Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thumb Tripping (1972)

An awful picture that only comes alive when it succumbs to lurid extremes, Thumb Tripping is a road movie in which neither the travelers nor the journey is interesting. Michael Burns plays Gary, a sweet-natured college kid who drops out of mainstream society for a summer of hitchhiking in Northern California and thereabouts. He soon hooks up with Shay (Meg Foster), a spaced-out hippie chick, but for the first 20-ish minutes of the movie, nothing happens. Gary and Shay mill around small towns including Carmel, occasionally getting hassled by the man, and they camp in a seaside cave with other hippies. (There’s literally a five-minute scene in the cave during which the four characters discuss the virtues of soup as a dietary staple.) Then the movie shifts to a series of episodes revolving around the weird people who give Gary and Shay rides. The best sequence features Bruce Dern as Smitty, a quasi-psychopath who threatens the kids with a knife; although Dern is typecast as a violent nutter, he’s so vital he almost makes the movie seem purposeful. Almost. Michael Conrad, later of Hill Street Blues fame, plays a horny trucker eager to get into Shay’s pants, and the final major characters are Jack (Burke Byrnes) and Lynn (Marianna Hill), hard-partying drunks who lead the heroes through high junks such as bar-hopping and skinny-dipping. Thumb Tripping is beyond pointless, not only because the story never goes anywhere, but also because the lead characters are twits. Gary’s an inactive cipher who simply watches things happen, except when he’s demonstrating squaresville hang-ups, and Shay is such a reckless wastoid that it’s bizarre we never see her drop acid. As for the acting, Burns is fine in a nothing role, Foster’s icy-blue eyes are as striking as ever, Conrad is effectively sleazy, and Byrnes and Hill are awful—hyper and screechy from their first frames to their last. Worst of all, the movie lacks a point of view: It’s neither a celebration of the counterculture lifestyle nor a condemnation, and since Gary’s just a visitor in this world, it’s not a docudrama, either.

Thumb Tripping: LAME

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Mechanic (1972)

          Taken solely for its surface pleasures, The Mechanic is a handsomely made thriller with an unusual amount of detail given to the preparations hitmen take before doing bad things—at certain points, it almost seems like a documentary. Combined with enigmatically tight-lipped performances by star Charles Bronson and supporting player Jan-Michael Vincent, director Michael Winner’s clinical approach makes for a unique (and uniquely nihilistic) viewing experience. Yet learning about the film’s origins adds interesting dimensions. Writer Lewis John Carlino, who based the script on his own unfinished novel, apparently envisioned the story with a gay angle, exploring the dynamic between an avaricious apprentice and a world-weary mentor. Alas, overt references to this approach were excised, and in fact the apprentice and mentor characters are portrayed as being aggressively heterosexual. Given these behind-the-scenes negotiations about thematic content, however, it’s possible to watch The Mechanic simply as a he-man story—or to look deeper for something kinky beneath the surface.
          In any event, Bronson stars as Arthur Bishop, a methodical killer who makes his murders-for-hire look like accidents. Around the time he accepts an important contract from a group of organized criminals, Bishop inherits an unlikely trainee, Steve McKenna (Vincent). Among the most interesting elements of the film is a pair of mirrored scenes featuring these men with the women in their lives; Bishop’s girl is a prostitute (Jill Ireland) whom he pays to simulate a personal bond, and McKenna’s is a troubled hippie (Linda Ridgeway), with whom McKenna plays insidious mind games during the movie’s darkest scene. (Revealing exactly how Bishop and McKenna become allies would require giving away too much of the plot.) About half the picture takes place in Europe, where Bishop and McKenna fulfill a challenging contract, only to realize they’ve been set up for a double-cross. The betrayals pile up until an unusually hard-hitting ending.
          Winner, a frequent Bronson collaborator, shoots the film with precision, accentuating physical environments that convey more about characters than the characters themselves are willing to say; he also stages action expertly, creating tension against a grim backdrop of pervasive hopelessness. His careful treatment of brutal material gives The Mechanic a strange kind of macho integrity—and because Bronson and Vincent give such contained performances, it’s possible to project interesting psychological implications onto their blank faces. So while The Mechanic isn’t high art by any measure, it’s not a mindless thrill ride, either.

