Sunday, August 31, 2014

First Love (1977)

          The title of this romantic drama is slightly misleading, because the story depicts a relationship between two college students who have prior sexual experience. The nuance, therefore, is that the story dramatizes the first time the boy in this particular boy-meets-girl equation experiences true love. Yet even that doesn’t fully capture the tone of the picture, since the other major element of the story is the girl’s capriciousness, which stems from her simultaneous involvement with a man her father’s age. And while the picture is generally intelligent and serious, First Love still feels insubstantial. Even though the movie is acted with great sincerity and directed with a certain measure of elegance, everything just sort of happens, without any real sense of consequence.
          The hero of the piece is Elgin Smith (William Katt), an earnest and sweet young man who seems distracted from his coursework and from his part-time restaurant job because he’s preoccupied with practicing soccer moves and reading romantic books. His next-door neighbor, David (John Heard), is a swinger whose on-again/off-again girlfriend, Shelly (Beverly D’Angelo), wants to sleep with Elgin. Alas, Elgin is waiting for the real thing, having been underwhelmed by past sexual involvements. Enter Caroline (Susan Dey), with whom Elgin falls in love at first sight. Despite being aware that she’s involved with an older man, John (Robert Loggia), Elgin successfully woos Caroline, and they become a couple. Then, after an idyllic period of sex, sex, and more sex, Caroline reveals her demons, which threaten the relationship.
          Considering that First Love is an intimate character piece—and that it was based on a novel (Harold Brodkey’s Sentimental Education)—it’s surprising how indistinct the characterizations seem. Elgin waffles between naïve and worldly, changing whichever way the narrative wind blows, and Caroline teeters between self-centered and tormented. None of this feels like delicate articulation of prismatic individuals; rather, it feels like the filmmakers grabbing whichever element seems handy from scene to scene. Still, First Love is pleasant enough to watch. Directed by Joan Darling, a sitcom veteran making her feature debut (unusual for a woman in ’70s Hollywood), the picture has a glossy look right out of a Renaissance painting, and the acting is better than the material deserves, especially by supporting players D’Angelo and Heard. Plus, for those who enjoy a grown-up approach to onscreen sexuality, the love scenes are lengthy and mildly sensual. The picture also includes a very ’70s post-coital chat between Elgin and Caroline about female orgasms.

First Love: FUNKY

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Lucifer Complex (1978)

Film history is rife with stories about producers who had to cut corners because they ran out of money midway through filming, and we tend to remember the enterprising film professionals who responded to hardship with creativity. Understandably lost in the shuffle are embarrassments along the lines of The Lucifer Complex, which likely represents an unsuccessful attempt at stretching footage from an incomplete movie to feature length. Ostensibly, the picture is about a government agent (Robert Vaughn) investigating and trying to defeat a group of Florida-based neo-Nazis who want to build a Fourth Reich around a clone of Adolf Hitler. (Yes, the plot is shamelessly stolen from Ira Levin’s novel The Boys from Brazil, which was adapted into a big-budget feature released around the same time as The Lucifer Complex.) However, the far-fetched thriller featuring Vaughn is really just part of The Lucifer Complex. The movie actually begins on a tropical island, where a mystery man wanders into a cave filled with computers and then watches video recordings of human history until settling into his seat and watching the “historical record” of the storyline featuring Vaughn’s character. The drab business of the mystery man watching videos takes nearly 20 minutes of screen time, meaning that almost a third of the movie is over before the story begins. There’s no point searching for redeeming values in The Lucifer Complex, because the flick is so cheap, disjointed, nonsensical, and tiresome that the producers would have been better off selling their material as stock footage than actually assembling it into a feature. Except that option wouldn’t have been available to them, since most of those interminable first 20 minutes are already composed of stock footage. As for Vaughn, his obvious disinterest makes sense. Same goes for costars Aldo Ray and Keenan Wynn, each of whom sleepwalks through a minor supporting role.

The Lucifer Complex: SQUARE

Friday, August 29, 2014

The House That Dripped Blood (1970)

