Saturday, May 31, 2014

Gulliver’s Travels (1977)

          Interesting mostly for its mixture of animation and live action, this lightweight adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic fantasy novel should actually be titled Gulliver’s Travel, singular, since the only adventure depicted onscreen involves the title character’s time in the land of Lilliput, which is inhabited by miniscule people. Since the tale is familiar to most audiences, suffice to say that gigantic and good-hearted Gulliver is perceived by the tiny Liliputians as a god, a hero, a monster, and a political pawn while Swift cycles through various elements of satire and whimsy. Flesh-and-blood Richard Harris plays Gulliver while cartoons are used to represent the diminutive persons with whom Gulliver interacts. Meanwhile, backgrounds and props are a mixture of live-action and cartoons. Yet the meshing of these elements is far from seamless.
          Gulliver’s Travels was made in the days before dimensional shading was a regular feature of mainstream animation, so the hand-drawn characters feel flat, even during scenes when only animated characters are onscreen. Occasionally, the filmmakers achieve a decent effect—for instance, a nighttime scene during which silhouetted cartoon characters drag a giant cart bearing live-action Harris—but for the most part, the whole enterprise looks cheap and unfinished. (This is especially true of fully animated scenes, which suffer from limited animation and unimaginative character design.) The integration of a sticky-sweet song score is equally problematic. Following a brief prologue in England, which is shot entirely live-action, the movie transitions to a title sequence featuring a chirpy song performed by a chorus. Then, later, tunes appear at random intervals, culminating with the predictable upbeat number that Gulliver sings while beguiled by Liliput’s charms. As such, Gulliver’s Travels is not a proper musical, since songs do not drive the plot.
          The only quasi-impressive scene in Gulliver’s Travels is the live-action storm sequence during which Gulliver gets caught in a shipwreck, because director Peter Hunt and his team nimbly combine shots of a main-deck set getting besieged by giant cascades of water with detailed miniature shots of a ship hitting rocks amid a turbulent sea. Since Gulliver’s Travels was made for children, however, it’s useful to concede that some young viewers might delight in shots of Gulliver tied to a beach in Liliput, or of Gulliver stomping through the streets of a Liiputian city like a rampaging giant. And, of course, the pacifist themes of the screenplay are admirable. Still, even with Harris delivering an endearingly restrained performance, nothing in this movie truly dazzles.

Gulliver’s Travels: FUNKY

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Conformist (1970)

          Every so often, a movie defeats me. In some cases, I’m unable to parse the mysteries of a film because the project is so obtuse that it exists outside anything I recognize as reality. (Here’s looking at you, Performance.) In other cases, however, I’m simply not sophisticated enough to receive the message the picture is sending. And so it goes with Bernardo Bertolucci’s political thriller The Conformist. On a textural level, I can say without hesitation that the film is exquisite. Working with frequent collaborator Vittorio Storaro, one of the true magicians of color cinematography, Bertolucci creates one memorable image after another. Using angles, color, framing, movement, production design, and special relationships with masterful precision, the filmmakers present 1930s and 1940s Europe as a living metaphor representing the spread of fascism.
          As the title character moves through his life before and during World War II, he tries to find a niche for himself inside the sleek surfaces of “normal” society, little suspecting that in the process of shaving off his “abnormal” edges, he is sacrificing his soul. Or something like that. You see, the problem is that I felt totally confused within the first five minutes of The Conformist, and never found any true connection with the movie beyond appreciating its beauty on a purely aesthetic level. Apparently, it takes a better man than me to decipher lines of dialogue like the following: “Yes, they would mistake for reality the shadow of reality.” Non capisco, il mio amico.
          Therefore, you might ask, why have I rated The Conformist highly, given my inability to penetrate its storyline? Well, in deference to the film’s reputation and to the unmistakable craftsmanship with which it was made, I’m comfortable heaping praise on what the movie might be—in other words, if The Conformist is half as dense and provocative and symbolic as I suspect, then it’s certainly among the most accomplished and challenging films of its era. Call it benefit of the doubt.
          Based on outside research more than pulling clues from the actual movie, I gather the storyline follows Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a social striver enlisted by a secretive organization to perform an assassination. On his way to the murder, Marcello flashes back through his life, recalling events that brought him to the current circumstances. He recalls a childhood encounter in which he was molested by an adult whom he then shot. He recalls the opportunistic nature of his marriage to a socially well-positioned woman. He recalls his friendship with a blind political activist. He recalls an affair with a married woman (played by the glamorous Dominique Sanda). And in one moment that I actually did understand while watching The Conformist, Marcello tries to confess his sins to a priest—as a condition of marriage—only to discover that the priest is more upset about Marcello having been with a man than about Marcello having committed murder. That particular scene, so chilly and incisive and sad, emboldens me to suggest that The Conformist contains worlds of meaning I was not able to grasp. Or maybe not. If nothing else, The Conformist is the world’s best cinematographer’s reel, because Storaro renders visual miracles during nearly every shot.

