Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Abdication (1974)

          As a piece of film art, The Abdication has moments of tremendous beauty. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s imagery is simultaneously delicate and spectacular, because while he captures the story’s 17th-century settings with ornately lit panoramas that suggest classic paintings, he also conveys a sense of intimacy by accentuating the way people can be dwarfed by their surroundings. Similarly, composer Nino Rota’s stately music pulses with compassion, majesty, and warmth. And then there’s the story itself, which dramatizes a unique chapter from history—the period when Sweden’s tormented Queen Christina gave up her throne, and left her Protestant country, in order to become a Catholic. Written with great intelligence and sensitivity by Ruth Wolff, adapting her own play of the same name, The Abdication is ambitious, serious, and worthy. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly entertaining, and neither is it especially satisfying.
          Part of the problem is director Anthony Harvey’s leaden pacing, and part of the problem is that both leading players give insular performances. Playing Christina, the great Swedish actress Liv Ullmann captures moods ranging from caprice to combativeness, but, like her character, Ullmann holds too many cards close to her vest The true heart of the movie’s vision of Christina becomes visible only in glimpses, a problem exacerbated by the story’s intricate structure. Wolff organizes the narrative like a courtroom drama, so Cardinal Azzolino (Peter Finch) spends the whole movie interrogating Christina, under orders from the Vatican to determine the validity of her conversion.
          Accordingly, most of the key moments in Christina’s life are shown in fragmented flashbacks, culminating with a sequence during which Christina addresses widespread rumors that she was romantically involved with another woman. Concurrently, Wolff explores historical innuendo by implying that Azzolino and Christina became lovers, spiritually if not necessarily physically. The material is so interesting that it should work, and Finch is at least Ullmann’s equal. Yet it all feels chaste and flat and polite—so much so that The Abdication becomes boring after a while. Even the scenes of Vatican officials debating Christina’s political significance—which should be incendiary—feel overly mannered. Students of religious and/or royal history will undoubtedly find more to enjoy here than general viewers, and it’s inarguable that The Abdication is a sophisticated piece of work. Nonetheless, a sterile approach to storytelling prevents The Abdication from realizing its own tremendous potential.

The Abdication: FUNKY

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Cat from Outer Space (1978)

A lesser offering from the live-action arm of Walt Disney Productions, The Cat from Outer Space features the tepid mixture of science fiction and slapstick that was all too common among the company’s ’70s offerings. The filmmakers try to enliven a fundamentally uninteresting premise by bludgeoning viewers with elaborate production values, familiar character actors, and laborious plottingyet it’s hard to know which exactly which audience the people at Disney had in mind for this one. The main plot is silly nonsense about an alien, who happens to look like an ordinary housecat, enlisting the help of earthlings in order to repair his spaceship, while at the same time avoiding capture by soldiers and by a crime boss who wants to use the alien’s technology for nefarious purposes. However, a major subplot revolves around a hard-drinking compulsive gambler and his attempts to defraud bookies and gangsters by using the aforementioned technology in order to change the outcomes of sporting events. And then there’s the requisite infantile love story, because the cat’s main human accomplice is a nerdy scientist who can’t find the courage to court the coworker he loves. The gambling stuff and the romantic material would seem to be of little interest to very young viewers, and yet it’s hard to imagine grown-ups tolerating endless scenes of special-effects tomfoolery. (Picture lots of objects and people levitating.) Making matters worse, The Cat from Outer Space is dull and flat, despite fairly brisk pacing, simply because the character work and storytelling are so perfunctory. By the time the movie lurches into a convoluted rescue sequence at the end, all traces of charm and novelty have disappeared. Anyway, the picture does boast an eclectic cast of comedy professionals, each of whom does what he or she can with the script’s limp gags. Actors appearing in The Cat from Outer Space include Ken Berry, Hans Conreid, Sandy Duncan, James Hampton, Roddy McDowall, Harry Morgan, and McLean Stevenson—yes, that’s two commanding officers from the classic sitcom M*A*S*H for the price of one.

The Cat from Outer Space: LAME

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Norman . . . Is That You? (1976)

