Friday, May 31, 2013

Jennifer on My Mind (1971)

          Here’s the premise of this would-be comedy for the druggie generation: After a with-it dude’s far-out girlfriend dies of a heroin overdose, he spends several days hiding her body in his apartment (and then his car) because he thinks he was responsible for her death and doesn’t want to get in trouble. Are you laughing yet? No? Well, guess what, you won’t be laughing when you watch the actual movie, either. Instead of being irreverent, which was undoubtedly the goal, Jennifer on My Mind is distasteful and unfunny. It’s also very boring, which is quite an accomplishment given the lurid storyline. Seeing as how the movie was directed by Noel Black, who made the masterful black comedy Pretty Poison (1968), and seeing as how the film was based on a book by the respectable Roger L. Simon, it’s tempting to point the finger of blame at screenwriter Erich Segal. Yes, that Erich Segal, Mr. Love Story himself. Once again, Segal demonstrates his unique gift for generating slick tedium. In fairness, though, nothing works in Jennifer on My Mind, so the script may simply be the most glaring of myriad unsatisfactory elements.
          The storyline unfolds on two levels. In the present-day narrative, rich twentysomehting Marcus (Michael Brandon) avoids family members and friends who visit his pad because he’s concealing a corpse. In flashbacks, we see Marcus’ courtship with the girl who ended up rotting in his bathtub. She’s Jennifer (Tippy Walker), a dimwitted hippie whom Marcus meets in Europe. Over the course of their hot-and-cold relationship, Jennifer got involved with hard drugs. To say that the narcotics angle feels incompatible with the film’s various gooey, music-driven love montages is an understatement, but as we all know from Love Story, Segal’s got a thing for gooey, music-driven love montages. Leading players Brandon and Walker are forgettable, but several semi-famous players show up in incidental and/or supporting roles, namely Peter Bonerz, Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway, Renée Taylor, and Chuck McCann. The picture also features an early performance by a future superstar. Robert De Niro shows up for one scene piloting a gypsy cab—yep, it’s De Niro playing a taxi driver five years before Taxi Driver. The actor brings his usual early-career intensity to a silly bit part as a hack wired on speed, but his brief appearance isn’t sufficient reason to trudge through Jennifer on My Mind. 

Jennifer on My Mind: LAME

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Youngblood (1978)

          It’s hard to figure what the makers of Youngblood were after, because while the picture strives to portray a group of young African-Americans as fully realized individuals, the movie also traffics in stereotypes. After all, the overarching narrative involves an impressionable Los Angeles teenager who gets drawn into street violence, and the most dynamic scene in the film features a chaotic street fight between rival gangs. So is Youngblood a serious-minded melodrama designed to spotlight social ills, or is it merely a gussied-up riff on blaxploitation? Chances are the picture represents a well-meaning attempt at merging both things. However, parsing such nuances might not be worth the trouble, because even though Youngblood eventually arrives at a mildly exciting climax, the first hour of the movie is numbingly dull. The story’s protagonist is Michael (Bryan O’Dell), a latchkey teen who’s acting out at school and getting into trouble while roaming the crime- and drug-infested streets of his neighborhood at night. Michael joins a gang called the Kingsmen after proving his bravery during a fight, and the gang’s top guy, Rommel (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), accepts Michael as a protégé. Meanwhile, Michael’s older brother, Reggie (David Pendleton), seems to have escaped the ghetto for life as a businessman—but in actuality, Reggie’s a middleman for a drug cartel.
          You can pretty much guess where it goes from here. Michael gets pulled deeper and deeper into gang violence, his brother tries to keep him out of trouble (while also concealing his illegal activities), and Rommel turns out to be a terrible role model. No surprise, things end badly. Despite the trite storyline, there’s some decent stuff in Youngblood, a lot of it related to Hilton-Jacobs’ character. (The actor was riding high on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter at the time, and was therefore the biggest name in the cast.) His character, Rommel, is portrayed as a conflicted Vietnam vet who’s slowly realizing he’s outgrown gang life, so the pertinent dramatic question is how much hardship he will cause for the people who emulate him until he learns the error of his ways. Ultimately, though, the drab elements of Youngblood drown out the meritorious ones. Just to name two examples, the star-crossed-lovers subplot about Michael’s love for a girl whose brother belongs to a rival gang is hopelessly contrived, and the song-driven soundtrack by R&B group War gets old fast—how many aimlessly funky jams can one movie handle?