The Conformist: GROOVY

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Baby Snakes (1979)

          Rock-music iconoclast Frank Zappa first scratched his cinematic itch with 200 Motels (1971), a silly experimental film that curried favor among stoners and weirdos while playing the midnight-movie circuit. Yet Zappa’s second picture, Baby Snakes, did not enjoy as warm a reception. An absurdly indulgent concert movie running nearly three hours and peppered with aimless animated sequences—as well as documentary footage of Zappa making the in-progress movie (how meta!)—Baby Snakes proved such a turnoff to distributors that Zappa ended up releasing the thing himself. No wonder. Even the extensive sequences that showcase Zappa and his band in performance are tedious, because Zappa’s shows blended irreverent comic monologues, lengthy jazz-style musical jams, and raunchy novelty numbers filled with juvenile sex jokes. There’s a reason Zappa subtitled Baby Snakes “A Movie About People Who Do Stuff That Is Not Normal.” Clearly, the man prided himself on shunning the mainstream, regarding the plasticine aspects of pop culture beneath contempt.
          To his credit, Zappa backed up his stridency with exceptional musicianship and tremendous intelligence. Nonetheless, the price of telling mass audiences to fuck off is that they’ll say the same thing right back at you, so the best an insouciant artist like Zappa can ever hope for is fringe notoriety. Accordingly, Baby Snakes is only really of interest to those already grooving on Zappa’s vibe—nothing about this movie invites new people into the tent. Still, for patient viewers, Baby Snakes has a few minor amusements.
          Zappa’s comedy bits occasionally merit a chuckle, like his rant about poodles (“God originally wanted to build a schnauzer, but he fucked up”), and the best musical sequences impress technically, if not necessarily melodically. That said, it’s hard to imagine many serious music fans choosing to endure trippy claymation scenes—and jokes involving blow-up dolls—in order to discover a few intricate guitar solos. As an interesting footnote, the phase of Zappa’s career that’s documented in Baby Snakes inadvertently led to the creation of an image-driven band—the very kind of sleek commercial enterprise that Zappa merrily skewers throughout Baby Snakes. Backing musicians Terry Bozzio (drums) and Patrick O’Hearn (bass), together with singer Dale Bozzio and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo (both of whom make cameos in Baby Snakes), formed New Wave band Missing Persons in 1980, generating the twitchy hits “Destination Unknown” and “Words.” That’s a long way from such Baby Snakes songs “Hot Poop” and “Titties ’n’ Beer.”

Baby Snakes: LAME

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971)

          Seeing as how she first gained mainstream attention by starring in the silly TV series Gidget (1965-1966) and The Flying Nun (1967-1970), Sally Field seemed destined for a career in light comedy. Yet as early as 1971, when she starred in this TV movie about the Generation Gap, Field made it clear she was both interested in exploring dramatic material and proficient at playing serious roles. So, even though Field didn’t truly burst free of typecasting until starring in the acclaimed telefilm Sybil (1976), this earlier endeavor represents an important step along her path. In Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, Field stars as Denise Miller, the oldest daughter of upper-middle-class parents who are preoccupied with reputation and social position.
          When the story begins, Denise returns home after a year she spent on the road with hippies. Her arrival stirs up old tensions. Denise’s superficial father, Ed (Jackie Cooper), gets bent out of shape whenever rules of propriety aren’t followed, and Denise’s smothering mom, Claire (Eleanor Parker), ranges from passive-aggressive nastiness to outright judgmental cruelty. Meanwhile, Denise’s little sister, sexy teenybopper Susie (Lane Bradbury), has started a spiral even more destructive than Denise’s, maintaining a drug habit and quarrelling with her parents at every opportunity.
          As written with great sensitivity by Bruce Feldman, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring creates tension by asking whether Denise can suppress her freespirited identity sufficiently to integrate into a repressive household. Concurrently, Susie repeats troublesome behaviors that she learned from Denise. At its most incisive, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring features moments like the elaborate party scene during which Denise’s oblivious parents mistake Denise’s concern for Susie’s welfare as a signal that Denise is drugged or overwrought; the sequence provides an effective dramatization of people seeing only what they want to see.
          Produced and directed by the reliable Joseph Sargent, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring has uniformly good acting and a steady pace, even if Sargent’s integration of flashbacks to Denise’s life among the longhairs isn’t especially graceful. Similarly, the ticking-clock device of Denise’s lover, Flack (David Carradine), making his way across the country to “rescue” Denise is a bit contrived, though it adds a sense of urgency. The film’s most interesting stylistic element is probably the inclusion of a song score performed by the great Linda Ronstadt, since her soulful vocals capture the angst of the storyline. Holding the whole thing together, of course, are the key performances. Field does an excellent job of complicating her good-girl image, often venturing to places of deep emotion, and Bradbury is terrific as a confused young woman who perceives herself as a victim even though she’s really a spoiled brat. Carradine, Cooper, and Parker inhabit their subordinate roles skillfully.

Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring: GROOVY

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dolemite (1975) & The Human Tornado (1976)

          Scabrous comedian Rudy Ray Moore made his big-screen debut as the producer, star, and cowriter of the hellaciously bad blaxploitation romp Dolemite. The title character is a pimp/entertainer/vigilante who leads a squad of martial arts-trained prostitutes on a righteous crusade against an underworld opponent. The movie is exactly as insipid as its premise, with the tawdry nature of the project exacerbated by disjointed storytelling and terrible acting. Further, Dolemite awkwardly ricochets between action, comedy, sex, and violence. Despite having the right ingredients for a proper blaxploitation joint, Moore and his collaborators—including director/costar D’Urville Martin—contribute such amateurish work that watching Dolemite is a painful chore. For instance, the movie begins with Dolemite (Moore) getting released from prison in order to function as an undercover operative for law-enforcement authorities. Yet he’s met at the prison gate by a carload of hookers, and moments later, Dolemite grabs a machine gun from his car and cheerfully murders several would-be assailants. Huh?
          To be fair, low-rent blaxploitation pictures were never big on logic, since the fun of such movies stems from kitschy style and lurid thrills. Nonetheless, Dolemite is so stunningly stupid that it’s hard to go along for the ride. Consider these inane lines of dialogue: “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game”; “Man, move over and let me pass ’fore they have to be pullin’ these Hush Puppies out your motherfuckin’ ass!” There’s a certain traffic-accident fascination to be had in watching the crude and unfunny Moore, who seems as if he was suffering from a concussion during filming. Still, determining exactly what audiences found charming about the man and his ridiculous onscreen alter ego is challenging.
          When Dolemite returned a year later in The Human Tornado, Moore truly let his freak flag fly. Disjointed, perverse, and surreal, The Human Tornado is a blaxploitation movie on acid. Worse, it seems as if Moore intended for the movie to be a comedy. The plot has something to do with Dolemite fleeing the south after getting caught in bed with a white woman who paid him for sex, because her husband is a crazed redneck sheriff. Dolemite decamps to Los Angeles, where he helps a friend who’s being shaken down by the mob. (Never mind that the friend runs a prostitution ring.)
          In addition to profane dialogue and tragic ’70s fashions (all those jumpsuits!), The Human Tornado features several genuinely bizarre scenes. Half-naked hookers are tortured by a woman wearing grotesque wicked-witch makeup straight out of H.R. Pufnstuf. Dolemite services a woman with such intensity that he literally causes the house around them to disintegrate. (He’s a human tornado, get it?) In another bedroom scene, (offscreen) cunnilingus is intercut with Dolemite eating chicken. Oh, and after Dolemite jumps off a steep cliff, the movie freezes, the text “instant replay” appears on screen, and Moore’s voice intones: “Some of y’all don’t believe I jumped, so watch this good shit!” Then the jump replays. Oy. Need we mention the dream sequence in which naked studs emerge from toy boxes and then ride a slide into a sex-crazed woman’s embrace?
          And since cataloguing the oddities of a Rudy Ray Moore joint wouldn’t be complete without citing at least one choice line of dialogue, consider this sweet remark Dolemite makes to a lover: “All right, let’s get this shit over—I ain’t got all day.” Romance, thy name is Dolemite. In addition to making other projects, Moore periodically returned to the Dolemite character, starring in Shaolin Dolemite (1999) and The Return of Dolemite (2002), before passing away in 2008.

Dolemite: LAME
The Human Tornado: FREAKY

Monday, May 26, 2014

Violent City (1970)

          Made in Italy and known by many titles—including The Family, the moniker slapped on the film for a 1973 American re-release that was designed to piggyback on the success of the Godfather movies—this nasty Charles Bronson thriller boasts opulent production values and a pair of genuinely terrific action sequences, conveniently located at the beginning and end of the feature. And if the material wedged in between these impressive vignettes is occasionally dull and murky, at least director Sergio Sollima finds a solid groove whenever he focuses on the grim spectacle of a hit man annihilating targets. The plot is bit convoluted, but it goes something like this. In the tropics, goons pursue tough-guy crook Jeff (Bronson) and his glamorous girlfriend, Vanessa (Jill Ireland). This sparks a whiz-bang car chase that culminates in a bloody shootout. Jeff nearly dies, and insult gets added to injury when Vanessa leaves him for his main assailant, a gangster named Coogan. Compounding the indignities, Jeff is framed for murder and jailed. After his release, Jeff tracks down Coogan and Vanessa, killing Coogan and reclaiming Vanessa’s affections. However, while Jeff was in prison, Vanessa married crime boss Al (Telly Savalas), so a series of double-crosses and schemes ensues while Jeff tries to identify his true enemies.
          Following the turgid storyline isn’t worth the effort, but Sollima stages a number of cool scenes. The opening car chase, through tight city streets and winding country roads, gets the blood pumping nicely. A long sequence of Jeff methodically arranging and performing the murder of a racecar driver—during the middle of a race—is similarly tense. And the finale, which involves a glass elevator, is wonderfully stylish. It helps a great deal that legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributes a propulsive score, the main theme of which seems like a precursor of the thrilling music Morricone later created for 1987’s The Untouchables. So, even though Ireland is terrible and Savalas plays his clichéd role with a smattering of humor but not much imagination, there’s a lot of watchable stuff buried in Violent City. (In fact, there’s even a dash of sex, thanks to plentiful nude shots of Ireland’s shapely body double.) And, of course, Bronson is in his natural element, since he looks utterly believable whenever he kills people onscreen.

