Friday, February 28, 2014

Over the Edge (1979)

          While it might be exaggerating to describe Over the Edge as the definitive teen-rebellion movie of the ’70s, the picture certainly captures the angst of suburban kids who feel trapped by the rigid lives their status-obsessed parents have created. Furthermore, because this rich thematic material is combined with a fiery screen debut (by future star Matt Dillon) and an adrenalized soundtrack featuring songs by Cheap Trick and the Ramones, Over the Edge coalesces into a tasty expression of adolescent rage. No surprise, then, that Over the Edge has enjoyed a long life despite never achieving box-office success or significant mainstream awareness; savored by hip viewers who see themselves reflected in the film’s characters, Over the Edge has become a minor cultural touchstone, reportedly inspiring the iconic 1991 music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
          Loosely based on real events that occurred near San Francisco in the early ’70s, the movie takes place in a fictional suburb where teenagers have no place to hang out except a dull recreation center, where adults monitor the kids’ activities. Predictably, teenagers jacked up on hormones and rock music find outlets for their aggression, congregating around fields and highways while experimenting with drugs and getting into mischief. When one of the kids, Mark (Vincent Spano), takes potshots at a police car with a BB gun, he inadvertently triggers a chain of events that results in a crackdown by authority figures and mass civil disobedience by the local teenagers. Tragedy ensues, as well, because the put-upon adolescents take action after one of their number is martyred.
          The reason everything kicks up to such a high level of conflict is that intergenerational tensions in the fictional town run deeper than just grown-up consternation about teen issues—the adults want to raze the recreation center and build a new business zone, permanently marginalizing the town’s youth. In effect, it’s class warfare. Incensed that their needs are being neglected, the movie’s core group of kids—including swaggering tough guy Richie (Dillon)—provoke standoffs with grown-ups, eventually leading to car chases and shootouts. The movie’s memorable finale includes an act of defiance so destructive and flamboyant that it should thrill anyone who ever wanted to lash out at clueless adults, roughly in the same measure that the act might horrify anyone whose sympathies lie with the Establishment.
          And even if Over the Edge ultimately pulls its punches, opting to stay within the realm of reality instead of venturing off into the teen-fantasy zone of Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979) or Heathers (1988), the picture represents a spirited middle finger to squares who suppress kids. As for behind-the-camera significance, obviously Dillon’s presence is the most noteworthy element—but Over the Edge also represents a key step in the career of director Jonathan Kaplan, who cut his teeth making exploitation movies for Roger Corman and other producers. After shooting On the Edge, Kaplan did a brief tenure in TV movies before breaking into studio features with ’80s hits including Project X (1987) and The Accused (1988).

Over the Edge: GROOVY

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Caravans (1978)

          Based on a novel by James Michener, whose sprawling stories set in exotic periods of history were better served by TV miniseries, Caravans features interesting cultural observations, resplendent production values, a romantic musical score, and a solid international cast. Undercutting these strong elements, however, is muddy storytelling. Not only is the nature of the relationship between the characters played by stars Jennifer O’Neill and Anthony Quinn maddeningly vague—are they lovers or merely friends?—but the dynamics coloring interactions between the various sociopolitical factions in the movie are hard to track. The root of this problem, of course, is the choice to set Caravans in a fictional Middle East country, necessitating inoffensive vagueness, even though everything about the setting and the story suggests the region in and around Afghanistan. Furthermore, because the main story is very simple, casual viewers can easily tune out the social-studies material, which is a shame—for while Caravans is primarily a story about a proud man clinging to outdated traditions during a moment of global change, the movie also attempts to dramatize the intrusion of America into foreign conflicts, the power struggles between different Muslim tribes, the smuggling of Russian guns, and so on.
          Anyway, the main story goes something like this: Low-level American diplomat Mark Miller (Michael Sarrazin) is sent into the desert to find runaway American woman Ellen Jasper (O’Neill), who married a local military man (Behrouz Vossoughi) but then fled to join the caravan of a nomadic tribe led by Zuffiqar (Quinn). Predictably, the movie tracks Mark’s slow awakening to the beauty and savagery of an ancient culture. Just as predictably, the movie features a half-hearted attempt at romance between Mark and Ellen, a subplot that climaxes in a drab love montage set to the pretty “Caravan Song,” performed by Barbara Dickson.
          Had the filmmakers either gone full-bore in Michener’s epic storytelling style or winnowed the source material down to just the core narrative, Caravans might have been more effective. As is, the movie feels too melodramatic for a depiction of geopolitical strife, and too complicated for a sweeping romance. The indifference of certain performances exacerbates these problems, with the lovely O’Neill—as usual—forming the weak link in the principal cast. Meanwhile, Quinn delivers an amiable retread of his Lawrence of Arabia performance, and Sarrazin struggles to identify what purpose his character serves other than to guide audiences into the narrative and periodically express “Oh, the humanity” shock. Among the Middle Eastern actors in the cast, Vossoughi provides intensity as the main villain, and Khosrow Tabatabai adds edge as a male dancer who plays sexualized mind games with men and women alike, causing considerable havoc.