The Mechanic: GROOVY

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Horsemen (1971)

          Macho and savage, The Horsemen is a sports movie for only the hardiest of viewers. Set in modern-day Afghanistan (circa the early ’70s), the picture concerns the brutal sport of buzkashi—think polo, but with longer playing times and with a headless goat carcass in lieu of a ball. Exploring themes such as male identity and primitive codes of honor, The Horsemen is mildly fascinating as an ethnographic study, but it’s not an easy film for Westerners to embrace. Even though The Horsemen relies on certain clichés that are common to most sports movies (and most stories about fathers and sons), the picture is so thick with virility that it’s a sonnet to manly suffering. In The Horsemen, the best man isn’t the one who wins, per se; it’s the man who endures the most pain in the pursuit of winning.
          Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel and written by the formidable Dalton Trumbo—whose previous collaboration with Horseman director John Frankenheimer, 1968’s The Fixer, was just as tough and uncompromising—the movie revolves around a young man trying to win the respect of his unyielding father. Jack Palace, wearing a mist of old-age makeup over his leathery features, plays Tursen, a retired buzkashi player who makes a humble but respectable living tending horses for a wealthy landowner. After grooming his son, Uraz (Omar Sharif), to become a buzkashi champion, Tursen places a huge wager on Uraz’s performance in a match, only to watch Uraz lose. Never mind that Uraz suffers a broken leg; broken pride is all that matters here. Much of the film comprises Uraz’s excruciating quest to rehabilitate his body for a return to the game, and since this is a merciless Frankenheimer film, the cure is far worse than the disease.
          The Horsemen looks amazing, with cinematographers André Domage, James Wong Howe, and Claude Renoir conveying the stark majesty of the Afghan landscape—to say nothing of the ferocious action during buzkashi matches. Unfortunately, neither Palance nor Sharif is sufficiently expressive to deliver all of the subtle nuances inherent to the material. They convey a certain undeniable primal intensity, and each has affecting moments, but the film would have benefited from performers with broader emotional palettes. Faring even worse than the male leads is beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young, cast as a fallen woman who enters Uraz’s life. While she looks blazingly sexy with her long, dark hair and smoky eye makeup, Taylor-Young is merely ornamental to a story that’s all about men and their animalistic drives to impress each other.

The Horsemen: FUNKY

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Crater Lake Monster (1977)

Amateurish, boring, and clichéd, this low-budget creature feature is built around special effects that wouldn’t have passed muster in 1957, much less 1977. Yes, The Crater Lake Monster employs the rickety old technique of stop-motion critters poorly superimposed onto normal live-action footage. Yet while true stop-motion masters such as Ray Harryhausen employed the process to fill cinema frames with armies of supernatural beasties, the makers of The Crater Lake Monster merely present a single dinosaur. Amazingly, the poorly executed stop-motion shots of the prehistoric killer are the best parts of the movie, because the filmmakers also use silly mock-ups of the dinosaur’s full-sized head for close-up shots in which interchangeable characters are eaten. Grade-school kids putting on a pageant could have generated more impressive visuals. The story, which loses interest after about a minute and a half, begins when archeologists exploring caves in rural Oregon uncover ancient drawings suggesting a dinosaur lived there up to the time of man, contrary to scientific theories about how long ago dinosaurs went extinct. Then a meteor falls in a lake and cracks open a long-buried dinosaur egg, after which the newly born creature immediately matures into a full-sized carnivore that lives underwater—except when it ventures onto land to eat people. None of this makes any sense, and every aspect of The Crater Lake Monster is as inept as the storyline. The acting by a slew of no-names is terrible, the dialogue is wooden, and the thrills are warmed-over silliness borrowed from an infinite number of better movies.

The Crater Lake Monster: SQUARE

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Representing a middling finale to an impressive career, The Eagle Has Landed was the last movie directed by action guy John Sturges, whose previous output included such classics as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). Considering Sturges’ skill and the caliber of the film’s cast, The Eagle Has Landed should be terrific, but the story is hopelessly convoluted, and the film never quite overcomes the problem of featuring Nazis as protagonists. Based on a novel by Jack Higgins and written by Bond-movie veteran Tom Mankiewicz, who was generally better suited to tongue-in-cheek escapist fare, the narrative concerns an outlandish Third Reich plot to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the height of the war’s European action. Some of the Germans behind the scheme are, in descending order of rank, Hitler confidante Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence), an officer named Radl (Robert Duvall, complete with eye patch), an IRA double-agent named Devlin (Donald Sutherland), and a disgraced Nazi officer named Steiner (Michael Caine). The overcooked plot also includes American soldiers (played by, among others, Larry Hagman and Treat Williams), plus a British lass (Jenny Agutter) who shares romantic history with Devlin. (In case you’ve already forgotten, he’s the IRA guy.) Just describing the plot of The Eagle Has Landed is exhausting, and while watching the movie is not quite as much of a chore as this synopsis might suggest, The Eagle Has Landed lacks the jaunty quality of Sturges’ best action pictures. On the bright side, there’s some low-wattage fun to be had in watching Caine play a snotty officer who openly expresses contempt for his superiors, or in watching Sutherland play one of his signature romantic rogues. Plus, Duvall has a few strong moments as the put-upon Radl, a mid-level officer who endeavors to follow orders while slyly working the Third Reich political system to protect himself from punishment in the event of failure. Good luck, pal!