Youngblood: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lenny Bruce Without Tears (1972)

          On some level, it’s probably fitting that the first documentary about groundbreaking hipster comedian Lenny Bruce, released less than 10 years after his death, is a low-budget enterprise shot on grungy black-and-white film. After all, Bruce spent much of his career playing smoky jazz clubs, even though he briefly enjoyed success on national television. In other words, if Lenny Bruce Without Tears were a stronger film, it might feel like just the right lo-fi tribute to a controversial funnyman who brought uncomfortable truths into his routines. Unfortunately, the fact that writer/producer/director Fred Baker largely constructs the film from second-hand footage makes Lenny Bruce Without Tears little more than a fawning clip show. Further, Baker’s only original interviews are with tangential figures who rehash familiar lore about Bruce as a tragic trailblazer. Plus, on some level, the movie feels somewhat exploitive and opportunistic—Baker’s real-life friendship with Bruce was used as a marketing angle, and Baker’s inconsequential narration repeatedly states that the filmmaker and his late subject were pals. If this half-assed doc is the best thing Baker could put together, one gets the impression that Baker and Bruce were more like passing acquaintances than true comrades.
          Yet the documentary’s lack of substance isn’t its biggest flaw. Instead, what makes Lenny Bruce Without Tears genuinely awkward is Baker’s incomprehensible aesthetic choice to employ experimental-cinema montages beneath audio of Bruce’s recorded routines. For instance, one such montage collides such disassociated imagery as Boris Karloff mugging in an old horror movie, Lyndon Johnson giving a speech, a marching band in action, and a monkey typing (!), none of which has anything to do with what Bruce is saying on the soundtrack. Extended video clips of Bruce doing stand-up on The Steve Allen Show aren’t much more interesting; while the comedy bits themselves are worthwhile as entertainment and as history, Baker simply runs the clips start to finish, evincing a major absence of curatorial discretion. And in his most nonsensical flourish, Baker upends the whole hero-worship vibe of the doc by including shock-value footage and stills of Bruce’s naked corpse, captured shortly after the comedian died of a drug overdose. Not exactly the most respectful treatment of a “friend.”

Lenny Bruce Without Tears: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978)

          Provocative themes related to counterculture idealism, illegal drugs, police corruption, and the Vietnam War intersect in Who’ll Stop the Rain, an exceptionally well-made drama/thriller that, somehow, never quite gels. The film is praiseworthy in many important ways, boasting evocative production values, sensitive performances, and suspenseful situations, so the picture’s shortcomings are outweighed by its plentiful virtues. Nonetheless, Who’ll Stop the Rain is frustrating, because judicious editing—or, better still, bolder reimagining during the process of translating the source material into a film script—could have accentuated the most important elements while also providing greater clarity and simplicity. Some background: Robert Stone, the author of the underlying novel and also the co-writer the script, ran with a cool crowd in the ’60s and ’70s, gaining insight into hipster icons ranging from Neil Cassady to Ken Kesey. Stone also amalgamated data about the role dope played in the lives of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam. The writer blended these ideas, plus notions from his fertile imagination, into the novel Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975. Alas, Stone’s story got muddy on the way to the screen.
          The picture follows three interconnected characters. During a prologue set in Vietnam, burned-out journalist John Converse (Michael Moriarty) hatches a get-rich scheme: He buys a stash of heroin, and then recruits his friend, soldier Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte), to smuggle the smack inside a military transport when Hicks returns to America. Right away, this set-up illuminates the textured character dynamics at work in Who’ll Stop the Rain; there’s a great moment when Hicks expresses surprise Converse is willing to use him so brazenly, thus revealing how deeply Converse’s idealism has been eroded by the ugliness of war. Hicks mules the package successfully, but unloading the drugs stateside proves troublesome. Converse’s wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld), has become a prescription-drug addict and therefore can’t arrange Hicks’ payoff as instructed. Worse, a corrupt DEA agent (Anthony Zerbe) pounces on the Converse home—while Hicks is there with the drugs—in order to steal the narcotics and wipe out anyone who gets in his way. Hicks escapes with Marge, but this sets in motion a long chase leading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Converse returns to the U.S. and gets captured by the DEA agent, who tortures the would-be drug mogul and uses him for bait to lure Hicks (and Marge) from hiding. All of this culminates with a wild shootout at Hicks’ hippie hideaway in the Southern California desert.
          Listing all the ways this story doesn’t work cinematically would take a while—for instance, Converse departs the narrative for long stretches, and the quasi-romance between Hicks and Marge feels both contrived and needlessly downbeat. But none of these problems diminish the texture of Who’ll Stop the Rain. The movie’s acting is amazing, with Nolte at his animalistic best, Weld capturing a queasy sort of bewilderment, and Moriarty sweating his way through a vivid turn as a pathetic striver. Zerbe is memorably insidious, while the actors playing his low-rent henchmen—Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey—add surprising elements of humor and terror. Director Karel Reisz, always stronger with atmosphere and character than with story, generates tremendous realism even in the most outrageous scenes (e.g., the final shootout), and his filmmaking soars at periodic intervals. Ultimately, the power of Who’ll Stop the Rain stems from the cumulative mood of despair that the filmmakers generate—if nothing else, Who’ll Stop the Rain captures something profound about how it felt to sort through the mess of Vietnam while history was still unfolding.

