Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Macon County Line (1974) & Return to Macon County (1975)

          Max Baer Jr. enjoyed a minor acting career until landing the role of Jethro on the hit 1962-1971 sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Alas, typecasting rendered Baer virtually unemployable once the show ended. Undaunted, he moved behind the camera to produce low-budget movies, the second of which was Macon County Line. The lurid potboiler earned huge profits on the drive-in circuit and opened the door for Baer to become a director of Southern-fried pictures including the respectable-ish Ode to Billy Joe (1978). The reason it’s worth dwelling on behind-the-scenes data is that Macon County Line is an underwhelming cinematic experience—therefore, the fact that it had an impact lends the picture a small measure of significance.
          In any event, the film—cowritten by Baer and Richard Compton (who also directed)—is a straightforward bummer narrative about mistaken identity. In 1954 Louisiana, two young brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life siblings Alan and Jesse Vint), travel the countryside, getting laid and getting into trouble before commencing military service. Meanwhile, a pair of psychotic drifters roams the same terrain. Caught in the middle is small-town cop Reed Morgan (Baer). The drifters kill Reed’s wife, but Reed mistakenly believes the Dixon brothers are responsible. Tragedy ensues. The first hour of Macon County Line is disjointed and dull, lurching from playful scenes of Chris courting cute hitchhiker Jenny (Cheryl Waters) to grim scenes of the drifters committing crimes. There’s also a peculiar subplot in which Reed educates his young son (Leif Garrett) about the finer points of being a proper Southern racist. The whole thing leads up to a pointless twist ending that Baer and Compton stage like a vignette from a horror movie. Presumably, the combination of a gotcha climax and pandering redneck stereotypes made an impression on audiences, hence the box-office haul, but it’s hard to categorize Macon County Line as anything but a pop-culture aberration.
         Nonetheless, the picture inspired a quasi-sequel, Return to Macon County, which features an all-new cast and all-new characters, although the storyline is basically just a retread of the previous movie. (Compton returned as director, and he wrote the second movie solo, but Baer was not involved with the follow-up.) This time, the horndog young heroes are Bo and Harley, played by a pre-fame Nick Nolte and Don Johnson. The story takes place in 1958, and it revolves around Bo and Harley traveling the country to enter drag races. As in the previous picture, the boys hook up with a pretty girl (Robin Mattson) and invoke the ire of a crazed cop (Robert Viharo). Despite the charisma of the male leads, Return to Macon County is drab and sluggish. The story takes forever to get moving, and relies even more heavily on contrived circumstances than its predecessor. It doesn’t help that Nolte outclasses every other actor in the movie—with his bearish build and rascally intensity, he’s a potent image of youthful rebellion even when’s playing trite scenes and spewing vapid dialogue. It’s no surprise, then, that Nolte rose to major stardom with his very next project, the epic miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). Just like it’s no surprise there wasn’t a third entry in the Macon County franchise.

Macon County Line: FUNKY
Return to Macon County: LAME

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

          Crafted by two of New York’s most celebrated wits—and based on an idea by a lesser light from the same stratosphere—The Heartbreak Kid represents satire so cutting the movie borders on outright tragedy. The film tells the story of a young Jewish guy who marries a simple girl, experiences buyer’s remorse, meets a beautiful shiksa while on his honeymoon, and gets a quickie divorce so he can pursue his Gentile dream girl. To describe the lead character as unsympathetic would be a gross understatement—Lenny Cantrow’s sole redeeming quality is a deranged sort of relentless positivity.
          Based on a story by humorist Bruce Jay Friedman and written for the screen by Neil Simon—who mostly avoids his signature one-liners, opting instead for closely observed character-driven comedy—The Heartbreak Kid was directed by Elaine May. After achieving fame as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols in the ’60s, May embarked on an eclectic film career. She wrote, directed, and co-starred in the dark comedy A New Leaf (1971), which was the subject of battles between May and the studio during postproduction, then took on this project as director only. While May’s world-class comic instincts are evident in the timing of jokes and the generally understated tone of the acting, it’s easy to envision another director taking the same material to greater heights of hilarity.
          Or not.
          You see, the problem is that The Heartbreak Kid tells such a fundamentally cruel story that it’s hard to really “enjoy” the movie, even when the comedy gets into a groove. Much of the film comprises Lenny (Charles Grodin) abandoning or lying to his wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin), so he can make time with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a bored rich girl who uses her sexual power for amusement. In other words, it’s the tale of a rotten guy dumping a nice girl for a bitch. The piece is redeemed, to some degree, by the skill of the performers, each of whom is perfectly cast. Grodin, a master at deadpan line deliveries, is all too believable as a middle-class schmuck with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Berlin (incidentally, May’s daughter) bravely humiliates herself to make sight gags work, amply earning the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress that she received for this movie. Shepherd, at the time a former model appearing in only her second movie, does most of her work just by showing up and looking unattainably beautiful, but one can see glimmers of the skilled comedienne she eventually became.
          The film’s other recipient of Oscar love, Best Supporting Actor nominee Eddie Albert, excels in his role as Kelly’s father, because his showdown scenes with Lenny are among the picture’s best—watching Albert slowly rise from simmering anger to boiling rage is pure pleasure. In fact, there’s so much good stuff in The Heartbreak Kid that it becomes a laudable movie by default, even though the central character is a putz of the first order. Inexplicably, the Farrelly Brothers remade The Heartbreak Kid in 2007 with Ben Stiller in the Grodin role, only to discover the story hadn’t lost its ability to infuriate. The remake flopped.