The Eagle Has Landed: FUNKY

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Truck Turner (1974)

          Blaxploitation flicks came in so many flavors that fans of the genre can have many favorites—best martial-arts adventure, best Pam Grier joint, best Fred Williamson thriller, best installment of Shaft, and so on. Therefore, when I say that Truck Turner is my overall favorite blaxploitation picture, what I really mean is that the movie’s 91 slam-bam-stick-it-to-the-man minutes encapsulate every tacky, wonderful thing I dig about blaxploitation. Other movies in the genre have better moments, and other movies in the genre have better stories, but Truck Turner’s got enough action, murder, pimps, urban fashion, and vituperative vulgarity to make other blaxploitation pictures look wimpy by comparison. Isaac Hayes, of all people, stars as Truck Turner—excuse me, Mack Truck Turner—a pistol-packin’ bounty hunter on the trail of a pimp named Harvard Blue who skipped bail. If that synopsis doesn’t get your blood pumping, read no further. But if you’re catchin’ what I’m sendin’ your way, man, then let’s rap a while about this groovy jam.
          Hayes, the deep-voiced soul/funk musician who previously earned his blaxploitation bona fides with his Oscar-winning tune “Theme from Shaft,” made an easy transition to acting with Truck Turner. Even though he’s not the most persuasive thespian—in fact, his line deliveries range from phony to silly—he’s got such a strong natural presence, and such panache for investing dialogue with badass swagger, that his lack of real acting ability isn’t a hindrance. Simply put, the dude is cool. So, as the movie progresses, and as Turner’s pimpquest turns deadly, it’s tremendous fun to watch Hayes ice bad men and seduce good ladies.
          Director Jonathan Kaplan, who was slowly working his way up the American International Pictures exploitation-movie food chain, exhibits a slick touch with action scenes and urban culture—Truck Turner is a cartoon, but it’s lively as hell. For instance, where else can viewers see Nichelle Nichols, better known as Lt. Uhura from the original Star Trek series, playing a tough madam? (Here’s Nichols describing her ladies: “These are all prime cut--$238,000 worth of dynamite. It’s Fort Knox in panties.”) And where else can viewers see Hayes square off with the powerful Yaphet Kotto, who plays Harvard Blue? Because, ultimately, Truck Turner is all about Hayes striking don’t-mess-with-this-motherfucker poses—he’s at his best when stripped to the waist, wearing just jeans and a shoulder holster, while blowing away hired killers with his cannon-sized .44 Magnum. Unsurprisingly, Hayes also provided the soundtrack for the movie, and his song titles give a good flavor of the movie’s down-and-dirty appeal: “Pursuit of the Pimpmoble,” “A House Full of Girls,” “Give It to Me,” and the extra-succinct “Drinking.”

Truck Turner: GROOVY

Friday, January 25, 2013

Together Brothers (1974)

          The inner-city drama/thriller Together Brothers brings together a number of disparate elements, and though the picture doesn’t hold together well, it makes for an oddly memorable viewing experience. When the story begins, we meet Mr. Kool (Ed Bernard), an African-American beat cop who uses a human touch while patrolling a tough black ghetto. Fair and hip, he’s respected even by criminals and street kids. Yet one night, Kool is murdered—right before the eyes of grade-schooler Tommy (Anthony Wilson). Kool’s assailant flees, and the police are slow to follow up on leads, so Tommy’s older brother, teenager A.J. (Ahmad Narradin), and his pals decide to track down Kool’s killer. Among other things, they’re afraid the murderer might track Tommy down to eliminate a witness. After this interesting set-up, the movie drifts into a lively section during which A.J. and his buddies seek aid from their rivals, a Hispanic street gang led by Vega (Richard Yniguez). So far, so good, right? Well, we’ve reached the point where Together Brothers becomes offensive—the killer is revealed to be a flamboyant homosexual named Billy (Lincoln Kilpatrick), who goes back and forth between brutal rage and prissy crying jags.
          Yes, Together Brothers continues the vile tradition of stereotyping gay men as unstable freaks. And that’s a bummer, because up until Together Brothers goes wrong, it’s thoroughly arresting. Director William A. Graham shoots the hell out of the picture’s grimy urban locations, depicting vibrant souls living in defiance of crushing poverty. Furthermore, the action scenes are taut, and while the juvenile performances are spotty, adult players Bernard, Kilpatrick, Yniguez, and Glynn Turman (who plays a therapist in one scene) deliver strong work. And we haven’t even mentioned the secret weapon of Together Brothers, R&B superstar Barry White, who composed the picture’s lively score and a handful of songs—including the thumping groove “Somebody’s Gonna Off the Man.” With his imaginative arrangements and lush strings, White kicks some Together Brothers scenes into full-on blaxploitation funkiness, even though the picture is, generally speaking, bereft of blaxploitation clichés. So, while it’s difficult to recommend Together Brothers too heartily given its flaws and its ugly portrayal of homosexuality, this is an interesting picture offering small rewards for adventurous viewers.

