Thursday, July 31, 2014

Scared Straight! (1978)

          Documentary filmmakers have long complained that the rules employed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ nonfiction branch are capricious to the extreme of being incomprehensible. Take, for instance, the peculiar example of Scared Straight!, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1978—even though the film isn’t feature-length, since it runs only 58 minutes, and even though it was made for television rather than for theatrical release. Scared Straight! is a noble and powerful project, but why it merited Academy consideration is a mystery. In any event, the iconic film captures an encounter between teenaged juvenile delinquents and grown-up prison inmates. The criminals, incarcerated at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison, comprise a social-action group called the Lifers, and at the time the film was made, the Lifers regularly met with at-risk youths to “scare them straight” with horror stories about life behind bars. (As narrator Peter Falk informs viewers, the Lifers were collectively serving over 1,000 years in prison.)
          Scared Straight! begins with brief vignettes depicting the teenagers, who arrogantly proclaim their indifference toward victims and share their plans to become career criminals. Then, with the resounding slam of a metal door, the kids are stuck in a visiting room with the Lifers, who barrage them with graphic descriptions—and graphic language. The film’s constant torrent of four-letter words is mostly significant because Scared Straight! was broadcast on television uncensored; considering that the Lifers’ various remarks about anal rape are still quite startling, one can only imagine how harsh the material sounded to viewers in 1978. Scared Straight! collapses a three-hour visit into less than one hour of screen time, so the intensity level of the interaction between the Lifers and the teenagers is slightly jacked up from reality. That said, the terrified looks on the faces of the kids seem absolutely genuine.
          In one particularly harrowing scene, a criminal pulls a young man from his chair in order to simulate the process of adopting a new inmate as a “kid.” (In modern parlance, the role would be called “bitch.”) Then, just instants after agreeing to provide sexual favors in exchange for protection, the new “kid” is “sold” to another inmate. “When you look at us,” one of the Lifers says to the teenagers, “you should see yourselves.” As evidenced by the creation of several foll0w-up specials and by the duplication of the Lifers’ program in other prisons, the encounter largely achieved the desired results, so Scared Straight! belongs to that special class of nonfiction films with measureable positive effects in the outside world. And while the movie was never designed to be entertainment, per se, it’s an arresting experience—no pun intended.

Scared Straight!: GROOVY

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Jack and the Beanstalk (1974)

The complicated relationship between American and Japanese animation companies has generated some offbeat hybrid projects, of which this children’s movie is an extremely minor example. Adapted from the classic fairy tale, the film was made in Japan, complete with a Japanese soundtrack, but an English-language soundtrack was also recorded, with Westerners supervising the work. Columbia Pictures released the English-language version in the U.S., and while Columbia’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk is ostensibly a Western movie, it contains odd traces of its national origin. For instance, the movie’s princess character is drawn in an amine/manga style complete with gigantic saucer eyes. Further, the film’s annoying music includes chirpy melodies one might expect to encounter in a proper Japanimation offering. Generally speaking, however, the movie is a straight-ahead riff on the familiar saga, with a few inconsequential elements added in to prolong the narrative. (For example, the aforementioned princess.) After his family’s cow stops producing milk, young peasant famer Jack makes things worse by trading the cow to a con man for “magic beans.” Upon hitting the ground, the beans sprout a giant stalk that leads to a kingdom in the clouds. Jack climbs the stalk and enters the kingdom, falls for the princess, tries to avoid being eaten by a witch and her gigantic son (who, sadly, never shouts “fee-fi-fo-fum”), and eventually wins the day. Yawn. Excepting the few Eastern touches, nothing the least bit original or useful was added to the source material for this incarnation, and even though the animation is generally satisfactory, the character development, design, and plotting are so lifeless as to induce complete audience boredom. Jack and the Beanstalk is no more infantile than other animated features of the same era, but neither is it entertaining, memorable, or novel. In short, it ain’t worth the climb.