Caravans: FUNKY

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Echoes of a Summer (1976)

          Were it not for the presence in the cast of two extraordinary actors, the pretentious tearjerker Echoes of a Summer would be of less than negligible interest. Adapted by Robert L. Joseph from his play The Isle of Children, this talkfest is filled with fanciful wordplay, whimsical contrivances, and preteens who speak with absurd eloquence. Joseph contrives a universe in which people articulate their feelings “poetically,” so the characters in Echoes of a Summer are as likely to express themselves through esoteric historical references as they are through meticulously crafted metaphors. And while Joseph occasionally hits the bull’s-eye with a line that conveys some simple emotional truth, getting there requires slogging through lots of florid nonsense. As a result, watching Echoes of a Summer quickly grows tiresomeunless one surrenders to the very different pleasures offered by the work of the two stars, Jodie Foster and Richard Harris.
          Foster plays a 12-year-old girl facing imminent death because of heart problems, and Harris plays her anguished father, a professional writer who buys a lake house so his daughter’s last summer on earth is peaceful. Foster, who was already a veteran child actor by the time she made this film, delivers confident and sensitive work that embellishes her status as one of the most impressive youth performers ever to work in Hollywood. Even though her character is preternaturally sophisticated, Foster makes the role feel as organic as possible by tapping into her own natural intelligence—and if her acting never tugs at the heartstrings, per se, that’s a compliment to the good taste she exhibits, since Foster never takes cheap emotional shots for schmaltzy effect. Harris, meanwhile, provides the opposite of realism, opting instead for grandiose romanticism. Brooding around the film’s lovely Nova Scotia locations while reciting poetry, singing, and spinning imaginative stories for the amusement of Foster’s character, Harris incarnates a Superdad who devotes his life to filling each of his little girl’s final moments with laughter and wonderment. Whether this characterization comes across as endearing or overbearing is entirely a matter of taste, but none would dispute the assertion that Harris attacks his role with gusto.
          Given the film’s focus on an intense father-daughter connection, it falls to poor costar Lois Nettleton, playing the mother of the story’s central family, to function as the de facto villain, a woman mired in denial and depression. The process of bringing Nettleton’s character around to grace (a word sprinkled liberally through the movie’s dialogue) is highly contrived, culminating in a silly final scene of a play-within-a-play presented for the benefit of the dying girl. Despite its sincere intentions, alas, Echoes of a Summer is ultimately as affected and trite as the awful theme song that plays over the opening and closing credits, written and sung (if that’s the right word) by Harris.

Echoes of a Summer: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Halls of Anger (1970)

          Years after Sidney Poitier blazed a path by playing righteously indignant African-American characters whose noble behavior shatters prejudice, the far less impressive actor Calvin Lockhart followed in Poitier’s footsteps by starring in this clunky but entertaining social drama about the forced integration of a primarily black school in Los Angeles. Lockhart, who cuts a handsome figure but twists dialogue in such a peculiar and stilted fashion that he’s unintentionally comical, plays Quincy Davis, a black teacher who escaped the ghetto for a job at a suburban school with white students. When redistricting integrates a tough school, officials recruit Quincy to become the school’s new vice principal—and to be the de facto ambassador between racial factions. Everything springing from this contrived scenario is as predictable as you might expect. Quincy clashes with the white principal, who feels black students should be herded like animals instead of treated like people. The angriest black student, J.T. (James A. Watson Jr.), decides to make an example of a white student, Doug (Jeff Bridges), by dragging Doug into fistfights. Meanwhile, Quincy heroically inspires black and white students alike to take their education seriously, employing such unconventional practices as getting male students excited about reading by introducing them to the sexy passages in D.H. Lawrence’s books.
          Halls of Anger also features such tired tropes as a basketball-game showdown between J.T. and Quincy—because, in the limited imaginations of the filmmakers behind Halls of Anger, all black men settle arguments with games of hoops—and a race riot that Quincy quells with his MLK-style homilies of nonviolence and understanding. Chances are that Halls of Anger already felt behind the times during its original release, and the movie seems positively primitive today. Nonetheless, it’s hard to actively dislike the picture, because it means well in a clumsy sort of way. Plus, for every weak element—including a cornball music score that makes onscreen events feel as frivolous as comic-book panels—there’s a redeeming quality. Chief among those redeeming qualities, of course, is the presence of Bridges, appearing in one of his very first features; although he doesn’t get an enormous amount of screen time, Bridges elevates his scenes with intensity and naturalism. Future TV stars Ed Asner and Rob Reiner appear in small roles, and DeWayne Jessie—best known for fronting the fictional R&B band Otis Day & the Knights in Animal House (1979)—contributes an enjoyable turn as a student whose education Quincy turns around.

