Monday, March 31, 2014

The Way We Were (1973)

          Although it’s a highly problematic film, The Way We Were achieved monumental success—and remains deeply beloved by many fans today—simply because of a casting masterstroke. It’s hard to imagine two actors with more seemingly incompatible energies than Robert Redford, the coolly handsome Californian whose persona is predicated on internalized conflict, and Barbra Streisand, the unconventionally beautiful New Yorker whose persona is predicated on a dynamic blend of brashness and neuroses. Yet the two stars generated unmistakable heat together, and the story of The Way They Were echoes the divide between their personas. Add in the fact that both actors were at the peak of their box-office appeal, and it becomes clear why the movie was a major hit. Thus, while it’s unlikely that subsequent generations will ever embrace the film as a timeless classic, the movie remains a beguiling example of what happens when the right actors converge with the right material at the right time.
          Because, of course, The Way We Were does much more than just serve up marquee-name charisma—Arthur Laurents’ thoughtful script merges politics with romance in unexpected ways, and Sydney Pollack’s slick direction bridges Old Hollywood glamour and New Hollywood social consciousness. As such, even though The Way We Were is excessive and schmaltzy (with more than a few plot holes), it’s one of the most intelligent big-screen love stories of the ’70s. Laurents, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter who was blacklisted for left-leaning political activities during the ’50s, created a vivid narrative spanning several decades. Over the course of various extended flashbacks, The Way We Were tracks the experiences of Katie Morosky (Streisand) and Hubbell Gardner (Redford), who first meet in college.
          She’s Jewish, loud, and political. He’s a golden-god WASP oblivious to current events. Initially, they’re as repelled by each other as they are attracted, because Katie comes on too strong and Hubbell doesn’t come on strong enough—she’s the ultimate activist, pushing for social change and condemning those who aren’t with her on the front lines, while he’s the ultimate embodiment of entitlement, a naturally gifted writer accustomed to happening upon good fortune. In essence, these polar-opposite characters represent defiance of authority and compliance with the status quo, respectively. As the years pass, Katie and Hubbell miss opportunities for romantic connection. When they finally consummate their attraction, the intensity of their bond surprises both of them. They marry, but life intervenes in tragic ways. Among other things, Hubbell takes a sell-out job as a Hollywood screenwriter, and Katie’s ongoing political activities make Hubbell a target as the Hollywood blacklist emerges. The linchpin moment is a test of Hubbell’s integrity—will he rise to Katie’s principled level or not?
          Laurents’ storytelling is unavoidably episodic and repetitive, giving the feel of a soap opera. (Marvin Hamlisch’s syrupy score contributes to this problem, although the title song he composed with Alan and Marilyn Bergman is haunting, thanks to Streisand’s emotional vocals.) Many supporting characters teeter on the brink of one-dimensionality, especially Hubbell’s mistress, Carol Ann (Lois Chiles), and certain transitions within the story feel like arbitrary narrative choices made solely for the purpose of raising the tearjerker stakes. Yet The Way We Were is not, ultimately, the sort of movie from which one expects immaculate dramaturgy—it’s a glossy hymn to the kind of overpowering love everyone hopes to experience at least once. Particularly during the bittersweet final scene, The Way We Were sings that hymn beautifully.

The Way We Were: GROOVY

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jabberwocky (1977)

          Terry Gilliam’s first solo directorial effort, the whimsical medieval fantasy Jabberwocky, occupies a peculiar place in the lore of Monty Python, the legendary UK comedy troupe of which Gilliam is the sole American member. Two years prior to the release of Jabberwocky, the troupe issued the beloved comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is also set in medieval times. Therefore, because Jabberwocky features a Python behind the camera as well as one in front of the camera—Michael Palin plays the leading role—comparisons between the two films are unavoidable. (A third Python, Terry Jones, plays a glorified cameo.) By any measure, Jabberwocky pales next to Holy Grail—which is slightly unfair, since the latter picture was never intended as a follow-up to Holy GrailQuite to the contrary, Jabberwocky is a straight-ahead narrative, instead of a loose collection of sketches. It’s also a fairly grim examination of themes related to fate, heroism, and politics. Many of the gags in Jabberwocky have a tragicomic quality, since the story concerns an everyman who stumbles into greatness without ever actually being great. Gilliam, who cowrote this loose adaptation of a Lewis Carroll poem with Charles Alverson, must have known he was asking for trouble by making a project with so many similarities to Holy Grail—but then again, asking for trouble has been Gilliam’s modus operandi throughout his entire directorial career.
          For all of these reasons, Jabberwocky is more noteworthy as a Python anomoly than as a proper film. The narrative is sluggish, since Gilliam seems more interested in production design than in dramaturgy. One is hard-pressed to think of a filthier movie about the Middle Ages—nearly every location is slathered with putrid-looking sludge, and the overuse of haze filters gives the cinematography a murky look. This grubby aesthetic is accentuated by the handmade nature of the film’s costumes and props, especially the title monster, a dragon that Palin’s character must slay. Seeing as how Gilliam put his image-making gifts to better use in subsequent work—beginning with his next film, the wonderful fantasy-adventure Time Bandits (1981)—it’s not as if the exercise of making Jabberwocky was a waste. For many people, however, the experience of watching the film may be a waste. Despite being a tremendously nimble comic actor, Palin is far too gentle a personality to command attention in the contact of an action story. Similarly, even though Gilliam is a genuine visionary, he falls into one style-over-substance trap after another. Some viewers may be able to groove on Jabberwocky’s irreverence, but many more will get tired of sifting through dull scenes and second-rate jokes while searching for moments of inspiration.

