Sunday, March 31, 2013

The House of Seven Corpses (1974)

Oh, those silly Hollywood filmmakers—time and again, at least according to the logic of bad horror movies, Hollywood filmmakers make the idiotic decision to shoot on locations where murders occurred, and then keep shooting even when clues indicate the filmmakers themselves are about to become victims. But, hey, if it weren’t for stupid characters, there wouldn’t be very many horror movies, would there? In The House of Seven Corpses, a film crew led by obnoxious director Eric Hartman (John Ireland) shoots a Gothic shocker in a grand estate where several generations of residents were killed. Aiding the crew is a cadaverous old caretaker, Edgar Price (John Carradine), who does creepy things like critiquing the accuracy of murder reenactments, and, at Hartman’s behest, crawling around the graveyard adjoining the estate’s main house. Is it even worth mentioning that the crew is lodging at the estate in addition to shooting there, or that the film being shot has parallels to the Satan worship that inspired past killings? A low-rent American attempt to fabricate the style of England’s Hammer Films, The House of Seven Corpses overflows with mediocre acting, predictable jolts, and uninteresting characters. In particular, the members of Hartman’s acting troupe represent a barrage of clichés—the dim-witted blonde starlet, the insufferable theater-trained ham, the vain leading lady unwilling to admit she’s passed her expiration date, and so on. Plus, of course, Hartman is a cliché, too, since he berates his co-workers relentlessly. Thankfully, many of these annoying characters die. For cinema buffs, the only novel part of watching The House of Seven Corpses is seeing the camera equipment that’s used by Hartman’s crew. Yet if glimpses of vintage Arriflex 35mm cameras are the best things a horror flick can offer, that says a lot.

The House of Seven Corpses: LAME

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

          One of Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s most acclaimed works and an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not the easiest movie to penetrate—the story’s satire operates at such a sophisticated level that it’s easy to mistake some stretches of the narrative for straightforward psychodrama. Plus, as was Buñuel’s wont, the story loops around itself several times via tricky dream sequences and fake-outs that obscure what’s “really” happening. Yet for patient viewers willing to participate in Buñuel’s postmodern games, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie delivers a droll appraisal of the way feelings of entitlement blind the semi-rich to the absurdity of their own circumstances.
          The principal running gag of the movie involves a group of upper-middle-class friends attempting to get together for a dinner date. Throughout the story, outrageous events scuttle the plans—a restaurant holds a wake, complete with a corpse, during the dinner hour; a group of soldiers appears at a country house expecting entertainment and food; gun-toting gangsters invade a dinner party; and so on. The joke, of course, is that the protagonists are so preoccupied with creature comforts that they never lose their appetites—it’s as if the working-class people who interrupt the protagonists simply don’t exist. Meanwhile, Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reveal the sordid activities of the main characters. A foreign ambassador (Fernando Rey) moonlights as a cocaine smuggler; a horny couple (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran) sneaks away from guests to screw in the woods; an underserviced housewife (Delphine Seyrig) has an affair with a family friend; et cetera.
          Even though The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie runs a brisk 102 minutes, Buñuel and Carrière cram a lot of narrative content into the movie—beyond the items already mentioned, there’s also a subplot about a sexy would-be terrorist and two strange sequences of people describing their dreams, which are depicted via surrealistic vignettes.
          Whether all of this material coalesces into a unified statement is a subjective matter, because the ambiguous final images could imply a heavy-handed theme of awful people stuck on a road to nowhere—or the images could imply something else. (Providing concrete answers was never Buñuel’s thing.) Appraising The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by standard criteria is pointless, seeing as how the film does not aspire to realism, but it’s sufficient to say that Buñuel stocks the film with attractive women, debonair men, and elegant locations—these slick surfaces amplify the director’s ideas about a class preoccupied with materialism. One more thing: Because other viewers may have the same experience, I should add that that the discreet charm of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie escaped me on first viewing, but the more I thought about the movie, the more its aesthetic scheme—and its virtues—came into focus.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: GROOVY

Friday, March 29, 2013

Idaho Transfer (1973)