Violent City: FUNKY

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Ruling Class (1972)

          Insanity is the watchword when discussing the British satirical film The Ruling Class, adapted for the screen by Peter Barnes from his play of the same name and starring the incomparable Peter O’Toole. (Completing the purely coincidental Peter troika, the film was directed by Peter Medak.) Not only is insanity the subject of The Ruling Class, insanity is the best possible explanation for the existence of the picture. Surely, no reasonable person could have imagined success would flow from a project brimming with rude jabs at the moneyed caste of English society, quasi-sacrilegious jokes at the expense of Christianity, and surreal song-and-dance interludes. To describe this as risky material is to make a gross understatement, since The Ruling Class has something to offend—or at least completely bewilder—nearly everyone.
          Set largely on a British estate, the story begins when the 13th Earl of Gurney, Ralph Gurney (Harry Andrews), commits suicide in spectacular fashion. A ballerina’s tutu, a military uniform, and autoerotic self-asphyxiation are involved. After Ralph’s death, control of the Gurney estate falls to Jack Gurney (O’Toole), who has spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions. A flamboyant narcissist who thinks he’s God and tends to express himself through musical performance, Jack is so unambiguously crazy that he makes seemingly easy prey for Sir Charles (William Mervyn), a relative scheming to declare Jack unstable and thereby seize control of the family empire. Unfortunately for Sir Charles, Jack proves more formidable than expected.
          Furthermore, Sir Charles’ machinations are complicated by the strict requirements of English upper-class decorum, and that’s where the strongest elements of Barnes’ satire emerge. While far from subtle, Barnes’ strategy is to skewer a strata of people so entitled they consider deviation from social norms an inalienable right. In other words, nothing a nobleman or noblewoman does is wrong by dint of the fact that “the ruling class” has limitless largesse.
          Using this narrative framework as a license to play, Barnes (and, by extension, Medak) lets loose with myriad strange scenes. For instance, Jack spends part of the movie in full Jesus drag, delivering imperious dialogue from the cross on which he mimics crucifixion. Yet Barnes doesn’t allow The Ruling Class to float completely into the ether of anything-goes chaos, because he grounds the story—somewhat—with easily recognizable conflicts including Sir Charles’ battle for supremacy and Jack’s theological debates with Bishop Lampton (Alistair Sim), an elderly clergyman who finds Jack’s antics maddening.
          Judged by conventional criteria, The Ruling Class is an overindulgent freakshow, sprawling across two and a half hours. Taken on its own terms, however, the movie is strangely beguiling, especially because O’Toole attacks the main role with such vigor. In fact, one could easily complain that O’Tool demonstrates too much vigor, since his flouncing and screaming and speechifying gets a bit overwhelming after a while. But then again, those with a low threshold for grandstanding should give The Ruling Class a wide berth, anyway—this one’s all about the more-is-more aesthetic. Everyone involved in The Ruling Class seems to revel in the irony of filling a grand house suited for restrained comportment with deranged excess.

The Ruling Class: FREAKY

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Biscuit Eater (1972)

          Over the years, the Walt Disney Company has made countless movies about children bonding with animals, but it’s hard to get too critical about these films. After all, pictures such as The Biscuit Eater express honorable values ranging from honesty to responsibility. However, there’s only so much entertainment value that one can derive from syrupy scenes of wide-eyed children moping over critters. That said, The Biscuit Eater is a decent example of this genre, 90 minutes of freshly harvested corn. As directed by Disney regular Vincent McEveety, the picture zips along at a brisk pace, with the two leading child actors delivering such upbeat performances that they seem more like Disney World animatronics than human beings. The whole enterprise is quite slick, from cinematography to scoring, and adult actors play their one-note roles efficiently. Plus, The Biscuit Eater mostly eschews the practice of attributing human behaviors to animals, so it’s a straightforward coming-of-age piece rather than a fantasy.
          Based on a novel by James H. Street that was previously filmed in 1940, The Biscuit Eater concerns a 12-year-old Georgia boy, who is white, and his best friend, who is black, taking guardianship of a misfit canine. As the boys train the dog, they learn lessons about consequences, economics, intolerance, and sacrifice. Johnny Whitaker, the bright-eyed redhead from the Family Affair TV series, stars as Lonnie McNeil, whose parents are hard-working Harve (Earl Holliman) and Mary Lee (Pat Crowley). Harve trains hunting dogs for Mr. Ames (Lew Ayres), the owner of the land on which the McNeils live and work. Lonnie’s closest pal is Text (George Spell), the son of neighboring widow Charity (Beah Richards). Through a convoluted set of circumstances involving Harve and wily gas-station proprietor Willie Dorsey (Godfrey Cambridge), Lonnie and Text become the owners of dog they name “Moreover.” The boys prep Moreover for entrance into a hunting contest, then learn that succeeding in the contest might adversely effect Harve, who has won the contest for two years running. Meanwhile, most of the film’s likeable characters clash with a violent local named Mr. Eben (Clifton James). Danger, heartbreak, homilies, and redemption ensue.
          Written in a colorful style that verges on stereotyping, The Biscuit Eater is full of lines like “I been hankerin’ for a dog for a right smart spell.” When delivered by pros Cambridge, Holliman, and Richards, the Southern-fried dialogue sounds quasi-authentic and quasi-endearing. When delivered by the juvenile stars, it’s a bit much. (Also tipping the scales toward schmaltz is the inevitable interlude during which Whitaker whines, “Don’t die, puppy dog, please don’t die!”) All in all, though, The Biscuit Eater means well, and the themes it communicates are worthwhile, even if the delivery method is trite.

