Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Lawyer (1970)

          Combining lurid subject matter with an offbeat protagonist, The Lawyer tells the story of a sensationalistic murder trial in a brisk fashion, with plenty of humor and surprises to keep things lively. Since the film does not relate a real-life incident, one could argue that a few of the story’s myriad episodes could have been jettisoned in order to shorten the piece (The Lawyer runs a full 120 minutes), but nearly every scene has something amusing or colorful or trashy to offer. Barry Newman, an energetic leading man of the early ’70s whose career never caught fire, stars as Tony Petrocelli, a slick attorney from the East Coast who now works in the Southwest. (The picture’s a little fuzzy on how he ended up in this unlikely milieu, but his backstory is incidental to the main narrative.) A cocksure overachiever, Petrocelli comes on strong in every aspect of his life, driving his beat-up camper like a maniac, slithering his way past parking restrictions, and valiantly defying the local powers-that-be. Petrocelli’s latest client is Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), a handsome lawyer accused of brutally murdering his wife. Harrison contends a stranger broke into his home while Harrison was incapacitated, and that the stranger committed the homicide. Because the killing occurred in a small town, the ensuing trial becomes a media circus, so Petrocelli must face not only his wily courtroom opponent—deceptively folksy prosecutor Eric Scott (Harold Gould)—but also a prejudicial jury pool.
          Director/co-writer Sidney J. Furie employs a quick-cut visual style that echoes Petrocelli’s rat-a-tat verbal approach, so the movie shifts locations frequently and utilizes a broad supporting cast. The best scenes involve detailed depictions of Petrocelli’s flashy legal technique, whether he’s guiding his aides through hours of arduous research or dueling in court with Scott, and Newman plays Petrocell with an appealing brand of seen-it-all snark. The picture also includes sexy flashbacks to the night of the murder, which are told, Rashomon-style, from several different perspectives; these vignettes have more blood and nudity than one might expect. The supporting performances are generally just okay, thanks to smooth professionals including Diana Muldaur (playing Petrocelli’s wife), though Gould steals the movie at regular intervals. While his aw-shucks country-lawyer shtick is unoriginal, Gould blends charm, sarcasm, skepticism, and wisdom into a tasty stew. Elements like Gould’s performance ensure that The Lawyer is consistently entertaining, despite the fact that the picture is never more than a solid programmer. FYI, Newman reprised his resourceful character several years later for the short-lived TV series Petrocelli (1974-1976), nabbing a Golden Globe nomination for his work on the show. The stand-alone TV movie Night Games (1974), with Newman as Petrocelli, was a de facto pilot that immediately preceded the weekly series.

The Lawyer: GROOVY

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Passenger (1975)

          Of the many negative effects that the emergence of the auteur theory had on the cinematic world, perhaps the most pernicious was the license that auterism gave some directors to indulge their inclinations toward pretentiously ambiguous filmmaking. Revered Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni offers ample evidence of this phenomenon in both this film and its predecessor, Zabriskie Point (1970). Although Antonioni broke through internationally with Blow-Up (1968), a tight thriller with subtle artistic flourishes, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger are opaque dramas more concerned with mood than narrative. Yet while Zabriskie Point is interesting for the way it captures certain attitudes of the counterculture generation, The Passenger has no such historical significance. Instead, it’s murky story about the grand themes of alienation, duplicity, and identity.
          Jack Nicholson, delivering one of the least interesting performances of his career, stars as David Locke, an American TV reporter tracking down story leads in equatorial Africa. Returning to his hotel one night, Locke discovers that a fellow traveler named Robertson has been murdered, so Locke steals Robertson’s papers, adds his photo in place of the dead man’s, and attempts to assume the Robertson’s identity. At first, this seems like a path to excitement, since Robertson was a gunrunner; Locke accepts payments from one of Robertson’s clients, and he also begins a romance with a sexy college student. (She’s played by Maria Schneider, of Last Tango in Paris fame, but Antonioni never bothers to give her character a name.) Eventually, Locke’s ruse unravels because he gets on the wrong side of dangerous men. There’s also a subplot involving Locke’s wife, who treks the globe looking for him. Everything culminates in a quasi-famous finale involving an elaborate tracking shot that, over the course of seven minutes, winds its way from a hotel room, into a courtyard, and back into the hotel room.
          Thanks to Antonioni’s refusal to provide explanatory details about characters and scenes—to say nothing of his painfully slow pacing—The Passenger is the sort of thing critics can spend decades dissecting, which means that many intelligent people have provided viable interpretations of the picture. Consumed as straightforward narrative, however, the film is borderline interminable. Countless insignificant actions are allowed to unfold at excruciating length, as if Antonioni hid meanings within the frame that the viewer is supposed to discover. Furthermore, because The Passenger features a distinct storyline, the movie weirdly straddles two worlds—it’s neither purely artistic nor purely narrative. Ultimately, the film is a bit like an abstract painting executed in a simplistic style: Where some beholders perceive layers, others see only the bland surface.