          If you didn’t know that Peter Fonda once directed a sci-fi movie, you’re not alone, because Idaho Transfer is among the most obscure items in his filmography. Released to little fanfare in 1973 and subsequently relegated to the public-domain slag heap—most available prints of the movie are cruddy second-generation copies—the movie is little more than a footnote to the Easy Rider star’s career. And while it’s true that Idaho Transfer is not the sort of movie that generates much excitement on the part of the viewer, seeing as how the film is leisurely and meditative, the picture has some meritorious elements.
          The story revolves around Karen (Kelly Bohanon), a mixed-up young woman who joins her older sister, Isa (Caroline Hildebrand), at a remote research facility run by the girls’ father, George (Ted D’Arms). George has created time-travel technology and determined that the Earth is racing toward an ecological disaster, so he’s “transferring” young people back and forth to the future. In the future, the young people are laying the foundations for a settlement that can rebuild the human race after the apocalypse. Screenwriter Thomas Matthiesen adds all sorts of inventive flourishes to this wild premise; for instance, the notion that 20th-century environmental damage is destroying the kidneys of mature adults explains why persons past the age of 25 can’t participate in the time-travel experiment. Matthiesen also flips the story on its head partway through, when several young characters get trapped in the future and must fight for survival in a realm plagued by zombie-like radiation victims.
         Although this might sound like the setup for an action story, Fonda presents Idaho Transfer as a lyrical parable. Spotlighting inexperienced amateur actors and striving for a naturalistic feel, Fonda uses a supremely restrained approach—most scenes involve characters casually discussing their extraordinary circumstances. (Composer Bruce Langhorne’s plaintive score accentuates the unimaginable tragedy of outliving one’s own species.) This laid-back approach to sci-fi doesn’t really work, per se, since the movie could have used a lot more adrenaline, but Idaho Transfer is an interesting counterpoint to the overwrought melodrama found in most movies exploring similar subject matter. After all, wouldn’t wandering mostly uninhabited wastelands be a quiet existence? Fonda’s cast generally underwhelms, though Bohanon seems comfortable onscreen and Keith Carradine pops up for a couple of scenes as a minor character. It’s easy to admire what Fonda set out to accomplish, and every so often his cerebral/spiritual take on the sci-fi genre connects in a moment of sad poetry.

Idaho Transfer: FUNKY

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Detroit 9000 (1973)

          During his Pulp Fiction afterglow, Quentin Tarantino created a short-lived Miramax subsidiary called Rolling Thunder, which distributed handful of indie movies and re-released faves from Tarantino’s days as a grindhouse habitué. One of the obscure ’70s movies that benefited from Tarantino’s largesse was Detroit 9000, a racially charged action thriller set in the urban wasteland of the Motor City. Yet while the picture has a lively cast and solid action scenes, it’s strictly a run-of-the-mill endeavor, so Tarantino’s imprimatur should not unreasonably raise expectations. Yes, Detroit 9000 is relatively unique in the way it blends elements of blaxploitation and mainstream action movies, and yes, the movie flips a cliché by portraying a black guy as the book-smart half of a buddy-cop duo—but novel elements can’t compensate for the lack of a memorable story. Detroit 9000 begins with crooks stealing millions from a fundraiser for a black gubernatorial candidate. The cops assigned to the case are street-smart white dude Det. Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco) and college-educated African-American Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes). Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t fully exploit the culture-clash potential of this dynamic, even though Rhodes and Rocco are both interesting performers.
          Rhodes, best known for his role on the TV adventure series Daktari (1966-1969), was a man of letters offscreen and, accordingly, brought eloquence and poise to his acting. Therefore, it’s a shame that Detroit 9000 give Rhodes one of his only leading roles, since he’s got nothing to do here but strive to retain his dignity while running through gutted urban locations and/or spewing bland dialogue. Rocco, a versatile character actor whose filmography includes everything from The Godfather (1972) to a string of sitcoms, provides a totally different flavor of authenticity, although he, too, is handicapped by an underwritten characterization. Among the supporting cast, Scatman Crothers does some energetic speechifying as a preacher; Vonetta McGee classes up a trite hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role; and Herbert Jefferson Jr., later a regular on the original Battlestar Galactica series, shows up in full pimp regalia. The problem is that everyone involved in Detroit 9000, including second-rate blaxploitation director Arthur Marks, did better work elsewhere—so why this mediocre flick lingered in Tarantino’s memory is a mystery.

Detroit 9000: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Play Misty for Me (1971)