          Seeing as how it was released at a time when mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality were rooted in ignorance and prejudice, the amiable comedy Norman . . . Is That You? is fairly progressive. The film was based upon the play Norman, Is That You?, by Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark, which premiered in 1970—yet punctuation within the title wasn’t the only change made during the transition from stage to screen. Both versions of the story depict a conservative couple’s discovery that their adult son is gay. On stage, the characters are white and Jewish, but in the film, the characters are African-American. Realizing how easily the material applies to both populations underscores the play’s themes of inclusiveness and understanding. Yet Norman, by any name, isn’t a high-minded call for tolerance. Rather, it’s a light comedy that merely happens to concern characters broadening their horizons.
          The film begins, somewhat clumsily, with a scene of Ben Chambers (Redd Foxx) riding on a bus while Smokey Robinson’s voice appears on the soundtrack, crooning a dull song about Chambers being an “old-fashioned man living in a brand-new world.” To hammer the point home, Ben winces every time he sees a hippie. The movie settles into a better groove once Ben reaches the Los Angeles apartment of his son, Norman (Michael Warren). Surprised by his father’s visit, Norman shoos away his effeminate live-in boyfriend, Garson (Dennis Dugan). But while Norman tries to act “normally” around his father—who explains that Norman’s mother just ran off with Ben’s brother—Garson eavesdrops until he can insert himself into the situation. Then, shortly after Norman leaves for work, Garson reveals that he and Norman are lovers. The highlight of the picture is a long sequence during which Garson tries to charm Ben into acceptance by acting like the perfect host for a night on the town. In the movie’s most quintessentially ’70s moment, Garson takes Ben to see a gay-themed ventriloquism show featuring Garson’s pal Larry and Larry’s camp-queen puppet—played by fleeting TV stars Walyand Flowers and Madam. Eventually, costar Pearl Bailey joins the action as Ben’s wayward wife, Beatrice, triggering lots of bickering-spouse routines between Bailey and Foxx.
          Mild but tart jokes fly freely throughout Norman . . . Is That You?, but they mostly hit their targets. For instance, after Ben argues that Beatrice has unreal expectations by saying, “I didn’t marry you to entertain you,” she fires back, “I knew that after the first week.” Similarly, Garson promises Ben a fun visit: “You’re going to love Los Angeles, it’s full of surprises—just look in any closet.” Mostly, however, what keeps Norman . . . Is That You? watchable is the combination of Foxx’s expert comic timing and the script’s characterization of Ben as a square who needs to get hip about changing times. FYI, Norman is the only theatrical feature directed by prolific TV producer George Schlatter, best known for co-creating the seminal 1968-1973 variety show Laugh-In.

Norman . . . Is That You?: FUNKY

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) & The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

          Even though England’s Hammer Films was the undisputed leader in the vampire-movie business during the ’60s and ’70s, low-rent U.S. outfits including American International Pictures still ventured into the realm of bloodsuckers. For instance, AIP’s Count Yorga, Vampire did well enough to warrant a sequel, though it’s plain both films are feeble attempts at Americanizing the Hammer formula.
          Written and directed by the singularly unimpressive George Kelljan, Count Yorga, Vampire takes place in modern-day California, where ancient European vampire Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) has taken up residence. For reasons that are never clear, Yorga works as a part-time mystic, so he’s introduced leading a séance for several young people. Then, after two séance participants drive the count home and get stuck on his property, Yorga attacks them. One of the victims, Erica (Judith Lang), shows wounds on her neck and develops monstrous behavior, such as eating her cat, so the heroes, led by stalwart Dr. Jim Hayes (Roger Perry), figure out Yorga must be a vampire. One of cinema history’s least exciting showdowns ensues, largely comprising an interminable scene of Dr. Hayes chatting with Yorga in order to keep the vampire awake until sunrise. Dull, talky, and unimaginative, Count Yorga, Vampire features such amateurish flaws as a high percentage of out-of-focus shots and some truly inept acting by second- and third-string cast members. That said, Quarry has an enjoyable way of injecting condescension into all of his line readings, and costar Michael Murphy—who later became a go-to actor for Woody Allen and Robert Altman—lends credibility to his scenes.
          The Return of Count Yorga shows considerable improvement in the areas of acting, since even the bit players are competent this time, and cinematography, since future Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler generates the visuals. Alas, the pacing and storyline of the sequel—once again directed by Kelljan—are as lifeless as those of the first picture. Set at a coastal orphanage and a nearby castle, which happens to be Yorga’s new crash pad, the movie offers a feeble explanation for the titular vampire’s revival following the climax of the first picture. Yorga becomes infatuated with a pretty orphanage employee, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley), so he and his vampire brides slaughter Cynthia’s family, and then Yorga hypnotizes Cynthia into believing her relatives are traveling while she “recuperates” in his castle. Meanwhile, cops and a friendly neighborhood priest discover what’s really happening. After lots and lots of preliminary chit-chat, the good guys converge on Castle Yorga to effect a rescue. Oddly, several cast members from Count Yorga, Vampire appear in the sequel, though many of them play different roles.
          While many sequences in The Return of Count Yorga are almost unbearably boring, redeeming qualities appear periodically. Hartley is appealingly earnest, future Poltergeist star Craig T. Nelson shows up in a smallish role as a cop, cameo player George Macready does a fun bit as some sort of aging voodoo-hippie scholar, and Quarry elevates his performance style to full-on camp. Butler’s moody imagery helps a great deal, though his work is stronger during evocative exterior scenes than during the interior scenes that Kelljan orchestrates clumsily.