The Passenger: FUNKY

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

          In honor of the recent passing of ’70s stalwart Karen Black . . . Fondly remembered by many fans as the TV movie in which Karen Black plays a woman who is menaced in her apartment by a tiny doll that attacks her with a miniature spear, Trilogy of Terror is a fairly pedestrian anthology of stories that sprang from the pen of prolific fantasist Richard Matheson. The author of countless memorable stories—from I Am Legend (originally published as a novel in 1953) to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the 1963 Twilight Zone episode in which William Shatner plays an airplane passenger who sees a gremlin on the plane’s wing—Matheson was a master at contriving frightening situations. And while none of the stories in Trilogy of Terror represent the author’s best work, since all three are predicated on hokey contrivances, each component of Trilogy of Terror is somewhat droll. The problem, however, is that producer/director Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows fame) shoots each story in such a stripped-down fashion that there’s not much in the way of atmosphere. The camerawork is bland, the lighting is flat, and the sets are sparse, so the only time Trilogy of Terror kicks into gear is at the end, when that nasty little doll goes on his rampage. Another dubious aspect of Trilogy of Terror is that it’s presented as a tour de force vehicle for leading lady Black, who stars in all three mini-movies. A unique screen personality with an eccentric brand of sex appeal, Black was usually best in small doses, and this project pushes her talent way past its limits. Still, she’s committed and energetic from start to finish. (Supporting actors include Robert Burton, George Gaynes, and Kathryn Reynolds, although this project’s all about Black’s multiple performances.)
          The first story, “Julie,” stars Black as a mousy college professor who is drugged and violated by one of her male students; her attacker, however, soon realizes he messed with the wrong woman. The second story, “Millicent and Therese,” is a clunker about two dueling sisters whose battle hides a not-very-surprising secret. The last story, “Amelia,” is the one about the doll. Black plays a woman who buys an African ritual doll that is rumored to contain the soul of a savage warrior. When she accidentally “activates” the doll, it chases her around the apartment, biting and stabbing her as she tries to fight back with closet doors, suitcases, and an oven. The last 15 minutes of Trilogy of Terror are so enjoyable that they (more or less) justify watching the entire brief movie, although none could be blamed for fast-forwarding straight to “Amelia.” The doll sequence has lost some of its ability to shock because the special effects are so primitive, but “Amelia” is still a nasty piece of business, and the final shot is truly haunting. FYI, the doll from “Amelia” returned in the made-for-cable sequel Trilogy of Terror II (1996), which was once again directed by Dan Curtis. With British starlet Lysette Anthony following in Black’s footsteps by playing separate roles in three different spooky stories, the sequel failed to gain much attention.

Trilogy of Terror: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ginger in the Morning (1974)

The early ’70s were rotten with low-budget dramas about middle-aged men hooking up with hippie chicks, because the prospect of exploiting counterculture “free love” attitudes for quick no-strings nookie seemed like an evergreen premise for lurid stories. Among the least distinguished entries in this mini-genre is Ginger in the Morning, the only noteworthy aspect of which is an early performance by Sissy Spacek. (Ginger in the Morning was released between the actress’ early breakout in 1973’s Badlands and her star-making role in 1975’s Carrie.) Spacek is, by far, the best thing about this shoddy flick, demonstrating dignity and poise while playing a free-spirited Southern girl—and thereby neutralizing the potentially exploitive nature of the storyline. Whereas many similar films end up feeling slightly pornographic, with their wink-wink scenes of mature men seducing innocent hotties, this picture flips the premise simply by virtue of Spacek’s gravitas. Her character seems formidable right from the beginning, even if her flower-power belief system leads her to see more potential for good in people than she should. The nominal star of the picture is prolific B-movie/TV actor Monte Markham, a preening he-man who tends to arch his eyebrows for dramatic effect on nearly every line of dialogue. He plays Joe, a recently divorced man traveling through the Southwest after a business trip. Joe picks up hitchhiker Ginger (Spacek) and treats her like a gentleman throughout a day of driving—until he senses she’s game for a tumble. Taking her home to his pad in Santa Fe, Joe prepares to score until his best friend, Charlie (Mark Miller), shows up unexpectedly. Ginger overhears Joe telling Charlie that all Joe wants from Ginger is sex, so she gets affronted. Also thrown into the mix is Charlie’s estranged wife, Sugar (Susan Oliver). As a result, much of the movie comprises intercut melodrama as the two couples work through their issues. The scenes with Spacek are generally watchable because she acts with such sincerity, but everything else in the movie is a drag. The production values are cheap, the lighting is ugly, and the acting by Markham, Miller, and Oliver is, at best, ordinary. As for the story, it never rises above superficial and trite.