The Heartbreak Kid: GROOVY

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vanishing Point (1971)

          Although I’ve never really grooved to this particular counterculture artifact, as many friends who dig the same cinematic era have, all it takes to explain the appeal of Vanishing Point is to describe the close parallel between the film’s minimalistic storyline and prevailing early-’70s social concerns. Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a drifter who makes his living delivering cars across long distances. After accepting a job to ferry a hot rod from Denver to San Francisco, Kowalski jacks himself up on speed and blasts down open highways with legions of cops in pursuit. Meanwhile, an enigmatic, blind radio DJ going by the handle “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little) narrates Kowalski’s journey for his listeners, framing the driver’s ride as a principled fight against the Establishment. The sympathetic reading of this material, of course, is that Kowalski just wants to be free, man, so when society tries to trap him with laws and rules and speed limits, he strikes a rebellious blow on behalf of rugged independence. And if you can’t anticipate how a story comprising these elements will end, then you haven’t seen too many counterculture flicks—as the song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
          Viewed as historically relevant symbolism, Vanishing Point is interesting, because it presents a lone-wolf protagonist whose existence comprises nothing but early-’70s signifiers: He’s an alienated Vietnam vet, he self-medicates with illegal drugs, and he’s determined to force a confrontation with what he perceives to be the oppressive forces of law and order. Heavy shit, no question. It seems safe to say that writers Guillermo Cain, Barry Hall, and Malcolm Hart—as well as director Richard C. Sarafian—deliberately infused their story with of-the-moment dimensions.
          But very much like another existentialist road movie of the same vintage, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point plays an iffy game by using ciphers instead of fully realized characters. For instance, certain conventional narrative elements, such as backstory and well-articulated motivation, are largely absent from Vanishing Point. So, even though Vanishing Point provides ample fodder for post-movie interpretation games, the actual onscreen events are repetitive and superficial. It doesn’t help that Newman, who enjoyed a very brief run as a leading man in movies and television, is a bland persona. (Conversely, Little exudes casual-cool charisma and delivers his on-air monologues with smooth style.) It also says a lot that many Vanishing Point fans dig the movie because they’re entranced by the Dodge Challenger muscle car that Newman drives in the movie. After all, the Challenger has the film’s most fully rendered characterization—especially compared to the cringe-worthy portrayals of two gay hitchhikers whom the hero encounters.

Vanishing Point: FUNKY

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Salvage-1 (1979)

          Featuring one of the loopier premises in the history of primetime drama, this feature-length pilot movie launched a short-lived series, which has since become a minor cult favorite among sci-fi fans. Beloved TV icon Andy Griffith stars in the movie as a junkyard owner who builds his own private spaceship for a trip to the moon, where he plans to salvage abandoned NASA equipment and sell it to the highest bidder. Once the concept went to series, Griffth reprised his role, with his character piloting the spaceship for missions to remote locations around the globe; in the first regular episode, the goal was to retrieve monkeys for a zoo and to explore the possibility of bringing back an iceberg for a California community suffering from drought. Not hard to see why the series got canceled. Still, two things make the Salvage-1 pilot movie charming—Griffith’s affable persona and the lightness of the storytelling. Written by Mike Lloyd Ross, whose character development and dialogue are as clunky as his narrative concepts are wild, Salvage-1 introduces Harry Broderick (Griffith) as an expert in repurposing junk—he buys a World War I biplane for a song, then guts the vehicle and sells parts to various buyers, making a $14,000 profit in the course of a morning’s work.
          Harry’s gotten hip to the multimillion-dollar value of tech that NASA left on the moon, and he’s identified an aeronautics expert with a theory that might facilitate inexpensive space travel. Harry hires the expert, ex-astronaut Skip Carmichael (Joel Higgins), who in turn enlists the aid of fuel specialist Melanie Slozar (Trish Stewart). Together with Harry’s regular employees—including a pair of former NASA ground-control techs—Harry cobbles together a spaceship called the Vulture. Meanwhile, uptight FBI agent Jack Klinger (Richard Jaeckel) sniffs around Harry’s junkyard because he senses something strange is happening. Salvage-1 is predicated on an inordinate number of convenient plot twists, and Ross’ script is so upbeat that there’s never any real tension, but Salvage-1 is fun to watch simply because it’s such a lark. Even the laughably bad special effects featured during the Vulture’s moon shot aren’t enough to diffuse the good vibes. This is pure gee-whiz escapism, and the saving grace of the piece is that it never pretends to have meaning or substance. So, yes, the acting is hokey and the story is borderline stupid, but who cares? Fun is fun.