Who’ll Stop the Rain: GROOVY

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

          Based on a highbrow children’s book that was originally published in 1961, the (mostly) animated film The Phantom Tollbooth is noteworthy as the only feature directed by the great Chuck Jones. (His classic Looney Tunes include Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, and his beloved TV specials include The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!) Unfortunately, the magic combination of verbal and visual wit that makes Jones’ best short subjects so entertaining failed to materialize for The Phantom Tollbooth. Thanks to the smart source material, as well the careful execution by Jones and his collaborators, the picture is edifying, but it’s also repetitive. The story could easily have been told in an hour or even 45 minutes without losing anything important, so watching the thing drag across 90 minutes becomes a chore. Further, the biggest burden the movie carries is a gooey song score, which is exactly the sort of sentimental excess one rarely found in Jones’ best ’toons. More likely than not, MGM included the music in order to copy Walt Disney’s successful formula, but the numbers in The Phantom Tollbooth never match Disney’s level of quality.
          As for the underlying narrative, it’s clever if perhaps a bit too fanciful and literary for G-rated literary entertainment. In a live-action opening sequence set in modern-day San Francisco, a latchkey kid named Milo (played by Butch Patrick of The Munsters) whines about being bored until a magical tollbooth materializes in his apartment. The tollbooth comes complete with a miniature car. Milo hops into the car and passes through the tollbooth, at which point he becomes a cartoon, as does the whole movie. Cartoon Milo drives his cartoon car through a fantastic realm in which concepts and words are personified literally, so nearly every scene involves a pun or some other play on words.
          The theme of Milo’s adventure is that he needs to learn respect for knowledge, because a stimulated mind is never bored. So, for instance, Milo gets stuck in “the doldrums,” a kind of grimy limbo for people who don’t think; the actual doldrums are personified as gelatinous globs that slink around and speak verrrry sloooowly. Later, Milo ends up in a land of letters and a land of numbers; avoids “the mountains of ignorance”; interacts with such creatures as the Humbug and the Spelling Bee; and eventually clashes with a villain known as “The Terrible Trivial.”
          Some of this material is great, from the elevated dialogue of the Humbug (“A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect”) to the visual gag of cartoon Milo using a giant number “4” as a bow and spelled-out words as arrows. But particularly once the movie transforms into standard fantasy epic during the climax (cartoon Milo and his new friends must rescue princesses in order to restore order to the cartooniverse), The Phantom Tollbooth gets overly plot-driven. To be fair, the filmmakers tackled a huge challenge by building a story around a bored kid—not the most engaging of protagonists—and Patrick doesn’t do the movie any favors. Both in his live-action scenes (at the beginning and end of the film) and in his vocal performance throughout the picture, he’s merely ordinary. Conversely, veteran voice actors including Mel Blanc, Hans Conreid, and June Foray enliven their various roles with typical flair.

 The Phantom Tollbooth: FUNKY

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Big Doll House (1971) & Women in Cages (1971) & The Big Bird Cage (1972)

          Overflowing with gratuitous nudity, sadistic violence, and various iterations of sexual abuse, this trio of babes-behind-bars pictures—which were filmed together in the Philippines and share many actors, but which do not comprise a continued narrative—is trashy in the worst way. The movies are also, surprisingly, quite boring. The first flick, The Big Doll House, sets the numbing tone. After sexy blonde Alcott (Roberta Collins) gets thrown into a primitive Filipino prison overseen by perverse warden Miss Dietrich (Christine Schmidtmer), Alcott runs into hassles with cellmates including tough-talking African-American Grear (Pam Grier). The movie features myriad ugly scenes of Alcott being fondled by a swarthy cook (played by B-movie staple Sid Haig), being tortured by the warden’s goons, and/or trudging through catfights with Grear. (The ladies’ climactic battle is fought in a puddle of mud, with the combatants wearing only panties and tank tops.) The slim narrative involves Alcott uniting her fellow inmates for an audacious escape, but the story is really just an excuse for generating scenes of women in demeaning situations. And while Collins, Grier, and their cronies are attractive, the movie is so crass that it’s hard to find much enjoyment in director Jack Hill’s tacky take on titillation. That said, blaxploitation fans may find The Big Doll House interesting simply because it features Grier’s first major role. Her acting is dodgy, but Grier is so committed that she even sings the theme song, an R&B thumper called “Long Time Woman.”
          The second picture in the cycle, Women in Cages, is a decidedly weird type of drive-in sludge. Scored with dirge-like music and featuring such a fragmented storyline that the movie feels more like a series of torture vignettes than a proper narrative, Women in Cages comprises 81 minutes of nearly unadulterated brutality. The gist of the piece is that a political prisoner (Jennifer Gan) gets tossed into jail and rallies her cellmates for an escape. The lovely Collins is back, in a florid supporting role as a heroin-addicted inmate tasked with murdering a fellow prisoner—her methods include loosing a snake into a cell, poisoning a sandwich, and tossing acid onto her intended victim. Grier switches to full-on villain mode, playing a psychotic matron who runs her own personal torture garden. Grier’s performance is bug-eyed and silly, but the actress participates in the movie’s best dialogue exchange: After one of Grier’s victims asks, “What hell did you crawl out of,” Grier replies, “Harlem!” Given the lack of a compelling storyline, it doesn’t really matter that leading lady Gan is inept; this one’s all about grooving on seedy textures.
          The best of these three movies, though it’s not saying much, is The Big Bird Cage, which benefits from an action-packed climax and lots of wink-wink jokes. This one stars icy beauty Anitra Ford as an American who sleeps with political figures for social advantage until a misunderstanding lands her in the slammer. Grier and Haig play revolutionaries who pursue the oddball idea of freeing inmates from prison and transforming them into fellow revolutionaries. Written and directed by The Big Doll House’s Jack Hill, who brought more pizzazz to this skeevy genre the second time around, The Big Bird Cage has several interesting gimmicks, such as the presence of a giant sugar mill in the prison yard; the mill is the “Big Bird Cage” of the title, because workers toil inside the towering structure. The picture also benefits from campy humor, usually involving Haig doing something outrageous. (At one point, he masquerades as a swishy homosexual.) Leading lady Ford has a beguilingly reserved quality—she’s the Faye Dunaway of grindhouse cinema—and Grier locks into a groove playing a gun-toting mama with a smart mouth. In fact, of the three pictures, The Big Bird Cage comes closest to delivering the full Pam Grier persona that blaxploitation fans know and love.

