Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Out of Towners (1970)

          The Out of Towners is notable as the first feature that mega-successful playwright/screenwriter Simon wrote directly for the big screen; previously, the comedy kingpin adapted such hits as Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) from his own plays. The good news is that Simon has a blast taking advantage of opportunities presented by the cinematic medium, so The Out of Towners starts in Ohio, zooms to Boston, lands in New York, and covers dozens of locations. The bad news is that the piece isn’t especially funny—too often, frenetic activity substitutes for inspiration. That said, the premise is amusing, since the picture aims to depict the worst trip to New York any couple has ever experienced. This is Simon in pure-farce mode, not touchy-feely Simon.
          Jack Lemmon stars as George Kellerman, an Ohio businessman summoned to Manhattan for a job interview. While he and his wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), fly from Ohio to New York, George shares his grand, OCD-fueled plans for a night of dinner and dancing before acing the interview in the morning. However, Gwen’s enthusiasm is muted—she’s perfectly happy raising the couple’s kids in the Midwest. Then comes a series of calamities: New York gets fogged in, so the couple’s plane is rerouted to Boston; catching trains is a nightmare; New York is gripped by a transit strike; the Kellermans’ hotel reservation is cancelled; muggers prey on the couple; and so on. About half of the problems that Simon contrives represent clever satire, and about half represent narrative desperation. For instance, George’s stubborn insistence to remain inside a police car while the officers at the wheel chase criminals is an absurdly stupid decision. Only Lemmon’s innate likability ensures that George remains more or less palatable, and it helps that Lemmon is virtually peerless at playing frazzled schmucks. Sadly, Dennis can’t come close to matching her costar’s energy, coming across as bland and mousy until the latter half of the picture, when her character suddenly (and unbelievably) grows a spine.
          Compounding the inequity of the leading performance is director Arthur Hiller’s grubby camerawork. Although he paces scenes beautifully, Hiller shoots the picture with the dark, handheld textures of a crime movie; as does Quincy Jones’ weirdly intense score, the look of the film makes some scenes that should be humorous seem frightening. Ultimately, however, the real blame for the project’s overall mediocrity must fall on Simon, who sacrifices character reality for silly gags at regular intervals. Nonetheless, The Out of Towners gained enough stature to warrant a remake in 1999. In the second version of the story, Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn play the titular travelers.

The Out of Towners: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Harold and Maude (1971)

          Today, Harold and Maude is so widely regarded as one of the quintessential New Hollywood films that it’s surprising to learn the movie didn’t have an easy path to immortality—especially since the early life of the project seemed charmed. Writer and co-producer Colin Higgins developed the project during his graduate studies at UCLA’s film school and won a major prize for the script. Then, while working as a pool cleaner in L.A. to stay solvent, Higgins met the film’s other producer, Mildred Lewis. The pair tried to set up the project with Higgins directing, but Paramount nixed that plan and hired editor-turned-filmmaker Hal Ashby. Good move. In addition to hitting just the right mix of satire and sweetness, Ashby shot the picture on such a modest budget that the story reached theaters with its darkness and humanism intact.
          Yet Harold and Maude did not catch on during its original release; rather, it took years of home-video exhibition, theatrical reissues, and TV broadcasts for the movie to find its well-deserved status as a minor classic. That said, it’s not difficult to see why the film alienates as many people as it enchants. The premise is perverse, the humor is morbid, and the May-December romance at the heart of the story skirts the limits of good taste. After all, the actors playing the lovers in the movie’s title—Bud Cort (Harold) and Ruth Gordon (Maude)—were in their 20s and 70s, respectively, at the time of filming.
          Higgins’ bold script begins by introducing Harold Chasen, a rich kid so bored with the trappings of everyday life that he spends most of his energy staging outrageous suicide scenes for the kinky thrill of shocking his mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles). Since Harold never actually kills himself, however, it’s unclear whether his activities represent a genuine cry for help or just bizarre frivolity. Undaunted, Mrs. Chasen tries to match Harold with various potential brides, but Harold’s eerie theatrics spook all of them. Meanwhile, Harold amuses himself by visiting funerals, which brings him into contact with Maude Chardin, who also digs watching final farewells to the deceased. Maude is as free and open as Harold is repressed and quiet, so as they spend time together, Maude teaches Harold surprising lessons about making the most of every day; she’s also the only person who encourages Harold to embrace his oddness.
          The evolution of this relationship involves a series of touching revelations and surprises that won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say that Harold and Maude has boundless integrity—the film is never less than true to its offbeat self, which is, of course, why the picture has become a source of inspiration for generations of independent-minded filmmakers. Each of the major elements in the movie approaches a kind of poetry, from Cort’s hangdog quirkiness to Gordon’s ebullient outrageousness, while Ashby consistently handles the material with sensitivity and style.
          The storytelling is a bit on the schematic side, and some of Harold’s suicide scenes are absurdly grandiose, but the soul of this movie is so utterly unique that expecting it to meet normal expectations is foolhardy. Especially with the jubilant soundtrack of Cat Stevens songs giving the piece a gentle heartbeat, Harold and Maude easily ranks among the most unconventional love stories ever filmed. It is also, not unimportantly, a perfect snapshot of the historical moment when mainstream Hollywood studios let young filmmakers run wild so long as they kept costs low. Harold and Maude isn’t perfect, but learning to accept the imperfections of life—no matter how horrific they might be—is a key component of the picture’s inspirational theme.

