Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fedora (1978)

          After cresting with the acclaimed one-two punch of Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder’s monumental film career began a slow decline, despite a brief return to form with The Fortune Cookie (1966). And though Fedora was not actually Wilder’s last film—he persuaded Fortune Cookie costars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to reteam for the pointless Buddy Buddy (1981)—Fedora is in many ways the nail in Wilder’s creative coffin. Everything in the movie is an echo of something Wilder did better earlier in his career. In fact, Fedora is so painfully old-fashioned that except for some coarse language and a brief nude scene, the movie feels as if it was made in the 1940s.
          Frequent Wilder leading man William Holden plays Berry “Dutch” Detweiler, an independent movie producer whose career has hit the skids. Berry travels to Greece in order to contact reclusive movie star Fedora, with whom he had a brief affair in the 1940s. Although she’s unofficially retired from acting after abandoning her last movie midway through production, Fedora is as a legend from Hollywood’s Golden Age who, incredibly, still has her looks. Upon arriving in Greece, Berry discovers that Fedora is a virtual prisoner inside her estate on a private island, and that the people around her will use any means necessary to repel intruders. Nonetheless, desperation coupled with growing concern for Fedora’s welfare compels Berry to solve the mystery of her circumstances.
          Fedora hinges on a massive plot twist that appears mid-movie, but the “twist” is obvious and predictable. Furthermore, the disastrous second half of Fedora comprises a lengthy series of dialogue scenes that trigger explanatory flashbacks. Alas, neither the dialogue scenes nor the flashbacks add much in the way of believability or dimension. Given the great heights to which Wilder and frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond had soared in previous films, the clumsiness that pervades their script for Fedora is shocking. So, too, is Wilder’s lack of directorial taste.
          Excepting a pithy running gag involving an obsequious hotel manager, most scenes drag on at torturous length. The casting of the Fedora role is calamitous, with leading lady Marthe Keller stuck doing an anemic Dietrich/Garbo imitation. The score by Miklós Rózsa is musty and oppressive. And the hard-boiled voiceover delivered by Holden serves virtually no purpose, since most of the information contained in the voiceover gets repeated during regular scenes. Worst of all, the basic storyline—about a vain movie star who ruins peoples’ lives in order to fight the aging process—is a sickly cousin to the plot of Wilder’s behind-the-scenes masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950). Therefore, despite sleek production values and an enjoyably cynical performance from Holden, the experience of watching Wilder struggle to reclaim past cinematic glory is just sad.

Fedora: FUNKY

Monday, March 30, 2015

Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)

          Representing not only a feeble attempt at absurdist humor but also a disastrous moment in the careers of two Hollywood luminaries, Get to Know Your Rabbit is such a misfire that it spent two years on the shelf at Warner Bros. before the studio finally arranged a half-hearted release. The picture was Brian De Palma’s first studio assignment, and his involvement ended when he was fired during principal photography. Similarly, the movie was TV funnyman Tom Smothers’ first and last starring role in a major movie. Written by Jordan Crittenden, Get to Know Your Rabbit tries for outlandish satire about the dehumanizing aspects of corporate culture. Marketing executive Donald (Smothers) quits his job the day terrorists explode a bomb at his office—a random event that neither makes sense nor adds anything to the story. Seeking a more fulfilling lifestyle, Donald studies with the eccentric Delasandro (Orson Welles) and becomes a tap-dancing magician. Then Donald goes on tour, enlisting his former boss, an alcoholic named Paul (John Astin), to serve as his manager. While Donald performs in seedy nightclubs across America and romances a young woman identified only as Terrific-Looking Girl (Katharine Ross), Paul creates a corporate empire called TDM—as in Tap Dancing Musicians.
          Yes, the supposedly high-larious central joke of the movie is that so many people hate their jobs, just like Donald did, that thousands of them happily quit the 9-to-5 world in order to become kitschy entertainers. The tone of the movie is as much of a mess as the story. Characters who should seem eccentric instead come across as insane, jokes fall flat in nearly every scene, and the hyperactive music score tries to pump life into unresponsive footage. As for the would-be wacky dialogue? Consider this exchange between Donald and a floozy named Susan (Samantha Jones). Donald: “I don’t know exactly how to ask you this, but how long have you been a cheap broad?” Susan: “Oh, it’s an off and on thing.” De Palma’s signature overhead shots, split-screen gimmicks, and topless scenes merely add to the overall confusion, and Smothers’ performance runs the short gamut from nasty to nonexistent. Meanwhile, costars Astin, Allen Garfield, and Ross play their roles well, though each seems to exist in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Some cinematic train wrecks are fascinating, but Get to Know Your Rabbit is not one of them.