The Big Doll House: LAME
Women in Cages: FREAKY
The Big Bird Cage: FUNKY

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers (1979)

To avoid any confusion later, it must be stated up front that the TV movie Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers is exactly as awful as its title suggests, though not in the expected way—instead of being lurid or sleazy, the picture is merely dull and insipid. So why note its existence? Well, a number of notable people worked on the project, and in the case of supporting actor Harry Dean Stanton, there’s a minor connection between Flatbed Annie and a famous project that came later. Plus, Flatbed Annie features the one and only acting performance by Billy Carter (pictured), U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s beer-swilling brother. Based on the scant evidence of his one scene, Billy Carter did not miss his calling. To get the synopsis out of the way, Sweetiepie (Kim Darby) is the wife of long-haul trucker Jack (Fred Willard), who gets laid up after an accident and falls behind on truck payments. Sweetiepie decides she needs to deliver a load in Jack’s rig so she can earn money to keep the truck out of hock. In order to achieve this goal, she enlists the aid of Flatbed Annie (Annie Potts), a tough-talking driver. Meanwhile, conniving entrepreneur C.W. Douglas (Stanton) buys Jack’s loan and then tries every angle he can to repossess Jack’s truck so he can sell the rig for cash. That’s the Stanton connection, such as it is—the actor plays a repo man just a few years before portraying another character with the same job in the cult favorite Repo Man (1983). Stanton is the best thing in this terrible movie, whether he’s giving deadpan line deliveries or, in one scene, singing. It’s also (somewhat) interesting to note that Flatbed Annie was directed by Robert Greenwald, whose other accomplishments in fiction films range from the impressive (the 1984 TV movie The Burning Bed) to the mortifying (the 1980 musical flop Xanadu); today, Greenwald is known for his low-budget liberal-fringe documentaries, such as Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) and Koch Brothers Exposed (2012). As for the leading actors, neither Darby nor Potts benefits from her encounter with this material. Both are abysmal. Darby seems distracted and incompetent, while Potts’ weird performance would only make sense if it were revealed that her character was a drug casualty. Summing up, Flatbed Annie is to be avoided at all costs—except by the morbidly curious.

Flatbed Annie & Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers: LAME

Friday, May 24, 2013

Up in Smoke (1978)

          Since blazing doobies has never been one of my pastimes, it’s no surprise that most of the jokes in Cheech and Chong’s first movie, Up in Smoke, leave me cold—there’s a fine line between buzzed silliness and infantile stupidity, and I’m not hip enough to live on the plugged-in side of that line. So when I say that Up in Smoke is a brisk but forgettable compendium of lame gags, I acknowledge that the movie’s probably a different experience when consumed by folks who groove on the ganja. For instance, I’m sure some people find the movie’s ridiculous climax to be high-larious (emphasis on the high), because Cheech Marin dresses in a tutu and shreds an acid-rock guitar solo in front of a nightclub audience that’s wasted on pot fumes while, outside the club, narcs dressed as Hari Krishnas wrestle with epic munchies because they’re inhaling the same wafts of wacky tobacky. To each their own, man.
          Extrapolated from Cheech and Chong’s popular stand-up act about two laid-back stoners who get hassled by The Man, the movie’s plot has a certain amiable rebelliousness. Marin plays Pedro De Pacas, a wisecracking horndog who’s always looking for a good time. Tommy Chong plays Anthony “Man” Stoner, a rich kid-turned-wastoid who occasionally works as a rock drummer. The characters meet on a highway one afternoon, then get wasted and embark on a quest to score fresh weed. A mix-up gets the duo deported to Tijuana, where they find work driving a car back to the U.S. Unbeknownst to them, however, the car is built entirely of pot, so they’re muling for dealers. This puts our heroes in the crosshairs of Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach), an absurdly uptight L.A. cop who’s jonesing to make a big drug bust. The main joke of the movie is that Pedro and Man are so loaded they never realize they’re in danger, and the whole goofy storyline climaxes with a battle of the bands at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Producer-director Lou Adler, Cheech and Chong’s longtime manager, owns the Roxy, and his music-biz background lends enjoyable authenticity to the picture’s concert scenes.
          As actors, neither Chong nor Marin is remarkable, though Marin has a likeable vibe and terrific timing, and the duo’s dynamic was quite smooth by the time they made Up in Smoke. Keach kicks the film up a notch by channeling his signature intensity into a cartoonish role, so it’s fun to see him playing juvenile scenes like reacting to someone pissing on his leg in a men’s room. (This actually happens twice, which gives a sense of how tired the jokes get.) Tom Skerritt plays a loopy cameo as a whacked-out Vietnam vet, and the film’s various supporting players lend exuberance if not necessarily great skill. The script, predictably, is an episodic collage of comedy bits, and Adler’s direction is competent, with blandly shot scenes juiced by a bouncy score built around the classic War jam “Low Rider.”