           Arguably the best of several horror-anthology films that Amicus Productions made in the ’60s and ’70s, The House That Dripped Blood benefits from a droll sense of humor, glossy cinematography, and a cast filled with some of the best actors borrowed from the stable of Amicus’ predecessor in the British-horror market, Hammer Films. Like nearly all the “portmanteau” pictures that Amicus made, The House That Dripped Blood is much more frothy than frightening, benefiting from a (mostly) brisk pace and a varied mixture of supernatural signifiers.
          Written by Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho, which was adapted into the Hitchcock film of the same name), The House That Dripped Blood concerns a U.K. mansion where tenants experience macabre tragedies. The perfunctory wraparound device involves a Scotland Yard detective who has traveled to the area surrounding the house in order to investigate the most recent death. As he’s given the case histories on previous mortalities, flashbacks illustrate the creepy goings-on at the haunted abode.
           The first story, “Method for Murder,” is about a crime novelist (Denholm Elliot) who believes a homicidal character he invented has come to life. In “Wax Works,” a retired gentleman (Peter Cushing) discovers that a wax museum near the house contains a likeness of the gentleman’s lost love. “Sweets to the Sweet” follows a stern father (Christopher Lee) as he tries to control the life of his angelic-looking daughter, who, naturally, has a dark secret. “The Cloak,” the only full-on comedy vignette of the batch, portrays the adventures of a pompous movie actor (Jon Pertwee) whose quest for authenticity in a vampire role goes too far, and whose buxom costar (Ingrid Pitt) goes batty for him.
           Director Peter Duffell and cinematographer Ray Parslow shoot the hell out of the movie, using ironically selected foreground objects and elaborately moody lighting to create a colorful look that both captures and satirizes the cartoonish visuals associated with classic screen horror. And except for “Sweets to the Sweet,” which takes too long laying groundwork before things get evil, Duffell paces the movie elegantly. In so doing, he gives his seasoned performers room to mug and scowl, which works well since florid acting is yet another staple of vintage fright films. (In fact, stylized horror acting is overtly lampooned in “The Cloak.”)
           Of the four stories, “Method for Murder” is probably the best simply because it gets down to business immediately and creates actual tension during scenes in which the novelist thinks he’s going crazy. (It also helps that Elliott is masterful at conveying barely contained anxiety.) “The Cloak” is whimsical, if not laugh-out-loud funny, and the combination of Pertwee’s flamboyance and Pitt’s sensuality works well. (Pertwee played the title role in the enduring Doctor Who BBC series during the early ’70s, and Pitt starred in various eroticized features for Hammer.) Made at a time when horror movies were getting nastier by the minute—more gore, more skin, more violation of every kind—The House That Dripped Blood is cheerfully old-fashioned entertainment.

The House That Dripped Blood: GROOVY

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Little Laura and Big John (1973)

Years from now, at the end of my epic investigation of ’70s cinema, it will be interesting to see which blockbuster generated the greatest number of knockoffs during the ’70s. For every creature feature designed to mimic Jaws (1975), there appear to be half-a-dozen gangster pictures styled after Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Among the least of these is Little Laura and Big John, a borderline incoherent romantic drama about real-life 1920s criminal John Ashley, who ran amok in 1920s Florida with the aid of people including Laura Upthegrove, later dubbed “Queen of the Everglades.” Presumably, there’s an interesting story to be told about how Ashley and his fellow bandits ravaged the Sunshine State. That story, however, is not told in Little Laura and Big John—at least not in any way that’s discernible. Even with the weak framing device of John’s mother telling the gang’s story, thus introducing the lengthy flashbacks that comprise most of the picture’s running time, Little Laura and Big John is boring and muddy. Character development, continuity, and historical accuracy clearly were not priorities. Musical elements are jumbled, too, since half the scenes are scored with annoying‘20s songs that are repeated endlessly, and half the scenes are scored with some kind of disco/funk bilge, which is completely anachronistic. The acting is just as weird. Former teen idol Fabian Forte (as John) phones in a bland non-performance, and he seems like a little boy playing dress-up during scenes in which his character sports an eyepatch. Meanwhile, ’70s stalwart Karen Black (as Laura) runs her usual gamut, whether she’s trying too hard to be sexy or not trying hard enough to suppress her tendency toward harpy-ish overacting. Atop all these problems, footage is assembled so haphazardly that it seems the filmmakers realized they were missing important chunks but didn’t care. And then there’s the complete non sequitur nude scene, during which one of John’s gunmen spends umpteen minutes staring at a naked bathing beauty through binoculars while standing on a lifeguard tower at a public beach. Calling Little Laura and Big John inconsequential would be too kind.

Little Laura and Big John: SQUARE

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Count Dracula (1970)

The affection that horror fans of a certain vintage feel for Christopher Lee, the man who played Dracula in myriad offerings from Hammer Films, is such that even Lee’s lesser efforts with the horror genre are held in some esteem. Combine that with the admiration some people feel for the work of Spanish director Jesús Franco, a prolific purveyor of low-budget shockers, and you begin to understand why there’s a small but loyal following around Count Dracula. The behind-the-scenes story goes that Lee was tired of starring in repetitive Hammer movies about Bram Stoker’s most famous creation, so when Franco and co. approached Lee about starring in a “faithful” adaptation of Stoker’s original book, the actor saw an opportunity to do something more edifying than his usual fare. Unfortunately, good intentions only go so far. While Count Dracula hews more closely to Stoker’s storyline than most previous films, there’s a huge fundamental problem. Stoker’s book is written in the epistolary style, meaning that characters describe their emotions via diary entries and letters. Franco’s movie includes events without the accompanying nuances (there’s no voiceover), so the result is incredibly slow pacing. Characters walk around with flat expressions on their faces, speak in monotones, and react to startling sights with so little vigor that many scenes feel more like lighting tests with stand-ins than final footage with proper actors. Lee, whose reputation as a formidable screen villain is, ironically enough, predicated on the lurid excesses of his Hammer work, gives a genuinely boring performance here—glowering and stiff. Even costars Klaus Kinski (as Dracula’s mad accomplice, Renfield) and Herbert Lom (as the vampire’s rival, Van Helsing) deliver uncharacteristically drab performances. Clearly, there’s a good reason Hammer prioritized sensational thrills over loyalty to the source material when adapting Stoker.

