Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Will Fight No More Forever (1975)

          Although it’s so heavily skewed toward providing educational content that it plays more like a dry documentary than a lively feature, the TV movie I Will Fight No More Forever illuminates such an important chapter of American history that it’s possible to overlook the textbook presentation and enjoy the underlying narrative. The title emanates from a quote by Chief Joseph, who in 1877 helped guide his Nez Perce tribe from Oregon to Montana in a quest to escape the clutches of the U.S. government by slipping into Canada. While Joseph was neither the only leader of the Nez Perce nor the only Native American who engendered sympathy among whites, his determination and eloquence were unique—during his flight from Oregon, Joseph evaded the U.S. Cavalry for nearly 2,000 miles with minimal loss of life, and when he finally surrendered, he did so with such poetry that he shamed his pursuers.
          I Will Fight No More Forever tells the story of the Nez Perce exodus simply, and with a commendable degree of balance—some Nez Perce braves are shown as reckless, providing a counterpoint to Joseph’s rationality, just as Joseph’s main pursuer, Gen. Oliver Howard, is shown to sympathize with Joseph’s goals rather than hating the man. The story begins with a white civilian murdering a Nez Perce brave based on a false accusation of theft. As his people call for war, Joseph (Ned Romero) counsels patience and brings the matter to the attention of his friend, Howard (James Whitmore). Howard pledges to bring the killer to justice, but then he drops a bombshell by saying the U.S. government wants the Nez Perce moved onto a reservation. Appalled that a treaty designed to prevent exactly that outcome has been broken, Joseph walks away from his meeting with Howard and confers with his tribe. Reasoning that flight is wiser than open war, Joseph begins the journey to the Canadian border, with Howard’s troops in pursuit. As the chase spreads from days to weeks to months, Howard gains respect for his opponent’s strategic genius.
          Romero, a journeyman actor of partial Native American descent, makes up in presence what he lacks in skill, because he looks perfect in flowing hair and feathers, his face seemingly carved from granite and his voice a resonant instrument. Whitmore and costar Sam Elliot, who plays Howard’s aide (and sparring partner during moral debates), invest their scenes with feeling, often surmounting the limitations of stilted dialogue. The physicality of the movie is okay, with wide-open locations compensating for iffy makeup and too-tidy costuming, though a Native-themed music score lends texture. I Will Fight No More Forever is not the best tribute one might imagine for Chief Joseph, but it’s an honorable attempt.

I Will Fight No More Forever: GROOVY

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

          Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy screen persona had solidified by the mid-’70s, as had his stringent control over projects—even when he wasn’t also directing, Eastwood ensured that his films were brand-consistent and supremely efficient. Given this closely held authority, it’s interesting to look at the handful of ’70s pictures for which Eastwood gave other filmmakers more latitude than usual. A good case in point is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the directorial debut of Michael Cimino, whose subsequent films—notably The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980)—are known for their epic scale. Obviously, “epic” wasn’t going to fly with Eastwood, so Cimino, who also write Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, confined his ambitions to a tight storyline, although Cimino’s taste for big-canvas cinema is evident in the John Ford-style panoramic shots of various Montana locations.
          A straightforward crime picture with an undercurrent of fatalism, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot begins when exuberant young car thief Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) encounters a country preacher (Eastwood) who is inexplicably running from a maniac with a machine pistol. After helping the preacher escape, Lightfoot learns his new pal is actually the infamous bank robber known as “Thunderbolt” because he once used a cannon to bust into a vault. The man trying to kill Thunderbolt is a former accomplice, Leary (George Kennedy), who mistakenly believes Thunderbolt stole the haul from a heist they committed together. Eventually, Leary catches up with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and accepts Thunderbolt’s story that the money was lost, so the three men—together with Leary’s nervous wingman, Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), conspire to rob another bank and replace the missing cash. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot isn’t precisely a buddy movie or a heist picture, nor is it merely a car-chase flick or a thriller. Rather, it’s an ingenious amalgam of all of those genres, a sampler plate of manly-man tropes.
          Individualization is generally kept to a minimum so characters can function as archetypes, although Brudges’ buoyant performance distinguishes Lightfoot from everyone else—he’s brash and irresponsible, yet so full of life he makes even the worst situations feel like exciting adventures. Cimino avoids romanticizing the lifestyles of his characters, accentuating the collateral damage criminals inflict and illustrating the cost criminals pay for making dangerous choices. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is so offbeat and so well made, from the atmospheric production values to the painterly cinematography, that it’s tempting to read deeper meanings into the material, especially when Bridges’ vibrant acting raises Eastwood’s game in their shared scenes. Alas, this is really just an elevated brand of escapism, which means its virtues are, on close inspection, quite modest. That said, the picture is highly rewarding for viewers with appropriately calibrated expectations.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: GROOVY