          Clint Eastwood stepped well outside his comfort zone for his first feature film as a director, setting aside the action genre for a psychosexual thriller, and although his casting in the lead was inevitable—trading acting for opportunity is how most stars get their first directing gigs—it’s admirable that he took on the additional challenge of playing a textured role. Instead of incarnating his usual tight-lipped tough guy, Eastwood portrays a man who makes his living by talking (a radio DJ), and instead of battling some formidable male equal, he squares off against little Jessica Walter.
          The story is basically the same as that of Fatal Attraction, which was made more than a decade later—a man has a fling with the wrong woman, and then pays for his misdeed when he tries to dump her and thereby invokes her violent wrath. Eastwood plays Dave, a radio personality based in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the quaint Northern California enclave that, incidentally, has been Eastwood’s offscreen home base for decades. One of Dave’s regular callers is a sexy-voiced mystery lady who asks him to play the smoky jazz standard “Misty” every night. The woman, Evelyn (Walter), soon appears in Dave’s real life and offers herself to him. Yet while Dave made it clear all he wanted was a one-night stand, Evelyn has different ideas. She becomes obsessed, intruding into every aspect of Dave’s life, making public scenes that hurt his career, and eventually threatening the real object of Dave’s affection, his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Tobie (Donna Mills).
          Play Misty for Me is a straightforward stalker picture, and the best parts of the movie illustrate how easily Dave falls into Evelyn’s trap and how impossible it is for him to extricate himself. He’s complicit in his own crisis. Screenwriters Jo Heims and Dean Riesner carefully foreshadow Evelyn’s dark side even in the character’s first scenes, and the script emphasizes that the only thing preventing Dave from sensing Evelyn’s danger is his arrogance. Well, that and lust, since Dave is a swinger whose relationship with Tobie is forever being tested by his extracurricular conquests. Like Fatal Attraction, this movie is a warning to men who play the field—as Dave’s fellow DJ, Al (James McEachin), says with a wink, “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”
          The last hour of the picture pays off the premise nicely, with several vivid scenes of suspense and violence, and Walter devours her role, creating a memorable movie monster grounded in believable, if deranged, emotions. Many of Eastwood’s directorial tropes manifested in this first effort, notably dark lighting and languid pacing, and the only major flaw with Play Misty for Me is that it sometimes meanders—for instance, was the indulgently long scene at the jazz festival really necessary? Still, this is well-executed popcorn entertainment, and it’s touching that Eastwood cast his directorial mentor, Don Siegel, in a minor recurring role as Dave’s favorite bartender.

Play Misty for Me: GROOVY

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)

Here’s some irony for you: This comedy about inept gangsters it itself ineptly made. If the irony doesn’t strike you as funny, that’s appropriate, because The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight isn’t funny, either. In fact, the most noteworthy thing about this brainless flick is how many talented people worked on the project. Venerable Big Apple columnist/novelist Jimmy Breslin co-wrote the script, which was based on his novel, which was in turn based on the exploits of a real-life crime figure. Ace New York cinematographer Owen Roizman shot the picture, though you wouldn’t know it from the choppy editing that makes Roizman’s frames feel amateurish. And the cast includes a number of reliable professionals—including Jerry Orbach, Lionel Stander, and Burt Young—to say nothing of Robert De Niro, appearing in one of his earliest films. The story revolves around a mid-level gangster (Orbach) enlisting his idiot cronies for attempts on the life of a villainous don (Stander). De Niro’s character, who seems to drift in from another movie, is an Italian bicyclist brought to America by Orbach’s character; the cyclist then gets his own uninteresting subplotThe Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is such a mess that even De Niro comes off badly, mostly because director James Goldstone can’t maintain a consistent tone. The bulk of the picture is played as broadly as slapstick, but certain sequences have a dramatic vibe, notably those involving the love story between De Niro’s character and a mafia princess played by a miscast Leigh Tayl0r-Young. Alas, the comedic sequences are numbingly stupid, and the dramatic sequences are lifeless. From start to finish, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is disjointed, episodic, and loud, with long stretches of screen time consumed by stupid contrivances: The mobsters steal a circus lion and use the animal to intimidate robbery victims; a little person (Hervé Villechaize) is the butt of assorted crass jokes; an old Italian mother (Jo Van Fleet) spews lines line, “You no take-a no bull-sheet!”; and so on. It’s all very tiring to watch.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: LAME

