Friday, January 31, 2014

One More Time (1970)

The easygoing entertainers comprising the Rat Pack appeared in lighthearted movies throughout the ’60s, whether separately or together—with the most notable Rat Pack flick being the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960), which features the whole gang. Among the lesser examples of Rat Pack cinema is a pair of frothy comedies costarring energetic showman Sammy Davis Jr. and suave British actor Peter Lawford. The first of these pictures, Salt and Pepper (1968), introduced fun-loving London nightclub operators Charles Salt (Sammy Davis Jr.) and Christopher Pepper (Lawford). Directed by future superstar Richard Donner, Salt and Pepper did well enough to warrant a sequel, One More Time, which probably should’ve been titled One Time Too Many. Whatever charm was present in the original film is absent from the sequel, which compensates for the absence of a real story by bludgeoning viewers with outlandish situations and unfunny jokes. Davis works hard to sell physical-comedy shtick and Lawford delivers urbane charm, but the whole enterprise is so drab, pointless, and silly that star power isn’t reason enough to watch. Plus, because One More Time was directed by comedy legend Jerry Lewis as a particularly fallow point in his creative life, the movie’s gags feel tired even before Lewis milks the gags with irritating embellishments and repetition. For instance, Salt dresses up in a Little Lord Fauntleroy costume and fills his nostrils with snuff—then goes through what seems like an eternity of facial contortions before sneezing so powerfully he knocks over everyone in a crowded ballroom. This is Lewis’ comedy at its worst, simultaneously infantile and overwrought. As for the movie’s narrative, One More Time is nominally about Pepper investigating the murder of his twin brother, but it also concerns diamond smuggling, mistaken identity, and other random nonsense. (How random? At one point, Salt enters a hidden chamber in a castle, only to discover a mad-scientist laboratory occupied by Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein, played in cameos by Hammer Films stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.) Lewis periodically stops the movie cold so Davis can perform musical numbers, and the director goes for cheap laughs with a fourth-wall-breaking gag at the end. In sum, One More Time isn’t worth your time—unless you’re a hardcore fan of the leading players.

One More Time: LAME

Thursday, January 30, 2014

King of the Gypsies (1978)

          Clearly imagined as a Godfather-style epic set in the colorful subculture of modern-day gypsies, this Dino De Laurentiis production features an impressive cast, splashy production values, and a vivid storyline filled with betrayal and violence. Yet as with many of De Laurentiis’ pulpier offerings, a general atmosphere of tackiness pervades King of the Gypsies—instead of treating its characters with respect, as Francis Ford Coppola did with the Corleone family in the Godfather movies, writer-director Frank Pierson presents gypsies as one-dimensional primitives. King of the Gypsies is filled with arranged marriages, incessant shouting, quasi-Biblical domestic strife, physical abuse, and willful ignorance. Very much like Pierson’s directorial debut, the much-maligned A Star Is Born (1976), King of the Gypsies occupies a queasy middle ground between legitimate cinema and outright exploitation—both movies are too campy to take seriously, and yet both are made with meticulous craftsmanship. (Oddly, most other highlights in Pierson’s career feature greater nuance, from 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, for which he wrote the Oscar-winning script, to various telefilms Pierson directed, including 1992’s Citizen Cohn.)
          Adapted from a book by Peter Maas, King of the Gypsies tells the life story of Dave Stepanowicz, a young man who inherits a position of power in the gypsy community but rebels against inhumane gypsy traditions. The narrative begins with an elaborate prologue that explains how Dave’s parents became involved with each other. Dave’s grandfather, Zharko (Sterling Hayden), is the king of an East Coast gypsy empire circa the 1950s. He arranges to buy a gypsy teenager, Rose, as a bride for his ne’er-do-well son, Groffo. When Rose’s family tries to back out of the deal, Zharko abducts Rose at gunpoint. Years later, Rose (played as an adult by Susan Sarandon) and Groffo (played as an adult by Judd Hirsch), give birth to children including Dave (played as an adult by Eric Roberts, in his cinematic debut). During episodes that depict Dave’s childhood and adolescence, friction grows between Dave and his abusive father, so once he’s in his 20s, Dave leaves home—thereby shunning his role as a prince in Zharko’s monarchy. Dave tries to make it on his own, even dating a non-gypsy (Annette O’Toole), but when Zharko’s health declines, Zharko summons Dave back into the family fold. A struggle for control then emerges between Dave, Zharko’s choice as the next king, and Groffo, who resents being pushed aside.
          Because the story covers so much tawdry narrative terrain, King of the Gypsies is never boring. The movie also looks great, with crisp images by master cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and the soundtrack features vibrant acoustic music by David Grisman. In fact, much of the movie works. Roberts is strong, delivering a James Dean-style performance as an angry young man, while Hirsch and Sarandon complement him well (despite playing underwritten characters). Hayden is a joy to watch, as always, even though he’s hilariously miscast, and Pierson wisely keeps the screen time of scenery-chewing Shelley Winters (playing Zharko’s wife) to a minimum. (Rounding out the flashy cast, Annie Potts plays a gypsy woman who gets a crush on Dave, and Brooke Shields plays Dave’s little sister—a poignant role that far exceeds her dramatic powers.) The intensity of King of the Gypsies rises steadily from start to finish, especially since the story concludes with a suite of violent scenes. Furthermore, the research Maas did for his book provides Pierson with abundant colorful details, such as the rituals of gypsy life. King of the Gypsies is overwrought and silly, but within its lowbrow limitations, the movie is also an entertaining ride.