Jabberwocky: FUNKY

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hannah, Queen of the Vampires (1973)

An American-Spanish coproduction that was shot in Europe, with leading actors from the U.S., this underwhelming horror flick has been distributed under several different titles, including Crypt of the Living Dead—and it’s even been distributed in two different color schemes, because some prints are in black-and-white and some are in color. Such are the fates that befall movies in the public domain. Anyway, Hannah, Queen of the Vampires is standard shock fare, somewhat in the Hammer Films mode. After an archeologist is killed while exploring a crypt on a remote European island, his intrepid son, Chris (Andrew Prine), travels to the same location in order to investigate his father’s death. Abetted by skittish local schoolteacher Mary (Patty Sheppard) and her spooky brother, Peter (Mark Damon), Chris learns the crypt is occupied by the corpse of Hannah (Teresa Gimpera), a 700-year-old vampire whom the island’s residents fear has been resuscitated. After the usual perfunctory scenes of Chris scoffing at the superstition of provincial types, Chris splits his time between romancing Mary and answering hypnotic calls to visit Hannah’s tomb. This repetitive business goes on for a while. Then the villagers do their pitchforks-and-torches bit. Seen in its original color version, Hannah, Queen of the Vampires is so dull and trite that even calling it ordinary would be a compliment. However, there’s something to be said for the scratchy black-and-white print that’s in circulation, because the monochromatic incarnation of the movie has a Bergman-esque quality. Seriously. Turn off the sound, and it’s possible to groove on moody low angles of angst-ridden people drifting through clouds of mist and walking around graveyards. However, noting that Hannah, Queen of the Vampires is best appreciated without its color or its soundtrack says everything you need to know about the movie’s inherent virtues.

Hannah, Queen of the Vampires: LAME

Friday, March 28, 2014

Burnt Offerings (1976)

          Note: When I posted my original review of Burnt Offerings two years ago, a handful of readers complained that I hadn’t given the movie a fair appraisal, so I made a mental note to revisit the film after some time had passed. Now, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Burnt Offerings a lot more on second viewing—hence the following.
          Despite scoring on the small screen as the creator of the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and as the director of a number of creepy TV movies, filmmaker Dan Curtis wasn’t able to achieve big-screen success. In fact, he directed only one significant theatrical feature, the haunted-house thriller Burnt Offerings, which is long on atmosphere and short on gore. The movie’s biggest “special effects” are the quietly creepy score by Bud Cobert and the twitchy leading performances by Karen Black and Oliver Reed. One could easily pick apart the logic of the storyline, which Curtis and co-screenwriter William F. Nolan adapted from a novel by Robert Morasco, but horror shares with the comedy genre a simple litmus test—whatever works, works. And since Burnt Offerings builds nicely from a disquieting opening sequence to a nasty finale, the movie basically works, in the sense of giving viewers a solid case of the heebie-jeebies.
          When the story begins, psychologically scarred academic Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed) and his kindhearted wife, Marian (Karen Black), move into a California vacation home accompanied by their young son (Lee Montgomery) and their dotty old aunt (Bette Davis). The house’s owners, eccentric siblings Arnold Allardyce (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), instruct the Rolfs to deliver meals on a daily basis to the Allardyces’ elderly mother, who lives in an upstairs room but never sets foot anywhere else. Foolishly accepting an offer that’s too good to be true (the rental price of the house is outrageously low), the Rolfs soon get caught in the building’s otherworldly spell. While Marian becomes obsessed with looking after the house and the never-seen Mother Allardyce, Ben starts to experience inexplicable homicidal compulsions, as well as eerie flashbacks to his mother’s funeral.
          Although Curtis and his cohorts eventually provide a tidy explanation for the supernatural nature of the house’s power over its occupants, many aspects of the story are left intentionally mysterious, and that might be the film’s strongest element. For instance, recurring images of an enigmatic chauffeur (Anthony James) linger not only because the cadaverous and perpetually grinning chauffeur is so creepy-looking, but because the chauffeur represents an entire secret realm of unknowable malevolence.
          The biggest challenge when watching Burnt Offerings is accepting how quickly the house gets its hooks into the Rolfs—the usual “why don’t they just leave?” syndrome. (See: The Amityville Horror, etc.) That’s where Curtis’ long record of setting a spooky mood comes into play, because for those willing to join Curtis’ leisurely trek into the shadows, Burnt Offerings has a seductive quality. Black is aptly cast, thanks to the way her close-set eyes make her seem a little bit off right from the beginning, and Reed essays his underwritten role with gravitas and menace. Davis expresses suffering well, and the tag team of Eckhart and Meredith provide a wealth of weirdness in their single scene. Ultimately, Burnt Offerings may be too predictable and slow-moving to qualify as one of the decade’s best fright flicks, but it’s a fun exercise in style—and it comes close to doing for outdoor swimming pools what Jaws did for the Atlantic Ocean.