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

          “I never guess,” the detective pronounces. “It is an appalling habit, destructive to the logical facility.” The detective is, of course, Sherlock Holmes (as personified, beautifully, by Nicol Williamson), and his unlikely conversational partner is the father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (as personified, with equal flair, by Alan Arkin). The meeting of these two great minds, one fictional and one historical, is the crux of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a lavish adaptation of the novel by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the screenplay. As directed by dancer-turned-filmmaker Herbert Ross, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution combines an ingenious premise with splendid production values and a remarkable cast. This is 19th-century adventure played across a glorious European canvas of opulent locations and sophisticated manners, a world of skullduggery committed and confounded by aristocrats and their fellows.
          The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is refined on every level, from its elevated language to its meticulous acting, and for viewers of a cerebral bent, it’s a great pleasure to watch because of how deftly it mixes escapist thrills with psychological themes. The movie is far from perfect, and in fact it’s very slow to start, with a first half-hour that meanders turgidly until Freud appears to enliven the story. But when The Seven-Per-Cent Solution cooks, it’s quite something. The story begins in London, where Holmes is caught in the mania of a cocaine binge. His loyal friend/sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall), recognizes that Holmes needs help because Holmes is preoccupied with a conspiracy theory involving his boyhood tutor, Dr. Moriarty (Laurence Olivier). Using clues related to Moriarty as bait, Watson tricks Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where Freud offers his services to cure Holmes of his drug addiction. In the course of Holmes’ treatment, the detective—as well as Freud and Watson—get pulled into a mystery involving a beautiful singer (Vanessa Redgrave) and a monstrous baron (Jeremy Kemp).
          The Seven-Per-Cent Solution tries to do too much, presenting several intrigues simultaneously—as well as building a love story between Holmes and the singer and, of course, dramatizing Holmes’ horrific withdrawal from cocaine. Yet buried in the narrative sprawl is a wondrous buddy movie: Arkin’s dryly funny Freud and Williamson’s caustically insightful Holmes are terrifically entertaining partners. (Duvall, stretching way beyond his comfort zone to play a stiff-upper-lip Englishman, is very good as well, forming the glue between the wildly different tonalities of Arkin’s and Williamson’s performances.) In the movie’s best scenes, Freud and Holmes don’t so much match wits as merge wits, because Meyer’s amusing contrivance is that Freud’s inquiries into the subconscious are cousins to Holmes’ deductive-reasoning techniques. Thanks to Meyer’s elegant wordplay and the across-the-board great acting, moments in this movie soar so high that it’s easy to overlook sequences of lesser power. Ross’ contributions should not be underestimated, however, because the painterly frames and nimble camera moves that he conjures with veteran cinematographer Oswald Morris give the picture a graceful flow and ground the gleefully preposterous narrative in Old World splendor. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: GROOVY

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Train Robbers (1973)

Quite possibly John Wayne’s least distinguished ’70s Western, The Train Robbers is so enervated that easily one-quarter of the film’s brisk running time is consumed by aimless montages of posses riding across rough terrain. These sequences of horses and riders plodding across deserts or pounding through rivers are pleasant enough, with composer Dominic Frontiere’s lively music complementing lyrical imagery, but after a while it becomes apparent that writer-director Burt Kennedy failed to generate enough plot to sustain a feature film. The overall narrative of the picture is okay, a standard-issue quest involving rough men hired by a lady to recover stolen gold, and there are enough flashes of action and character interplay to more or less justify the movie’s existence. Yet it’s a measure of The Train Robbers’ shortcomings that the closest thing the picture has to a villain is poor Ricardo Montalban, who shows up every 20 minutes or so to glower at Wayne’s gang from a distance, puff on a cigar, and stand still while the image dissolves to another scene; Montalban doesn’t even speak until the very end of the movie. Equally malnourished is the flick’s love-story component, and not just because the gigantic, aging Wayne looks ridiculous when sharing the frame with tiny, young Ann-Margret. The flirtation between the leads comprises the Duke admiring Ann-Margret’s figure and spitfire personality (which is discussed but never really demonstrated) and Ann-Margret, in turn, batting her eyelashes during cringe-inducing interludes such as an unconvincing drunk scene. But, as with so many latter-day Wayne movies, The Train Robbers is really about mythologizing the Wayne persona. In one laughable moment, ornery sidekick Calhoun (Christopher George) is asked what’s wrong with Wayne’s character: Calhoun’s response, delivered with vaguely homoerotic glee? “Not a damn thing!” Alas, such a kind appraisal cannot be made of The Train Robbers, which, it should be noted, never actually features a train robbery. Even the presence of reliable cowboy-movie player Ben Johnson in a supporting role isn’t sufficient to make this one memorable.

The Train Robbers: FUNKY

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Challenge to Be Free (1975)

Producer Arthur R. Dubs spent the ’70s making gentle movies about gentle people living in North America’s snowy frontiers, including the Wilderness Family trilogy. While Dubs’ productions are distinguished by handsome nature photography, the generation of substantial narratives was not Dubs’ strong suit. Therefore, it’s peculiar that Dubs opted to make a fictionalized movie about Albert Johnson, a Canadian mountain man who was accused of murder and then became the target of an epic manhunt, eventually earning the moniker “The Mad Trapper of Rat River.” In Dubs’ hilariously whitewashed version of the story, Challenge to Be Free, the leading character known only as “Trapper” (Mike Mazurki) is a harmless recluse who lives in the mountains of Alaska, catching only what he needs to survive while frolicking with—and looking after—assorted furry friends. To give a sense of the movie’s tone, one long sequence features Trapper making flapjacks and feeding them to an elk, all to the accompaniment of cornpone voiceover narration and syrupy background music. In fact, the entire first half-hour of the movie feels like a second-rate Disney travelogue. Then the picture presents Trapper’s run-in with the law as a simple misunderstanding that gets out of hand—never mind that Trapper kills someone with a shotgun and flees the scene. The remainder the film comprises Trapper’s long flight from pursuing Mounties, culminating with his dramatic standoff atop a snowy mountain. Despite the presence of impressive location photography and countless shots of wild animals in what appear to be their natural habitats, the flick is deadly boring. Nearly all the dialogue was dubbed during post-production, giving a disjointed feel; the strain of squeezing a dark story into a G-rated paradigm drains the narrative of vitality; and Mazurki is an amiable bear of a man but nowhere near a movie star, in terms of acting chops and charisma. The story of “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” might be fascinating, but it’s nowhere to be found in the cloying and lifeless Challenge to Be Free.