Ginger in the Morning: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mean Streets (1973)

          “I swear to Jesus Christ on the goddamned cross, that kid thinks he’s makin’ a jerkoff outta me, I’m gonna break his leg!” That’s what loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus) hisses at one point in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie, Mean Streets, and the line encompasses nearly everything that distinguishes Mean Streets—indeed, it encompasses nearly everything that defines Scorsese as a kingpin of New York crime cinema. The line blends Catholicism with macho swagger, vulgarity, violence, and the moral code of the Italian-American underworld. All of those themes pervade Mean Streets, which was Scorsese’s first “real” feature after helming the grungy black-and-white indie Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and the lurid Roger Corman production Boxcar Bertha (1972). With its bravura camerawork, naturalistic performances, and thundering soundtrack, Mean Streets put Scorsese on the map.
          The picture was also his first collaboration with actor Robert De Niro, because even though the star of Mean Streets is actually Harvey Keitel—who also had the top role in Who’s That Knocking at My Door?—De Niro gives the picture’s most flamboyant performance, and his live-wire energy is the film’s pulse.
          Written by Scorsese and Mardik Martin, the movie tells a simple story about Charlie (Keitel), a low-level mobster whose ascension through the Mafia’s ranks is impeded by the destructive behavior of his best friend, Johnny Boy (De Niro). Arrogant, immature, and impulsive, Johnny Boy flagrantly rips off one loan shark after another, displays contempt for underworld authority figures, and relies on Charlie—whose uncle holds a position of power in the Mafia—to bail him out of trouble whenever things get too intense. Complicating the dynamic between the men is Charlie’s romantic involvement with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson). As the movie progresses, Charlie wrestles with his various obligations—to Johnny Boy, to Teresa, to his uncle, and to God (since he’s a devout Catholic), trying and failing to be everything to everyone.
          Mean Streets is a movie of unassailably noble intensions, because Scorsese is after nothing less than defining the soul of a community. By examining various characters who represent different facets of New York mob life, the director ponders the enigma of men who treat each other with honor while stealing from the rest of the world. Furthermore, Scorsese’s camerawork and direction of actors are consistently remarkable. The camera whips and whirls around scenes to accentuate the volatility of situations; the quick editing and imaginative use of pop songs and classical music on the soundtrack gives the movie a unique rhythm; and the performances all feel so naturalistic that many scenes seem as if they were improvised. All of Scorsese’s preternatural gifts are on full display here.
          Unfortunately, so are his weaknesses.
          The depiction of women in the film is outrageously sexist (both by male characters and by Scorsese, who needlessly includes leering nude scenes); the show-offy auteur flourishes, like scoring a fight scene with the peppy Motown song “Please, Mr. Postman,” are fun but distracting; and the constant barrage of “fucks” within dialogue gets tiresome. The biggest shortcoming of Mean Streets, however, is also the film’s key virtue—the fact that the picture is an anthropological study of assholes. Dimensional though they may be, the characters in this film are still inherently awful people, criminals driven by greed, id, and a lack of social conscience. Scorsese captures these people better than anyone else, but the question remains whether low-rent scumbags actually deserve this sort of close attention.

Mean Streets: GROOVY

Monday, August 26, 2013

Friendly Fire (1979)

          Topical made-for-TV movies have gotten a bad rap over the years, and not without justification—name a hot-button social issue from the ’70s to the present, and chances are there’s a perfunctory telefilm about the topic, if not a number of them. Given this backdrop, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies that qualify as legitimate dramas seem even more exceptional than they might otherwise. Friendly Fire is a good example. Opting for quiet character moments over outright emotional fireworks, Friendly Fire explores the circumstances and repercussions of a controversial topic quite effectively by grounding its story in the harsh realities of human pain. Based on a book by C.D.B. Bryan that detailed the experiences of a real American family, the picture concerns two Midwestern parents who cut through government red tape while investigating how their son died in Vietnam. With the help of a reporter, the couple eventually discovers their son died, accidentally, at the hands of a fellow U.S. soldier, hence the film’s title.
          Yet the heat of Friendly Fire doesn’t just come from the revelation of a battlefield tragedy. Rather, much of the picture concerns an attempted cover-up by the U.S. government and the U.S. military, two entities desperate to keep a socially acceptable “face” on the Vietnam War. As the long movie progresses (Friendly Fire runs 147 minutes), it’s impossible not to grow more and more infuriated with the stubborn bureaucracy with which the parents are confronted. Presented in an unvarnished style, with present-day scenes of the parents revolving around flashbacks to Vietnam that gradually reveal the true facts of what happened there, Friendly Fire packs a punch for several reasons, one of which is highly surprising: The star of his very heavy picture is none other than beloved TV comedienne Carol Burnett, who was still fresh from the long run of her eponymous variety show. Dispelling any humorous associations with her gravitas-laden performance, Burnett and costar Ned Beatty create an absorbing illusion with their respective portrayals of Iowa residents Peg and Gene Mullen. Exuding heartland values and the noble grief of parents who need to imbue their son’s death with meaning, the Mullens, as played by Burnett and Beatty, represent a uniquely American sort of selfless heroism—their bittersweet victory in exposing the truth is a triumph for all parents who entrust their children to America’s military.
          Director David Greene, a versatile helmer of big- and small-screen projects whose filmography includes everything from the religious musical Godspell (1973) to most episodes of the seminal miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), approaches the film’s sensitive subject matter with restraint, allowing the poignant textures of Burnett’s performance to dominate. (Beatty is wonderful, too, though his job is playing straight man to Burnett’s bravura emotionalism.) As for the other principal actors, Sam Waterston, whose character is based on C.D.B. Bryan (the author of the source material), offers fine support as the principled journalist who makes the Mullens’ cause his own, and a young Timothy Hutton appears as the Mullens’ other son, a young man wrestling with anguish and guilt while his family’s existence becomes an endless battle against a monolithic system.