Jack and the Beanstalk: LAME

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tim (1979)

          The same year that Mel Gibson first played Mad Max, in the film of the same name, he starred in this very different feature, a sticky-sweet romance about a middle-aged woman who falls for a mentally challenged fellow 20 years her junior. While not an especially interesting movie, thanks to the sluggish pacing and trite storyline, Tim has some novelty simply because of Gibson’s presence. While his innate charm gets him through, the actor is as mediocre in Tim as he is assured in Mad Max. This says a lot about the importance of synchronicity between actor and role. In the ensuing years, Gibson’s capacity for real-life anger has become legendary, so it’s now easy to recognize why he simulated Mad Max’s sociopathic angst so effectively. Yet the title role in Tim called for an actor who could convey pure innocence, and that particular quality seemed to exist slightly outside Gibson’s wheelhouse circa the late ’70s.
          Throughout Tim, he diligently strips free of affect and guile, but in doing so, Gibson comes across more like a needy puppy dog than a believable human being. It’s also distracting that Gibson is so extraordinarily attractive—whether he’s prancing about in tiny swim trunks or working in short-shorts and a tank top, Gibson looks like he’s in a homoerotic music video, rather than a serious dramatic film. So while he’s not bad in the film, per se, he’s just slightly miscast—which has an impact on the overall project, since he is, after all, portraying the title character.
         That said, Tim is an essentially respectable enterprise. U.S. actress Piper Laurie, the picture of midlife elegance, stars as Mary Horton, an American-born professional living in Australia. One day, she spots handsome young laborer Tim (Gibson) doing yardwork next door. When her own gardener calls in sick, Mary hires Tim as a handyman, eventually extending his work to her beach house as well as her primary residence. Because Tim is simple-minded, Mary’s burgeoning affection for the young man is initially quasi-maternal in nature. Yet her patronage pleases Tim’s blue-collar parents, who fear Tim has no prospects in life. Then, after both of Tim’s parents fall ill, Mary’s role in the young man’s life becomes more central. She denies the physical aspects of her attraction to Tim until the circumstances of their lives change, so much of the film’s drama stems from Mary’s angst over whether to get intimate with a man who has the mind of a child.
          Based on a novel by Australian author Colleen McCullough—who famously revisited the forbidden-love genre for The Thorn Birds, which became a massive U.S. miniseries—Tim is gentle to a fault. There’s very little dramatic conflict, the movie is padded with flat and repetitive scenes of contented people enjoying each other’s company, and the gooey music score makes Tim seem like a Hallmark greeting card come to life. Still, Laurie lends more than a touch of class, Gibson’s megawatt charisma is on full display, and the Australian locations are lovely. Call it a draw.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976)

          The high point of Northville Cemetery Massacre—which is actually a biker flick, rather than the gory horror movie one might expect, based upon the title—occurs when several bikers get thrown into a county jail after getting needlessly hassled by redneck cops. As the cyclists pass around a reefer provided by a dealer who’s been thrown into the slammer with them, the amiable voice of Michael Nesmith appears on the soundtrack. Nesmith, a once-and-future member of pop group the Monkees, did the score for Northville Cemetery Massacre, and he also wrote and performed several songs. So, while the onscreen dudes toke, Nesmith croons like a country-and-western troubadour: “A friend with weed is a friend indeed.” For sheer novelty’s sake, nothing else in Northville Cemetery Massacre matches the peculiarity of a Monkee singing the praises of sweet Mary Jane. That’s because, excepting a surprising amount of gore during murder scenes, nothing in Northville Cemetery Massacre has the power to surprise.
          The story is a familiar grind during which bikers roll into a small town, get accused of a crime they didn’t commit (in this case, a rape), and then battle angry locals. The twist, such as it is, stems from the fact that rape was actually committed by a sleazy policeman (Craig Collicott), who persuades the victim’s father that the bikers were the culprits. Cue instant vendetta, with the cop and the father, abetted by a big-game hunter, mowing down bikers. The violent cycle culminates in a shootout that takes place in a graveyard, hence the film’s title.
          Despite sketchy production values and some iffy acting, Northville Cemetery Massacre has some pleasant passages. For instance, a biker captures counterculture angst by lamenting that “all you gotta do is have long hair, ride a scooter, and wear colors, and everything you do is illegal.” In fact, all of the scenes of the bikers hanging out have a realistic vibe. Between interesting-ish scenes, however, is lots of padding. Predictability and superficiality are problems, as well, since character development clearly was not a priority for the filmmakers. FYI, one of those aforementioned filmmakers, codirector and co-cinematographer William Dear, later built a respectable career making, among other things, the gentle family film Harry and the Hendersons (1987). Go figure.