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

40 Carats (1973)

If Harold and Maude is the most interesting older woman/younger man picture released during the ’70s, then 40 Carats is quite possibly the least interesting. Originally produced as a stage play, the piece is painfully contrived and old-fashioned, its artificiality exacerbated by terrible casting. Liv Ullmann, so great in Ingmar Bergman’s chamber dramas and other serious-minded European films, flounders delivering cutesy rom-com banter. Her costar, Edward Albert, the would-be leading man whose career sputtered from dubious promise to an indifferent level of accomplishment throughout the early ’70s, plays fluffy scenes with too much intensity and heavy scenes without enough substance. Together, they achieve supreme mediocrity. The story begins in Greece, where vacationing New Yorker Ann (Ullmann) meets Peter (Albert), a young American roaming the Continent on a motorcycle. They enjoy an unexpected sexual tryst, and Ann withdraws the next morning, expecting never to see Peter again. Yet upon returning to New York, Ann discovers that by sheer coincidence, Peter has been fixed up for a date with her adult daughter (Deborah Raffin). Unfortunately, he still wants Ann. Meanwhile, a wealthy Texan (Billy Green Bush) is fixed up with Ann, but he secretly wants Ann’s daughter. The resulting slog of trite misunderstandings drags on for the better part of an hour. Eventually, the movie gets a smidgen of energy once Ann and Peter throw aside social conventions to pursue their relationship. For instance, a long scene in which Peter’s nasty father (Don Porter) tears apart his son’s romance has edge, so Ullmann finally gets to showcase dramatic chops. Alas, far too much of the movie comprises limp dialogue like this exchange between Ann and her charmingly irresponsible ex-husband, Billy (Gene Kelly). “You are a multi-carated blue-white diamond,” he coos. Then the phone rings, so Ann says, “That must be Van Cleef & Arpels.” 40 Carats tries mightily to entertain, and watching the filmmakers exert so much wasted effort is exhausting. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

40 Carats: FUNKY

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Parallax View (1974)

          Starring Warren Beatty as a reckless reporter who stumbles into a nefarious scheme involving political assassinations and governmental cover-ups, The Parallax View is the quintessential ’70s conspiracy thriller. With its heavily metaphorical images of people dwarfed by gigantic structures, its insidious musical score that jangles the nerves at key moments, and its sudden explosions of violence, director Alan J. Pakula’s arresting movie set the template for decades of imitators. More importantly, it set the template for Pakula’s next movie, the exquisite journalism drama All the President’s Men (1976). Working with the same cinematographer (Gordon Willis) and the same composer (Michael Small) he used on Parallax, Pakula sharpened his conspiracy-thriller style to absolute perfection while telling the story of how reporters uncovered the Watergate scandal. In sum, The Parallax View is required viewing for anyone who wants to understand ’70s cinema, even though the picture is far from perfect.
          Based on a novel by Loren Singer and written for the screen by the formidable trio of David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Robert Towne, the movie begins with an assassination inside the Seattle Space Needle, then continues with a grim scene of a Warren Commission-type panel issuing a “lone gunman” explanation for the killing—even though we, the viewers, saw more than one person collaborating in the murder. The movie then cuts three years ahead. Seattle-based Joe Frady (Beatty) is an unorthodox reporter with a nose for conspiracies. His friend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), who witnessed the Space Needle assassination, is terrified because she believes witnesses are being systematically killed. Joe is skeptical until Lee herself dies under questionable circumstances. Then Joe asks his editor, Bill (Hume Cronyn), for permission to investigate. The doubtful editor says okay, but gives Joe a short leash. Soon, however, Joe uncovers clues leading him to the Parallax Corporation, which appears to be in the business of recruiting assassins. Obsessed with following a hot story, Joe endangers himself and everyone he knows by trying to infiltrate Parallax.
          From start to finish, The Parallax View is exciting and tense. Pakula and Willis shoot the picture masterfully, using creative foreground/background juxtapositions, deep shadows, and long lenses to evoke disturbing themes. The movie also employs an effective trope of portraying villains as even-tempered men in suits, rather than hysterical monsters, and the notion of business-as-usual murder is chilling. The acting is uniformly great, with Cronyn a dryly funny standout among the supporting cast and Beatty putting the self-possessed diffidence of his unique screen persona to good use.
          All that said, the story hits a few speed bumps along the way. An extended sequence in a small town called Salmontail includes scenes one might expect to find in a Burt Reynolds romp, from a bar brawl to a comedic car chase, and some stretches of the movie are so subtle they’re actually difficult to parse. The finale, in particular, is clever but needlessly convoluted and sluggish. Throughout its running time, the movie waffles between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously enough. Yet all is forgiven whenever The Parallax View hits the conspiracy-thriller sweet spot. For instance, consider this exquisite dialogue exchange between Brady and ex-spy Will Turner (Kenneth Mars). Turner: “What do you know?” Brady: “I don’t know what I know.” That’s the stuff.