Harold and Maude: RIGHT ON

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

          UK-based Amicus Productions, a second-tier competitor to Hammer Films, earned a niche in the horror marketplace by making a series of anthology movies, nasty little numbers featuring terse vignettes grouped by framing stories. Examples include Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973). The success of these pictures inevitably led other companies to ape the Amicus formula, hence this silly project from World Film Services. Although Tales That Witness Madness is a respectable endeavor thanks to decent production values and the presence of familiar actors, the script by Jennifer Jayne (writing as Jay Fairbank) is an uninspired pastiche of hoary shock-fiction tropes. There’s not a genuine scare in Tales That Witness Madness, and most of the humor is of the unintentional sort. Plus, the longest story is almost interminably boring.
          The picture begins with a shrink, Dr. Tremayne (Donald Pleasence), showing a colleague around a psychiatric facility where four odd patients are housed. As each patient is presented, his or her tale appears in flashback. The first bit, “Mr. Tiger,” features a little boy whose bickering parents discover the lad’s imaginary friend may not be imaginary. Next comes “Penny Farthing,” a drab yarn about an antique dealer getting possessed by the figure in an old painting. In “Mel,” the best vignette of the batch, an artist (Michael Jayston) brings home an old tree and then decides he likes the tree better than his wife (Joan Collins). The final sequence, “Luau,” is a tedious tale about people caught up in a ritual-sacrifice scheme. Except for “Mel,” which has a pithy, Twilight Zone-esque tone, the stories drone on lifelessly. (“Mr. Tiger” is fine, but the “twist” ending is so obvious from the first frame that there’s no tension.)
          The actors all deliver serviceable work, with young Russell Lewis (as the boy in “Mr. Tiger”) and Jayston (the artist in “Mel”) providing the most vivid performances. As for the leading ladies, Collins, who inexplicably spent much of the ’70s appearing in bad horror movies, does her usual shrewish-sexpot routine, while Hollywood actress Kim Novak—playing the lead in “Luau”—drains all vitality from the movie with her colorless non-acting. Director Freddie Francis, the former cinematographer who directed numerous frightfests for Hammer and Amicus (including the aforementioned Tales from the Crypt, among other horror anthology movies), handles this project with his characteristic aplomb, but even his smooth style can only compensate so much for the enervated nature of the stories.

Tales That Witness Madness: FUNKY

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sleuth (1972)

          In some ways, criticizing the offbeat mystery film Sleuth is a pointless exercise—the picture asks viewers to accept so many contrivances that it’s as if Sleuth exists in its own alternate universe. Adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his Tony-winning play and featuring only two actors, both of whom were nominated for Oscars, Sleuth presents clever performances in the service of outlandish writing, making such considerations as believability and substance secondary. Viewers turned off by the prospect of watching two actors speaking almost nonstop for 138 minutes needn’t expose themselves to a single frame of Sleuth, whereas fans of the leading actors—Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier—will find so much to delight them that the movie’s weaker elements won’t impede enjoyment. In other words, anyone who willingly commits to watching Sleuth is likely to be rewarded in some way, even though the movie is pure fluff.
          The set-up is deceptively simple. Handsome young English-Italian hairdresser Milo Tindle (Caine) arrives at the sprawling country estate of rich mystery-novel writer Andrew Wyke (Olivier), per Andrew’s invitation. In short order, it’s revealed that Milo is the secret lover of Andrew’s estranged wife, and that Andrew has summoned Milo to make a bizarre proposition. Claiming he’s eager to be rid of his wife—because Andrew himself has a lover with whom he’d like to set up housekeeping—Andrew suggests that Milo stage a break-in at the estate’s mansion and steal valuable jewels. Then, Andrew says, Milo can fence the jewels while Andrew reclaims their cash value from his insurance company. In essence, Andrew will pay Milo to take the missus off his hands.
          If you find that premise hard to accept, then brace yourself for dozens of other equally far-fetched contrivances, because Sleuth comprises an elaborate game that the two characters play with each other. Andrew runs a scheme on Milo, who outwits his opponent, so Andrew conjures another scheme, and so on. Every element of Sleuth is overwrought, right down to production designer Ken Adam’s sets, which are stuffed to the brim with eccentric tchotchkes. And while the biggest lark in Sleuth won’t be spoiled here, suffice to say that the second half of the story is predicated on a “secret” that is not sufficiently withheld from the audience. By the end of the movie, Sleuth has become so silly that the whole enterprise borders on camp.
          Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz—no stranger to dialogue-heavy dramaturgy after making classics including All About Eve (1950)—presents Shaffer’s talky tale in as dynamic a fashion as possible, sending cameras probing and prowling through confined spaces in order to find unexpectedly dramatic compositions. (The less said of the way the movie periodically cuts to inanimate objects in order to wriggle free of editing traps, the better.) As for the film’s two performances, they’re royally entertaining. Olivier provides technically meticulous artifice—happily flying way over the top at regular intervals—while Caine grounds the movie with more realistic textures of amusement, fear, and greed. Both actors have done better work elsewhere, but Sleuth may contain the most acting either performer ever did in a single film. And since the whole movie’s a confection anyway, why not overindulge?