Get to Know Your Rabbit: LAME

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hireling (1973)

          Telling the sad story of two souls who misunderstand the connection that they find with each other, British drama The Hireling energizes familiar class-system dynamics with a tight focus on characterization. Moreover, the near-perfect casting of the leading roles allows Sarah Miles to epitomize the plight of a fragile individual forced by birth to perpetuate the noblesse oblige of the upper class, while Robert Shaw, at his most animalistic, portrays a lower-class striver who temporarily forgets his station, causing ugly consequences. There’s a love story of sorts hidden inside The Hireling, though the filmmakers wisely present the quasi-romance as a tragedy illustrating what happens when people accept social boundaries as insurmountable and permanent. Intimate, loaded with well-chosen visual metaphors, and relentless, The Hireling achieves that rare thing in the dramatic arts—pure storytelling clarity—even though the lack of fully developed supporting characters renders the movie imperfect.
          Set in the early 20th century and directed with admirable economy by Alan Bridges from a sensitive script by Wolf Mankowitz, the picture begins with the release of noblewoman Lady Franklin (Miles) from a sanitarium. We soon learn she had a nervous breakdown following the death of her husband. Hired to drive Lady Franklin home is Steven Ledbetter (Shaw), a rough-hewn commoner who puts on airs of crisp manners in order to grow his small chauffeuring business. In reality, Steven bitterly resents England’s class system, perhaps because he wasn’t able to rise above the rank of Sergeant Major while serving in the military during World War I. Steven addresses those with higher stations as “milady” and “sir,” but his anger at the limitations placed upon him by society is evident to anyone who looks closely enough—which, of course, members of the nobility never bother to do.
          Over the course of Lady Franklin’s reentry into normal life, she often hires Steven for driving and for companionship. He listens politely while she talks about her grief, and he accompanies her on outings and picnics. The reason Lady Franklin believes the time she spends with Steven to be appropriate is that he fabricates a story about being happily married with children. Secretly, however, Steven becomes infatuated with Lady Franklin and deludes himself into thinking she returns his affection. Reality shatters Steven’s world when an ambitious gentleman named Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) sets his sights on Lady Franklin’s fortune. A smug prick who served as an officer during the war (adroitly representing his “superiority” over Steven), Hugh seduces Lady Franklin even as he keeps a lover on the side. In his capacity as a driver-for-hire, Steven sees everything, leading to a wrenching confrontation.
          Although it’s easy to envision an Americanized remake of The Hireling with blood pumping closer to the surface—Miles’ performance is icy and Shaw’s portrayal eventually becomes quite brutish—the cruel machinations of the British class system are essential to the movie’s efficacy, because The Hireling is all about topics characters refuse to address because doing so wouldn’t be “proper.” As captured by Michael Reed’s beautifully moody photography, the characters in The Hireling are trapped because of the gaps between their personal identities and their social identities. As they say in the UK, mind the gap.

The Hireling: RIGHT ON

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)

Despite a few creepy flourishes and the presence of horror-cinema icon John Carradine in a minor role, Silent Night, Bloody Night is more like a lump of coal than a brightly wrapped Christmas present. Not to be confused with the slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), which sparked controversy by featuring a murderer in a Santa Claus costume, Silent Night, Bloody Night is a discombobulated piece about tragedies occurring in a Massachusetts home that once served as an insane asylum. (The title refers to a Christmas Eve murder spree.) Clearly cobbled together during editing from scattershot footage, the picture uses the weak framing device of Diane Adams (Mary Woronov) moping around the central location while delivering somber voiceover about past events, thus triggering extensive flashbacks. According to Diane, the trouble began in 1950 when a man named Wilfred Butler died at the home. Amid questions about whether his demise was an accident or suicide, survivors honored Wilfred’s wish that the house remain abandoned. Thus, when Wilfred’s grandson Jeffrey (James Patterson) hires lawyer John Carter (Patrick O’Neal) to arrange the sale of the house, those tampering with Wilfred’s wishes meet the business end of an axe. Silent Night, Bloody Night takes quite a while to get going, and long stretches of dull conversation elapse between fright scenes. Worse, the slapped-together structure of the piece ensures confusion and tedium, problems compounded by indifferent acting and muddy photography. Some minor historical interest stems from the presence of actors with Andy Warhol associations (including Woronov), while pretty starlets including Astrid Heeren provide eye candy. However, if there’s anything genuinely interesting or unique about Silent Night, Bloody Night, it’s buried beneath lots of superficial atmospherics, and obscured by needlessly befuddling plot machinations.

Silent Night, Bloody Night: LAME

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Trojan Women (1971)