Halls of Anger: FUNKY

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

          Very often, a movie star’s persona is a projection of how the star imagines his or her best self—we all know, for instance, about the wide gulf between Henry Fonda’s onscreen aw-shucks decency and the coldness that created distance between the actor and his famous children. For Robert Redford, who spent the early ’70s evolving from a box-office attraction to a legend, perhaps no single film more clearly articulates the person Redford aspires to be than Jeremiah Johnson. A singularly beautiful film with amazing locations, eccentric characterizations, long wordless sequences, and powerful depictions of culture clashes, Jeremiah Johnson aligns perfectly with the vision of Redford as a mountain man who disdains the duplicity of the modern world, preferring the environmentalism and spirituality of Native Americans—even though the title character, like Redford, occupies a complicated space bridging these two worlds.
          Based on two different literary sources and originally written by mad genius John Milius (whose script bore the unwieldy title Liver-Eating Johnson: The Legend of the Crow-Killer), Jeremiah Johnson was heavily rewritten by Edward Anhalt and an uncredited David Rayfiel. Yet the real authors, in a sense, are Redford and his frequent collaborator, director Sydney Pollack, because they shaped the material to suit Redford’s affection for the Utah mountains in which the film was shot, as well as the liberal political bent that both artists shared. (RIP, Sydney.) Despite its torturous birthing process, however, Jeremiah Johnson feels coherent and purposeful. Holding the thing together is the simple contrivance of the story. In the Old West era, Jeremiah Johnson (Redford) withdraws from society to become a mountain man, eventually forming deep bonds with people he meets in the wilderness—until a pivotal occurrence reveals how out of place Johnson actually is among the snow-capped peaks of the frontier.
          The image of gleaming god Redford disappearing behind a thick beard and head-to-toe furs functions as a recurring visual metaphor. Similarly, Redford’s matchless ability to express himself through physical action and subtle facial expressions reinforces the idea of a character who’s more comfortable with animals than other people. Plus, since Redford insisted the picture be photographed in the same area where he built a home once he became a superstar, the actor’s deep love for Utah’s glorious topography permeates every frame. Therefore, in many regards, Jeremiah Johnson wasn’t a character whom Redford needed to “play,” since the line separating performer and role was so fine. As Redford told biographer Michael Feeney Callan: “It was grueling and I was changed by it, no question. We re-created a way of life that real people lived in these real mountains.”
          Pollack’s predilection toward romantic sweep is held in check by the macho textures of the story, though the filmmaker achieves poetic effects once Johnson takes an Indian woman for a bride. Similarly, Pollack’s gift for articulating bittersweet nuances elevates sequences in which Johnson falls out of sync with his adopted terrain. Among the supporting cast, Will Geer stands out as Bear Claw—a flamboyant mountain man whom Johnson befriends—and Jack Colvin lends memorable wickedness as a U.S. military officer whose disdain for Indian beliefs has tragic consequences. Equally enjoyable as a mood piece, a narrative, or a hymn to wide open spaces, Jeremiah Johnson ranks with the finest accomplishments of every person involved in its making.

Jeremiah Johnson: RIGHT ON

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Solaris (1972)

          Appreciating the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is something of a badge of courage among film snobs, not only because his movies are so unfamiliar to mainstream audiences but also because his style is deeply challenging. Tarkovsky movies are generally cerebral, quiet, slow, and very long, with Andrei Rublev (1966) clocking in at nearly four hours and this sci-fi drama running nearly three. In fact, Solaris all but dares the viewer to pay sustained attention, because the film features myriad seemingly aimless shots of empty rooms. There’s a heavy element of art-school theory in Tarkovsky’s approach, so those uninterested in wrestling with such concepts as negative space and parallelism need not apply. For the adventurous, however, Solaris offers interesting rewards—the movie’s deepest ideas have a way of worming themselves into the viewer’s brain. After all, there’s a reason why two of Hollywood’s smartest professionals, actor George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh, mounted an American quasi-remake in 2002, although Soderbergh described his film as a fresh and separate adaptation of the underlying material that Tarkovsky employed.
           That underlying material is a novel by sci-fi scribe Stanislaw Lem, which takes place almost entirely on a space station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. Tarkovsky’s movie begins on Earth, where protagonist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) mourns the death of his wife, Kari, as he prepares for a mission to Solaris. It seems one of the three astronauts occupying the space station has committed suicide, so Kris—a psychologist—has been assigned to determine why the astronauts are experiencing mental problems. The first 45 minutes of the picture are slow going, with lots of ruminative dialogue and symbolic imagery, but once Kris reaches the space station, things get weird very quickly. The surviving occupants of the station are deranged and paranoid, hiding in their cabins while the station degrades into the outer-space equivalent of a haunted house. Meanwhile, Kris succumbs to the same malady as the others, seeing lifelike hallucinations of his dead wife (Natalya Bondarchuk).
          Eventually, the strange Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) diagnoses the phenomenon. The planet Solaris, which is sentient, has caused the hallucinations by probing the minds of the earthmen in order to replicate beloved images. The problem is that because the earthmen cannot respond in kind, they have no means of stopping the planet’s unintentionally destructive endeavors. Tarkovsky and co-screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshteyn fully engage the myriad themes raised by this scenario, which means that Solaris is a philosophical gabfest in the Bergman tradition. And while taking that narrative approach results in many static scenes of excessive length, the prize is a series of provocative assertions—for instance, Dr. Snaut cynically questions the very nature of pursuing knowledge in a universe that contains unknowable things.
          Compensating for the inert nature of extended dialogue exchanges, Tarkovsky conjures a number of disturbing scenes that are purely visual. The hallways of the space station have an ominous quality, presumably influencing the style that English director Ridley Scott employed a few years later in Alien (1979), and scenes of Kris’ dead wife repeatedly “resurrecting” contain a visceral charge. Underlying any discussion of Solaris, of course, is the question of whether Tarkovsky could have achieved similar or even greater effects with less bloat. Advocates might argue that the film needs its 167-minute runtime to cast a hypnotic spell, while critics can make a convincing case that less would have been more. Whether the movie is the “right” size or not, Solaris unquestionably occupies the highest strata of science-fiction cinema in that the film’s spectacle exists only to serve mind-expanding concepts.