Challenge to Be Free: LAME

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

          When it’s referred to at all, The Missouri Breaks is generally cited as the movie that derailed Marlon Brando’s ’70s comeback, because after reclaiming prominence with the 1972 double-whammy of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando confounded supporters by delivering such a campy performance in The Missouri Breaks that he entered the realm of self-parody. Ironically, however, Brando isn’t even the star of this offbeat Western, despite his top billing. The Missouri Breaks is a Jack Nicholson vehicle. But such is the power of Brando’s myth that he dominates the picture—and the picture’s reputation. On one level, it’s a shame the good things in The Missouri Breaks were overshadowed by Brando’s self-indulgence, since the movie’s dialogue has loads of frontier-varmint flavor and the location photography is elegant. Plus, writer Thomas McGuane’s characteristically eccentric storyline takes a fresh approach to ancient themes of revenge and vigilantism. But on another level, Brando’s silly performance is exactly what The Missouri Breaks deserves, since the film is unnecessarily languid and turgid; perhaps a stronger storyline might have motivated Brando to furnish a more streamlined characterization.
          In any event, Nicholson stars as Tom Logan, leader of a grubby band of cattle rustlers operating in Montana. When one of Tom’s accomplices is killed by order of a rural judge named David Braxton (John McLian), Tom purchases a ranch near David’s property with the intention of tormenting his enemy. Meanwhile, David hires a mercenary named Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando) to smoke out local rustlers. (David is, of course, unaware of Tom’s true identity.) Further complicating matters, Tom courts David’s lonely, willful daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). The story has a few layers too many, its sprawling flow more suited to a novel than a movie, and McGuane’s script often gets lost in thickets of flavorful chitty-chat; to use a musical analogy, The Missouri Breaks is like a jam in search of a melody.
          Director Arthur Penn, whose previous films Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Little Big Man (1970) so cleverly undercut genre expectations, veers too far (and too inconsistently) away from the mainstream with The Missouri Breaks—the movie toggles between insouciant tomfoolery and numbingly serious drama. In fact, the film is at its best when nothing much is happening onscreen, because simple scenes allow McGuane and Penn to focus on believably mundane rhythms of behavior and characterization. Supporting player Harry Dean Stanton shines in many of these throwaway scenes with his innately laconic vibe. Nicholson’s at a bit of a loss from start to finish, grasping for a central theme around which to build his sloppily rendered character, and Brando—well, it says everything that the actor performs one of his climactic scenes in drag, for no apparent reason. Whether he’s chirping a comical Irish accent, peering around his horse from odd angles, or sulking in a bubble bath, Brando presents a series of goofy sketches in lieu of a proper characterization.

The Missouri Breaks: FUNKY

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Day of the Locust (1975)

          In terms of artistic ambition and physical scale, The Day of the Locust is easily one of the most impressive studio movies of the ’70s. Working with first-class collaborators including cinematographer Conrad Hall, director John Schlesinger did a remarkable job of re-imagining ’30s Hollywood as a dark phantasmagoria comprising endless variations of debauchery, desire, despair, disappointment, and, finally, death. As a collection of subtexts and surfaces, The Day of the Locust is beyond reproach.
          Alas, something bigger and deeper must be present in order to hold disparate elements together, and even though Schlesinger’s film was adapted from a book many regard as one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, The Day of the Locust lacks a unifying force. Schlesinger and his team strive so desperately to make a Big Statement that the movie sinks into pretentious grandiosity, and Schlesinger’s choice to present every character as a grotesque makes The Day of the Locust little more than an exquisitely rendered freak show.
          Novelist Nathanael West based his 1939 book The Day of the Locust on his own experiences as a writer in ’30s Hollywood, capturing the has-beens, never-weres, and wanna-bes living on the fringes of the film industry. West’s book is deeply metaphorical, with much of its power woven into the fabric of wordplay. So, while screenwriter Waldo Salt’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust is admirable for striving to capture subtle components of West’s book, the effort was doomed from the start—some of the images West conjures are so arch that when presented literally onscreen, they seem overwrought. Plus, the basic story suffers from unrelenting gloominess.
          While employed at a movie studio and hoping to rise through the art-direction ranks, Tod Hackett (William Atherton) moves into an apartment complex and becomes fascinated with his sexy neighbor, actress Faye Greener (Karen Black). Loud, opportunistic, and teasing, Faye accepts Tod’s affections while denying his love, even though Tod befriends Faye’s drunken father, a clown-turned-traveling salesman named Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith). Meanwhile, Faye meets and seduces painfully shy accountant Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), who foolishly believes he can domesticate Faye. The storyline also involves a hard-partying dwarf, a borderline-sociopathic child actor, a lecherous studio executive, and loathsome movie extras who stage illegal cockfights.
          The narrative pushes these characters together and pulls them apart in wavelike rhythms that work on the page but not on the screen. And in the end, ironic circumstances cause Hollywood to erupt in a hellish riot.
          Considering that Schlesinger’s film career up to this point mostly comprised such tiny character studies as Darling (1965) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), it’s peculiar that he felt compelled to mount a production of such gigantic scale, and it’s a shame that his excellent work in constructing individual moments gets overwhelmed by the movie’s bloated weirdness. In fact, nearly every scene has flashes of brilliance, but The Day of the Locust wobbles awkwardly between moments that don’t completely work because they’re too blunt and ones that don’t completely work because they’re too subtle. Predictably, actors feel the brunt of this uneven storytelling. Atherton gets the worst of it, simply because he lacks a leading man’s charisma, and Black’s characterization is so extreme she’s unpleasant to watch. Meredith’s heart-rending vulnerability gets obscured behind the silly overacting that Schlesinger clearly encourages, and Sutherland’s performance is so deliberately bizarre that it borders on camp, even though he displays fierce emotional commitment.