Count Dracula: LAME

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Little Dragons (1979)

It should come as no surprise that biker gangs, FBI agents, karate-kicking preteens, love-struck adolescents, psychopathic rednecks, and sparring spouses are incompatible narrative elements. Yet all of those things and more are crammed into Little Dragons, a mess of an action/comedy movie ostensibly designed for family audiences. Perhaps because the picture was an early directorial effort by the skillful Curtis Hanson, who later made winners including The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and L.A. Confidential (1997), the movie has a fairly slick flow within individual scenes. It’s the way all the parts are assembled that creates problems. Beyond the fundamental issue of cramming way too many concepts into one movie, Little Dragons suffers from tonal confusion of the worst kind. Scenes featuring youngsters doing martial arts are played for Disney-style slapstick amusement, and sequences spotlighting the creepy rednecks are borderline horrific, thanks to constant threats of brutal murder. Adding to the dissonance is a running gag about stoners happily singing “The Hokey Pokey.” For any who care, the broad strokes of the plot are as follows. At a rural campsite, a suburban family (Mom, Dad, teen daughter) encounters a backwoods clan comprising mama Angel (Ann Sothern) and her two depraved sons, middle-aged crazies Carl (John Chandler) and Yancey (Joe Spinell). They take a shine to the suburban family’s daughter and kidnap the young lady at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, a grandfather (Charles Lane) arrives at the same campsite with his grandsons (played by real-life siblings Chris and Pat Peterson), who are into karate. The young martial artists, accompanied by a cadre of classmates, try to rescue the kidnapped girl. It’s all as silly as it is slapdash. Although clearly shot in the late ’70s, it’s iffy whether The Little Dragons properly belongs to the decade, since some sources indicate the film was first released in 1980. (Furthermore, it was re-released a few years later as Karate Kids U.S.A., following the success of the unrelated 1984 sports drama The Karate Kid.) In any event, The Little Dragons is harmless but inept.

The Little Dragons: LAME

Monday, August 25, 2014

From Noon Till Three (1976)

          Mismarketed as a farce, presumably to ride on the success of Blazing Saddles (1974), this offbeat Charles Bronson picture is actually a clever satire about mythmaking in the Wild West. The piece doesn’t quite work, partially because the tone wobbles too often between serious and silly, and partially because leading lady Jill Ireland’s performance is so weak. Nonetheless, there’s much to admire in the conception of the story, and it’s fun to see Bronson dig into a lighthearted role, even though a natural-born wisecracker along the lines of James Garner would have been more suitable.
          Written and directed by the versatile Frank D. Gilroy, based on his novel of the same name, the picture begins with a wonderfully eerie dream sequence. Without giving away the particulars, the scene perfectly sets up the character of Graham Dorsey (Bronson), a member of the Buck Bowers gang. Whereas most of Buck’s people are crude and rough, Graham is slick and smart. When the Bowers gang arrives at the home of Amanda (Jill Ireland), a widow of some financial means, Graham persuades his fellow criminals that he should sit out their impending next robbery. This allows him to spend time with Amanda. The unlikely couple shares a romantic idyll until word arrives that the Bowers gang was captured. Then Graham leaves Amanda, ostensibly to rescue his compatriots. In reality, he plans to flee, even though he’s thoroughly persuaded Amanda that he’s a man of honor forced by hard times to commit robberies.
          Later, when Amanda is mistakenly informed that Graham was killed, she accepts the overture of a traveling writer, who hears about Amanda’s romantic adventure and thinks it would make a good yarn. The resulting novel is released, turning Amanda into a celebrity and Graham into a mythic figure. This creates unexpected problems for Graham, who is still very much alive but now must compete with an oversized legend that bears his name.
          Watching From Noon Till Three, it’s not difficult to see how minor changes could have improved the material. For example, Gilroy’s dialogue is mildly droll, but a true wit (Peter Stone comes to mind) could have maximized the potential of the premise with incisive one-liners. Similarly, Bronson’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach bludgeons subtleties, and Ireland is completely artificial. The movie also drags a bit, even though it’s only 99 minutes, suggesting that Gilroy would have been wise to shorten the first half of the movie and get to the good stuff faster.
          So, while it’s probably exaggerating to say that From Noon Till Three is ideal remake fodder—the story is so slight that the potential return isn’t worth the investment of labor—From Noon Till Three is enjoyable to watch as a near-miss. It helps, of course, that the movie was shot in a glossy style by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and that the venerable Elmer Bernstein contributed the robust score. Having said that, good luck getting the chirpy theme song, “Hello and Goodbye,” out of your head.