Solaris: GROOVY

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Aaron Loves Angela (1975)

          It’s tempting to theorize that the urban romance Aaron Loves Angela contains a heavy crime element simply because the film’s producers worried that audiences would not flock to a low-budget race-themed movie in 1975 unless the movie included the movie had a blaxploitation vibe. The reason this thought comes to mind is that the drugs-and-hookers stuff in Aaron Loves Angela is so incidental to the main story that it could be extracted without making much difference. But then again, the main story is so threadbare that any attempt at adding dramatic weight, no matter how awkward, is appreciated. Essentially a Romeo-and-Juliet tale about an African-American boy romancing a Puerto Rican girl, Aaron Loves Angela is underwhelming in every way.
          When the story begins, wannabe basketball star Aaron (Kevin Hooks) and intellectually ambitious schoolgirl Angela (Irene Cara) already know each other, so the audience is deprived the magic of their first meeting. Obstacles to their courtship seem minor, because Aaron’s drunken father, Ike (Moses Gunn), wants the boy to focus on his athletic development, and Angela’s relatives (never shown onscreen) presumably want her to steer clear of boys until she’s through with school. To compensate for this lack of conflict, the filmmakers integrate a weak subplot about a pimp named Beau (Robert Hooks), who wants to escape street life by arranging a sketchy drug deal and ripping off crooks for a quarter-million in cash. Meanwhile, Aaron and Angela establish a love nest in the same tenement building where Beau stashes his dope. The inevitable intersection of these storylines is neither believable nor meaningful.
          Plus, while scenes of Aaron at home with his starry-eyed dad have some heft simply because of Gunn’s acting skill, the romantic stuff is flat and trite. Cara, who later became a singing star in addition to her acting work, comes across like a supporting player shoved into the limelight; although naturalistic, Cara lacks leading-lady charisma. Similarly, Kevin Hooks is so bland he gets overshadowed by every actor with whom he shares scenes—even real-life basketball great Walt Frazier, a non-actor who struggles through his brief cameo appearance. Speaking of cameos, blind Puerto Rican singing star José Feliciano shows up briefly to croon a tune during a nightclub scene, and he also composed and performed the movie’s score, which features a combination of background music and original songs. Especially when Aaron Loves Angela gets stuck in airy love-montage sequences, Feliciano’s lively music is the best part of the picture.
           Aaron Loves Angela was directed by the singularly unimpressive Gordon Parks Jr., who made his cinematic debut by helming the blaxploitation hit Super Fly (1972). The filmmaker’s father, famed photographer Gordon Parks, helmed several far superior pictures, including The Learning Tree (1969) and Shaft (1971).

Aaron Loves Angela: FUNKY

Friday, February 21, 2014

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

          While basically heartfelt and sincere, this downbeat saga of male friendship—set in the world of professional baseball—offers a litany of teachable moments for cinematic storytellers. At the most fundamental level, the film’s inconsequential plot overwhelms what should be a substantial story. But that’s not the only tactical error. Cornball music cheapens quiet moments that could have attained power if left unvarnished. Vincent Gardenia’s highly entertaining supporting performance, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination, is played so comically that it distracts from the film’s overall dramatic intentions. Worst of all, costar Robert De Niro’s presence—upon which the entire story hinges—is strangely minimized, which has the effect of transforming his crucial characterization into an abstraction. So, while it would be overreaching to describe Bang the Drum Slowly as a mess, it’s fair to say the movie has a significant identity crisis.
          Adapted by Mark Harris from his own novel of the same name, Bang the Drum Slowly depicts the exploits of a fictional New York baseball team, the Mammoths. Star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is best friends with second-rate catcher Bruce Pearson (De Niro), who just received a terminal diagnosis. Determined to help Bruce enjoy one last season of baseball without playing the sympathy card, Wiggen threatens not to sign his new contract unless Bruce’s position on the team is secured. This maneuver enrages coach Dutch Schnell (Gardenia), who then expends considerable effort investigating lies that Henry tells in order to obscure the real reason why he’s protecting Bruce. The whole business of Dutch parsing Henry’s stories is so contrived and silly that the amount of screen time given to that subplot is irritating, even though Gardenia’s slow burns and tantrums are great fun to watch. Similarly, Harris and director John Hancock push the mildly eccentric Henry to the foreground of the story—even though the real drama revolves around Bruce—and they fail to persuasively explain why Henry is so attached to Bruce.
          Seeing as how Bang the Drum Slowly hit theaters two years after the far more effective Brian’s Song scored on television, Bang the Drum Slowly pales by comparison. Still, the picture is not without its virtues, mostly related to acting. Beyond the wonderful Gardenia, De Niro overcomes miscasting as a redneck to create a likeably slow-witted persona; Moriarty contributes his signature style of cerebral weirdness; and Barbara Babcock and Selma Diamond, respectively, lend enjoyable flavors of aristocratic haughtiness and scratchy-voiced crudeness. As for the film’s would-be heartbreaker of an ending, it’s a nonevent compared to the climax of Brian’s Song, which has been making grown men cry since 1971.