Burnt Offerings: GROOVY

Cold Sweat (1970)

          British director Terence Young made a wide variety of action films and thrillers following his triumphant work on the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), as well as two follow-up 007 adventures. For instance, in the early ’70s, Young made three pulpy flicks in a row with badass leading man Charles Bronson—in addition to this tense crime thriller, the duo made the offbeat Western Red Sun (1971) and the violent mob movie The Valachi Papers (1972). Like the other Bronson-Young collaborations, Cold Sweat is entertaining if not especially distinctive. Bronson stars as Joe Martin, an American fisherman living in France with his European wife, Fabienne (Liv Ullmann). One day, a crook busts into Joe’s house claiming to know the fisherman from some shady episode in the past. Joe shocks Fabienne by calmly murdering the assailant. Then, the minute Joe and Fabienne discard of the intruder’s body, more unwanted visitors arrive, led by cruel American ex-soldier Captain Ross (James Mason). Turns out Joe and several other men participated in criminal enterprises while they were serving in the U.S. military, but Joe bailed during a robbery. Since Joe’s disappearance led to jail time for everyone else, Ross is back for revenge. Caught in the middle are Fabienne and her teenaged daughter.
          Based on a story by celebrated fantasy writer Richard Matheson, Cold Sweat actually feels a bit more like a narrative that Elmore Leonard might have contrived, which is a compliment—operating outside his usual supernatural safety zone, Matheson establishes a nasty situation fraught with unexpected complications. For instance, much of the picture involves a race to save a dying man (explaining any more would spoil the story), and this suspenseful element gives Young license to film a crazy car chase through a twisty mountain road. Whenever the movie’s action scenes are juiced by exciting music from composer Michel Magne, Cold Sweat becomes an enjoyable exercise in escapism. Bronson gives an uncharacteristically lively performance, playing a even-tempered survivor instead of his usual sociopathic executioner, and Ullmann’s dramatic chops give a strong emotional counterpoint. Not so impressive are Mason, ridiculously miscast as a refugee from the Deep South, and Bronson’s real-life bride, Jill Ireland, who gives a shrill turn as a hippie chick. Compounding the casting problems, Cold Sweat is easily 20 minutes too long. That said, buried amid the bloat and tonal missteps are plenty of adrenalized thrills.

Cold Sweat: FUNKY

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jory (1973)

          Released amid a slew of Westerns about teenagers becoming gunfighters—including the excellent John Wayne melodrama The Cowboys (1972)—Jory is not a particularly memorable example of its genre, but the picture is significant as the first of many ’70s movies to star blue-eyed heartthrob Robby Benson. So vulnerable he always seemed on the verge of bursting into tears, ’70s-era Benson was a poster boy for teen sensitivity. And while his work in Jory falls far below the angst-ridden standard he set later in the decade, it’s interesting to encounter the actor in an offbeat context, since he’s such an inherently modern creature that he seems out of place among cowboys and frontier varmints. Exacerbating the overall artificiality of Jory is a clichéd storyline about a young man who straps on six-shooters to vent the anger he feels toward an unjust universe. When the narrative begins, 15-year-old Jory (Benson) and his alcoholic father, Ethan (Claudio Brook), drift into a small town. After the pathetic but harmless Ethan gets murdered by a thug in a saloon, Jory kills the assailant, then flees the small town to join a horse drive led by even-tempered foreman Roy Starr (John Marley). Despite Roy’s entreaties to avoid violence, Jory falls under the influence of flashy cowboy Jocko (B.J. Thomas), who collects guns and practices quick-draw stunts. More bloodshed ensues.
          The main drama revolves around Jory’s choice of whether to live by the gun, per Jocko’s example, or by a code of personal honor, per Roy’s example. Jory also falls in love with Amy (Linda Purl), the pretty daughter of the rancher for whom Roy’s crew works. Everything in Jory happens more or less by rote, and director Jorge Fons presents scenes in a perfunctory fashion—except for good pacing, Fons brings zero style to the production. Another awkward element is the cornpone score by Al De Lory. What makes Jory moderately watchable, therefore, is the acting, which runs the gamut from coolly efficient to notably awkward. Marley underplays effectively, presenting an appealing brand of stoicism, while starlets Anne Lockhart (as a prostitute whom Jory befriends) and Purl provide sincerity. Thomas, best known as the singer of pop tunes including “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” makes such an unimpressive acting debut that it’s peculiar he wasn’t recruited to croon the movie’s fruity theme song. Why is he here? At the center of it all is Benson, who hits the same puppy-dog notes so many times that he occasionally seems lobotomized. It’s a testament to the innate sweetness of his persona that his characterization eventually becomes emotionally credible.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Get Christie Love! (1974)