Up in Smoke: FUNKY

Thursday, May 23, 2013

California Dreaming (1979)

          Made in the early days of the raunchy teen-sex-comedy genre, California Dreaming is a strange picture. It’s primarily the story of a nerd who travels from Chicago to L.A., gets caught up in surfer culture, and learns, among other things, how to score with chicks. Yet the narrative also has a number of downbeat elements, such as the lead character’s quest to honor the legacy of his dead brother, and a likeable supporting character’s struggles with mortality. Plus, the top-billed actor in the cast isn’t Dennis Christopher, who plays the nerd, but Glynis O’Connor, who plays the pretty surfer girl living in the house where the nerd crashes during an eventful summer. So, in some awkward way, California Dreaming is also the story of how O’Connor’s character matures beyond beach-girl superficiality in order to recognize the nerd’s appealing qualities. California Dreaming seems like a real movie during long sequences of sensitive-ish character dramedy, and yet it seems like a sleazy exploitation flick whenever it devolves into ogling shots of undulating female body parts. The sum effect is middling.
          One big problem is the way Christopher is presented. Although the actor later demonstrated great oddball charm in Breaking Away (which was released a few months after California Dreaming), his characterization in California Dreaming is excessively awkward. With a faraway look in his eyes, a gangly build, and a weird habit of giggling at inappropriate moments, Christopher’s character comes across less like a geek who needs to get out of his shell and more like a budding serial killer. For instance, the scene during which a topless O’Connor enters a bathroom only to encounter an idiotically grinning Christopher seated on the toilet and staring at her while he’s in the middle of a bowel movement is particularly unpleasant to watch. As for O’Connor, the ’70s teen star who gave delicate performances in the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and the theatrical feature Ode to Billy Joe (both 1976), it’s depressing to see her transformed into yet another bleach-blonde starlet whose bikini body is given more prominence than her dramatic skills.
          Still another peculiar aspect of California Dreaming is the pathos found in subplots. For instance, Seymour Cassel easily steals the movie playing Duke Slusarksi, an aging beach bum with a mysterious past; the interest of his performance stems from wondering how many of the character’s tall tales are actually true, and the surprise of his performance comes from a startling scene in which he pays an awful price for prolonged adolescence. Far less compelling is a silly running joke about a local dude who takes a bet that he can live in his car for a month. California Dreaming provides ample footage of cool surfing and hot babes, but it’s hard to figure out the intended audience—the story’s too grim for the picture to qualify as escapist fare, and the abundance of tacky elements makes it impossible to take California Dreaming seriously.

California Dreaming: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Robin and Marian (1976)

          If you’ve never heard of this romantic fantasy starring Sean Connery as Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, there’s a good reason why—instead of being the light adventure you might expect, Robin and Marian is a tearjerker about aging. Penned by the great playwright/screenwriter James Goldman, best known for his masterpiece The Lion in Winter (which was produced on the stage in 1966 and adapted into a classic 1968 film), Robin and Marian offers a unique blend of history, mythology, romanticism, and tragedy. From my perspective, this movie is a brilliant reimagining of a beloved fictional character, but chances are the downbeat storyline prevented Robin and Marian from reaching big audiences either during its original release or its home-video afterlife.
          Nonetheless, the movie’s pedigree is singularly impressive. Robin and Marian was directed by Richard Lester, who made the amazing Musketeers movies of the ’70s and knew how to view swashbuckler iconography through a modernist’s eye; the plaintive score was composed by five-time Oscar winner John Barry, maestro of the sweeping strings; and the film’s naturalistic cinematography was lensed by David Watkin, who shot the aforementioned Musketeers movies and brought the same level of persuasive historical realism to Robin and Marian. Plus, we haven’t even gotten to the supporting cast, which is one of the best ever assembled.
          The story begins in France, where a graying Robin (Connery) and his sidekick, Little John (Nicol Williamson), are soldiers for King Richard the Lion-Heart (Richard Harris). After defying a cruel order from the king, Robin and Little John briefly incur royal enmity—a twist that neatly affirms Robin’s commitment to moral justice over loyalty to any crown. Once extricated from that conundrum, Robin and Little John return to Sherwood Forest, only to discover that the nasty old Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is making trouble again. Meanwhile, Robin tracks down his estranged lover, Marian (Hepburn), who has become a nun. As the story unfolds, Robin falls into open combat with the Sheriff’s men and tries to rekindle his love affair with Marian.
          Goldman’s script cleverly defines Robin Hood as someone who either bravely faces conflict or recklessly instigates conflict, if not both. In so doing, Goldman underlines why a man like Robin expects a hero’s death—it’s the only fitting capstone for a hero’s life. Further, Goldman’s treatment of aging defines Robin and Marian as a grown-up fable; the movie is filled with funny/sad images like that of Robin and the Sheriff huffing and puffing through their climactic duel. Yet the graceful aspects of time’s passage become evident in quiet scenes between Robin and Marian—with the wisdom of age, the characters gain the sure knowledge that they are the loves of each other’s lives.
          Connery gives one of his finest performances, undercutting his 007 image by playing the role with a balding scalp and a thick gray beard. On a deeper level, the actor summons more emotional nuance here than in almost any other film. Hepburn, who ended an eight-year screen hiatus to appear in Robin and Marian, capitalizes on her screen persona to equally strong effect—seeing the dewy gamine of the ’60s replaced by the mature beauty of the ’70s is a bittersweet experience. She’s majestic here. And, of course, to say that Harris, Shaw, Williamson, and fellow supporting players Denholm Elliot and Ian Holm are all terrific should come as no surprise. Robin and Marian is not for everyone, with its occasionally flowery dialogue and perpetually grim subtext, but for this particular viewer (and, I hope, many others), it’s a high order of elgiac poetry.