From Noon Till Three: FUNKY

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Genesis II (1973) & Planet Earth (1974) & Strange New World (1975)

          Following the demise of the original Star Trek series in 1969, writer-producer Gene Roddenberry spent the ’70s trying to launch a new TV show, as well as moonlighting in features. None of his wilderness-years projects clicked, so once Star Trek was revived in 1979 with the first of myriad feature films (and, later spinoff TV shows), Roddenberry resigned himself to being the godhead of a franchise. Within this context, it’s interesting to look at this trifecta of TV movies, each of which represents a fresh attempt at repurposing the same underlying material. Given the similarity between the underlying material and the ethos of Trek, these movies prove that certain themes and tropes were ingrained into Roddenberry’s DNA.
          The best of the telefilms, though that’s not saying a whole lot, is the first one, Genesis II (pictured above). At the beginning of the story, near-future scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) is put into suspended animation as part of an experiment. An earthquake buries the laboratory surrounding Dylan’s chamber, so he’s revived more than a century later by citizens of PAX, a peaceful society living underground in the postapocalyptic future. Things get dull quick, because Dylan is smothered with exposition from PAX official Isaac (Percy Rodrigues) and from Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley). Turns out Lyra-a is not from PAX; instead, she’s a mutant from the country of Terrania. Before long, Dylan and Lyra-a flee PAX, because the mutant has convinced the 20th-century man that PAX is secretly warlike. Upon reaching Terrania, however, Dylan discovers that humans are used by Terranians as slaves, so he leads a rebellion against Lyra-a’s people.
          Repeating mistakes from the worst Trek episodes, Genesis II features ridiculous costumes suitable for a cabaret show on Fire Island, overwrought discussions of morality, and turgid storytelling devoid of humor. (Sample dialogue: “You will find it profitless to lie to us, human! Will you repair our nuclear generator?”) Cord is stalwart but stilted, while Hartley’s sexy in a soccer-mom sort of way, but it’s fun to groove on the voices of Trek veterans Ted Cassidy (“Lurch” from the ’60s Addams Family series) and Rodrigues (who later narrated the iconic Jaws trailer). Genesis II contains interesting concepts, but the presentation is far too clinical.
          Predictably, the next version of the material, Planet Earth, is lustier in every sense of the word. Re-conceived by Roddenberry as an action show, instead of a show about ideas, Planet Earth replaces Cord with campy he-man actor John Saxon in the role of Dylan Hunt. The story skips the set-up and gets right to Dylan leading a team of PAX adventurers into a land ruled by cruel amazons, with the nominal goal of rescuing a doctor who’s needed back at PAX for emergency surgery. The vibe of Planet Earth evokes Trek even more than the vibe of Genesis II did. Hunt contrives elaborate strategies, employs flying tackles, and makes out with two different women. (One is Janet Margolin, who would have been a series regular, and the other is guest star Diana Muldaur.) Hunt even narrates the onscreen action in voiceover via “log entries.” Still, the added testosterone means that Planet Earth is significantly dumbed-down from its predecessor, although Planet Earth seems like the most viable launching pad for a series of any of these three flicks.
          The final—and most lavish—spin on this material, Strange New World, was made without Roddenberry’s involvement. (That’s the cost of selling a concept to a network.) Saxon returns, now playing the new role of Anthony Vico, and this time the story involves three modern-day people thrust into the future. The explanation this time is that a meteor shower hit the Earth while the trio were in suspended animation aboard a space station. The pacing of Strange New World is painfully slow, even though two separate adventuress are crammed into 97 minutes. The first involves Anthony’s team encountering the people of Eterna, who survive using clones and other medical miracles but need blood from normal people. The second story dramatizes a clash between Anthony’s team and groups of savages living in a forest and a zoo, respectively. In both narratives, endless exposition and tiresome fight scenes ensue.
          It’s all quite flat and talky, but the photography is atmospheric, the outer-space shots look great, and the supporting cast is colorful: Avuncular Keene Curtis and lovely Kathleen Miller play the teammates of Saxon’s character, and guest stars include Catherine Bach, Martine Beswick, Reb Brown, Richard Farnswoth, Gerrit Graham, Bill McKinney, and James Olson. (Hardcore ’70s junkies will recognize all of these names.) There’s also an amusing contribution to the annals of sci-fi vehicles, because the characters tool around postapocalyptic Earth in the space-age equivalent of a Winnebago.

Genesis II: FUNKY
Planet Earth: FUNKY
Strange New World: FUNKY

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Seniors (1978)

