Sunday, June 30, 2013

The American Dreamer (1971)

          At the historical moment when this lyrical and revealing documentary was made, Dennis Hopper seemed poised for elevation to godlike status in popular culture. Still riding high on the success of his directorial debut, Easy Rider (1969), Hopper had just completed shooting a bold new feature, The Last Movie, which he not-so-humbly envisioned as a revolutionary step forward in world cinema. The American Dreamer captures Hopper during the protracted editing process of The Last Movie, although filmmakers L. M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller are only peripherally interested in the actual method by which Hopper and his cutters assemble footage. Instead, the filmmakers seek to capture the soul of an artist at his creative peak.
          Therefore, much of the documentary comprises Hopper delivering improvised monologues about his aesthetic and spiritual philosophy. And while Hopper is insufferably contradictory and pretentious and self-aggrandizing, creating excuses for indulgent behavior by characterizing every action he takes as a manifestation of his rebellious creativity, the seemingly unrestricted access Carson and Schiller gained to Hopper’s life makes The American Dreamer important. The content of The American Dreamer’s best sequences is so interesting that the documentary’s excesses—not least of which is fawning hero worship—can’t diminish the project’s informational value.
          Set mostly around a home in Taos, New Mexico, where a bearded Hopper supervises editing whenever he’s not indulging in sexcapades with the myriad willing ladies who drift in and out of the place, The American Dreamer is almost equally divided between narrative scenes capturing action as it unfolds, and poetic passages juxtaposing Hopper’s voiceover with shots of the actor/director driving, walking, or, in some cases, pulling performance-art stunts like stripping off his clothes while he strolls through a suburb. (In some of the most bracing scenes, Hopper has group sex with various nubile women, although the doc stops short of depicting anything X-rated.)
          The through-line of The American Dreamer is Hopper’s stream-of-consciousness speechifying, and there’s no question he’s a compelling speaker even when his rhetoric gets ridiculous. In cogent moments, he invents hip slogans, e.g., “It’s very difficult at times if you believe in evolution not to believe in revolution.” Elsewhere, he spews drug-casualty non sequiturs, e.g., “Can you go in a corner and not think about a white bear for five minutes? Is that possible?” And this was before Hopper reached rock bottom. Much of Hopper’s extemporizing seems consciously designed to burnish the myth of Hopper as a soldier for social change (one of Hopper’s real howlers: “Society’s made me a criminal”). Meanwhile, some of the actor/director’s chitty-chat comprises glorified pick-up lines, as when he explains to a Playboy Bunny that he’s so concerned about female orgasms he thinks of himself as a lesbian.
          At his worst, Hopper embarks on sky-high ego trips, referring to himself in the third person as “the artist” and equating his work to that of Orson Welles. (The filmmakers goose these delusions of grandeur by lacing the soundtrack with original folk songs about Hopper’s quest to reinvent cinema.) The deification gets a bit much, but nestled within The American Dreamer is a poignant portrait of a uniquely talented man testing the outer limits of his universe, thereby inadvertently arriving at the place where maverick artistry becomes megalomania.

The American Dreamer: GROOVY

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Last Movie (1971)

          One of the most notorious auteur misfires of the ’70s, this misbegotten mind-fuck was Dennis Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider (1969), the surprise blockbuster that not only transformed Hopper from a journeyman actor to an A-list director but also established him, for a brief time, as a leading voice of the counterculture. Alas, Hopper’s poor choices as an actor, co-writer, and director turned The Last Movie into a metaphor representing the way some people, Hopper included, fell victim to the excesses of the drug era. In trying to escape the constraints associated with conventional cinema, Hopper created a maddening hodgepodge of self-indulgent nonsense and uninteresting experimentation.
          Hopper stars as Kansas, the horse wrangler for a Hollywood film crew that’s shooting on location in Peru. After a fatal on-set accident, Kansas drops out of his Hollywood lifestyle to start over in South America, hooking up with a sexy local girl (Stella Garcia) and scheming with a fellow U.S. expat (Don Gordon) to get rich off a gold mine. Kansas also romances a beautiful upper-crust American (Julie Adams), with whom he engages in gentle sadomasochism, and he gets roped into a bizarre situation involving Peruvian villagers who are “shooting” their own movie using primitive mock-up cameras and microphones made from scrap metal and sticks. (One of The Last Movie’s myriad pretentious allusions is that the “fake” film crew is making more authentic art than the “real” film crew.)
          Simply listing the trippy flourishes in The Last Movie would take an entire website, so a few telling examples should suffice. Early in the picture, a Hollywood starlet (played by Hopper’s then-girlfriend, former Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips) conducts a ritual during which she pierces a Peruvian woman’s ear with a large pin while people stand around the scene wearing creepy masks and chanting. Later, Kansas leads a group of Americans to a whorehouse, where they watch a grimy girl-on-girl floor show; this inexplicably drives Kansas into such a rage that he ends up slapping around his long-suffering female companion. And we haven’t even gotten to the weird one-shot bits that are periodically inserted into the narrative. At one point, Kansas leans back while a woman shoots breast milk from her nipple to his face. Elsewhere, while getting his hair trimmed, Kansas shares the following random remark: “I never jerked off a horse before.” Good to know.
          The whole movie culminates with a befuddling barrage of images, including scenes of Kansas getting beaten by members of the “fake” film crew, as if the Hollywood runaway is some sort of martyr for art. It’s all very deliberately weird. During the final stretch, for instance, Hopper cuts to silly things like “scene missing” placeholders and outtakes of actors consulting their scripts. The idea, presumably, was to deconstruct Hollywood filmmaking so that a new art form could emerge from the ruins, but Hopper missed the mark in every way. That said, it’s worth noting that Hopper brought interesting friends along for the ride. Cinematographer László Kovács, who also shot Easy Rider, does what he can to infuse Hopper’s scattershot frames with artistry, and the cast includes ’70s cult-cinema stalwart Severn Darden (who does a musical number!) as well as maverick B-movie director Samuel Fuller, who plays a version of himself during the scenes depicting the making of the Hollywood movie.