Count Yorga, Vampire: FUNKY
The Return of Count Yorga: FUNKY

Friday, September 26, 2014

Helter Skelter (1976)

          Offering a painstakingly detailed dramatization of the notorious “Manson Family” murders and their aftermath, the made-for-TV movie Helter Skelter features, among many other worthwhile things, one of the creepiest performances of the ’70s. Playing wild-eyed cult leader Charles Manson, Steve Railsback delivers indelible work. With his gaunt frame, quavering voice, and relentless intensity, he captures the real Manson’s disturbing mixture of messianic charisma and psychopathic menace. Even though he’s probably onscreen for only one hour of Helter Skelter’s original three-hour-and-twenty-minute running time, Railsback dominates the whole project. Watching Railsback-as-Manson preach about the beauty of an impending race war and the glory of rattling the establishment by committing mass murder feels very much like looking into the eyes of pure madness.
          Based on a nonfiction book cowritten by Manson prosecutor Charles Bugliosi, who secured convictions against the cult leader and several of his accomplices despite the rigors of a complex trial, Helter Skelter gives equal weight to the activities of law-enforcement personnel and to the macabre exploits of the killers. Moreover, the movie blurs lines by showing the occasional ineptitude of people investigating the murders, and by showing the twisted joy Manson’s people took from following a man they considered to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. If there’s a major flaw to the project, it’s the way that Bugliosi is portrayed as a superhero in a three-piece suit, making logical connections that evade other people, rendering impassioned courtroom speeches, and standing up to the formidable Manson during one-on-one encounters. Rose-colored as the movie’s vision of Bugliosi may be, the portrayal ultimately works in the project’s favor because the straight-laced Bugliosi represents the order of The Establishment, while Manson and his people represent the chaos of the counterculture’s lunatic fringe.
          Produced and directed by Tom Gries, whose filmogrpahy includes such robust action pictures as 100 Rifles (1969) and Breakheart Pass (1975), Helter Skelter unfolds in a quasi-documentary style. As narration and title cards provide connective tissue, the picture shows episodes involving cops, criminals, witnesses, and victims, eventually replicating the intricate tapestry of clues and leads and mistakes and victories that led to Manson’s conviction. The investigative stuff is compelling because of how many near-misses occurred before the Manson Family was finally incarcerated, and the courtroom stuff—much of which features speech taken directly from transcripts—is dynamite. The extensive testimony of former Family member Linda Kasabian (Marily Burns) shows what happens when a morally healthy individual survives a brush with monsters, and the many scenes featuring killers Leslie Van Houten (Cathey Paine) and Susan Atkins (Nancy Wolfe) suggest the incredible sway Manson had over compliant followers. Almost as maddening to watch is Manson’s attorney, Everett Scoville (Howard Caine), who batters the prosecution with endless objections.
          Although Helter Skelter is widely available in a shortened, feature-length version, the original cut—which was broadcast over two evenings—has special allure because of how deeply it pulls viewers into a legal quagmire. In either version, the performances are never less than solid, even if George DiCenzo’s portrayal of Buglioisi is a bit flat, and the use of music—including cover versions of the Beatles songs associated with the murders and a creepy original score by Billy Goldenberg—is wonderfully precise.

Helter Skelter: GROOVY

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Man of La Mancha (1972)

          Convoluted circumstances worked against the makers of Man of La Mancha, a troubled film adaptation of the enduring stage musical that premiered in 1964, so it’s no surprise the picture earned enmity during its original release and has failed to curry much favor during the ensuing years. Bloated, grim, miscast, old-fashioned, and over-plotted, the picture seems utterly bereft of whatever charms have captivated fans of the stage version throughout decades of revivals. Even the picture’s magnificent look, courtesy of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s painterly images and enough production-design eye candy to make Terry Gilliam jealous, is insufficient to hold the viewer’s attention as Man of La Mancha lumbers through 132 very long minutes.
          Reviewing some of the tortured history behind the project reveals why it was doomed to mediocrity, if not outright failure. In 1959, CBS broadcast a dramatic play for television titled I, Don Quixote, written by Dale Wasserman. In the story, which is set during the Spanish Inquisition, author Miguel de Cervantes gets thrown in jail and put on “trial” by his fellow inmates. Then he defends himself by describing his in-progress novel, Don Quixote, about a madman who thinks he’s a knight. All of this material, of course, was a riff on the real book Don Quixote, written by the real Cervantes. After the TV broadcast, Wasserman was invited to transform the play into a musical. Hence Man of La Mancha. A trip to the big screen seemed inevitable, given the success of the musical and the ubiquity of the musical’s theme song, “The Impossible Dream.” (Everyone from Cher to Frank Sinatra to the Temptations had a go at the song while Man of La Mancha was still on Broadway, and it briefly became a staple of Elvis Presley’s act.) Actors, directors, and producers dropped in and out of the project while debates raged about whether or not to include the music.
          When the dust settled, journeyman director Arthur Hiller inherited a cast featuring James Coco (as Cervantes/Quixote’s sidekick), Sophia Loren (as the hero’s love interest), and Peter O’Toole (as Cervantes/Quixote). O’Toole was many things, but a singer was not one of them, so the die was pretty much cast when he was given the lead role. O’Toole is potent in the film’s dramatic scenes, speechifying gloriously about dreams and honor, but it’s irritating to watch him lip-sync while John Gilbert’s voice flows on the soundtrack. Equally frustrating is watching Loren struggle with her singing chores, since her voice lacks beauty and singularity.
          And then there’s the jumbled storyline. The sequences in the dungeon require much suspension of disbelief, and the play-within-a-play bits are weirdly stylized—some exterior scenes were filmed on location, while others were shot on a soundstage with glaringly fake backdrops. Once the play-within-a-play gets mired in messy subplots during the middle of the movie, Man of La Mancha goes off the rails completely, resulting in tedium. The filmmakers would have been better served by a bolder choice—either diving wholeheartedly into musical terrain by presenting something as chipper and treacly as the music, or veering all the way back to Wasserman’s dramatic source material. Hell, even making a straightforward film of Don Quixote, with the same cast, would have been preferable. Man of La Mancha isn’t an excruciating mess, like so many other overwrought musicals of the same era, but it’s a mess nonetheless.