          Perhaps because the fun of the blaxploitation genre was so intertwined with R-rated nastiness—drugs, pimps, violence, vulgarity—none of the various attempts to created blaxploitation-themed TV series met with much success. For instance, Richard Roundtree reprised his big-screen role as private dick John Shaft for a string of toothless TV movies airing in 1973 and 1974, and singer/actress Teresa Graves starred in Get Christie Love!, an hour-long drama that ran for one season from 1974 to 1975. The mildly entertaining pilot movie for Get Christie Love! shares little in common with theatrical blaxploitation flicks except for an African-American leading actress and an urban-crime milieu. Adapted from a novel by Dorothy Uhnak, the 74-minute feature introduces viewers to Christie Love, a funny, self-confident, and sexy plainclothes detective who works narcotics and vice. Christie spends most of the movie investigating the life of Helena Varga (Louise Sorel), the girlfriend of a high-powered gangster, because an informant’s tip leads police to believe that Helena possesses an incriminating ledger. Even though Get Christie Love! opens with scenes that are suitable for a Pam Grier movie—cops witness the murder of their informant, Christie goes undercover as a prostitute to catch a serial killer—the movie quickly loses its edge.
          As portrayed by the wholesomely pretty Graves, Christie is one-third ass-kicker, one-third bloodhound, and one-third therapist, digging though Helena’s past to find leverage with which she can persuade Helena to help the authorities. The movie includes a few quasi-exciting showdowns, like the bit when Christie judo-throws an assailant off the high balcony of a hotel, but for the most part she gets what she wants via painstaking investigation instead of seducing gullible men or strong-arming beefy goons. In other words, Get Christie Love! ain’t Foxy Brown: The Series by a damn sight. Graves has a pleasant touch for light comedy (no surprise, since she was briefly a regular on Laugh-In), and costar Harry Guardino does what he can with the stock role of an exasperated supervisor. As the pilot for a standard-issue ’70s cop show, Get Christie Love! is harmless enough, and it provides a minor historical footnote because Graves was the first black woman to play the lead on a network drama. (She followed in the footsteps of Diahann Carroll, who broke the sitcom barrier with the 1968 debut of Julia.) As an example of the blaxploitation genre, however, Get Christie Love! is laughably tame.

Get Christie Love!: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Amarcord (1973)

          Revered Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini dialed down his flamboyant style for Amarcord, arguably the last unqualified artistic success of his career. A gentle dramedy somewhat in the vein of François Truffaut’s most nostalgic features, Amarcord (translation: “I remember”) provides a fanciful vision of Fellini’s adolescence in a small Italian town during the years immediately preceding World War II. Essentially a loose compendium of colorful episodes woven around the maturation of the lead character, Amarcord tackles a wide range of themes in lieu of a proper plot, so the film requires great patience on the part of the viewer. (In addition to the stop-and-start structure, the movie lumbers through an excessive 124-minute running time.)
          Within the picture’s vignettes are moments of humor, insight, juvenile ribaldry, political satire, and warmth. Viewers who are interested in Fellini’s biography and/or this fraught period of Italy’s history will, naturally, derive more from the experience than those merely craving entertainment. Speaking as someone with zero tolerance for the cartoonish style of Fellini’s later films, I can report that I was surprisingly engaged by many sequences, even though I found the movie as a whole underwhelming. Yet mine appears to be a minority opinion—during its original release, Amarcord earned such accolades as the last of Fellini’s several Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.
          Major characters include Titta (Bruno Zanin), a teenager learning life lessons from eccentric neighbors and relatives; Aurelio (Armando Brancia), Titta’s hot-tempered father; Lallo (Nando Orfei), Titta’s lovelorn uncle; Gradisca (Magali Nöel), the town’s most glamorous woman; and Giudizio (Aristotle Caporale), the village idiot who periodically breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. Some of the re-created memories in Amarcord convey a beautiful sense of community-wide romanticism, like the sequence in which town residents paddle boats into the ocean so they can view the passage of a newly christened Italian ocean liner. Other episodes are more whimsical, such as the sequence of Lallo climbing into a tree and screaming “I want a woman!” over and over, despite relatives’ attempts to talk him down. Predictably, many scenes reflect the director’s fetish for ample-sized women. In one such passage, a massively endowed store clerk nearly smothers Titta to death with her, well, tittas.
          Amarcord features so many recurring images and themes that it’s as dense as a novel, which means it’s probably a fascinating film to dissect. However, this also means that many elements get short shrift, notably the political commentary. Still, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and composer Nino Rota help create unity, and the spirited performances lend vitality. Thus, even though the film’s simple pleasures occasionally get obscured by nonsense (such as a pointless musical number in a harem), Amarcord may be the most accessible and worthwhile of Fellini’s ’70s movies.