The Last Movie: FREAKY

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Car (1977)

          As directed by journeyman Elliot Silverstein, whose eclectic résumé includes the memorable films Cat Ballou (1965) and A Man Called Horse (1970), this Southwestern-set shocker boasts such impressive visuals as panoramic vistas and razor-sharp detail shots. Clearly, Silverstein studied the way Steven Spielberg shot Duel (1972), and copied many of Spielberg’s flourishes. The Car also cops gimmicks from another Spielberg picture, Jaws (1975), notably combining point-of-view shots and theme music to jack up scenes of the villain attacking victims. Unfortunately, the villain of this piece is—as the title suggests—a car. Not a driver who uses a car as a weapon, mind you, but a customized, driverless Lincoln Continental. Yes, The Car is about a demonically possessed automobile. Novelist Stephen King took the same notion a step further with his 1983 book Christine, which gave the titular vehicle both a personality and supernatural powers, but in The Car, the killer is merely that—a car. Sure, it does a few fancy tricks like leaping into the air and repelling bullets, but the Lincoln has zero impact as a malevolent screen presence.
          The plot follows the Jaws formula of a small town victimized by an unstoppable killer. James Brolin stars as likeable sheriff working in the Utah community where the car is murdering people, so he teams up with fellow cops to battle the four-wheeled monstrosity. Eventually, local Indians persuade Brolin’s character that the car is possessed by an evil demon, so the film climaxes with Brolin and his troops attempting to bury the car in a remote canyon. The Car would have been more enjoyable had it been trimmed down to something like 80 minutes, but at its full 96-minute length, the movie feels needlessly padded with pointless and/or repetitive scenes. Nonetheless, there are some campy highlights.
          For instance, the filmmakers try to mimic the classic Jaws scene of a shark eating its way through an ocean filled with Fourth of July swimmers. Thus, The Car features a ludicrous scene of the villainous vehicle chasing a high-school marching band from a football field to a cemetery. Later, the car soars through an entire house just to wipe out one victim. And the final scene is an unintentionally funny attempt at supernatural-cinema grandiosity. As for the acting, while Brolin is as weak as usual—moderately charming in quiet scenes, startlingly terrible in intense ones—he’s abetted by an okay supporting cast. Veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong steals the movie as a disgusting redneck who witnesses several of the car’s murders, Ronny Cox adds humanity as a deputy with an alcohol problem, and Kathleen Lloyd is appealing as the hero’s stalwart girlfriend. FYI, real-life siblings and future Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast members Kim Richards and Kyle Richards play the young daughters of Brolin’s character.

The Car: FUNKY

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Claudine (1974)

          Charming, engrossing, and socially relevant, the small-scale dramedy Claudine is an anomaly among ’70s pictures about African-American life. Eschewing the militant politics of underground films and the sleazy grit of blaxploitation flicks, Claudine tells a simple human story in an accessible style. Further, the movie is rooted in respect for individuals who survive life below the poverty line with their dignity intact. Although this is an unmistakably a black story, exploring the myriad ways social ills complicate life for a family in Harlem, the themes of Claudine are relatable to anyone who has faced difficulty balancing family and finances. If the movie has a noteworthy flaw, it’s that Claudine sometimes employs sitcom-style cuteness in terms of dialogue and presentation—but the underlying story is so grounded that the cuteness is at most an occasional distraction.
          Diahann Carroll, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, plays Claudine Price, the single mother of six who’s squeaking by on welfare after being abandoned by every man to whom she’s been married or with whom she’s been romantically involved. The beautiful but tough Claudine catches the eye of jovial trash collector Rupert Marshall (James Earl Jones), who eventually persuades Claudine to go out on a date. Rupert encounters resistance as soon as he meets Claudine’s kids, who haven’t met many trustworthy men. Nonetheless, Rupert wins over all of Claudine’s spirited offspring except her oldest son, Charles (Laurence Hilton-Jacobs), who has a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan Island.
          Aside from the lively performances and sensitive writing, the most interesting aspect of Claudine is the film’s exploration of what welfare means in the life of a woman like Claudine. She can’t make enough money through menial jobs to support her children, so she needs government assistance, but even welfare can’t bridge the gap between expenses and income. Therefore, Claudine must lie to her welfare officer once she starts dating Rupert, because, technically, his participation in the family represents additional income—even though his presence in the long run isn’t guaranteed. It’s fascinating to watch a proud woman navigate this moral quagmire, and it’s informative to see how Rupert recognizes that his interest in Claudine carries economic baggage. Given the feather-light premises of most romantic comedies, which tend to involve characters with all the options in the world, Claudine represents an unusually plugged-in take on the rom-com genre.
            It’s also a great pleasure to see the chemistry between Carroll and Jones. Not to downplay the many virtues of Carroll’s leading performance, the mixture of anguish and approachability within Jones’ performance gives Claudine much of its texture. Guiding these actors is director John Berry, a veteran of the studio era who was blacklisted for his left-leaning politics in the ’50s; Claudine was one of several African-American-themed movies Berry directed upon his return from Hollywood exile. Another notable Claudine player is composer Curtis Mayfield, who created the score as well as a handful of songs that are performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Claudine: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