Sleuth: GROOVY

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Mutations (1974)

          Reflecting its storyline about a mad scientist who gene-splices people and plants to create monsters, this lurid UK flick offers two movies for the price of one. The putative main story is an unintentionally hilarious stinker, with Donald Pleasence phoning in his bad-guy performance while the film’s special-effects team delivers laughably bad monster costumes. However, a major subplot about the mad scientist’s deformed henchman has a certain degree of pathos and suspense, especially because the subplot borrows many elements from the 1932 cult classic Freaks. Set in modern-day England, The Mutations stars Pleasence as Professor Nolter, a psycho who envisions a new race of humans imbued with plant characteristics. Nolter’s accomplice is Lynch (Tom Baker), a deformed giant who abducts young men and women for Nolter to use as test subjects. Lynch is the leader of a group of circus freaks living at an amusement park, yet while the other circus performers are harmless, Lynch is a self-loathing psychotic. Thus, while Nolter tempts fate by taking his experiments too far, Lynch is driven to madness by waiting for Nolter to deliver on promises of correcting Lynch’s deformity. (The picture also features perfunctory material involving attractive students either investigating the disappearances of their classmates or becoming victims of Nolter’s weird science.)
          As helmed by Jack Cardiff, a master cinematographer who occasionally directed, The Mutations has a colorful look and one or two genuinely creepy scenes, notably the Freaks-influenced conclusion of Lynch’s storyline. The acting is generally bland, but Baker (beloved by many for his long run on the UK TV series Doctor Who) does well playing Lynch in the Vincent Price mode of a killer besieged by inner demons. The film’s other noteworthy performance comes from the diminutive Michael Dunn, familiar to American TV fans for his work as Dr. Loveless on the ’60s show The Wild Wild West. He plays the little person who represents the conscience of the circus-freak community. Furthermore, starlets including the scrumptious Julie Ege provide major eye candy while clothed and otherwise, and The Mutations benefits from an eerie music score that utilizes dissonant classical music—a truly unsettling flourish. FYI, The Mutations sometimes carries the alternate title The Freakmaker.

The Mutations: FUNKY

Friday, July 26, 2013

Magic (1978)

          After the success of Marathon Man (1976), the whiz-bang thriller that screenwriter William Goldman adapted from his own novel, it was only a matter of time before Goldman was tapped to bring another of his escapist books to the screen. Hence Magic, which employs the disquieting premise of a ventriloquist gone mad. Benefiting from an amazing performance by star Anthony Hopkins, Magic commands attention from start to finish even though some of the plot twists are highly dubious. Lest we forget, few screenwriters are better at generating pure entertainment than Goldman, so the fun factor mostly trumps logic hiccups. Furthermore, director Richard Attenborough—with whom Goldman previously worked on the World War II epic A Bridge Too Far (1977)—wisely lets the material take the lead, rather than submerging it beneath stylistic flourishes. Magic might strike some modern viewers as quaint, since what passed for shock value in a 1978 popcorn movie now seems restrained, and the love story at the center of the picture never quite works. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal here to enjoy.
          Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a gifted magician who lacks stage presence until he adds a gimmick to his act—Fats, a foul-mouthed dummy that functions as Corky’s onstage comedy partner. Fats’ notoriety earns Corky representation from William Morris agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), who arranges for Corky to shoot a TV pilot. When the network insists on a medical exam, however, Corky balks, and Ben rightly worries that Corky is concealing latent mental illness. Corky leaves New York for his boyhood hometown in the Catskills, where he reconnects with Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), the girl he was too shy to ask out during high school. Now trapped in a loveless marriage to the brutish Duke (Ed Lauter), Peggy reveals she always liked Corky, so they begin an illicit romance. Goldman then builds suspense around the question of whether Fats—who has become a focal point for the demons in Corky’s soul—will intrude on Corky’s happiness. Cue scenes of mayhem and murder.
          While the picture’s character-driven approach is commendable, Goldman and Attenborough fail to calibrate supporting characters correctly. The Corky character works, and so does Ben Greene, but Peggy’s identity wobbles from scene to scene based on what’s convenient for the story, and Duke feels like a one-note contrivance. Plus, nearly half the movie elapses before the really creepy stuff starts. That said, Magic contains several terrific suspense scenes, most of which are driven by Hopkins’ meticulous depiction of Corky’s doomed attempts to keep his rage in check—watching the actor teeter on the brink of homicidal fury is completely absorbing. The movie also has flashes of Goldman’s signature wiseass humor, and Attenborough prudently borrows tricks from the Hitchcock playbook. It should also be mentioned, of course, that the scare-factor potential of a dead-eyed doll with homicidal intentions is fully exploited—the crude and vicious Fats, whose abrasive voice is provided by Hopkins, emerges as a memorable screen villain.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