Amarcord: FUNKY

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stunts (1977)

          Gonzo director Richard Rush has opined that during the long gestation periods of his film projects, disreputable producers frequently copied his ideas and created lesser versions that diminished his box-office potential. Watching Stunts, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Rush’s demented drama The Stunt Man (1980), it’s tempting to give Rush’s complaint credence. Like The Stunt Man, Stunts depicts an out-of-control film shoot on which a maniacal director’s quest for spectacle endangers the lives of stunt performers. Yet the similarities mostly end there, since The Stunt Man is as deep as Stunts is shallow. Stretching credibility way past the breaking point, Stunts implies that authorities would allow production to continue after not one but three on-set deaths, and that authorities would be content letting macho stuntmen investigate the mortalities. Just because Stunts is silly, however, doesn’t mean the movie lacks entertainment value. The various stunt scenes, including falls from tremendous heights and tricky automotive gags, are staged and filmed well, with hack director Mark L. Lester employing a range of stylish camera angles and maximizing tension through the use of brisk editing. Furthermore, the production values are slightly more than adequate, and it’s always fun to see behind-the-scenes footage showcasing what movie sets looked like back in the day.
          Atop all that, Stunts shamelessly panders to audience expectations with such clichéd characters as the lone-wolf stud, the nosy reporter, the obnoxious director, and the tweaked special-effects guy. Incarnating these one-dimensional roles is a fun ensemble cast comprising offbeat men and sexy women. Robert Forster, at his most endearingly indifferent, stars as a heroic stunt man investigating the death of his brother. Portraying his fellow daredevils are Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), Bruce Glover (Diamonds Are Forever), and Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer), among others. Meanwhile, petite blonde Candice Rialson and sultry brunette Fiona Lewis play the women romancing Forster’s character, while veteran character actor Malachi Throne appears as the overbearing director. Alas, none of these actors is given a single original moment to play—beyond the trite elements already mentioned, Stunts features a starlet sleeping her way to the top and a scene of macho dudes honoring a pact by pulling a paralyzed pal off life support. Nonetheless, the movie’s colorful milieu, impressive stunts, and zippy pace make for 90 minutes of pleasant viewing.

Stunts: FUNKY

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Season of the Witch (1972)

          Following a brief detour into romantic comedy, of all things, Pittsburgh-based indie filmmaker George A. Romero—the man behind 1968’s Night of the Living Dead—returned to low-budget horror for his third movie, which has been released under several titles but is primarily known as Season of the Witch. Featuring such Romero signatures as dreamlike portrayals of violence and snarky lampooning of middle-class values, the movie generally has more attitude than it does impact, and it also takes quite a while to get going. Yet once Season of the Witch reaches cruising altitude, it presents a handful of dynamic scenes as well as a somewhat interesting portrait of the main character’s existential malaise. Headlining a no-name cast, Jan White stars as Joan Mitchell, the suburban housewife of a macho businessman who alternates between abusing her and ignoring her. Longing for meaning in her life, Joan visits a medium who turns out to be a full-fledged Wiccan, and this encounter leads to Joan’s experimentation with witchcraft. Also woven into the storyline are Joan’s adulterous affair with an obnoxious man and her fraught relationship with her teenage daughter, who considers Mom an impossible square and therefore doesn’t suspect that Mom’s up to something freaky.
          As a narrative, Season of the Witch—or, if you prefer one of the film’s earlier titles, Jack’s Wife or Hungry Wives—is something of a dud. Suffice to say, domestic drama is not Romero’s strong suit as a writer. Worse, the photography in most scenes is flat and ugly, though Romero somewhat predictably finds his cinematic groove during terror scenes. Another problem is that Joan doesn’t become fully indoctrinated into the supernatural world until about 55 minutes into the most ubiquitous version of the movie, which runs 103 minutes. (Unexpurgated prints are over two hours long, which seems like it would be an interminable running time given how much filler is present in the 103-minute version.) Despite these flaws, Season of the Witch is an interesting footnote to the career of a director closely associated with over-the-top gorefests, because Season of the Witch proves he can create disquieting effects without showing viscera. In fact, the movie’s creepiest scene is probably the vignette of Joan pleasuring herself while listening to her daughter get it on with a boyfriend in the next room. Calling Dr. Freud! The recurring trope of Joan dreaming about a masked home invader works well, too, and a shopping montage set to Donovan’s eerie ’60s song “Season of the Witch,” the inspiration for the film’s title, has some ironic bite.