Salvage-1: GROOVY

Friday, April 26, 2013

That’s the Way of the World (1975)

          A behind-the-scenes story about the music business starring Harvey Keitel as a principled record producer, That’s the Way of the World isn’t a great film by any measure, but it vividly evokes a specific era, and it addresses meaningful themes related to the eternal conflict between art and commerce. Plus, the movie’s got great jams courtesy of R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire, the members of which portray an ersatz act called the Group—EWF lays down smooth grooves including “Reasons,” “Shining Star,” and “That’s the Way of the World.” Keitel plays Coleman Buckmaster (one of the best character names ever, just sayin’), a successful producer known for creating imaginative arrangements. When we meet Coleman, he’s deep into sessions with the Group, a black ensemble making densely atmospheric tracks. Coleman considers the Group artistically important, but his backers don’t dig the sound. Execs order Coleman to set the Group aside and work on a single by an all-white vocal group called the Pages, whose style is so square they make the Carpenters seem hip by comparison. (In a great flourish, the leader of the Pages is played by Bert Parks, who spent years serenading Miss America during televised beauty contests.) Coleman agrees to cut the vocal act’s record, planning to get the job done quickly so he can return to the Group, but things get complicated when Coleman starts romancing Pages singer Velour (Cynthia Bostick).
          Although this set-up has plenty of dramatic potential, writer Robert Lipsyte and director/producer Sig Shore devote more energy to capturing details than to generating narrative momentum. As such, there’s lots of great stuff depicting the flow of recording sessions and the unethical practices of the record business. In one memorable scene, an executive says it takes “payola, layola, viola, and drugola” to get a song on the radio; elsewhere, Coleman speaks for artists throughout history by asking an anxious financier, “Do you want it good or do you want it now?” Shore, who produced the Superfly movies, doesn’t break any new ground with this, his directorial debut—his work falls somewhere between perfunctory and underwhelming. As for Keitel, among the most quixotic actors in Hollywood history, he delivers one of his patented non-performances. He’s mildly charming in some moments and fiery in a few others, but mostly he’s so internalized that many nuances fail to register. Still, these are relatively minor complaints given how interesting That’s the Way of the World is from start to finish. Sure, there’s a kitsch factor (Keitel roller-skates!), but the picture is hard to beat as a travelogue through a world seldom seen by outside eyes.

That’s the Way of the World: GROOVY

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Wiz (1978)

          Catering a new version of The Wizard of Oz to African-American audiences was a novel idea—hence the success of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, which combined funky songs and an urban milieu to draw a parallel between L. Frank Baum’s timeless Oz stories and the longing for a better life that’s experienced by many inner-city denizens. Yet one could argue that generating an all-black show marginalized African-American culture as much as, say, the lily-white casting of the beloved 1939 The Wizard of Oz movie. However, it’s probably best not to delve into thorny racial politics here. Rather, the relevant question is whether The Wiz justifies its own existence in purely aesthetic terms. Based on this lavish film adaptation (which, to be fair, involved heavy changes to the source material), the answer is no. Dull, gloomy, overwrought, and weighed down by Diana Ross’ ridiculous casting as a fresh-faced youth, The Wiz is a chore to watch.
          Improbably, the film was directed by Sidney Lumet, best known for making such gritty dramas as Dog Day Afternoon (1975), though trivia buffs may dig noting that Lumet cast his then-mother-in-law, singing legend Lena Horne, in a pivotal role. Anyway, the basic story is familiar: Dorothy (Ross) gets transported to the magical land of Oz, where she hooks up with companions for a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wiz, whom she hopes can help her get home. You know the drill—wicked witch, enchanted shoes, click your heels together, and so on. Every element is tweaked with an African-American vibe, so in addition to all of the actors being black, this movie’s version of Oz is a funhouse-mirror version of New York, complete with subway stations and urban blight.
          Ornately designed by Tony Walton, who received two Oscar nominations for his work on the picture, The Wiz is a strange hybrid of chintzy stagecraft and elaborate cinematic techniques—the costumes and sets in Oz look deliberately bogus, and the big musical numbers unfold on a proscenium facing the viewer. Therefore, notwithstanding screenwriter Joel Schumacher’s changes to the play’s dialogue, this is less an adaptation of a stage show than a filmed record of one. In a word, flat. Ross is awful on myriad levels, from being too old for the role to over-singing her endless solo ballads—star ego run amok. The supporting players generally try too hard, resulting in oppressive energy and volume, though Michael Jackson (no surprise) stands out as the loose-limbed, sweet-hearted Scarecrow. As for featured player Richard Pryor, who plays the Wiz, he comes and goes so quickly that he can’t make an impact.
          Whether the music works is of course a highly subjective matter, but to my ears, only “Ease on Down the Road” (this film’s version of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”) and the Wicked Witch’s number, “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News,” linger—most of the songs are gimmicky or syrupy, if not both. Yet the biggest problem with The Wiz—and there are lots of big problems—is that it’s not fun. The dialogue is stilted, the mood is glum, the narrative drags, and the production design is so artificial it can’t elicit any genuine reactions. If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was, this Wiz ain’t it.