          A grim drama from antiquity that director Michael Cacoyannis adapted for the screen with limited visual imagination and oppressive seriousness, The Trojan Women is notable for its impressive international cast: Katherine Hepburn costars with Geneviève Bujold, Irene Papas, and Vanessa Redgrave. Time has proven the staying power of the Euripedes play upon which the film is based (Cacoyannis employed a 20th-century translation of the original 415 B.C. text) so appraising the dramatic merits of The Trojan Women is unnecessary. That said, Cacoyannis did precious little in terms of reimagining The Trojan Women as proper cinema. Although the director shot most of the picture outdoors, presumably to erase the most obvious traces of theatricality, staging the majority of the scenes amid barren fields and craggy rock formations has the effect of accentuating artificiality. (Cities are only visible, fleetingly, as wreckage.) Even more problematically, the stilted language and the tendency of actors to scream their dialogue makes The Trojan Women feel histrionic.
          To be fair, the story concerns suffering of epic proportions, namely the emotional and physical horrors visited upon the female population of Troy during the Trojan Wars. Therefore, it’s not as if total restraint would have been a prudent storytelling strategy. Nonetheless, watching Bujold rave as the mad Cassandra, or watching Redgrave wail as the bereaved Andromache, inevitably creates a wall between the audience and the story—germane to the material or not, emotional monotony inhibits real engagement. And while Hepburn provides slightly more variance in her performance as the Trojan queen, Hecuba, she begins the picture by clutching at dirt upon realizing the depth of her defeat and then closes the picture by walking, zombie-like, toward a future as a slave, so each moment of her performance represents a steady progression into nonstop misery. Similarly, a key moment of Papas appearance involves the actress cowering, nude, behind a flimsy slatted wall while crazed women attempt to stone her to death. Among the film’s few prominent male actors, Brian Blessed screams longer and louder than anyone else in the cast, while Patrick Magee echoes Hepburn by incarnating assorted varieties of anguish. A favorable appraisal would characterize all of this stuff as relentless, though it’s just as accurate to say that The Trojan Women is simply unpleasant to watch.
          Cacoyannis, the Cyprus-born filmmaker whose career peaked with the Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek (1964), has said that he felt compelled to make The Trojan Women because of the play’s antiwar sentiments. However, it’s hard to imagine anything less suited to the popular culture of 1971 than a straight adaptation of a play from before Christianity. In any event, The Trojan Women received a fairly insignificant release, garnering just a couple of minor awards for Hepburn and Papas, and the picture has not risen to any special stature in the intervening years.

The Trojan Women: FUNKY

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Promises in the Dark (1979)

          The sole directorial effort by movie producer Jerome Hellman, whose small but impressive list of productions includes Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978), this pedestrian drama explores the topic of a teenager dying from cancer and the emotional impact her disease has on family members and physicians. Setting aside that there’s absolutely no reason why this should have been a theatrical feature, seeing as how TV movies of the same vintage handled this sort of material quite well, the movie is absurdly overlong at 118 minutes, suggesting that Hellman couldn’t bear to leave unused a single frame that he had shot. Yet the problems with the movie run even deeper than issues of editing: Loring Mandel’s script is so unfocused that for most of the picture’s running time, it’s hard to tell whether the young patient or her principal doctor is the main character. The movie is redeemed by sensitive performances and thoughtful dialogue, and of course the subject matter has innate grit. Nonetheless, Promises is a Dark is a slog when it should have been a quick and steady descent into the profound terrain of existentialism.
          The movie’s nominal star is Marsha Mason, quite good as physician Alexandra Kendall. While treating high school student Elizabeth “Buffy” Koenig (Kathleen Beller) for a broken leg, Dr. Kendall determines the bone shouldn’t have broken under the given circumstances. Tests conducted with radiologist Dr. Jim Sandman (Michael Brandon) reveal cancer. This understandably rocks Buffy’s emotional world and that of her parents, strong mother Fran (Susan Clark) and weak father Bud (Ned Beatty). What ensues is an ordinary melodrama during which Dr. Kendall wrestles with how much to tell Buffy about the grim prognosis, and during which all parties experience levels of denial about the inevitable conclusion of Buffy’s sad saga.
          Doe-eyed starlet Beller gives a fairly muscular performance, though of course playing a character with a disease is every actor’s dream, and supporting actors Beatty, Brandon, Clark, and Donald Moffat make strong contributions in underwritten roles. Mason believably alternates between brittle and vulnerable. Alas, there’s only so much the performers can do in the absence of clear-headed direction. Hellman’s storytelling is so tentative that during a scene of Buffy and her boyfriend discussing the transmutation of the soul after death, the soft-rock bummer “Dust in the Wind” plays on the soundtrack. Subtle! It’s impossible to genuinely dislike a well-meaning fumble like Promises in the Dark. At the same time, however, it’s tough to get excited about a story that doesn't truly find its way until the last scene.

Promises in the Dark: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Stud (1978)