          Based on its pedigree alone, the obscure drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child merits investigation by any fan of serious-minded ’70s cinema. The picture stars Faye Dunaway, it was directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg (whose other films include 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park and 1973’s Scarecrow), and Schatzberg co-wrote the script with Carole Eastman, whose other release in 1970 was the iconic Jack Nicholson drama Five Easy Pieces. (Eastman wrote Puzzle under the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce.”) Beyond the big names involved in the project, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is noteworthy because of its heavy themes—abusive relationships, fame, drug addiction, mental illness. For those who like their ’70s movies anguished and artistic, this is quintessential stuff on many levels.
          Unfortunately, the storytelling of Puzzle of a Downfall Child is pretentious and vague. The narrative is presented in dreamlike fragments, often with psychobabble voiceover played over dissociated imagery, and the heart of the picture—as the overly precious title suggests—is a slow revelation of one disturbed woman’s psyche. Only the most masterful actors and filmmakers can make this sort of thing work, and neither Dunaway nor Schatzberg demonstrates that level of supreme artistic control. So, while Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a noble effort, it fails to generate much in the way of real emotion. Plus, quite frankly, at times it barely sustains interest.
          The film begins at an isolated beach house, where Lou (Dunaway) is sequestered while recovering from some mysterious personal crisis. Her only companion is a longtime friend, fashion photographer Aaron (Barry Primus), who interviews her because he’s planning to make a movie about Lou’s life. In flashbacks, we see Lou’s ascendance from the lowest ranks of modeling to the upper echelon; along the way, she gets involved with a series of inappropriate men, including the abusive Mark (Roy Scheider). Dunaway is in nearly every frame of this film, so there was an opportunity for her to give a tour-de-force performance. Alas, she plays the exterior of her role well, but that’s about it. In her defense, she’s burdened with an insufferably narcissistic characterization—Lou is one of those navel-gazing ’70s-cinema egotists whose every utterance explains why she’s dissatisfied with this or unhappy about that. Yet it’s clear why many people suffer her whining, because she’s an exquisite beauty who photographs extraordinarily well.
          In fact, one can’t help but get the impression Schatzberg fell under Dunaway’s spell the same way the film’s characters are bewitched by Lou. Schatzberg photographs Dunaway with delicate artistry, which hurts her performance by making the actress seem like she’s preening even when she’s supposed to be unglamorous. (Dunaway and Schatzberg were engaged around the time they made this picture, though they never married.)
          Puzzle of a Downfall Child also suffers for a lack of closure, since the “puzzle” of the title is never solved in a satisfactory way—viewers eventually learn that Lou fell into narcotics and suffered a nervous breakdown, but even after listening to the character prattle on about herself for 105 minutes, she remains an enigma. Nonetheless, Schatzberg’s pictorial style is elegant, and supporting actors lend varied colors. Viveca Lindfords flounces through the film as a grandiose photographer, while Primus channels the anguish of unrequited love and Scheider provides the movie’s irredeemable-asshole quotient.

Puzzle of a Downfall Child: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Checkered Flag or Crash (1977)

This car-race picture comes awfully close to qualifying as entertainment, but dodgy editing and vapid storytelling eventually become so distracting that it’s hard to classify Checkered Flag or Crash as anything other than a dud. Set in the Philippines, the movie depicts a 1,000-mile road race that attracts sportsmen driving cars, dune buggies, and motorcycles. Part demolition derby, part endurance test, and part speed trial, the race scenario offers great potential for action, comedy, and drama. Alas, writer Michael Allin and director Alan Gibson mostly substitute shots of cars driving through dirt patches and thick jungles for actual cinematic content. Joe Don Baker stars as champion driver “Walkaway” Madden, a bearish American, and Susan Sarandon costars as C.C. Wainwright, a car-magazine reporter who rides shotgun in Madden’s rig during the race. The other significant characters are Bo Cochran (Larry Hagman), the race’s good-ol’-boy organizer, and “Doc” Pyle (Alan Vint), Madden’s ex-partner and a rival driver. The movie largely comprises so-so racing footage, interspersed with cutesy romantic-banter scenes involving Baker and Sarandon. While both actors display their considerable innate charm, there’s no chemistry between them, and the characters are underdeveloped to the point of barely existing. Furthermore, there’s no tension in the movie, since Madden’s first-place finish is never in doubt. (After all, most of the other drivers are portrayed as losers and/or nincompoops.) The picture has decent production values, but these don’t count for much because the shooting and cutting of racing scenes is sloppy—camera angles are so close that it’s hard to distinguish details, and the editing relies on blur shots for connective tissue. Considering that Checkered Flag or Crash is a race movie, the presence of substandard racing footage pretty much scotches the whole deal. Yet the movie’s most galling element, by far, is the atrocious music score, which has a cornpone Nashville-meets-Vegas quality. Some of the cues seem pulled from old Hee-Haw sketches, and the title song is the worst kind of truckstop earworm.

Checkered Flag or Crash: LAME

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter (1974)

On paper, this sounds like tons of fun, at least for genre-movie fans. Seriously, an action-packed horror movie about a dashing soldier who travels around pre-19th-century Europe killing vampires with a samurai sword, accompanied by a hunchbacked scientist and a voluptuous female companion? And it’s from UK-based Hammer Films, the kingpins of Gothic shockers? What’s not to like? Well, for one thing, Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter is woefully devoid of the one thing it should have in abundance, which is entertainment value. Yes, the picture is handsomely produced (within the parameters of a humble budget), and the filmmakers don’t skimp on stylish violence. But where’s the joie de vivre? The picture isn’t as grim as some Hammer pictures, which is a relief, but it’s still unnecessarily sober. Did the world really need something called Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter played straight? Anyway, at least viewers who dig Hammer’s formula of dastardly deeds conducted in crypt-like castles and murky forests will find much to savor here. The picture begins when a village physician, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), encounters a series of strange deaths—young women drained of blood fall dead, their bodies inexplicably aged. Marcus summons his old Army pal, Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), who happens to be a professional vampire hunter. Convenient! Kronos travels with a deformed scientist, Professor Grost (John Cater), and a sexy peasant girl named Carla (Caroline Munro). As the movie unfolds, Kronos and his allies set traps for the bloodsucker—or bloodsuckers—preying upon Marcus’ village, but not all goes according to plan. Written, directed, and co-produced by Brian Clemens, Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter moves at a sluggish pace. Once in a while, Clemens lands a nice line of dialogue, as when Kronos describes Grost’s expertise: “What he doesn’t know about vampirism couldn’t fill a fly’s codpiece.” And periodically, Clemens nails a groovy visual: At one point, Kronos holds the blade of his sword before his eyes in order to reflect back the gaze of a ghoul who is trying to hypnotize him. Unfortunately, the actors all deliver highly generic work. Janson is an attractive physical specimen—as is Munro, who later became a Bond girl—but neither radiates much in the way of charisma. And the less said about the various anticlimactic scenes in which Kronos effortlessly vanquishes hordes of attackers with ridiculously skillful swordplay, the better.

Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter: FUNKY

Monday, July 22, 2013

Directed by John Ford (1971)

          First off, this review is a bit of a cheat—I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the original 1971 cut of Directed by John Ford, which has been replaced in the marketplace by a substantially re-edited 2006 version. That’s the cut I saw, and it’s something of a hybrid. Although the bones of the piece are the same as in the 1971 version, writer-director (and Ford acquaintance) Peter Bogdanovich not only excised some material and inserted replacement clips, but he also recorded brand-new interviews with contemporary Ford admirers including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Furthermore, Bodganovich conducted new interviews with still-living Ford collaborators and taped new onscreen remarks of his own. So, while the 2006 version of Directed by John Ford presumably represents the director’s fullest possible vision circa the time of its release, it’s a stretch to say that I’m actually reviewing the 1971 movie. Still, because the best parts of any version of Directed by John Ford are 1971 clips featuring Ford and his famous leading men—Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne—most of what makes the picture interesting has remained unchanged since the original release.
          Anyway, as the title suggests, Directed by John Ford is a product of Bogdanovich’s lifelong crusade to celebrate the contributions of cinema giants. Yet Bogdanovich’s interaction with Ford was complicated. A master of mythmaking onscreen and off, the man considered by many to be the greatest auteur of Western movies was born John Martin O’Feeney, but, to quote a famous line from his 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In other words, the man whom Bodganovich encountered was deeply invested in protecting the reputation of macho filmmaker “John Ford.” Though obviously in physical decline and well into professional twilight—he’d already directed his last feature—Ford comes across as belligerent and virtually monosyllabic, as if discussing his own artistry is unmanly. Watching Bogdanovich tangle with Ford during their interview in Ford’s quintessential shooting location, Monument Valley, is the core of the picture.
          Elsewhere, during the interviews with Ford’s key actors, Bogdanovich asserts himself as much as he showcases his subjects. Taking the unusual approach of mounting his interview camera on a dolly track, Bogdanovich can be seen in many shots motioning for his cameraman to push in or pull back. Most of the star interviews feature puffery, because even when the actors describe Ford’s difficult personality, they’re burnishing his manly-man bona fides. And while the contemporary interviews with Ford-loving filmmakers lend scholarly weight to Directed by John Ford, it’s hard to say they’re essential. Beyond the footage Bogdanovich collected in the early ’70s, the components that really are essential are clips from Ford’s classics—The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), and more. In a profound way, Ford’s work speaks for itself, revealing a world of obsessions that that Ford never articulated for any interviewer. Therefore, Directed by John Ford is illuminating, though not necessarily in the manner that Bogdanovich intended.

Directed by John Ford: GROOVY

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Song Remains the Same (1976)

          With a few notable exceptions, the best rock-music movies are made from an outside-looking-in perspective—whether it’s Richard Lester capturing the buoyancy of the Beatles or Michael Wadleigh documenting the wonderment of Woodstock, the presence of an objective observer seems helpful for communicating what makes a rock experience interesting. Conversely, bad things seem to happen whenever rock musicians take control of cameras (again, with a few notable exceptins). From drug-addled stupidity to obnoxious ego-tripping, rock musicians have a bad habit of turning movies about themselves into indulgences that only hardcore fans can enjoy. The Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same is very much an example of the latter circumstance. The picture fits every adjective that’s ever been used to slag the band—bombastic, infantile, overwrought, self-important—and it conveys very little of the group’s legendary sonic attack. Furthermore, The Song Remains the Same is padded with stupid fantasy sequences, and it’s sprinkled with offstage bits that reveal more about the band’s thuggish manager, Peter Grant, than about the band itself. Worst of all, the live-concert scenes, which comprise most of the picture’s running time, are dull and unimaginative in terms of cinematic technique.
          Not surprisingly, the picture has a fraught backstory. After initial director Joe Masot shot Led Zep playing at Madison Square Garden in mid-1973, replacement helmer Peter Clifton was hired to fabricate new insert shots by filming the band in mid-1974 on a soundstage tricked up to resemble Madison Square Garden. That’s a lot of trouble for such unimpressive results. In the filmmakers’ defense, some challenges were inherent to the process of filming Led Zep. Singer Robert Plant’s effeminate stage persona clashes oddly with the macho swagger of his singing, so it’s distracting to watch his dainty hand gestures and girly half-shirt while he’s singing about giving “every inch of my love.” Guitarist Jimmy Page underwhelms in a different way. His fretwork feels half-hearted and sloppy, an impression exacerbated by his placid facial expressions; rightly or wrongly, one gets the sense of a working stiff marking time. The band’s set list includes a few uptempo numbers that surmount the drab filming (“Rock and Roll,” “The Song Remains the Same”), but turgid numbers drag on forever. “Dazed and Confused,” for instance, stretches for nearly half an hour, and even “Stairway to Heaven” lacks energy.
          Complementing the actual performance scenes, each member of the group (Grant included, bizarrely) contributes a fantasy sequence meant to offer personal revelation through metaphor. Grant’s bit is first, and he plays a pinstriped mobster slaughtering people with machine guns. Nice guy. The other vignettes are forgettable, with the exception of Plant’s unintentionally hilarious contribution. Plant portrays a brave knight rescuing a maiden from a castle, but with his fey body language and lustrous blonde mane, he seems as formidable as a little boy playing dress-up. Plant’s lyrics have always evinced a weakness for Renaissance Faire-type posturing, but his medieval romp in The Song Remains the Same is a self-aggrandizing embarrassment. Compounding all of these problems, The Song Remains the Same drags on for 137 lugubrious minutes, so whenever you think the damn thing is over, it’s not.