The Biscuit Eater: FUNKY

Friday, May 23, 2014

Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

          Rock legend Neil Young was at the peak of his creative powers when he shot this concert documentary, which captures Young’s Rust Never Sleeps tour, a trek designed to prove the Canadian-born singer-songwriter wasn’t resting on his laurels after years of success with Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and as a solo artist. Replicating the flow of the tour’s concerts, the movie is divided almost equally into solo and full-band sections. Young shreds so fiercely on the electric guitar when he’s fronting his on-again/off-again backing band, Crazy Horse that he seems as confrontational and vital as the punk bands who were upsetting the rock industry’s status quo at the time of the film’s release. Equally impressive is the folk-tradition classicism of the solo-acoustic bits, with Young crooning such gentle songs as “I Am a Child” and “Sugar Mountain.” Plus, Young fuses his twin personas—the ethereal balladeer and the ferocious rocker—in the hard-hitting number “The Needle and the Damage Done,” an addiction hymn that’s played acoustically but hits with the impact of an electric number.
          The movie’s fascinating bookend numbers are two versions of the same menacing song: “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” which is performed acoustically near the beginning of the movie, and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” which is performed electrically near the end. Through it all, Young is in strong voice both vocally (investing his singular keening wail with plaintive emotion) and instrumentally (attacking electric numbers with channeled savagery).
          As a musical document, therefore, Rust Never Sleeps—also the name of a companion LP—is a vital component of Young’s epic discography. As a movie, however, Rust Never Sleeps is far less noteworthy.
          Directed by Young himself (under his customary pseudonym, Bernard Shakey), the movie employs limited camera positions and sluggish editing, so it’s more of a newsreel than a filmic interpretation. Worse, Young devotes inordinate amounts of screen time to nonsense that permeated the tour’s concerts. For instance, Young hired actors and dancers to dress as Jawas (the scavenger characters from the 1977 sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars) and flit around the stage during the show. In fact, these performers (dubbed “Roadeyes”) are the only things visible for the first seven and a half minutes of Rust Never Sleeps. Later, the “Roadeyes” are joined by dudes wearing lab coats, as well as men wearing religious-looking conical hats, all of whom mutter gibberish as they interact with Young and/or work the stage while Young takes breaks. One of the lines in “My My, Hey Hey”/“Hey Hey, My My” states that “there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” Based on the evidence provided by Rust Never Sleeps, that’s not always true.

Rust Never Sleeps: FUNKY

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Last House on the Left (1972)

          Noteworthy as the directorial debut of Wes Craven, The Last House on the Left is one of those grungy ’70s artifacts with a certain degree of forbidden-fruit allure. Marketed as a cinematic ordeal that only the bravest viewers can endure, the picture is indeed quite gruesome, with plentiful gore decorating a sordid story about kidnapping, murder, rape, and revenge. Adding to the mystique of the picture is Craven’s signature dry wit, since many scenes in The Last House on the Left feature comical dialogue that borders on being sophisticated. When combined with the utterly nihilistic nature of the narrative, all of these factors could lead sensible people to mistake The Last House on the Left for a real movie. As a matter of fact, The Last House on the Left once was a real movie, at least in its original form—improbable though it may seem, Craven’s sleazefest is a loose and unauthorized remake of an Ingmar Berman film, The Virgin Spring (1960). Yet while Bergman used revenge as a springboard for expressing existential angst, Craven mostly opts for cheap thrills.
          The movie begins by establishing parallel storylines. In one, pretty 17-year-old Mari (Sandra Cassel) and her pal, Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), depart from the suburbs of New York to downtown Manhattan for a concert. In the other storyline, three escaped convicts—each of them depraved and psychotic—hole up in a Manhatten hotel room. When Mari and Phyllis unluckily try to score grass from one of the criminals, the women get drawn into a horrific ordeal. They are dragged from the city to the woods, raped, tortured, and murdered. Then, by way of a ridiculous coincidence, the killers invade the next home they encounter, which happens to belong to Mari’s parents. When the parents learn what’s happened, methodical payback ensues.
          Had Craven played this material straight, The Last House on the Left could have been genuinely horrifying. Alas, he makes bizarre tonal choices at every turn. The plentiful jokes feel distasteful, especially the broad-as-a-barn running gag of inept cops who keep driving right past the scenes of crimes. The film’s upbeat musical score (which seems more suitable for a children’s puppet show) further implies that Craven and his collaborators find carnage amusing. Finally, the over-the-top gore—including a shot of entrails being yanked from a corpse—adds another layer of unpleasant absurdity. So, even though Craven evinces some skill in terms of pacing and unexpected nuance, The Last House on the Left ultimately feels inconsistent, mean-spirited, and vulgar. Nonetheless, the picture became a cult favorite, even inspiring a 2009 remake, which Craven co-produced. And, of course, The Last House on the Left launched Craven’s career, which subsequently grew to include the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises.