Robin and Marian: RIGHT ON

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tintorera (1977)

Mexican shlockmeister René Cardona Jr. strikes again with this lurid Jaws rip-off about a mammoth tiger shark preying upon sexy singles near a Mexican beach resort. The movie is abysmal, of course, but Tintorera delivers the goods in three respects—it’s gory as hell, the production values are better than one normally expects from Cardona, and there’s an enormous amount of nudity. Cheap thrills aside, however, Tintorera is a painful to watch because of the stupidity on display both in front of and behind the camera. The characterizations range from nonexistent to superficial; the story is a muddled blend of horror and melodrama; the picture features several distasteful scenes of real animals being killed; and the dialogue is marred by bad acting, ghastly writing, and (for actors not native to English) sloppy dubbing. The narrative revolves around two Mexican studs, Miguel (Andrés García) and Steven (Hugo Stiglitz), who make their living as shark hunters near a resort. The studs hook up with a sexy British tourist, Gabriella (Susan George), for an idyllic period of hookups and threesomes. Tintorera is basically just a compendium of scenes featuring attractive people screwing, stripping, and swimming, and once in a while the shark shows up for a snack. Further, it seems as if the studs are the only people who get the idea of fighting back, even though the shark’s body count is astronomical. The vibe of Tintorera is weirdly lackadaisical, although the intensity of the gore occasionally demands attention; scenes of a shark with someone’s head in its teeth, and of the dismembered lower half of a human body floating to the bottom of the ocean, are particularly realistic. Yet the kills aren’t the least bit scary, especially because Cardona employs a ridiculous device of playing heavy breathing on the soundtrack whenever the shark approaches a victim. Huh? Still, for those who care about such things, the movie’s eye-candy quotient is significant, with starlets Priscilla Barnes, George, and especially Fiona Lewis generously sharing their physical gifts. Even the actors playing the studs get into the exhibitionist act.

Tintorera: LAME

Monday, May 20, 2013

Eagle’s Wing (1979)

          There’s a good reason you’ve likely never heard of a Western called Eagle’s Wing: It tells such a diffuse and underdeveloped story that even with dynamic actors Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston starring, the picture is painfully dull. On the plus side, the movie looks gorgeous—director Anthony Harvey and cinematographer Billy Williams arrange visuals with artful precision. Yet the only thing more dispiriting than Harvey’s lethargic pacing is the director’s inability to fuse his narrative’s various strands. Eagle’s Wing bounces around between vignettes involving Plains Indians, white fur traders, a displaced Irish priest and his sister, and the denizens of a Mexican hacienda. The various characters eventually converge, more or less, but it’s a long haul getting to the point where the story feels unified. Worse, since the heart of the piece is really just a simplistic macho duel between an Indian (Waterston) and a trader (Sheen), everything else feels like a distraction.
          Before moving onto anything else, by the way, it’s worth noting that Wasterston’s casting as a Native American isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. Yes, there were plenty of Native actors would could have played his role, and yes, Waterston is a Northeastern WASP, but with his lean physicality, massive eyebrows, prominent nose, thin eyes, and generally sober demeanor, the actor cuts a striking figure.
          The plot isn’t worth describing in detail except to say that the Indian and the trader begin their duel over possession of a horse, and then deepen their conflict once the Indian abducts the priest’s sister. (English actress Caroline Langrishe, playing the girl, lends grit and loveliness but has virtually nothing to do except suffer and watch while male characters advance the narrative.) The reason the plot isn’t worth describing is that it doesn’t seem to be of particular importance to the filmmakers—Eagle’s Wing is primarily a mood piece about desperation, obsession, and survival. However, these themes are not dramatized effectively. Many of Sheen’s sequences, for instance, comprise the actor soliloquizing in order to explain what his character is thinking. (It’s a rare movie that makes one wish Sheen would stop talking, given that he possesses one of Hollywood’s most mesmerizing voices.)
          Further, the film is littered with wordless scenes in which nothing of significance happens, or in which significant events are shown at excessive length—such as an interminable scene of Sheen’s character breaking a horse. Virtually the only stretch of the film that sustains interest is the long opening sequence featuring Harvey Keitel; he and Sheen play bickering partners until Keitel’s character meets the business end of an arrow. Nonetheless, if you’re able to groove on a movie simply for the beauty of its visuals, you might be able to do so with Eagle’s Wing, at least for a while, because the film offers an endless procession of elegantly minimalistic images sculpted from subtle textures of color and light.

