Monday, September 30, 2013

Junior Bonner (1972)

          Although it’s a horrible cliché to say that Hollywood success is a double-edged sword, the sentiment is apt when considering Junior Bonner, a lovely dramatic film that probably would have enjoyed broader acceptance had the reputations of the film’s director and star not created inappropriate expectations. The director is Sam Peckinpah, who made this soft-spoken movie as a reprieve from the violent action sagas for which he was famous, and the star is Steve McQueen, whose most popular films involve glossy escapism. As the quiet story of an aging rodeo champ who returns to his hometown with an eye toward resolving longstanding family strife, Junior Bonner is probably the last thing anybody anticipated from Peckinpah or McQueen. Combined with the near-simultaneous release of several other movies about rodeo riders, the disconnect between what audiences wanted from the people behind Junior Bonner and what the picture actually delivers helped ensure a rotten performance at the box office. Happily, critics and fans have elevated the movie to greater notoriety in the years since its original release, because Junior Bonner represents a nearly pitch-perfect collaboration between director and star. (It’s also a damn sight better, in terms of resonance and substance, than the duo’s hit follow-up, 1974’s The Getaway.)
          When the movie begins, Junior (McQueen) trots into Prescott, Arizona, after a grueling and unrewarding rodeo ride. While recuperating in preparation for another shot at the bull that threw him, Junior wades into the fraught relationship of his parents, hard-drinking carouser Ace (Robert Preston) and no-bullshit survivor Elvira (Ida Lupino). As Junior tries to help mend fences, he also must contend with the crass ambitions of his little brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), who wants to raze old homes (including his parents’ house) in order to build a cookie-cutter development. The contrast between Junior’s old-fashioned independence and his brother’s ultra-modern avarice allows Peckinpah to channel one of his favorite themes—the passing of the West, and the values it represents—through the tidy narrative of Jeb Rosebrook’s screenplay.
          McQueen proves once again that there was more to him than just an impressive macho image, using precision of language and movement to express his character’s inner life as efficiently as possible. McQueen is loose when he needs to be, as during scenes of barroom rowdiness, and tight when he needs to be, as during vignettes illustrating subtle family tensions. Preston channels his charming boisterousness into the character of a loveable rascal, and Lupino is believable as a woman who’s been put through the wringer by a challenging marriage. Baker and costar Ben Johnson contribute two different types of manly energy, with Baker conveying winner-takes-all selfishness and Johnson tight-lipped toughness. For the most part, Peckinpah eschews his signature excesses—the trademark slow-motion shots are used sparingly—so Junior Bonner is a great reminder that before he was a provocateur, Peckinpah was a storyteller. If only by dint of lacking mythic characterizations and over-the-top violence, Junior Bonner is probably the simplest Peckinpah feature, and that’s a good thing.

Junior Bonner: GROOVY

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Going Home (1971)

          While I admit that I’m a sucker for Robert Mitchum in nearly any context, and that my appreciation for the early work of Jan-Michael Vincent defies all reason, I’m confident that the praise I’m about to lavish on the little-seen drama Going Home legitimately reflects the film’s intensity, rather than just my predilection toward its stars. A grim chamber piece about a family suffering the lingering impacts of a decade-old tragedy, the movie asks the question of whether some sins are beyond forgiveness. Mitchum plays Harry Graham, a blue-collar guy recently paroled from prison after serving a long term for killing his wife in a drunken rage. Vincent plays his son, Jimmy, who was a child when the crime occurred; he’s now an angry adult who rightfully blames all his emotional difficulties on his father’s alcoholism and violence.
          When the story begins, Harry attempts a transition back into normal life by getting a job and a new relationship—with seen-it-all local dame Jenny Benson (Brenda Vaccaro). Harry also tries to reconnect with his son, whom he barely knows. Even though Mitchum was such an innately interesting presence that he commanded the screen whether he was making an effort or not, it’s a special pleasure to watch him in Going Home because he seems to form a real emotional connection with his character. The anguish he manifests at not being able to distance himself from past misdeeds feels palpable, as does the longing he displays for a father/son bond that’s fated to remain beyond his reach. Plus, there’s a tender quality to the romantic scenes between Mitchum and Vaccaro, because they portray adults who recognize that a union with baggage is better than no union at all. Vincent, who shares with Mitchum a tendency to deliver phoned-in performances, seems at or near the top of his game, perhaps elevated to a higher-than-usual degree of effort by the presence of a strong costar. He seethes believably throughout the picture.
          Director Herbert B. Leonard, who spent most of his Hollywood career as a TV producer, does surprisingly smooth work considering this was only his second feature. (It was also his last.) Together with cinematographer Fred Jackman, Leonard generates gritty texture while shooting the bowling alleys and parking lots and trailer parks of a small city that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. This realistic visual style meshes well with the naturalistic acting of the principal players. Wearing cheap clothes as they trudge through ordinary lives colored by extraordinary hardship, the characters in Going Home feel like people one might pass on the street and never give a second glance. Constructed as a slow burn toward an explosive climax, the script by Lawrence B. Marcus pushes Harry and Jimmy closer and closer toward their inevitable showdown, so it’s painful to watch these men miss every possible opportunity for reconciliation. And then, when the climax arrives, it’s indeed horrible—the means Jimmy finds to exact revenge upon his father reveals that savagery didn’t skip a generation. Some might find this picture hard to take because the final act is so rough, but for those willing to take the journey, Going Home offers the rewards of potent acting and resonant themes.