Together Brothers: FUNKY

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

          While elitists often cite the collaboration of actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese as the prime example of a ’70s star/auteur mind-meld, it’s unwise to overlook a partnership that manifested in glossier movies—that of actor Robert Redford and filmmaker Sydney Pollack. While the films these men created together have never enjoyed the critical adoration of the De Niro-Scorsese pictures, the Redford-Pollack movies were, generally speaking, more popular with audiences and, in very different ways, just as thematically rich. Around the time De Niro and Scorsese were shooting their seminal psychological drama Taxi Driver, for instance, Redford and Pollack were enjoying the success of a slick escapist movie, Three Days of the Condor. Based on a novel by James Grady, and adapted for the screen by reliable popcorn-movie guy Lorenzo Semple Jr. and go-to Pollack rewriter David Rayfiel, Condor is a great yarn.
          Joseph Turner (Redford) is a CIA analyst whose days are spent reading books and documents for clues that might benefit the American intelligence community. Though he’s got the code name “Condor,” he’s not a covert operative. One day, Turner walks into his office and discovers that all of his co-workers have been assassinated. Someone in Turner’s unit uncovered top-secret data, so now Turner, as the unit’s only survivor, is a target. He spends the rest of the movie on the run, with ice-blooded European hit man Joubert (Max von Sydow) in pursuit. And since Turner isn’t sure he can trust his main CIA contact, Higgins (Cliff Robertson), he seeks refuge with a stranger, Kathy (Faye Dunaway). This being a Pollack movie, Kathy falls for Turner, so she gets pulled into his dangerous world even as Turner tries to unravel the conspiracy.
          As in most great thrillers, the mechanics of the plot are simultaneously crucial and disposable—we get enough detail to play along with Turner as he solves mysteries, but the actual information being pursued by characters within the story is inconsequential. The real fun comes from the moment-to-moment suspense of Turner trying to figure out whether people want to help or kill him. Aided by collaborators including master cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection), Pollack does some of his best work here, keeping the story moving at a fast clip while still generating his signature romantic intensity. Redford plays to his strength of immaculately defining tiny shifts in mood and thought, his subtlety adding dimensions to the plot, and Dunaway is arguably warmer here than in any other movie. (Robertson, von Sydow and John Houseman are all entertaining, though their roles have fewer facets.) Exciting, sexy, and surprising, Three Days of the Condor is a great case study in how a well-matched actor and filmmaker can complement each other to produce highly enjoyable cinema.

Three Days of the Condor: RIGHT ON

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

This movie scared the crap out of me before I even saw the thing. I should explain. When a Stranger Calls is based on an urban legend about a babysitter who keeps receiving calls asking her to “check the children,” only to discover the calls are emanating from the house where she’s working, and that the kids in her care have already been murdered. Around dusk one evening in the mid-’70s, when I was a preteen living in Michigan, I was walking through my suburban neighborhood with a gaggle of fellow youths. One of the older kids in the group told a version of the “check the children” story, adding (of course) that the story really happened, and that it happened nearby. Cue freaked-out little me. For many years afterward, the experience of hearing the urban legend (which I completely believed) and the subsequent release of When a Stranger Calls blurred. Thus, once I finally sat down to watch the flick as an adult, I was prepared for a terrifying ordeal. During the beginning of the picture, I almost got what I expected. The first 15 minutes or so, which dramatizes the whole “check the children” bit, is hella creepy. How could it not be, especially with such a nihilistic climax? Alas, the movie’s energy drains afterwards, because it becomes a drab stalker picture in which the killer (Tony Beckley) torments the babysitter (Carol Kane) once more. Even with the fabulous Charles Durning playing the cop who tries to protect Jill, When a Stranger Calls cannot overcome a lifeless script, and first-time director Fred Walton’s work is competent but painfully unimaginative. Poor Kane, a gifted actress who should have known better than to appear in a psycho thriller, is left floundering through one flat scene after another, unable to showcase her charming idiosyncrasies. All in all, a missed opportunity—and yet for some reason, Durning, Kane, and Walton reteamed for a made-for-TV sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), and the original picture was remade in 2006, with Camilla Belle in the Kane role.