Northville Cemetery Massacre: FUNKY

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Glen and Randa (1971)

          Lyrical and offbeat, cowriter-director Jim McBride’s postapocalyptic saga Glen and Randa offers a humanistic spin on a genre that’s normally marked by nihilism and violence. Rather than imaginging a near-future Earth where survivors of a cataclysm battle each other for dwindling resources, McBride posits a primitive environment where the eradication of knowledge is the biggest danger to the human race. The lead characters, hippie-ish teenagers Glen and Randa, are introduced nude and in the wilderness, hitting the Adam and Eve allegory hard, so the idea is that they’ve grown up as primitives without schools and other social structures to shape their understandings. Glen has gleaned his sense of the world from comic books that he (barely) reads, so he dreams of finding the gleaming city of Metropolis, where everyone can fly. (Glen’s so beguiled by power fantasies, in fact, that he shouts “Shazam!” whenever lightning strikes.)
          After a long and largely wordless sequence of Glen and Randa cavorting in the woods, the movie shifts to civilization, of a sort, when the young lovers join an enclave of raggedy survivors who gather around a campfire and eat scraps. Next, an old man known only as “The Magician” shows up, putting on a show featuring a random assortment of gadgets from the technology era—a blender, an record player, and even a fire-retardant suit. The Magician is a mile-a-minute blabbermouth, but his connection to the old world fascinates Glen, who becomes the Magician’s de facto assistant. (“You’re too good a man for slavery, Prince Valiant,” the Magician says to Glen in a mishmash of highfalutin phraseology and literary references. “I give you a quest.”) After Glen steals maps from the Magician, he and Randa set out for their next adventure, even though Randa has become pregnant. Finally, the duo falls into the orbit of Sidney Miller (Woody Chambliss), a sweet old recluse living in woods by an ocean shore.
          One could argue that nothing much happens in Glen and Randa, simply because McBride eschews the usual postapocalyptic tropes (messanic characters, radiation, roving bands of savages, etc.). Yet the vibe of the picture is strangely persuasive, and the specific choices that McBride makes are interesting—for instance, the Magician plays a warped 45 of the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side,” with the irony of that song in a postapocalyptic context emerging gradually. Ultimately, Glen and Randa is a strange little movie filled with connection and despair in equal measure. FYI, although the film carried an “X” rating during its original release, the only edgy material is nudity and some discreet sexuality.

Glen and Randa: GROOVY

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Master Touch (1972)