Going Home: GROOVY

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Tattoo Connection (1978)

Weirdly, some of the most authoritative reference sources available describe this picture as Black Belt Jones 2, perpetuating a misrepresentation created by the picture’s after-market exhibitors—most copies of the movie’s DVD bear the bogus sequel signifier. Yet The Tattoo Connection is unrelated to Black Belt Jones (1974) beyond the fact that both are martial-arts flicks starring Jim Kelly. Whereas Black Belt Jones is an American production with English-language dialogue, The Tattoo Connection is a Hong Kong production in which all actors are dubbed, badly, into English no matter what languages they spoke on set. Further, Kelly plays a dude named Lucas, whereas in Black Belt Jones he portrays (you guessed it!) a martial artist named Black Belt Jones. (Adding to the confusion: the awful 1976 Kelly movie Hot Potato, which isn't precisely a sequel to Black Belt Jones but stars Kelly as a martial artist named Jones.) Anyway, The Tattoo Connection is a turgid thriller about Hong Kong criminals who steal a valuable diamond, then scheme and squabble among themselves. Meanwhile, an American martial artist (Kelly) is sent to track down the diamond and, if need be, chop and kick and punch his way through bad guys while he recovers the stolen gem. Notwithstanding the terrible soundtrack (on which bad dubbing is accompanied by chintzy music), The Tattoo Connection has passable production values, with the lighting in particular more professionally executed than one might expect in a low-budget chop-socky joint. Alas, all of the genre’s usual problems are evident: interminably long fight scenes, muddy storytelling, terrible acting. There’s also a significant sleaze element, because the plot involves a twisted love triangle between mobster Mr. Lu (Sing Chen), his trusted lieutenant Tin-hao (Tao-ling Tan), and the stripper (Nami Misaki) they both want. This subplot “justifies” copious nude scenes by Misaki, culminating in a rape sequence that’s intercut with shots of a powerful racecar. (Because, y’know, the stripper revs the rapist’s engine.) Classy!

The Tattoo Connection:  LAME

Friday, September 27, 2013

Voyage of the Damned (1976)

          Based on a horrific real-life incident and featuring an enormous cast of international stars, Voyage of the Damned should be powerful, but because the filmmakers opted for a talky approach—and because so many actors were relegated to minor roles that no single character provides narrative focus—Voyage of the Damned is merely pedestrian. The opportunity to make something great was so broadly missed, in fact, that it’s possible some enterprising soul in the future will revisit the subject matter and generate a remake with the impact this original version should have had.
          Set in 1939, the picture depicts one of the Third Reich’s most brazen propaganda schemes. The Nazis loaded hundreds of Jews, some of whom were extracted from concentration camps, onto a luxury liner headed from Europe to Cuba. The passengers were told they were being set free, but the Nazis’ plan was to publicize the inevitable refusal by the Cuban government to accept so many unwanted immigrants. Per the insidious designs of Third Reich official Joseph Goebbels, the plan was to “prove” that Jews are unwanted everywhere, thus justifying the Final Solution. And therein lies the fundamental narrative problem of this picture—every person on board the ship, save for the captain and a few Nazi functionaries—is essentially a pawn in a larger game that’s taking place in Berlin. Thus, none of the characters in the movie truly drives the action, although some brave souls among the passengers prepare political counter-attacks once the true nature of the journey becomes evident.
          Intelligently but unremarkably written by David Butler and Steve Shagan, from a book by Max Morgan-Witts and Gordon Thomas, Voyage of the Damned was directed by versatile journeyman Stuart Rosenberg, who generally thrived with pulpier material; his long dialogue scenes end up feeling stilted and theatrical, especially because some actors ham it up to make the most of their abbreviated screen time. Surprisingly, performers Lee Grant, Katharine Ross, and Oskar Werner each received Golden Globe nominations (Grant got an Oscar nod, too), even though their roles in Voyage of the Damned are so ordinary—and the overall story so turgid—that nothing really lingers in the memory except the haunting real-life circumstance underlying the story. (The picture’s shortcomings are exacerbated by an anticlimactic ending, which apparently represents a somewhat rose-colored vision of what happened in real life.)
          Nonetheless, the luminaries on display in Voyage of the Damned are impressive: The cast includes Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliot, José Ferrer, Ben Gazzara, Helmut Griem, Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, James Mason, Malcolm McDowell, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Warden, Orson Welles, and the great Max von Sydow, who plays the ship’s noble captain. (Watch for Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin in a minor role as an engineer.) Fitting the posh cast, Voyage of the Damned is somewhat like an elevated riff on the disaster-movie genre, but the lack of truly dramatic events means the film is less an all-star spectacular and more an all-star mood piece. Grim, to be sure, but not revelatory.