King of the Gypsies: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

Despite having built enough of a cult reputation to earn a glossy remake in 2000 (starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie), the car-chase movie Gone in 60 Seconds is a wobbly piece of work. Created as a passion project/vanity piece by first-timer H.B. Halicki—who served as writer, producer, director, star, and stunt driver—the picture is about a car thief’s epic quest to steal one particular model of Ford Mustang in order to fulfill a bulk order from nefarious clients. Owing to Halicki’s inexperience, virtually every aspect of the film’s execution contributes to overall sloppiness. The script was more or less made up as Halicki went along, so it’s often hard to tell how scenes relate to each other, and the production sound is terrible, so dialogue is either indecipherable or terribly dubbed. The acting is just as bad as the filmmaking, with wooden non-performers delivering lines flatly. Furthermore, because the crooks in the movie wear disguises to look alike, it’s often difficult to tell which character is appearing in which scene. Given these egregious shortcomings, Gone in 60 Seconds lives and dies entirely on the strength of its money shots. Happily for Halicki, large-scale automotive spectacle flows freely throughout the picture—in addition to lengthy scenes of cars zooming down city roads and highways at crazy speeds, Gone in 60 Seconds features an outrageous number of car crashes. According to the lore surrounding the movie, Halicki was an avid car collector who provided dozens of vehicles for onscreen destruction, often repairing vehicles after crash scenes so they could be slammed again and again. Halicki also performed many dangerous stunts, resulting in moments like a heart-stopping crash during which the main car—a Mustang that Halicki’s character nicknames “Eleanor”—spins into a light post after tapping another car while blazing full-speed down a highway. Halicki walked away from that one, but his luck didn’t last forever. After making two more features, neither of which gained the notoriety of his debut, the director was killed in 1989 while filming a stunt for a planned sequel to Gone in 60 Seconds.

Gone in 60 Seconds: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Malibu Beach (1978)

One doesn’t expect much from a drive-in comedy that caters to hormone-crazed teenagers by presenting a fantasy-land vision of Southern California in which attractive young people do nothing except drive cars, eat fast food, hang out at the beach, and screw. Still, it’s difficult to cut much slack for Malibu Beach, even though the picture delivers the requisite amount of raunchy scenarios and topless scenes. The problem, aside from the basic sleaziness of the endeavor, is the mind-melting level of stupidity that pervades the movie’s storyline. For instance, one of the running “jokes” involves a mischievous dog that keeps stealing the bikini tops of sunbathing women, which causes the women to leap up from the sand and chase after the dog, their breasts flailing in full view. Worse, the climax of the picture literally involves one of the main characters being chased through the ocean by a shark, which is represented by a prop so absurdly fake-looking that one imagines every Malibu Beach crew member driving home from “shark day” in shame. The picture opens when a Southern California high school lets out for summer. Thereafter, pals Bobby (James Daughton) and Paul (Michael Luther) spend the summer dating lifeguard Dina (Kim Lankford) and her friend Sally (Susan Player), respectively. There’s also some inconsequential secondary material about a pair of inept cops who patrol the beach—the senior officer is a drunk, and the rookie is a pothead—as well as a thread about an aging beach bum who hooks up with a schoolteacher. Typical of Crown International Pictures’ mindless teensploitation flicks, Malibu Beach is padded with scenes that serve no dramatic purpose, including a disco-themed house party and a long visit to a bumper-car attraction. The movie also has lots of “tender” love scenes set to tunes in the Philly Soul style, but these vignettes mostly exist to justify shots of breasts. For viewers who are satisfied by ogling oceanfront property and young women, Malibu Beach may qualify as an adequate example of the loathsome teen-sex genre. But for viewers who expect what the movie promises beyond titillation—effervescence, laughs, and genuine sexiness—only disappointment awaits.

Malibu Beach: LAME

Monday, January 27, 2014

Hawmps! (1976)