          Having secured his small-screen reputation by co-creating two beloved franchises (Get Smart and The 2000-Year-Old Man), comedy auteur Mel Brooks made a bold move into features by writing and directing The Producers (1968). Despite a fractious production process and a disappointing run at the box office, the picture netted Brooks an Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay. Yet instead of following up The Producers with another original work, which would have seemed like the logical move, Brooks made The Twelve Chairs, a new adaptation of an oft-filed Russian novel that was originally published in 1926. The movie engendered some goodwill, but it didn’t play to Brooks’ strengths of frenetic pacing and goofy slapstick. Quite to the contrary, The Twelve Chairs is melancholy, and much of the picture is devoted to dramatic storytelling as opposed to comedy. Mel Brooks is many things, but a tragedian is not one of them. Furthermore, because the picture is generally played “straight,” the occasional lowbrow moments—think actors mugging for the camera and/or wild physical-comedy scenes—feel out of place. Partially as a result of this tonal dissonance, The Twelve Chairs is the dullest of Brooks’ features, even though it’s also the most thematically ambitious.
          The story is very simple. In the Soviet Union a decade after the communist revolution, former aristocrat Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns that his mother hid the family’s jewelry stash inside one chair that’s part of a set of twelve. Dazzled by notions of reclaiming his lost wealth, the greedy Vorobyaninov begins to search for the chairs. He’s aided in his quest by a dashing con man, Bender (Frank Langella), but these two must compete with a corrupt priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who hears about the jewels and tries to beat Vorobyaninov to them. Also thrown into the mix is Vorobyaninov’s former manservant, amiable idiot Tikon (Brooks). Virtually every character in The Twelve Chairs is repulsive, and, unfortunately, the leads are the least appealing in the batch: Vorobyaninov is a hot-tempered elitist willing to steamroller over anyone in his way, and Bender is a silver-tongued swindler.
          Moody’s angry, charmless performance doesn’t help matters, and neither does Langella’s overly theatrical suaveness. (This was one of the stage-trained actor’s first films.) As for supporting players Brooks and DeLuise, who perform in the broad manner one normally associates with Brooks’ work, they’re funny, after a fashion, but they’re out of sync with the rest of the picture. Similarly, Brooks’ periodic attempts to juice the movie’s comedy by resorting to the old-time camera gimmick of sped-up action seem desperate. So while it’s true that The Twelve Chairs is the closest thing in Brooks’ directorial filmography to a serious story, there’s a reason he found success with outrageous comedy—he’s a master of screen comedy, and merely a dilettante in the realm of thoughtful cinema. Therefore, if curiosity about Brooks’ oeuvre compels you to check out The Twelve Chairs, follow the advice of the song Brooks wrote for the film: “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

The Twelve Chairs: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Black Godfather (1974)

Once the blaxploitation genre reached full flight, many low-rent producers were content simply adding the word “black” to an existing title and then spinning a rudimentary story to justify the new hybrid moniker. The Black Godfather is ostensibly a riff on The Godfather (1972), so both films depict a transfer of power within a criminal empire. Yet while The Godfather is cinematic masterpiece, The Black Godfather is execrable. The acting is terrible, the music score is chaotic, the story is lifeless, and to describe the characterizations as nonexistent would be to give them too much credit. Rod Perry, an amiable but unskilled actor best known for playing the second-in-command cop on the TV series S.W.A.T. (1975-1976), stars as J.J., a street punk who gets taken in by a crime boss after J.J. is wounded during a brazen robbery attempt. The crime boss, Nate Williams (Jimmy Witherspoon), grooms J.J. as an underworld apprentice. Once J.J. rises to power, he clashes with a white gangster, Tony Burton (Don Chastain), who has flooded black neighborhoods with heroin. You see, J.J. is a criminal with a conscience, and he wants to draw the line at hard drugs (a nuance stolen from Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather). The narrative of The Black Godfather is pedestrian, but it should have been sufficient for generating passable escapism. Unfortunately, writer-producer-director John Evans’ work is incompetent on nearly every level—his scenes lack focus and rhythm and shape. Furthermore, Evans fails to include enough action to keep the story moving (instead lingering on uninteresting dialogue scenes), and he has difficulty presenting story events in a coherent manner. Actors suffer for the lack of guidance, so the embarrassingly bad Witherspoon, for instance, comes off like a camera double running lines before the real actor arrives. (As a result, his character may be the mellowest hoodlum in all of blaxploitation.) In the lead role, Perry simply seems confused. He’s calm in one scene and enraged in the next, with very little narrative explanation for his mood swings. If you’re hankering for a blaxploitation riff on gangsters, stick with Larry Cohen’s vivacious Black Caeasar (1973), which is high art by comparison with The Black Godfather.

