Saturday, January 31, 2015

Savage Messiah (1972)

          The outrageous British director Ken Russell spent most of the ’70s making biopics, some comparatively restrained and some unapologetically insane. Savage Messiah, about the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, falls somewhere in between these extremes. Adapted by Christopher Logue from a book by H.S. Ede, the movie charts the artist’s short but intense life, illustrating how he railed against mainstream culture before dying at the age of 23. Although the movie is set in the early 20th century, it’s clearly meant to parallel the counterculture attitudes of the early ’70s, as seen in episodes of civil disobedience and—thanks to fearless costar Helen Mirren—a lengthy scene of full-frontal nudity.
          As with most of Russell’s films, Savage Messiah is made with more craftsmanship than discipline, because very often, scenes that are acted and filmed skillfully serve dubious narrative purposes. And, as was true throughout his career, Russell never knows when to quit, so instead of one or two sequences featuring the lead character giving insufferably self-aggrandizing speeches about the importance of pushing artistic boundaries, the movie has seemingly dozens of such scenes. While Savage Messiah doesn’t give viewers a pounding headache the way that some of Russell’s phantasmagorias do—the bizarre composer biopic Lisztomania (1975) comes to mind—it nonetheless suffers for its excesses.
          Set in London, Savage Messiah revolves around the complex relationship between Henri (Scott Anthony) and the Polish writer Sopie Brzeska (Dorthy Tutin). Both headstrong and idealistic, they meet while positioned on opposite ends of the existential spectrum—he’s bursting with excitement based upon his artistic potential, whereas she is suicidal. Henri wows Sophie by making a scene in a public garden, drawing a crowd while splashing in a fountain and screaming slogans: “Art is dirt! Art is sex! Art is revolution!” Eventually, the two form a platonic bond while Henri uses questionable means to acquire art supplies and simutaneously battles with gallery owners, building a reputation as a mad genius. For a while, the arrangement works, but then Henri meets willful suffragette Gosh Boyle (Mirren), who shares his lack of inhibitions. Henri’s relationship with Gosh creates distance between Henri and Sophie, even though Sophie pays for Henri’s room and board.
          Given all this domestic tumult, Russell ends up portraying his central character a bit like a rock star—part romantic visionary, part self-centered hedonist. During Savage Messiah’s most obnoxious scenes, Henri storms into public spaces, including a museum and a theater, and makes noisy spectacles by causing property damage and/or hurling insults at strangers. One gets the sense that he’s on about something he considers important, but it’s hard to endure his overbearing behavior and even harder to parse his jumbled rhetoric. Still, Russell puts across the counterculture parallels effectively, and he does an expert job of using cues from the classical-music canon to score the piece. The performances are all strong, with Tutin the standout, and Mirren somehow manages to make nudity seem dignified during her show-stopping scene. Savage Messiah trumpets its messages loudly and proudly, even if the actual content of those messages remains elusive.

Savage Messiah: FUNKY

Friday, January 30, 2015

Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes (1974)

Among the least impressive examples of the blaxploitation genre, this cheaply made and confusing crime thriller is allegedly set in 1956, but cultural anachronisms appear regularly, ranging from such props as the banana bicycle to various iterations of ’70s slang. Yet the inability to conjure realistic period detail is minor compared to the movie’s other problems. Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes is ostensibly about a crime lord who runs a numbers ring. Yet like many other crime-themed stories that are executed without narrative discipline, the picture wanders far afield of its principal subject matter, introducing such outré elements as a transvestite mob enforcer who enjoys slitting his/her victims’ throats. Similarly, lots of screen time gets consumed with irrelevant nonsense including belly dancing and an opium den. What any of this has to do with a numbers guy trying to protect his turf is anybody’s guess. Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes fails to impress on every technical level, with the shoddy photography burying story events in murky shadows while haphazard editing jumbles scenes together in a seemingly random fashion. About the only slightly amusing element in the picture is a run of colorful street names for characters, since Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes introduces viewers to DuDirty, Moma Lottie, Pasha, Sweetman, and, of course, Serene (the aforementioned cross-dressing killer). Leading man Paul Harris, who played supporting roles in a number of black-themed movies and TV shows during the ’70s, has a solid physical presence but very little charisma, and it says a lot about the picture’s quality that the actor with the best billing is Frank DeKova, whose biggest claim to fame was costarring in the silly ’60s sitcom F Troop. There are worse blaxploitation pictures than Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, but not many—so only those determined to see every entry in the genre should subject themselves to this flick, which easily lives up to the second word in its alternate title: Jive Turkey.

Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes: LAME

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

          Sludgy family entertainment produced at the nadir of Walt Disney Productions’ live-action cycle, this convoluted comedy concerns a priest recruiting a group of housewives and neighborhood women to topple the crime organization that’s plaguing a once-wholesome town. Showcasing such wheezy comic elements as chase scenes, cross-dressing, and slapstick, the movie is made moderately palatable by the usual glossy production values associated with Disney flicks and by leading man Edward Herrmann’s affable performance. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine kids being able to wrap their heads around bits like the scene in which a church-going woman masquerades as a streetwalker, just like it’s hard to imagine adults mustering the patience to endure myriad silly physical-comedy vignettes. Moreover, once the laborious story elements fall into place, the remainder of the picture is painfully predictable. The North Avenue Irregulars isn’t as insultingly stupid as the worst Disney live-action offerings, but neither is it as charming or energetic as the best such films—it’s just a random title in the middle of the heap.
          Herrmann stars as Reverend Michael Hill, the new pastor at a Presbyterian church. After clashing with the church’s secretary, Anne (Susan Clark), Reverend Hill discovers that an aging parishioner foolishly entrusted all the money in the church’s restoration fund to her ne’er-do-well husband, who lost the cash at an illegal gambling parlor. Seeking redress, Reverend Hill discovers that the town’s criminals have purchased police protection, so the only way to fix his church’s problem is to help federal authorities entrap the criminals. None of the men in town is willing to help, so Reverend Hill turns to the ladies in his congregation, beginning with his nemesis-turned-love interest Anne. (Never mind the absurdity of a priest asking members of his flock to engage in dangerous undercover work.) Eventually, Reverend Hill assembles a motley crew portrayed by actresses including Virginia Capers, Barbara Harris, Cloris Leachman, and Karen Valentine. After several yawn-inducing comedy setpieces, notably a brawl inside the aforementioned illegal gambling parlor, Reverend Hill’s crusade climaxes with, of all things, a demolition derby during which the ladies use their station wagons against the criminals’ sedans. Oh, and there’s also a long scene built around the unfunny joke of Reverend Hill driving around town on a motorcycle while he isn’t wearing pants.
          The North Avenue Irregulars has lots of events, and most of them are colorful. Moreover, Herrmann plays his role straight, giving the weak enterprise a small measure of dignity. However, the presence of second-rate supporting players including Ruth Buzzi and Alan Hale Jr. is a good indicator of how low viewers’ expectations should be set before plunging into The North Avenue Irregulars.

The North Avenue Irregulars: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lifespan (1976)

          An international coproduction shot in the Netherlands with a combination of American and European actors, this sci-fi mystery includes a provocative central concept and a surprising dose of edgy sexual content. The piece doesn’t work, partly because it seems as if all of wooden leading man Hiram Keller’s dialogue was looped by another actor during post-production, and partly because the story crumbles beneath the weight of too many bewildering plot complications. Nonetheless, Lifespan is beautifully photographed, enlivened by some interesting notions, and filled with arresting images of leading lady Tina Aumont trussed up on bondage gear. So, even though Lifespan is a mess, it’s never boring.  When the story begins, American doctor Ben Land (Keller) arrives in Holland to work with a European colleague, Dr. Linden (Eric Schneider)—but Linden kills himself before the two can start their experiments. Undaunted, Ben picks up where Linden left off, while simultaneously investigating the circumstances of Linden’s death. It seems Linden was working on a cure for aging, and that he had advanced to the stage of testing serums on lab rats. Predictably, Linden was something of a laughingstock among his peers, so Ben finds little encouragement among Dutch medical professionals. Instead, he finds Anna (Aumont), the late doctor’s sexy young lover.
          In one of the strangest seduction scenes in cinema history, Ben and Anna attend a party where the host walks to the roof of an apartment building and blows an African horn designed to replicate the wail of an elephant, thus triggering vocal responses from pachyderms in a nearby zoo. “That mating call was intended for the elephants, but I got the message,” Ben says in voiceover. “Anna wanted to be alone with me.” After Ben sleeps with Anna, he discovers photos depicting her S&M love life, and then begins using bondage gear with her. (What any of this has to do with the main idea of scientifically eradicating aging is a bigger mystery than the question of why Linden killed himself.) Amid the lab scenes and sexual shenanigans, Ben discovers that Anna is somehow connected to the enigmatic Nicholas Ulrich (Klaus Kinski), who was, in turn, involved with Linden’s experiments. The introduction of this character occasions another truly weird scene, during which Kinski wears a devil mask while going down on a lady friend—until the phone rings, at which point Kinski whines, “Now I’ve lost my concentration.”
          Lifespan is a very strange sort of conspiracy movie, meandering into carnal extremes and obfuscating central truths so completely that the actual narrative becomes opaque. Still, the picture has an abundance of skin and a certain amount of style—it’s a bit like the ’70s sci-fi equivalent of some ’90s erotic thriller. Better still, the crisp photography presents European locations well, and the electronic score by Terry Riley has an eerie quality reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s music.

Lifespan: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Little Night Music (1977)

          Considering his godhead status in the world of musical theater, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has been strangely unrepresented in movies. Although most of his major plays have been telecast in some form or another, to date only six have become feature films: West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Into the Woods (2014). The 30-year gap between A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd is partially attributable to musicals going out of fashion, and it’s fair to say that West Side Story is, to date, the only unqualified smash Sondheim movie adaptation. Still, a talent of Sondheim’s stature surely deserves better in general—and better, specifically, than the middling film version of A Little Night Music.
          Adapted from the Ingmar Bergman movie Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which also inspired Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), A Little Night Music premiered onstage in 1973, introducing the bittersweet ballad “Send in the Clowns.” Cover versions by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins popularized the tune. Like many of Sondheim’s musicals, A Little Night Music is a sophisticated collage of intricate musicality and rigorous wordplay, to say nothing of complex plotting, so it was hardly a natural for a mainstream adaptation. Indeed, the movie version was financed by a German company and distributed in the U.S. by, off all entities, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.
          Elizabeth Taylor, far from the apex of her box-office power but still a formidable presence, leads a cast including Len Cariou, Lesley-Anne Down, and Diana Rigg. Set in turn-of-the-century Austria, A Little Night Music tracks the romantic travails of a group of wealthy but lonely people. For instance, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik (Cariou) has recently married his second wife, 18-year-old beauty Anne (Down), though he carries a torch for middle-aged actress Desiree (Taylor). Meanwhile, Fredrik’s son, priest-in-training Erich (Christopher Guard), wrestles with sexual longing and family friend Countess Charlotte (Rigg) laments the passage of time.
          The movie opens with the characters performing onstage as the song “Night Waltz” presents rarified central themes (one lyric states that “love is a lecture on how to correct your mistakes”). After a graceful transition to location photography, the movie winds through its narrative, and most numbers are staged as intimate dramatic scenes. As always, Sondheim’s language is dazzling. Anne assures the sex-crazed Erich that “my lap isn’t one of the devil’s snares,” and Fredrik offers the following observation: “I’m afraid being young in itself is a trifle ridiculous.” In one of A Little Night Music’s nimblest numbers, “Soon,” Fredrik contemplates ravaging his wife, who remains a virgin nearly a year into their marriage (“I still want and/or love you,” Fredrik sings). Although Broadway veteran Cariou has a strong voice, the best performance actually comes from Rigg, who imbues “Every Day a Little Death” with hard-won wisdom. Conversely, Taylor fails to impress when she delivers “Send in the Clowns.” In fact, Taylor is the film’s biggest weak spot, thanks to her distracting cleavage and flamboyant acting and weak singing.
          Yet the ultimate blame for the mediocre nature of this film must fall on Harold Prince, who directed the original Broadway production as well as the movie, and on Sondheim. Prince’s filmmaking is humorless and mechanical, failing to translate the elegance of the material into cinematic fluidity. And for all their intelligence and sophistication, Sondheim’s songs are frequently cumbersome and pretentious. The film version of A Little Night Music contains many fine elements, but if it served as any viewer’s first introduction to Sondheim, the viewer might be perplexed as to what the fuss over the Grammy-, Oscar-, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning songsmith is all about.