Man of La Mancha: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

            Stupidity reigns in Start the Revolution Without Me, a goofy riff on the French Revolution—and not just because the movie’s version of Louis XVI is a dolt preoccupied with his clock collection. Directed by Bud Yorkin and produced by Norman Lear—the formidable combo behind several big-budget comedy movies but especially known for their spectacular success in television (All in the Family, etc.)—Start the Revolution Without Me features a frenetically paced combination of farce, satire, slapstick, and verbal comedy. Most of the humor is broad, gentle, and obvious, more on the order of second-rate Carol Burnett Show gags than the kind of inspired lunacy that took root in movie comedies a few years later, following the ascent of Mel Brooks and the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker collective.
          Among other weak devices, Start the Revolution Without Me employs chaotic fight scenes filled with pratfalls, crude jokes about effeminate men, self-reflexive narration, silly gags predicated on mispronounced words, sped-up photography, and tawdry scenes of men groping and/or ogling women. Most of this stuff was already considered old-fashioned in the vaudeville era. Some scenes in Start the Revolution Without Me almost work, simply because the skills of the performers trump the shortcomings of the material, and the movie boasts amazing production values in terms of costumes, locations, and props. Plus, of course, the movie has Gene Wilder at the height of his powers, as well as an enthusiastic but miscast Donald Sutherland.
          The stars play two sets of twin brothers. In the convoluted narrative, one pair of brothers is raised poor, and the other is raised wealthy. Upon reaching adulthood, both pairs are drawn to intrigue surrounding the French Revolution. Naturally, the poor brothers get mistaken for the rich brothers, and vice versa, leading to trouble as the poor brothers exploit their newfound position in Louis XVI’s court, and as the rich brothers try to escape service in the rebel militia. There’s also a lot of bedroom comedy involving a character loosely modeled after Marie Antoinette, as well as a wink-wink framing device during which modern-day Orson Welles (playing himself) introduces the movie and “tells” the story to the audience.
          Costar Hugh Griffith scores some points playing Louis XVI as a nincompoop, Victor Spinettii contributes a fun villainous turn in the Harvey Korman mode, and Billie Whitelaw is alluring as the Antoinette character. Yet Wilder, naturally, has most of the best scenes—as well as many of the worst—because of his no-prisoners approach. He’s infinitely better playing the rich brother, since that role allows for Wilder’s signature psychotic slow burns, and the early running gag about the rich brother’s affection for the dead falcon he wears on his arm is pleasantly absurd. Alas, even though Start the Revolution Without Me has its partisans—the script, by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, earned a Writers Guild nomination—the movie gets awfully tiresome after a while. The higher your tolerance for brainless humor, the longer you’re likely to stay engaged.

Start the Revolution Without Me: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

          Thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly silly, the spy thriller When Eight Bells Toll sprang from the pen of adventure-story specialist Alistair MacLean, who never allowed logic get in the way of a good yarn. (Previous MacLean adaptations include 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and 1968’s Where Eagles Dare.) Anthony Hopkins stars as Philip Calvert, an operative of the British Treasury who specializes in underwater work. After several ships carrying gold shipments are hijacked, Calvert receives orders from government muckety-muck Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley) to investigate. Calvert places a tracking device on the next ship carrying gold, and then he slips aboard the vessel once it’s hijacked. The criminals are more heavily armed than expected, so even though Calvert kills a couple of them, he barely escapes. Nonetheless, he identifies the rough geographic region where the hijackers are most likely based—the rugged coast off the Scottish highlands—so Calvert travels to the area incognito, accompanied by intelligence specialist Hunslett (Corin Redgrave). Then Calvert makes like James Bond while investigating suspects. Naturally, one of those suspects is a beautiful young woman, Charlotte (Nathalie Delon), who makes passes at Calvert even though he’s sure she’s an enemy agent. There’s also a subplot about a group of Scottish shark fishermen who may or may not be on the wrong side of the law. Along the way, the picture includes a brawl in a graveyard, a knife fight, an underwater duel involving a blowtorch, a mountain-climbing sequence, and a massive shootout in a cave.
          Deciphering the plot of When Eight Bells Toll isn’t worth the trouble—as is true for most pictures derived from MacLean’s loopy narratives—but the movie is fun to watch. In addition to employing his superlative dramatic skills, the icy Hopkins is cast well because his character is a derisive prick—it’s easy to believe that Calvert could survive in a line of work fraught with danger. Better still, director Étienne Périer and cinematographer Arthur Ibbertson make fine use of the film’s Scottish locations. The sky is heavily overcast in nearly every scene, and the ground looks dirty and wet throughout, so it feels like Calvert’s facing opposition from the climate as well as from criminals. A foreboding castle is a principal location, and the movie’s most exciting sequence features a helicopter crash on a high cliff, followed by a harrowing bit of Calvert trying to survive underwater in the wrecked chopper while killers prowl the ocean surface. Reprising a trope common to the spy genre, the behavior of the villains in When Eight Bells Toll makes no sense whatsoever, and the hero’s resourcefulness reaches godlike proportions. This is pure male fantasy, complete with a rousing, 007-influenced music score by Walter Scott—who, incidentally, later had a sex change and continued her career under the name Angela Morley.