The Black Godfather: LAME

Monday, June 24, 2013

Islands in the Stream (1977)

          Actor George C. Scott and director Franklin J. Schaffner collaborated so effectively on Patton (1970) that it’s surprising they only worked together once more. And while their second picture is a much smaller endeavor than the duo’s celebrated military epic, Islands in the Stream is memorable in different ways. Adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s book of the same name, the picture takes place during World War II and details the exploits of Tom Hudson (Scott), an American sculptor living in the Caribbean. Separated from his old life—he left behind a bride and three children when relocating to the tropics—Tom is the quintessential Hemingway man’s man, an iconoclast driven by a code of honor few people can truly understand. Yet while some of Papa’s heroes express their individualism with battlefield courage and other such violent displays, Tom follows a more cerebral path. He’s all about beauty and truth, even if that means unmooring himself from society’s traditional expectations.
          Schaffner and screenwriter Dennie Bart Peticlerc transpose literary devices from the source material, including chapter breaks and voiceover, so Islands of the Stream is a bit self-consciously arty. Furthermore, because the voiceover features Scott sensitively reading Hemingway’s staccato prose, the movie alternates between visceral scenes between characters and internalized moments during which the juxtaposition of images and Scott’s monologues advances understanding, if not necessarily the storyline. In other words, Islands in the Stream is an offbeat hybrid of full-blooded drama and novelistic rumination. Both elements work, to different degrees.
          The best of the fully dramatized material involves Tom’s fraught relationships with his estranged wife, Audrey (Claire Bloom), and his sons, particularly young adult Tom Jr. (Hart Bochner), in whom the hero finds a kindred spirit. (A poignant sequence revolves around Tom meeting his children for the first time and taking them on a grueling fishing trip.) The best of the purely literary material arrives at the very end of the picture, when Schaffner finds just the right images to accentuate the segment of Scott’s voiceover that contains his character’s closing thoughts after experiencing loneliness, loss, and a kind of redemption.
          The movie has significant flaws, not least of which is an episodic structure that impedes the building of proper dramatic momentum, but the elegance of Schaffner’s execution covers a multitude of sins. More importantly, Scott is at his very best—which is to say that his work is very near the pinnacle of American screen acting. Suppressing his natural tendency toward bluster in order to channel a character who keeps most of his feelings hidden, Scott conveys pain and regret while still illustrating the subtle idea that Tom Hudson considers each man’s life a work of art. So even if the movie’s penultimate passage, a long discursion into high-seas wartime adventure, stretches credibility and dilutes the impact of the film’s touching family-ties material, that’s a minor complaint. After all, it wouldn’t really be Hemingway without at least some hairy-chested excess.

Islands in the Stream: GROOVY

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Last Embrace (1979)

          Director Jonathan Demme continued his steady climb from the quagmire of exploitation flicks to the rarified realm of mainstream movies with this intelligent but underwhelming homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Just as Brian De Palma did in his various tributes to the “Master of Suspense,” Demme emulates myriad tropes associated with Hitchcock—convoluted plotting through which the discovery of a simple object eventually leads to the revelation of a perverse conspiracy; elaborate action scenes involving iconic locations; the presence of a woman who’s either an angel or a devil, or both; and so on. Last Embrace even features music by veteran composer Miklós Rózsa, who scored the Hitchcock classic Spellbound (1945) and whose music for Last Embrace echoes the style of Hitchock’s most revered composer, Bernard Hermann. About the only thing Last Embrace doesn’t have that one normally associates with Hitchcock’s work is a crackerjack story. Instead, the turgid narrative—adapted by David Shaber from a book by Murray Teigh Bloom—stirs up danger and mystery without generating much in the way of emotional involvement.
          Roy Scheider stars as an American spy named Harry Hannan. In a prologue, Harry’s wife is killed during a bizarre standoff with an underworld figure. The story then cuts forward several months and dramatizes Harry’s attempt to reenter his professional life, despite having spent the intervening time receiving psychiatric care. The reason for all this backstory is to put viewers on edge once Harry starts to suspect that he’s been targeted for murder—is he a marked man, we are meant to wonder, or is he just nuts? The story then adds another layer of mystery, which is related to doctoral student Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin), who rented Harry’s New York apartment during his hospitalization. Eventually, Last Embrace‘s scope broadens to encompass such random elements as academic rivalries, Old Testament lore, and prostitution. Things get a bit difficult to follow after a while, and a lot of the story strands feel underdeveloped.
          Nonetheless, Scheider’s a great fit for this sort of material, with his slow-burn line deliveries and wiry build making him quite convincing as a man of action on the verge of snapping. Alas, the script never lets him soar. Meanwhile, Margolin is likeable and pretty but hampered by a confused characterization and limited dramatic skills. Worse, there’s zero chemistry between the two, which renders the narrative’s romantic angle inert. Last Embrace features some highly enjoyable sequences, such as a bell-tower shootout between Scheider and a fellow spy (Charles Napier). Further, the film’s finale (which is set at Niagara Falls) has atmosphere to burn, and it’s interesting to watch Last Embrace in order to spot early attempts at cinematic devices that Demme revisited, to much stronger effect, in the 1991 masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs; for instance, the way he probes Last Embrace locations with a Steadicam represents a dry run of sorts for the way he used the same camera rig in The Silence of the Lambs.

