Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Silver Bears (1978)

          Featuring noteworthy participants in front of and behind the camera, the international-caper comedy Silver Bears should work. Every so often, however, talented people miss the mark for reasons that defy comprehension, resulting in disappointments like this one. Silver Bears isn’t a disaster, and nobody in the movie does anything embarrassing, although costar Cybill Shepherd’s performance is iffy. Yet Silver Bears is inert. Despite being cowritten by one of Hollywood’s pithiest wordsmiths and despite starring the reliable Michael Caine, Silver Bears is too confusing, too silly, and too uneven to merit any reaction other than indifference.
          Here are the broad strokes of the convoluted storyline. English swindler “Doc” Fletcher (Caine) gets American mobster Joe Fiore (Martin Balsam) to buy a Swiss bank, using down-on-his-luck Italian aristocrat Gianfranco di Siracusa (Louis Jourdan) as a front. Gianfranco then convinces “Doc” to invest in an Iranian silver mine owned by Gianfranco’s cousins, Agha (David Warner) and Shireen (Stéphene Audran), as a means of bolstering the bank’s assets. This brings the group into the orbit of UK mogul Charlie Cook (Charles Gray), who helps control the world’s silver market. Later, American banker Henry Foreman (Joss Ackland) hears the Swiss bank is onto something big, so he sends underling Donald Luckman (Tom Smothers) to buy the Swiss bank. Donald brings his wife, Debbie (Shepherd), along for the ride, and soon “Doc” romances Debbie as part of an elaborate scheme to defraud nearly every other character in the storyline.
          Cowriter Peter Stone, who achieved caper-cinema immortality with the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn romp Charade (1963), sprinkles an amusing line here and there, since he presumably was hired to embellish an existing script by Paul Erdman. Alas, even Stone’s delicate touch isn’t enough to compensate for bewildering story elements, one-dimensional characters, and unbelievable plot twists. Shepherd’s character alone is a tangle of contradictory behaviors, because she’s mousy at one moment and promiscuous at the next. Caine and Jourdan try to slide by on charm, but the minute either actor steps offscreen, it becomes apparent that whatever he just said or did was nonsensical. Still, the assortment of actors in Silver Bears is beguilingly random. Charles Gray from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)? David Warner from Straw Dogs (1971)? Tom—make that Tommy—Smothers??? Overseeing the whole mess is Czechoslovakian director Ivan Passer, who paces scenes briskly but shoots them without any special style, a problem exacerbated by Claude Bolling’s dorky musical score.

Silver Bears: FUNKY

Monday, June 29, 2015

Born Again (1978)

          This milquetoast religious drama credits Jesus with the redemption of lawyer-turned-Nixon-advisor Charles Colson, who was convicted and imprisoned for his role in the Watergate cover-up. Based on Colson’s book, the movie takes its title from Colson’s conversion to fundamental Christianity in the period between his departure from the White House and his entrance into a federal work farm. Viewers are asked to believe that the Charles Colson who naïvely followed Nixon’s orders was a different man from the Charles Colson who bravely accepted responsibility for crimes against the U.S. Constitution. And if this sounds like an awfully convenient explanation, then, well, who ever knows the truth of what happens inside another man’s soul?
          Written and shot in the perfunctory style of an assembly-line TV movie, Born Again stars Dean Jones—best known for a string of silly Walt Disney comedies—as Colson. His performance is adequate at best, because whenever Jones peels off his glasses to cradle his face in his hands and weep, he seems more robotic than sincere. Like Jones’ performance, the script by Walter Bloch depicts Colson’s conversion without actually making a case for why viewers should believe what they’re seeing. During the heat of the Watergate investigation, Colson’s rich friend Tom Phillips (Dana Andrews) explains that he was born again after realizing that wealth is an empty reward. This encounter flicks a switch in Colson’s mind. Overnight, he begins spouting Bible passages. He also builds bridges with onetime political enemies who share his love for Jesus. By the time Colson is an inmate, leading Bible-study lessons and wooing African-American criminal Jimmy Newsom (Ramond St. Jacques) to the bosom of the lord, the whole movie feels a bit silly, especially since scene after scene is underscored with saccharine music.
          Yet the most egregious shortcoming of Born Again might be the way the filmmakers lay all the blame for Colson’s problems solely on Nixon. After all, wasn’t the lesson of Watergate that we need to beware political conspiracies, not just overzealous individuals? And doesn’t the suggestion that Nixon was some earthly agent of the devil absolve people like Colson of personal responsibility? With all due respect to the faithful people who made this movie—which was coproduced by an entity called Prison Fellowship Ministries—briskly discarding issues of ambition, complicity, greed, moral relativism, and willful ignorance seems both rhetorically and socially dubious.