The Parallax View: GROOVY

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Yesterday’s Hero (1979)

          This one’s about as random as it gets—a British sports drama written by lowbrow novelist Jackie Collins, costarring future Deadwood heavy Ian McShane as an alcoholic soccer player and quintessential late-’70s blonde Suzanne Somers, of Three’s Company fame, as the disco singer whose love saves the soccer player from his self-destructive spiral. No surprise, this bizarre mixture of elements doesn’t work. And yet Yesterday’s Hero is borderline watchable for much of its running time, because McShane gives a committed, hard-edged performance as a one-time superstar ravaged by age, drinking, and ennui. Whenever he’s onscreen, the movie is interesting and even, as much as possible given the shortcomings of Collins’ trite script, vital.
          Predictably, the weakest scenes involve Somers, though her mediocre acting isn’t what drags the movie down. Instead, it’s her singing—or, to be more specific, the terrible scenes in which her character sings. Yesterday’s Hero features a handful of awful pop/disco songs, most of which are performed at nearly full length. Some of the tunes are integrated into the story, illustrating how Somers’ character makes her living, but others merely appear on the soundtrack. Somers and costar Paul Nicholas, who plays the singing partner of Somers’ character, embarrass themselves by flailing around the screen while chirping inept lyrics over beds of overproduced, grade-Z music.
          Oddly, however, the narrative contrivance that justifies the inclusion of the musical material could have been a strong element. Nicholas’ character is a rock star who buys a soccer team as a lark, so Collins was presumably inspired by Rod Stewart’s widely publicized support of Glasgow’s Celtic football club. The juxtaposition of the pop and sports worlds could have created interesting dynamics, but Collins and director Neil Leifer failed to exploit these possibilities—the pop scenes and the sports scenes exist separately, and ne’er the twain shall meet. In the absence of coherence and freshness, viewers have to make do with a handful of strong McShane scenes and a lot of middling nonsense. (For what it’s worth, the curvaceous Somers, no fool about what she brings to the table, bounces up and down a lot during the singing scenes.)

Yesterday’s Hero: FUNKY

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Sentinel (1977)

          A decent supernatural-horror flick released, alongside myriad others, in the wake of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), this spookfest benefits from a lean running time and an onslaught of gruesome imagery, but the plot withers on close inspection. Worse, lead actress Cristina Raines lacks anything resembling the dramatic power required to make this silly story credible. Based on a novel by Jeffrey Konvitz and directed and co-written by Michael Winner, who generally thrived in action films (such as the Death Wish series), The Sentinel revolves around Alison Parker (Raines), a New York fashion model who relocates from Manhattan to a Brooklyn brownstone because she needs space from her boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon). Immediately upon arriving in her new home, Alison discovers, Rosemary’s Baby-style, that her neighbors are aging weirdos with an inappropriate level of interest in her private affairs. Leading the gaggle of crazies is Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), who seems to have special plans for his lovely new neighbor.
          Hewing to the nonsensical paradigm of undercooked horror movies, Alison decides to investigate her bizarre new home instead of simply moving to someplace safer, and, of course, digging for questions seals her gruesome fate. It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away the big secret, although most viewers will figure out what’s happening very early in the film’s running time, but in lieu of spoiling surprises, it’s sufficient to say that The Sentinel drags largely because of Raines’ limitations. An alluring brunette with spectacular cheekbones, Raines looks amazing throughout the picture, but she hovers somewhere between baseline competent and truly vapid, so it’s hard to get invested in her character’s plight—particularly since her character makes countless stupid decisions.
          Nonetheless, The Sentinel is slick and suspenseful, with several unsettling moments, and the supporting cast is impressive: The main stars beyond Meredith, Raines, and Sarandon are Hollywood veterans Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Arthur Kennedy, while minor roles are played by then-emerging talents including Tom Berenger, Beverly D’Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Sylvia Miles, Jerry Orbach, Deborah Raffin, and Christopher Walken. The sheer amount of talent on display is almost reason enough to explore the dark recesses of The Sentinel.