Season of the Witch: FUNKY

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thieves Like Us (1974)

          Watching Robert Altman’s ’70s movies, I often get the sense of a director who believed his own hype—to say nothing of a critical community and a fan base determined to attribute every move Altman made with great significance. Perhaps because his work on M*A*S*H (1970) hit such a sweet spot of political satire, supporters seemed determined to describe each subsequent Altman film as proof of his genius. For instance, Thieves Like Us has long enjoyed a solid reputation as an insightful character piece about Depression-era crooks whose lives are filled with despair, ignorance, and longing. On the plus side, the movie does indeed fit that description. On the minus side, Thieves Like Us arrived midway through a long string of similar movies, all made in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). So, while Thieves Like Us is unquestionably made with more artistry than, say, the average Roger Corman-produced Bonnie and Clyde rip-off, the subject matter and themes are so familiar that it’s mystifying why people make a fuss over Thieves Like Us. Because, quite frankly, if the most noteworthy aspects of the picture are Altman’s atmospheric direction and the spirited acting of the quirky cast, Altman did atmosphere better in other films (especially 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and all of his pictures feature spirited acting by quirky casts. Oh, well.
          In any event, this beautifully shot but overlong and underwhelming drama follows three crooks who break out of a Mississippi prison and begin a bank-robbing spree. They are Bowie (Keith Carradine), a young romantic; Chicamaw (John Schuck), a hot-tempered thug; and T-Dub (Bert Remsen), an old coot with a big ego and a bad limp. Between jobs, the crooks try to build home lives, though everyone in the universe of these characters knows violent death is inevitable. Making the most of his time outside of jail, T-Dub inappropriately courts a much younger woman to whom he’s related. Meanwhile, Bowie romances Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the no-nonsense daughter of a fellow criminal. In his characteristically subversive fashion, Altman demonstrates only marginal interest in the actual criminality of his characters—most of the robberies happen off-camera, with Altman training his lens on cars and streets while the soundtrack features excerpts from old ’30s radio shows.
          This raises the inevitable question of why Altman bothered to make a movie about a subject he found boring, as well as the question of why it took three screenwriters (Altman, Joan Tewkesbury, Calder Willingham) to adapt Edward Anderson’s novel. And for that matter, why does a movie containing so little narrative material sprawl over 123 minutes? The answer to that last one, of course, is that Altman indulges himself on every level, letting scenes drag on endlessly and also including dozens of his signature slow zoom-in shots. That said, the performances are strange and vivid, with several Altman regulars (Carradine, Duvall, Schuck, Tom Skerritt) joined by Louise Fletcher and others. Each does something at least moderately interesting. Taken strictly on its story merits, Thieves Like Us is so threadbare that it’s best to accept the piece as an exercise in cinematic style. Whether you find the style infuriating or intoxicating will determine the sort of experience you have with Thieves Like Us.

Thieves Like Us: FUNKY

Friday, March 21, 2014

Squirm (1976)

          Under the heading of “you get what you pay for,” Squirm is a low-budget, Jaws-influenced creature feature about a small Georgia town menaced by killer worms. Not giant or radioactive killer worms, mind you, just plain creepy-crawlies that slither their way toward unsuspecting victims. The highly dubious premise for the movie holds that a lightning storm infuses the dirt around the town with massive amounts of electricity, driving the invertebrates crazy. Thus, in the aftermath of the storm, people in remote locations—boats, forests, sheds—get chewed to death by hordes of slimy critters. Meanwhile, our intrepid hero, youthful out-of-towner Mick (Don Scardino), struggles to protect a local girl, Geri (Patricia Pearcy), once the scope of the epidemic becomes clear. (Per the Jaws formula, Mick also clashes with a belligerent and skeptical sheriff.) Even by the low standards of ’70s monster movies, Squirm is quite silly. One suspects that writer-director Jeff Lieberman knew how little gas he had in the narrative tank, because he juices worm-attack scenes with gimmicks ranging from extreme close-ups of nasty non-arthropods brandishing teeth to cacophonous sound effects implying that worms make noises as loud as those generated by jungle animals.
          Plus, since the creatures in this feature are neither fast nor inherently formidable, Lieberman’s principal shock technique involves sudden cuts that reveal huge piles of worms occupying grotesque places, such as the insides of skeletons. In fact, the movie’s goofy climax literally features a tide comprising thousands of invertebrates scaling a staircase, as if the creatures intentionally pile upon themselves to reach human victims. Other notable flaws include a script filled with stupidly convenient twists and a woeful lack of self-aware humor. Having said all that, Squirm isn’t the worst picture of its type. Scenes move along briskly, the humid-looking Georgia locations suit the material, and the various shots of worms are sufficiently unpleasant. Better still, Lieberman approaches camp with a subplot about a redneck driven mad after being half-eaten by worms; the film’s biggest money shots involve the redneck wearing a facial prosthetic that simulates homicidal critters crawling through holes in his face.