The Wiz: LAME

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Take a Hard Ride (1975)

          Despite featuring several interesting B-movie personalities and despite having a solid story premise, the European-made Western Take a Hard Ride never realizes its potential. Part of the problem has to do with audience expectations. Since the movie features blaxploitation stars Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, and Fred Williamson—as well as spaghetti-Western stalwart Lee Van Cleef—the obvious approach would have been to combine the actors into a fighting unit for a Magnificent Seven-style flick. Alas, Take a Hard Ride is essentially a Brown-Williamson buddy picture in which Kelly and Van Cleef, among others, play supporting roles. Worse, director Antonio Margheriti employs a hacky visual style that makes every scene feel haphazard and rushed. The picture is watchable, but it gets awfully dull after a while, especially because Brown and Williamson end up playing repetitive variations on the exact same scene for most of the film’s middle hour.
          The story hook is simple enough. Black gunslinger Pike (Brown) accompanies his white boss, rancher Bob Morgan (Dana Andrews), to the end of a cattle drive, where Morgan gets paid $86,000 in cash. After Morgan has a fatal heart attack, the sterling Pike vows to return the money to Morgan’s widow. Unfortunately, once Pike sets off on his journey, various criminals get wind of his cargo and conspire to ambush him. One such outlaw, slick gambler Tyree (Williamson), saves Pike from an attacker and subsequently accompanies Pike on the trail—even though Tyree says outright that he plans to rob Pike once they reach the Mexican border. Another pursuer is Kiefer (Van Cleef), a bounty hunter who eventually gathers a small army of money-hungry varmints to chase after Pike. There’s also a subplot involving an ex-hooker, Catherine (Catherine Spaak), whom Pike and Tyree rescue from rapists—she joins Pike’s group, as does her mute Indian sidekick, Kashtok (Kelly).
          Considering that Take a Hard Ride is basically a chase movie, it’s amazing how little excitement the narrative generates. The script is filled with dull scenes of Pike and Tyree challenging each other, and the supporting characters are under-utilized; for instance, Kiefer spends most of the picture standing on ridges and squinting while other people get into fights. And speaking of the movie’s numerous battles, none is novel or surprising—think standard fire-and-duck shootouts, with the minor exception of quick bits during which Kelly takes down attackers with karate and throwing knives. If one struggles for a compliment, it could be noted that Take a Hard Ride has better production values that most movies starring Van Cleef or Williamson—but that’s not saying much.

Take a Hard Ride: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Devil’s Triangle (1974) & The Bermuda Triangle (1979)

          The Bermuda Triangle, that mysterious section of the Atlantic Ocean into which a vast number of boats and planes have inexplicably disappeared, enjoyed pop-culture prominence in the ’70s, when all things paranormal were grist for the infotainment mill. For instance, two feature-length documentaries were made about the Triangle. The first of the documentaries was a terrible hack job called The Devil’s Triangle, which would have been unwatchable had the filmmakers not hired horror-cinema legend Vincent Price to narrate. Featuring dull interview clips, utilitarian stock footage, and silly artistic renderings that look like courtroom sketches, The Devil’s Triangle offers nothing more than bland descriptions of mysterious events. (And if the promise of a score by prog-rock titans King Crimson gets your blood pumping, lower your expectations because the music is unmemorable.) Price, who does not appear on camera, does his best to infuse the florid script with creepy-crawly energy, but by the zillionth time he ends a sentence with “in the Devil’s Triangle,” the novelty has eroded. Additionally, director/co-writer Richard Winer doesn’t even bother to propose possible explanations for the Triangle phenomenon, instead forcing Price to croak cryptic crap: “What is this wrath-flinging, horrifying curse that prevails in the Devil’s Triangle? An affliction so incredible that even the United States Coast Guard is reluctant to make an observation on the matter?”
          For entertainingly outrageous answers to such questions, one must shift attention to a later film, The Bermuda Triangle, which was unleashed by the titans of fact-deficient “documentaries,” Sunn Classic Pictures. Hosted by bearish-looking Brad Crandall, who lent his melodious speaking voice and professorial visage to several Sunn Classic joints, The Bermuda Triangle is a smorgasbord of pseudoscience. In between vignettes of Crandall speaking while he walks around locations related to the Triangle mystery, like a now-closed U.S. airbase in Fort Lauderdale, the picture features re-enactments of Triangle incidents that are staged like scenes from low-budget horror movies. Flyers freak out when the sky turns green around their planes; sailors reel when ghost ships appear from strange mists; seadogs crumble when inexplicable forces cause them to shift in and out of tangible reality.
          Nearly every sensational theory about the Triangle that’s ever been put forth is depicted with the same degree of ominousness. Abandoned WWII mines destroying ships! Giant waterspouts rising from the ocean to engulf aircraft! Undersea earthquakes causing massive tidal waves! Viewers are even treated to the theory that the Triangle is related to the mythical lost kingdom of Atlantis—apparently, ancient Atlanteans created a “magnetic force crystal that harnessed the awesome power of the stars,” but the crystal’s energy activated volcanoes that consumed Atlantis; now, centuries later, the crystal rests at the bottom of the ocean, blasting laser beams that explode passing vessels. But wait—we haven’t even gotten to the part about UFOs traveling through the triangle via transdimensional gateways! Boasting better production values than most Sunn Classic cheapies (even though the special effects are laughably bad), The Bermuda Triangle is highly enjoyable by dint of sheer ridiculousness.