The Day of the Locust: FREAKY

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Let the Good Times Roll (1973)

          While many of the concert movies that followed in the wake of Woodstock (1970) spotlighted then-contemporary artists, Let the Good Times Roll took a different route by tapping into a vogue for ’50s nostalgia. The filmmakers shot color footage of oldies concerts in three locations, and then spliced the performances together to create the illusion of a single all-star show; additionally, the filmmakers created montages of ’50s signifiers by using stills and stock footage, and the montages play over selected songs. The movie is best when it keeps things simple, because dated tricks like prism filters and split screens make certain performance sequences feel gimmicky. Worse, the montages are aimless. For every smart juxtaposition (footage of Elvis Presley’s U.S. Army induction appears while the Shirelles perform “Soldier Boy”), there are a dozen instances of random imagery (the A-Bomb, The Mickey Mouse Show, etc.) needlessly distracting from onstage entertainment.
          The picture also suffers, through no real fault of the filmmakers, from wildly inconsistent musicality. Groups including the Coasters and the Five Satins deliver dull recitations of old-fashioned ballads, complete with tacky choreography and unconvincing declarations of love for the audience. Total Vegas cheese. Other performers, including Fats Domino and Bill Haley and the Comets, seem frozen in time, essentially replicating their younger selves in robotic fashion. But three particular performers sizzle, and their work makes the picture worth watching for serious music fans.
          Bo Diddley offers up a long, sloppy set filled with squawking guitar figures and vivid stage moves; he represents the bridge joining the blues to rock. Chuck Berry slays in his uniquely cynical fashion. Still in amazing shape physically and vocally, Berry struts and sways and sweats through a powerhouse set punctuated by the filthy verses of “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” his audaciousness undiminished. It’s also a treat to watch Berry and Diddley duet, especially when they perform a sort of duck-walking duel across the stage.
          Yet the undeniable center of Let the Good Times Roll is Little Richard, who comes off as well and truly insane during his mesmerizingly weird appearance. Powerfully built but slathered with makeup, he’s a sexually ambiguous figure from the time he engages in preposterous diva antics backstage to the time he tears up the joint with a wild run of showboating stagecraft and wicked warbling. At one point, Richard climbs onto a stack of speakers and strips to the waist, tearing his shirt and throwing shreds into the audience—all while displaying a crazed gleam in his eye, as if goading an audience drives him to ecstasy. What this riveting material has to do with the squeaky-clean filler that comprises most of Let the Good Times Roll, however, is anyone’s guess.

Let the Good Times Roll: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Yakuza (1974)