Squirm: FUNKY

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rhinoceros (1974)

A movie reteaming actors Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, the stars of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), was not inevitable. Lest we forget, The Producers did poorly during in its original release, although it achieved legendary status later. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to report that the second Wilder-Mostel picture lacks the madcap magic of their first collaborative venture. Based on the absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros was produced for the American Film Theatre, a short-lived program of stage adaptations exhibited on a subscription basis. The problem with this particular adaptation, alas, is that it can’t decide if it’s a broad farce or a cerebral satire. Ionesco’s original play was set in France and filled with dialogue and images that critics interpreted as lampoons of fascism. Transplanted to modern-day America, the film version loses all of its political bite, transforming into an oh-so-’70s treatise on the dangers of joining the Establishment. And yet if the only thing that the picture did was deliver a clear theme by way of a few laughs, it might have been worthwhile. Instead, the piece retains Ionesco’s central comic premise of a world in which people are becoming rhinoceroses. (Again, the key word is “absurdist.”) Given license to depict rampaging animals, screenwriter Julian Barry and director Tom O’Horgan fill much of the picture with loud scenes of chaos and destruction, interspersed with mannered comedy bits like the scene in which Mostel and Wilder pratfall their way through a grooming regimen. It’s all very artificial and pretentious and tiresome, qualities that are exacerbated by Mostel’s intolerably obnoxious performance. Mugging and screaming like he’s playing to an amphitheater, the actor succumbs to all of his worst tendencies here. Wilder, meanwhile, plays to his strengths, shifting between hysteria and sweetness, though the material fails him at every turn. (Offbeat ’70s screen vixen Karen Black appears in a supporting role, though she seems adrift thanks the inanity of the narrative.) Rhinoceros is praiseworthy on some levels, simply for the commitment with which the cast and filmmakers attack the text, but the way this American version omits the play’s original purpose renders the whole exercise futile. Plus, the fact that O’Horgan never actually shows a rhinoceros runs counter to the stupidly literal nature of the overall enterprise—why chintz on the one thing that could never appear in stage versions?

Rhinoceros: LAME

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Proud and Damned (1972)

An enervated south-of-the-border Western in the vein of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Professionals (1966)—but lacking the sophisticated execution of those great films—The Proud and Damned stars leather-faced tough guy Chuck Connors as the leader of a roving gang comprising ex-Confederate soldiers. Looking for a new start after the end of the Civil War, the gunslingers wander into Colombia, where they get jobs as hired muscle for a dictator. Sent to intimidate the impoverished citizens of a region that’s fomenting rebellion against the dictator, the American mercenaries predictably switch allegiances to the oppressed locals. Meanwhile, one of the Americans falls in love with a pretty senorita despite a language barrier. Excepting perhaps a major tragedy that occurs two-thirds of the way through the picture, not a single thing in The Proud and Damned has the power to surprise. The actions, character, dialogue, and situations are all so painfully familiar that it’s a struggle to stay awake while watching the picture, especially since the performances are as listless as the material. (It says everything you need to know that the only marquee-name actor in the picture besides Connors is Cesar Romero, best known for playing the Joker on the ’60s Batman series.) Writer-producer-director Ferde Grofé Jr. strings together clichés with a stunning lack of imagination, and he films everything in the flat style of a bad ’70s TV show. Furthermore, he evinces zero ability to generate legitimate dramatic tension. As such, actors are stuck in boring compositions, batting vanilla dialogue back and forth without any semblance of genuine human conflict. In other words, even though it might be unfair to describe The Proud and Damned as awful, since everything that happens more or less makes sense, it’s absolutely fair to describe The Proud and the Damned as vapid. Literally nothing in this movie hasn’t been done better elsewhere.

The Proud and Damned: LAME

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pink Flamingos (1972)