The Devil’s Triangle: LAME
The Bermuda Triangle: GROOVY

Monday, April 22, 2013

To the Devil . . . a Daughter (1976)

It was probably inevitable that the folks at Hammer Films would produce a movie in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), because nothing screams Hammer like the lurid intersection of sex and supernatural thrills. Unfortunately, To the Devil . . . A Daughter lacks the comic-book fun of the best Hammer flicks—it’s a ploddingly serious psychodrama hampered by indifferent leading performances. And because certain scenes push the boundaries of good taste in terms of displaying nubile flesh, the whole endeavor feels needlessly sleazy. Therefore, even though director Peter Sykes mounts a generally handsome production, with sleek camerawork by the great David Watkin and several atmospheric locations, the cons outweigh the pros. Richard Widmark stars as John Verney, a supernatural expert recruited by worried dad Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliot) to look after Henry’s teenaged daughter, Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), who has spent years cloistered with a mysterious religious organization in Europe. Long story short, it turns out the head of the organization, Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee), is a Satanist grooming Catherine for some sort of unholy union with a demon. Verney attempts to save Catherine. The saucy plot could have worked, but Widmark seems so bored that he sucks the life out of every scene he’s in, while Lee—as always, more interesting as a physical presence than as an actor—merely glowers like he’s making one of his interchangeable Dracula movies. In the absence of dynamic leading performances, all eyes turn to Kinski’s exotic beauty. Had she been cast as an innocent whose sexual power was merely implied, Kinski could have justified the movie’s existence with her innately beguiling qualities. Instead, the filmmakers went too far and displayed the actress fully nude, despite the fact that she was a minor at the time of filming. Toying with the erotic implications of a provocative story is one thing, but brazenly showcasing a child as a sex object is putrid.

To the Devil . . . a Daughter: LAME

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Papillon (1973)

          This minor classic, which tells the real-life story of a Frenchman who endured 10 years of harsh imprisonment in South America during the 1930s, arose from a turbulent development process. After screenplay drafts by writers on the order of William Goldman were rejected, the film went into preproduction with a script by the fine popcorn-movie scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. By that point, Steve McQueen was committed to play the title character. Then Dustin Hoffman agreed to co-star in the picture, only there wasn’t a role for him to play. Enter Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was hired to weave Hoffman into the picture. Trumbo’s writing continued well into production—he was generating pages just a few days ahead of when they were being shot—so after Trumbo fell ill, someone had to finish the work, fast. Trumbo’s son, Christopher, did the job, writing the movie’s poignant final scenes. Thus, if the resulting movie has a bit of a patched-together feel, there’s a good reason—and it’s a testament to the skill of everyone involved that despite the convoluted gestation, Papillon works.
          The film was adapted from a memoir by French criminal Henri Charrière, whose claim to fame was escaping from Devil’s Island, the infamous prison in French Guyana. (Never mind that many people have questioned the veracity of Charrière’s recollections.) When the story begins, Charrière (Steve McQueen) is convicted for a murder he did not commit, and then sent across the ocean to a lifetime term on Devil’s Island. (Charrière is nicknamed “Papillon,” French for “butterfly,” and an image of the winged insect is tattooed across his chest.) While in transit to Devil’s Island, Charrière befriends a bespectacled crook named Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), who has money but isn’t physically formidable. Charrière, on the other hand, is a tough guy, so they strike a protection deal. Yet what begins as a pragmatic arrangement evolves into a full-blown bromance over the course of several years; among other incidents, Charrière protects Dega from assailants and Dega smuggles food to Charrière while Charrière endures inhumane solitary confinement.
          The movie combines intense scenes of prison suffering with thrilling escape attempts. Along the way, Charrière earns the respect of nearly everyone he meets by displaying superhuman determination. In one vivid but far-fetched vignette, the hero even curries favor with the charismatic leader (Anthony Zerbe) of a leper colony.
          Despite extraordinary production values and the sure hand of director Franklin J. Schaffner guiding the story, Papillion drags somewhat at a bloated length of two and a half hours. Ironically, however, the narrative’s most expendable element is also one of the movie’s strongest virtues: Hoffman’s character. Because the myriad scenes of Charrière’s imprisonment are painful to watch (at one point, he eats bugs for survival), producers were wise to add the leavening agent of a major friendship. Hoffman is oddly appealing, affecting a cerebral, sarcastic quality while peering out through Coke-bottle glasses. Better still, his tightly wound energy complements McQueen’s he-man stoicism, giving the picture contrast it would otherwise have lacked. (The last scene between the main characters also has an undeniable emotional tug.) Is Papillon overlong and repetitious? Sure. But is it beautifully made and sensitively acted, with a reassuring theme of man’s indomitable spirit? Yes. And that’s what matters, at least in terms of what this memorable movie offers and delivers.