The Sentinel: FUNKY

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fast Break (1979)

Comedian Gabe Kaplan enjoyed such broad popularity as the star of the 1975-1979 sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter that he got a few shots at starring in movies, beginning with this mediocre basketball comedy. Kaplan is the picture’s weakest link, however, for while he does well delivering one-liners, his acting is pathetic—in some important scenes, it literally seems as if he’s reading dialogue that he’s never previously encountered from some off-camera cue card. In his defense, he’s much livelier whenever he appears to be ad-libbing, coming across as likeable and natural. But Kaplan was never meant to be a movie star, and a movie star is exactly what Fast Break needed to surmount the challenges of its formulaic script. Kaplan plays David Greene, a New York City deli manager who dreams of becoming a college basketball coach. He applies for jobs at every school imaginable, finally getting a bite from a tiny Nevada institution called Cadwallader University. In a sorta-funny negotiation scene between Greene and Cadwallader’s slippery president, Greene arranges a contract contingent upon beating top school Nevada State at the end of his first season. Greene then recruits three street-trained black players and travels to Nevada, where the players are admitted to the school as students despite poor academic records.  Each player has a reason for participating. Hustler (Harold Sylvester) is dodging an arrest warrant, Preacher (Michael Warren) is running from a shotgun wedding, and Swish (Mavis Washington) is a woman who’s dying for a chance to play professional ball—cue cross-dressing hilarity! (Or not.) The movie does an okay job of sketching these broad characters, and there’s some mild fun to be had once the black players start clashing with the lily-white Nevada community. Alas, it’s all very predictable, and even though supporting players including Sylvester and Warren have solid moments, the sum effect is middling.

Fast Break: FUNKY 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gumshoe (1971)

          A peculiar byproduct of the ’70s film-noir revival, this British picture stars Albert Finney as a Liverpool everyman who works at a nightclub but aspires to be a private eye in the Chandler/Hammett mode. As a result, he regularly slips into a stilted American accent, talking about “dames” and “heaters” and such even though everyone around him speaks in normal early-‘70s British vernacular. Gumshoe is sort of a spoof, but because the storyline gets convoluted and dark, it’s also sort of a thriller and sort of a whodunnit. Oh, and sort of a character study, too. However, it’s worth noting that Gumshoe was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears, who has made a career out of mixing genres in such offbeat movies as The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002)—so it’s possible Gumshoe was deliberately conceived as self-reflexive satire. Whatever the intentions, the result is the same—Gumshoe is sluggish and unfocused, with a number of interesting scenes contributing to an underwhelming sum effect.
          Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a bitter man whose true love, Ellen (Billie Whitelaw), left him for his own brother, William (Frank Finlay). Worse, William is a successful businessman with influence at Eddie’s nightclub, so even though the siblings hate each other, Eddie depends on William’s goodwill for continued employment. When the movie begins, Eddie half-jokingly places a newspaper ad offering his services as a private eye. Soon afterward, a client shows up and gives Eddie a package containing a gun, money, and a photo of a woman—instructions for a paid murder? At first, Eddie thinks his brother is playing a cruel joke, but then he realizes he’s been drawn into a strange mystery involving debauchery, deceit, and drugs. Unfortunately, the mystery is nearly impenetrable, and Eddie’s not a sufficiently interesting character to justify the effort of slogging through the plot. (The actors’ thick blue-collar accents make comprehension even more difficult.) Finney’s performance is low-key to a fault, despite flashes of cynical charm, so Finlay’s seething malice and Whitelaw’s pained ambivalence command greater attention—a considerable problem since they’re only in the movie periodically, whereas Finney is in nearly every scene.

Gumshoe: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The White Dawn (1974)

          With its colorful cast and impressive location photography—to say nothing of the admirable use of indigenous actors and language—The White Dawn should be engrossing. Set in the late 19th century, the story depicts what happens when three American whalers become stranded in Eskimo country, first assimilating into the local culture and then clashing with their Native hosts. The whalers are played by Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett Jr., and Warren Oates, all of whom are interesting actors, and director Philip Kaufman—helming only his second big-budget feature—displays his signature interest in sociopolitical subtleties. Yet not even Kaufman’s ethnographic approach can enliven the dull and unmemorable storyline, which unfolds in a predictable way and suffers from a paucity of significant events. Very little about The White Dawn lingers in the memory except for a general wintry vibe, because while the cinematography is tough and vivid—director of photography Michael Chapman operates way outside his usual New York milieu, to impressive effect—the narrative lacks surprises.
          Producer Martin Ransohoff, who also wrote the underlying adaptation of the James Houston novel upon which the film is based, took a bold route by featuring extensive scenes of Inuit dialogue, and the fact that most of the cast comprises Eskimo performers gives The White Dawn authenticity other adventure pictures set in the Great White North lack. Yet one longs for a storyline as virile as those found in, say, the tales of Jack London. That said, it’s moderately diverting to watch vignettes of the white characters reacting to the strangeness of life in the Arctic Circle—as when they’re awoken by water from the melting ceiling of their igloo—and the picture features a few informative scenes showing Eskimo rituals. The White Dawn isn’t a bad film, of course, because it’s using the white characters as a means of exposing viewers to a rarely seen world, but the tone runs so close to that of a drably educational documentary that Ransohoff might have been better off just ditching the fictional contrivance altogether.