Bang the Drum Slowly: FUNKY

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Teacher (1974)

In the mid-’90s, Hollywood issued a slew of straight-to-video erotic thrillers featuring former child actresses (Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, Molly Ringwald, etc.) in sexualized roles. The marketing copy for these flicks usually included the phrase “as you’ve never seen her before.” Go figure that one of the antecedents of this trend actually features a male ex-child star—The Teacher presents ’60s TV kid Jay North, onetime star of Dennis the Menace, “as you’ve never seen him before.” Having not grown up on that particular show, watching North simulate sex onscreen didn’t warp any of my childhood memories, but chances are The Teacher has that effect on some unlucky viewers. Which, as it happens, may be the only effect the movie has on anyone, because The Teacher is Insipid, slow, tacky, and weird. North plays Sean, a recent high school graduate who joins his pal, Lou (Rudy Herrera Jr.), for a dubious adventure—they visit the warehouse hideaway in which Lou’s older brother, tweaked Vietnam vet Ralph (Anthony James), uses binoculars to watch a beautiful woman sunbathe nude every day. The woman is Diane (Angel Tompkins), who happens to be Ralph’s former schoolteacher. An accident at the warehouse leaves Lou dead, with Ralph preoccupied by the false notion that Sean was responsible. Any tension promised by this scenario, however, is quickly dissipated by the filmmakers’ ineptitude. For instance, even though Sean knows that Ralph is out to get him, Sean passes days aimlessly by swimming in pools and working on his van. That is, until Diane all but rapes the young man, commencing a scandalous romance. Very little of what happens onscreen makes sense, the elements never cohere, and the film culminates in an absurd bummer ending. (A disjointed music score spanning sludgy funk and twee balladry adds to the overall oddness.) As for the actors, North is terrible, James goes way over the top, and Tompkins mostly just undresses. So, while it’s somewhat possible to embrace The Teacher as a so-bad-it’s-good atrocity, the wiser path is simply to steer clear.

The Teacher: LAME

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Student Nurses (1970)

          Featuring what may be the only combination abortion/acid-flashback scene in all of world cinema, The Student Nurses is nearly a credible movie, despite the obvious come-on of the title. Made for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, The Student Nurses has all the hallmarks of a late ’60s/early ’70s exploitation film—fashionable anti-Establishment rhetoric, plentiful nudity, swaggering young people who think they’re equipped to change the world. However, the picture wobbles between salaciousness and seriousness, occasionally running aground in sequences that feel like they belong in other movies, such as love-ins and riots. The culprits behind this undisciplined storytelling are Stephanie Rothman, who directed, and Charles S. Schwartz, who shared producing and writing chores with Rothman. Both were prolific laborers in Corman’s B-movie factory, but neither ever made anything of real distinction, although The Student Nurses was a big enough success to inspire a string of “sexy nurse” movies.
          The Student Nurses follows the adventures of four pretty young women who room together while completing their nursing educations. Each gets into a hassle of some sort, so the women help each other out of jams and learn life lessons along the way. Lynn (Brioni Farrell) stumbles into a social crisis involving heavily armed Latino activists; Phred (Karen Carlson) gets involved with a gynecologist and wrestles with squeamishness over morally complicated medical issues; Priscilla (Barbara Leigh) has a tumultuous romance with a hippie drug dealer; and Sharon (Elaine Giftos) bonds with a terminal patient. Tonally, the movie is all over the place, featuring such random events as an acid trip, an attempted rape, a colorful Day of the Dead celebration, a diatribe about food preservatives, and a meet-cute predicated on the ordering of vegetarian dishes.
          The vibe is very much Valley of the Dolls, only without quite as many histrionics, because Rothman and Schwartz try to play their material straight. Had the lovely actresses cast in the lead roles delivered better work, The Student Nurses might have come together as a snapshot of a turbulent time in history. Alas, because the leading ladies are mostly ornamental—their willingness to disrobe having been a prerequisite—the film’s higher aspirations are never realized. Still, the mere presence of such aspirations makes The Student Nurses more palatable than most films designed to accentuate the sex lives of coeds. FYI, costar Giftos—who also appeared in the 1970 Corman production Gas!—transitioned from this movie to a small-screen project set in the same milieu, costarring in the 1970-1971 TV series The Interns.