A Little Night Music: FUNKY

Monday, January 26, 2015

Blood and Lace (1971)

Entertainingly awful, this kitschy horror picture combines abuse at a home for wayward girls with a serial-killer storyline to create a stew of intrigue, murder, and sex. As a result, the movie’s not boring, per se, but it’s meandering, tonally inconsistent, and underdeveloped. Watched with the right wink-wink attitude, however, Blood and Lace feels a bit like a grimy exploitation flick crossbred with a soap opera. The movie begins with the gruesome killing of two people sleeping in bed after sex, a scene that features a shot taken from the point of view of the murder weapon (in this case, a hammer), years before John Carpenter perfected and popularized that particular camera angle in Halloween (1978). The opening murder makes an orphan of pretty teenager Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson), who gets sent to a home run by Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame). Alas, Mrs. Deere is a cruel weirdo who violently abuses the young ladies in her care, even killing some of them. Concurrently, Mrs. Deere uses her sexual wiles to persuade a male social worker to ignore problems at the home. In similarly sexed-up subplots, middle-aged cop Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback) monitors Ellie’s case—presumably because of his inappropriate lust for her—and the mysterious individual who killed Ellie’s mother remains on the loose. Blood and Lace contains a few enthusiastically trashy elements, including a catfight, but it’s nowhere near gonzo enough to work as a go-for-broke shocker. (The movie’s rated PG, after all.) Instead, it’s closer to so-bad-it’s-good territory, especially with actors Dennis Christopher, Grahame, and Tayback playing the tacky material straight. Of these players, Grahame comes closest to rendering respectable work, since she channels bitterness and regret with singular clarity, even though her acting is a bit on the stiff side. Then again, considering the shabby nature of this project, who can blame the onetime Hollywood star—Grahame won an Oscar for her supporting role in the 1951 behind-the-scenes melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful—for seeming disinterested?

Blood and Lace: LAME

Sunday, January 25, 2015

1980 Week: Hero at Large

          An innocent fable very much in the Frank Capra mode, Hero at Large tells the story of a normal New Yorker who adopts the guise of a superhero simply because helping other people makes him feel good. Seeing as how his innocent motivations become complicated by money and romance, the goal of the story is asking whether a genuinely decent human being can find a place in the cynical modern world. Timing-wise, it didn’t hurt that Hero at Large was released two years after the blockbuster success of Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, which demonstrated the public’s appetite for old-fashioned heroism. Given this context, there’s every reason to believe Hero at Large could have become a sleeper hit had it delivered on its own promise. Unfortunately, neither director Martin Davidson nor screenwriter Stephen J. Friedman delivered exemplary work. Hero at Large is earnest and periodically charming, but it’s also contrived, shallow, and trite. There’s a reason why the filmmakers couldn’t attract A-list acting talent, even though leading man John Ritter—attempting to translate his Three’s Company TV fame into movie stardom—gives a likeable performance.
          Set in New York, the story focuses on Steve Nichols (Ritter), an actor who can’t catch a break in his career. To pay the bills, he takes a gig dressing as Captain Avenger, the comic-book character whose exploits have been adapted into a new movie. The idea of using actors to portray Captain Avenger at theaters showing the film was hatched by PR man Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), whose company also handles publicity for the re-election campaign of the city’s mayor. One evening, while still dressed as Captain Avenger, Steve foils a burglary at a convenience store. His bravery makes headlines, so Walter hatches a scheme—find out which actor did the good deed, put the man on the payroll, and use the resulting publicity to enrich the mayor’s image. Two birds with one stone.
          As should be apparent, the plot is rather laborious, and a good portion of the film is wasted on dry scenes explaining the logic of circumstances and situations. This talky approach drains most of the fun out of the enterprise. Similarly, Steve’s repartee-filled romance with his next-door neighbor, Jolene Walsh (Anne Archer), strives for the effortless wit of classic screwball comedy but doesn’t come close. (Fun fact: Archer was one of the actresses who auditioned for the part of Lois Lane in Superman, eventually losing the role to Margot Kidder, so Hero at Large represents superhero-cinema sloppy seconds.) While the fundamental shortcoming of Hero at Large is the weak script, Davidson could have helped matters considerably by adopting a breakneck pace. Instead, the movie sprawls across 98 minutes that feel much longer. So, while it’s hard to dislike a movie that tries this hard to engender goodwill, it’s equally difficult to generate enthusiasm for something that’s mired in well-meaning mediocrity.