          Disco-era smut that tries for shock value but merely achieves trashiness, The Stud was adapted from one of Jackie Collins’ myriad bestselling novels about the sex lives of rich people, and it stars the author’s sister, Joan Collins, as a bitchy nymphomaniac who chews up and spits out the handsome young man she takes on as her employee and her lover. If Joan Collins’ character represents life in the fast lane, then leading man Oliver Tobias’ character represents discarded junk on the side of the road. Despite giving some lip service to character development and moral consequences, The Stud is nothing more than a glossy survey of attractive people conniving and copulating. It’s also about as enjoyable as an STD. The characters in the movie are uniformly horrible to each other, the “glamorous” settings seem devoid of genuine pleasure, and director Quentin Masters’ weird penchant for fisheye lenses—combined with the disjointed musical underscore—give The Stud the flavor of a horror movie. If the goal was to make something erotic, then the team behind The Stud failed miserably.
          Joan Collins, icy and vampish, plays Fontaine Khaled, trophy wife of a Middle Eastern businessman. For amusement, she spends her husband’s money on a discotheque that she uses as her personal playground, and she hires Tony Blake (Tobias) to manage the club, with the understanding that he should be sexually available to her at all times. Whenever she’s with her jet-set friends, Fontaine flaunts her boy toy, even complaining at one point that while he possesses stamina, he lacks carnal sophistication: “Do you know when I first met him, Tony thought the 69 was a bottle of Scotch?” Despite enjoying the perks of his kept-man lifestyle, Tony bristles at Fontaine’s humiliating treatment, and he dallies with other women. Things really spiral when—wait for it!—Tony meets Fontaine’s pretty stepdaughter, Alex (Emma Jacobs), who is as virginal as Fontaine is slatternly. Sensing that Tony is drifting from her, Fontaine offers Tony’s services to her friends, female and male alike, during a lengthy but uninteresting orgy scene that involves drugs, a massive indoor swimming pool, and Collins flying through the air on an ivy-coated swing while wearing lingerie. (During the orgy, one of Fontaine’s gay male friends dismisses women in general with the memorable line, “As much as I appreciate the extra orifice, they bore me.”)
          About the only palatable sequences in the picture are long, plotless montages of disco dancing set to such slinky hits as “Every 1’s a Winner” and “Love Is Like Oxygen.” Nonetheless, someone must have bought tickets to see The Stud, because the Collins sisters collaborated on a quickie sequel, The Bitch, which was released in England in 1979 and slithered into the American market some time afterward. Both The Stud and The Bitch found new life on cable and home video after Joan Collins made a smash on American television playing Alexis Carrington Colby on the nighttime soap Dynasty (1981-1989).

The Stud: LAME

Monday, March 23, 2015

Beyond the Door (1974) & Beyond the Door II (1977)

          An Italian production that borrows liberally from The Exorcist (1973) while also anticipating some tropes that later appeared in The Omen (1976), narratively clumsy but visually sleek thriller Beyond the Door features the wholesome British actress Juliet Mills as an everywoman who becomes possessed by a demon while pregnant. In shameless sequences that provoked Exorcist studio Warner Bros. to sue over copyright infringement, the makers of Beyond the Door depict Mills strapped to a bed with gruesome makeup, hissing vulgarities in a guttural voice, levitating, and spewing green vomit. For a good 20 minutes or so, one gets the impression that the filmmakers simply ran a print of The Exorcist and then tried to re-create shots as faithfully as possible. What the filmmakers failed to emulate, of course, is the soul of The Exorcist—although Beyond the Door contains a couple of decent creep-out scenes and unquestionably delivers many appalling images, it’s utterly vacuous on the levels of characterization, motivation, and theme.
          Set and shot in San Francisco, the movie concerns Jessica (Mills), who lives with her husband, Robert (Gabriele Lavia), and their two children. The couple’s teen daughter, Gail (Barbara Fiorini), is an oddball who carries multiple copies of the novel Love Story wherever she goes, and the couple’s preteen son, Ken (David Colin Jr.), enjoys saying four-letter words. Whatever. Upon discovering she’s pregnant, Jessica begins exhibiting strange behavior—she destroys an aquarium, eats a banana peel she finds on the street, and snaps at her kids. Eventually, a physician tells her the pregnancy is advancing at an inexplicably rapid pace, so Jessica becomes convinced that her impending bundle of joy is in fact a bundle of evil. Enter the mysterious Dimitri (Richard Johnson), with whom Jessica has some sort of past history. He’s an exorcist in all but name, so the movie naturally concludes with a sequence during which Dimitri tries to expel the unclean spirit. Thanks to iffy dubbing of Americanized voices over the lip movements of Italian supporting actors, Beyond the Door feels cheaper than it should, since the production values are strong. But then again, seeing as how the material is so shamelessly derivative, who cares?
          Despite outward appearances to the contrary, the subsequent film titled Beyond the Door II is not, in fact, a sequel to the Juliet Mills-starring shocker. Rather, the subsequent film is a wholly separate Mario Bava-directed horror show that was originally titled Shock. Unscrupulous distributors slapped the title Beyond the Door II onto Bava’s flick for its American release in order to lure gullible moviegoers. In any event, Shock a.k.a. Beyond the Door II features an all-Italian cast, dubbed questionably into English. The story follows Dora (Daria Nicolodi), a haunted young woman who moves into a new house with her young son, Marco (played by Beyond the Door kid David Colin Jr.), and her second husband, Bruno (John Steiner). It seems Dora’s first husband died violently at the conclusion of an abusive marriage. Accordingly, Dora becomes delusional and terrified once clues suggest that her first husband has returned from beyond the grave to haunt her.
          Although Beyond the Door II a.k.a. Shock lacks the imaginative visual style of prior Bava films, the director knows his way around a suspense sequence, so the picture does an okay job of conveying Dora’s paranoia. There’s also a fun twist at the end, somewhat in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe. That said, the movie is rushed and superficial. Shock a.k.a Beyond the Door II even contains at least one unintentionally hilarious dialogue exchange. After Bruno says to Dora, “You’re not relaxed,” she replies, “I’m trying really hard to, but after hearing Marco say, ‘Mama, I must kill you,’ that really upset me.” Continuing the abuse of the title from the Juliet Mills picture, the 1988 Italian movie Beyond the Door III has nothing to do with either of the previous Beyond the Door pictures.