          After scoring a surprise box-office hit with the independently made canine adventure Benji (1974), director Joe Camp was in a position to try something different—so for his second feature, he used a little-known historical episode from the pre-Civil War era as the basis for a gentle comedic romp. Hawmps! depicts the misadventures of a U.S. Army squad tasked with testing camels as possible replacements for horses in desert outposts. Given the nature of Camp’s previous film, it’s surprising that very little of the picture is devoted to the specifics of animal behavior—in fact, only two of the camels are given memorable names and “personalities.” Instead of focusing on critters, Camp builds jokes around the broadly sketched—and unapologetically clichéd—characters populating the Army squad, including a drunken Irishman, an inexperienced lieutenant, and a stalwart drill sergeant. The only surprising character is an Arabian camel trainer named H. Jolly, played by Gino Conforti, because the character is a British-schooled dandy with a monocle.
          Hawmps! is shallow and silly, but it basically works in an undemanding sort of way. Whether Camp is staging elaborate slapstick sequences of barroom brawls or vignettes of dehydrated soldiers trudging through the desert, the director keeps things amiable and lively. Plus, the picture is billed right in the opening credits as “a family film by Joe Camp,” so the mandate clearly was to make lighthearted entertainment suitable for very young viewers. And if Hawmps! is ultimately little more than a Disney knock-off made without the glossy cinematography and lavish production values one normally associates with Disney’s live-action fare, the movie has the benefit of an offbeat historical basis, and Camp resists the sentimental excesses that make similar Disney movies (such as the Apple Dumpling Gang pictures) unnecessarily saccharine.
          James Hampton, a pleasant comic actor who costarred in the ’60s series F Troop, which was something of a stylistic precedent for this movie, plays Lt. Clemmons, a Washington, D.C., gofer who gets assigned the thankless task of supervising the camel experiment. Upon arriving at an outpost in the West, Clemmons takes command of a squad led by Sgt. Tibbs (Christopher Connelly), even though Tibbs’ men all misunderstood their orders and thought they were getting Arabian horses instead of Arabian camels. High jinks ensue as the camel-riding soldiers clash with the cantankerous sergeant (Slim Pickens) of a rival squad, and with an outlaw (Jack Elam) who commands a town filled with criminals. The movie features lots of chaotic physical comedy—people falling off camels or tripping into mud, and so on—and the dialogue is occasionally cartoonish. Still, most of the actors in Hawmps! are stone-cold pros, including those previously mentioned plus Denver Pyle, and the sight of bluecoated U.S. soldiers chasing after crooks or Indians while riding on camels is reliably amusing.

Hawmps!: FUNKY

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Superchick (1973)

One has many choices when trying to identify the strangest element of this low-budget sex comedy, but the title is a strong contender. Although one would naturally assume that a movie called Superchick is about a woman who gains extraordinary powers, Superchick is instead about a big-breasted flight attendant who uses a demure secret identity to avoid attention between sexual liaisons with lovers in various cities. Yes, the titular lass actually sneaks into phone booths to change costume, Superman-style, when shifting from her disguise as a mousy brunette into her genuine persona as an Amazonian blonde. Joyce Jillson stars as Tara B. True, who keeps boyfriends in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York—but also makes time for quickies with interesting strangers she meets along the way. In dialogue and voiceover, Tara describes herself as a paragon of liberation, making sexual choices without the hangups of normal societal expectations. As in so many creepy ’70s smutfests, however, the high ideals of women’s lib get transmogrified into dubious justifications for sex scenes and topless shots. (Despite her bluster, Tara seems more liberated from her clothes than from anything else.) The movie’s attempts at ribald comedy are painfully stupid, so Tara says things like, “Last one in bed gets no head,” and she ends up in such insipid predicaments as her visit to the sex dungeon of an old man (John Carradine) who gets off on being whipped by ladies. Putting further lie to the notion of Superchick as a statement about liberation are scenes that make Tara seem like a garden-variety nymphomaniac. When she meets a soldier who hasn’t gotten laid in two years, she drags him into a bathroom and all but rapes him, explaining her motives in voiceover: “I was never a super patriot, but there comes a time to lie down and be counted.” Anyway, if the preceding hasn’t been sufficient to save you from suffering through Superchick, be warned that the movie also contains incompetently staged karate scenes and a tacky use of Ravel’s “Bolero.” In fact, the only interesting thing about Superchick is the subsequent career of the star—Jillson later became a celebrity astrologer, reportedly helping to advise client Nancy Reagan on Ronald Reagan’s choice of George W. Bush as vice president.

Superchick: LAME

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Trick Baby (1972)

          Although marred by murky storytelling and a mediocre leading performance, Trick Baby offers a unique riff on the blaxploitation genre—one of the two heroes is a white dude whose mother was black, so his lineage allows him to bridge different racial communities. Based on a novel by the colorful Iceberg Slim, a self-proclaimed pimp-turned-novelist, the picture takes place in Philadelphia. Two pals, dark-skinned African-American veteran con man Blue Howard (Mel Stuart) and his light-skinned mixed-race apprentice “White Folks” (Kiel Martin), run scams on unsuspecting citizens, mostly collecting chump change. One day, they score big by ripping off a man whom they later discover is related to gangsters. After the victim suffers a heart attack, underworld enforcers are tasked with identifying the culprits. Meanwhile, Blue and “White Folks” lay the groundwork for their biggest rip-off yet, conniving a group of rich white men into buying ghetto properties that aren’t really for sale. Given this setup, the tension of the picture comes from multiple sources—including friction between Blue, who senses it’s time to leave town before things take a deadly turn, and “White Folks,” who gets so high off winning he can’t recognize real danger.
          The basic story of Trick Baby is interesting, and the street-crime milieu is presented believably. Furthermore, costar Stuart makes a great con man, all pretense and smiles when he’s working a mark and all fuck-you attitude when he’s standing up to a corrupt cop or a Mob enforcer. Had Stuart been matched with a costar of equal skill—and had director/co-writer Larry Yust manifested stronger discipline as a storyteller—Trick Baby could have become a great little crime picture. Alas, leading man Kiel Martin (who later found fame as a flashy plainclothes detective on TV’s Hill Street Blues) has the cockiness and good looks of a movie star, but not the charisma or talent. He’s merely okay in a role that requires dramatic fireworks. Partially as a result of Martin’s underwhelming presence and partially as a result of Yust’s inability to build and sustain narrative momentum, Trick Baby ends up feeling slapdash. Having said that, the picture is refreshing inasmuch as it doesn’t portray urban blacks exclusively as illiterate thugs in tacky polyester outfits. Additionally, the movie spreads the wealth by depicting its African-American hustlers as part of a vast and multiracial criminal universe.