When Eight Bells Toll: FUNKY

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974)

          Credited with having made over 1,000 features since its formation in 1958, Hong Kong production company Shaw Brothers has largely focused on domestic product, but the ’70s martial-arts craze expanded the company’s international reach. That period also found Shaw Brothers attempting co-productions with companies that were established in specific genres, hence the dizzyingly weird The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a kung fu/vampire mashup made with Hammer Films, and this buddy movie set in the Wild West. Coproduced by Shaw Brothers and Italy-based spaghetti-Western outfit Champion Films, the picture blends comedy, gun fights, kung fu, and a liberal sprinkling of sex. Accordingly, The Stranger and the Gunfighter begins with a truly bizarre sequence. As rootin’-tootin’ outlaw Dakota (Lee Van Cleef) breaks into a bank vault, he discovers still photographs of naked women. Close-up shots of the photographs trigger vignettes during which a Chinese gentleman named Mr. Wang tattoos artwork onto the buttocks of the women in the photographs. Keep in mind that Dakota doesn’t learn about the tattoos until later in the movie, so why the vignettes are featured in this scene is a mystery.
          Anyway, Dakota gets captured by authorities and sentenced to death. Meanwhile in China, Mr. Wang’s nephew, Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh), graduates from kung fu school, gets into a fight with a gangster, and is told he must travel to America and recover a fortune that Mr. Wang hid somewhere. Faster than you can say “plot contrivance,” Ho treks to the U.S. and rescues Dakota from the hangman’s noose. Then they’re off to find the women in the pictures, since the tattoos collectively form a treasure map. A crazed preacher chases after Dakota and Ho, intent on seizing Mr. Wang’s treasure for himself. The plot is mildly imaginative, in a farcical sort of way, and some of the culture-clash jokes generate brainless amusement. (For instance, the naïve Ho can’t understand why Dakota reacts with alarm every time Ho says, “I want to see ass!”)
          Furthermore, The Stranger and the Gunfighter moves along at a decent clip, even though the iffy dubbing common to both martial-arts films and spaghetti Westerns of the era guarantees a weird soundtrack. Similarly, the heavy use of comedic music and wacky sound effects makes action scenes feel cartoonish. On the plus side, there’s so much plot that the movie doesn’t get overly mired in fighting scenes, the ladies in the supporting cast are lovely, and the stars are cast well—Lieh blends impressive martial-arts abilities with childlike sweetness, while Van Cleef ably personifies a brute whose boastfulness often exceeds his skills. While not necessarily a standout amid the small subgenre of martial-arts Westerns (which also includes 1971’s gonzo Red Sun and the amiable Shanghai pictures of the 200s starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson), The Stranger and the Gunfighter offers a pleasant sampler platter of sensations from two popular genres.

The Stranger and the Gunfighter: FUNKY

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

          Though he probably thought of himself as an actor in the classical sense, Charlton Heston was inextricably linked with a florid performance style. Whether he was fighting postapocalpytic vampires, parting the Red Sea, or telling a damn dirty ape what to do with its stinking paws, Heston’s best lines were often screamed at ear-splitting volume. Like Spinal Tap’s customized amps, Heston went to 11. This preamble should calibrate expectations for Heston’s directorial debut, Antony and Cleopatra, adapted from Shakespeare’s immortal play. The movie doesn’t work, for myriad reasons, but it speaks to an interesting mixture of misguided artistic ambition and pure thespian ego. Watching the movie, one can actually feel how badly Heston wants everything to coalesce.
          Set in ancient Rome and Egypt, the story takes place after the death of Julius Caesar, and it depicts the tragic romance between Caesar’s second-in-command, Mark Antony (Heston), and Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra (Hildegard Neil). When the tale begins, Antony is part of the triumvirate ruling the Roman empire, but he becomes so obsessed with Cleopatra that he merges his armies with her forces in Egypt. War among former allies ensues, and the whole situation is complicated by Cleopatra’s caprice—although she betrays Antony’s trust more than once, he keeps returning to her. Quite literally, this is the stuff of legend, so Heston’s grandiose style isn’t inherently incompatible. Had an experienced filmmaker taken the reins and kept the star focused on acting, Heston’s interest in the material could have delivered stronger results.
          Alas, Heston the director is the worst enemy of Heston the leading man. In addition to silly indulgences, such as gigantic close-ups during macho speeches and a semi-nude scene showcasing the actor’s burly physique, Heston displays a stunning lack of visual imagination. Antony and Cleopatra is shot roughly in the style of the leaden ’50s Biblical epics that first made Heston a star, even though the flat lighting style and ultra-wide compositions of the ’50s had become boring clichés by the early ’70s. Additionally, Heston took erratic liberties with the text. (He’s credited as the principal screenwriter.) Heston excised a huge swath of the play’s opening passages, making it impossible to track how Antony and Cleopatra became involved—and yet he retained massive speeches that could easily have been trimmed, notably Cleopatra’s final monologue.
          And while Heston delivers basically competent results with intimate scenes, since the mostly British supporting cast is adept at handling Shakespeare’s language, the battle scenes are laughably disjointed and old-fashioned. Damning the whole enterprise to mediocrity is the casting of Neil as Cleopatra. While she’s attractive and skillful, she’s nowhere near magical enough to persuade viewers of her character’s power to change the course of history, and her pale English features seem ridiculous whenever she occupies the same frame as dark-skinned extras.