Hero at Large: FUNKY

Saturday, January 24, 2015

1980 Week: The Blue Lagoon

          Originally published in 1908, Henry De Vere Stacpole’s romantic novel The Blue Lagoon has been adapted for movies and television several times, but the 1980 version is the most notorious. Starring model-turned-actress Brooke Shields, who was 14 at the time of filming, the picture attracted a fair amount of controversy because Shields’ character appears nude throughout most of the fable-like story about two shipwrecked children who become sexually active young adults during the years they spend alone on a tropical island. Even though it’s plain watching the film that body doubles were used and that Shields’ hair was strategically draped during many scenes, there’s no escaping the way the actress is sexualized in every frame. (Costar Christopher Atkins is objectified the same way, but he was over 18 when he made the picture.) The Blue Lagoon and 1981’s critically panned Endless Love represent the apex of Shields’ early film career, during which her target audience seemed to be pedophiles.
          Yet one gets the impression that Randal Kleiser, the producer-director of The Blue Lagoon, saw the movie as a poetic tribute to innocence, love, and nature. He even hired one of the industry’s best cinematographers, Nestor Almendros, to fill the screen with rapturous images of beautiful young people cavorting on pristine beaches and swimming with fantastically colored wildlife in crystal-clear waters. Had Kleiser realized his vision, The Blue Lagoon could have been sweet and touching. Alas, because Kleiser cast his lead actors primarily for their looks—and because he inherited all the creepy baggage from Shields’ previous films—Kleiser ended up making the equivalent of softcore kiddie porn.
          After a passable first hour during which the vivacious British actor Leo McKern plays a sailor who washes ashore with the children and teaches them basic survival skills, the movie takes a nosedive once Atkins and Shields commence performing the lead roles. Each has decent moments, but more often than not, their acting is laughably amateurish. This makes the story’s incessant focus on sex seem puerile instead of pure. Concurrently, Kleiser’s indifference toward promising plot elements, such as the presence of brutal savages on the far side of the lovers’ island, means that repetitive shots of naked frolicking dominate. Still, the promise of naughty thrills often generates strong box office, and The Blue Lagoon did well enough to inspire a sleazy knock-off (1982’s Paradise, with Phoebe Cates), a theatrical sequel (1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon, with Milla Jovovich), and a made-for TV remake (2012’s Blue Lagoon: The Awakening, broadcast on Lifetime).

The Blue Lagoon: LAME

Friday, January 23, 2015

1980 Week: Urban Cowboy

          Part character study, part cultural exploration, part epic romance, and part musical, Urban Cowboy is s strange movie. On some levels, it’s as serious and thoughtful as any of the other fine films that James Bridges directed. And yet on other levels, it’s very much a corporate product—one can feel the hand of producer Irving Azoff, the manager of the Eagles, in the way the film stretches out during musical sequences, the better to showcase tunes featured on the picture’s soundtrack album. Even the presence of star John Travolta in the leading role reflects the film’s identity crisis. He plays a good-ol’-boy type from Texas, even though Travolta is unquestionably a product of his real-life New Jersey upbringing. This egregious miscasting makes sense whenever the movie drifts into a dance sequence, since audiences loved seeing Travolta move in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). Yet about halfway through its storyline, the movie shifts from domestic drama and dance scenes to a mano-a-mano duel involving two men testing their mettle while riding a mechanical bull. Why hire a dancer if dancing’s ultimately not that important to the role?
          Anyway, the convoluted story beings when Bud Davis (Travolta) relocates from his hometown to the city of Pasadena, Texas, near Houston. Bud’s kindly uncle, Bob (Barry Corbin), takes Bud to a gigantic honky-tonk called Gilley’s, where Bud meets the spirited Sissy (Debra Winger). The two commence a tumultuous relationship that culminates in marriage, estrangement, and separation while Bud starts his career working at a refinery alongside Bob. Concurrently, Gilley’s adds the mechanical bull, which becomes a metaphor representing the stages of the Bud/Sissy relationship. His initial mastery of the bull impresses Sissy, but his subsequent obsession with the machine causes friction. Later, when Sissy decides she wants to try the bull, Bud’s objections represent his inability to respect her. And when Bud squares off against Wes (Scott Glenn), an ex-con who conquers the bull and becomes Sissy’s lover while she’s separated from Bud, the mechanical bull becomes the stage for a climactic battle. Rest assured, the story feels exactly as disjointed and episodic as the preceding synopsis makes it sound, because there’s also a subplot about Bud’s affair with a pretty heiress, Pam (Madolyn Smith).
          The funny thing is that despite its unruly narrative, Urban Cowboy is quite watchable. Bridges and cinematographer Reynaldo Villalbos give the picture a moody look by borrowing from the Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis playbook. Glenn and Winger give impassioned performances, effectively illustrating the way id rules the decision-making of people with limited formal education. And Travolta tries his damndest to make his hodgepodge characterization work, using intensity to power through any scene that he can’t energize with skill alone. Furthermore, the honky-tonk atmosphere is intoxicating, at least for a while, because watching acts ranging from the Charlie Daniels Band to Bonnie Raitt rip it up on the Gilley’s stage is as fun as watching cowboys and cowgirls brawl and dance and drink. The movie also makes effective use of two theme songs that became pop hits, Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” and Boz Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done to Me.”
          Most surprising of all, however, is the abundant ugliness in Urban Cowboy. Men treat women horribly in this picture, and women respond by using their wiles to drive men insane. Some of this gets to be a bit much (notably Winger’s eroticized calisthenics while riding the mechanical bull), but there’s something believable about the way the characters play out romantic drama that’s suited for the lyrics of a great country song.