Trick Baby: FUNKY

Friday, January 24, 2014

Black Fist (1974)

          The grim sport of illegal streetfighting hasn’t been the subject of many movies, even though the image of desperate tough guys pummeling each other for the benefit of underworld types is inherently cinematic. And if Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times (1975), is perhaps the best big-screen exploration of the subject, then Black Fist represents a place much lower on the quality scale. Ostensibly a blaxploitation picture but really just an inner-city drama with a protagonist who happens to be African-American, Black Fist has problems common to low-budget exploitation movies—dodgy acting, erratic storytelling, excessive violence—but it’s watchable nonetheless. The basic plight of the hero, a guy who pays a terrible price for latching onto what seems his only option for success, is deeply relatable (“All I ever wanted in life was not to have to kiss whitey’s ass!”), and the filmmakers slam viewers with plentiful lurid images and scenarios. So, while the narrative momentum of Black Fist is quite weak, owing to predictability and thin characterizations, one can do worse in the realm of violent grindhouse fare targeted at black audiences.
          Richard Lawson, a handsome and muscular actor who never escaped supporting roles and/or leading parts in B-movies, stars as Leroy Fisk, a young man struggling to get by. He comes to the attention of a gaggle of gangsters led by Ingo (Charles L. Hamilton) and Logan (Robert Burr), who offer to sponsor him as a prizefighter. Although Larry does well in early bouts, he realizes he’s obligated to share his winnings not only with the mobsters but also with corrupt cop Heineken (Dabney Coleman). Angry that he’s being unfairly exploited, Larry rebels, which causes his enemies to take deadly retribution on Larry’s loved ones. Then Larry goes into hiding and systematically seeks revenge against his tormentors.
          This is turgid stuff, with an episodic structure and a mean-spirited tone keeping the pace slow. Furthermore, Lawson and some of his costars, especially future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas, frequently succumb to silly overacting. Yet the basic meat of the story is solid, and the presence of Coleman—who subsequently became one of the great supporting actors of the ’80s—elevates the movie considerably. With his naturalistic ad-libs and wicked laughs, Coleman oozes believable, everyday villainy. That said, the makers of Black Fist leave good taste far behind on many occasions, especially during a Death Wish-style third act that features several cartoonish killings. Therefore, this picture is neither for discriminating viewers nor for the faint of heart—but if grimy street violence is your thing, Black Fist might suit you nicely.

Black Fist: FUNKY

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Just You and Me, Kid (1979)

          If you can overlook a premise that stretches credibility far past the breaking point, Just You and Me, Kid is a pleasant bit of fluff starring a charming veteran and a spunky newcomer. Nothing in the movie is remotely surprising, but star power keeps nearly every scene watchable. Eightysomething comedy legend George Burns, who was in the midst of one of Hollywood’s unlikeliest comebacks when he made this picture, stars as Bill Grant, a former vaudevillian now living alone in a Los Angeles mansion. Brooke Shields, the precocious teen model whose sexualized image in widely seen advertisements led to a wobbly acting career, costars as Kate, a street kid on the run from a thug named Demesta (William Russ). After fleeing Demesta’s place without clothes (don’t ask), Kate hides in the trunk of Bill’s vintage car and then threatens to accuse him of molesting her unless he lets her hide in his house.
          Absurd and salacious as this situation sounds, Just You and Me, Kid actually gets off to a decent start by focusing on vignettes of Bill’s eccentric daily life. He uses automated music recordings instead of alarm clocks, keeps traffic cones in his car so he can scam great parking places, peppers every conversation with tart one-liners, and so on. Burns floats through Just You and Me, Kid on a cloud of perpetual calm and perfect timing. Shields, meanwhile, adds spice to Burns’ salt by delivering all of her lines with more attitude than skill; she manages to come across as appealing even though much of the film’s dialogue relates to implications that older men are desperate to sleep with her. While it’s true that the storyline of Just You and Me, Kid goes exactly where you might expect—Bill and Kate discover they’re good for each other, because Bill needs someone to love and Kate needs a caretaker—director/co-writer Leonard Stern keeps things moving along briskly, and he organizes nearly every scene as a showcase for Burns’ amiably dry humor.
          That said, subplots involving Bill’s anxious daughter (Lorraine Gary) and Bill’s institutionalized best friend (Burl Ives) are woefully underdeveloped, and the whole business with Demesta is merely a half-assed plot contrivance. Plus, of course, placing a bachelor and a young girl in the same house for much of the picture is unavoidably suggestive, no matter how many times the filmmakers use jokes to keep viewers minds out of the gutter. Just You and Me, Kid is far from the best of Burns’ comeback-era vehicles, but considering how bad his pictures got just a few years later—here’s looking at you, Oh, God! You Devil (1984)—this movie ends up seeming relatively harmless.