Friendly Fire: GROOVY

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Plaza Suite (1971) & California Suite (1978)

          During the ’70s, it seemed as if playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon was an industry rather an individual—every year except 1978, he unveiled a new play, and from 1970 to 1979 no fewer than 11 features were released with Simon credited as writer. When the man slept is a mystery. In fact, he even managed to crank out a quasi-sequel to one of his own hits. Plaza Suite premiered on Broadway in 1968 before hitting the big screen in 1971, and its follow-up, California Suite, debuted onstage in 1976 before becoming a movie in 1978. Neither project represents the apex of Simon’s artistry, but both are rewarding. The title of Plaza Suite is a pun, because the film comprises a “suite” of three mini-plays, each of which takes place within the same suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
          In order of appearance, the vignettes concern a middle-aged couple breaking up when the husband’s infidelity is revealed; a tacky Hollywood producer inviting his childhood sweetheart, now married, to his room for a tryst; and another middle-aged couple going crazy when their adult daughter won’t leave the suite’s bathroom even though guests are waiting downstairs to watch her get married. The first sequence is a bittersweet dance, the second is bedroom farce with a touch of pathos, and the third is an explosion of silly slapstick. Plaza Suite grows more entertaining as it spirals toward its conclusion, finally achieving comedic liftoff during the third sequence, which is by far the most fully realized.
          Walter Matthau somewhat improbably plays the lead roles in all three sequences, and he’s terrific—chilly as the adulterous husband, smarmy as the producer, enraged as the would-be father of the bride. His primary costars are a poignant Maureen Stapleton in the first sequence, a delicately funny Barbara Harris in the second, and an entertainingly frazzled Lee Grant in the third. Plaza Suite drags a bit, and it’s tough to get revved up for each new sequence, but the fun stuff outweighs everything else.
          California Suite wisely takes a different approach—although the play of California Suite featured four separate stories, in the style of Plaza Suite, the film version cross-cuts to create momentum. And while Matthau is back (in a new role), California Suite benefits from a larger cast and more use of exterior locations. The film is primarily set in the Beverly Hills Hotel, but Simon (who wrote the screenplays for both adaptations) includes many places beyond the hotel. One thread of the story involves a New York career woman (Jane Fonda) bickering with her estranged screenwriter husband (Alan Alda) over custody of their daughter. Another thread concerns a British actress  (Maggie Smith) in town for the Oscars, accompanied by her husband (Michael Caine), a gay man she wed in order to avoid gaining a reputation as a spinster. The silliest thread involves a Philadelphia businessman (Matthau) trying to keep his wife (Elaine May) from discovering the prostitute in their room. And the final thread depicts the deteriorating friendship between two Chicago doctors (Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor), who bicker their way through a catastrophe-filled vacation.
          Smith won an Oscar for California Suite, and her storyline benefits from the way Caine and Smith expertly volley bitchy dialogue. The Alda/Fonda scenes are more pedestrian, and they’re also the most stage-bound pieces of the movie; still, both actors attack their roles with vigor. Matthau’s vignettes are quite funny, with lots of goofy business about trying to hide the hooker behind curtains, under beds, and so forth. Plus, as they did in A New Leaf (1971), May and Matthau form a smooth comedy duo. Only the Cosby/Pryor scenes really underwhelm, not by any fault of the actors but because both men have such distinctive standup personas that it seems limiting to confine them within the light-comedy parameters of Simon’s style. Unlike its predecessor, California Suite eventually sputters—the funniest scenes occur well before the end.
          As a final note, it’s interesting to look at both pictures and see how two very different filmmakers approached the challenge of delivering Simon’s work to the screen. For Plaza Suite, Arthur Hiller simply added close-ups and camera movement to accentuate the rhythms of the stage production, and for California Suite, Herbert Ross took a more holistic path toward realizing the work as cinema. Yet in both cases, of course, Simon’s wordplay is king.