Last Embrace: FUNKY

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Wise Blood (1979)

          By the end of the ’70s, veteran director John Huston had amply demonstrated his ability to change with the times, making a series of hip oddities that stood in sharp contrast to the stuffy museum pieces created by many of his chronological peers during the ‘70s. Of these offbeat pictures, Wise Blood is perhaps the strangest, not only because the underlying material is peculiar but also because Huston presents the story as if it is high comedy—even though the narrative of Wise Blood is a grim compendium of episodes featuring characters gripped by criminal, delusional, self-destructive, and sociopathic impulses. It’s clear that the intent of the picture was to offer broad satire about certain cultural extremes prevalent in America’s Deep South, but it’s difficult to laugh when characters deeply in need of psychiatric intervention court oblivion.
          Based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1962 novel of the same name, the picture follows the exploits of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a Georgia native who returns home from military service in Vietnam to find that his old life has disappeared—his family skipped town, leaving their home an empty wreck. Unexpectedly adrift, Hazel relocates to the city of Macon and builds relationships with a group of eccentrics living on the fringes of society. Hazel’s new acquaintances include Enoch (Dan Shor), an exuberant young simpleton; Asa (Harry Dean Stanton), a fire-and-brimstone street preacher; and Sabbath (Amy Wright), Asa’s twitchy daughter. Eventually, Hazel decides to start his own religion, which isn’t actually a religion, so he ends up preaching against Jesus on the same street corners where Asa sings the gospels. Meanwhile, an edgy romance between Hazel and Sabbath takes shape, and Enoch follows Hazel around like a puppy. It all gets very bizarre—one of the subplots involves stealing a shrunken corpse from a museum—and the great Ned Beatty joins the story midway through as an opportunistic guitarist/preacher/swindler.
          Although Huston films the story with his customary elegance, blending evocative production design and subtle camerawork to create a vivid sense of place, the arch nature of the characterizations makes it difficult to buy into Wise Blood’s illusions. Dourif seems like a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in nearly every scene, rendering audience empathy nearly impossible; his performance is unquestionably committed and intense, but it’s a drag to watch. Meanwhile, Shor and Wright incarnate ignorance with painful believably. Only Beatty and Stanton strike a palatable balance between the lightheartedness of Huston’s storytelling and the ugliness of O’Connor’s story. Wise Blood would have been a unique film no matter who sat behind the camera, so it’s doubly impressive that a veteran of Huston’s caliber tackled such challenging material. Alas, novelty alone isn’t enough to make for a rewarding viewing experience.

Wise Blood: FUNKY

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secret Life of Plants (1979)