Just You and Me, Kid: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blume In Love (1973)

          No filmmaker captured the Me Decade more adroitly than Paul Mazursky, whose ’70s movies depict intersections between such things as hippie-era spiritualism, recreational drugs, and therapy sessions. During a streak that began with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969 and continued through Willie & Phil in 1980, Mazursky told unconventional stories about wildly flawed people who both exploit and fall victim to cultural trends. Throughout this period, Mazursky also demonstrated special sensitivity for themes related to the Sexual Revolution. While An Unmarried Woman (1978) is the most famous of Masursky’s ’70s films because the picture tapped into the women’s-movement zeitgeist, Blume in Love tells a similar story from a different perspective—and with much more discipline.
          Both films begin with a marriage falling apart as a result of the husband’s adultery. An Unmarried Woman, obviously, examines the female point of view, tracking a character’s journey from humiliation to self-respect. Blume in Love explores what happens to a philanderer after he gets caught, adding in the seriocomic premise of a husband falling back in love with his wife the moment he loses her. Building a movie around a schmuck involves threading a very fine needle, but Mazursky is a writer-director of such supple skills that he comes as close to pulling off the trick as possible. The most interesting aspect of Blume in Love, however, is that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether viewers like the lead character; the goal of the film is simply to reveal enough aspects of the protagonist that he’s understood. As in the best of Mazursky’s movies, empathy is the order of the day.
          The picture begins in Italy, where bearded and morose Stephen Blume (George Segal) laments the recent dissipation of his marriage. In flashbacks, Mazursky tracks the arc of Stephen’s relationship with Nina (Susan Anspach), eventually taking the flashbacks up to Stephen’s departure for Italy. The whole movie, therefore, represents the thought process by which Stephen comes to grips with what he lost and learns to accept that the split was his fault. Mazursky pulls no punches in his portrayal of Stephen as a self-serving son of a bitch—the character does horrible things to Nina—so one of the questions the movie investigates is how much toxicity a relationship can survive if the foundation of the relationship is genuine love.
          In the most surprising flashbacks, an unexpected bond develops between Stephen, Nina, and Nina’s rebound boyfriend, a hippie musician named Elmo (Kris Kristofferson). Whereas Nina and Stephen represent typical upper-class L.A. neuroticism—the spouses even use the same psychotherapist—Elmo epitomizes the counterculture mindset. He’s a work-averse dropout who spends every day screwing, singing, and smoking. Kristofferson’s performance energizes the middle of the picture, because his unpredictable character takes the story in so many fresh directions.
          Segal, always a pro at playing amiable pricks, complements his expert comic timing with subtler shadings, displaying the vulnerability that bubbles underneath Stephen’s cocksure façade. The forgettable Anspach is a weak link, but in her defense, the Nina character is more of a narrative construct than a believable individual. Blume in Love is far from perfect, not only because the central character’s behavior will undoubtedly turn off many viewers but also because the movie’s a bit fleshy. (A subplot featuring Mazursky in an acting role as Stephen’s partner works well, but a larger subplot featuring Shelley Winters as one of Stephen’s clients seems extraneous.) Still, the movie’s best scenes represent Mazursky’s unique approach to social satire at its most humanistic and incisive.

Blume In Love: GROOVY

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Sister-in-Law (1974)

          Joseph Ruben, the capable director of escapist movies whose career peaked in the ’90s with glossy thrillers including The Good Son (1993), kicked off his movie career as the writer, producer, and director of this mediocre but occasionally interesting drama about betrayal between brothers. Despite the presence of such a heavy theme, the movie was crudely marketed by Crown International Pictures to emphasize erotic elements. Yet it’s not as if Ruben’s cinematic debut deserved classier distribution, because the filmmaker’s inexperience shows in every aspect of The Sister-in-Law. For instance, Ruben failed to construct a sufficiently complicated plot, so The Sister-in-Law is filled with aimless scenes that don’t move the story forward, including a number of dull montages set to twee folk songs that were composed and sung by the movie’s star, John Savage. A unique actor whose persona blends eccentricity with sensitivity, Savage could be extraordinary in the right context (notably 1978’s The Deer Hunter), but he’s never evinced a leading man’s charisma. In The Sister-in-Law, he gives what’s best described as a character actor’s performance, all moods and quirks instead of a strong presence.
          Savage plays Bobby, an aimless young man who just completed a year and a half of wandering America. Returning to the Westchester, New York, mansion of his brother, successful novelist Edward (Will MacMilian), Bobby strikes up an affair with his sister-in-law, Joanna (Anne Saxon). Meanwhile, Edward has gotten mixed up in transporting illicit items for the Mob—it’s been a while since he made money off books—so Edward pressures Bobby into making a run across the Canadian border on Edward’s behalf. To sweeten the deal, Edward says Bobby can take Edward’s sexy young mistress, Deborah (Meridith Baer), along for the ride. Once Bobby discovers that he’s been duped into smuggling drugs, things go downhill quickly.
          On the plus side, the storyline has all sorts of potential for lurid and topical thrills. On the minus side, Ruben’s storytelling is so choppy that for the first half of the movie, it’s difficult to discern such simple facts as how certain characters are related to each other. Furthermore, Ruben expends so much energy delivering the B-movie goods (read: female nudity) that more important narrative considerations get short shrift. The piece comes together in the end, but it’s a bumpy ride. Somewhat compensating for the movie’s shortcomings, however, is a florid dialogue style that occasionally leaps from pretentious to surreal. Early on, Joanna hisses to Edward, “Every beast ought to lick his own wounds—so go off somewhere and lick.” Later, Edward says to Bobby, “You have more shame over a dollar bill than you do about your own penis.” Rest assured, context doesn’t make these lines any better, but at least the dialogue has more vitality than the rest of the movie.