Voyage of the Damned: FUNKY

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Disaster on the Coastliner (1979)

          Despite its misleading title, the schlocky TV movie Disaster on the Coastliner is actually a hijacking thriller, not a disaster epic. Executed competently (albeit without much flair) by director Richard C. Sarafian, who usually made theatrical features, the picture has a solid kitsch factor thanks to the presence of hammy actors including Lloyd Bridges and William Shatner. Furthermore, the fast-moving story ticks off every cliché on the hijacking-flick checklist, so the picture sustains interest even though it lacks anything resembling originality. The premise is the usual contrived hokum. The day the vice president’s wife is scheduled to ride a train from LA to San Francisco, a disgruntled railroad employee mucks with the railroad’s computer-guidance system and threatens to crash the train carrying the vice president’s wife into a locomotive unless officials meet his demands. Overseeing the crisis at the railroad’s command station are noble dispatcher Roy (E.G. Marshall) and uptight Secret Service agent Al (Bridges); their unlikely ally is a con man named Stuart (Shatner), who is on board the train and helps try to prevent the crash. Naturally, all of this is spiked with romantic subplots—Stuart woos Paula (Yvette Mimieux), a housewife who’s ready to give up on her philandering husband—and corporate intrigue. You see, the hijacker has an axe to grind because railroad officials skimped on safety inspections in the past, resulting in tragedy, so newly installed railroad CEO Estes (Raymond Burr) has to pressure his people in order to determine whether the hijacker’s claims have validity.
          Even though most of Disaster on the Coastliner is padded with dialogue scenes, the picture pays off nicely with an elaborate action sequence involving helicopters chasing after a runaway train. The control-room scenes with Bridges and Marshall have a fun bickering vibe, with Bridges representing by-the-book rigidity and Marshall representing compassion, and it’s a hoot to see Bridges playing a non-comedic version of a character very much like the lunatic he played in Airplane! (1980). In fact, one of his motor-mouthed Disaster on the Coastliner speeches would have been right at home in Airplane!: “It’s all gone wacko, right? The whole flaky system. You can’t control the train!” With the exception of Shatner, none of the actors in Disaster on the Coastliner breaks a sweat, though each brings the requisite level of comfort-food familiarity. As for Shatner, he seems to have a grand time playing with disguises, courting Mimeux, and climbing atop the runaway train during the finale.

Disaster on the Coastliner: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

          By far the funniest and most polished of the various doofus-humor anthology films that hit theaters after Saturday Night Live’s success transformed so-called “college humor” into mainstream entertainment, The Kentucky Fried Movie was a game-changer for its director, John Landis, and its writers, the zany team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. After this picture made a splash, Landis went on to helm the blockbuster Animal House (1978), while the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team perfected their style of comic insanity with Airplane! (1980). Yet while both of those pictures feature traditional start-to-finish narratives, The Kentucky Fried Movie operates in the Saturday Night Live mode by presenting more than 20 different sketches, some of which are less than a minute long, and one of which runs more than 30 minutes. Some bits are funnier than others, of course, but everything in The Kentucky Fried Movie is executed with the utmost professionalism; Landis’ sleek camerawork and meticulous pacing has the effect of corralling the movie’s slapdash gags into a coherent format.
          Obviously, none of this should give the impression that The Kentucky Fried Movie represents an exercise in good taste. Quite to the contrary, the movie is gleefully crude, especially in the realm of sex jokes, of which there are many. For instance, one sketch that I’m ashamed to say kept me chuckling for years after I first saw the picture (and still makes me laugh now) is the outrageously vulgar two-minute trailer for a nonexistent sexploitation movie called Catholic High School Girls in Trouble, which hits every note of Roger Corman-style hucksterism perfectly. There are other fake trailers, as well as ersatz news broadcasts, faux commercials, and straight-up comedy bits that feel like stand-alone short films. Sometimes, characters from one sequence pop up in an unrelated sequence, so everything feels like it’s happening in the same milieu.
          The centerpiece of The Kentucky Fried Movie is A Fistful of Yen, a slick spoof of the iconic Bruce Lee flick Enter the Dragon  (1973). A Fistful of Yen contains some of The Kentucky Fried Movie’s silliest gags—think of this extended vignette as a dry run for the genre send-ups Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker made in the ’80s, and you’ve got the right idea. (Sample gag: The bad guy has a disloyal underling beheaded, then shouts, “Now take him to be tortured!”) During this sequence, comic actor Evan Kim gives a simultaneously charming and ridiculous performance as the Bruce Lee-styled lead character, delivering all of his lines with an absurdly racist accent; the wide-eyed shamelessness of his acting is winning, and he does a credible job of mimicking Lee’s fierce athleticism.
          A few familiar names pop up in cameos during The Kentucky Fried Movie, including Bill Bixby, Henry Gibson, and Donald Sutherland, but utility players appearing in multiple roles—including David Zucker—carry most of the load. As with most examples of “college humor,” The Kentucky Fried Movie isn’t for everyone, because it’s a guy movie through and through. In other words, it’s so dumb and leering you may feel embarrassed laughing at some of the jokes. However, when seen in the right frame of mind, The Kentucky Fried Movie provides 83 minutes of jubilantly juvenile jocularity.