          To understand why Risky Business (1983) is so remarkable, one need only imagine the same concept—a young man solves a financial crisis by opening a brothel—executed without good taste. Hence The Seniors, which came out five years before Risky Business. The narratives of the two films are sufficiently different that it’s not as if one emanated from the other, but close enough to allow for side-by-side comparison. Whereas Risky Business has complex characters, ingenious plotting, sophisticated gender politics, and wicked humor, The Seniors has ciphers, silliness, smut, and stupidity. The Seniors is not outright awful, since the story makes sense and some of the jokes are almost funny, but it’s cringe-worthy on myriad levels. Most egregiously, the film portrays women as subhuman sex objects to be manipulated, ogled, traded, and used at whim. That all of this exploitation is hidden behind the veil of calling female characters “liberated” makes the whole enterprise seem even more dubious.
          At the beginning of the movie, four male college seniors decide they don’t want to graduate because their situation is idyllic. Occupying a rented house, the dudes share a live-in nymphomaniac named Sylvia (Priscilla Barnes), who also serves as their chef and cleaning lady. Nerdy classmate Arnold (Rocky Flintermann), who is desperate to have sex with Sylvia, reveals one day that his employer—a reclusive, Nobel Prize-winning scientist—regularly receives more grant offers than he can accept. In exchange for diverting grant money to the four seniors, Arnold is given permission to sleep with Sylvia whenever he wants. The seniors then contrive a sex study, offering coeds $20 per hour to sleep with the seniors “for research purposes.” The study catches on, so the seniors rent a hotel and charge businessmen $50 per session for the privilege of sleeping with the coeds. And so it goes from there. Corporate entities buy a piece of the seniors’ lucrative project, the nonprofit organization behind the grant becomes suspicious, and Sylvia puts poor Arnold in traction because of endless sex.
          The movie’s jokes tend to be along the line of this slogan: “Schmucks graduate—smart guys copulate!” In other words, this is professional comedy of a sort, though none involved in the project has much reason for pride. Appraising the film’s acting and storytelling is pointless, since The Seniors basically a second-rate National Lampoon-type satirical concept stretched out to full-length, meaning that characterization is not a priority, but it’s worth nothing that Dennis Quaid—appearing in one of his first credited roles—plays one of the seniors.

The Seniors: FUNKY

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Wild Party (1975)

          It’s difficult to decide which aspect of The Wild Party is more bizarre—the idea that costume-drama specialists Merchant Ivory Productions could ever make anything justifying the adjective “wild,” or the idea that a Merchant Ivory film was distributed by drive-in suppliers American International Pictures. Adding to the overall strangeness of the piece is the subject matter. Set in 1920s Hollywood, the film concerns a debauched soiree thrown by an overweight silent-movie comedian. And yet The Wild Party is not based on the real-life scandal involving Fatty Arbuckle, an overweight silent-movie comedian who was accused of rape and murder. Why anyone thought it wise to film a story that sorta-kinda resembled the notorious Arbuckle case is beyond understanding. In fact, it’s challenging to discern the reasons why The Wild Party exists. Instead of being provocative and rough and sexy, the picture is chaste and genteel and tame. So even though it’s a handsomely produced film that offers a colorful window into the culture of 1920s Hollywood, the movie is mechanical and sterile. Without blood pumping the veins of something like this, what’s the point?
          Based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March and written for the screen by Walter Marks (as opposed to Merchant Ivory’s usual scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), The Wild Party revolves around Jolly Grimm (James Coco), a man out of time. Although the industry has shifted to sound films, Jolly has invested most of his money in a new silent production, set to be his comeback after a five-year screen absence. To make matters worse, Jolly has grown distant from his sexy live-in mistress, Queenie (Raquel Welch). The comedian throws a huge party so he can present his new movie to studio heads, but as soon as the screening gets underway, it becomes clear no one is interested. Concurrently, Queenie becomes infatuated with a handsome party guest, Dale (Perry King). Eventually, the bash devolves into drunkenness, sex, and tragedy.
          Tonally, The Wild Party is a mess. At the beginning, Jolly’s writer friend, James (David Dukes), delivers rhymed voiceover to introduce the various characters, and James even speaks to the camera periodically. As this half-hearted trope fades away, the movie segues into unnecessarily long musical numbers, such as when Queenie performs a novelty number called “Singapore Sally” for the party guests. By the time The Wild Party ends, the filmmakers strive for some sort of bittersweet lyricism. These varied narrative elements don’t gel any better than the performances. Coco is robust and even somewhat poignant, but Welch is as amateurish as ever, despite looking magnificent in her Marcel Wave hairdo and slinky dresses. Among the supporting cast, artificiality and stiffness reign, though B-movie actress Tiffany Bolling tries to invest her role of a forsaken woman with pathos.