          For better or worse, the ’70s was the heyday of documentaries, nonfiction books, and TV specials based on pseudoscience, that hippy-dippy confluence of factoids, metaphysical musings, outright speculation, and sensationalistic bullshit. Think ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, Stonehenge, and so on. It was a good time to be an open-minded searcher, and it was also a good time to be a pandering huckster; for every well-intentioned project grounded in sincere belief, it seems, there were a dozen snowjobs that sprang from sucker-born-every-minute cynicism. Where The Secret Life of Plants falls in that spectrum is, of course, a matter for individual viewers to decide, though one gets the strong impression that the filmmakers bought what they were selling—The Secret Life of Plants is lovingly crafted, even if the scientific principles underlying the piece are dubious at best. (The documentary was based on a 1973 nonfiction book by Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird.)
          Although it features other concepts, the movie primarily focuses on the notion that plants have previously unknown levels of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sensitivity. Some phenomena offered as evidence are commonly held beliefs, such as the idea that plants respond to soothing tones of music and speech. Other ideas stretch credibility quite a bit further, such as the bold assertion from one documentary participant that plants are capable of receiving messages from outer space. About half of the film is devoted to straight reportage (with a smidgen of staging for dramatic effect), so these sequences feature scientists performing various experiments. In one bit, a lab worker chops a head of lettuce to see if an “emotional” reaction can be detected in a nearby houseplant that’s wired to electrodes; later, another scientist drops several living brine shrimp to their deaths in boiling water to see if a nearby plant responds to the loss of life. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, the experiments “prove” the sensitivity of plants thanks to computer readouts—after all, failed experiments wouldn’t validate the picture’s thesis.
          The documentary’s remaining screen time is devoted to impressionistic and lyrical passages, most of which are set to music by Stevie Wonder, who scored the film and wrote a handful of original songs for the project, including the hit ballad “Send One Your Love.” (In the final scene, Wonder appears onscreen to wander through fields of flowers, dense forests, and vibrant jungles as he lip-syncs the title track.) The most impressive passages in The Secret Life of Plants are the simplest, from the ominous creation-of-the-world montage that opens the picture to a lovely compilation of time-lapse flower-opening shots set to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” In these gorgeously filmed and edited vignettes, the natural wonders of plants are placed in the forefront, so the musical sequences feel harmless and trippy. The straight-documentary bits are interesting, too, but it’s hard to go with the flow while stopping every few seconds for a skeptical eye-roll.
          FYI, the director of The Secret Life of Plants is the versatile Walon Green, best known as the screenwriter of The Wild Bunch (1969). Living up to his surname, Green has directed numerous nature-themed documentaries, providing an unexpected complement to his screenwriting work in features and episodic television.

The Secret Life of Plants: FUNKY

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Beguiled (1971)

          Clint Eastwood went to several strange and interesting places, dramatically speaking, during his late ’60s/early ’70s transition from playing cowboys to being the fully-realized icon known as Clint Eastwood. (Dirty Harry, released in 1971, completed his ascendance.) Eastwood’s wilderness years featured everything from musicals to war movies, but there’s something particularly fascinating about The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me, both released in 1971 (quite a year for Eastwood), because these two movies pit Eastwood against the unlikely but formidable opponents of scorned women. Of the pair, The Beguiled is the more provocative, since the narrative of Play Misty for Me provides an escape valve—the villain of that piece is a psychopath. In The Beguiled, the principal antagonistic force is the savagery churning inside Eastwood’s character.
          Set in the South during the Civil War, the picture begins when a young girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), wanders through a forest and finds a wounded Union soldier, John (Eastwood). She guides him back to the boarding school where she lives with a handful of other young women, some of whom are near adulthood. The school is run by tough but psychologically fragile Martha (Geraldine Page). Initially, Martha says John should be handed over to Rebel soldiers, but, as do the other females in the school, she becomes enchanted by the handsome stranger. While John is nursed back to health, he woos not only Martha but also her second-in-command, the virginal Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). Meanwhile, coquettish Carol (Jo Ann Harris) makes her sexual desires plain to John. Thus begins a dark odyssey involving betrayal, lies, schemes, and temptation. John plays every angle to his advantage, figuring he’ll soon be well enough to exit the school on his own power, and each woman with whom he builds a relationship accepts the face he shows to her. (As viewers, we know he’s lying to all of them.)
          Director Don Siegel, the reliable B-movie helmer who emerged during this period as Eastwood’s mentor, does some of his best-ever work in The Beguiled, employing the candlelit interiors and mossy exteriors of the Southern setting to create powerful visual metaphors—the school at the center of the story is a fertile place where wild passions grow. Siegel also stages the movie like a slow-burn horror story, and the revenge Martha takes on John once she realizes his true nature is memorably brutal.
          The Beguiled runs a little long, and a director with a subtler touch could have added further dimensions, but nearly everything in the movie works, at least to some degree. Furthermore, the female performances are so good that they sell the story’s premise. Page is stern and twitchy, adding a thread of Gothic grandeur, while Harris, Hartman, and the other supporting ladies present a spectrum of complicated femininity. Eastwood stretches to the outside edges of his skill set, but the role neatly twists his macho energy into menace. While it’s tempting to brand The Beguiled as misogynistic cinema (the same criticism often lobbed at Play Misty for Me), the picture has too many dimensions to support that simplistic a reading. In the world of The Beguiled, everyone is guilty of succumbing to vile impulses.