Urban Cowboy: FUNKY

Thursday, January 22, 2015

1980 Week: Where the Buffalo Roam

          Even at the very beginning of his film career, Bill Murray made it clear he intended to be more than just a funnyman. After essentially transposing his wiseass Saturday Night Live persona into the lowbrow Canadian comedy Meatballs (1979), Murray gave himself a proper acting challenge in his next picture, Where the Buffalo Roam, a pseudo-biopic about notorious Rolling Stone political correspondent Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. By all accounts, Murray nailed his characterization, and even the hard-to-please Thomas was enamored of Murray’s performance. Unfortunately, the movie that producer-director Art Linson built around his leading actor is a mess. The first clue, of course, is that Murray gets second billing after Peter Boyle, because Where the Buffalo Roam is about the relationship between Thompson and wild-man attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, whom the film fictionalizes as a character named Carl Lazlo (played by Boyle). While Boyle was a veteran film actor with a small measure of box-office power, Lazlo is subordinate in terms of narrative importance and screen time to Thompson.
          However, this is the least of the movie’s problems.
          Loosely adapting two Thompson articles, screenwriter John Kaye presents a jumbled story about Thompson trying to write a memorial article about Lazlo, who has disappeared in South America and is presumed dead. This occasions flashbacks to the duo’s peculiar experiences over the years. Thompson first meets Lazlo while the lawyer defends a bunch of counterculture kids facing drug charges, and later, Lazlo involves Thompson in a mad scheme to arm and finance South American rebels. Meanwhile, Thompson has unrelated escapades, including a bacchanalian hospital stay, a rambunctious college-lecture tour, and a scandalous tenure riding in the press plane accompanying a Nixon-like presidential candidate. Clearly, Kaye and Linson hoped to cram in every exciting story they’d ever heard about Thompson—a maniac known for his abuse of controlled substances and for his fearless challenges to those in power. Yet in trying to frame the movie around the episodic Lazlo/Thompson relationship, Linson dissipated any hope of narrative cohesion. Where the Buffalo Roam is a collection of sketches, and very few of them are actually funny.
          It’s hard to fault Murray, who commits wholeheartedly to his performance. He’s exactly as dangerous, indulgent, marble-mouthed, and reckless as Thompson was reputed to be in real life. Yet Murray’s performance is almost more dramatic in nature than comedic, partly because Thompson was self-destructive, and partly because Thompson was an unapologetic asshole. There’s a fine line between Murray’s default characterization—the smart aleck who winks at little tin gods—and Thompson’s scorched-earth approach to life. Additionally, Boyle isn’t funny at all as Lazlo, who comes across like a raving maniac instead of a visionary. Some moments in Where the Buffalo Roam work, particularly Thompson’s rabble-rousing lecture before an enthusiastic college crowd, but the overall “story” is shapeless and weird and unsatisfying.

Where the Buffalo Roam: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1980 Week: Melvin and Howard

          Director Jonathan Demme finally escaped the genre-movie ghetto with his sixth feature film, Melvin and Howard, an offbeat character study that sprang from a strange real-life episode. As written by Bo Goldman, who won an Oscar for his script, the movie tells the story of Melvin Dummar, a truck driver who claimed that he once gave reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes a ride through the Nevada desert—and that after Hughes’ death, a mystery man discreetly provided Melvin with a handwritten will granting Dummar a chunk of Hughes’ fortune. Yet the most unique (and most frustrating) aspect of Melvin and Howard is that the Hughes connection is largely incidental to the overall story—it’s merely the most colorful episode in Melvin’s pathetic odyssey.
          Melvin and Howard opens with a quick bit of Hughes (Jason Robards) driving a motorcycle across the desert until he has an accident. Then Melvin (Paul Le Mat) drives by and discovers a bedraggled old man with wild hair lying immobile by the side of the road. Melvin offers the disoriented stranger a ride. During the ensuing trek, the passenger identifies himself as Howard Hughes, but Melvin is skeptical. After Melvin drops off his passenger, Melvin returns to his grim life, where he lives in a trailer with his volatile wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen). Melvin’s drinking, inability to hold a job, and lack of steady money drives Lynda away, so she eventually leaves him, taking their child along. Melvin rebounds by getting a job driving a milk truck, and he remarries, this time to the more stable Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Eventually, Melvin and Bonnie set up house in a domicile adjoining the rural gas station of which Melvin becomes the manager.
          And that’s where the mystery man (Charles Napier) deposits the handwritten will. A peculiar legal battle ensues, with court officials and lawyers accusing Melvin of fabricating both the will and the story about giving Hughes a ride. Concurrently, Demme and Goldman play narrative games that challenge the audience to guess whether or not Melvin’s version of events is sincere. Although Melvin and Howard deserves ample credit for giving attention to the types of people Hollywood usually ignores—bums and drunks and losers—it’s more than a little bewildering. Melvin isn’t particularly interesting or sympathetic, and neither are the people around him. Furthermore, because the real court case went against Melvin, raising the strong possibility that he made up his story, the movie represents a missed opportunity to tell a yarn about a brazen scam artist.
          In the end, Melvin and Howard feels a bit like a character study of the schmuck next door experiencing his 15 minutes of fame. The problem is that the movie runs a whole lot longer than 15 minutes, and Demme—as has been his wont throughout his career—often seems more interested in peripheral moments than in scenes that actually drive the main story. So, while there’s something fundamentally humane about the overall endeavor, there’s also something mildly exploitive, with the clueless have-nots from America’s heartland presented somewhat like freaks in a sideshow.