The Last House on the Left: LAME

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bucktown (1975)

          One of my favorite ’70s drive-in flicks is the violent oddity Vigilante Force (1976), starring Jan-Michael Vincent as a redneck who recruits his Vietnam-vet brother, played by Kris Kristofferson, to clean up a town that’s become infested by unruly newcomers. Alas, the cure is worse than the disease, because Kristofferson’s character and his hired guns seize control of the town, forcing a showdown with Vincent’s character. Anyway, go figure there’s a blaxploitation movie with virtually the same plot. Released more than a year before Vigilante Force, the far less satisfying Bucktown stars Fred Williamson as a tough guy named Duke Johnson. When the story begins, Duke returns to his Southern hometown, which is nicknamed “Bucktown” by racist white authorities because of the municipality’s large concentration of black citizens, in order to attend his brother’s funeral. Duke quickly learns that his brother, who owned a nightclub catering to black customers, was murdered, and that cops under the supervision of Chief Patterson (Art Lund) mercilessly squeeze African-American business owners for protection money. Determined to set things right, Duke reopens his brother’s club and summons his badass buddy Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) from Chicago with a request to “bring muscle.” Together, Duke, Roy, and Roy’s hired guns topple Chief Patterson’s operation, but then Roy decides to establish himself as the new underworld king of Bucktown.
          Naturally, even though Duke spendt the first half of the movie proclaiming his intention to leave Bucktown after defeating Chief Patterson, Duke decides to stay and fight Roy. Part of Duke’s motivation, of course, is a burgeoning romance with local beauty Aretha, played by the va-va-voom Queen of Blaxploitation herself, Pam Grier.
          As written by Bob Ellison and directed by the perpetually disappointing Arthur Marks, Bucktown is a compendium of missed opportunities. The characterizations are paper-thin, the possibilities of defining a community by illustrating the vibe at Duke’s nightclub are never exploited, and the logic problems created by open warfare in the streets of an American city are ignored. As a result, the vibrant actors populating the cast are left to flounder while trying to energize lifeless material. Williamson’s at his best, focusing on righteous indignation and suppressing his tendency toward megalomaniacal strutting, but every single thing he does is a cliché. Rasulala fares slightly better, since his character gets to arc from noble to nefarious, but it says a lot that the climax of his performance involves taking a brutal kick to the groin. Grier is almost completely wasted, since she’s relegated to showing off her astonishing body and watching the main action from the sidelines. Making a story this colorful boring required considerable effort, but Marks and his team somehow managed that dubious accomplishment.

Bucktown: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Countess Dracula (1971)