Papillon: GROOVY

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

          While it's easy to see why Twilight's Las Gleaming tanked at the box office during its original release and remains, at best, a minor cult favorite to this day, the movie is a lively addition to the venerable tradition of loopy conspiracy flicks. Featuring an outlandish plot about a crazed U.S. general seizing control of a nuclear-missile launch site in order to force the president to reveal secret documents about America's involvement in Vietnam, the picture is far-fetched in the extreme. It's also ridiculously overlong, sprawling over two and a half hours. Furthermore, gonzo director Robert Aldrich filigrees the story with such unnecessary adornments as split-screen photography, which he uses to simultaneously show the goings-on at the launch site and the reactions of power-brokers in Washington, D.C. Plus, of course, the storyline is downbeat in every imaginable way. For adventurous moviegoers, however, these weaknesses are just as easily interpreted as strengths, particularly when the entertainment value of the acting is taken into consideration.
          Burt Lancaster stars as the general, memorably incarnating a macho idealist who uses duplicity and strategy to manipulate enemies and subordinates alike. Charles Durning, rarely cast as authority figures beyond the level of middle management, makes an unlikely president, his innate likability and the darkness that always simmered beneath his persona offering a complex image of humanistic leadership. Also populating the movie are leather-faced tough guy Richard Widmark, as the officer charged with wresting control of the launch site from the general’s gang; Paul Winfield and Burt Young, as two members of the gang; and reliable veterans Roscoe Lee Browne, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, and Richard Jaeckel (to say nothing of Blacula himself, William Marshall). Quite a tony cast for a whackadoodle thriller that borders on science fiction.
          Based on a novel by Walter Wager, Twilight's Last Gleaming represents Aldrich's bleeding-heart storytelling at its most arch—the goal of Lancaster's character is revealing that the U.S. government knew Vietnam was a lost cause but kept fighting, at great cost of blood and treasure, simply to intimidate the Soviet Union. If there's a single ginormous logical flaw in the picture (in fact, there are probably many), it's that Lancaster's character could have achieved his goal through simpler means. But the ballsy contrivance of the picture is that seizing the launch site is a theatrical gesture meant to capture the world's attention. As such, the operatic bloat of Twilight's Last Gleaming reflects the protagonist's modus operandi--like the crusading general, Aldrich swings for the fences. Twilight's Last Gleaming is a strange hybrid of hand-wringing political drama (somewhat in the Rod Serling mode) with guns-a-blazin' action—for better or worse, there's not another movie like this one. Genuine novelty is a rare virtue, and so is the passion with which Aldrich made this offbeat picture.

Twilight's Last Gleaming: GROOVY

Friday, April 19, 2013

See No Evil (1971)

For the most part, actress Mia Farrow avoided the thriller genre after starring in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), perhaps because she knew no subsequent shocker was likely to reach the heights of that Roman Polanski-directed classic. And sure enough, when one examines the two outright horror flicks Farrow made during the ’70s, Rosemary’s Baby only grows in stature by comparison. The latter of the two pictures, The Haunting of Julia (1977), is an atmospheric but tedious psychodrama about a woman tormented by the experience of losing a child. The earlier of the two pictures, See No Evil, is a trite riff on Wait Until Dark, the 1966 play and 1967 movie about a blind woman terrorized by a murderous assailant. Yet while Wait Until Dark has a solid story and thrilling jolts, See No Evil spends 89 repetitive minutes mindlessly exploiting the gimmick of a victim unable to sense nearby danger. And because Farrow’s performance is mediocre—her melodramatic gestures and over-the-top whimpering exacerbate the shortcomings of an underwritten role—the only strength of the picture is the imaginative cinematography by ace British DP Gerry Fisher. Fisher’s camera rides along the floors of spaces to spotlight objects lying in Farrow’s path, and peers around corners to peek at things Farrow can merely detect by sound; these flourishes lend a small measure of dynamism. As for the story, Farrow plays Sarah, a young woman living in the English countryside with her aunt and uncle. Sarah recently lost her sight in a horse-riding accident, so while she seems psychologically adjusted to her change of life, she’s still physically awkward. Therefore, when a killer slaughters Sarah’s relatives while she’s away, it takes our heroine a while to notice the bodies. And then, of course, the killer returns to reclaim a bracelet he lost during his crime spree—cue scenes of Sarah trying to escape the house undetected, et cetera. See No Evil takes forever to get started, and the plot is painfully predictable. Nonetheless, Fisher (and director Richard Fleischer) pump as much life as they can into silly scenes of Farrow cowering and fleeing and lurking—although it should be noted, with the proper degree of scorn, that the storyline relies on ugly stereotypes of gypsies as roving bands of criminals.