Plaza Suite: GROOVY
California Suite: GROOVY

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Black Beauty (1971)

          Seeing as how the classic Anna Sewell novel Black Beauty (1877) is told from the perspective of a horse as it changes hands through various owners during its tumultuous lifetime, any film adaptation of the material faces some built-in problems. This 1971 version of the tale, for instance, portrays valiant steed Black Beauty as a sort of metaphor for goodness and innocence, using the behavior of people toward the animal to communicate Sewell’s themes. And while the absence of hokey anthropomorphization is to be applauded, the lack of a real personality for the leading character is a difficult problem for any film to surmount. Accordingly, the 1971 Black Beauty is a respectable endeavor thanks to crisp cinematography and impressive production values, but the picture doesn’t generate much emotional heat. Still, only the most hard-hearted viewer could fail to be touched in some small way by the travails of a noble animal that occasionally falls into the hands of horrific people.
          Set in Victorian England, the picture begins when Black Beauty is born on a rural farm. Witnessing the event is angelic child Joe (Mark Lester), the son of a poor tenant farmer who promises the newborn stallion to Joe as a pet. Joe raises the animal with great care and affection. Yet by the time Black Beauty is a young adult, the farm’s kindly owner has died and bequeathed his estate to a rotten son named Sam (Patrick Mower). Sam seizes the animal, beginning a long series of ownership transfers, some of which are to kind owners and some of which are to abusive ones. Eventually, Beauty becomes the property of characters including a circus owner (Walter Slezak), a principled soldier (Peter Lee Lawrence), and others. Some sequences are brisk and purposeful, like the nasty interlude during which Sam owns and mistreats Black Beauty, whereas others meander, particularly the long circus episode. The transitions between vignettes are not particularly graceful, because on some occasions Black Beauty simply stands in an empty field after being abandoned by one owner until someone else comes along to claim the horse and continue the story.
          Furthermore, it’s awkward that Black Beauty’s most important owner, young Joe, is portrayed via billing and posters as a main character when in fact he’s out of the movie rather quickly. (On the plus side, Lester—the star of the 1968 smash Oliver!—is a vapid performer who contributes very little to the movie’s appeal, so his absence is appreciated.) Aside from the inherent decency of the story and the undeniable grandeur of beautiful horses, the only exemplary element of Black Beauty is the cinematography by Chris Menges. His images are clean and spare, reflecting a singularity of aesthetic vision the film does not possess on any other level. FYI, director James Hill made a number of animal-themed pictures throughout his career, including the charming hit Born Free (1966) and such follow-ups as An Elephant Called Slowly (1970).

Black Beauty: FUNKY

Friday, August 23, 2013

Joe (1970)

          Capturing the anger and confusion of a historical moment when the “generation gap” was at its widest—the dawn of the 1970s—Joe is an unquestionably powerful film. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good film. The narrative is awkward and contrived, the title character doesn’t make his entrance until the 27-minute mark, and the infamous ending is predicated on a silly plot twist. So to characterize Joe as an incendiary statement would be to overreach considerably. Nonetheless, there are good reasons why the picture enjoyed substantial box-office success during its original release, and why it has retained some degree of notoriety since then. Written by Norman Wexler, Joe is about a middle-aged New York ad executive named Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), who has become estranged from his twentysomething daughter, Melissa (played by Susan Sarandon in her debut film appearance).
          Living with a drug dealer in a grimy Greenwich Village flat, Melissa is a counterculture idealist who’s gotten dragged into her boyfriend’s dangerous world. When Melissa ends up hospitalized after an overdose, Bill tracks down and kills the boyfriend. Rattled after the crime, Bill stumbles into a dive bar where Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) is giving a drunken monologue blaming all of society’s problems on hippies and minorities (“Forty-two percent of all liberals are queer, that’s a fact!”). In one of the film’s least believable moments, Bill confesses his crime to Joe. Thus begins an unlikely odyssey during which Joe leverages the dirt he’s got on his new “friend” to force his way into Bill’s rarified world. Later, when Melissa flees from the hospital, Bill and Joe search for her in the drug underworld, a quest that culminates in an orgy where compliant hippie chicks service Bill and Joe while the ladies’ longhair boyfriends steal personal items from the “straights.” Revenge follows, as does tragic irony.
          As directed by the capable John G. Avildsen, who found tremendous success a few years later with Rocky (1976), Joe is probably a better-made film than the sketchy storyline deserves. The acting is uniformly good, with Boyle the obvious standout as a lout given license by circumstance to manifest his latent psychosis, and Avildsen does a fine job of defining spaces, from the crisp perfection of Bill’s Central Park apartment to the dirty chaos of hippie flophouses. But the story simply doesn’t work as anything except cheap provocation. It’s never totally clear what Joe wants from Bill, or why Bill tolerates Joe’s threatening proximity, and the idea that these two men eventually form true friendship stretches credibility to the breaking point. Worse, the Melissa character exists merely as a set-up for the ending, which doesn’t resonate anywhere near as strongly as the filmmakers presumably hoped it might have.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where’s Poppa? (1970)