Born Again: LAME

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Flash and the Firecat (1976)

          Enterprising low-budget filmmakers Beverly and Ferd Sebastian cranked out a handful of zesty drive-in pictures during the ’70s, including this vapid lovers-on-the-run romp, which feels very much like myriad Roger Corman productions featuring the same basic storyline—think Moving Violation (1976), Thunder and Lighting (1977), and so on. With their rascally heroes, scantily clad heroines, and tiresome car-chase scenes, these pictures are all basically interchangeable. That said, Flash and the Firecat has some pleasant passages thanks to lively leading actors and the use of dune buggies instead of conventional vehicles, though it won’t meet anyone’s criteria for quality cinema. In fact, it won’t even meet anyone’s criteria for exploitation cinema, since the Sebastians offer such a tame presentation of kidnapping, prostitution, and other crimes that the movie is rated PG. 
          Flash and the Firecat starts out well enough. Leggy blonde Flash (Tricia Sembera) and her crafty boyfriend, Firecat (Roger Davis), spend their time making out and riding dune buggies, since they’re apparently averse to working for a living. Eager to score cash, they contrive a ballsy scheme. Flash uses her looks to coax a 13-year-old boy into her dune buggy while Firecat visits the boy’s father, a bank manager. Claiming that his partner has kidnapped the boy—and using a carefully timed phone call to sell the illusion—Firecat nabs ransom money and flees. Then Flash releases the boy unharmed. Soon, the bank manager tells local top cop Sheriff Thurston (Dub Taylor) what happened, so Thurston puts his incompetent deputies on the case. Next, an operative of the bank’s insurance company, towering Milo Pewitt (Richard Kiel), shows up to help recover the bank’s money. Thereafter, Firecat and Flash zoom around the boonies, hiding at places including a whorehouse, while being chased by bumbling cops and the relentless Milo.
          Leading man Davis has an amiable quality, emulating Paul Newman’s mischievous screen persona, and leading lady Sembera is competent and sexy. Taylor, always a hoot, energizes his scenes with southern-fried lunacy, at one point barking to the very tall Kiel: “You can kiss my ass if you can bend down that far!” Kiel, best known as “Jaws” from the James Bond blockbuster The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), is looser than usual, though he’s saddled with a trite characterization. Even at a scant 84 minutes, Flash and the Firecat eventually wears out its welcome. When Corman’s people made movies like this one, they knew that eventually some sort of emotional hit was required to give all the mayhem meaning. Conversely, the Sebastians’ brisk little movie runs on fumes.

Flash and the Firecat: FUNKY

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Trash (1970) & Heat (1972)