See No Evil: FUNKY

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker (1979)

          Timing has a lot to do with how and why movies leave lasting impressions. Take, for example, this unremarkable telefilm about the dangers of catching car rides from strangers. Essentially an afterschool special with a higher level of menace (it aired in primetime), the picture tells the paper-thin story of Julie, an average California teenager from a good home who ignores myriad warning signs while hitching back and forth from the suburbs to her summer job at a fast-food joint on the beach. Julie is played by pint-sized bombshell Charlene Tilton, at the time a TV star on Dallas, and her costars include fell0w small-screen players Katherine Helmond, Christopher Knight, Craig T. Nelson, and Dick Van Patten. Viewers are treated to bland scenes of Julie debating the pros and cons of hitchhiking with her worried dad, plus vignettes of Julie’s romantic adventures with (gasp!) an older man. Meanwhile, Julie’s unfortunate friends get rides from skeezy dudes, including a rapist/serial killer who prowls the SoCal highways in a muscle car with darkly tinted windows. As directed by competent action guy Ted Post, Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker is ordinary except when it lays on the horror-movie clichés—every time the serial killer is about to strike, Post cuts to a montage of detail shots as the murderer’s car revs up. And while the visual allusion to a pervert getting aroused is laughably obvious, it’s also crudely effective.
          Or at least it seemed that way when I was 10, which is where the whole business of timing enters the discussion. Watching this flick during its original broadcast, I was just old enough to grasp the storyline’s depiction of rape, and just young enough to buy into the paranoid implication that every footstep on the shoulder of a highway was a move into the path of a roaming murderer. Because of this collision between a fraught subject and a receptive viewer, the movie’s lurid mixture of cautionary-tale seriousness and exploitation-flick tackiness did a number on my young brain. Adding fuel to the pscyhological fire, the sight of Tilton and her sexy pals strutting around in skimpy shorts and tight T-shirts was enjoyable, but the cheap thrills were tainted by the subconscious knowledge that I was replicating the same male gaze as the flick’s psychotic antagonist. Anyway, you can see why these were not the easiest concepts for my preadolescent mind to process. Seen outside of its original context, Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker loses much of its mojo, coming across as an overwrought thriller with a heavy-handed social message. That said, the nasty scenes are put across with gusto, and Tilton does a passable job of capturing the developmental moment when gaining independence seems like the most important thing in the world.

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Flesh Gordon (1974)

          Although it’s not the out-and-out porn film its reputation might suggest, Flesh Gordon is a cheerfully filthy spoof of the old Flash Gordon movie serials—the picture tries to blend satire with titillation by bombarding viewers with crude jokes, nudity, and sex scenes. The movie is quite awful, of course, but it moves along at a breakneck speed and, in its best moments, approaches an anything-goes party vibe that suggests a low-rent version of the comedy style perfected a few years later by the makers of Airplane! (1980). Obviously, the big difference is that the makers of Airplane! had real actors and a real budget, to say nothing of the fact that the Airplane! team didn’t have to interrupt their movie periodically for lingering close-ups of genitalia.
          The plot of Flesh Gordon is adapted from the first Flash Gordon serial, released in 1938 and starring Buster Crabbe. (Another version of the very same plot was employed for the big-budget Flash Gordon movie released in 1980.) When Earth is bombarded by a sex ray from outer space, which drives victims to uncontrolled lust, dashing adventurer Flesh Gordon (Jason Williams), his new girlfriend Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields), and kooky scientist Dr. Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgins) fly into space to find the source of the sex ray and save the Earth. Arriving on the planet Porno, the heroes battle minions of evil Emperor Wang the Perverted (William Dennis Hunt), along the way encountering monsters and other fantastic creatures. This being a sex comedy, those fantastic creatures include the flamboyantly gay prince (Lance Larsen) of a men-in-tights troupe and the Amazonian leader (Candy Samples) of a lesbian cult.
          Ninety-nine percent of the jokes in Flesh Gordon are painfully stupid, the performances are terrible, and the editing is so choppy that some scenes appear as if from nowhere. However, writer/co-director Michael Benveniste and his collaborators cleverly shield themselves from legitimate criticism by framing the movie as a campy goof—the worse the acting gets, the better. Yet some aspects of the picture run perilously close to real filmmaking. For instance, the flick includes several elaborate scenes of stop-motion animation fused with live-action, leading to Harryhausen-style scenes of real actors fighting stop-motion monsters. This stuff is executed fairly well, given the budget constraints.
          That said, the way Flesh Gordon devotes long stretches of screen time to pure adventure would seem sure to infuriate the heavy-breathing crowd more interested in Flesh than Gordon. But then again, that’s why Flesh Gordon is so peculiar—it’s a kiddie movie for pervs. Consider this amusingly infantile chant, delivered by bottomless cheerleaders (!) in Wang’s palace: “Emperor Wang is the one for me—without him, the planet Porno would be ever so forlorn-o.” Or consider the very strange finale, which involves a giant, cloven-hooved monster who chases after the heroes while speaking in smooth, lounge-lizard patter. (Craig T. Nelson, the only familiar actor involved with the project, voices the monster in one of his earliest film performances, though he’s not credited.)
          FYI, there are two versions of Flesh Gordon in circulation. The original 78-minute version carried an X-rating, even though it’s not hardcore, and the 90-minute version available on home video is unrated. In the 90-minute version, the only full-on porn action involves a few extras making out on the periphery of crowd shots. Oh, and one more thing: Howard Ziehm, who co-directed and co-produced Flesh Gordon, resuscitated the character by directing a 1989 sequel, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders, with an almost entirely new cast. Suffice to say the picture was not well received.