          With its barrage of surrealistic plot developments and tasteless jokes, Where’s Poppa? would be a weird movie under any circumstances—yet it’s doubly strange when viewed as part of its director’s overall career. Carl Reiner, one of the most likable comedians America has ever produced, is best known for gentle humor of the family-friendly variety, since his professional highlights include creating the beloved ’60s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and helming such inoffensive comedy features as Oh, God! (1977) and All of Me (1984). Excepting this bizarre movie, the most offensive thing Reiner ever made was probably the Steve Martin vehicle The Jerk (1979), which is incredibly tame by comparison with Where’s Poppa?
          Adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel, Where’s Poppa? depicts the travails of New York attorney Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal), who lives with his senile mother, Mrs. Hocheiser (Ruth Gordon), in a cramped apartment. Momma’s a dottering nut who keeps asking “Where’s Poppa?” because she can’t grasp the fact that her husband is dead, and she smothers Gordon with constant nagging and with inappropriately physical affection. Over the course of the movie, Gordon faces three predicaments: 1) He wants to dump Momma in a nursing home but can’t break a deathbed promise to his father that obligates him to care for his insufferable mother; 2) He wants to marry Louise (Trish Van Devere), the pretty nurse he just hired to care for Momma, but there’s no way the three of them can live together; and 3) Gordon’s high-strung brother, Sidney (Ron Leibman) keeps getting into trouble.
          The tone of Where’s Poppa? is all over the place, so it’s hard to know when the movie is going for absurdist humor, black comedy, nasty satire, or surrealistic farce. One scene might involve a gentle joke like Momma using cola in her cereal instead of milk, and the next scene might involve Sidney committing rape in Central Park while wearing a gorilla suit. Yes, you read that right—the “comedy” centerpiece of the movie is a rape scene, which is as gruesomely unfunny as it sounds. So, too, is the icky sequence in which Momma yanks down Gordon’s pants and chews on his ass while a shocked Louise watches. Underlying all of this is the distasteful central premise: The “hero” of the story wants to break a blood oath and dump his mentally ill mother so he can get laid.
          Segal does what he can, providing a few almost-amusing moments of exasperation, but his character is so ugly it’s hard to find anything Segal does funny. Similarly, Gordon drops the crazy-like-a-fox bit that distinguished most of her late-career roles and hits the same note of annoying senility again and again; her characterization is alternately boring and pathetic, neither of which is much fun to watch. Leibman’s performance is grotesque, and Van Devere seems lost amid the repulsive situations. Where’s Poppa? has a minor cult following, so clearly some people find the picture amusing, and it’s worth noting that a handful of familiar actors—Vincent Gardenia, Barnard Hughes, Garrett Morris, Rob Reiner, Paul Sorvino—make appearances. Yet it’s telling that after making this picture, Carl Reiner mostly left the realm of bad-taste humor behind, gravitating toward stories that reflect the sweetness one associates with his persona.

Where’s Poppa?: FREAKY

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

          The romantic comedy Play It Again, Sam is significant for two very specific reasons: It’s one of only two ’70s movies that Woody Allen acted in but did not direct, and it’s the first screen collaboration between Allen and his definitive ’70s leading lady, Diane Keaton. Adapted by Allen from his own stage play of the same name and directed by the always-elegant Herbert Ross, Play It Again, Sam is a silly trifle about a nebbish who falls in love with his best friend’s wife while receiving advice from an imaginary version of movie icon Humphrey Bogart. The contrast between geeky little Allen and suave, trenchcoat-wearing Bogie (played by Jerry Lacy) is consistently amusing, and the chemistry between Allen and Keaton, who play simpatico neurotics, is terrific. So, even though the movie is never laugh-out-loud funny and even though the story gets overly mechanical toward the end, Play It Again, Sam goes down smoothly.
          Set in San Francisco, the picture stars Allen as Allan, a film critic whose wife, Nancy (Susan Anspach), just left him. Allan finds comfort in the company of his pal Dick (Tony Roberts), a self-involved businessman, and Dick’s amiable but high-strung wife, Linda (Keaton). As Dick and Linda try again and again to connect Allan with new women—most of the blind dates go disastrously bad—Allan daydreams that his favorite tough-guy movie star, Bogart, has materialized to offer romantic advice. This culminates in a complex scene of Allan putting the moves on Linda while arguing with Bogie, who pushes Allan to act more aggressively. Shtick ensues. Giving the sort of super-invested, almost desperate comic performance that marked his earliest films, Allen relies as much on physical slapstick as he does on his trademark wit—and while the trope of Allen bumping into walls and knocking over tables gets tired, his one-liners are great. (“I was incredible last night in bed—I never once had to look up and consult the manual.”)
          From a writing perspective, Allen does a great job of “opening up” the play, using cross-cutting and multiple locations to make the piece feel completely cinematic. Concurrently, Ross finds clever ways to slip the Bogart character into and out of scenes. It all basically works until the end, when Allen twists the story in knots so he can stage a riff on the final scene of Casablanca (1942). (The real thing appears during the opening scene of Play It Again, Sam, when Allan watches Casablanca In a theater.) This forced climax lacks the effortlessness that distinguishes the rest of the film, but it was probably the best means of paying off the whole Bogart angle. Flaws aside, Play It Again, Sam is quasi-essential viewing for ’70s-cinema fans, because a year after this picture was released, Allen and Keaton reteamed for Sleeper (1973), the first in the five Allen-directed ’70s movies they made together. In other words—and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?—Play It Again, Sam was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play It Again, Sam: GROOVY

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The War at Home (1979)