The Sister-in-Law: FUNKY

Monday, January 20, 2014

Pick-Up (1975)

          First off, ignore the hilariously deceptive poster provided by the schlock merchants at Crown International Pictures. Far from being a typical sexy-hitchhiker flick, Pick-Up is a deeply strange film—part experimental cinema, part exploitation movie, part softcore porn, part surrealistic freakout. The movie includes astrology, creepy clowns, gentle folk songs, an effeminate senator inexplicably campaigning in the middle of a swamp, metaphorical balloons, a priest molesting a young woman, redneck rapists, Satan worship, and, of course, beautiful hippies having sex. And yet the most amazing part of Pick-Up is that director Bernie Hirschenson somehow manages to make all of this boring until the final half-hour, when Hirschenson jams together so many random signifiers that Pick-Up attains the weird quality of a fever dream.
          Adding to the picture’s unique flavor is the fact that Hirschenson, who also served as cinematographer, is actually quite talented at composition and lighting; although he’s hopeless as a director of actors and as a storyteller, he’s a natural at capturing dreamy, gauzy shots of attractive people. One might even say that Pick-Up transposes the vibe of a ’70s Playboy layout into moving pictures. Thus, long stretches of Pick-Up will be pure ambrosia for viewers who groove on arty nude scenes. For others, however, Pick-Up is a truly perplexing cinematic experience.
          The story—which is really just a premise—begins when Chuck (Alan Long) stops his bus on the side of a Florida highway to take a leak. He spies gorgeous hippie chicks Carol (Jill Senter) and Maureen (Gini Eastwood) lurking in a nearby field, so he offers them a ride. Carol, the dim-witted free spirit of the pair, is all for hitting the road with hunky Chuck, but witchy woman Maureen gets a bad premonition. Nonetheless, she takes Carol’s lead. Soon, the trio gets stuck in a swamp when bad weather forces a detour, so Carol and Chuck pass the time by screwing—in an endless sequence that climaxes with slow-motion shots of the lovers standing together, naked, on a swing as it floats through the air. Later, Maureen deals Tarot cards, flashes back to molestation by a priest, and answers the supernatural summons to an altar in a swamp, where she gains carnal knowledge of some demonic spirit. Then, as the song says, send in the clowns. Literally. A clown shows up to watch Maureen writhe orgasmically while receiving the supplications of her unseen demon lover. Eventually, Maureen gets with Chuck, too, while Carol does interpretive dance until rednecks show up to rape her. Then the clowns show up again, this time with balloons.
          Rest assured the movie is exactly as discombobulated as the preceding description suggests—Pick-Up delivers 80 minutes of elegantly photographed nonsense, edited together in a way that ensures maximum confusion. (It doesn’t help that the movie’s sound recording is awful, so much of the dialogue is inaudible.) Having said all that, the women in the movie (neither of whom is depicted on the poster) are lovely. The petite Senter has a girl-next-door quality and a seeming allergy to clothing, while Eastwood is a raven-haired beauty with mesmerizing brown eyes; although it’s hard to tell if either woman can act, given the context, both are so sexy that it’s surprising neither did more films. Still, it’s probably just as well that the starlets only exist, cinematically speaking, in this one bizarre movie—like everything else in Pick-Up, the actresses appear from nowhere, scramble viewers’ brains, and then disappear.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