The Wild Party: FUNKY

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

          The degree to which French filmmaker Louis Malle was shaped by his childhood experiences during World War II did not become clear until he made the shattering semiautobiographical drama Au revoir, les enfants (1987). Yet Malle’s deeply conflicted feelings about the wartime behavior of his countrymen is fundamental to Lacombe, Lucien, generally considered one of the triumphant achievements of the director’s career. Presented in a clinical style, the drama depicts a French teenager who becomes an operative of the German police force—or, according to the label hung on such people by history, a “collaborator.” Like most of Malle’s films, Lacombe, Lucien avoids simple conclusions and interpretations, even though the script (by Malle and Claude Nedjar) provides distinct milestones along the title character’s spiritual descent. Fitting a filmmaker who smoothly transitioned back and forth between documentaries and fiction films, Malle simply shows a pattern of conduct to the audience, allowing viewers to parse the underlying pathology and the troubling sociopolitical implications.
          When the story begins, 18-year-old Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is adrift, working as a janitor at the local school in his hometown and lazily indulging his incipient sadism by killing birds with a slingshot. Eager to give his life focus but not passionately drawn in any particular direction, Lucien tries to join the French anti-Nazi underground, but he’s rebuffed for being too young. Shortly afterward, circumstances bring Lucien into the orbit of Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), a high-ranking operative of the local collaborator cell. Sensing Lucien’s susceptibility, Jean-Bernard shows off his opulent headquarters—a luxury hotel that the Germans have confiscated. Liquor, money, and women are made available to Lucien in exchange for revealing what he knows about the underground.
          Yet even after Lucien sees a neighbor tortured based on information Lucien provided, the impressionable young man allows himself to get pulled deeper into Jean-Bernard’s web. Eventually, a moral conflict emerges when Lucien is introduced to Mr. Horn (Holger Löwendier), a Jewish tailor whom Jean-Bernard uses as a personal clothier. Lucien is infatuated not only by Mr. Horn’s sophistication but also by the tailor’s beautiful daughter, France (Aurore Clément). For a time, Lucien becomes an even worse monster than Jean-Bernard, insinuating himself into the Horn family by gunpoint. Then, as the impending arrival of American troops raises pressure on Germans and collaborators, Lucien must decide which allegiances are most important to him.
          On the surface, Lacombe, Lucien is deceptively simplistic because Malle eschews melodrama. Underneath, the movie is complex, disturbing, provocative, and perverse. For instance, Malle has Blaise play the leading role almost completely without affect—Lucien never laughs or smiles until the final sequence—so Lucien is like a blank canvas upon which others project their wartime attitudes. Therefore, when a collaborator says, “War has its good sides, too,” Lucien seems to agree. Yet when Mr. Horn tells Lucien, “Somehow I can’t bring myself to completely despise you,” that makes sense, as well. Lucien is cruel because he was given an opportunity to be cruel, so the troubling notion is that the same person, given a different set of circumstances, could have gone in the opposite direction. This nuanced perspective runs opposite to the usual good-vs.-evil paradigms associated with World War II. Accordingly, even though Lacombe, Lucien is quite long at 138 minutes—and often slowly paced—it’s hard to imagine the film having the same intellectual heft without any of its delicate components.

Lacombe, Lucien: GROOVY

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Snow Job (1972)

          Today, the moment anyone gains fleeting notoriety—whether through scandal or sports or other means—the individual is likely to be offered opportunities within the reality-TV space. Back in day, however, people enjoying 15 minutes of fame were more likely to appear in movies. It was a different time, so anyone with a smidgen of celebrity could earn a shot at being a star. Take, for instance, French-born skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy, a dashing and handsome athlete who won three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics. Despite lacking acting experience (or acting skill), Killy was given a cinematic vehicle all his own, the heist thriller Snow Job. Designed to showcase Killy’s alpine abilities, the movie is set at a ski resort in the Italian Alps. Killy plays a ski instructor who decides to rob the resort, and his getaway plan involves an epic ski run (specifically, zooming along the cliff edges lining a huge glacier).
          Those who enjoy watching talented people navigate slopes will presumably enjoy the many scenes of Killy swishing and swooshing his way down awe-inducing mountainsides. Those who want more will be disappointed. While there’s a proper movie of sorts buttressing the ski scenes, the plot is trite in the extreme, the character development is nonexistent, and the acting is routine at best. In fact, the only performer who does much of anything interesting on camera (notwithstanding Killy’s skiing) is Vittorio De Sica, the famed Italian film director who also enjoyed a massive career as an actor. (Rest assured that De Sica did not direct Snow Job, and therefore can’t be held responsible for the thing.) Playing an insurance investigator who tracks down Killy’s character after the big robbery, De Sica is continental and exuberant whenever he appears, frequently laughing so broadly that he seems amused by private jokes of which the audience is unaware.
          De Sica’s zesty screen persona exists in inverse proportion to the narcolepsy that permeates every other aspect of the film. Costars Danièle Gaubert and Cifff Potts, playing the accomplices of Killy’s character, fail to make impressions, and every human being in the movie is overshadowed by the majesty of the locations that director George Englund showcases at each possible opportunity. As a travelogue, Snow Job is attractive and slick. As a movie, it’s so vapid that it barely exists. And as a launching pad for Killy’s big-screen career—well, seeing as how he never acted again, the appropriate phrase seems to be that it was all downhill after Snow Job.

Snow Job: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Baron Blood (1972)

More like Baron Boring. One of the lesser efforts from cult-fave Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, the cinematographer-turned-director who made the revered frightfest Black Sunday (1960) and the stylish crime picture Danger: Diabolik (1968), this numbingly dull horror flick concerns an aristocratic killer brought back to life. It says everything you need to know about Barron Blood that the resurrection doesn’t happen until 30 minutes of screen time have been wasted on chitty-chat, and that top-billed actor Joseph Cotten doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the film. Baron Blood is the sort of enervated genre picture that makes viewers wait (and wait and wait) for something to happen, then delivers so much less than expected. The movie takes place in Austria, where square-jawed American Peter (Antonio Cantafora) visits relatives following the completion of his master’s degree. It turns out Peter is a descendant of Baron Otto von Kleist, aka “Baron Blood,” who committed atrocities centuries ago before being cursed to oblivion by a witch. Peter hangs around the Kleist family castle, which is being converted into a hotel by architect Eva Arnold (Elke Sommer), then decides to read an incantation that—according to myth—will bring the murderous baron back to life. Why? Apparently, for no reason other than to propel the wheezy plot. Anyway, the Baron indeed returns, in the form of a ghoul with decaying skin. Complicating matters is the arrival of Alfred Becker (Cotten), a mysterious figure who buys the castle. Rest assured, there’s zero suspense about Becker’s true identity, so by the time he is revealed as Baron Blood in disguise, tedium has taken root. Although the storytelling of Baron Blood is terrible, the movie has moments of visual flair, since Bava was almost physically incapable of making a bad-looking film. Yet a few evocative lighting schemes and a handful of slick camera moves are hardly enough to sustain interest, especially when Cantafora and Sommer contribute such lifeless performances. (Cotten phones in a standard-issue scheming-villain turn.) Even the gore factor is paltry, despite Bava’s predilection for staging elaborate torture scenes.