          Slick and watchable but badly lacking in narrative tension, this European heist thriller stars a suave Kirk Douglas as Steve, an expert thief who has just been released after a three-year prison term that stemmed from an unsuccessful robbery arranged by a wealthy criminal named Miller (Wolfgang Preiss). Immediately after leaving jail, Steve is seized at gunpoint by Miller’s goons, because Miller has a new job for Steve. Unwilling to trust the man twice, Steve refuses, and subsequently reunites with his beautiful wife, Anna (Florinda Bolkan). Initially, Anna’s thrilled to have Steve home, but then she detects that he’s itching to resume his life of crime—which pushes her over the edge, because the thought of waiting while her husband does another long stretch behind bars is more than she can take.
          Meanwhile, Steve takes on an apprentice, trapeze artist-turned-thief Marco (Giulana Gemma), and Steve hatches a scheme to commit Miller’s crime without Miller’s participation, doubling his potential take but also doubling his risk. Especially with the added element of a dogged policeman (Rene Kolldehoff), who is determined to catch Steve red-handed, the basic architecture of The Master Touch should be sufficient to support a proper thrill ride. Unfortunately, director Michele Lupo and his collaborators are more interested in style than substance. Major plot threads—such as the detective angle and the hint of a romantic triangle comprising Anna, Marco, and Steve—are malnourished, and far too much screen time is consumed by nicely shot but pointless chase scenes, as well as sleek but tedious montages of Steve surveiling potential crime scenes and/or preparing equipment for the big heist. Additionally, Douglas disappears for long stretches,with Lupo padding the running time through the inclusion of solo scenes featuring Gemma.
          As a result of all of this narrative diffusion, the main thrust of the piece gets obscured at regular intervals, even though the whole movie is attractively filmed at various picturesque German locations. (Lupo makes especially good use of Third Man-style Dutch angles.) Still, the movie pays off well with a zippy action finale, and Douglas provides ample low-key charm by relying on his innate charisma instead of falling into his customary ’70s trap of overacting.

The Master Touch: FUNKY

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Demon Lover (1977)

At the height of the indie-flick boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s, filmmaker Chris Smith released a documentary titled American Movie, which took the piss out of no-budget cinema by introducing viewers to Mark Borchardt, a hopelessly untalented Midwesterner who makes godawful horror movies. For all the world’s high-minded talk about how anyone can make a film, alas, there’s still a reason why most of the features that get widespread attention are made within the Hollywood system. Amateurs tend to be, you know, amateurish. This context is useful for discussing a 1977 atrocity titled The Demon Lover, which has exactly the same grungy vibe as Mark Borchardt’s magnum opus, Coven. Shot in rural Michigan with a cast mostly comprising doughy Midwesterners, The Demon Lover concerns a coven leader who freaks out when his acolytes refuse to have an orgy. (Never mind that the coven leader is an overweight slob in a mega-mullet who looks as if he spends his life attending Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts and eating at KFC—orgy material, he is not.) Every single cliché of amateur horror is present in The Demon Lover: a demon costume that looks like a third-grader’s art project, George A. Romero-style gore created by fanboys who believe all they need for realism is caro syrup and ingenuity, sets featuring the anemic issue of low-rent smoke machines, weird voices on the soundtrack employed to create the illusion of tension, and so on. It’s all quite embarrassing to watch. Nonetheless, sporting viewers could easily derive 83 minutes of MST3K-style amusement from watching this train wreck, which is occasionally marketed as The Devil Master. The performances are delightfully incompetent, the pacing is nonexistent, the shock scenes are laughably cheap-looking, and the movie even features such choice dialogue as the following: “I don’t care if you drop Bufferin in your tea, I just want to talk!” One can only imagine how mortified the participants were upon seeing the final product.

The Demon Lover: SQUARE

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Candleshoe (1977)