When a Stranger Calls: LAME

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fuzz (1972)

Although it’s confusing, dull, and unpleasant, the crime comedy Fuzz boasts ample star power, with Burt Reynolds playing the cranky leader of a group of undercover cops and Raquel Welch busting out of her sweaters as one of his colleagues; furthermore, the supporting cast features the laconic Tom Skerritt and the irascible Jack Weston playing cops, plus the stoic Yul Brynner as a villain. There’s even a big name behind the scenes, because screenwriter Evan Hunter adapted the story from one of the acclaimed “87th Precinct” novels he wrote under the pen name Ed McBain. However, even calling the narrative of Fuzz a story is exaggerating—to quote the Bard, this picture is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The main plot involves a deaf criminal (Brynner) murdering Boston city officials as a means of extorting payments from the government, but there’s also an ugly subplot about homeless people getting set on fire, and yet another subplot about a string of robberies. Additionally, the film offers a cursory nod to then-current Women’s Lib issues by having Welch’s character fend off horny suitors while trying to prove she’s as qualified to wear a badge as any man. In fact, it’s almost easier to list things that aren’t included in this overstuffed flick than to itemize its components. Worse, the excessive approach is exacerbated by whiplash-inducing tonal shifts. In certain scenes, Fuzz is horrific, as when people are burned alive, and in others, Fuzz is silly, as when Reynolds goes undercover in a nun’s habit despite sporting his signature moustache. Given screenwriter Hunter’s long history of writing police stories, either the serious version of Fuzz or the stupid version of Fuzz might have worked, but this disjointed hybrid is a dreary mess. And that’s a shame, because the leading players (with the exception of the ever-vapid Welch) present interesting personas, and the movie has fleeting moments of amusing interplay and/or dynamic action. However, these glimmers of entertainment hardly merit sitting through 92 minutes of tacky pandemonium.

Fuzz: LAME

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Man (1972)

          A true ’70s obscurity that’s well worth tracking down, The Man is a whip-smart imaginary tale about the first black U.S. president. Built around a taut screenplay by Rod Serling and a commanding performance by James Earl Jones, the picture now seems quite prescient—believe it or not, the title character’s campaign slogan is “Change.” Based on a novel by Irving Wallace, the story presents a convoluted chain of events leading to the installation of Sen. Douglass Dilman as president. After the previous commander in chief and the Speaker of the House are killed in an accident, the sitting vice president exits the line of succession because he’s terminally ill. Thus, the presidency falls to the Senate’s pro tem president, Dilman. This doesn’t sit well with white power brokers including Secretary of State Eaton (William Windom), who has designs on the Oval Office, and Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith), an unapologetic racist from an unnamed Southern state. As a result, Dilman is a political target from the moment he takes power.
          Even potential supporters have issues with Dilman, simply because his ascension carries the weight of history. In one of the film’s best quiet moments, Dilman shares an exchange with his activist daughter, Wanda (Janet MacLachlan), the night he inherits the presidency. “They were expecting a black messiah,” Dilman says about African-Americans. Her reply? “What they’ve got is a black president—that’s more than they’ve ever gotten.” Then Dilman delivers the kicker, which resonates strongly in the Obama era: “I can’t be what everyone wants me to be.” The Man poignantly anticipates the gulf between dreams and reality that has been the source of so much anti-Obama criticism and disappointment.
          Yet The Man cleverly sidesteps the question of what a black president might do with a mandate, instead portraying Dilman as a dedicated public servant who inherits a racially charged mess. At the moment he takes the oath of office, a young African-American college student is under suspicion following an attempt on the South African defense minister’s life, and a minority-rights bill is working its way through Congress. Worse, domestic adversaries including Watson, Eaton, and Eaton’s Lady Macbeth-esque wife, Kay (Barbara Rush), forge political wedges with which to dislodge Dilman’s political standing, lest the accidental president decide he wants a full term.
          The Man is preachy and talky—Serling shares with Aaron Sorkin the debate-club approach to dramatic structure—but the plot churns with enough Beltway skullduggery to ground the speechifying in suspense. Director Joseph Sargent, a reliable TV-trained helmer, serves the material well by staying out of the way, and the acting is uniformly vivid. Meredith and Rush are believably loathsome as D.C. barracudas, Georg Sanford Brown lends fire as the impassioned college student, and the great Martin Balsam provides gravitas and warmth as the president’s chief of staff. The whole movie rests on Jones’ shoulders, however, and he meets the challenge with grace. Portraying an intellectual who has channeled his indignation into diplomatic rhetoric, Jones employs his formidable powers to convey charisma, strength, and wisdom—the very qualities that, decades later, distinguish the individual who changed history in the real world the way the Dilman character changed history in the reel world.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