Melvin and Howard: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1980 Week: Roadie

          After making two low-budget horror flicks on his own, and then a pair of arty dramas under the tutelage of Robert Altman, eclectic writer-director Alan Rudolph spent the early ’80s trying to work in a more commercial vein, beginning with this ensemble comedy set in the world of rock-music touring. Despite the trappings of a mainstream movie—lowbrow sex humor, moronic slapstick gags, performances by chart-topping musicians—Roadie is so fundamentally bizarre that it’s clear Rudolph had not yet strayed from his arthouse roots.
          Corpulent rock singer Meat Loaf stars as Travis W. Redfish, a Texas trucker who lives with his screechy sister, Alice Poo (Rhonda Bates), and his weird father, wheelchair-bound gadget addict Corpus C. Redfish (Art Carney). While out driving a beer truck one morning, Travis spots attractive young Lola Bouilliabase (Kaki Hunter) sitting in the window of a disabled motor home. In the course of repairing the motor home, Travis discovers that Lola is part of the entourage for a “rock circus” organized by megastar promoter Mohammed Johnson (Don Cornelius). Then, through a convoluted series of events, Travis winds up accompanying Lola and her team to a show, where Travis saves the day by setting up equipment for a Hank Williams Jr. performance in record time. (Never mind asking how Travis learned to install amps and mics.) Mohammed hires Travis to be a roadie. Then, while Travis is “brain-locked” thanks to a head injury, Lola and Mohammed take Travis to Los Angeles, where his roadie adventure continues.
          Everything in Roadie is goofy and loud, from Meat Loaf’s histrionic lead performance to the various absurd plot contrivances, so the picture’s limited appeal stems from its madcap vibe. (Think nonsense dialogue along the lines of, “What’s the relationship between Styrofoam and the planet Jupiter?” or, “Yaga-yaga-yaga, this is the Redfish saga!”) Some of the jokes are mildly amusing, but many are merely strange. On the plus side, Roadie features onscreen musical performances by notables including Alice Cooper, Asleep at the Wheel, Blondie, Roy Orbison, and others. (Cooper and Blondie’s Deborah Harry also contribute sizable acting performances.) Somehow, the quirkiness of Roadie keeps the picture watchable, albeit sometimes in a traffic-accident sort of way. Particularly when the picture grinds toward its outlandish finale, which reflects either desperation or a failure of imagination, Roadie is like a guilty-pleasure rock song—studying the lyrics too closely takes the fun out of enjoying the groove.

Roadie: FUNKY

Monday, January 19, 2015

1980 Week: The Blues Brothers

          The first and arguably best movie derived from Saturday Night Live characters, The Blues Brothers is a gigantic 10-course meal of a movie. It’s an action picture, a comedy, a musical, and a social satire. Yet the film, which was written by star Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, is hardly to everyone’s taste. Those who quickly lose patience with car chases, for instance, will find some scenes interminable. For viewers who lock into the movie’s more-is-more groove, however, The Blues Brothers is a nonstop parade of bizarre sight gags, ingenious character flourishes, and vivacious musical numbers.
          Best of all, the title characters translate to the big screen beautifully, because Aykroyd employs the same gift for imagining the universes surrounding his creations that he later brought to Ghostbusters (1984), which he cowrote with Harold Ramis. Instead of pummeling one joke into the dirt, the sad fate of most recurring SNL characters given the feature-film treatment, Aykroyd uses the main gag of the Blues Brothers sketches as the starting point for a proper story that’s populated with fully realized supporting characters. The Blues Brothers might not be great cinema, per se, but it’s made with geunine craftsmanship.
          Whereas on SNL the Blues Brothers mostly just performed soul tunes with accompanying physical-comedy shtick, The Blues Brothers gives the characters backstories, distinct personalities, and a mission. A mission from God, that is. Soon after fastidious Elwood Blues (Aykroyd) picks up his slovenly brother, Jake Blues (John Belushi), from prison after a three-year stint for armed robbery, viewers discover their shared history. The brothers were raised in a Chicago orphanage overseen by stern nun Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman), and the orphanage’s kindly custodian, Curtis (Cab Calloway), taught the boys to love black music. Upon reaching adulthood, Ellwood and Jake formed a hot band, but the group fell apart when Jake went to jail. Upon reuniting with Curtis and Sister Mary, the brothers discover that the orphanage will close unless back taxes are paid, so Elwood and Jake contrive to reform their band for a benefit concert. That’s easier said than done, since the musicians have started new lives.
          Additionally, the Blues Brothers gather enemies at every turn, pissing off a country-and-western band, a gaggle of neo-Nazis, a psychotic mystery woman (Carrie Fisher) who uses heavy artillery while trying to kill Jake, and the entire law-enforcement community of the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Sprinkled throughout the brothers’ wild adventures are fantastic musical numbers featuring James Brown, Calloway, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, to say nothing of the Blues Brothers Band itself, which features real-life veterans of the ’60s soul-music scene. Landis treats this movie like his personal playground, throwing in everything from mass destruction to ornate choreography, and his affection for the material is contagious. (A few years later, in 1983, Landis reaffirmed his musical bona fides by directing Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking “Thriller” video.)
          What makes The Blues Brothers so unique is its three-pronged attack. In addition to telling an enjoyable men-on-a-mission story (the source of the action scenes), the picture delivers innumerable gags as well as the aforementioned musical highlights. Each element receives the same careful attention. For instance, The Blues Brothers features so many quotable lines (“How much for your women?”) that it’s easily one of the funniest movies featuring actors who gained fame on SNL, which is saying a lot. There’s even room in the mix for wry supporting turns by John Candy, Fisher, and Henry Gibson, as well as wink-wink cameos by movie directors including Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg. Speaking of cameos, try to name another movie that features both Chaka Khan (she’s one of Brown’s backup singers) and the future Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens).
          Long story short, if you can’t find at least one thing to enjoy in The Blues Brothers—if not a dozen of them—then you’re not looking hard enough.