Baron Blood: LAME

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Final Comedown (1972)

Social activism isn’t the first thing that springs to mind upon hearing the name Billy Dee Williams, but amid the many escapist movies and TV shows on his résumé are a handful of projects about racially charged issues. For instance, Williams coproduced and starred in The Final Comedown, a violent drama about a black-power revolutionary. Suffering from inconsistent acting, a meager budget, and sloppy storytelling, the movie doesn’t even remotely work. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place, politically speaking, because writer-director Oscar Williams constructs the narrative as an allegory expressing rage at the mistreatment of blacks in ’70s America. Alas, The Final Comedown doesn’t do justice to the subject matter; powerful films of the same era, including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), tackled similar material much more effectively. The Final Comedown begins with a disjoined montage juxtaposing a traumatic childhood experience, a confusingly staged shootout between police and revolutionaries, and random vignettes of prejudice and racism. The idea is to explain, in the course of a few minutes, how Johnny Johnson (Williams) was radicalized. At the end of the montage, Johnny gets hit with a bullet. Then, for the remainder of the movie, The Final Comedown cuts back and forth between Johnny’s struggle to survive his wound and semi-chronological flashbacks explaining the events leading to the shootout. The mosaic approach makes The Final Comedown hard to follow, a problem exacerbated by the film’s skimpy production values. (The filmmakers clearly envisioned an apocalyptic backdrop of streets filled with combat, but all they really show is a contained skirmish.) Supporting characters are underdeveloped, and the filmmakers occasionally undercut the overall serious tone by including such blaxploitation-style flourishes as a tediously overlong sex scene. Plus, subtlety is left far behind whenever the filmmakers try to hit a political note: “The system is destroying us,” Williams explains at one point, “so we have to fight, and some of us have got to die.” Or, as costar D’Urville Martin says succinctly in another scene: “White man—ain’t you a bitch with your shit.”

The Final Comedown: LAME

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976)

Never mind the lurid title, which suggests that Mako: The Jaws of Death is one of the myriad low-budget rip-offs of Jaws (1975)—and never mind that the title is often shortened to The Jaws of Death. Even though it contains scenes of sharks eating people, this bizarre drive-in flick is primarily about a human character who acts as a sort of shark whisperer. Living in Florida, Sonny Stein (Richard Jaeckel) is the caretaker for a small community of sharks that swim the waters surrounding a remote island. Over the course of the story, several sleazy people try to exploit and/or kill Sonny’s finny friends, so he makes like a vigilante, doing such things as cutting the underwater fence that separates a swimming area from the open ocean and harpooning a bad guy in the face. Yet that’s not the strangest element of the story. While drinking in a dive bar (pun intended), Sonny ogles Karen (Jennifer Bishop), who does underwater dance routines behind plate glass that’s installed behind the bar. Later that evening, after saving Karen from would-be rapists, Sonny shows Karen his private shark grotto while revealing his origin story. It seems that years ago, Sonny escaped captivity on a Far East island by swimming through an inlet filled with sharks—at which point he was greeted by members of the “shark clan,” people who revere the “shark god.” Sonny was given a medallion that labels him a friend to all sharks, allowing him to safely commune with the beasts. Despite Sonny’s aquatic sensitively, he spends the entire first half of the movie making idiotic choices. He entrusts a pregnant shark to a shady aquarium proprietor, and he rents a male shark to Karen, whose nightclub-owner husband wants to integrate the animal into Karen’s act. Accordingly, the movie is half bleeding-heart drama about a good man who respects animals, and half Death Wish-style exploitation flick featuring elaborate kill scenes. All of this is set to the kind of grindingly repetitive music one might expect to encounter in a bad martial-arts movie. And watching onetime Oscar nominee Jaeckel play the material straight, as if the whole absurd enterprise isn’t just a waterlogged riff on the 1971 rodent epic Ben? That’s just sad.