The Kentucky Fried Movie: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Barracuda (1978)

Name an aquatic life form with a fearsome reputation, and chances are the critter got a starring role in a schlocky horror movie after Jaws (1975) revealed there was big money to be made from soggy shockers. Alligators, killer whales, octopi, and piranhas all got the big-screen treatment, and—thanks to this stinker—so did the sharp-toothed barracuda. Yet while most Jaws rip-offs concentrate on scenes of people getting eaten while submerged, Barracuda is actually a conspiracy movie that happens to feature a handful of watery deaths. However, if that description gives the impression that Barracuda rises above its brethren, perish the thought—chances are the reason this flick spends most of its time on dry land is that the producers didn’t have enough cash to fulfill the promise of their movie’s title. Set in a generic American beach town, the picture kicks off with the usual tropes: Mysterious deaths lead an investigator to put the blame on a pack of barracudas, blah-blah-blah. Thereafter, the intrepid leading man discovers the real villain is the owner of a chemical plant whose industrial dumping has driven local fish crazy. Had this movie been executed with any humor or style, the basic plot elements could have cohered into something moderately amusing. Alas, the writing/producing/directing duo of Wayne Crawford and Harry Kerwin fill their movie with dull scenes of people standing around talking, a narrative shortcoming exacerbated by amateurish acting and bargain-basement production values. Extending his reach in front of the camera, Crawford cast himself in the lead as a marine biologist who solves the story’s mystery—while romancing pretty sheriff’s daughter Liza (Roberta Leighton), of course—and the biggest “name” in the cast is Bert Freed, the prolific but undistinguished character actor who plays the villain. All of this narrative sludge is accompanied by a disco-synth score that sounds like a pale imitation of similar work by Giorgio Moroder, so even the movie’s music is a rip-off.

Barracuda: LAME

Monday, September 23, 2013

Child’s Play (1972)

          Even if one looks solely at the films he made in the ’70s, Sidney Lumet may well possess the most eclectic filmography of any major American filmmaker of his generation. Among other things, he made both the definitive NYPD movie, Serpico (1973), and the head-spinning musical turkey The Wiz (1978). Plus, scattered between his failures and triumphs are such oddities as Child’s Play, a psychological thriller that has some elements of occult horror. While Lumet delivers the strange flick with his customary intensity and sophistication, the picture’s bait-and-switch narrative is irritating, and the way three characters jockey for prominence makes the piece feel like a rough draft, as if screenwriter Leon Prochnik (adapting a play by Robert Marasco) couldn’t decide which viewpoint served the material best. Set in a private boys’ school, Child’s Play begins when a former student, Paul (Beau Bridges), arrives to begin his job as the new gym teacher. Paul notes the existence of a long and bitter rivalry between two veteran teachers, Joseph (Robert Preston) and Jerome (James Mason); Joseph is the upbeat student favorite, and Jerome is the hard-driving taskmaster. Compounding the intrigue, students keep acting like masochists by allowing other students to beat and torture them. Jerome, an old man fraying at the edges, thinks everything bad that’s happening is part of a campaign by Joseph to drive him away, but Paul begins to suspect there’s Satan worship afoot.
          The first hour of Child’s Play is borderline interminable simply because it’s so unfocused, but the second half of the picture represents a considerable improvement, for the power struggle between emotionally fragile Jerome and supremely confident Joseph becomes weirdly fascinating. Much of the interest, of course, stems from the performances rather than the writing. Mason renders more emotion than in nearly any other of his ’70s films, sketching a man crumbling under the weight of age and stress, while Preston layers surprising menace beneath his usual extroverted affability. Bridges, predictably, gets lost in the shuffle, which is a problem since he’s ostensibly the protagonist; Bridges spends a good chunk of the movie watching Mason and Preston do interesting things while contributing precious little to the overall dynamic. Although the final scenes wrap up the various plot threads in an eerie fashion, getting to the ending of this picture is a slog, and some aspects of Child’s Play are surprisingly amateurish. Composer Michael Small, generally a top-notch purveyor of subtle atmosphere, goes big in a very bad way with an obnoxious score, and Lumet overdoes the shadowy-cinematography bit, as if he’s shooting a full-on horror movie instead of what really amounts to a dark two-hander about a feud.