Antony and Cleopatra: FUNKY

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wattstax (1973)

          During his opening remarks at the 1972 Wattsax Music Festival, an all-day concert designed to celebrate black pride on the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, politician/preacher Jesse Jackson captured the moment with his typical rhyming flair: “We have shifted from ‘burn, baby, burn’ to ‘learn, baby, learn.’” In that spirit, the festival—commemorated in this excellent documentary, which was released a year after the event took place—featured uplifting messages about community, love, and respect. And yet Wattstax director Mel Stuart also widened his focus to address some of the issues that provoked the Watts riots in the first place. At regular intervals during the movie, Stuart cuts to incendiary funnyman Richard Pryor providing irreverent comedy, as well as thoughtful commentary. (Pryor’s material was filmed after the concert.) For instance, Pryor does several hard-hitting minutes on the eternal quandary of the LAPD’s trigger-happy attitude toward black suspects.
          These combative moments mesh surprisingly well with such soothing scenes as the Staple Singers performing “Respect Yourself” onstage at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the festival. Combined with Stuart’s documentary footage of everyday life in Watts—much of which is cleverly juxtaposed with music—all of the elements coalesce into a mosaic about race in America circa the early ’70s. In fact, many of the film’s best scenes feature ordinary men and women speaking casually—but passionately—about the indignities they suffer. In one memorable sequence, several men recall the first time they were called “niggers,” pointedly describing the explanations their parents offered when asked about the hateful word. (One of the man-on-the-street interviewees is actor Ted Lange, who later played the bartender on The Love Boat.)
          Yet the music, of course, is the main attraction. Since the concert was sponsored by Stax Records, many icons of ’70s black music—from James Brown to the entire Motown roster—are conspicuously absent. Nonetheless, the onstage lineup makes for a varied and vibrant mix. The Bar-Kays tear through their swaggering funk number “Son of Shaft,” Luther Ingram sings a heartfelt “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” Jimmy Jones represents the gospel genre with “Someone Greater Than I,” Albert King lays down two slinky Delta blues numbers, and Rufus Thomas gets the crowd going with his novelty number “Do the Funky Chicken.” Funkmaster General Issac Hayes closes the evening with an epic reading of his Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft,” as well as the softer number “Soulsville,” which suits the peace-and-love mood of the event. (As one concertgoer says succinctly when asked for his reaction: “Like, shit, the whole thing is going on.”)
          Thanks to Stuart’s holistic approach to depicting the festival and its larger context, thanks to the great tunes from Stax artists, and thanks to remarkable editing by David Blewitt, David Newhouse, and Robert K. Lambert, a unique historical moment was preserved in a suitably unique fashion.

Wattstax: RIGHT ON

Friday, September 19, 2014

Black Shampoo (1976)

          Apparently, making a cheap blaxploitation rip-off of the risqué Warren Beatty hit Shampoo (1975) was a more challenging endeavor than one might have expected. To be fair, Shampoo is only nominally about a straight hairdresser who lets other men think he’s gay so he can discreetly screw his female clients, since the complex movie’s real themes are related to ambition, male identity, and politics. Nonetheless, throwing the word “black” in front of the previous film’s title would seem to give Black Shampoo cowriter-director Greydon Clark license to tell a simple story about a black stud who wields a blow dryer while servicing rich white ladies. And, for a while, it seems as if that’s exactly the picture Clark is making. The first 30 minutes of Black Shampoo comprise pure softcore, with abundant full-frontal nudity and many feeble attempts at raunchy humor. Muscular John Daniels stars as “Mr. Jonathan,” a black Beverly Hills hairdresser who leaves his clients satisfied with more than their coiffures.
          When the movie’s “plot” kicks into gear, however, the tone of the picture abruptly changes. Mr. Jonathan’s beautiful receptionist, Brenda (Tanya Boyd), used to be romantically involved with a gangster, so the gangster sends thugs to Mr. Jonathan’s shop and intimidates Brenda into returning to him. Yet Brenda actually loves Mr. Jonathan, so she steals an incriminating ledger from the gangster, sparking a war between the gangster and the hairdresser. (And if any of this is meant to be satirical, the nuance got lost somewhere along the way.) By the time the movie lurches to a conclusion 83 sluggish minutes after it began, Black Shampoo has inexplicably transformed from a would-be sex comedy to an ultraviolent action picture. During the finale, Mr. Jonathan impales a dude with a chainsaw, skewers another fellow with a billiard cue, and watches as one of his sidekicks takes out a villain with an axe to the chest. Blood spurts as freely in these scenes as sudsy water does in the earlier scenes. Oh, and in one particularly gruesome moment, a poor guy gets a red-hot curling iron jammed up his—well, you get the idea.
          Adding to the disjointed nature of the picture is the fact that Clark’s directorial style seems to completely shift midway through Black Shampoo. The first half is borderline incompetent, with inept actors fumbling through pointless scenes—there’s a long romantic montage filled with clichéd images, as well as a long montage of Mr. Jonathan driving around Los Angeles while he looks for Brenda, and the film periodically uses solarized freeze-frames as transitions because Clark obviously forgot to shoot proper in-camera edit points. Yet once the bullets start flying, Clark reveals a minor skill for staging action, and flashes of real humor slip into the mix. (For instance, a flamboyantly gay hairdresser rebounds from an injury by wearing a chic scarf around his gigantic neck brace.) All of this is enough to give any viewer whiplash, and the only reason Black Shampoo doesn’t feel like a fever dream of gore and nudity and sex is that the movie’s pacing is laboriously slow.