          A great example of the microcosm revealing the macrocosm, this insightful documentary examines antiwar demonstrations that erupted in and around the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, throughout the Vietnam War. In so doing, the film speaks to the larger issues that divided the entire nation during that fraught era. Filled with amazing archival footage—it seems as if every key event in the Madison peace movement was caught on camera—the picture is neatly divided into sections depicting specific years, so the narrative stretches from the earliest outcries in the mid-’60s to a violent revolt that shook the Madison community in the early ’70s. Right from the beginning of the picture, poignant moments abound. During a public hearing in the mid-’60s, for instance, a housewife named Louise Smalley testifies to local officials that she’s aghast by the notion of American troops dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages: “I try to teach my children the value of individual human worth, and I don’t want this destroyed by my country.”
          Just as that remark summarizes conscientious objections to the war, another comment symbolizes why so many college students mobilized—a student laments that the escalation of hostilities means middle-class kids will be subject to the draft, “not just poor kids.” Ouch. To the great credit of producers Glenn Silber (who also directed) and Barry Alexander Brown, The War at Home never seems judgmental of the implied elitist stance behind such remarks; rather, the film makes a compelling argument that the draft became a social equalizer, uniting potential draftees against the military-industrial complex. As a banner that’s shown onscreen reads, “To be against the war and do nothing is irresponsible.”
          It’s fascinating, then, to learn about the actions that people in Madison actually took. Some demonstrations seem pointless, almost to the extreme of being counter-productive, like heckling Teddy Kennedy during a 1966 campus appearance, while others are more purposeful, such as an SDS rally against Dow Chemical’s practice of on-campus recruiting. (Dow made napalm.) The filmmakers wisely keep their focus local, spreading the view to the larger national antiwar milieu only when appropriate—one bit describes how protesters from Wisconsin traveled to the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Similarly, the filmmakers largely eschew celebrities of the counterculture era. Even though the soundtrack features the requisite mix of Buffalo Springfield and Dylan, et cetera, hipster poet Allen Ginsberg is the only famous figure featured in an original interview. (Presidents Ford and Nixon, among other political notables, appear only in archival footage.)
          The War at Home culminates with vivid commentary from participants in a fatal campus bombing that represented a misguided attempt to derail on-campus military research. One of the convicted bombers, Karlton Armstrong, appears on-camera to explain his motivations, and then, in a bracing moment, Armstrong’s Greatest Generation father acknowledges how successfully antiwar activists were in bringing ugly realities to light. “They were telling the truth,” the father says. “We weren’t listening.”

The War at Home: RIGHT ON

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Brothers O’Toole (1973)

          Near as I can tell, TV funnyman John Astin—best known as debonair but insane Gomez Addams on the ’60s sitcom The Addams Family—only received top billing in two theatrical features, including this bland comic Western and 1972’s Wacky Taxi. (He also starred in another comic Western, 1972’s Evil Roy Slade, but that project was actually made for television.) With his enjoyable slow-burn tantrums and his nimble way of delivering complex dialogue, Astin is by far the best thing about The Brothers O’Toole, which is bogged down by mechanical plotting, substandard production values, and vapid supporting performances. Representing a convergence of clich├ęs, the plot begins when con man Michael O’Toole (Astin) finds himself lost in the desert after a scheme goes wrong. Eventually, Michael tracks down his idiot brother, Timothy O’Toole (Steve Carlson), before entering the frontier town of Molybdenum, Colorado. (As an example of how far the movie reaches for jokes, several flaccid attempts are made to wring humor from the mispronunciation of the town’s name as “Molly Be Damned.”) Michael gets thrown in jail after being mistaken by local authorities for a criminal named Desperate Ambrose. Timothy, wrongly assuming the incarceration is part of a scam Michael is running on the locals, “plays along” while getting into mischief of his own.
          All of this becomes very tedious, with a love story, a subplot about the discovery of gold, and the supposedly hi-larious antics of small-town kooks thrown in to spruce up the storyline. In the same way that Michael is kept behind bars for most of the movie, the filmmakers restrain their strongest asset, leading man Astin. He’s charming and funny and smart whenever the filmmakers remember to utilize him, but the movie loses all its energy whenever he’s off screen. At the picture’s nadir, Timothy enters the town’s “Spitting, Belching and Cussin’ Contest,” which should be an outrageous highlight but instead merely comprises a limp montage of people expectorating. The only redeeming element of this dull sequence is a speech that Michael delivers afterward, reprimanding the crass people of Molybdenum: He describes the town as “a festering pustule on the face of the Western slope.” One of only two features directed by veteran character actor Richard Erdman, The Brothers O’Toole is amateurish on nearly every level, and the cast is peppered with B-listers who deliver perfunctory work. (For instance, onetime Miss America Lee Meriwether has a dreary extended cameo as Desperate Ambrose’s girlfriend.) Still, Astin fans will find much to enjoy in his performance, since Michael O’Toole exists outside the campy realm the actor usually occupies.