The Student Nurses: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Bloody Judge (1970)

          Although Spanish B-movie director Jesús Franco’s career seems to represent quantity over quality—he’s credited on IMDb with helming over 200 projects—his exuberant way of telling pulpy stories has gained many admirers. Plus, every so often, Franco came dangerously close to making a “real” movie, despite never leaving the ghetto of exploitation films. For instance, The Bloody Judge offers a fairly serious look at a grim chapter in history, even if the project seems as if it was designed to piggyback on the notoriety of the Vincent Price picture Witchfinder General (1968). Like the earlier film, The Bloody Judge is about a 17th-century jurist who employs heresy as an all-purpose accusation with which to pressure victims into providing financial, political, and/or sexual favors. Yet while stylish UK director Michael Reeves elevated Witchfinder General into high drama, Franco stays mired in the muck. The Bloody Judge has coherent dialogue scenes and a reasonable plot with intense moral ramifications, but it also contains prurient torture scenes that accentuate beautiful women. Try as he might to incorporate highbrow elements, Franco seems fundamentally more interested in the trashy aspects of this story.
          In any event, horror-cinema icon Christopher Lee plays Jeffries, a cold-hearted inquisitor tasked with rooting out witches in rural England. At the beginning of the story, lovely Alice Gray (Margaret Lee) is captured fornicating with a lover and brought before Jeffries. Alice’s sister, Mary (Maria Rohm), pleads with Jeffries for mercy, but refuses his proposed trade of sex for clemency. Jeffries has Alice burned at the stake. This sets in motion a complex series of political machinations, because Jeffries gets embroiled in a power struggle with an aristocrat, Lord Wessex (Leo Genn), who resents being kept under the imperious Jeffries’ thumb. Meanwhile, Mary maneuvers to get justice in her late sister’s name. The plot’s a bit hard to follow, and this problem is exacerbated by long stretches during which Lee is offscreen; like so many B-movies, The Bloody Judge teases the presence of a star, then devotes most of its screen time to supporting actors.
          The movie also rides a fine line because Franco’s filming of torture scenes is sleazy but not stomach-turning. It’s as if the director can’t decide whether The Bloody Judge is a genre movie with historical components or a historical picture with genre elements. Accordingly, The Bloody Judge is unlikely to entirely satisfy fans of either serious cinema or schlock. Still, the subject matter is interesting, the supporting performances are lusty, and Lee glowers in his inimitable fashion. For no discernible reason, by the way, the picture was released in the US as Night of the Blood Monster, hence the absurd poster pictured above, which has nothing to do with the story.

The Bloody Judge: FUNKY

Monday, February 17, 2014

On the Yard (1978)

          Given the overwrought norm of the prison-movie genre, the narrative restraint that defines On the Yard is refreshing. Based on a novel by Malcolm Braly, who also wrote the script, the picture is a character-driven ensemble piece about lifers and recidivists either building subcultures or struggling to maintain isolation. On the Yard exudes authenticity in terms of behavior, dialogue, motivation, and ordinary details—and while the film stretches credibility with a fanciful climax, Braly and director Raphael D. Silver quite literally bring On the Yard back down to solid ground for a melancholy denouement.
          From start to finish, On the Yard articulates the sobering truth that time is an equalizer for prisoners—one day’s crisis is the next day’s fading memory, because everyone in the big house has a story just as sad as the next guy’s. Yet even though the filmmakers convey deep empathy for the harsh existence of convicts, neither Braly nor Silver ignore the weight of the crimes that put their characters behind bars—On the Yard asks viewers to wrestle with the paradox that criminals simultaneously personify humanity and inhumanity.
          John Heard, an actor whose great skill is subtly injecting pathos into emotionally remote characters, stars as Juleson, an educated man incarcerated for killing his wife. Juleson tries to live in his mind, avoiding prison-yard politics and schemes, until he accidentally gets into hock with Chilly (Thomas G. Waites), a slick operator who rules the inmate population through contraband and gambling. The offbeat quandary driving the story is that Chilly realizes he must make an example of Juleson, even though he admires and likes the guy; concurrently, Juleson recognizes that if he acquiesces to Chilly’s pressure by doing a favor that breaks prison policy, he’ll become part of an insidious system. Complicating this fascinating battle of wills is a secondary struggle between Chilly and Blake (Lane Smith), the captain of the prison’s guards. At the very moment Chilly looks for ways to show mercy for Juleson, Blake cracks down on Chilly’s operation, forcing Chilly to publicly flex his muscle. Also woven into the story are the sagas of Morris (Joe Grifasi), a frightened little man meticulously planning an outrageous escape, and Red (Mike Kellin), a social misfit who keeps getting thrown back in jail because he can’t function in the outside world.
          Structurally, On the Yard is more novelistic than cinematic, but the languid rhythms of the narrative help generate surprises—the movie takes several unexpected turns that add thought-provoking dimensions. Furthemore, the terrific acting by nearly every member of the cast meshes with Braly’s strategy of placing believable people into unimaginable circumstances. Heard does especially good work, revealing Juleson’s anguish while emphasizing the man’s odd mixture of dignity and self-loathing; Waites beautifully illustrates the way Chilly teeters between power and impotence; and Grifasi and Kellin lend poignancy to their roles as pathetic men with few choices in life.