          Director Sydney Pollack took a lot of critical flack for shoehorning love stories into movies that couldn’t organically contain them, as if he wanted to sprinkle the fairy dust of his breakthrough hit The Way We Were (1973) onto every subsequent project. It’s a fair complaint, especially when one considers a Pollack film such as The Yakuza, which suffers from narrative bloat—the film’s romantic subplots are handled with intelligence and taste, but they’re borderline superfluous. That said, it seems ungallant to gripe about a director who endeavored to invest all of his pictures with as much grown-up human feeling as possible. So perhaps it’s best to regard The Yakuza as an embarrassment of riches: Nearly everything in the movie is interesting, even though Pollack regularly forgets what sort of film he’s trying to make.
          At its best, the picture is a tough gangster story with an exotic setting; at its worst, The Yakuza is a sensitive drama about a man in late life reconnecting with a lost love. So while action funs may find the touchy-feely stuff dull, and while viewers more interested in the heartfelt material may be turned off by the bloody bits, watching the disparate elements fight for dominance is fascinating.
          Based on an original script by Leonard Schrader, who lived in Japan for some time, and his celebrated brother, Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, The Yakuza went through the usual Pollack-supervised rewrite routine, getting a credited overhaul from A-lister Robert Towne (as well as, presumably, uncredited tinkering by others). The convoluted story revolves around Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), an aging WWII vet asked to perform a favor for his old friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith). George has gotten into trouble with the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), so he needs Harry, who knows Japanese culture, to smooth out relations. Harry travels to Japan with George’s hotheaded young associate, Dusty (Richard Jordan), and coordinates with a former Yakuza member, Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura). Harry’s crew stumbles into a complicated war between American and Japanese criminals, and also between various Yakuza factions. Meanwhile, Harry reconnects with Eiko (Keiko Kishi), the Japanese woman he loved while he was stationed in Japan during WWII. Both obviously want to pick up where they left off, but their relationship is complicated by ancient traditions and surprising family ties.
          Describing the plot doesn’t do The Yakuza any favors, since the story doesn’t “work” in a conventional sense; the narrative is far too muddled and tonally inconsistent. Nonetheless, The Yakuza offers rewards for patient viewers. The performances are uniformly poignant, with Mitchum’s world-weariness setting the downbeat tone. Jordan and Keith complement him with macho brashness; Kishi and Takakura are quietly soulful; and Herb Edelman, playing an old friend of Harry’s, offers a sweet quality of peacenik anguish. James Shigeta is terrific, too, in a handful of scenes as Ken’s tightly wound brother. Melding his signature classicism with uniquely Japanese textures, such as highly formalized framing, Pollack and cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki fill the screen with artistry and color. Plus, the movie introduced America viewers to a bloody Yakuza ritual that will linger with you long after the movie ends—ouch!

The Yakuza: GROOVY

Monday, March 18, 2013

$ a/k/a Dollars (1971)

          Obnoxiously titled with a typographical symbol instead of proper language, writer-director Richard Brooks’ $ is among the least memorable heist movies ever made, despite the presence of two highly charismatic stars, Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn.
          Brooks’ story is a paper-thin lark about a security expert who uses his inside knowledge to steal money that criminals have deposited in a German bank—ostensibly the “perfect crime” because the victims cannot seek redress through proper authorities. Hawn figures into the storyline as a prostitute who employs her wiles to pump criminals for information, and of course her characters is in love with Beatty’s. Theoretically, this should be a formula for frothy fun, but two major factors put a damper on the proceedings. First and most damagingly, Brooks lacks the lightness of touch that someone like, say, Blake Edwards brings to the heist genre. Brooks gets so preoccupied with the machinations of plot that watching $ is a bit like doing tedious math homework—things get zippier once the movie shifts into an extended chase scene that chews up the entire third act, but up to that point, tracking the picture’s interchangeable supporting characters is tiresome. (That said, it’s a hoot that Brooks cast Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe, as a bank manager tasked wit protecting, among other things, a giant bar of gold.)
          The movie’s second big impediment is its leading man. Beatty gives an indifferent performance, presumably because he was at a strange juncture in his career. After piddling away the early ’60s in a string of overwrought melodramas, he reinvented himself not only as an actor of substance but also as a formidable producer with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Then he disappeared from the screen for three years, resurfaced in yet another overwrought melodrama (1970’s The Only Game in Town), and subsequently issued mixed messages: The same year Beatty starred in $, the epitome of vapid nonsense, he starred in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the epitome of challenging New Hollywood cinema. Therefore, $ raised a troubling question: Will the real Warren Beatty please stand up? Anyway, Hawn, as always, does her best to enliven the proceedings with her comeliness and ebullience, but $ fits with the paradigm of other early Hawn films—she’s simultaneously offered to the audience as a childlike flibbertigibbet and as a dimwitted sex object. Creepy.
          Nonetheless, it’s impossible to call $ a complete wash, because the film’s production values are top-notch, the jazzy score by Quincy Jones has a good bounce to it, and one presumes that dedicated fans of the stars will find much to enjoy. For those who crave more than empty spectacle and marquee-name eye candy, however, $ is far from compelling.