          While the career of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry overflows with great accomplishments, there’s a special magic to the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, the screenplay for which McMurtry and director Peter Bogdanovich adapted from McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel. The elegiac film represents a magnificent fusion of two gifted storytellers, with Bogdanovich’s precocious classicism providing the perfect frame for McMurtry’s beautifully sad vision of a small Texas town in decline. The director provides elegant cinematography, taut dramaturgy, and vital performances; the author/screenwriter gives the piece its soul. The result of this combined effort is a wrenching little masterpiece about alienation, betrayal, disillusionment, loss, maturation, and sex. Shot in evocative black-and-white by master cinematographer Robert Surtees, The Last Picture Show is one of the highest accomplishments in screen art from any American studio in the ’70s.
          Based loosely on McMurtry’s memories of growing up in Texas during the postwar era, the film takes place in tiny Anarene, Texas, circa the early ’50s. Although it’s basically an ensemble piece, The Last Picture Show focuses on high school buddies Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms). At first, Duane seems to have the world by the tail, because he’s a good-looking, popular jock who dates the prettiest girl in town, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Conversely, Sonny seems like a lost soul as he breaks up with his high-school girlfriend and commences an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the desperately lonely wife of his football coach. Yet as the months drag on, it becomes clear that Duane’s future isn’t so rosy; Jacy is a manipulative striver willing to do nearly anything to achieve her goal of marrying into money. Partially as a result of his entanglement with Jacy, Duane discovers not only his own personal limitations (culminating in a rueful instance of impotence) but also the bleak realities of the larger world.
          As they stumble from adolescence to adulthood, watching the town around them decay from neglect and population shifts, the boys occasionally receive life lessons from an older friend named Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), owner of the local movie theater. The ways in which Sam and his beloved business suffer the ravages of time reveal profound metaphysical concepts that Duane and Sonny must come to understand. Bogdanovich and McMurtry weave a complex tapestry in The Last Picture Show, because the story also involves significant characters played by Ellen Burstyn, Clu Galager, Randy Quaid, and—most heartbreakingly—Sam Bottoms, the real-life younger brother of costar Timothy Bottoms. The irony that a story about a small town is densely populated provides just one of the literary nuances permeating The Last Picture Show. The film is also rich in allegory, metaphor, and subtext.
          Yet the movie is just as impressive in terms of cinematic technique. Bogdanovich shoots street scenes in a style heavily influenced by John Ford, so every dirty window and every wind-blown scrap of garbage says volumes. Similarly, the director films interiors with meticulous care, often framing one character prominently in the foreground, with others situated a distance behind, thereby accentuating the inability these people have to form real connections. And the performances! Johnson and Leachman both received Oscars, and rightfully so. Longtime screen cowboy Johnson unveils a lifetime of repressed feeling in his climactic monologue, and Leachman etches a poignant image of longing. Meanwhile, Timothy Bottoms conveys an unforgettably soulful quality, Bridges tempers his signature exuberance with hard-won wisdom, and Shepherd effectively illustrates the cost Jacy pays for her avarice. Fitting the bittersweet tone of McMurtry’s best writing, The Last Picture Show also features one of the most meaningful downbeat endings of the ’70s. Imprudently, most of the principals returned to the material for the 1990 sequel Texasville (again based on a McMurtry novel), but the follow-up is merely adequate, a faint echo of the original’s thunder.

The Last Picture Show: OUTTA SIGHT

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Trip With the Teacher (1975)

A rotten thriller about a busload of schoolgirls being terrorized by psychotic motorcyclists, Trip With the Teacher is entirely predicated on the females in the story being helpless and stupid. In other words, feminist propaganda this is not. For the first half the picture, four young ladies—along with their female teacher and male bus driver—are intimidated and manipulated by two jerks who never even brandish weapons. Then, later, once weapons actually are presented, the same group of victims (minus the driver) does nothing while the two men commit numerous verbal, sexual, and psychological assaults. Trip With the Teacher is so profoundly insulting to women that it’s a wonder Gloria Steinem never firebombed theaters showing this piece of junk. But then again, there’s a reason Trip With the Teacher wouldn’t have come to the attention of anyone prominent, because the movie is such a negligible endeavor that it’s barely worth discussing. Written and directed by Earl Barton, this shlocky flick boasts uniformly bad performances in the service of consistently uninteresting scenes. Even the would-be “exciting” sequences, featuring chases and violence, fail to engage much interest because the characters are so vapid that it’s impossible to care what fates befall them. By far the worst offender, acting-wise, is star Zalman King, who started out as a featured player on TV, then expanded his repertoire to include low-budget features. (Once his acting career stalled, King became a leading producer of softcore porn, with his “classiest” project being the glossy 1986 smutfest Nine 1/2 Weeks.) King demonstrates every cliché of self-indulgent, Method-style acting in Trip With the Teacher, whether laughing at inappropriate moments or writhing on the ground while simulating migraine headaches. He’s absurd, and certainly not formidable enough to validate the terror his character supposedly invokes in everyone around him. Easily one of the dullest movies ever made about the lurid topics of abduction, murder, and rape, Trip With the Teacher is the definition of disposable.

Trip With the Teacher: LAME

Friday, January 17, 2014

On Any Sunday (1971)