The Song Remains the Same: FUNKY

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Rancho Deluxe (1975)

          Because novelist/screenwriter Thomas McGuane’s literary voice was such an enjoyably eccentric component of ’70s cinema (his big-screen work tapered off in subsequent decades), it doesn’t really matter that ’70s films bearing his name have weak stories. What the pictures lack in narrative momentum, they make up for in personality. Rancho Deluxe, written by McGuane and directed by the adventurous Frank Perry, is an offbeat modern Western that’s a comedy by default—which is to say that while the movie has amusing elements, it’s primarily a character study. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play Jack and Cecil, low-rent cattle rustlers plaguing a ranch owned by the vituperative John Brown (Clifton James). Eventually, John gets fed up with losing livestock and hires thugs to apprehend the rustlers. First come inept ranch hands Burt (Richard Bright) and Curt (Harry Dean Stanton), both of whom are too horny and lackadaisical to devote much energy toward criminal investigation. Then John brings in a thief-turned-detective, Henry (Slim Pickens), whose idiosyncratic approach mostly involves setting traps and waiting for the rustlers to stumble across his path. Also thrown into the mix are John’s short-tempered wife, Cora (Elizabeth Ashley), and Henry’s hot-to-trot daughter, Laura (Charlene Dallas).
          McGuane mostly eschews dramatic tension, opting instead for closely observed scenes of quirky characters behaving in ways that reveal their nature. There’s a great bit, for instance, when Jack and Cecil kidnap a car and shoot it full of holes, partially to make a point and partially to pass the time. In moments like this, McGuane’s script captures the slow rhythms of rural life, as well as the bedrock Western virtue of rugged individualism. In scene after scene, McGuane ensures that his characters evince surprising dimensions. Consider party girl Mary (Maggie Wellman), who reveals unexpected cultural sophistication with her comment about a dinner spread: “This is a weird mixture of yin and yang—so many animal karmas have bit the dust here.” Elsewhere, Stanton’s character tries to look macho while standing outside John’s mansion and running a vacuum over an Indian rug per instructions from the lady of the house. Virtually every minute of Rancho Deluxe is interesting in some way or another, but that’s not quite enough to compensate for the generally aimless feel of the piece. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to enjoy thanks to McGuane’s quirky writing and the generally lively performances. Pickens and Stanton are the standouts, with Pickens’ down-home bluster and Stanton’s laconic vibe suiting the material especially well, though Bridges, James, and Waterston each provide likeable characterizations.

Rancho Deluxe: FUNKY

Friday, July 19, 2013

Born to Win (1971)

It’s impossible to completely dismiss Born to Win, a would-be comedy about heroin addiction, even though the film is a disaster from a tonal perspective and not especially satisfying from a narrative perspective, because the film’s saving graces include gritty performances by several actors and a great sense of place. So, while Born to Win is laughable compared to the same year’s The Panic in Needle Park, a truly harrowing take on the same subject matter, Born to Win isn’t an outright dud. George Segal stars as J, a former hairdresser who has fallen into petty crime as a means of supporting his habit. Over the course of the story, J embarks on a new romance with Parm (Karen Black), a rich girl with a taste for dangerous adventure, and he gets into a complicated hassle with his dealer, Vivian (Hector Elizondo). The romantic stuff with Parm defies logic right from the beginning—Parm discovers J trying to steal her car, but instead of calling the police, she takes him to bed. Huh? The drug-culture material is more believable, especially when two cops (one of whom is played by a young Robert De Niro) coerce J into helping them entrap Vivian. In general, the seedier the scene in question, the more watchable Born to Win becomes. For instance, one of the best sequences involves J sweet-talking a mobster’s wife by pretending he wants sex, when in fact he’s simply trying to enter the mobster’s apartment for purposes of robbery. Segal’s not the right actor for this story—he’s too charming and urbane—but it’s interesting to imagine the circumstances by which a character fitting Segal’s persona might have fallen into such desperation. Had Born to Win focused on J’s descent (and had the filmmakers not opted for such a glib treatment of addiction), the picture could have had impact. Alas, director/co-writer Ivan Passer fumbles, badly, by attempting to merge black comedy with inner-city tragedy, and his undisciplined storytelling is exacerbated by a truly horrible music score. Predictably, De Niro (whose role is inconsequential) and Elizondo fare best in this milieu, while Black and costar Paula Prentiss barely register. Yet the real star of the movie, if only by default, is New York City, with the dirty streets of Manhattan amplifying the film’s implied theme of lost souls getting chewed up by an unforgiving universe.