          Based on a story by revered sci-fi scribe Harlan Ellison, this cult-fave saga takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—Ellison’s narrative contrives an alternate reality in which John F. Kennedy survived the events of November 22, 1963, with major ripple effects on history. In 2024, survivors wander the desolated Earth, struggling for food and water. The protagonist (not really a hero) is dim-witted teenager Vic (Don Johnson), who roams the American Southwest accompanied only by Blood, his genius-level telepathic pooch. Blood “speaks” via voiceover performed by actor Tim McIntire. Blood and Vic travel together because the boy’s physical strength and the dog’s mental abilities make them a formidable unit. As the weird story progresses, Blood and Vic end up in a subterranean community called Topeka, where Vic gets involved with Quilla (Suzanne Benton), the daughter of underground overlord Lou (Jason Robards), a boisterous megalomaniac.
          Even by comparison with earlier sequences that feature killer mutants and talking dogs, the underground bits in A Boy and His Dog are insane. Most of the Topeka residents wear garish mime makeup, and the culture beneath the Earth’s surface is built around sexless procreation. (Men get strapped to machines that extract sperm—fun!) Describing the full plot of A Boy and His Dog is more work than it’s worth, partly because the story is so complicated and partly because the mysteries of this unique film should not be revealed. Suffice to say,  A Boy and His Dog is not for every taste. Some viewers will find it too confusing, some will find it too odd, and some will find it too pretentiously allegorical. Furthermore, the film’s extremes are exacerbated by narrative and technical shortcomings.
          L.Q. Jones, a veteran character actor known mostly for Westerns (including Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic The Wild Bunch), directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the movie—one of only three completed projects he helmed—and he’s shaky behind the camera. The movie has visual flair, since bizarre post-apocalyptic environments are inherently interesting, but do the various elements hang together comfortably? Not really. The movie toggles between bleak drama, high comedy, and wicked satire, never settling on a consistent tone, and the final scene (which won’t be spoiled here) kicks the film into truly demented terrain. Plus, since Johnson is not a powerhouse actor, it’s odd that the most dynamic performance in the film is given by McIntire, who never appears onscreen; his impassioned vocal work, portraying every dimension of Blood’s perversely complicated personality, nearly pulls the picture together.

A Boy and His Dog: FREAKY

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hollywood Boulevard (1976)

          The idea of a Roger Corman production spoofing the cheapness and tawdriness of Roger Corman productions is tantalizing, but Hollywood Boulevard is better in the abstract than in reality. Disjointed, sleazy, and underdeveloped, it features many amusing moments but doesn’t hang together well. Reading about the film’s creation, one quickly learns why. Apparently, producer Jon Davison, a Corman protégé, pledged to make the cheapest movie in the history of Corman’s ’70s company, New World Pictures, so Corman gave Davison $60,000 and access to the New World library of footage from previous Corman productions. Enlisting the aid of screenwriter Danny Opatoshu (credited by a pseudonym) and first-time directors Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, Davis contrived a campy story about a would-be starlet (Candice Rialson) who arrives in Hollywood fresh from Indiana, then falls in with a shameless agent (Dick Miller) and a low-budget film crew led by a reckless director (Paul Bartel) whose stunt players tend to die on the job. The movie is part behind-the-scenes comedy, part murder mystery, and part slapstick nonsense, with lots of skin—Hollywood Boulevard has so many topless scenes that even the horniest viewer might get bored of looking at breasts.
          Arkush later went on to create inspired lunacy with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), and Dante’s subsequent career includes such irreverent favorites as Gremlins (1984), so it’s easy to see what sorts of comedic ideas were brewing in the young filmmakers’ brains when they made Hollywood Boulevard. However, the amateurish cast, the reliance on recycled footage, and the rushed shooting schedule precluded anything truly inspired from reaching the screen. That said, cinema buffs will obviously find more to like here than general audiences, from the wink-wink depictions of life on a low-budget set to the goofy film-nerd in-jokes (a criminal character is named “Rico” as a shout-out to the 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar, and so on). Plus, the whole enterprise is so knowingly and playfully trashy that it’s hard to dislike Hollywood Boulevard, even though it’s just as hard to feel genuine passion for the flick. Although, it must be said, the running joke about Miller’s character formerly representing everything from an elephant to a meatball sandwich is slightly fabulous.