          After making his name with a series of surfing documentaries, notably The Endless Summer (1966), filmmaker Bruce Brown turned his lens to other sports. On Any Sunday depicts the world of competitive motorcycle riding, so the film includes races on multiple continents, in environments ranging from deserts to ice fields. The idea is to immerse the viewer in the breadth and fun of two-wheeled sportsmanship, so the vibe of On Any Sunday is almost perpetually upbeat; in fact, the movie often feels like a PSA for a motorcycle advocacy group, even though Brown includes facts about the dodgy economics of competitive riders and the grueling nature of long-distance races. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of footage and information Brown collected is deeply impressive. (On Any Sunday earned an Oscar nomination for Best Feature Documentary, but lost to The Hellstrom Chronicle.) And if this movie doesn’t have quite the same kick as Brown’s surfing docs, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable travelogue filled with amusing episodes, exciting moments of athletic accomplishment, and spectacular scenes of mega-races that attract more than 1,000 competitors. On Any Sunday even includes periodic appearances by a genuine movie star, because Steve McQueen was an avid motorcyclist who participated in several scenes alongside his freewheelin’ pals.
          Nonetheless, the ambition of the project outdistances the artistry. Brown’s shooting style is conventional, since he uses long lenses and slow motion to capture details that might escape the naked eye. Alas, riders are often obscured behind helmets and uniforms, so many of the racing shots lack a human element. Furthermore, Brown employs cornball music and sound effects to juice comedic moments, and his wall-to-wall narration gets a bit monotonous after a while. A final criticism is that Brown gained access only to the private lives of select documentary participants, so while the film offers a holistic view of unlucky competitor Mert Lawill, for instance, the presentation of star athlete Malcolm Smith is strictly hands-off. Smith is portrayed as a superior competitor who wins nearly every race he enters, no matter the type of race or whether he’s attempted that type beforehand, but Brown never reveals anything about what makes Smith tick.
          Ultimately, these shortcomings are inconsequential, because Brown never promises viewers an exposé or even a human drama. Right from the start, On Any Sunday is a feel-good celebration of riders doing what they love. Plus, Brown’s surfer-dude delivery on the soundtrack keeps everything cheerful and mellow. Brown adores the word “classic,” frequently drawling that such-and-such move is “the classic example” of a particular rider’s style, and he occasionally slips into outright beach-bum patois. (Describing a desert race, he says, “If you hit a bush, it’s an instant end-o.”) In short, On Any Sunday provides interesting information shared by way of a stoked super-fan, so what’s not to like? Proving the durability of the film’s easygoing aesthetic, Brown has produced three sequels, beginning with On Any Sunday II (1981) and continuing into the 2000s.

On Any Sunday: GROOVY

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interiors (1978)

          After writing and directing an extraordinary run of comedy films, from 1969’s Take the Money and Run to 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen needed a change, so he dove headlong into drama with Interiors, a grim chamber piece that recalls the work of Allen’s cinematic hero, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. Like Bergman’s myriad stories about the mysteries of the human soul, Interiors presents sophisticated but troubled individuals who possess the uncanny ability to articulate even the most miniscule nuances of emotion. Yet while Bergman’s singular movies exist on some elevated metaphorical plane that justifies the contrivance of hyper-verbal characters, Allen’s endeavor represents a queasy hybrid of realism and symbolism. That said, it’s helpful to view Interiors as a transitional moment, because while making his very next movie, 1979’s Manhattan, Allen found a more comfortable idiom by merging comedy with drama. Therefore, it’s as if Allen needed to flush jokes out of his system before he could evolve into a mature artist.
          This long preamble is a kind way of saying that Interiors would seem laughably dour and pretentious had it been made by anyone but a legitimate filmmaker in the midst of an important metamorphosis. In fact, notwithstanding rapturous cinematography by Gordon Willis and strong performances by an eclectic cast, Interiors sometimes approaches self-parody.
          Set primarily at a beach house in the Hamptons, the story borrows from the Eugene O’Neill template of a family plagued by epic dysfunction. Eve (Geraldine Page), an interior designer in late middle age, has been in crisis ever since her husband, Arthur (E.G. Marshall), left her. Over the course of several months, Eve attempts suicide, Arthur remarries, and their daughters wrestle with various neuroses. Nearly every scene in the picture features a depressing visual metaphor, whether it’s an off-white wall decorated by Eve as an expression of her barren emotional life, or an ominous shadow indicative of the ennui suffocating the characters.
          While undeniably artistic, intelligent, and ruminative, Allen’s unrelenting screenplay feels contrived, especially when characters unleash reams of overwritten dialogue. For instance, put-upon daughter Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) delivers a speech that summarizes the movie’s themes far too perfectly: “All the beautifully furnished rooms, carefully designed interiors—everything’s so controlled. There wasn’t any room for any real feelings.” And the scripting gets worse. Later in the same scene, Joey says, “There’s been perverseness and willfulness of attitude to many of the things you’ve done.” Allen has often evinced a proclivity for lines that are so “written” they sound unnatural emanating from actors, but his dramaturgical instinct has rarely failed him as completely as it does throughout Interiors.
          That said, the film is hardly without virtues. Aesthetically, Interiors is a triumph, with the combination of long takes and purposeful silence (there is no score) creating just the right kind of claustrophobia. Furthermore, the acting is impassioned, with performers struggling to make Allen’s stilted worlds sound organic—and occasionally succeeding. Page and costar Maureen Stapleton (who plays Arthur’s second wife) both received Oscar nominations, while Hurt, Marshall, Richard Jordan, and Diane Keaton all do strong work. Each character in the film, however, is essentially an elevated version of a cliché: the alcoholic novelist, the happy idiot, the soulful depressive, the vapid actress, and so on. Accordingly, Interiors remains most interesting as an artistic steppingstone, because it’s far too artificial, chilly, and pretentious to fully succeed as a movie.

Interiors: FUNKY