Child’s Play: FUNKY

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Blue Summer (1973)

How bad is the softcore “comedy” Blue Summer? The best joke in the movie—in fact, quite possibly the only joke in the movie—involves the two lead characters, both male, responding to the revelation of a pair of breasts by simultaneously popping the tops on their beer cans. Yep, it’s an ejaculation sight gag, and that’s as good as it gets, folks. (One could argue that a mid-movie vignette involving a larcenous hippie guy and his compliant gal pals approaches humor, but that scene degrades into tedious sexploitation.) So, should the self-preservation instinct fail you so greatly that you end up exposing your retinas to any of this film’s 79 grimy minutes, let it be known you were warned.  Written and directed by sleaze peddler Chuck Vincent—whose directional output includes both R- and X-rated fare—Blue Summer is one of many ’70s movies about dudes driving vans around the roads of America in order to get laid. When the movie begins, teenager Gene (Bo White) hops into his beat-up minibus, which he christens “The Meat Wagon,” then picks up his buddy Tracy (porn actor Davey Jones, billed as Darcey Hollingswoth) for a last hurrah before college. Soon after hitting the road, the dudes pick up two hitchhikers, who treat the lads to a romp in some woods just off the highway. That’s when Vincent goes to town, unleashing an interminably long sex scene with everything short of penetration. One is challenged to believe the actors didn’t get it on for real while Vincent was filming, but raunchy verisimilitude isn’t nearly enough to make Blue Summer interesting—unless the spectacle of average-looking people mimicking the libidinal acrobatics of porn stars gets your motor running. Most of Blue Summer’s running time comprises sexual encounters that Vincent presents at excruciating length, and because none of the actors evinces charisma, the whole enterprise becomes quite boring and clinical. (Let’s count how many times Jones squeezes breasts together so he can flail his tongue across them!) Toward the end of the movie, Vincent tries, pathetically, to introduce an element of pathos, but by that time, viewers have been bludgeoned into senselessness by the cavalcade of inept acting, grainy cinematography, and trite characterizations.

Blue Summer: LAME

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cromwell (1970)

          While I must confess that historical stories about the British monarchy generally leave me cold, because I find it nearly impossible to track all the Byzantine relationships and rules, I dove into Cromwell with high hopes simply because of my affection for the actor Richard Harris, whom I find compelling in nearly any context. Alas, the cumbersome weight of the storyline makes Cromwell a tough sit. Ironically, it seems the filmmakers’ unsuccessful attempt to streamline the narrative had the deleterious additional repercussion of introducing a number of historical errors, so the film is neither entertaining nor purely factual. Worse, Harris simply isn’t very good here, opting for a numbing performance style that shifts back and forth between moping and screaming. In nearly every scene, he’s either too loud or too sullen. One is tempted to put the blame on director Ken Hughes for failing to calibrate Harris’ performance, since Hughes’ filmography is filled with mediocre movies, but whatever the reason, Harris fumbles an opportunity that his more disciplined contemporaries—Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and such—probably would have seized.
          Anyway, the subject matter is unquestionably worthwhile, because Cromwell tells the story of a brave aristocrat who, in the 17th century, toppled King Charles I from the English throne and thus ended a period of elitist monarchy. The picture presents Cromwell (Harris) as a reluctant hero who sets aside his desire to leave England (for a new life in the North American colonies), and concurrently presents Charles I (Alec Guinness) as an out-of-touch ruler who believes himself innately superior to his subjects. These are fascinating textures when placed in contrast with each other, and the best parts of the picture—aside from a few lively battle scenes—feature the main characters espousing their ideals. This being a historical drama, each main character is the head of a faction representing various interests, so there’s a lot of material related to the compromises Cromwell and Charles I make to keep their fragile alliances together. This is where the picture lost me, since I became exhausted trying to remember which character wanted which outcome for which combination of personal, political, and religious reasons.
          Had Harris’ leading performance been as commanding as I expected—or had Guinness hit a broader range of notes than he does—it’s possible I would have found Cromwell more compelling, but, as I mentioned earlier, the material faced an uphill battle in terms of winning me over. I explain my reactions in detail not to fixate on my own experience, since I’m merely one viewer, but to explain that devotees of historical stories will undoubtedly regard Cromwell through very different eyes.

Cromwell: FUNKY

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Wicker Man (1973)