Flesh Gordon: FREAKY

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

          A quasi-comedic character study of a loner who builds a tiny empire in a barren stretch of Old West frontier, The Ballad of Cable Hogue would seem to be director Sam Peckinpah’s gentlest film. Yet beneath the amiable surface of the movie lurk some of the dark themes that permeate all of Peckinpah’s work. This may be a ballad, but it’s played in a minor key.
          Jason Robards stars as Cable Hogue, a schemer who gets separated from his partners in crime while traversing a grim American desert. After wandering the wastelands for several days, Hogue stumbles across a tiny reservoir that marks an underground water source. Replenished, Hogue stakes a claim on the water, traveling into a nearby town to christen his finding Cable Springs—the only stop for refreshment between two remote wagon-trail posts. As the movie progresses, Hogue forms a bizarre surrogate family. Hogue’s first new friend is the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner), a priest unaffiliated with any formal church and unencumbered by vows of celibacy; like Hogue, Sloane is a self-made maverick. Hogue also bonds with Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute. Especially after she’s shunned by disapproving townsfolk and seeks refuge with Hogue, Hildy grows to love her ragged companion.
          Much of the picture comprises cutesy domestic scenes of the couple playing house in the wilderness. These peculiar sequences mine unlikely (and sometimes ineffective) humor from the juxtaposition of scruffy Robards and sexy Stevens. And while Hildy may be one of the most deeply explored female characters in Peckinpah’s oeuvre, it’s hard to overlook the leering way the director films his leading lady—not only is Stevens repeatedly nude as she pops in and out of bathtubs, but Peckinpah pulls jackass moves like zooming into closeups of Stevens’ cleavage. Yes, the camerawork is meant to mimic Hogue’s male gaze, but restraint would have helped.
          The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a strange movie, bouncing from slapstick to tragedy, and the talent differential between the leading actors results in herky-jerky storytelling. Every time Robards locks into a groove of poetic melancholy, Stevens intrudes with the numbing normalcy of her one-dimensional screen persona. Yet one could argue that Stevens’ limitations suit Peckinpah’s theme of Hogue being a soulful man for whom there’s no real place in the cruel world; perhaps Hildy’s vapid beauty is meant to represent the only type of happiness an eccentric like Hogue can reasonably expect. Warner’s elegant oddness—closer on the talent spectrum to Robards’ vibe than Stevens’—complicates the experience further.
          Still, even if the middle of the movie is undisciplined, thanks to episodic storytelling and mismatched elements, The Ballad of Cable Hogue gets points for ending well, because Peckinpah eventually brings the narrative around to a favorite theme—the passing of the Old West upon the arrival of crass modernity. Therefore, if nothing else, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is an interesting example of an artist experimenting with new techniques. The picture may not work, per se, but it was a bold movie—and, of course, the fact that it actually got made demonstrates Peckinpah’s incredible tenacity.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue: GROOVY

Monday, April 15, 2013

Half a Million Page Views!

Here’s huge thank-you to my wonderful readers for sending this blog over the half-million mark for page views. That’s right, after about two and a half years of existence, Every ’70s Movie has accrued over 500,000 views—that’s a lot of love for movies from the groovy decade! As always, everyone who visits this space is a welcome guest, and I’m especially grateful to regular readers and those who keep in touch with me via the comments function. Although I can’t respond to every note, I read them all and love hearing from folks who agree, disagree, or just want to support the endeavor. Speaking of support, researching and writing Every ’70s Movie does incur expenses, so please consider making a donation if you can. (Click the donation box on the upper right of the homepage.) So far, I’ve gotten to about 40% of the movies I plan to review, and as I go deeper into obscure titles, it will get more and more difficult to track down films. That’s where the donations will really make a difference. My goal is to review every single American-made fictional feature that received a legitimate theatrical release between 1970 and 1979, with a smattering of key documentaries and foreign films, and I’m sure I can achieve this goal—or come as close as possible—with your continued help. In the meantime, here’s to crossing the million-view mark sometime in the future!