The White Dawn: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Klute (1971)

          A character piece disguised a thriller, Klute has so many extraordinary elements that it’s silly to complain about the movie’s shortcomings. For while Klute is not particularly effective a whodunit, it soars as a probing investigation into the sexual identity of a complicated woman. Klute is also a great mood piece. The picture earned leading lady Jane Fonda the first of her two Oscars, and it’s the project on which director Alan Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis perfected the visual style they later used on two classic conspiracy-themed films, The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). In fact, Klute is often cited as the first entry in a trilogy comprising Parallax and President’s, because themes of duplicity, paranoia, and surveillance pervade all three films.
          Set in New York City, Klute concerns the search for a missing business executive from the Midwest. Laconic heartland cop-turned-PI John Klute (Don Sutherland) travels to the Big Apple to look for the missing man, and his best source of information is call girl Bree Daniels (Fonda). As John pressures Bree for information, the movie examines her intricate personality. Pakula features several insightful scenes of the call girl speaking with her therapist, and it’s fascinating to watch Bree waffle between justifications (exercising sexual power over men validates her self-image) and recriminations (for her, prostitution is a sort of addiction).
          As carefully sculpted by Fonda and Pakula—who presumably used the script by the otherwise undistinguished writers Andy Lewis and David P. Lewis as a jumping-off point for elaborations and improvisations—Bree Daniels is one of the most textured characters in all of ’70s cinema. Among the unforgettable moments during Fonda’s scorching performance is the bit when Bree seems to experience a massive orgasm with one of her clients—until she “breaks character” by checking her watch. Truth be told, Klute almost delves too deeply into Bree’s personality, because the unveiling of her soul pushes the actual plot of the movie into the background. Even Sutherland, very much Fonda’s equal as a performer, falls into his costar’s shadow.
          Nonetheless, Pakula occasionally remembers that he’s making a thriller, and the movie features a handful of strong suspense scenes. Especially during these fraught moments, Willis uses deep shadows to convey a sense of ever-present danger; the artful silhouettes he creates during the climax are particularly memorable. Actually, it seems that nearly everybody involved with Klute treated the project like high art, thereby elevating what could have been a pulpy story into something special. For example, supporting players including Charles Cioffi and Roy Scheider give their small roles depth, and composer Michael Small adds to the ominous mood with eerie musical textures.


Monday, February 18, 2013

a.k.a. Cassius Clay (1970)

The beginning of the ’70s was an ideal time to make a documentary about heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who by that point had discarded his “slave name” Cassius Clay and become a controversial activist. When a.k.a. Cassius Clay was made, the fighter was in the midst of battles with sports authorities and the U.S. government to get his boxing license reinstated and to have his refusal to serve in the military on religious grounds validated. He was also pursuing so many alternate income sources that the documentary opens with footage of Ali’s failed attempt to star in a race-themed Broadway musical. Yet while the subject matter is fascinating and the timing is great, the film itself is a bore. In addition to being padded with clips of Ali’s legendary ’60s fights, the rambling a.k.a. Cassius Clay stumbles through such contrived episodes as Ali chatting with famed boxing trainer Cus D’Amato while they review newsreels of past fighting legends, such as Joe Louis, and discuss whether Ali could have beaten these fighters had their careers coincided. (Predictably, Ali claims he could beat any heavyweight who ever lived.) Easily half of the film’s running time comprises recycled footage, and the fresh stuff is weak. Worse, the whole picture is scored with cheesy funk music straight out of a ’70s porno, and narrator Richard Kiley (who periodically appears onscreen, speaking directly to the camera), repeatedly refers to Ali as “boy” (as in, “the promoters knew they had their boy”), which makes the project feel like a relic from a racially insensitive era. Plus, anyone even slightly familiar with Ali already knows every major fact this documentary presents. So, while a.k.a. Cassius Clay is not awful, per se—it’s basically accurate and basically coherent—the film is among the least inspired recitations of a great American tale.

a.k.a. Cassius Clay: LAME

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Old Boyfriends (1979)