The Blues Brothers: RIGHT ON

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)

          Perhaps more than any other band in the rock-music pantheon, the Grateful Dead were known as widely for their fan culture as for their tunes. From the early ’70s to the group’s breakup in 1995 following the death of singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia, “Deadheads” travelled in groups around the country, following the band from show to show and developing rituals ranging from the exchange of bootleg audio tapes to the refinement of chemically enhanced noodle dancing. Accordingly, The Grateful Dead Movie—a concert film that Garcia codirected with Leon Gast—features Deadheads almost as much as it features the musicians onstage. From the hyperactive guy in the front row who looks as if he understands the “Casey Jones” lyric “drivin’ that train high on cocaine” to the endless parade of lissome ladies bopping and bouncing to the delight of band members, other fans, and roadies, the Deadheads put on quite a peace-and-love show throughout The Grateful Dead Movie. Even if being jammed into close quarters with stoned hippies suffering the rigors of questionable hygiene doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, it’s interesting to watch the audience antics simply from an anthropological standpoint.
          As for the loosey-goosey music flowing from the stage, that’s naturally a matter of taste. The Dead deliver energetic versions of several iconic songs (including “Casey Jones,” “Playing in the Band,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’,” and their beloved cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”), with Garcia, Keith and Donna Godchaux, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and returning original drummer Mickey Hart winding their way through the extended improvisational jams that made the band famous.
          As orchestrated by Gast and Garcia, several cameras capture the performances efficiently, and the guiding aesthetic seems to be unvarnished proficiency rather than flashy style. In other words, if the music doesn’t move you, the images won’t either. Except, perhaps, for the trippy eight-minute animated sequence that opens the movie, featuring the band’s familiar skeleton character, Uncle Sam, cavorting through landscapes including outer space, a giant pinball machine, a dirty jail cell, and fast-moving surrealistic backgrounds somewhat in the vein of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Inconsequential interview scenes with band members are sprinkled into the movie at random intervals, but the only purely informational passage is a long montage featuring still photos depicting the first 10 years of the band’s existence.
          While there’s not much in The Grateful Dead Movie to capture or hold the attention of people who aren’t already fans, it’s nonetheless valuable to have a vintage document celebrating the iconic ensemble in their prime. And, in many significant ways, the movie is as easygoing and freewheeling as the storied concert experience it depicts.

The Grateful Dead Movie: FUNKY

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Claire’s Knee (1970) & Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)

          Whereas some of his peers in the French New Wave were provocateurs who blended experimental techniques with radical politics (here’s looking at you, Monsieur Godard), Eric Rohmer took a different path. Crafting cerebral character studies bereft of cinematic fireworks, Rohmer was something of an essayist for the big screen, using copious amounts of dialogue and/or voiceover to explore the foibles of humankind. Throughout his career, Rohmer made groups of films that he linked with series titles, and the first such group was called Six Moral Tales. Commencing with a short film titled The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Six Moral Tales concluded with Rohmer’s first two features of the ’70s, Claire’s Knew and Chloe in the Afternoon. (The latter picture is sometimes titled Love in the Afternoon.) Both movies investigate questions of love and sexuality through the prism of men tempted by inappropriate women.
          In Claire’s Knee, the better of the two pictures, a wealthy diplomat named Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) encounters a long-lost female friend named Aurora (Aurora Cornu) during a vacation in picturesque Lake Annecy. Although Jerome has a girlfriend, Aurora persuades Jerome to help with an experiment that she hopes will stimulate ideas for the novel she’s trying to write. Aurora asks Jerome to flirt with Laura (Béatrice Romand), the teenaged daughter of a mutual friend, in order to see whether Laura takes the bait. Jerome, who is accustomed to doing well with women, agrees partially because the experiment sounds intellectually stimulating and partially because the idea of a tryst with an attractive young woman is tantalizing. Yet plans go awry once Laura’s cousin Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) arrives in Lake Annecy. Unlike the dark and quirky Laura, Claire is a gleaming blonde, so Jerome becomes obsessed with Claire.
          More specifically, as the title suggests, Jerome’s preoccupation fixates on Claire’s knee because Jerome sees Claire’s unworthy boyfriend touching her knee while giving her a line about how he’ll always be true. In Jerome’s addled mind, Claire’s knee is the way to her heart. Claire’s Knee tells an oddly compelling story that’s filled with unsettling sexual implications, even though the tone of the piece is clinical. Paralleling Aurora’s endeavor, the whole film feels like an experiment testing what happens when the heart and the mind interact. (As Aurora says, “Everyone wears blindfolds or at least blinders—writing forces me to keep my eyes open.”) The women in Jerome’s life display various fascinating colors, from Aurora’s playful detachment to Claire’s youthful arrogance to Laura’s sexy insouciance. In the middle of all this female energy is Jerome, whom Rohmer uses to represent a prevalent sort of testosterone-driven entitlement. “When something pleases me, I do it for pleasure,” Jerome says. “Why tie myself down with one woman when others interest me?”
          Detractors of Rohmer’s restrained style could easily complain about the static visuals and the absence of a major climax, but Claire’s Knee adroitly captures the ephemeral feelings that people experience while moving through the intricate dance of attraction, achieving intimacy at one moment and lapsing into distance the next. Subtle profundities abound, and Rohmer’s filmmaking is as elegant in its simplicity as the acting of the expert cast is incisive.
          The follow-up movie, Chloe in the Afternoon, tries to do more than its predecessor but ends up accomplishing less. The picture concerns a lawyer named Frédéric (Bernard Vaerley), who is married to beautiful teacher Hélène (Françoise Verley) but still has a wandering eye. During the first part of the film, Frédéric explains his shapeless ennui in voiceover: “The prospect of quiet happiness stretching indefinitely before me depresses me.” Put more bluntly, Frédéric is bored by marriage and preoccupied with the notion of fresh romantic conquests. Accordingly, he experiences a long fantasy sequence during which he wears an amulet that robs beautiful women of free will, giving him endless access to new sex partners. (Many of the actresses from Claire’s Knee cameo in this sequence.) Once the story proper gets underway, around 25 minutes into Chloe in the Afternoon, Frédéric receives a visit from an old flame, Chloé (played by one-named Gallic starlet Zouzou). In modern vernacular, she’s a hot mess, having spent years bouncing from job to job and from lover to lover without setting down roots. Frédéric helps Chloé get back on her feet, and the two steadily advance toward a tryst—even as Frédéric wrestles with the potential repercussions of transforming his erotic dreams into reality.
          The beauty of Claire’s Knee is that it’s about, at least in part, a man realizing that his sense of sexual omnipotence is an illusion. The story is palatable because it humanizes a would-be Casanova. By comparison, Chloe in the Afternoon seems pedestrian and, within the chaste parameters of Rohmer’s style, déclassé. Beneath the surface of articulate dialogue and meticulous dramaturgy, it’s a trite tale about a wannabe philanderer who toys with the emotions of a vulnerable woman. After all, is Frédéric’s lament that “I take Hélène too seriously to be serious with her” anything but a trussed-up version of the old saw, “She doesn’t understand me”?  Chloe in the Afternoon is a serious and worthwhile rumination on matters of the heart, but it’s not as novel or provocative as Claire’s Knee.