          English horror-movie factory Hammer Films earned its reputation by blending sensationalism with sophistication, because the company’s signature girls-and-gore formula was generally delivered by way of credible acting, intelligent writing, and lush production design. The lurid aspects are dominant in most Hammer pictures, but in Countess Dracula, the sleazy stuff is subordinate to a well-constructed narrative based on a notorious historical figure. Furthermore, Countess Dracula is arguably the best-looking movie Hammer ever produced, with cinematographer Kenneth Talbot using painterly lighting effects and soft lens filters to create romantic imagery. So even though Countess Dracula has abundant bloodshed and nudity, it’s one of the rare Hammer movies that a serious-minded cinephile can watch without much guilt.
          Inspired by the legend of Elizabeth Bàthory, a Renaisssance-era Hungarian countess who reputedly bathed in the blood of young women whom she ordered killed—believing this practice maintained her beauty—Countess Dracula imagines what might have happened if a character like Bathory truly discovered a magical formula for recapturing her youth. Ingrid Pitt, the glamorous European star of Hammer’s salacious hit The Vampire Lovers (1970), stars as Countess Elisabeth Nàdasdy. At the beginning of the movie, Elisabeth is an aged but elegant noblewoman whose husband recently died. During the reading of her husband’s will, Elisabeth becomes fascinated by Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), who inherits part of the Nàdasdy estate because his father was a friend of Elisabeth’s husband. Concurrently, Elisabeth awaits the homecoming of her daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), who is now of marriageable age after many years away at school. Through circumstance, Elisabeth accidentally gets the blood of a young woman on her cheek, and is shocked to see the skin of her cheek magically restored to a youthful sheen. Then Elisabeth conspires with her put-upon lover, estate functionary Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), to gain a steady supply of women so she can restore her entire body to youth and thereby court Imre while pretending to be Ilona.
          As should be apparent, the plot of Countess Dracula gets a little convoluted, but writer Jeremy Paul does a great job of keeping motivations straight and predicating everything on the desire that craven people have for increased social position and wealth. In this way, Elisabeth’s monstrous plan becomes a metaphor representing both unchecked ambition and the villainous abuse of power. In fact, only the supernatural element of Elisabeth’s physical changes really tips the movie into the realm of fantasy. Director Peter Sasdy generates a number of memorable images, including the scandalous shot of a nude Pitt washing herself with a blood-soaked sponge, and he ensures that performances are consistently rational and restrained. Like most Hammer movies, Countess Dracula suffers from humorlessness, so some stretches get monotonous and stilted. But in the mean, Countess Dracula is among the best things the company made in its heyday—sexy, sinister, and smart.

Countess Dracula: GROOVY

Monday, May 19, 2014

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973)

          American movie theaters of the ‘70s were so overstuffed with ultraviolent revenge movies that some of the films even emanated from foreign countries, including this elegantly made but otherwise repulsive Swedish picture. Originally titled Thriller: eyn grym film and running 107 minutes, complete with hardcore-porn insert shots and a notorious image that may or may not feature the mutilation of an actual corpse, the movie was re-edited and re-titled many times. The version most familiar to American audiences is an 82-minute cut released to U.S. screens as They Call Her One Eye, carrying an “R” rating and bereft of the nastiest bits from the original cut. Unsurprisingly, given his penchant for grungy stories about the sexual abuse of women, Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of Thriller, and the character Daryl Hannah plays in Tarantino’s Kill Bill pictures was based on the protagonist of Thriller, who wears an eyepatch through most of the narrative.
          Writer-producer-director Bo Arne Vibenius strikes a peculiar balance throughout Thriller, because even though he fills the screen with grotesque images of murder, mutilation, and rape, Vibenius employs stately pacing and stylish slow-motion effects to create a beguiling style. Combined with twitchy flourishes on the soundtrack, including dissonant electric noises and surreal audio filters, the aesthetic of Thriller vaguely resembles that of Werner Herzog’s films. Additionally, the performances in Thriller work well by way of severe understatement—leading lady Christina Lindberg is arresting because she receives and renders violence without betraying emotion, and supporting players including main villain Heinz Hopf occupy a soulless place befitting a story about kidnapping and sexual slavery. For all of these reasons related to cinematic texture, Vibenius’ film is striking.
          That said, the content of the movie is simultaneously trite and vile, an ode to the perverse public interest in nubile young women being subjugated by monstrous men.
          Thriller begins with a prologue depicting a schoolgirl’s rape. Years later, the girl has become a beautiful young woman, Frigga (Lindberg). Living and working on a farm, she has been mute since her childhood trauma. One afternoon, she accepts a car ride from smooth-talking Tony (Hopf). He slips her a sedative and then, while she’s unconscious, pumps her so full of heroin that she becomes addicted. Naturally, he controls her supply of dope. Tony informs his new prisoner—whom he renames Madeline—that she must work as a prostitute in his brothel. When Frigga/Madeline attacks her first would-be john, Tony punishes her by poking out her right eye with a scalpel—a violent act featured in a loving closeup that has been a source of controversy for decades, since rumors persist that a real human body was used for the effect. Once Frigga/Madeline “settles” into her routine, she uses her days off and her paychecks (both of which represent inexplicable plot contrivances) to pay for training in combat driving, martial arts, and sharpshooting, because she’s methodically planning revenge. The movie’s epic finale, which stretches across a solid 30 minutes, features the protagonist’s systematic payback.
          Excepting perhaps the sheer severity of the thing, the plot of Thriller fails to generate many surprises, and the film’s emotional content is limited to sympathy for the protagonist’s unthinkable situation. As such, watching Thriller is a clinical experience, especially since full-length original version includes full-penetration insert shots during sex scenes and lingers endlessly on shotgun-blasted victims tumbling to the ground. It’s all quite horrible and ugly, and yet strangely lyrical, too. Make no mistake, Thriller is the worst kind of cinematic misogyny, a symphony of hate disguised as empowerment. Still, it’s no wonder Thriller lingered in Tarantino’s imagination.