Black Shampoo: FREAKY

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

While the low-budget creature feature Track of the Moon Beast is so idiotic that it was pilloried by the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000, I must confess that I’m a sucker for pictures that rip off the tragic storyline of The Wolf Man (1941). Furthermore, because Track of the Moon Beast is so shamelessly derivative, it almost makes sense, and coherence is more than one can usually expect from grade-Z ’70s horror. That said, the list of unintentionally hilarious things in Track of the Moon Beast is lengthy. First and foremost, there’s the origin story of the titular monster. While sitting under the night sky in the Southwest one evening with his new girlfriend, mineral specialist Paul Carlson (Chase Cordell) gets hit in the head by a falling meteorite. Part of the object gets stuck in his head and starts to deteriorate. This makes him radioactive (or something), so his DNA fuses with that of his giant pet lizard, and whenever the moon comes out, Paul turns into what another character repeatedly calls a “demon lizard monster.” And since the story is set in the Southwest, there’s a Native American angle—replacing the gypsy angle in The Wolf Man—so Paul’s Navajo buddy conveniently explains an ancient Indian myth that predicted the appearance of the “demon lizard monster.” Amid this silliness, Paul creates bloody mayhem while in his critter guise, slashing people to death and ripping limbs off unsuspecting victims. Director Richard Ashe demonstrates basic competence at designing shots, but he’s hopeless with actors, so the performances in Track of the Moon Beast range from embarrassing to nonexistent. Cordell and his leading lady, Leigh Drake, are completely wooden, while Gregorio Sala, as the Navajo sidekick, delivers lines with cartoonish intensity. Speaking of cartoons, Track of the Moon Beast was cowritten by comic-book legend Bill Finger, who co-created Batman with writer Bob Kane.

Track of the Moon Beast: LAME

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Carter’s Army (1970)

          Formulaic, predictable, and shot on a meager budget, the made-for-TV war picture Carter’s Army, often marketed by the alternate title Black Brigade, is nothing special from a cinematic perspective. However, because the movie features several noteworthy black actors, including future box-office heavyweights Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams, Carter’s Army is enjoyable as a sort of all-star African-American riff on The Dirty Dozen. Set in 1944 Germany, the exceedingly simplistic movie revolves around U.S. Army Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd), a racist southerner given the thankless task of capturing a heavily guarded dam from the Nazis. Unfortunately for Carter, the only squad available to assist him is an all-black unit that’s never seen combat. Working reluctantly with the squad’s formidable commander, African-American Lieutenant Edward Wallace (Robert Hooks), Carter leads six enlisted men on the mission even though it’s likely to end in tragic failure. Along the way, the born-and-bred cracker learns to respect black people because of the bravery the soldiers demonstrate and because he witnesses the everyday humiliation the men suffer at the hands of fellow Americans.
          Not a single frame of Carter’s Army will catch viewers by surprise, and in fact, some scenes are a bit hard to take seriously because the forests of Germany look suspiciously like the high-desert woods above Palm Springs. (One could never accuse TV kingpin Aaron Spelling, who cowrote and coproduced this project, of overspending on location photography.) In lieu of a novel story, what keeps Carter’s Army lively is the cast.
          Moses Gunn appears as a professor suffering wartime indignities with grace, Pryor plays a soldier so afraid of fighting that he attempts desertion, Glynn Turman portrays a young man keeping a journal of the action-packed war that he wishes he could tell the folks back home he’s fighting, and Williams plays a tough guy from Harlem whose racial anger matches the intensity of Carter’s bigotry. Also in the mix are gentle giant Rosie Grier, the NFL star-turned-actor, and the stalwart Hooks (Trouble Man), who lends gravitas to the role of the squad’s leader. This being a Hollywood movie of a certain time, of course, the title character is a white guy whose journey to enlightenment is portrayed as having more narrative value than the lives of the black men around him. Veteran big-screen stud Boyd delivers adequate work as Carter, complete with a litany of disgusted facial expressions and an amusingly soupy accent.