Beyond the Door: FUNKY
Beyond the Door II: FUNKY

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Internecine Project (1974)

          After a slow start, the British thriller The Internecine Project gains momentum and novelty by presenting a meticulously planned conspiracy. The tension never quite reaches the high level that it should, characterizations are a bit half-hearted, and the film’s attempt at generating a romantic subplot is weak. Nonetheless, the presence of familiar actors in roles that suit their skills, as well as the heat generated by a couple of genuinely exciting scenes, make the film worth a look. James Coburn stars as Robert Elliot, an American spy whose cover is that of a Harvard professor temporarily operating out of London. When Robert is offered a coveted job as a financial advisor to the U.S. government, he is told to clean house—in other words, to kill all of the operatives with knowledge of his espionage activities in Europe, lest their secrets come back to haunt him while he ascends through public life. To realize his insidious goals, Robert contrives an elaborate scheme wherein his operatives are manipulated into killing each other, since each operative is told that he or she has been entrusted with eliminating the weak link in the organization.
          In theory, this is ingenious stuff—clever and dangerous and thrilling. In practice, it’s merely okay, because the filmmakers fail to place believable and significant obstacles in Robert’s path. Barring one crisis stemming from an operative who temporarily loses his nerve, things go quite smoothly till the final twist. That said, suspense of a lukewarm sort abounds, and Coburn gets as much mileage as possible out of inherently repetitive scenes during which he sits in his lair and waits for signals from his troops. Better still, some of the vignettes depicting operatives preying upon each other have real muscle, especially the horrific scenario that unfolds when middle-aged psychotic Albert (Harry Andrews) attacks glamorous prostitute Christina (Christian Krüger). Less effective, by far, is the material concerning American journalist Jean (Lee Grant), who becomes romantically involved with Robert while all of this murderous business is unfolding. At the beginning of the picture, director Ken Hughes and the film’s three screenwriters have fun striking love/hate sparks between Jean and Robert, but then Jean merely becomes a plot device.
          From start to finish, however, good acting and solid production values compensate for the story’s shortcomings. Coburn had a singular way of portraying cocksure evildoers, so he’s fun to watch, while costars Andrews, Grant, Ian Hendry, Krüger, Michael Jayston, and Keenan Wynn add degrees of humanity and menace as needed.

The Internecine Project: FUNKY

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Space Is the Place (1974)

          According to avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, who portrays a weird science-fiction version of himself in Space Is the Place, “Music is all another tomorrow, another kind of language, speaking things of nature, naturalness, the way it should be—speaking things of blackness. The void. The bottomless pit surrounding you. You are music. Everyone’s supposed to play their part in this vast arkestra of the universe.” If you can parse more than a fraction of the far-out rap Sun Ra lays down throughout the dialogue and storyline of Space Is the Place, then you might be able to groove on the overall experience. Otherwise, you’re likely to be left utterly flummoxed by the picture, which is a unique hybrid borrowing tropes from blaxploitation dramas, freewheeling concert movies, trippy sci-fi sagas in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and vituperatively Afrocentric agitprop.
          One gets the sense that Sun Ra wanted to use Space Is the Place as a means of delivering a heavy message concerning African-Americans’ potential to transcend the boundaries of a racist society, but the medium muddies the message. At various times, Space Is the Place is boring, confusing, dissonant, silly, and weird. And because of the way all these qualities coalesce into self-aggrandizing chaos, the picture lacks even the simple power one might expect from an impassioned personal statement. After all, what is a viewer to make of a musician who plays a character bearing his own name, then purports to have spent several years in another dimension before returning to Earth like some sort of messiah destined to uplift his race not only into dignity but into a new plane of being?
          Fitting its title, the movie opens in the stars, where an odd spaceship that looks like a pair of flying eyeballs zooms through the cosmos before entering our planet’s atmosphere. The picture then cuts to Sun Ra wandering through a forest while festooned in his preferred attire—the glittering costume of an Egyptian pharaoh—and unleashing his first salvo of empowering gobbledygook. “Music is different here,” he says, “not like the planet Earth. [This is] a place for black people—it would affect their vibrations for the better, of course. [I’ll] teleport the whole planet here through music.” The high-minded nature of Ra’s speechifying loses credibility in the next sequence, during which Ra portrays a strip-club pianist circa 1943. The pianist pounds keys with such supernatural ferocity that hurricane-force winds blast through the club, things start to explode, and a pastie blasts off a stripper’s breast. Hard to reconcile spiritual rhetoric with anatomical close-ups more suited to an exploitation flick.
          In lieu of a proper plot, Space Is the Place presents a series of marginally related episodes, some of which involve Sun Ra playing concerts, some of which involve Sun Ra visiting youth centers to recruit volunteers for space travel, and some of which involve Sun Ra playing a Bergman-eseque game of chess with a Death figure dressed as a pimp. Running through the picture is a nonstop barrage of tunes by Sun Ra and His Arkestra, a massive real-life ensemble including enough percussionists for a marching band. Their songs are relentlessly dissonant, freeform, and screechy. Like the film itself, the music in Space Is the Place communicates through an idiom fully understood only by its creator.