          Easily one of the best horror movies of the ’70s, if only because its literary texture and offbeat subject matter differentiate it from more conventional shockers, The Wicker Man is a disturbing story about the murderous aspects of religion. Set on a remote island off the Scottish coast, the picture begins as a standard mystery, because a mainland policeman follows up on reports of a missing young girl. Then The Wicker Man escalates into something perverse. On first viewing, the picture seems completely bizarre, but after prolonged exposure the classicism of the film’s structure becomes more evident. This is horror cinema of the most elegant sort, in which an emotionally relatable protagonist encounters a situation beyond his understanding. The Wicker Man also contains some of the most disquieting images of the ’70s, so even though it doesn’t generate many jolts—the filmmakers’ methodology is far too subtle for that—The Wicker Man leaves an indelible impression. However, it’s no surprise that the film’s content was far too weird for mainstream acceptance during The Wicker Man’s original release; shown as a B-movie in England and the US, the picture eventually gained critical acclaim and cult-classic status. Even today, it remains something of an obscurity.
          Loosely based on a novel by David Pinner called Ritual, the picture was written by the clever Anthony Schaffer (best known for his play and screenplay Sleuth) and directed by impressive first-timer Robin Hardy. At the opening of the story, uptight policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) files by seaplane to remote Summerisle, where he’s greeted with suspicion. Howie had received a note stating that a young girl was missing, but the locals all claim no knowledge of the girl, with the local schoolteacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), enigmatically claiming the girl doesn’t exist anymore. Meanwhile, Howie witnesses all sorts of odd behavior among the islanders, including nude outdoor rituals and the open display of such gruesome wares as a jar of foreskins at the drugstore. All of this tests Howie’s character, because he’s a devout Christian. In one of the film’s signature scenes, sexy barmaid Willow (Britt Ekland) does an intense nude dance in the hotel room next to Howie’s while singing a mesmerizing song, and the scene is intercut with Howie’s sweaty reactions as he responds to—but resists—her supernatural siren call. Eventually, Howie learns that the islanders are pagans who believe in regeneration and sacrifice, but revealing anything more of the plot would diminish the experience.
          Hardy and Shaffer fill The Wicker Man with evocative glimpses into the strange world of ancient religious practices, so the picture features elaborate costumes, hypnotic music, and masks in the form of animal heads. Tension is generated by watching Howie’s sanity challenged when he sees inexplicable visions, and by the question of whether an outsider can survive in an environment where human life has a different value than it possesses in the modern world. Complementing a supporting cast filled with colorful eccentrics, the movie features horror veteran Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, the leader of the island’s pagan sect; even when wearing outlandish wigs (and, in one scene, full drag!), Lee gives one of his career-best performances. Ekland is powerfully erotic, and Woodward’s intense portrayal of a man who wears Christianity like a shield against the mysteries of the world is forceful and haunting. Best of all is the movie’s unforgettable ending.

The Wicker Man: RIGHT ON

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Spell (1977)

          Essentially a rip-off of Carrie (1976), the hit film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a tormented teen with telekinesis, this made-for-TV thriller trudges along for about an hour of low-grade suspense before exploding with an action-packed finale, complete with a twist ending. It would be exaggerating to call The Spell special, but it’s entertaining in a kitschy sort of way, and it benefits from a respectable leading performance by Lee Grant, who tries mightily to retain her dignity even during the most outlandish scenes. It’s also novel to see a very young Helen Hunt, who made this picture during her first career as a ’70s child actress, because even though she was only about 14 when The Spell first aired, she already possessed grown-up gravitas. Anyway, the picture concerns Rita (Susan Myers), an overweight adolescent living with her affluent family in a posh suburb. Constantly razzed by classmates about her girth, Rita lashes out one day by telekinetically causing an accident that kills another student. Thus begins a long downward spiral during which Rita succumbs to dark impulses, eventually causing her mother, Marilyn (Grant), to explore paranormal explanations for the crisis. (Hunt plays Rita’s younger sister, a popular kid whose normalcy provides contrast to Rita’s weirdness.)
          Keeping special-effects scenes to a minimum for budgetary reasons, the producers of The Spell concentrate on dramatic bits in which Marilyn and her husband, Glenn (James Olson), grapple with the strangeness that’s taken root in their home. For instance, the picture features a predictable but effective trope of Glenn compounding Rita’s problems by showing favoritism to her sister. (There’s also a fleeting subplot involving a paranormal investigator played by Jack Colvin, who played a similar character on the long-running series The Incredible Hulk.) As far as thrills and chills, The Spell is fairly mild except for the gruesome death of a housewife about midway through the story, and the only real special-effects scene involves a telekinetic showdown during the finale. Still, there are worse ways to pass 86 minutes than watching what amounts to Carrie Lite, although another made-for-TV Carrie rip-off—1978’s The Initiation of Sarah, with Kay Lenz—actually has more campy zing.

The Spell: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Norma Rae (1979)