Hollywood Boulevard: FUNKY

Friday, January 18, 2013

Coma (1978)

          One of the few genuine Renaissance men of 20th-century popular culture, Michael Crichton was a doctor-turned-novelist who leveraged his literary success for a lucrative film career as a screenwriter and occasional director. Every facet of his professional identity came together for Coma, his biggest hit as a director: Set in the medical milieu, the thriller features Crichton’s signature style of provocative science fiction. Ironically, however, he didn’t originate the story. Crichton adapted the film from a novel by another doctor-turned-author, Robin Cook. Yet Crichton’s distance from the material was probably a good thing, since his characters and plots often fell short of his wonderful ideas; perhaps owing to its mixed authorship, Coma has one of the smoothest narratives of any of Crichton’s film projects.
          The heroine of the piece is Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold), a surgical resident who uncovers a bizarre conspiracy. It seems an abnormal number of healthy young patients at Boston Memorial Hospital are falling into inexplicable comas during routine surgical procedures. When Susan’s friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) becomes the latest victim, Susan investigates—despite stern warnings from her boss, Chief of Surgery Dr. George Harris (Richard Widmark), to stop snooping. Additionally, Susan doesn’t get much support from her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). A self-absorbed chief resident who condescendingly belittles Susan’s theories, Mark believes Dr. Harris’ appraisal that Susan has succumbed to grief and stress. Alas, Susan’s fears prove justified, because she unearths an insidious connection between Boston Memorial and a mysterious facility called the Jefferson Institute. Before long, the movie accelerates into full-on thriller mode, with a hired killer (Lance LeGault) chasing after Susan to keep her from sharing the explosive truth she’s discovered.
          Layered with details about the medical profession that give a strong sense of credibility, Coma is a tight and focused film with carefully modulated suspense elements. The character work is a bit on the rudimentary side, and some supporting players—including Elizabeth Ashley, who plays a nurse at the Jefferson Institute—merely deliver exposition. Still, the piece has a great look, with interesting settings such as the tunnels beneath and within a hospital, and Bujold’s chilly screen persona keeps things from getting too melodramatic. Douglas contrasts her reserved quality with his hot-blooded leading-man charisma, and Widmark, as always, makes a memorable prick. (Watch for future stars Ed Harris, Tom Selleck, and Rip Torn in small roles.) The ending is a bit hackneyed, but the vibe of Coma is so consistently creepy, and the execution of the movie is so slick, that Coma is thoroughly enjoyable escapism.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

One Summer Love (1976)

         Originally released under the title Dragonfly, this offbeat story depicts the unexpected circumstance by which romance helps a troubled individual recover from psychological trauma—and though the film obviously means well, major problems with character development undercut the intended impact. Beau Bridges plays Jesse, a tightly wound young man who has spent most of his life in a mental hospital. When the picture begins, he receives permission to exit the facility, though his doctor (James Noble) wonders whether Jesse will be able to handle the harshness of the outside world. Intent on finding the family that abandoned him after a mysterious childhood incident, Jesse treks to his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, and, eventually, enters a movie theater. The theater’s pretty candy-counter clerk, Chloe (Susan Sarandon), discovers that Jesse has no place to stay, so she invites him home even though he’s clearly unwell.
          This single moment virtually undoes the entire movie, because it makes no sense that Chloe would take in a man whom she has already seen manifest symptoms of instability and volatility. Even the tender/tough dynamism of Sarandon’s performance isn’t enough to sell the story’s central contrivance, and producer-director Gilbert Cates—who often thrived telling stories about people with emotional problems—makes several tonal missteps, not least of which is scoring the movie with music so dark that One Summer Love occasionally feels like a horror picture. Unfortunately, Bridges’ performance hurts credibility, too; while he approaches individual scenes with appropriate levels of intensity and/or warmth, he’s unable to overcome the falseness of a character who lashes out in rage whenever it’s narratively convenient for such a thing to happen.
          The weakest section of the picture, however, involves Jesse seeking lodging with a hotel owner (Ann Wedgeworth) who all but rapes the younger man. If One Summer Love was, in part, meant to be a coming-of-age story, then a physical encounter between Chloe and Jesse would have added more soul to the film. Yet the picture recovers, somewhat, once Jesse finally tracks down family members, even though the movie’s final scene is a puzzler. One Summer Love isn’t a satisfying movie, by any stretch, but it is worth watching largely for Sarandon’s performance and for the gauzy atmospherics Cates uses to evoke the sleepy rhythms of small-town life. If logic is one of your cinematic priorities, though, take a pass on this one. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