Old Boyfriends is a painfully dull movie made by a number of people who should have known better. Screenwriting brothers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader, who are best known separately and apart for making dark dramas with complicated male protagonists, ventured way outside their comfort zones to create this unconvincing story about a troubled young woman working through an identity crisis by tracking down her exes. Talia Shire, who was at this point in her career embarking on a series of shockingly unsuccessful star vehicles in between appearing in Rocky sequels, delivers what can only be described as a non-performance. Bland to the extreme of barely registering on camera, she alternates between moping, whining, and fading into the woodwork while other actors do all the heavy lifting. Also, there’s a reason first-time director Joan Tewksbury, best known as the screenwriter of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), gravitated to television after this movie tanked; her inability to generate and sustain interest is stunning. Even the movie’s score is misguided, because composer David Shire contributes music so gloomy and overwrought you’d think he was generating accompaniment for a Holocaust saga. What little notoriety Old Boyfriends has probably stems from John Belushi’s appearance in a supporting role. (Shire’s character visits two exes, played by Richard Jordan and Belushi, before visiting the younger brother, played by Keith Carradine, of a third ex.) Belushi incarnates a dramatic riff on his Animal House character of an obnoxious man-child, and the meanness he channels into his performance almost brings the movie to life for a while. He also sings “Jailhouse Rock,” just a year before he performed the same song in The Blues Brothers. Alas, Shire’s vapidity and the script’s contrived rhythms prevent even the Belushi scenes from soaring. In fact, nearly the only segment of movie that really works is a fun but peripheral bit with Buck Henry as a laconic private eye.

Old Boyfriends: LAME

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Duellists (1977)

          After establishing himself as a formidable director of television commercials, Ridley Scott made the leap to feature filmmaking with this handsome adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story titled “The Duel,” which was based on real people who existed in Napoleonic France. A small-scale drama exploring huge themes of honor, military conduct, nationalism, and personal obsession, the movie boasts gorgeous costuming and production design, impressively evoking early 19th-century Europe even though the film was made for less than $1 million. (In fact, budget constraints probably added to the verisimilitude, because Scott shot the movie on existing locations instead of sets.) From start to finish, The Duellists offers a feast of artful images, with Scott emulating the lighting style of 19th-century paintings and treating every shot as an opportunity to demonstrate his gifts for pictorial composition. Clearly, Scott’s visual acumen impressed many, since the picture won the Best Debut Film at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and helped Scott secure his career-making job as the director of Alien (1979). Alas, for all its elegance, The Duellists is a hopelessly cold film. The motivations of the characters are dramatized well enough, but human feeling is smothered by meticulous imagery—at this point in his career, Scott seemingly lacked the skills needed to extract passion from his players.
          In his defense, the movie was badly miscast. Originally set to star Oliver Reed and Michael York, the picture instead features Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. Both actors are so inherently modern (and so inherently American) that they seem like they’re playing dress-up. Another problem is that the story is an intellectual exercise rather than a proper drama. When the movie begins, savage French officer Feraud (Keitel) skewers an aristocratic opponent in a duel. Another officer, d’Hubert (Carradine), is sent to arrest Feraud, but Feraud—who is obsessed with dueling—invents a slight as pretense for drawing d’Hubert into a fight. And so begins decades of on-again/off-again combat between the men, with their battles ending in draws until a peculiar resolution puts an end to their lifelong quarrel. Scott captures the surfaces of this strange story, but never the inner lives of the characters, so the question underlying the narrative—asking why one man seeks to foment conflict while the other seeks to resolve it—receives only perfunctory attention. As a result, The Duellists is quite dull and repetitive, which is a shame, since it’s easy to imagine a full-blooded version of the same material casting a powerful spell. Nonetheless, The Duellists is interesting to watch as the opening act of a great directorial career, and it holds many delights for fans of pictorial splendor.

The Duellists: FUNKY

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

Continuity among sequels to The Magnificent Seven (1060) is a dodgy matter, which is probably to be expected seeing as how The Magnificent Seven was an Americanized spin on the Japanese action classic The Seven Samurai (1954)—it’s silly to complain about the lack of artistic integrity when discussing sequels to a remake. Therefore, suffice to say that by the time this fourth entry arrived, changes had been made. None of the original film’s actors is present, and the lead role of honorable gunfighter Chris Adams is occupied by Lee Van Cleef, the third actor in the series to play Adams. (Yul Brynner originated the part.) The storyline for The Magnificent Seven Ride! is, predictably, a retread of the series formula—Adams reluctantly agrees to help the citizens of a border town repel a violent invasion. To achieve this goal, Adams gathers a group of gunmen, and he enlists the citizens of the town, nearly all of whom are women, as helpers. Considering that it’s telling such a trite story, The Magnificent Seven Ride! takes quite a while to get going; the movie is nearly halfway over before preparations for the big battle get underway. Furthermore, the picture has an exceedingly ordinary visual style, looking more like an episode of a TV Western than a proper feature. Yet The Magnificent Seven Ride! is basically watchable, at least for undemanding viewers. Van Cleef’s cruel persona is compelling even in this drab context, and the reliable character actors surrounding him contribute solid work—the cast includes such familiar faces as Luke Askew, Ed Lauter, James B. Sikking, and Ralph Waite. (A young Gary Busey appears in a small role, too.) The women in the movie don’t fare as well, with Mariette Hartley disappearing quickly and Stefanie Powers pouting through her bland turn in the underdeveloped love-interest role. All in all, though, the movie is a fair trade: It promises little and delivers exactly that.