          Gritty, heartfelt, and passionately political, Norma Rae is an old-fashioned message movie that could easily have slipped into the one-dimensional mediocrity one associates with generic TV movies. After all, it’s the fictionalized story of a real-life factory worker who risked her employment in order to unionize the workers in an oppressively conservative Deep South community. What elevates Norma Rae above the norm is the conviction of Martin Ritt’s filmmaking, the intelligence of the script by frequent Ritt collaborators Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, and, most importantly, the inspirational performance in the title role by Sally Field. After becoming famous on such dippy ’60s TV series as The Flying Nun and Gidget, Field demonstrated serious dramatic chops with the acclaimed telefilm Sybil (1976), but it took a few years for her to win a substantial role in a theatrical feature. She seized the opportunity with the same fervor that her character assumes her destiny as a labor leader. Downplaying her fresh-scrubbed prettiness (while still rocking an amazing figure in skimpy T-shirts and tight jeans), Field slips convincingly into the skin of a blue-collar working mom exhausted from trying to balance a job and a family.
          When we meet Norma Rae Webster (Field), she’s one of many put-upon drones in a cotton mill, though Norma Rae gives her thuggish superiors more lip than anyone else on the factory floor. One day, labor organizer Ruben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) shows up to recruit workers interested in unionizing, and thus begins a sort of ideological courtship with Norma Rae. Although the two never become lovers—Norma Rae’s devoted to her decent but simple husband, Sonny (Beau Bridges)—Ruben opens Norma Rae’s eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. As a fast-talking Jew from New York, he seems like an exotic creature to Southern-bred Norma Rae, and the way he respects Norma Rae’s mind instills a newfound sense of intellectual pride. Empowered by Ruben’s friendship and driven by the desire to make the world better for her people, Norma Rae organizes a factory strike that has dangerous repercussions in her private and professional lives.
          Given its nature as an unlikely-hero parable, the ending of Norma Rae is a foregone conclusion, so one could easily complain that the dramatic stakes of the picture never feel terribly high. Then again, the purpose of a movie like this one is paying tribute to the sacrifices virtuous people are willing to make for worthwhile causes, and Norma Rae does indeed go through rough patches. It helps, tremendously, that Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo shot the picture in a real factory and other genuine locations, so the texture of the piece feels real even when the dramaturgy gets schematic. The supporting cast is solid, featuring such reliable character players as Morgan Paull and Noble Willingham, and both Bridges and Leibman play their key roles with humanity and humor. Ultimately, of course, this one’s all about Field, who won an Oscar for her rousing work; Norma Rae also collected an Oscar for Best Original Song, the Jennifer Warnes-sung “It Goes Like It Goes.”

Norma Rae: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971)

          I’m sure there’s an appreciative audience out there for this elaborately costumed ballet movie based on beloved children’s stories, but I’m not among that audience. To be clear, I have no difficulty applauding the great care with which every aspect of the picture was made. The costumes are detailed and imaginative (in addition to being faithful to the elegant illustrations found in the source material); the dancing is graceful and strong; and the filmmakers employ detailed sets and unobtrusive special effects to make fantastical situations look as “real” as possible. However, even the simplest description of this movie explains why it’s a hard sit for general audiences—Tales of Beatrix Potter features virtually nothing but ballet dancers dressed in animal costumes, jumping and pirouetting through such gently whimsical scenes as a goose trying to lay eggs while a fox tries to help himself to the feast. One wishes to envision a world in which today’s young children would find this sort of thing delightful, since the movie exposes wee viewers to the sophisticated pleasures of classical music and dance, but it’s hard to imagine the novelty of ballet dancers in animal costumes sustaining the interest of anyone but preschoolers for the movie’s entire 90-minute running time.
          Speaking for myself, I barely made it through five minutes before I was bored out of my mind, even though I was amazed by how beautifully the dancers of the Royal Ballet moved when burdened with cumbersome costumes that include gigantic masks. Similarly, I was impressed by certain clever flourishes by choreographer Sir. Frederick Ashton, like the bits in which dancing mice use their tails like ribbons for interconnected group movements. (FYI, the movie is periodically broken up by wordless vignettes of Beatrix Potter, played as a teenager by Erin Geraghty, imagining her animal stories as a reprieve from everyday boredom as a well-to-do youth in the English countryside.) At the risk of repetition, I should stress that my inability to engage with this picture shouldn’t necessarily be misinterpreted as a criticism of its quality. Tales of Beatrix Potter is quite well made, and there’s a gentle charm to moments such as a waist-coated frog dancing in glee because fresh rainfall has created an outdoor playground for him. Still, I cannot with good conscience say that I found Tales of Beatrix Potter even remotely interesting.

Tales of Beatrix Potter: FUNKY

Monday, September 16, 2013

How To Frame a Figg (1971)

From the ’50s to the ’70s, the Walt Disney Company perfected such a surefire formula for live-action family comedies that it was inevitable other studios would try to copy Disney’s style. Hence pictures like How to Frame a Figg, a Don Knotts vehicle featuring broad slapstick, campy acting, spoon-fed storytelling, and the kind of super-obvious music cues one usually encounters in cartoons. Unfortunately, Universal Studios—the entity responsible for this dud—failed to include a kid-friendly story. Rather, How to Frame a Figg is like a watered-down version of a Preston Sturges farce, with a small-town stooge getting turned into a patsy by corrupt local officials until he turns the tables on them. To get a sense of how poorly the storyline of How to Frame a Figg meshes with the juvenile presentation, consider the supporting character of Glorianna Hastings (played by Yvonne Craig, better known as “Batgirl” from the ’60s TV series Batman). She’s a seductress hired to dupe hapless hero Hollis Alexander Figg (Knotts). How does a harlot with a closet full of fur coats she’s gotten from “doting uncles” belong in a kiddie flick? Disney’s live-action pictures of the same era featured such kid-friendly contrivances as teenagers with superpowers. Simply presenting any old narrative information in a childlike manner isn’t nearly enough to mimic Disney’s magic. Furthermore, the jokes in How to Frame a Figg are so old-fashioned that the movie feels like it was made in the ’50s, not the ’70s. The movie’s main location, City Hall, has an “amusingly” malfunctioning elevator that sputters during every ride; the main bad guy is a geezer who keeps falling asleep during meetings; and so on. How to Frame a Figg is so enervated that at least three big jokes involve people getting things spilled on them in the local diner, and costar Frank Welker—who later became a prolific voice actor in cartoons—plays the hero’s idiot sidekick with a kind of gee-whiz credulity that makes him seem lobotomized. Adding the final insult, Knotts performs a long scene in drag—although, by that point, the dark veil he wears is a relief because it obscures the ridiculous open-mouthed expression he employs about a zillion times in How to Frame a Figg.