The Beguiled: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

          Robert Zemeckis’ directorial debut is hard to dislike—every iota of the film’s energy is devoted to stimulating audience engagement—but at the same time it’s unlikely to generate much in the way of passionate adoration. Slight in the extreme, the picture spins a fictional ensemble yarn around the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1964, thus presenting in microcosm the whole scope of the “Beatlemania” phenomenon. First among the problems with this approach is the way the movie dances around the onscreen absence of the real Beatles. The Fab Four licensed more than a dozen of their early songs, so the soundtrack explodes with the joy of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” and the title song, among others. Yet whenever the Beatles are involved in a scene, Zemeckis uses stand-ins, vocal imitators, and cheat angles that show only backs or legs or such. (Admittedly, his staging of the band’s actual Ed Sullivan performance, footage of which is shown on the monitors of cameras during taping, is highly resourceful.)
          On a deeper level, I Wanna Hold Your Hand suffers from the use of stereotypical characterizations. None of the fictional people in the movie are offensive, per se, but they range from drab to obnoxious, so it’s hard to care what happens to any of them. The main characters are four young women from Jersey. Grace (Theresa Saldana) wants to shoot exclusive photos of the Beatles so she can start a career as a photojournalist; Janis (Susan Kendall Newman) hates the Beatles and plans to picket their appearance; Pam (Nancy Allen) is a nice girl who claims she’s above Beatlemania but, of course, ends up taking crazy risks to get near the lads from Liverpool; and Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is a screaming superfan who’ll do anything to meet Paul McCartney. The guys who take part in the distaff quartet’s adventure are even less dimensional than the ladies. Larry (Marc McClure) is a nebbish who tags along because he’s hot for Grace; Tony (Bobby De Cicco) is an insufferable bad boy who hates the Beatles and therefore serves as a mild sort of antagonist; and Richard (Eddie Deezen) is a borderline-psycho nerd who matches Rosie’s fanaticism.
          As was the case with so many early Zemeckis projects, the story unfolds in a screwball-comedy style, with accidents and coincidences and misunderstandings colliding against each other to create chaos. There’s no question that co-writers Zemeckis and Bob Gale evince tremendous imagination throughout I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and the scribes treat their characters with obvious affection. But, man, after a while, the car chases and pratfalls and shouting matches get awfully loud and repetitive. That said, I Wanna Hold Your Hand marked the arrival of a naturally gifted filmmaker, and it’s impressive how well many scenes work given that the overall movie is so lightweight. Plus, of course, the excitement of the film’s soundtrack is impossible to deny.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Message from Space (1978)

          If you’ve ever wondered what Star Wars (1977) would have been like if George Lucas had stimulated his imagination by consuming massive doses of hallucinogens, then you should definitely check out Message from Space. A Japanese production with some scenes performed in English by Hollywood actors, this effects-driven fantasy/sci-fi epic comprises 105 minutes of complete brain-blasting weirdness. Individual elements within the film are straight-up crazy, and Message from Space unfolds at a frenetic pace while juxtaposing incompatible images with stream-of-consciousness abandon.
          Things get surreal right from the start. Out in space, some bizarre planet inhabited by tree people (as in, leaves apparently growing out of their bodies) becomes imperiled by the evil designs of a wizard/king/robot/whatever, so the chief of the tree people sends glowing seeds into space to find saviors. A princess from the tree planet also joins the search, zooming through the stars in a tall ship complete with oars and sails. Eventually, the seeds (and the princess) gather a band of “heroes” including a recently discharged military officer (Vic Morrow), a gang of interstellar hot-rodders, and others. All of this is set to a hyperactive music score dominated by a motif that’s blatantly stolen from John Williams’ score for Star Wars.
          Director Kinji Fukasaku shoots nearly every scene with the kind of ADD camerawork you might normally expect to encounter in a skateboarding video, and the movie’s production design suffers from a major case of multiple personality disorder. Some costumes and sets seem germane to a hippy-dippy fairy tale, some seem yanked from a medieval drama, and others suggest a disco-era gay-culture fantasia—seriously, what’s with the dancers flitting around in spangly g-strings and rainbow-colored crystalline breastplates? Yet describing the picture’s look doesn’t begin to communicate the strangeness of Message from Space.
          Consider the scene of Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan), who’s some sort of groupie associated with the hot-rodders, floating around in open space—wearing no protective gear except a ventilator—so she can catch “fireflies” that turn to rocks when captured. Or consider the long sequence featuring a Disney-style wicked witch who poisons several of the “heroes” so she can force the princess to marry her son—a giant monster with a lizard head who perversely threatens the princess with a laser whip until bad-guy stormtroopers intervene. And we haven’t even gotten to the villain’s Lady Macbeth-style mommy—she’s a heavily made-up ghoul/witch/zombie thing who tools around in a wheelchair that looks like it’s built from human bones.
          Morrow, the only recognizable Hollywood actor in the picture, strolls through the whole crazy mess trying to cut a dashing figure as a gentleman soldier, but his straight-arrow routine belongs in a different movie. (It’s hard to take Morrow seriously when he shares scenes with a grade-Z C3P0 knockoff named “Beba-2,” who spews lines like, “No robot can forget your kindness to robotkind.”) It’s no wonder that Message from Space has built a minor cult following over the years, because watching the movie from an ironic perspective—or while stoned—probably makes for a better experience than trying to accept Message from Space at face value.