          Indie provocateur John Waters’ breakthrough movie, Pink Flamingos, is currently rated NC-17, and the text provided by the MPAA to justify the rating sums up the nature of the film: “For a wide range of perversions in explicit detail.” After directing two no-budget black-and-white features, Waters was ready to make a big noise with his first color feature, so he applied his signature cheerful insouciance to the task of creating the most disgusting characters ever filmed. Accordingly, Pink Flamingos depicts a war between two depraved criminals for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive.”
          The star of the show is, of course, Waters’ singular muse, the 300-pound drag queen Divine, who plays a character named Divine—although the character often travels under the alias “Babs Johnson.” Living in a trailer with her odd family, which includes an adult son and daughter as well as Edie (Edith Massey), an overweight senior who sleeps in a crib and spends every waking hour eating eggs, Divine/Babs finds fulfillment by committing crimes and grotesque acts. For instance, she nearly runs over pedestrians while driving, and she urinates in public like an animal. Meanwhile, Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her husband, Raymond Marble (David Lochary), lead a similarly revolting lifestyle. They kidnap young women, hold the women hostage in their basement so the women can be impregnated by their servant, Crackers (Danny Mills), and then sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples—using the profits to bankroll their drug operation.
          Even a partial list of taboo acts performed in Pink Flamingos is startling—especially when one considers that only some of the following behavior is simulated. Divine/Babs performs fellatio on her son. A flasher ties sausages to his penis before displaying himself to innocent bystanders. A party guest does a strange puppetry routine involving his sphincter muscle. Revelers kill police officers and eat the bodies. Two people have sex while mutilating chickens. And, in the most notorious scene of Waters’ filmography, Divine/Babs eats dog feces. (As Waters himself proclaims in the exuberant voiceover that precedes the dog scene, “This is a real thing!”)
          Crudely made and deliberately tasteless, Pink Flamingos ventures so far past revulsion that it enters the realm of the surreal—and yet in a (very) strange way, it’s a rather sweet film. Waters’ affection for the weirdo characters (and the brazen performance-artist types portraying them) is contagious, and Waters has an unmistakable flair for comic irony. Scoring a montage of Divine/Babs doing foul things with ambiguously gendered rock star Little Richard’s classic tune “The Girl Can’t Help It” is droll, and it’s hard not to laugh at such stupidly funny lines as, “I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone—my kind of people and assholes.”
          Which, incidentally, encapsulates the whole perverse joie-de-vivre that drives Waters’ cinematic exploits. In the world of Waters’ movies, freaks are the cool people and straights are the ones who don’t get the joke. That’s a beautiful thought, even if Waters delivers it in Pink Flamingos via some of the ugliest imagery ever captured on film. In other words, if your tolerance for the repugnant is low, give Pink Flamingos a wide berth and content yourself with Waters’ later work, which explores similar thematic material in a less confrontational way. But if you’re eager to prove your mettle by enduring something truly nasty, rest assured Pink Flamingos goes about as far as any movie you’ll ever encounter. Word to the wise, though—don’t eat while you’re watching.

Pink Flamingos: FREAKY

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Great Santini (1979)

          Robert Duvall was mostly known for brilliant supporting performances until the title role in this melodramatic family story finally allowed the singular actor to display a full spectrum of colors. Portraying U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum, Duvall showboats while displaying the character’s mischievous side, torments innocents when exhibiting the man’s mean streak, and unravels while revealing the character’s deep-rooted psychological turbulence. Duvall was entrusted with only one more equally dimensional role—in the poetic character study Tender Mercies (1983)—before slipping into a long run of high-paying but largely unchallenging supporting roles in the ’80s and early ’90s. Given this set of circumstances, The Great Santini and Tender Mercies remain two of the most important artifacts demonstrating Duvall’s unique gifts at full power.
          Adapted by Lewis John Carlino (who also directed) and Herman Raucher from a semiautobiographical novel by Pat Conroy, The Great Santini takes place in 1962 South Carolina. Meechum, whose nickname is “The Great Santini” even though he’s Irish, is a hard-driving soldier who feels lost between wars. Unable to take out his aggressions on enemy combatants, Meechum bullies his family even as his wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), and their four kids adjust to life in a new city. Receiving special abuse is Meechum’s oldest son, Ben (Michael O’Keefe), a high-school basketball player struggling to understand why his father is such a hero on the battlefield and such a monster at home.
          Carlino, who only directed three films (the others are the erotic 1976 drama The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sa and the flimsy 1986 teen-sex comedy Class), presents Conroy’s narrative in a beautifully unvarnished way, so the best moments in The Great Santini are the most intimate ones. For instance, it’s hard to forget the brutal scene of Meechum repeatedly bouncing a basketball against Ben’s head, forcing the boy to cry as a means of validating Meechum’s alpha-male role. In fact, nearly every scene featuring Duvall is memorable, because he creates such a full-blooded characterization—Duvall preens, rages, struts, yells and generally releases his character’s sociopathic id, incarnating a mini-Patton without a worthy adversary. And yet for all of the flamboyance the actor brings to the role, the true beauty of Duvall’s performance is the deep sympathy he conveys for Meechum; with Duvall as our guide into this man’s troubled soul, we learn to love a character who does hateful things.
          Young costar O’Keefe, appearing in one of his fist features after several years of TV work, gives as good as he gets, offering plaintive sincerity to counter Duvall’s masterful blend of personality traits. The elegant Danner, meanwhile, reveals the fortitude that allows her character to thrive in a difficult marriage. The Great Santini is so dramatically compelling and emotionally truthful that it seems a shame to note its flaws, but there’s no denying the contrived nature of a subplot involving Ben’s black friend, Toomer (Stan Shaw). Injecting wobbly elements of racism, sacrifice, and tragedy into the story, the subplot eventually leads someplace important, but getting there isn’t the smoothest ride. That said, Shaw’s work is deeply affecting, and costar David Keith, who figures in the subplot, makes a vivid bad guy. The bottom line, however, is that The Great Santini is robust entertainment powered by extraordinary acting. Like its main character, the movie is imperfect and impossible to ignore.

The Great Santini: RIGHT ON