One Summer Love: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Too Late the Hero (1970)

          After making an influential and popular World War II action picture, The Dirty Dozen (1967), it was inevitable that eclectic filmmaker Robert Aldrich would return to the milieu, and almost just as inevitable that his foll0w-up picture would fall short of the high bar set by its predecessor. While Too Late the Hero features the same muscular combination of provocative drama and slick production values that made The Dirty Dozen so vital, Too Late the Hero suffers from a diffuse storyline and a padded running time, to say nothing of an ineffectual leading performance. So, although the picture is more or less watchable, even if one is tempted to hit the fast-forward button during repetitive sequences, Too Late the Hero fails to make much of an impression.
          Cliff Robertson stars as Lt. Lawson, an American junior officer whose assignment as a command-center translator in the Pacific theater keeps him away from combat. The cushy gig doesn’t last, however, because Lawson gets reassigned to a British commando unit tasked with taking out a Japanese radio installation. Serving under uptight Capt. Hornsby (Denholm Elliot), Lawson and his new comrades trudge through dense jungle, avoiding Japanese patrols, until a series of skirmishes change their circumstances for the worse. Eventually, Lawson and a snarky British enlisted man, Hearne (Michael Caine), inherit responsibility for completing the mission, forcing the unlikely predicament of Lawson becoming a valiant leader. The idea of the movie is strong—exploring the question of whether heroes are born or made—but the execution is not.
          Aldrich, who also co-wrote the picture, lets the narrative drag through unnecessary sequences (there are lots of marching montages), and his contrivance of a combat-averse protagonist means the main character spends a great deal of time watching other people do interesting things. Exacerbating the problem, Robertson simply isn’t expressive enough here to make Lawson’s journey fascinating—in fact, both Caine and Elliot upstage Robertston whenever the British actors share screen time with their American leading man. Caine is largely underused until the last stretch of the picture, when his acidic line deliveries become meaningful on a story level, and Elliot actually comes off the best of the three by portraying a stalwart man whose desire to demonstrate bravery leads him to take foolish risks.

Too Late the Hero: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Fury (1978)

          Apparently hopeful that lighting would strike twice in terms of creative inspiration and box-office returns, director Brian De Palma followed up his breakthrough movie, the 1976 supernatural shocker Carrie, with another horror flick about killer psychics. Yet while The Fury has bigger stars and glossier production values than its predecessor, it’s so far-fetched and gruesome that it lacks anything resembling the emotional gut-punch of Carrie. That’s not to say The Fury is devoid of entertainment value—it’s just that De Palma badly overreached in his attempt to blend elements of the conspiracy, horror, and supernatural genres into a sensationalistic new hybrid. Written for the screen by John Farris, who adapted his own novel, the convoluted movie pits former friends Ben (John Cassavetes) and Peter (Kirk Douglas) against each other. They’re both secret-agent types, and Ben is exploring the possible use of psychics as trained killers. One of Ben’s star pupils is Peter’s adult son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), although Ben expects even greater things from Gillian (Amy Irving), a gifted but troubled woman Robin’s age.
          You can probably guess where this goes—the young psychics fall in love even as they realize they’re being manipulated, Peter tries to rescue his son, and corpses hit the floor when the psychics get pushed too far.
          This being a De Palma picture, one is unwise to expect restraint on the part of the filmmaker, and, indeed, the movie’s finale involves a human body exploding. Moreover, despite the sophisticated contributions of cinematographer Richard H. Kline and composer John Williams, nearly every scene in The Fury ends with the cinematic equivalent of an exclamation point. Hell, the picture even features two performances (provided by Douglas and Stevens) distinguished by actors indicating intensity by flaring their nostrils. Regarding the other leads, Cassavetes sleepwalks through a paycheck gig as per the norm, and Irving elevates her scenes with the delicate sensitivity that distinguishes most of her work. None of the major performances is particularly good, per se, but each is lively in a different way, so at least De Palma achieves a certain overcaffeinated tonal consistency. Considering its assertive direction, colorful cast, and outlandish storyline, The Fury should be memorable in a comic-book sort of way, but ultimately, the picture is as anonymous as the silhouetted models featured on the poster—instead of delivering unique jolts, it’s Carrie Lite.

The Fury: FUNKY