$ a/k/a Dollars: FUNKY

Sunday, March 17, 2013

3 Women (1977)

          Deliberately opaque and sluggishly paced, 3 Women represents maverick auteur Robert Altman’s filmmaking at its least accessible. With its clinical depiction of weird behavior and its cringe-inducing storyline about an odd young woman coveting the existence of a fellow misfit, 3 Women is a cinematic cousin to Ingmar Bergman’s personality-transfer psychodrama Persona (1966). The difference, of course, is that Persona makes sense. Written, produced, and directed by Altman, 3 Women a thriller with heavily surrealistic elements, so the actual narrative matters less than the sick stuff crawling beneath the surface. Further, Altman has said that the film came to him as a dream, and these roots are evident in the way Altman strings together bizarre signifiers—the movie’s random components include a speechless woman who paints epic murals on the base of a swimming pool, a middle-aged dude whose claim to fame is having been the stunt double for TV cowboy Hugh O’Brien, and a pair of bitchy twins.
          Set in a dusty town in rural California, the picture begins when spooky-eyed young waif Pinky (Sissy Spacek) shows up for her first day of work at an aquatic rehab center for seniors. (Cue grotesque shots of aging thighs descending into water.) Assigned to mentor Pinky is gangly chatterbox Millie (Shelley Duvall), who inexplicably believes herself irresistible to friends and suitors alike, even though she’s constantly mocked and rebuffed. Pinky gravitates to Millie, and the two become roommates. (Cue weird sequence of touring a semi-abandoned Old West theme park near Millie’s apartment building.) As the story drags on—and on and on—Pinky covertly studies her roommate and does little things to screw with Millie’s existence, until finally the women arrive at some strange new level of understanding.
          As for what exactly that new level of understanding comprises, your guess is as good as mine; even Altman has admitted he doesn’t know what the picture’s ending means.
          3 Women is filled with ominous textures, such as guttural music cues and, at one point, an extended, impressionistic montage of murder scenes and trippy artwork. There’s also a recurring motif of vignettes seen through a veil of water, as if the story’s events occur at some unknowable depth of consciousness. 3 Women is catnip for viewers who crave ferociously individualistic cinema, because there’s no mistaking this ethereal symphony for an ordinary movie. And, indeed, the picture has many respectable admirers: Roger Ebert is a fan, and after a long period in which the film was commercially unavailable, it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.
          That said, is the movie actually worth watching for mere mortals? Depends on what rocks your world. I found 3 Women pointless and tedious, little more than self-indulgent regurgitation of personal dream imagery. Yet I admit that I rarely enjoy movies lacking grounded narratives, and that I have mixed feelings about Altman’s tendency to pick the scabs of human strangeness. However, the strength of a movie like 3 Women is that it’s a different experience for every viewer—where I saw only ugliness, you may find beauty.

3 Women: FREAKY

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Butterflies Are Free (1972)

          Well regarded for its sympathetic portrayal of a young blind man whose travails echo those of all persons living with disabilities, Butterflies Are Free has some fine ideas and sentiments, but it’s also long-winded, stilted, and trite. Adapted by Leonard Gershe from his successful play of the same name, the picture explores challenges faced by Don Baker (Edward Albert), a college-aged suburban youth trying to live on his own for the first time. For the first half of the story, he’s excited by the affections of a sexy neighbor, cheerfully irresponsible hippie Jill Tanner (Goldie Hawn), and for the second half the story, Don is tormented by the smothering attentions of his overprotective mother, referred to only as Mrs. Baker (Eileen Heckart).
          According to the introduction accompanying a recent broadcast of Butterflies Are Free on Turner Classic Movies, the significance of the picture is that it captured the tone of the early-’70s “independent living” movement, during which persons with disabilities attempted to break from the traditional cycle of home care and institutionalization. And, indeed, Gershe’s narrative crisply depicts myriad hardships people like Don must have faced on a daily basis in less-informed times, from condescending attitudes to the genuine fear of overwhelming situations. Alas, Gershe’s weapon of choice is overly literate dialogue, so the characters in the story feel more like polemic representations than actual people: Mrs. Baker represents oppression, Jill represents freedom, and Don wants to exist somewhere between those extremes.
          If the filmmaking had more vitality and the acting was transcendent, the mannered nuances of Gershe’s writing would be more tolerable. Unfortunately, director Milton Katselas does little more than film a theatrical production; Butterflies Are Free is so flat one can almost feel the curtain descending whenever the story lurches from one act to the next. Yet leading man Albert is the movie’s biggest weakness. Bland and unmemorable, he delivers a performance more suited to an afterschool special than a theatrical feature. Hawn fares better, simply because of her beauty and charm; if nothing else, the fact that she spends a third of the movie in her underwear commands a certain kind of attention. Heckart, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for the movie, benefits from Gershe’s best-written role. Anguished and sarcastic, Heckhart’s character charts a believable arc from assumption to understanding. Heckart’s isn’t a performance for the ages, per se, but her solid work elevates an otherwise mediocre endeavor.

Butterflies Are Free: FUNKY