          Producer Andy Warhol and writer-director Paul Morrissey were prolific collaborators in the ’60s and ’70s, reaching the commercial zenith of their partnership with the campy gorefests Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). More typical of the Warhol/Morrissey aesthetic, however is a trilogy of grungy docudramas about street people, all starring somnambulistic stud Joe Dallesandro. Typifying a certain downtown aesthetic, thanks to filthy locations, ramshackle storytelling, and unglamorous actors, Flesh (1968), Trash, and Heat offer unflinching looks at what straight-laced people would classify as deviant lifestyles. These are challenging pictures to watch, not only because so much of what’s shown onscreen is ugly but also because Morrissey mostly eschews tools that might help sustain interest, such as economy and suspense. As exemplified by Dallesendro’s tendency to perform scenes in the nude, these pictures are about letting it all hang out.
          Whereas Flesh tells the story of a low-rent gigolo, Trash is the tale of a zonked-out junkie. Dallesandro plays Joe, a perpetually bewildered New York City heroin addict who spends the movie drifting in and out of sexual situations, even though the only kind of scoring he wants to do involves getting dope. The style is set right in the first scene, because the opening image is a close-up of Dallesandro’s pimple-covered buttocks as he receives (offscreen) fellatio from a shapely dancer. Unable to get the desired response, the dancer then performs a striptease, but Joe merely lies on the couch, still unable to get an erection. Once this pointless vignette runs its course, Joe wanders into other situations, eventually spending most of his time with his undersexed girlfriend, Holly (played by female impersonator Holly Woodlawn). Various “highlights” of the picture include Joe shooting up on camera and Holly servicing him/herself with a Coke bottle. Oh, there’s also a scene during which a young woman patiently extracts lice from Joe’s pubic hair.
          Trash isn’t quite as dull and puerile as this description might suggest, though Morrissey clearly savors real-time grotesquerie. The picture has a mildly satirical quality, sometimes poking fun at the slovenly excesses of street people and sometimes skewering the ridiculous behavior of wealthy dilettantes who slum for kicks. The sum effect of all this gutter-level camp is that Trash feels like a John Waters movie on downers. (Lest we forget, many of the characters in Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” notably a certain transvestite named Holly, were inspired by members of Warhol’s clique.)
          Discovering the redeeming values in Heat is difficult. Set in Los Angeles instead of New York, but filled with the same downtrodden losers as the previous pictures in the trilogy, Heat stars Dallesandro as Joey, an opportunistic young man trading on his past fame as the teenaged costar of a TV series. Taking up residence in a typical LA apartment complex with a courtyard surrounding a pool, Joey makes a deal to have regular sex with the complex’s obnoxious, overweight landlady in exchange for discounted rent. He also encounters Jessica (Andrea Feldman), a deranged young woman living in the complex with her infant child—the product of a drug-addled one-night stand—and her lesbian lover. Jessica’s middle-aged mother, Sally (Sylvia Miles), is a faded actress who once appeared with Joey on his TV show, so Jessica hopes that Joey can help persuade Sally to cough up extra cash, seeing as how Jessica doesn’t work. Joey quickly gloms onto the lonely and neurotic Sally, becoming her lover and spending long stretches of time in the mansion she won in her divorce from a wealthy man.
          Everyone in Heat is a delusional striver, except perhaps for the simple-minded transvestite who wanders around the apartment complex while masturbating 24/7. Miles’ performance has some Shelley Winters-style grandiosity, but the rest of the acting is sloppy and unmemorable, just like Morrissey’s camerawork. Even more problematic is the derivative nature of the piece, since Heat is basically a thick-headed riff on Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). So unless wallowing in human desperation is your idea of fun, Heat is too amateurish, contrived, and dreary to merit your attention.

Trash: FUNKY
Heat: LAME

Friday, June 26, 2015

Candy Stripe Nurses (1974)

New World Pictures’ tacky series of sexy-nurse flicks finally sputtered out with the release of Candy Stripe Nurses, a dull and formless compendium of empty characters, flat storylines, and perfunctory sex scenes. Once again, the movie follows the interconnected adventures of three attractive young women who work as nurses—actually nonprofessional support staffers known as candy-stripers—while navigating romantic entanglements in their private lives. Written and directed by Alan Holleb, the movie lacks anything resembling a consistent purpose, style, or tone. Whereas some of the previous sexy-nurse movies had counterculture elements and/or wiseass humor, Candy Stripe Nurses is merely amateurish and episodic and uneven, without any memorable high points to reward viewers’ attention. Adding to the general sleaziness of the endeavor, all three of the movie’s leading characters are high-school students. Promiscuous blonde Sandy (Candice Rialson) sleeps with a string of men, eventually working her way into the bedchamber of a rock star suffering from sexual dysfunction. Artistic blonde Dianne (Robin Mattson) studies dance and dates a doctor while preparing for medical school herself, but she takes a wild turn by having an affair with a basketball player who’s being doped by an unscrupulous physician eager to fix games. Latina troublemaker Marias (Maria Rojo) decides that a young man accused of robbing a gas station is being framed, then plays detective in order to clear his name. Each storyline includes at least one extended sex scene, since the New World people were a lot more interested in showing the actress’ breasts than in showing their dramatic range, and poor Rialson—a charming girl-next-door type who also appeared in the bizarre talking-vagina comedy Chatterbox! (1977)—seems to spend nearly all her screen time dressing and undressing. Nothing particularly interesting happens in Candy Stripe Nurses, although colorful B-movie stalwart Dick Miller shows up for a tiny role as a basketball-game heckler who shouts, “Your mother blows goats!” So there’s that.