The Magnificent Seven Ride!: FUNKY

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Summer of ’42 (1971) & Class of ’44 (1973)

          Featuring one of the most lyrical love scenes in all of ’70s cinema, Summer of ’42 is an offbeat romance involving a teenage boy and a grown woman. Compassionately directed by Robert Mulligan, the film takes a bittersweet look at characters moving through profound life changes, conveying a sense of how deeply two people can comfort each other in times of need despite coming from different worlds. Screenwriter Herman Raucher, who adapted his original story into a novelization after completing the script—the book version eventually became a best-seller, just like the movie eventually became a sleeper hit—has said that the tale is autobiographical.
          According to Raucher, he was a confused 15-year-old vacationing with his family on Nantucket Island during World War II, and he became friends with a beautiful woman named Dorothy and her husband, a U.S. soldier. After the soldier was summoned to active duty, young Raucher remained friendly with Dorothy. Then, one afternoon, young Raucher arrived at Dorothy’s house moments after she learned of her husband’s death in combat. Distraught and lonely, she took young Raucher to bed, and then departed the island the next day, leaving her adolescent lover only a note.
          In the film version of this story, young Raucher is “Hermie” (Gary Grimes), a curious and kind-hearted teen spending the summer with his pals Benjie (Oliver Conant) and Oscy (Jerry Houser). Dorothy is portrayed by the mesmerizingly beautiful model-turned-actress Jennifer O’Neill. The teen high jinks that comprise much of the movie’s first half are forgettable, but all of the scenes with O’Neill have a certain magic. Not only does Mulligan guide O’Neill to a higher performance level than she ever reached in another project, but Mulligan captures the wonderment Hermie feels at connecting with a sophisticated adult. The entire movie has a nostalgic feel, with cinematographer Robert Surtees capturing the stark beauty of East Coast shorelines and composer Michel Legrand contributing tender melodies. Yet the appeal of the picture stems almost entirely from that one key scene—handled with unusual elegance and restraint, Hermie’s encounter with Dorothy is beautiful and bewildering and sad. The sequence is poetry.
          Alas, the success of the movie compelled Raucher to write a thoroughly unnecessary sequel titled Class of ’44, which was produced and released two years after the original film. Neither director Mulligan nor costar O’Neill returned, though Grimes reprised his role as Hermie. (Conant and Houser return, as well, portraying Hermie’s pals, but they remain in supporting roles.) Set during Hermie’s college years—which are heavily fictionalized extrapolations of Raucher’s real-life experiences—the bland and meandering picture primarily concerns Hermie’s romance with Julie (Deborah Winters), a high-strung coed. Julie comes off as difficult and domineering, and Winters’ performance is strident, so it’s difficult to get excited about the prospect of these two forming a lasting bond.
          Worse, Hermie emerges as a deeply ordinary collegiate who neither changes significantly during the course of the story nor has a major impact on those around him. Yes, he suffers a few coming-of-age blows, such as the death of his father, but these events feel trite compared with the transcendent experience Hermie had in Summer of ’42. The likeable Grimes does what he can with bland material, however, leavening the story’s inherent navel-gazing quality with admirable toughness. In sum, while the execution of Class of ’44 is more or less acceptable—particularly in terms of period details and production values—the whole enterprise feels perfunctory.