On the Yard: GROOVY

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Harrad Experiment (1973)

          Adapted from a best-selling novel by Robert Rimmer, a lifelong skeptic of monogamy, The Harrad Experiment strikes an odd balance between tackiness and thoughtfulness. Set at a fictional college where two professors use students as a control group while testing their theories about free love, the movie has a salacious premise—students are asked to ditch their hang-ups and have sex with strangers—yet the onscreen content is gentle to a fault, because the worst repercussion of the experiment is hurt feelings. Nonetheless, The Harrad Experiment gained forbidden-fruit allure during its original release; after all, there’s a kinky thrill to be had imagining a college where sex ed is taken so literally. Also contributing to The Harrad Experiment’s minor cult-fave status is the presence of leading man Don Johnson, later to achieve fame in the ’80s TV series Miami Vice. Make what you will of the fact that he shares a quasi-erotic scene with screen veteran Tippi Hedren, who in real life is the mother of actress Melanie Griffith, Johnson’s on-again/off-again paramour for many years.
          Much of The Harrad Experiment comprises rap sessions between the students and their teachers, married couple Philip Tenhausen (James Whitmore) and Margaret Tenhausen (Hedren). The Tenhausens organize their students into couples and then encourage the kids to get it on, so a lot is made of the insecurity and shyness of Sheila (Laurie Walters), the meek coed paired with sexually confident Stanley (Johnson). Similarly, mousy Harry (Bruno Kirby) gets matched with gorgeous Beth (Victoria Thompson), so trouble arises when Beth dallies with Stanley.
          It’s all very unintentionally amusing, simply because the performers play everything so straight—even when delivering now-dated platitudes about human connection that are really just veiled pick-up lines. (One memorable bit of hippy-dippy interaction involves the students’ yoga instructor teaching them to do “zooms”—as the kids sit in a circle and say the word “zoom” one after another, literally creating a mellow buzz among the group.) The irony of The Harrad Experiment, of course, is that the movie is as conventional in its execution (and its morality) as the uptight society that Rimmer’s novel was presumably designed to challenge. As such, it’s a spicy message picture without the spice or the message. A quasi-sequel, originally titled Harrad Summer and later rechristened Love All Summer, followed in 1974. More on that one at a later date.

The Harrad Experiment: FUNKY

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Zulu Dawn (1979)

          If amazing production values were sufficient to make a movie worthwhile, then the historical action film Zulu Dawn would be a minor classic—in addition to lavish location photography in nearly every sequence, the picture boasts massive battle scenes with hordes of combatants in elaborate costumes. Especially when director Douglas Hickox cuts to panoramic shots illustrating the scale of battlefields and opposing armies, Zulu Dawn attains an epic quality. Yet from start to finish, the movie is mired in murkiness. So many interchangeable characters are given dialogue that it’s difficult to keep straight who’s doing what to whom and why, and the non-combat scenes are dry and talky. But then again, it’s not as if Zulu Dawn represents some huge missed opportunity, because the film is a prequel to the far superior Zulu (1964), which covered the most interesting aspects of the historical event that’s depicted in both films.
          Specifically, the two movies dramatize armed conflict that occurred in British South Africa circa 1879. The encounter shown in Zulu Dawn took place hours before the one shown in Zulu, and the result of the second battle was more definitive, representing a massive defeat of British colonial soldiers by Zulu natives. Had the makers of Zulu Dawn taken a wholly different approach than the makers of the preceding film, perhaps focusing exclusively on political and sociocultural strife, then Zulu Dawn might have seemed necessary. Alas, since the prequel is primarily a combat movie—just like its predecessor—Zulu Dawn is inherently redundant.
          Nonetheless, the prequel boasts the same level of authenticity, perhaps because Cy Endfield, who cowrote and directed Zulu, also cowrote Zulu Dawn. The story of Zulu Dawn revolves around Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole), a smug British commander given the impossible task of pressuring the Zulu nation into surrendering its sovereignty. Chelmsford’s principal field commander is Colonel Dumford (Burt Lancaster), an Irishman with disdain for authority and respect for his opponents. Also featured in the narrative are Lt. Veeker (Simon Ward), a naïve aristocrat eager to win glory in combat, and Sergeant-Major Williams (Bob Hoskins), a career soldier determined to keep as many of his men alive as possible. On the “enemy” side, principal characters include King Cetshwayo (Simon Sabela), who resolves to preserve his nation’s integrity despite the formidable opposition of the British.
          Lengthy scenes set amid the British encampment fail to engage interest, partially because the scenes are overpopulated and partially because the stiff-upper-lip characterizations are overly familiar. And while vignettes showing cultural habits and strategy meetings among the Zulu are far more interesting, Endfield, Hickock, and their collaborators seem unsure which thread of the narrative is most important. Adding to the movie’s iffy vibe is erratic acting. The usually explosive O’Toole is somnambulatory, and Lancaster’s characteristic flamboyance feels old-fashioned compared to the naturalism of his costars.