Born to Win: FUNKY

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Charlotte’s Web (1973)

          Even cynics cry once in a while. For instance, one of my surefire triggers for waterworks is Charlotte’s Web, the miraculous children’s book by E.B. White that was originally published in 1952. A bittersweet story about friendship and mortality, Charlotte’s Web presents grown-up themes in a magical context, and the ending of the story slays me today as much as it did when I first read the book during childhood. I mention the power of White’s story to explain why I cut this animated adaptation a lot of slack, even though the film contains sentimental excesses that drift far afield from the melancholy textures of the source material. Speaking in the broadest terms, the filmmakers present White’s story intact—retaining even the most downbeat elements—so unnecessary filigrees such as boisterous musical numbers are merely interruptions. The basic narrative is so powerful that nothing can fully diminish its impact.
          For those unfamiliar with the tale, the hero of the story is a pig named Wilbur. He’s born on a farm, but because he’s a runt, he’s plucked from the litter for quick slaughter. The farmer’s daughter, a young girl named Fern, pleads for Wilbur’s life and is given responsibility for raising him. As a result, he grows to maturity with a gentle demeanor since all he’s ever known is TLC. Alas, Wilbur gets sold to a neighboring farm, where he’s again lined up for slaughter. Yet Wilbur’s sweet nature endears him to other animals on his new farm, including a sophisticated brown spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica. Eager to protect her new friend, Charlotte spins a web containing the words “some pig,” which transforms Wilbur into a small-town celebrity. This special relationship continues through to a heartbreaking finale that says volumes about the cyclical nature of life. I’m biased, of course, but I would go so far as to say that Charlotte’s Web is one of the loveliest stories created by an American author in the 20th century.
          Animation was definitely the right means for making a screen version of Charlotte’s Web, since it’s hard to imagine cozying up to a live-action arachnid. Alas, budget-conscious production company Hanna-Barbera never aimed for the same level of visual beauty as the folks at Disney, so this version of Charlotte’s Web is perfunctory in terms of images and motion. The character designs are fine, and the background settings get the job done, but the look of Charlotte’s Web is only slightly better than that of a standard Saturday-morning cartoon from the ’70s. Furthermore, the musical score is palatable at best. While songwriting brothers Richard B. Sherman and Robert M. Sherman (of Mary Poppins fame) fill their tunes with heart and playful language, their style doesn’t fit with the humble elegance of White’s storytelling. (Similarly, narrator Rex Allen’s aw-shucks line deliveries add a cornpone, Will Rogers-influenced flavor that lowers the intelligence level of the material.)
          Happily, the best elements of this movie are the most important—the vocal performances. Henry Gibson, of all people, finds a kindhearted but not sticky-sweet pocket for Wilbur’s speaking voice, capturing the character’s innocence. Paul Lynde channels his queeny bitchery into the comic-relief role of Templeton, a rat who serves as Charlotte’s de facto errand boy. And Debbie Reynolds is just about perfect as Charlotte—amiable, sad, and wise all at once. She also gets to sing the most delicate song the Shermans wrote for the peace, a philosophical number called “Mother Earth and Father Time.”
          Perhaps because this movie was the means by which many people first discovered White’s luminous story, the Hanna-Barbera version of Charlotte’s Web has enjoyed a long life in the marketplace, even earning a straight-to-video sequel, Charlotte’s Web 2: Wilbur’s Great Adventure, in 2003. (The sequel featured an all-new story, because White never wrote a follow-up book.) A live-action version of Charlotte’s Web was released in 2006, with an all-star cast including Julia Roberts and Robert Redford voicing animal characters rendered with CGI.

Charlotte’s Web: GROOVY

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Caged Heat (1974)

          Retrospect can be dangerous when writing about cinema, because critics and scholars occasionally color readings of vintage films with considerations that weren’t relevant at the time the pictures were released, thus arriving at a skewed sense of significance. To see how the process works, consider Caged Heat, a grimy women-in-prison picture issued by Roger Corman’s B-movie outfit in 1974. The flick is just as sleazy as any other entry in the genre, but because Caged Heat’s writer-director, Jonathan Demme, subsequently became respectable, there’s a temptation to scrutinize the picture for signs of artistic merit. And, indeed, one could offer an extraordinarily generous reading in which Caged Heat becomes a quasi-feminist statement about oppressed women breaking the bonds of patriarchal society. What that reading sidesteps, of course, is the actual content of the movie—the endless shower scenes of attractive women soaping their erogenous zones, the unpleasant sequences of half-dressed and/or naked women getting tortured, and so on.
          Therefore, in order to accept the categorization of Caged Heat as an important early work by Demme—whose later films are generally quite sensitive to gender issues—one must pretend the picture was made entirely with good intentions. And while I have no doubt that Demme was as humanistic an individual in the mid-’70s as he is today, it’s inarguable that Caged Heat was, at the time its release, simply the latest in a cycle of revolting grindhouse offerings about chicks doing lurid things behind bars. Furthermore, Caged Heat has even less of a narrative than many other entries in the genre, because the movie gets mired in such pointless sequences as a talent show put on by the distaff inmates.
          Anyway, here’s the story, such as it is. After Jacqueline (Erica Gavin) gets bushed on drug charges, she falls prey—along with her cellblock sisters—to the perverse machinations of Superintendent McQueen (Barbara Steele), the prison’s butch, wheelchair-bound warden. Breakout attempts and loss of life ensue. Along the way, Jacqueline fades into the background while fellow inmate Belle (Roberta Collins) emerges as the picture’s dominant character. Even though it’s only 83 minutes long, Caged Heat is boring as hell thanks to Demme’s meandering script and the weird tension between his professional obligation to deliver the T&A goods and his apparent desire to imbue the picture with redeeming qualities. In the end, Caged Heat isn’t lighthearted enough to qualify as escapism, and it isn’t substantial enough to quality as anything else—except, perhaps, a distasteful footnote to the career of an acclaimed filmmaker.