Space Is the Place: FREAKY

Friday, March 20, 2015

Bloody Mama (1970)

          Among the better films in the seemingly endless cycle of Depression-era crime flicks that Roger Corman produced while capitalizing on the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this ramshackle drama is a grim piece of work with occasional flashes of real insight and sensitivity. As a whole, the movie is quite rickety, thanks to erratic storytelling and the unsuccessful use of montages that blend newsreel footage with voiceover to place the activities of the main characters into a historical context. Yet for periodic stretches of screen time, the picture feels substantial.
          Directed as well as produced by Corman, Bloody Mama purports to tell the story of real-life 1930s criminal “Ma” Kate Barker, who led a gang comprising her adult sons and various hangers-on during a violent string of armed robberies. Right from the beginning of the film, Corman tries to present a psychological reading of the title character—viewers meet Kate as a young girl, when her brothers hold her down on the ground while her father rapes her. Once the picture introduces Shelley Winters as the middle-aged Kate, mother to four redneck kids, the idea is that viewers should understand what made Kate so tough. As with similar imagery appearing throughout the film (e.g., Kate holding one of her sons in his arms while he cries himself to sleep after murdering a young woman), the psychological stuff only goes so far. Beyond the dissonance of juxtaposing high-minded material with such tacky signifiers as gory murders and gratuitous nudity, the movie simply isn’t deep or literate enough. The script, credited to Don Peters and Robert Thorn, rushes through episodes covering several years, which has the effect of reducing characterizations to snapshots, and the slavish devotion to generating commercial elements means the narrative periodically stops dead while something lurid happens.
          Nonetheless, some of the characters and performances resonate. Don Stroud is menacing as the psychotic Herman Barker, while a young Robert De Niro gives an alternately frightening and goofy turn as the drug-addled Lloyd Barker. Playing the other two brothers, Clint Kimbrough and Robert Walden don’t have much to do, and in fact they’re overshadowed by the sterling work of costar Bruce Dern, who plays latter-day gang member Kevin Dirkman with his signature idiosyncratic edge. Pat Hingle’s vulnerable performance as a kidnapping victim and Diane Varsi’s bitter portrayal of a cynical prostitute-turned-moll make distinct impressions, as well. Alas, leading lady Winters is the movie’s weak link, since her cartoonish and shrill performance exists in an unpleasant dimension all its own. Oddly enough, Winters played a comical (and pseudonymous) version of the same role a few years earlier, portraying Ma Parker in two 1966 episodes of the camp-classic TV series Batman. Her work suited that milieu more closely.

Bloody Mama: FUNKY

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Concert for Bangladesh (1972)

          Released during the early heyday of rock-concert films and documenting one of the first major media-event benefit shows, The Concert for Bangladesh has lost none of its musical power over the years. And even if the sociopolitical issues that inspired the concert featured onscreen have long since fallen from public view, there’s still something inspiring about the way legendary musician George Harrison put his weight behind an important cause simply because he was asked to do so by a friend. That friend, of course, was the iconic Indian musician Ravi Shankar, an important influence during Harrison’s days with the Beatles and beyond. Seeing widespread famine in the Asian nation of Bangladesh, Shankar and Harrison arranged an August 1971 show featuring two historic performances—Harrison’s first important appearance as a solo artist, following a long absence from the road that began with the Beatles’ cessation of touring in 1966, and Bob Dylan’s return to the stage after a lengthy hiatus.
          While Dylan, Harrison, and Shankar serve as the show’s de facto headliners, the concert also includes contributions from an all-star backing band comprising Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr, and the members of Badfinger, among others. (Purists will note that the movie actually merges clips from two performances that were presented on the same day in New York’s Madison Square Garden, though the film unfolds as if performances were contiguous.) Shot in a sleek but unobtrusive fashion by director Saul Swimmer and his team, The Concert for Bangladesh opens with some quick reportage explaining the circumstances of the show, then focuses on performances for the bulk of the running time. Shankar kicks things off with an epic jam of traditional Indian music that sprawls across nearly 20 minutes. Appropriate and edifying, though perhaps not thrilling for rock fans.
          Then Harrison takes the stage with his band for a ferocious run through “Wah-Wah” and a joyous version of “My Sweet Lord” (both from Harrison’s seminal All Things Must Pass). Soon the backing musicians make their presence known. Preston lays down industrial-strength gospel funk with “That’s the Way God Planned It,” while Starr amiably croons his first solo hit, “It Don’t Come Easy.” Clapton steps to the fore during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” re-creating the fretboard pyrotechnics of the original Beatles version on which he was an uncredited guest musician. Then, after Russell plays a couple of bluesy covers and Harrison offers a lovely acoustic take on “Here Comes the Sun,” Dylan delivers a crisp set that climaxes with a trio version of “Just Like a Woman” featuring Dylan, Harrison, and Russell on vocals. Harrison closes the show just as powerfully as he opened it, and the whole rock segment flies by in a glorious rush. Like the best live shows, The Concert for Bangladesh leaves the audience on a high—a great testament to the discipline and taste that Harrison, who co-produced the movie with Allen Klein, exhibited in shaping the piece.