          “I ain’t depressed,” tough street kid Casey explains. “I’m delinquent. There’s a difference, you know?” Had all of Candleshoe, the live-action Disney flick that tells Casey’s story, risen to the droll level of this dialogue, the movie would have been much more entertaining. Alas, the passable film coasts on the strength of glossy production values and skillful performances as the filmmakers substitute unnecessarily intricate plotting for actual storytelling. Based on a novel by Michael Innes, Candleshoe is one of those Disney pictures that twists itself into narrative knots while trying to generate an offbeat spin on a familiar formula. At its core, the movie presents the standard Disney gimmick of a wild kid becoming tame thanks to the acceptance of a loving family. Yet Candleshoe also includes con-artist schemes, an elaborate heist, a kidnapping angle, sweet kids attending to a dotty aunt, transatlantic travel, and a vivacious butler who masqueredes as different people in order to convince his employer that her estate is still solvent. Candleshoe only rarely breaks from the exhausting work of providing exposition long enough to offer such simple pleasures as slapstick and verbal comedy. So, while the movie isn’t bad—since it’s harmless and moderately intelligent—it’s leaden and slow when it should be light and speedy.
          Anyway, Jodie Foster, at her precocious best, plays Casey, an American street kid living in a dingy foster home. One evening, she’s “purchased” by English crook Bundage (Leo McKern). Turns out Casey vaguely resembles the long-lost niece of a wealthy Brit, Lady St. Edmund (Helen Hayes). Bundage hopes to insert Casey into Lady St. Edmund’s estate, Candleshoe, so Casey can find a buried treasure. Casey agrees to pretend she’s the long-lost niece in exchange for a cut of the take. Yet once Casey arrives at Candleshoe, she falls in love with the family—Lady St. Edmund; her resourceful butler, Priory (David Niven); and several children. Meanwhile, Casey discovers that Candleshoe is bankrupt, so she joins in with family schemes to keep the place afloat without revealing the financial trouble to Lady St. Edmund. Inevitably, some moments in Candleshoe are charming,simply because the actors are so good. Hayes provides warmth, Foster provides spunk,McKern provides menace, and Niven provides wit. Yet Candleshoe trudges when it should soar, never taking flight until the moderately entertaining slapstick-fight finale.

Candleshoe: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Absolution (1978)

          Murder and religion become entwined in Absolution, a dark mystery/thriller penned by the noted English playwright Anthony Shaffter, whose other film projects include the revered Sleuth (1972) and the notorious The Wicker Man (1973). While Absolution does not rise to the heights of those pictures, it is nonetheless a brisk piece filled with creepy implications about the capacity young people have to commit physical and psychological violence. The inevitable twist ending might strike some viewers as a bit of a stretch, and, indeed, the final scene—which features an Agatha Christie-style explanation for various mysterious events—is laborious. Nonetheless, artful dialogue, meticulous characterizations, and the presence of the great Richard Burton in the starring role make Absolution quite worthwhile.
          Burton, looking much the worse for wear after years of alcoholism and phoned-in performances, stars as Father Goddard, a strict teacher at a Catholic school in England. Shaky in his faith and weary from too many years on the job, Goddard plays favorites, heaping praise on standout student Stanfield (Dominic Guard) and incessently belittling handicapped nerd Dyson (Dai Bradley). However, when a motorcycle-riding hippie named Blakey (Billy Connolly) sets up a campsite in the woods near the school, it’s Stanfield who defies Goddard by befriending the charming stranger. Realizing that he’s misjudged Stanfield rattles Goddard, and then things get truly grim—Stanfield tells Goddard, during confession, that he’s killed Blakey. Worse, Stanfield torments Goddard based on the rule that Goddard cannot reveal anything shared in confession. The situation spirals from there, with Goddard’s sanity becoming as endangered as the lives of the other students whom Stanfield threatens.
          Shaffer apparently wrote Absolution as a play first, though the ingenious premise (confession as a cover for murder) works well cinematically given Shaffer’s use of indoor and outdoor locations to represent different worlds pulled into conflict with each other. Naturally, the dialogue is quite sharp, though Shaffer’s wordplay perpetually teeters on the line between clever and pretentious.(At one point, Goddard derides Blakey by saying, “Freedom’s a banner the unscrupulous frequently march under.”) Yet the lofty language suits the milieu, and the actors all render words so skillfully that the high-minded approach works. Further, director Anthony Page and his collaborators create an ominous mood with shadowy cinematography, the efficacy of which is maximized by Stanley Myers’ excellent suspense score. Plus, as do all good thrillers, Absolution creates a disturbing sense of inevitability, with each dark turn of the story signaling a deeper descent into oblivion.
          FYI, business complications prevented Absolution from reaching the U.S. until the late ’80s, when it was unceremoniously dumped on the public like a straight-to-video cheapie.