Zulu Dawn: FUNKY

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Stepmother (1972)

Should you ever have reason to watch a slew of eroticized low-budget ’70s dramas in succession, here’s one of the many strange things that will become clear to you—sometimes, the stories that seem as if they should be the easiest to tell are the ones that give untalented filmmakers the most trouble. For instance, The Stepmother is a straight-ahead story about a hotheaded Latino (how’s that for a cliché) who kills his wife’s lover, then is driven mad by guilt until ironic circumstance delivers him to justice. Simple, right? Apparently not. Writer-director Howard Avedis’ script is confusing, repetitive, and stupid, revolving around characters who conveniently eschew common sense and logic. Furthermore, Avedis employs an absurd number of narrative coincidences; for example, on two separate occasions, the protagonist happens to arrive at his house exactly when his wife finishes a tryst with someone else. (We’ve yet to discuss Avedis’ inexplicable predilection for using cheesy freeze-frames at the ends of scenes.) Alejandro Rey, who looks like he could be Al Pacino’s stunt double, plays Frank, a Los Angeles architect with a bad temper and a slutty spouse named Margo (Katherine Justice). After Frank murders a dude whom he discovers is sleeping with Margo, Frank tries to move on with his life, but he’s haunted by visions of his victim and he’s monitored by a detective (John Anderson) who sorta-kinda suspects Frank but never does anything about his suspicions. Frank’s anger-management issues eventually spell trouble for his business partner (Larry Linville) and his son (Rudy Herrera Jr.), even though Frank makes time for an affair of his own. Nice guy. Given this choppy plot, The Stepmother feels like an awkward fusing of two separate movies. The first half of the picture is a murder story, and the second half is a sleazy domestic saga about a horny housewife seducing her teenaged son-in-law. It’s all very weird, but not good weird. The Stepmother would be amusingly awful were it not so boring; as is, it’s merely a case study in cinematic incompetence.

The Stepmother: LAME

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mahogany (1975)

          Among the more subversive aspects of 1970s cinema is a string of melodramas so campy, so overzealously feminized, and so preoccupied with glamour that they feel like paeans to gay nightclub culture, even if the filmmakers involved originally had something more butch in mind. Like the equally absurd 1977 potboiler The Other Side of Midnight, this flamboyant Diana Ross star vehicle concerns a woman who drives remarkable men wild with desire even as she fascinates women with her beguiling mystique. And while the notion of the lovely Miss Ross as a supermodel isn’t hard to accept—she’s certainly bone-thin enough—other aspects of the movie occupy the realm of the ridiculous.
          Conceived and written in the mode of a 1930s “women’s picture,” Mahogany depicts the adventures of Tracy (Ross), a wannabe fashion designer struggling to make ends meet in Chicago by working in the display department of a high-fashion store. Right from the beginning, Tracy is portrayed as a self-confident superwoman—in one especially ludicrous scene, Tracy intimidates a would-be mugger into leaving her alone simply by mouthing off to him. Therefore, when Tracy meets bleeding-heart politician Brian (Billy Dee Williams), she makes it clear that her career is a bigger priority than romance. He accepts her terms, more or less, and they become a couple. Meanwhile, Tracy attempts to peddle her designs to potential buyers, and she inadvertently catches the eye of bitchy fashion photographer Sean (Anthony Perkins). Taken by her look, Sean encourages Tracy to become a model, eventually inviting her to Rome, where he believes she’ll become an international celebrity. Predictably, this juncture leads to a falling-out with Brian, so Tracy leaves Chicago for a jet-set lifestyle in Europe. The story then entangles Tracy in a romantic quadrangle comprising Tracy, Brian, Sean, and European millionaire Christian (Jean-Pierre Aumont).
          Although shot quite attractively by cinematographer David Watkin, Mahogany goes over the top so many times it nearly becomes a comedy. At one point, for instance, a delirious Tracy entertains guests by dripping hot wax all over her face and chest. Those crazy European parties! Other highlights: Brian and Sean literally wrestle with a gun in between them; Christian tries to buy Tracy’s sexual favors for 20 million lira; Tracy debuts an entire line of kabuki-inspired clothing; and so on. Tying all of this together is the pretty tune “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” which plays, either instrumentally or with Ross’ memorable vocal performance, about five zillion times. FYI, Mahogany was the first and last movie directed by Motown founder—and perennial Ross champion—Berry Gordy, who reportedly took over the film after firing original helmer Tony Richardson. The world is not poorer for Berry’s decision to leave directing to others.

Mahogany: FUNKY