How To Frame a Figg: LAME

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Stone Killer (1973)

          Actor Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner cranked out so many movies together in the ’70s that it’s inevitable some of their projects were less satisfying than others. In between the high points of The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), for instance, the duo collaborated in this convoluted crime thriller, which can’t decide if it’s about a hard-driving cop or a mastermind criminal. The setting awkwardly shuttles back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, and the movie includes about five different scenes that feel like endings. As a result, even though Winner was among the best directors of gritty action in the ’70s (ensuring that The Stone Killer has a handful of exciting scenes), the flick is a washout in terms of narrative.
          The gist of the piece is that after NYPD detective Lou Torrey (Bronson) gets run out of Manhattan for using excessive force, he lands a job with the LAPD and almost immediately discovers a scheme by mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) to wipe out enemies as revenge for a decades-old gangland massacre. All of this feels very unfocused, not least because of the way Torrey somehow instantaneously becomes the most trusted plainclothes cop in the City of Angels; furthermore, most of the screen time is devoted to Torrey’s investigation of intermediaries, which has the effect of diluting Vescari’s prominence as the main villain. In fact, probably a good third of the picture involves the activities of low-level bagmen Jumper (Jack Colvin) and Langley (Paul Koslo), so it periodically seems as if Winner forgot which movie he was making. Exacerbating all of this is the fact that Bronson’s casting as a smooth-talking policeman somewhat marginalizes his strong suit of tight-lipped physical action.
          Nearly the only thing that keeps The Stone Killer watchable is the presence of vibrant supporting actors. In addition to Colvin and Koslo, who portray weasels effectively, the grab-bag cast includes Norman Fell, Stuart Margolin, and Ralph Waite. (This is a guy movie from top to bottom, so women don’t figure prominently in the mix.) Winner generates good atmosphere in both Los Angeles and New York, and the movie’s big shootout—which takes place inside the elevator shafts, parking garage, and stairwell of an office building—has a few thrills. Yet by the umpteenth time Winner cuts to a scene of Bronson and his colleagues discussing the plot for the purposes of helping the audience understand what the hell’s going on, it becomes painfully clear that Winner (who also produced) crammed way too much plot into the mix. As a final note, The Stone Killer loses points for a poster that’s a blatant rip-off of the famous one-sheet for The French Connection (1971).

The Stone Killer: FUNKY

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Julia (1977)

          A posh drama that eventually morphs into a posh thriller, Julia is made with such consummate restraint and taste that it’s as delicate as silk. Alas, beautiful photography and elegant words and graceful direction go only so far, even when combined with strong performances by world-class actors, because, ultimately, story is everything—and the story of Julia is dull, episodic, and far-fetched. Adapted from a book by the venerable Lillian Hellman, the movie depicts an episode in the late 1930s when Hellman allegedly aided Germans who were resisting the rise of the Third Reich. Setting aside the question of whether the events in question ever really happened—even the film’s director, the venerable Fred Zinnemann, later expressed doubts about the veracity of Hellman’s tale—the problem with Julia is that it can’t decide whether it’s a quiet chamber piece or a wartime adventure.
          The movie has at least four major components. First is a long prologue depicting young Lillian’s friendship with a sophisticated girl named Julia. Next comes a long passage during which the adult Lillian (Jane Fonda) becomes a famous writer under the tutelage of her lover/mentor, crime-fiction legend Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). After that, Lillian ventures to Europe, where she’s reunited with the grown-up Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) for a passage depicting the subtle textures of adult frendship. And finally, the movie shifts into intrigue mode when a rebel operative (Maximillian Schell) enlists Lillian to carry a package through Nazi-occupied terrain. Seen generously, this is the story of how Hellman’s character was built on the road to performing a great deed of selfless heroism, but since even that reading relegates the first half of the movie to the role of backstory, it becomes obvious why the structure of the picture is so peculiar. After all, did the makers of Casablanca (1942) have to spend half the movie explaining Rick Blaine’s childhood so audiences would understand his actions during the movie’s final scene?
          Even though Julia enjoyed considerable acclaim during its original release—winning Oscars for Redgrave, Robards, and screenwriter Alvin Sargent—it’s a tough film to love. For, while Julia contains many great things, from Robards’ world-weary characterization to the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the various elements never cohere. Worse, the idea that Hellman might have fabricated such an outlandishly self-aggrandizing narrative leaves a bad taste on the palette. In any event, Julia occupies an interesting place in pop-culture history, because it was upon collecting her Academy Award for this film that Redgrave made her infamous “Zionist hoodlums” speech during the 1978 Oscar broadcast.

Julia: FUNKY