Carter’s Army: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Newsfront (1978)

          Offering a nostalgic but tart look at the period in media history when theatrical newsreels gave way to television coverage, the handsomely crafted Newsfront also includes a litany of important Australian events from the years 1948 to 1956. A similar story could have been told about nearly any developed nation, but the rugged Australian setting fits this specific narrative about an old-fashioned cinematographer who resists change. In addition to making his feature debut, Aussie director Philip Noyce cowrote the script, which dramatizes social and technological changes by juxtaposing the experiences of stubborn Len Maguire with those of his comparatively easygoing younger brother, Frank. Yet the Len/Frank saga is just one of many storylines.
          Deliberately episodic, since actual Australian newsreels are woven into the story, Newsfront unfolds like a soap opera, with the staffers at two competing newsreel agencies crisscrossing over time. Len evolves from the cocky daredevil who’ll do anything for a shot to the embittered veteran who gets scolded for playing it safe. Along the way, he changes wives, loses friends to tragedy, and proudly supports the Communist Party. He’s a thorny choice for a central character. Although Newsfront features several action scenes depicting the risks Len and his peers take to capture footage, the most dynamic vignettes actually occur in mixing studios. It’s fascinating to watch the newsreel teams create soundtracks live—as a director gives cues by hand, a sound technician adjusts the music score and a voice-over actor delivers the purple prose for which newsreels were famous. Newsreel camera technology was the same as that used for fiction films, but this particular mixing process was unique to the newsreel medium.
          Generally speaking, the workplace scenes in Newsfront are more effective than the domestic bits, partially because Noyce employs such an understated style, and partially because leading man Bill Hunter (as Len) is supremely stoic. Hunter is cast well, seeing as how Len’s first marriage becomes a casualty of his remoteness, but Hunter never generates much emotional engagement. Costars Chris Haywood (as Len’s apprentice) and Gerard Kennedy (as Len’s brother) are more accessible, and the whole cast is quite good on a technical level. A pre-stardom Bryan Brown plays a small role, and Wendy Hughes offers a striking presence as the woman who gets caught between Frank and Len.
          Boasting consistently impressive production values—a sequence involving a flood looks amazing—Newsfront is quite watchable despite its clinical quality and ho-hum ending. Additionally, the movie is noteworthy because it earned a slew of Australian Film Institute awards (the Aussie equivalent to the Oscars), and because it marked a pivotal moment in Noyce’s career. Although the director didn’t achieve a true international breakthrough until helming the taut Nicole Kidman thriller Dead Calm (1989), Noyce subsequently directed numerous big-budget films, including a pair of Jack Ryan adventures and the twin 2002 triumphs Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

Newsfront: GROOVY

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bonnie’s Kids (1973)

          An all-too-common storytelling technique among ’70s filmmakers catering to the drive-in market involved taking elements that worked in other low-budget movies and jamming them together for maximum pulpy impact, even if narrative dissonance resulted. As a case in point, the action thriller Bonnie’s Kids includes ingénues, lesbians, mobsters, horny rednecks, sleazy photographers, a heist story right out of an old film noir, and lurid scenes that could be generously described as attempts at sex comedy. Based on sheer percentages of screen time, Bonnie’s Kids is a crime movie by default, but there’s a lot of cinematic wandering amid the film’s 105 undisciplined minutes. And yet as awful and sloppy as the preceding description makes Bonnie’s Kids sound, it’s not a completely terrible movie. The performances by leading lady Tiffany Bolling and supporting actor Alex Rocco are tasty, the plotting is relatively intricate, some scenes contain a modicum of wit, and there’s more than enough sex and violence to keep the viewer’s reptile brain engaged.
          The story starts in the deep south, where sexy sisters Ellie Mae (Tiffany Bolling) and Myra (Robin Mattson) live with their drunken lout of a stepfather because their mother, Bonnie, died two years previous. After the stepfather tries to molest Myra, older sister Ellie Mae unloads a shotgun into his chest, and the sisters flee to L.A., where Bonnie’s brother is a businessman. Before long, Myra gets romantically involved with a predatory lesbian, while Ellie Mae gets roped into transporting a package across state lines for gangsters, which brings her into the orbit of fellow courier Larry (Steve Sandor). Once Ellie Mae seduces Larry, she persuades him to open the mysterious package they’re carrying. It’s full of cash, so Ellie Mae talks Larry into running away with her—and the money. Predictably, the Mafia doesn’t the theft lightly, so gunmen Digger (Timothy Brown) and Eddy (Rocco) are sent to recover the loot.
          The first half of Bonnie’s Kids is scattershot, but the second half works fairly well as a lovers-on-the-run melodrama. There’s even some real tension toward the end, despite Ellie Mae’s annoying tendency to shout, “What are we going to do?” every five seconds. Writer-director Arhtur Marks, who cut his teeth directing episodes of Perry Mason and later made several lively blaxploitation flicks, keeps the pace brisk and seizes every opportunity to showcase the curvaceous figures of starlets. One can do a lot better in the world of tacky ’70s exploitation pictures than Bonnie’s Kids, but one can also do a lot worse, because hints of real filmmaking periodically emerge from the boobs-and-bullets muck.

Bonnie’s Kids: FUNKY