Claire’s Knee: GROOVY
Chloe in the Afternoon: GROOVY

Friday, January 16, 2015

Chosen Survivors (1974)

          A gonzo hybrid blending creature-feature elements with the tropes of post-apocalyptic melodrama, Chosen Survivors features a doozy of a plot—several individuals who were unknowingly handpicked by the government to restart the human race get kidnapped, drugged, and stashed inside an underground fallout shelter just before a devastating nuclear attack, only to discover that the shelter is infested with vicious vampire bats. Predictably, the pressure of the horrific situation brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, so Chosen Survivors ends up borrowing narrative DNA from a third major genre, the disaster movie. Given the far-fetched premise, it should come as no surprise to say that Chosen Survivors fails to achieve anything resembling credibility. This thing is outrageous and even a little bit silly from start to finish. Nonetheless, what Chosen Survivors lacks in quality, in makes up for in vibe. The picture is dark, fast, and nasty, so it feels a bit like an early John Carpenter movie, right down to the lean and ominous musical score. Enjoying the movie requires that viewers ignore major lapses in logic, but it’s a fun ride for those willing to follow Chosen Survivors down its bizarre path.
          The movie begins enigmatically, with helicopters landing in a remote site and discharging the principal characters, who are then roughly escorted into an elevator shaft by military personal. The drugged states of the characters are depicted with distorted slow-motion images, jarring edits, and weird music, so the long trip the characters take from the surface to their new subterranean home is fairly trippy. Eventually, the caretaker of the fallout shelter, Major Gordon Ellis (Richard Jaeckel), explains that the “chosen survivors” were doped because there wasn’t time to risk the participants refusing to cooperate. According to Ellis, the surface of America has been obliterated by nuclear bombs, so the “chosen survivors” must live underground and procreate until it’s safe to emerge from the shelter. Among the eclectic gang are scientists Lenore Chrisman (Barbara Babcock), Alana Fitzgerald (Diana Muldaur), Peter Macomber (Bradford Dillman), and Steven Mayes (Alex Cord); wealthy businessman Raymond Couzins (Jackie Cooper); and Olympic athlete Woody Russo (Lincoln Kilpatrick).
          Friction between these people materializes even before the first bat attack, with Cooper’s unhinged character trying to bribe others into releasing him because he doesn’t believe a nuclear attack occurred. Then, once the bats start biting, people go completely off the deep end. Cooper’s character tries to rape one of the female doctors, Dillman’s character retreats into analytical mode by observing the dissipation of the group instead of helping solve problems, and Cord’s character becomes morbidly philosophical. (In one of the movie’s most quintessentially ’70s moments, Cord purrs hippy-dippy musings about the inherent faults of the human race: ‘”The world’s too big. People don’t have time. People don't even have time for people. That's why I got so hyped on this place. It’s not too big.”
          Interspersed with the quiet scenes are wild action/horror sequences, some of which gain a surreal quality thanks to the use of cheesy and unconvincing special effects. In fact, whenever Chosen Survivors hits a groove of optically inserted bats chomping victims to the accompaniment of jittery electronic music, the picture becomes cartoonishly nihilistic—think Saturday-matinee action viewed through the prism of a nightmare. Further, the movie is stylishly shot, with lots of claustrophobic compositions and dense color filters and oppressive shadows, while the cast of mostly B-level actors contributes appropriately over-the-top acting. Dillman is enjoyably twitchy, and Kilpatrick has a great moment when his character makes a sweaty climb up the elevator shaft while besieged by bats.

Chosen Survivors: GROOVY