Eagle’s Wing: FUNKY

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bamboo Gods and Iron Men (1974)

One of several mid-’70s flicks meshing the blaxploitation and martial-arts genres, Bamboo Gods and Iron Men is either mediocre and substandard, depending on your tolerance level. The film has a simplistic storyline that only occasionally lapses into incoherence, so it’s not an outright train wreck, and the sleaze factor isn’t too extreme, so the movie doesn’t represent an assault on good taste. But, man, is Bamboo Gods and Iron Men dull, particularly since it’s purported to be a comedy/action hybrid—the comedy isn’t mostly absent, and the action is underwhelming. Impressively built James Iglehart stars as Cal Jefferson, an American prizefighter honeymooning in the Philippines with his new bride (Shirley Washington). The Jeffersons stumble into two fraught situations. First, Cal saves a local man (played by Filipino comedy star Chiquito) from drowning, thus triggering the man’s unwanted servitude, in accordance with local custom. Second, Cal buys an artifact as a gift for his missus, unaware that gangsters want the item. Chases and fights ensue. The bull-in-a-china-shop possibilities of a towering black boxer brawling his way through the Philippines are largely underused, since the direction and script are unimaginative, so the only novel scene involves Chiquito’s character sparring with his “master”; after Cal tries to teach some sweet-science techniques, the tiny Asian whips off his gloves to display martial-arts acumen. Iglehart’s acting is neither embarrassing nor memorable, and Washington is merely attractive, but Bamboo Gods and Iron Men is filled with anonymous supporting actors of dubious credentials. Playing the main villain, for instance, is a bland white dude named Ken Metcalfe, who also co-wrote the movie; his stilted acting wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school theater production. About the kindest thing one can say about Bamboo Gods and Iron Man is that it might satisfy some undiscriminating viewers with its abundance of brawls, funky music, and lurid nude scenes.

Bamboo Gods and Iron Men: LAME

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Money Talks (1972)

Following the release of his sleazy feature debut, What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970), producer/director/host Allen Funt made one more attempt at shifting his small-screen Candid Camera franchise to the world’s cinemas. Alas, while Money Talks is less inherently exploitive than its predecessor, the rambling quasi-documentary offers only the slimmest of rewards for viewers who trudge through all 81 minutes. Even more so than the previous film, Money Talks is an extended Candid Camera episode, featuring hidden-camera footage, staged gags during which actors coached by Funt interact with unsuspecting passersby, and man-on-the-street interviews. All of the material concerns modern Americans’ relationship with money—those who crave it, those who shun it, and so on. This is a worthy topic for serious study, to be sure, but with Funt at the helm, serious study is not the order of the day. Rather, the film features gags such as an attractive woman standing on a New York City street with a dollar bill pinned to the seat of her jeans; Funt uses a hidden camera to see which people try to grab the cash, which people try to grab the girl, and which people kindly inform the young woman of her situation. The novelty of the bit lasts all of about 30 seconds, but the sequence drags on repetitiously for several minutes. And so it goes with other vignettes, like the set-up featuring Muhammad Ali pretending he’s too cheap to pay for a C.O.D. package, much to the consternation of folks tasked with delivering the item to the heavyweight champ. Probably the most interesting sequence involves Funt talking to hippies about their counterculture attitudes toward currency; it’s interesting to watch straight-laced Funt’s brain shut down when shaggy kids say naïvely idealistic things like, “I believe in working for mankind, to keep mankind going—I just believe in working on life.” Unfortunately, the film’s credible content is outweighed by crap including montages set to horrifically bad original songs. For instance, during a sequence for which Funt rigged a parking meter to spew coins in order to trigger reactions from pedestrians, a singer croons the following inanities on the soundtrack: “He hits the jackpot and nickels fall like rain/ He bends down to pick them up but his pants can’t stand the strain.” Any questions why there wasn’t another Candid Camera flick after this one?