The Concert for Bangladesh: GROOVY

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

          Despite being shallow, turgid, and unoriginal, The MacKintosh Man more or less slides by on star power, both in front of and behind the camera. Sleekly made by veteran director John Huston, who enlisted frequent collaborator Oswald Morris as his cinematographer, the picture tells an inconsequential story about conspiracies, crime schemes, personal betrayals, and other such things. Taken as a pure narrative, the piece falls somewhere on the spectrum between forgettable and irritating simply because so much of what happens onscreen is confusing. Taken as a cinematic experience, however, The MacKintosh Man is considerably more palatable. Walter Hill’s screenplay is so terse that the graceful images generated by Huston and Morris cut together at a brisk pace, giving The MacKintosh Man an almost musical flow. Composer Maurice Jarre’s jaunty main theme accentuates the cotton-candy texture of the movie, even though the subject matter is quite dark, and Paul Newman plays the leading role with his customary effortless charm. All in all, The MacKintosh Man feels, looks, and sounds like a solid movie, and sometimes the illusion of substance is enough to warrant a casual viewing.
          Attempting to describe the labyrinthine plot of the film is pointless, so the broad strokes will have to suffice. Rearden (Newman) is a British spy enlisted to penetrate a ring of thieves who smuggle diamonds through the mail. While posing as a criminal, Rearden is captured, convicted, and imprisoned, whereupon he discovers a second scheme. In exchange for a cut of the loot he “stole,” Rearden is offered a chance to bust out of prison. Accepting the terms, Rearden participates in an elaborate escape that involves cranes and smoke grenades and a phony ambulance, then meets a group of conspirators who extort money from criminals—all of which ties back to the original ring of diamond thieves. There’s also lots of murky business involving one Mrs. Smith (Dominique Sanda), a beautiful European working for British Intelligence, as well as the predictable levels of intrigue relating to high-ranking government officials, namely Member of Parliament Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) and spy boss MacKintosh (Harry Andrews).
          Following all of the story’s moving parts is dull and unrewarding labor, so it’s better to just go with the flow, savoring Hill’s pithy dialogue, Huston’s confident presentation, and Newman’s cheerfully cynical characterization. Furthermore, the supporting cast is so strong that the movie works well on a scene-to-scene basis even if the sum effect is underwhelming. That said, the story achieves something close to clarity and dramatic power once it gets past the halfway point, eventually resolving into an enjoyably suspenseful final scene.

The MacKintosh Man: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Martin (1977)

          Among the many reasons why Pittsburgh-based horror icon George A. Romero is unique among his shock-cinema peers is the fact he possesses two equally important directorial personalities. Romero is best known for making over-the-top zombie flicks that are distinguished by witty social satire—and yet he also made a series of quiet horror films, of which Martin is arguably the best. Presenting an offbeat spin on vampire mythology, Martin leads with disturbing psychological aspects, even though it also contains plenty of unpleasant gore. So, while Romero’s Dead movies feature flamboyant allegories about topics including consumerism and government conspiracies, Martin and its ilk tell even creepier stories about the monsters walking the streets of the real world. It’s giving nothing away to say that Martin is actually more of a serial-killer saga than a proper vampire story, and that’s why the movie has the power to get under viewers’ skin. Since we all know what sort of damage the world’s wounded souls can inflict upon innocents, it’s difficult to dismiss Martin by saying, “It’s only a movie.”
          The movie opens with a gruesome sequence that’s so methodical it feels relentless. Young everyman Martin (John Amplas) stalks a young woman on a train, subdues her with drugs, strips her naked, and then molests her inert form while slashing her wrists with a straight razor so her blood is a sort of sacrament on their unholy coupling. Yikes. Then Martin arrives in Pittsburgh, where he’s given lodging by an eccentric relative, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), and Cuda’s granddaughter, Christine (Christine Forrest). Rather than being some benevolent guardian, Cuda is a living incarnation of religious superstition. Descended from a long line of Eastern Europeans, Cuda believes his family is cursed with vampirism, and that Martin is the clan’s current victim. Therefore, Cuda considers it his responsibility to monitor Martin’s nocturnal behavior. Through black-and-white flashbacks, writer-director Romero reveals how Martin’s personality was formed during his upbringing by parents who shared Cuda’s belief system. This creates a fascinating question of whether Martin was naturally inclined toward murder or if the family’s insane lore became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
          Filled with unsettling images and worrisome notions rather than sharp jolts—with a few notable exceptions—Martin benefits from Romero’s signature grungy aesthetic. The filmmaker’s use of real locations (and real people) ensures that Martin never feels like some slick Hollywood fantasy. Instead, it’s akin to a combination of a newsreel and a nightmare. And if the plotting gets a bit repetitive in the middle, that’s a minor flaw seeing as how Martin is sandwiched by the aforementioned opening scene and a final sequence that’s just as alarming. FYI: As with most of Romero’s work, this picture is not suitable for squeamish viewers, and if Martin catches you in the right frame of mind, it will stay with you in ways that you will not enjoy.