Caged Heat: LAME

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Seven Alone (1974)

During the ’70s, kids-in-the-wilderness pictures like Seven Alone were plentiful and largely interchangeable, because most movies of this ilk offered the same milquetoast mixture of hardship and homilies. In Seven Alone, for instance, seven kids become orphans as their family treks from Missouri to Oregon, but the story is really about how the family’s oldest boy, John Sager (Stewart Petersen), emerges from adolescence to become his siblings’ protector. In other words, the picture is like a Sunday school sermon come to life, complete with a theme song performed by Mr. Wholesome himself, Pat Boone. Films this edifying and gentle serve a function in this world, but the function isn’t necessarily entertainment. And while it may seem petty to pick on Seven Alone, good intentions are not sufficient to compensate for amateurish acting, dull storytelling, and mediocre production values. The narrative begins on a Missouri farm, where patriarch Henry Sager (Dewey Martin) and his wife, Naome (Anne Collings), live with their brood. Henry wants to head west, but Naome fears the trip will be too dangerous. Turns out she’s right, because neither parent survives cross-country travel, leaving John in charge. Yet John is a rascal who causes all sorts of destructive mayhem until circumstances force him to take responsibility. Seven Alone has the usual travails—harsh weather, Indian encounters, starvation, wagon accidents, and so on. There’s even the requisite famous Wild West figure, Indian fighter Kit Carson (Dean Smith), who briefly travels with and helps the Sager children. Not a frame of Seven Alone is surprising, and the picture’s content is so unthreatening that the worst insult anyone hurls is “you’re as stubborn as a five-year-old in a bathtub!” Seven Alone is harmless, and the filmmakers deserve some credit for having the integrity to include two major deaths in the storyline. Nonetheless, Seven Alone is subpar in every other regard.

Seven Alone: LAME

Monday, July 15, 2013

Husbands (1970)

          Actor/director John Cassavetes’ cycle of semi-improvised movies reached a new level with Husbands, a showpiece for the acting of Casssavetes and his pals Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. By melding his signature style of spontaneous performance with the specific energies of established screen personalities, Cassavetes achieved a noteworthy synthesis of Hollywood artifice and verité grunginess. Yet while the picture is historically significant as a formative step for the burgeoning indie-cinema aesthetic—of which Cassavetes is now considered the de facto godfather—Husbands is an acquired taste. Like all of the director’s improv-driven pictures, Husbands is an overlong and repetitive survey of unappealing behavior, presenting endless scenes of self-involved people groping with language and violent physicality as they strive to articulate petty anxieties. The problem, as always, is that Cassavetes fails to explore his fascinations in a balanced way, so there’s no real context around the characters. Thus, viewers are subjected to a world in which men have tacit license to follow every whim, no matter how injurious the results might be to other people—and yet viewers are expected to sympathize with these boors.
          The story is so simple that the film could (and should) have run 90 minutes instead of nearly 140. After a close friend dies of a sudden heart attack, buddies Frank (Falk), Gus (Cassavetes), and Harry (Gazzara) go on a drunken bender as they wrestle with the shocking reminder of their mortality. The first half of the movie comprises the pals meandering from the funeral to various New York dives, drinking and singing and whining all the way. The second half of the picture begins when Harry fights with his wife and impulsively decides to fly to England. Concerned for Harry’s emotional welfare, Frank and Gus tag along, so the pals end up in a London hotel with three women they pick up in a bar. And so it goes from there, up until the inconclusive ending.
          Fans of Cassavetes’ work generally single out the freshness of the acting as a core virtue, but the performances by the three leads in Husbands hardly seem praiseworthy. While it’s true that Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara generate verisimilitude by channeling the sloppy way real people move and talk, there’s a reason screen acting generally involves shrinking normal human behavior down to illustrative indicators—watching “real” people in real time is boring. And that, from my perspective, is the best possible adjective for describing Husbands. Sure, critics have spent decades talking about how the picture captures the unchained id of the male animal, blah-blah-blah, and there’s a kernel of truth within that interpretation. After all, the characters in Husbands are as likely to break down in tears as they are to physically and/or verbally abuse women, so there’s nothing flattering in the picture Cassavetes paints. Whether there’s anything interesting in the picture, however, is another matter.

Husbands: FUNKY