Money Talks: FUNKY

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Jericho Mile (1979)

          Michael Mann didn’t just introduce himself to viewers with his first feature-length directing job. He dazzled them. Arresting, emotional, and smart from its first frame to its last, this made-for-TV drama delivers an unusual story with meticulous realism, showcasing Mann’s signature tropes of a hip visual style, deeply felt character work, and ingeniously integrated music. The picture also demonstrates why Mann is virtually peerless in his depiction of the criminal mind, because he doesn’t portray crooks as monsters—rather, he portrays them as self-aware professionals ruled by strict codes.
          Set inside a maximum-security prison, The Jericho Mile revolves around Larry Murphy (Peter Strauss), a lifer who obsessively runs “fast miles” every day in the prison courtyard. Isolated from all but a few fellow inmates, Larry lives inside himself; the exhilaration of athletic challenge give his existence meaning and structure. One afternoon, humanistic prison shrink Dr. Bill Janowski (Geoffrey Lewis) clocks Murphy and realizes how fast the man is moving, so he confers with Warden Earl Gulliver (Billy Green Bush). An innovative penologist, Gulliver realizes that nurturing Murphy’s talent might inspire other inmates to break the cycle of jailhouse profiteering and post-incarceration recidivism. Gulliver invites a nationally ranked running coach, Jerry Beloit (Ed Lauter), to observe and possibly train Murphy. After staging a race between Murphy and several professional runners, Beloit declares that Murphy has Olympic potential. Yet that’s only the surface of the story. Unfolding concurrent with Murphy’s surprising odyssey is a grim drama involving powerful inmate Dr. D (Brian Dennehy), who runs a jailhouse drug ring and gets into a hassle with Murphy, which inadvertently sparks a prison-wide racial conflict.
          Laced into all of this is a potent revelation of Murphy’s layers. We don’t learn about the nature of his original crime until we’ve already become invested in his journey, so Murphy emerges as a profoundly sympathetic character—we’re able to root for him with full awareness of what he’s done, and full awareness of his capacity for future violence. Presenting Murphy without apologies might, in fact, be the greatest accomplishment of this fine film, so it’s no surprise that Strauss took home an Emmy for his dimensional performance, or that Mann and co-writer Patrick J. Nolan shared an Emmy for the picture’s outstanding teleplay. Yet on many levels, The Jericho Mile is most impressive as a compendium of all the skills Mann had developed thus far as a writer-producer on episodic TV shows, and that he would continue to embellish in his extraordinary feature career. He uses editing and music to create vivacious rhythms; he shoots real locations and sets equally well to conjure an engrossing sense of place; and he guides actors toward naturalistic performances.
          Character players including Bush, Lauter, Lewis, and Roger E. Mosley do some of their career-best work here, imbuing their roles with lively individuality. Dennehy, still very early in his screen career, is animalistic and frightening, and Strauss achieves several moving moments by channeling a volatile combination of compassion and rage. (Strauss totally nails Mann’s trademark device of having criminals speak without contractions to avoid misunderstanding, so he seethes when delivering such lines as, “Man, I am into nothing! That is how I do my time!”) Plus, as he so often does, Mann pulls the whole movie together with an ingenious musical flourish, turning a Latin-ized version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” into Murphy’s searing theme song.

The Jericho Mile: RIGHT ON

Thursday, May 16, 2013

High-Ballin’ (1978)

          While it’s unmistakably a drive-in action flick about truckers, High-Ballin’ has a much more serious vibe than its silly poster and title might suggest. In fact, within the confines of being a clichéd thrill ride about cartoonish villains preying upon one-dimensional heroes, the picture has a more or less credible storyline, as well as a few passages of comparatively heavy drama. So, while the movie ultimately succumbs to mediocrity, it goes down a lot smoother than the usual “10-4, good buddy” junk. Set in Ontario, the picture depicts a rapidly escalating battle between independent drivers and thugs in the employ of King Carroll (Chris Wiggins), a trucking magnate who’s trying to put competitors out of business. King Carroll’s chosen technique is hiring attractive women to feign roadside trouble as a way of luring truckers into the proximity of armed hijackers who emerge from hiding to beat the truckers and steal their rigs.
          When the story starts, amiable trucker Duke (Jerry Reed) greets old friend Rane (Peter Fonda), a former trucker now living a vagabond lifestyle as a born-t0-be-wild biker. Together with Rane’s new love interest, a tough-talking lady trucker named “Pickup” (Helen Shaver), Duke and Rane try to survive hauling a shipment through King Carroll’s territory. The highlight of the picture is an extended chase scene that’s fairly exciting—Rane climbs onto Duke’s trailer, which is full of cars, and detaches the cars to use them as projectiles. Then, after Duke gets taken out of commission, Rane declares revenge, leading to a major standoff.
          Nothing in High-Ballin’ will tax your intelligence, but even if the overall concept is trite, the scene-to-scene energy of the movie is moderately engaging. Fonda’s got a great laid-back rapport with Reed, and the love scenes between Fonda and Shaver play up his everydude charm and her take-no-guff brand of sexiness. The picture drags in the middle, big-time, with too many chatty vignettes between action scenes, and colorful supporting players including Clint Howard and Michael Ironside are underused. (Plus, despite some online listings to the contrary, Joe Don Baker isn’t in the movie—more’s the pity.) It should also be noted that the movie is quite tame in terms of language, sex, and violence, which could be interpreted as a strength or a weakness; viewed favorably, the picture exercises restraint, but viewed unfavorably, the flick is toothless. Either way, this is undemanding cinema that provides intermittent entertainment.

High-Ballin’: FUNKY