Summer of ’42: GROOVY
Class of ’44: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Long Goodbye (1973)

          Even by the downbeat standards of the mid-’70s noir boom, The Long Goodbye is dark as hell, notwithstanding the film’s major subcurrent of bone-dry humor. Adapted from the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel featuring iconic fictional detective Philip Marlowe, the movie blends Chandler’s cynical worldview with that of director Robert Altman by updating the storyline to the modern era and inserting additional nihilistic violence. Yet The Long Goodbye is essentially a character study disguised as a murder mystery, because, as always, Altman is far more interested in the eccentricities of human behavior than in the mundane rhythms of straightforward plotting. And, indeed, the storyline is murky, albeit intentionally so; presumably, the idea was to make viewers feel as mystified about whodunit (and why) as Marlowe himself.
          In broad strokes, the storyline begins when Marlowe’s pal Terry Lennox (portrayed by former pro baseball player Jim Bouton) has the detective drive him from L.A. to Tijuana for unknown reasons. Returning home to L.A., Marlowe learns that Lennox’s wife is dead. Lennox is the principal suspect, so Marlowe gets busted as an accessory—until a report surfaces from Mexico that Lennox committed suicide. Meanwhile, Marlowe gets pulled into two other mysteries with unexpected connections to the Lennox situation. Marlowe’s asked to track down a missing author, and he’s harassed by a psychotic gangster who believes Marlowe knows the whereabouts of a suitcase full of loot.
          While The Long Goodbye unfolds in an extremely linear style compared to other Altman films of the period—this isn’t one of his big-canvas ensemble pictures—the director’s roaming eye serves the material well. After developing Marlowe as a loser who can’t even keep his housecat satisfied because he fails to buy the right cat food (an unsatisfied cat—how’s that for an impotence metaphor?), Altman drops Marlowe into a world of wealth and privilege by setting most of the detecting scenes inside the exclusive Malibu Colony. With his cheap suit and vintage car, Marlowe’s a walking anachronism as he rubs shoulders with rich narcissists like the runaway author, thundering alcoholic Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), and Wade’s desperately lonely wife, Eileen (Nina Van Pallandt).
          Furthermore, Marlowe can only watch, helpless, as the gangster, Marty Augustine (played wonderfully by actor/director Mark Rydell), abuses his people—such as in a shocking scene involving Marty and his mistress. Altman illustrates that Marlowe’s pretty good at discovering facts simply through shoe-leather tenacity, but that he’s powerless to effect positive change in a world overrun by fucked-up people determined to hurt each other. The best moments of the movie are scalding, notably Hayden’s riveting scenes as a formidable man hobbled by liquor. And the scenes representing pure invention on the part of screenwriter Leigh Brackett, including the Augustine bits, are vicious. (Brackett, it should be noted, was one of the writers on the classic 1946 Marlowe mystery The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart.)
          Gould is ingenious casting, because his sad-sack expressions and wise-ass remarks clearly define Marlowe as an outsider who’s been screwed over by life—thus subverting audience expectations of a super-capable sleuth—and Altman surrounds Gould with an eclectic supporting cast. (Watch for a cameo by David Carradine and an uncredited bit part by a pre-stardom Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Aided by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who literally probes the darkness of Los Angeles with grainy wide shots peering far into shadowy tableaux, Altman transforms Chandler’s book into a ballad of alienation.

The Long Goodbye: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

11 Harrowhouse (1974)

The title of actor/humorist Charles Grodin’s first memoir, It Would Be So Nice if You Weren’t Here, stems from the making of this caper film. In the book, Grodin recalls that he and costar Candice Bergen were killing downtime by chatting in a lovely room of a large English estate where the production was shooting. Then a representative from the estate discovered the actors and explained they’d ventured into an off-limits space: “It would be so nice if you weren’t here,” the representative said. If only the film had as much dry humor as Grodin’s anecdote. Instead, 11 Harrowhouse is a moderately diverting picture elevated by charming performers but weighed down by a flat screenplay. Grodin plays Howard Chesser, a diamond merchant drawn into a criminal enterprise involving the theft of a valuable jewel from a high-security facility. Bergen plays Howard’s girlfriend, who aids in the crime, and the great James Mason plays an unlikely accomplice. (Other veteran British actors in the cast include John Gielgud and Trevor Howard, both droll in their distinctive ways.) Adapted from Gerald A. Browne’s novel by Grodin himself, and polished into a final script by Jeffrey Bloom, 11 Harrowhouse aspires to soft-spoken pithiness of a veddy British sort, which would seem to suit Grodin’s reserved screen persona. Unfortunately, the onscreen events aren’t quite novel enough to sustain interest, and Grodin lacks onscreen counterpoint—he’s best when bouncing his deadpan energy off an expressive costar, but in 11 Harrowhouse, everyone is as taciturn as Grodin. The result is monotony, even when the story twists and turns through clever-ish developments. Further, the script doesn’t withhold enough information from the audience, so there aren’t many surprises; thus, even when the execution of a complex crime is shown, the only tension derives from the possibility of error. One misses the fun of discovering an imaginative scheme as it unfolds. 11 Harrowhouse isn’t a total bust, of course—how could it be, with so much talent involved?—but it badly wants for an injection of vitality.

11 Harrowhouse: FUNKY