Candy Stripe Nurses: LAME

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

          The eclectic French director Louis Malle made comedies, character studies, documentaries, Hollywood movies, and provocative stories about sex. In fact, it’s often difficult to find a single authorial voice guiding his work. Somewhat like the American filmmaker John Huston, Malle was a curious intellectual who found a style to suit each project. Within Malle’s expansive filmography, however, certain movies contain aspects of veiled autobiography. For instance, Malle has said that Murmur of the Heart is a flight of fancy borrowing facts from his real life, whereas Au revoir les enfants (1987) re-creates actual events. In some ways, Murmur of the Heart is Malle’s most challenging film, owing equally to content and style. The style is episodic and loose, with a clear narrative purpose emerging only toward the end of the film’s running time. The content, put bluntly, is incest—played not for shock value but, unbelievably, for warmth.
          As did the young Louis Malle, 15-year-old Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) lives a privileged existence, grooving on American jazz records and savoring the doting attention of his beautiful mother, Clara (Lea Mssari). After various misadventures involving his brothers, including a colorful visit to a brothel, Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur. (This, too, happened to the real Malle.) Clara accompanies Laurent to a sanitarium, which is part medical facility and part vacation resort. Adding complexity to the situation is Laurent’s knowledge that Clara has been cheating on Laurent’s father. Concurrently, Clara encourages Laurent’s romance with a fellow patient at the sanitarium, a pretty young lady Laurent’s age. The end result of these events is that Laurent and Clara arrive at an unusual level of intimacy—they’re like best friends, each pushing the other to be his or her ideal self. One drunken evening, they express their intimacy in bed. Malle’s handling of the scene is remarkably sensitive and subtle, so the moment feels neither romanticized nor sensationalized. It simply happens, and it feels like the believable culmination of a unique relationship—a secret but not a sin.
          Although the way Malle threads this particular needle is the most unusual aspect of Murmur of the Heart, it’s but one of many fine things the filmmaker achieves. He depicts Laurent as a complex and dimensional individual, no small feat when portraying adults, to say nothing of young people, and he paints a vivid picture of life among the Gallic intelligentsia during the heyday of France’s Vietnam entanglement. Nothing in this movie is pat or tidy, so the piece sometimes feels unruly. And yet once Malle arrives at the critical moment, it’s clear he needed to travel down myriad pathways in order to explain the critical encounter. The great accomplishment of the film is helping viewers understand something that should, in the abstract, be incomprehensible. Better still, the film never asks viewers to make a value judgment; like all of Malle’s best movies, Murmur of the Heart illustrates the unexpected places that people go, asking the audience only for empathy.

Murmur of the Heart: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jackson County Jail (1976)