Absolution: GROOVY

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Death of a Snowman (1976)

          While it’s unsurprising that certain genres associated with Hollywood have been emulated throughout the world, it does seem peculiar that blaxploitation—which, after all, grew from idioms and issues associated with inner-city America—made its way outside the borders of the U.S. Then again, if any country in the world could have made a viable claim to the genre in the mid-’70s, it would have been apartheid-era South Africa, where being black was often a matter of life or death. Having said that, whatever innate potential one might associate with the notion of a South African blaxploitation flick is unrealized in the boring Death of a Snowman, which is occasionally marketed by the alternate titles Black Trash and Soul Patrol. (Note the above poster, which has zero to do with the film’s content.) Suffering from a muddy script and sloppy editing, as well as indecisiveness about which character is the protagonist, the movie trudges through a rather pedestrian story about criminals masquerading as social activists.
          The picture ostensibly focuses on the partnership between a black reporter (Ken Gampu) and a white detective (Nigel Davenport), who join forces to investigate the criminals, but writer Bima Stagg and director Christopher Rowley fail to define the characters as interesting individuals, much less a dynamic duo. Meanwhile, recurring cuts to a spaced-out hit man (played by Stagg) add little except explosions of violence. Even though Death of a Snowman is only 86 minutes in duration, it feels infinitely longer because there’s no discernible narrative momentum. Further, Death of a Snowman has an odd vibe because of its international origin. Parts of the movie are reminiscent of Italian crime pictures, some scenes feature Asians performing martial arts, various actors’ voices were replaced in postproduction (creating lip-sync problems), and vignettes with Afros and leisure suits evoke American drive-in flicks. Death of a Snowman ends up feeling a bit like a fever dream of bad ’70s cinema, with flavors from around the world mixed together in the most haphazard fashion possible.

Death of a Snowman: LAME

Monday, July 21, 2014

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

          Considering that he collects and sells horse manure for a living, Irishman Quackser Fortune has a bright outlook on life. He makes his own hours, takes a different route every day through the streets of his beloved Dublin, and won’t listen to people who say that horse-drawn delivery carts may soon get replaced by trucks, rendering his profession obsolete. Quackser treats others with affection and respect, expecting nothing but the same in return. Which is why he’s thrown for such a loop when he meets Zazel Pierce, a beautiful but capricious American spending time in Dublin while doing research at Trinity College. Quackser’s instantly attracted to Zazel, and she feels the same way, but their value systems couldn’t be more different. And that’s the beautifully simple premise of Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, a delightful love story featuring what might be Gene Wilder’s most restrained performance.
          Bereft of his usual tics—the bug-eyed reaction shots, the pratfalls, the screaming—Wilder leads with his innate sweetness, and yet he never makes Quackser seem like a rube. Instead, the character comes across as that rarest of animals, a true innocent. Concurrently, Margot Kidder blends sexiness and worldliness to present Zazel as a modern woman who occasionally wants to meet Quackser on his own level, but then loses interest in him whenever something more challenging comes along. In one of the great victories of Gabriel Walsh’s original script, which was rightfully nominated for a WGA Award, Zazel comes across neither as a contrivance or a villain, but rather as a unique person who falls into the orbit of another unique person. This is character work of the best kind.
          And if the rest of the movie fails to hit that same high level, no matter. The world surrounding Quackser is a believable grind of factory work, hot-tempered relatives, and provincial attitudes. Similarly, Zazel’s sphere includes obnoxious people who wear their education and wealth like shields protecting them from the unclean touch of the rabble. Yes, the dichotomy is predicated on stereotypes, but Quackser and Zazel are such interesting creations that the broad-strokes backdrop works. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and director Waris Hussein make great use of extensive location photography, transforming Dublin into the magical canvas upon which the sort-of love story between Quackser and Zazel is painted. Meanwhile, the leading actors fill that painting with resplendent colors.
          Often bittersweet, Quackser Fortune is more of a light drama than an outright comedy, which makes Wilder’s presence even more interesting, since he rarely worked outside the comic realm during his heyday. And though the world is a richer place because of the lunacy Wilder created with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and other collaborators, Quackser Fortune points to another viable path his career could have taken. His performance is as lovely as the film itself.

