie has about five different storylines competing for attention. As a result, the picture is a discombobulated mess, a problem made worse by lazy scoring that features the same enervated funk jams over and over again. Set in Chicago, the movie begins with Daddy Foxx (Kotto), a con man who enlists local youths as accomplices/apprentices. Daddy Foxx’s newest aide is Baby ’D (Kirk Calloway), much to the chagrin of the boy’s older brother, Win (Randy Brooks), a musician who’s had troubles with the law. Each of these three characters has a romantic partner, and the movie also presents Goldie (Rudy Rae Moore), a hustler who’s alternately Daddy Foxx’s friend and rival, plus other subplots including the threat to a black neighborhood posed by impending construction of a freeway. Amid all of this, the single thread that receives the most screen time, inexplicably, relates to Win securing a set of drums. Although The Monkey Hu$tle is so shapeless that it feels like the movie’s still just getting started by the time it’s over, some of the acting is fairly good and the production values are excellent; as a travelogue depicting inner-city Chicago circa the mid-’70s, the movie has value. However, the realism of the settings is undercut whenever the ridiculous Moore comes onscreen, with his atrocious acting and his costumes that seem like leftovers from a Commodores show. Had producer/director Arthur Marks built a solid film around Kotto’s endearing characterization, he might have had something. Instead, The Monkey Hu$tle merely contains glimmers of a legitimate movie.

The Monkey HuStle: LAME