Martin: GROOVY

Monday, March 16, 2015

Angels’ Wild Women (1972)

With all due respect to Ed Wood (if “respect” is the right word), a strong argument could be made that Al Adamson is actually the worst director of all time. Working in the exploitation realm from the mid-’60s to the early ’80s, he made consistently awful pictures that ripped off current box-office trends and were distinguished by incoherent plotting, shoddy production values, and terrible acting. Take, for instance, Adamson’s execrable biker flick Angels’ Wild Women, which comprises little more than 85 minutes of boobs, bikers, and brawls, with a little bit of sensationalistic Charles Manson imagery thrown in for no discernible reason. The movie starts with a violent rape, continues with a vignette of Nazis slaughtering victims (the “Nazis” are actors participating in a movie shoot), and later features such overused B-movie tropes as a bad drug experience, a messianic cult leader, and a murderous crime spree. Said spree is committed by curvaceous ladies who quit dating bikers in order to form their own outlaw outfit, but then get distracted from their activities every time some young stud crosses their path. How tacky is Angels’ Wild Women? Adamson shot the scenes involving the cult leader at Spahn’s Movie Ranch, the real-life hideout of the Manson Family. No threshold of bad taste was too forbidden for Adamson to cross, and yet there’s nothing truly rebellious or wild about his filmmaking. Throughout Angels’ Wild Women, he simply gathers counterculture signifiers without any sense of how to contextualize or energize them. Worse, Adamson can’t even make all the lurid garbage that he throws onscreen exciting. As it grinds through an undercooked “plot,” Angels’ Wild Women slips almost immediately into nothigness, with interminable dialogue scenes and laughably “artistic” love scenes pointlessly consuming screen time.

Angels Wild Women: SQUARE

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Humanoid (1979)

          At the height of Star Wars mania in late 1977, enterprising American musician Domenico Monardo, using the stage name Meco, released a single titled “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” which set pieces of John Williams’ familiar movie score to a thumping disco beat. The tune was a smash, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart and selling more than two million copies. Musically, however, it was dreadful—and yet it was merely a hint of the awful Star Wars rip-offs yet to come. Released around the same time as the equally terrible European production Starcrash, the Italian atrocity The Humanoid jumbles together assorted visuals copped from Star Wars (a black-helmeted villain, a land speeder, light arrows instead of lightsabers) while telling a nonsensical story that seems like a combination of a childhood fantasy and a drug hallucination.
          In the kingdom of Metropolis (formerly Earth), Lord Graal (Ivan Rassimov) works with the loopy Dr. Kraspin (Arthur Kennedy) and the vampiric Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach) to build an army of genetically altered “humanoids” with the goal of seizing a throne. Meanwhile, intrepid heroine Barbara (Corinne Cléry) teams with magical youth Tom Tom (Marco Yeh) to marshal supernatural forces for the side of good. Caught in the middle is outer-space pilot Golob (Richard Kiel), whom Graal’s people transform into a humanoid. If any of this sounds remotely interesting, rest assured it is not. Even with certain visual distractions (of which Bond girl Bach’s cleavage is the most noteworthy), The Humanoid is nearly unwatchable. The characters are insipid, the costumes are ridiculous, the special effects are tacky, and the storyline is unintelligible. Virtually the only element that creates interest is the energetic score by Ennio Morricone, who blends classical and disco elements into a pungent aural stew.
          It’s hard to select any single aspect of The Humanoid as being the dumbest, though contenders include Bach’s bizarre hair helmets and the presence of a chirping robot dog. Unsurprisingly, the acting is awful—after all, the big selling point of the movie is the onscreen reunion of Bach and Kiel, the worst actors from the 007 smash The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). That said, The Humanoid has a small measure of kitsch value, as seen in the kinky vignette of Lady Agatha watching a nude lady get impaled by a high-tech iron maiden so she can consume the lady’s blood. Yet the most unintentionally amusing moments in The Humanoid involve dialogue. Consider Lady Agatha’s attempt at sexy patter upon seeing Lord Graal after a long separation: “It is very gratifying to know that I have been in your thoughts all this time—as you can see, you have been in mine as well.” Hot! Even better, consider Barbara’s desperate proclamation: “Out lives are in danger and I can’t find the counter-humanoid notes I took—they’re my only hope!” That’s The Humanoid in a nutshell, shameless and stupid all at once.

The Humanoid: LAME