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx: RIGHT ON

Sunday, July 20, 2014

1980 Week: Cruising

          No one in Hollywood ever sets out to make a dud. Take, for example, Cruising, the notorious William Friedkin thriller starring Al Pacino as a straight cop who infiltrates New York’s gay-nightclub scene while hunting a killer who is targeting homosexuals. It’s easy to imagine why Friedkin and Pacino, both of whom enjoy testing limits, saw the pulpy story as an opportunity to investigate a mysterious subculture. Concurrently, it’s useful to remember that the gender-politics climate of the late ’70s was still rotten with prejudice. Fearful the movie might propagate ugly stereotypes about predatory gays, activists staged noisy protests during filming in Manhattan, thereby creating a widespread perception that Cruising was antigay. These circumstances all but guaranteed a hostile reception from audiences and critics, rendering the filmmakers’ original intentions moot.
          But that was then. In trying to arrive at a modern understanding of Cruising, one must wrestle with the fact that the naysayers who attacked the film before and during its original release were both right and wrong. While Cruising absolutely features the “gay killer” trope, which had become a raw nerve after too many movies along the lines of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Cruising is too complex to earn a label as narrow as “antigay.” More than anything, Cruising is perverse. Predicated upon a deliberately unsolvable whodunnit, it is about a man who loses his personal and sexual identity while pretending to be someone else, set against the backdrop of a nightclub community populated by individuals who celebrate their truth and by individuals who disguise themselves.
          Like the best of Friedkin’s films—a category to which Cruising doesn’t necessarily belong—Cruising is designed to get under the viewer’s skin and distort perceptions. Just as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) revel in moral ambiguity, Cruising revels in sexual ambiguity. In fact, the picture takes Friedkins penchant for incertitude to an infuriating extreme by including several moments even the director cannot (or will not) explain. The movie doesnt play fair, but clearly playing fair was never Friedkins intention.
          That leaves unanswered, of course, the burning question: Is Cruising a good movie? That all depends on the kind of experience the viewer wants. Those craving sensitive insights into gay culture will be left wanting, since Cruising focuses almost exclusively on the rough stuff—exhibitionism, leather, S&M, etc. As a mystery, the movie is a total bust.
          Yet buried within the frustrating rhythms of Cruising are moments of great intensity and surprise. Paul Sorvino brings genuine ache to his role as Pacinos supervisor, a homicide investigator who has seen too much misery in his life. Karen Allen lends sensitivity as the lead character’s long-suffering girlfriend. And Pacino attacks the starring role with his signature go-for-broke intensity. Whether he’s dancing in a nightclub while wearing a black tank top or wrestling with angst about the emotional places his assignment forces him to explore, he’s an open wound of ambition, confusion, and pathos. (Accentuating all of those tonalities and more is Jack Nitzsche’s eerie score, a mixture of pounding rhythms and ethereal waves.)
          Cruising doesn’t “work” in any conventional sense, and many people justifiably find it offensive, but it’s a singular piece of filmmaking. Its worst moments are irresponsible, its best moments are truly haunting—and not infrequently, it straddles both extremes at once.