Message from Space: FREAKY

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

          A clever and funny hostage picture with an offbeat setting and an even more offbeat protagonist, the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is vastly superior to the 2009 remake starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington. Whereas the latter picture is frenetic and slick, Joseph Sargent’s ’70s version mixes expertly orchestrated suspense with amusingly grumpy Noo Yawk character flourishes. In fact, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three achieves that most difficult of balancing acts by intermingling danger and humor so that scenes are often jittery and droll at the same time. The title relates to the hijacking of an NYC subway train by a group of middle-aged terrorists whom we get to know by code names: Ice-blooded mastermind “Mr. Blue” (Robert Shaw), trigger-happy gunman “Mr. Grey” (Hector Elizondo), avuncular driver “Mr. Green” (Martin Balsam), and accomplice “Mr. Brown” (Earl Hindman). These four take over a train and communicate their demand for $1 million via radio to the New York Transit Authority, threatening to kill hostages on a regular basis if the city fails to meet a ransom deadline. This puts the crooks at odds with Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), a sarcastic, seen-it-all cop with the Transit Authority’s police force.
          Many of the beats in this story, which was adapted from a novel by John Godey, are standard stuff for hostage pictures: The political machinations of the mayor as he contemplates paying the ransom; the revelation that one of the hostages is an undercover cop; the tricky games Garber plays to buy time; and so on. It’s the execution, however, that makes all the difference. The great playwright/screenwriter Peter Stone delivers Godey’s pulpy narrative with what can only be described as effervescence. While Stone ensures that violent scenes have genuine tension, he threads the script with dry one-liners and pithy dialogue exchanges. In particular, Stone does wonders with the radio conversations between Garber and “Mr. Blue”—the adversaries pick at each other like bickering spouses, a vibe underlined by the contrast between Matthau’s put-upon petulance and Shaw’s tightly contained rage. (Another of the film’s many effective running jokes involves Garber giving a tour of the Transit Authority’s facilities to visiting Japanese dignitaries on the day the hijacking happens; wait for the terrific punchline after watching Garber make a series of offensive remarks to his seemingly oblivious guests.)
          Sargent keeps his camerawork nimble, exploiting the atmosphere of gritty locations, and he benefits from the hard-edged imagery of master New York cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection). Adding to the entertaining verisimilitude is a cavalcade of salty New York character actors: In addition to Balsam, Elizondo, and Matthau, the picture features Kenneth McMillan, Dick O’Neill, Doris Roberts, and Tony Roberts. Balsam and Elizondo are memorable as, respectively, a schmuck who gets involved in something he can’t handle and a psycho who gets off on carrying a gun. Best of all, of course, is the movie’s exciting final act, which features a series of unexpected climaxes stacked upon each other—the conclusion of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three manages to pay off every subplot meticulously and satisfyingly.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: GROOVY

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979)

          First, the good news: Chilly Scenes of Winter is a sensitive and thoughtful dramedy for grown-ups that features careful direction and across-the-board good acting. Now, the bad news: Chilly Scenes of Winter tells such an inconsequential story that, quite frankly, it’s a chore to watch. Given the picture’s middling nature, it’s noteworthy that United Artists made two attempts at turning Chilly Scenes of Winter into a hit. Initially, the film bore a happy ending—as did the source material, a novel by Ann Beattie—and the inane title Head Over Heels. That version was released in 1979 and flopped. Later, in 1982, UA restored the title of Beattie’s book but added a bummer finale, re-releasing the picture as Chilly Scenes of Winter. Surprisingly, the downbeat version did better, marking a rare instance of a studio reaping rewards by opting for artistic integrity over pandering. Still, two theatrical releases represents an awful lot of fuss over a feature directed by a minor art-house name, Joan Micklin Silver, and starring two performers without any measurable box-office mojo.
          John Heard, an excellent actor who lacks leading-man charisma, plays Charles, a Salt Lake City office drone. He’s obsessed with a former girlfriend, cute librarian Laura (Mary Beth Hurt). The present-day story depicts Charles’ struggle to find happiness while hoping that Laura will take him back, and this material is intercut with flashbacks telling the story of Charles’ and Laura’s relationship. At the time they met, Laura was married, but Charles wooed her relentlessly, which made Laura realize she was dissatisfied with her marriage. The catch was that Laura didn’t want to rush into another committed relationship. Chilly Scenes of Winter approaches a subtle idea—that of unfortunate souls whose romantic impulses are almost perfectly synchronized—and, in theory, Charles’ plight should trigger audience empathy. In reality, however, it’s dull to watch a dude mope while his voiceover accentuates the monotony of the situation: “The days go by, but Laura doesn’t call.” In fact, Charles ends up seeming insufferable because of the way he inflicts his angst on everyone in his social circle, and because of the way he can’t take no for an answer. Therefore, what should have been a character study of an incurable romantic ends up feeling like a melodrama about a stalker.
          In a strange way, the realistic textures of Heard’s performance contribute to the problem—instead of hiding behind charm, as an actor of more crowd-pleasing instincts might have done, Heard plays Charles’ naked pain truthfully. Combined with the thorny aspects of Hurt’s characterization (sample line: “If you think I’m that great, there must be something wrong with you”), Heard’s anguish makes Chilly Scenes of Winter feel like watered-down Bergman, complete with scenes of Heard speaking directly to the camera. Happily, two supporting players complement the leads with softer-edged performances: Peter Riegert’s droll comedy style enlivens the role of Charles’ best friend, and Hollywood veteran Gloria Grahame, in one of her final performances, gives a melancholy turn as Charles’ deteriorating mother.

Chilly Scenes of Winter: FUNKY