The Brothers O’Toole: FUNKY

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Juggernaut (1974)

          It’s tempting to lump Juggernaut in with the various disaster epics of the early ’70s, and, indeed, the movie is quite enjoyable if consumed as a thinking-person’s alternative to the campy escapism of, say, Irwin Allen’s mayhem-filled productions. Yet in addition to being a British film instead of a Hollywood picture, Juggernaut is really a terrorism thriller rather than a proper oh-the-humanity destruco-fest. For instance, the tragedy that the film’s heroes attempt to overcome is not a natural occurrence such as an earthquake or a tidal wave—it’s a bomb planted on an ocean liner. Accordingly, Juggernaut eschews the standard disaster-movie formula of introducing various characters whom the audience knows will later fall victim to capricious fate. The movie focuses almost exclusively on bomb-squad technicians and maritime officials.
          Set largely aboard the cruise liner Britannic, the picture begins when an unseen terrorist who identifies himself as Juggernaut makes phone contact with ship’s owner, Porter (Ian Holm). Juggernaut says he’s rigged the Britannic to blow unless he’s paid a hefty ransom. Soon afterward, the British government sends in a bomb squad led by the intrepid Fallon (Richard Harris). The rest of the film comprises parallel storylines—Fallon’s attempts to find and defuse bombs (turns out there’s more than just one), and endeavors by a police detective (Anthony Hopkins) to find Juggernaut’s hideout on the mainland. There’s a good deal of tension in Juggernaut, so even if you feel as if you’ve seen a million “Cut the blue wire!” scenes before, the care with which director Richard Lester executes the suspenseful passages is visible in every claustrophobic close-up and every nerve-rattling edit. Lester, though best known for his exuberant Beatles movies and his lusty Musketeers pictures, apparently joined Juggernaut late in the project’s development and then supervised a heavy rewrite. It’s therefore unsurprising that the final film is very much a director’s piece, with characterization and story taking a backseat to pacing and texture. Perhaps because of this focus on cinematic technique, Juggernaut is excellent on a moment-to-moment basis, but not especially memorable overall.
          That said, the movie promises nothing more than a good romp, and it delivers exactly that. Contained within its fleeting frames, however, is fine acting by a number of posh UK actors. In particular, Harris and David Hemmings have strong chemistry as bomb-squad teammates, with both actors articulating believable characterizations of men who face unimaginable stress in the course of their daily activities. The picture’s production values are exemplary, and the cinematography and music—by British stalwarts Gerry Fisher and Ken Thorne, respectively—contribute to the overall intensity and polish of the piece.

Juggernaut: GROOVY

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Goin’ South (1979)

          Having been exposed to the image countless times during my years as a video-store drone, since it was replicated on the movie’s VHS sleeve, the poster shot for Goin’ South has always irked me. At first glance, it’s a striking shot of star Jack Nicholson smiling wickedly while his face is framed by a noose. Upon close inspection, however, it’s clear that Nicholson is holding the noose in place to achieve the effect. The intended illusion is thus made and dispelled simultaneously. And so it goes for the movie itself, because throughout Goin’ South, Nicholson’s techniques as actor and director are so apparent that the movie feels laborious when it should feel effortless. After all, Goin’ South is supposed to be a comedy—and a romantic comedy, no less.
          Set in Texas during the Wild West era, the picture stars Nicholson as Henry Moon, an excitable but not particularly bright outlaw. Captured by lawmen including Sheriff Kyle (Richard Bradford) and Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), Moon is strung up for hanging. However, thanks to an arcane law allowing unmarried women to save condemned men by agreeing to marry them, young landowner Julie Tate (Mary Steenbugen) becomes Moon’s bride. Having inherited a ranch from her father, she needs a man and likes the idea of being able to use Moon for a slave since he owes her his life.
          Even though it’s rather convoluted, this premise could easily have generated an opposites-attract farce. Unfortunately, nearly every element in Goin’ South misses the mark. The screenplay meanders through dull and repetitive scenes. Supporting characters lack dimension. Plot twists emerge arbitrarily as opposed to organically. Nicholson’s direction is fuzzy, so scenes lack internal rhythm and the tone of the piece wobbles between broad comedy and subtle satire. Worst of all, the performances are terribly out of sync with each other. Steenburgen, appearing in her first movie, mostly communicates gentle nuances, while Nicholson goes way, way over the top.
          In fact, it’s probably fair to describe the actor’s work in Goin’ South as some of the worst acting in his career. Whether he’s frowning with an open mouth to imply stupidity or widening his eyes to indicate lunacy, Nicholson is silly and tiresome in nearly every scene; virtually the only clever touch he employs is speaking at various intervals with a phlegmatic knot in his voice, suggesting a character for whom language does not come easily. And to say the leads lack chemistry is a huge understatement. It’s also irritating to see two potent comic actors—John Belushi (another actor making his big-screen debut in Goin’ South) and Danny DeVito—relegated to insignificant supporting roles. Really the only member of the Goin’ South gang whose work is consistently praiseworthy is cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who paints most scenes with an appealing golden glow.

Goin’ South: FUNKY