Thriller: A Cruel Picture: FREAKY

Sunday, May 18, 2014

To All My Friends on Shore (1972)

          An interesting curio nestled inside Bill Cosby’s voluminous output, this fine telefilm features the iconic comedian in a strong dramatic performance. Additionally, To All My Friends on Shore offers one of its era’s most humane depictions of life among financially challenged African-Americans. It’s clear why the project failed to evolve into a theatrical feature, because the story is far too slight. Nonetheless, the texture of the piece—especially in terms of acting, sociopolitical rhetoric, and tone—is outstanding. Cosby, who came up with the idea for the story, stars as Blue, a jack of all trades struggling to support his wife, Serena (Gloria Foster), and his preteen son, Vandy (Dennis Hines). The first half of the picture is a character study about Blue. Although he’s a dreamer who is saving money to buy a house, he’s deeply cynical about opportunities for black men in America. Still, Blue prides himself on doing honest work, thereby shunning the urban pitfalls of drugs and welfare. For all his professional persistence, Blue fails as a father simply by spending too much time away from home and by squirreling away money for future purchases. As a result, Vandy resents Blue terribly, and Serena pushes Blue to work harder on parenting. All of these elements come together in the second half of the picture, during which Vandy is diagnosed with a lethal disease.
          As written by Allan Sloane, who won an Emmy for his teleplay, To All My Friends on Shore exudes credibility and toughness in every scene. The quarrels that Blue and Serena have about priorities ring true for anyone who’s tried to balance family and money. Similarly, the rage that Vandy expresses is painfully believable. “How come everything has to be someday,” he asks at one point. “How come there’s never anything good right now?” Producer-director Gilbert Cates, who made a number of solid dramatic films for the big screen in the early ’70s, executes To All My Friends on Shore with his customary good taste, giving actors ample room to inhabit characters instead of merely reciting lines. Foster and Hines both do well, though it’s Cosby, obviously, who dominates.
          Among other things, Cosby pulls off the neat trick of illustrating a paradox—Blue comes across as prideful and self-pitying at the same time, with both emotions seeming equally justified. Better still, Cosby assiduously avoids playing for cheap emotion, portraying a man who perceives life as a steady barrage of body blows. His durability, coupled with Vandy’s vulnerability, makes a poetic statement about existence on the fringes of society. (As Blue says in one of the film’s most pointed lines, Vandy’s ailment is merely a symptom of something worse: “Vandy’s sickness is he was born black and poor.”). To All My Friends on Shore hits a few rough spots along the way, narratively speaking, but the project’s biggest flaw is that should have been longer then 70 minutes, since there was more story yet to tell. What exists is quite good, though, especially with a powerfully downbeat funk score accentuating the anguish that permeates every scene.

To All My Friends on Shore: GROOVY

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Seven (1979)

          One of those peculiar characters who makes the world of exploitation movies interesting, Andy Sidaris began his film career respectably, helming episodes of ’70s action shows including Kojak and winning awards for directing sports broadcasts. Yet Sidaris had bigger things in mind—specifically Bullets, Bombs, and Babes, the brand name for a series of low-budget flicks that he produced in the ’80s and ’90s. The seeds for the series were planted in Sidaris’ first two features, the Roger Corman-produced Stacey (1973) and this escapist adventure. In fact, Seven introduced Sidaris’ signature move of casting models from Penthouse and/or Playboy. From this point forward, Sidaris’ oeuvre comprises little more than nudity and violence. Seven stars the singular William Smith, a bodybuilder-turned-actor with a certain kind of animalistic charisma, as a covert operative who assembles a team of hotties and tough guys for a suicide mission. Explosions, murder, and sex ensue. Although the specifics of the story don’t really matter, the picture revolves around a crime syndicate that’s angling to take over Hawaii. A shady government figure hires mercenary Drew (Smith) to murder the heads of the syndicate. “We need an organizer,” the G-man says, “some stud who can put together a real mean unit.”
          Yes, folks, we’re deep in the realm of male fantasy here, which is why operatives Alexa (Barbara Leigh) and Jennie (Susan Kiger), as well as various sexy women on the periphery of the story, often deliver dialogue while slipping in or out of their tops.
          Eventually, Drew and his hired killers decamp to Hawaii and make elaborate plans for coordinated assassinations. The schemes in Seven are laughably far-fetched, except perhaps for the simple bit during which Cowboy (Guich Koock) pours gasoline on bad guys and then lights them on fire. By any reasonable standard, Seven is quite stupid, but some of the onscreen nonsense is amusing. Consider the bit when a traditional Hawaiian dancer kills an audience member by throwing a flaming spear, or the running device of a hit man who rides up to victims on a skateboard and uses weapons including a crossbow. Plus, there’s a sprinkling of dim-bulb humor, some of which is intentional. And, of course, there are many good reasons why the women with whom Sidaris decorates the movie earned their notoriety through the act of disrobing. One could live a happy life without ever seeing an Andy Sidaris movie, but at least Seven provides 100 minutes of scenery, sleaziness, and (William) Smith. Perhaps not the stuff that B-movie dreams are made of, but close.

Seven: FUNKY