Mako: The Jaws of Death: LAME

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Thieves (1977)

          During one of the best scenes in Thieves, the film adaptation of Herb Gardner’s seriocomic play about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, Sally Cramer (Marlo Thomas) attempts small talk with a would-be lover, quickly realizing how challenging it is to be cute and superficial after reaching adulthood. “I think men like young girls because their stories are shorter,” she quips. Moments later, Sally discovers that the man’s bedroom is located at the top of a ladder leading to a loft. “Jesus,” she exclaims, “it’s hard to make this look like an accident.” These snippets capture the sharp wit that makes Thieves worthwhile, despite the project’s muddy approach to storytelling, theme, and tone. Although Thieves effectively depicts the thousand slights that drive spouses apart, Gardner also burdens the piece with lyricism, metaphor, and whimsy, trying to parallel domestic issues with larger societal problems. For instance, the title has multiple meanings, referring not only to the actual robbers who prey upon the New York City apartment building where Sally lives her husband, but also to time, which steals people’s lives though the passage of hours, minutes, and seconds. The heady stuff feels artificial and pretentious, whereas the intimate material is crisp and humane.
          When the story begins, Sally and Martin (Charles Grodin) have reached a marital impasse. She’s an effervescent delight with a deep social conscience and a wild imagination, but he’s become a dull conformist preoccupied with money and propriety. More than a decade into their union, they’ve managed to argue themselves into the early stages of a divorce. During the brief separation that ensues, Sally trysts with a swinger (John McMartin) whom she met in Central Park, and Larry makes time with a sexy neighbor (Ann Wedgworth). Also woven into the story are vignettes featuring Sally’s loudmouthed father (Irwin Corey), the Cramers’ eavesdropping neighbor (Hector Elizondo), and a teenaged criminal (Larry Scott).
          The tone is erratic, with serious topics including abortion treated lightly while comparatively trite subjects including nostalgia are presented with operatic scope. Moreover, Gardner’s flights of fancy—both in terms of dialogue and plotting—add an element of stylized satire, which clashes with the realism of the scenes involving the Cramers’ spats. Music is another weak spot, because scenes are connected via chirpy flute compositions and nonsense ragtime songs. (VIPs Shel Silverstein and Jule Style penned the tunes.) All of these incompatible elements produces a lack of focus that detracts from the charm of the best dialogue, and from the skill of the performances. Grodin’s mixture of deadpan moments and emotional outbursts is modulated nicely, Thomas adds grown-up world-weariness to the sexy/spunky vibe she perfected on That Girl, and the supporting players lend diverse flavors. Incidentally, famed choreographer/director Bob Fosse plays a small part as a junkie who tries to rob Grodin’s character.

Thieves: FUNKY

Friday, August 15, 2014

Deranged (1974)

          Despite being one of American history’s most notorious serial killers, Ed Gein didn’t amass a huge body count, as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer did. Yet Gein’s desecration of corpses remains a subject of morbid fascination. Before actually killing people (he was convicted of two murders), Gein exhumed bodies and transformed them into home decorations, masks, and other items; he also propped corpses in chairs as if he believed he could communicate with them. When discovered by police in 1957, Gein’s Wisconsin home was the quintessential chamber of horrors. The long shadow that Gein has cast over popular culture began in 1959, when Robert Bloch published the novel Psycho, featuring a fictional killer inspired by Gein. Hitchcock’s legendary film adaptation of Bloch’s book followed a year later. Then, in 1974, two very different movies presented fictionalized versions of Gein. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre transformed Gein into the superhuman monster known as Leatherface, while the American-Canadian coproduction Deranged re-created the grisly highlights of Gein’s crime spree, changing the locations and names. Hooper’s movie is superior on every level excerpt for veracity, but Deranged is noteworthy as the most faithful telling of Gein’s tale up to the time of its release.
          Cowritten and codirected by Alan Ormsby, an eclectic film professional who later wrote the charming youth saga My Bodyguard (1982), Deranged is presented as a quasi-mockumentary. Reporter Tom Sims (Leslie Carlson) appears onscreen periodically to provide melodramatic commentary, and dramatic scenes are shot in an unglamorous style. When the movie begins, fiftysomething simpleton Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) sits at the deathbed of his beloved mother (Cosette Lee), a Bible-thumping loony who has convinced her son that all women are whores. (“The wages of sin is gonorrhea, syphilis, and death!”) When she dies, Ezra descends into grief and madness, so a year later, he digs up Dear Old Mom’s corpse. Ezra studies taxidermy to help preserve the body, and then starts robbing graves for replacement parts. As he becomes more and more detached from reality, Ezra escalates to kidnapping and killing women, so by the end of his cycle, he’s a monster who walks around wearing a mask made of human skin, using a thigh bone to bang a drum made from a human stomach.
          Deranged isn’t particularly scary, but the gross-out factor is high, and it’s impossible not to get nervous when Ezra lures unsuspecting women into his lair. Excepting perhaps the grotesque makeup and production design, Blossom is the best thing about this inexpensive and sensationalistic project. Twitchy and wiry, Blossom had a long and relatively undistinguished career, occasionally landing great supporting roles (as in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz) in between bit parts. Throughout Deranged, he’s effectively off-kilter, bulging his eyes and pursing his lips in a disorienting way. And if his performance sometimes seems overwrought, one need merely remember how detached the real Gein grew from everyday human experience. Even though Deranged is way too gory and sleazy to pass muster as a real movie, the adherence to facts (more or less) gives it a smidgen more credibility than the average drive-in shocker.

Deranged: FUNKY