Cruising: FREAKY

Saturday, July 19, 2014

1980 Week: When Time Ran Out . . .

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting title for the final big-screen release from producer Irwin Allen, who became synonymous with the disaster-movie genre after making The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). By the time this enervated flick hit cinemas with a resounding thud, time had indeed run out for Allen’s formula of jamming as many movie stars as possible into melodramatic epics about mass destruction. The disaster this time is a volcano that threatens to consume an island in the Pacific, so the usual Allen contrivances seem especially silly. For instance, tanned B-movie stud James Franciscus plays the requisite cold-hearted businessman who tries to convince island residents that the volcano’s not going to erupt. Really? Then what’s with all the lava and smoke, to say nothing of the corpses left over from scientists conducting tests in the mouth of the volcano? Similarly, the endless scenes of people climbing hills and crossing ravines—running from lava as if the stuff possesses malicious intent—are ludicrous. And while much of the cast comprises such second-stringers as Edward Albert, Barbara Carrera, Alex Karras, and (of course) Allen regular Ernest Borgnine, Allen clearly wrote big checks to get a trio of major stars involved. William Holden plays a hotel owner more concerned with his love life than his professional obligations, Paul Newman plays a heroic oil-rig boss who spots trouble that others can’t recognize (naturally), and Jacqueline Bisset plays the woman caught between them. Never mind that late-career Holden looks so desiccated from alcoholism that he seems more like Bisset’s grandfather than her would-be lover. Anyway, it’s all incredibly boring and shallow and trite, with any potential for excitement neutralized by indifferent acting, leaden pacing, and questionable special effects. Not even Bisset’s spectacular cleavage or Newman’s irrepressible charm can sustain interest. Instead of being a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out is merely a disaster.

When Time Ran Out . . .: LAME

Friday, July 18, 2014

1980 Week: Popeye

          Based on the enduring character Popeye the Sailor Man, a popular attraction in comic strips and cartoons since the Depression era, this big-budget musical comedy was such an embarrassing misfire that it’s amazing the principals behind the film were able to sustain careers afterward. For leading man Robin Williams, who chose this project for his first big-screen starring role after conquering television with Mork & Mindy, the picture led to a stint in “movie jail” that didn’t end until he took a dramatic turn in The World According to Garp (1982). And for director Robert Altman, who should have known better, Popeye dissipated what remained of the goodwill earned by hits including M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975)—after Popeye, Altman spent more than a decade making low-budget oddities until returning to the A-list with The Player (1992).
          Allowing that some folks consider the movie to be a quirky gem, Popeye is likely to strike most viewers as awkward and boring and silly right from the get-go. Amid preposterously elaborate production design that includes an entire seaside village built from scratch, Williams plays Popeye with prosthetics on his arms that make Williams look as if he’s smuggling hams under the skin beneath his wrists and his elbows. Like everyone around him, Williams (badly) sings arty little ditties penned by the idiosyncratic rock musician Harry Nilsson. Meanwhile, Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl as a mess of goofy pratfalls and shrill noises, while offbeat actors ranging from Paul Dooley to Bill Irwin to Paul Smith (best remembered as a would-be rapist in 1978’s Midnight Express) personify one-joke characters with performances of astonishing monotony.
          All of these resources are put in the service of a turgid story about Popeye competing with the brutish Bluto (Smith) for Olive’s hand, about Popeye and Olive becoming the surrogate parents for an orphaned baby named Swee’Pea, and about Popeye reconnecting with his long-lost dad, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). There’s also a big fight with an octopus, and, naturally, lots of spinach. While it might seem small-minded to criticize Altman and his collaborators for trying to blend unusual elements, there’s nothing quite so inert as a failed experiment in genre-splicing. As penned by satirist Jules Feiffer, who shares an insouciant approach to comedy with Altman and Nilsson, Popeye clearly wants to be entertaining and ironic simultaneously. Instead, it’s too plodding and stupid for cerebral viewers, and too weird for casual watchers. It’s fair to say there’s never been a movie exactly like Popeye—an arthouse cartoon, if you will—but that’s not meant as praise.

Popeye: LAME