          Thanks to credible characterizations and solid acting, Jackson County Jail is a cut above the usual drive-in sludge from the Roger Corman assembly line. Whereas myriad similar films from Corman’s ’70s companies use the women-in-prison angle as an excuse for cartoonish titillation, Jackson County Jail is played totally straight, emphasizing the horror of abuse and the tragedy of lives squandered on criminality. Calling Jackson County Jail a real movie might be stretching things, since the picture is a sensationalistic compendium of violent vignettes, but it’s a drive-in flick that a thinking viewer can watch without feeling totally ashamed afterward. Among other things, the movie features Tommy Lee Jones in one of his first big roles, and he elevates every scene in which he appears.
          Continuing his practice of providing juicy starring roles to onetime leading ladies whose careers had lost momentum, Corman cast delicate beauty Yvette Mimieux to strong effect in Jackson County Jail. Playing a confident professional woman whose sheltered life experience mostly comprises time spent in Los Angeles and New York, Mimieux seems appropriately out of place once her character falls into a web of crooked redneck cops and noble hillbilly thieves. Specifically, Dinah (Mimieux) leaves LA after discovering that her longtime boyfriend is unfaithful. Somewhere in the boonies, Dinah foolishly picks up two hitchhikers, who steal her car and possessions—including her ID—at gunpoint. Next, a local sheriff (Severn Darden) places her in jail for vagrancy. When the sheriff leaves the police station for the evening, night deputy Lyle (William Molloy) rapes Dinah, but during the assault she shoves him against cell bars, delivering a fatal head injury. Then Coley Blake (Jones), the career criminal in the next cell, grabs the inert Lyle’s keys and leads Dinah in a jailbreak. During the ensuing getaway and manhunt, Dinah becomes friends with Coley, learning his cynical perspective on life.
          Written by Donald Stewart, who later worked on fine films including Missing (1982) and the first three Jack Ryan adventures, Jackson County Jail is humane and intelligent, even if the story occasionally lapses into trite car chases and gunfights. The movie also benefits from stalwart turns by supporting players Robert Carradine, Howard Hesseman, Nan Martin, Betty Thomas, and Mary Woronov. And on some level, the horrors of this movie’s vivid rape scene provide balance for the innumerable Corman productions in which sexual assault is irresponsibly presented as erotica.

Jackson County Jail: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Watched! (1974)

Every cinefile has endured the dispiriting experience of realizing that an obscure but promising-sounding film actually deserves its outsider status. Case in point: Watched!, a paranoid drug film starring Stacy Keach. Seeing as how Keach was not only one of the most vibrant actors of the ’70s but also, sadly, a real-life drug addict before he ended his relationship with cocaine, the synchronicity between actor and subject matter would seem ideal. Yet writer/director John Parsons squandered the opportunity, because Watched! is amateurish, boring, and opaque. Keach stars as Mike Mandell, a California assistant district attorney celebrated for putting drug dealers in jail—at least until he becomes a drug addict himself. The movie toggles between scenes of straight Mike, a hardass in a suit who shows criminals no mercy, and user Mike, an alternately wild- and vacant-eyed waste case who spends his time trying to score with women whenever he’s not trying to score dope. Interspersed between these elements, naturally, are weird dream sequences. Although the lead character was apparently based on a real attorney who fell into an abyss of drug use, Parsons can’t figure out how to put across the story. The opening titles situate onscreen events “sometime in 1980,” which was six years in the future at the time Watched! was made. Huh? Furthermore, Parsons dives right into cutting between different phases of Mike’s life, without giving audiences the benefit of anything to orient them. Worst of all, Parsons employs a cheesy cinema-verité technique of displaying “surveillance footage” recorded by authorities. This translates to flat scenes of Keach delivering aimless monologues in tight closeups. One of Keach’s great gifts is intense focus, so asking him to loiter in static frames while spewing reams of drab dialogue wastes his talent. Harris Yulin costars as a cop who first works with Mike and later works against Mike, though his scenes are as lifeless as everything else in Watched! In fact, “watched” is the last thing this ponderous movie should be.

Watched!: LAME

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stay As You Are (1978)

          Were this film stripped of its trappings as a European art piece, it would stand revealed as the salacious story of a middle-aged man who cheats on his wife with a troubled young woman, even though circumstantial evidence suggests he might be the young woman’s father. Yes, Stay As You Are tackles the serious issues of adultery, betrayal, and incest by way of a glossy presentation that extensively showcases costar Nastassja Kinski sans clothing. Stay As You Are is a fairly credible movie, inasmuch as the philandering protagonist experiences an existential crisis, so it’s not as if the filmmakers pat him on the back for sleeping with his maybe-daughter. Still, despite a romantic score by Ennio Morricone and a jaunty performance by leading man Marcello Mastraoianni, Kinski’s formidable sexual power is the focus. She’s mesmerizing whenever she’s onscreen, whether dressed or not, even though her performance is tentative.
          Cowritten and directed by Alberto Lattuada, Stay As You Are stars Mastroianni as Giulio, an Italian architect who meets a schoolgirl named Francesca (Kinski) while traveling on business. Despite learning that he knew Francesca’s late mother and therefore might be her biological father, Giulio hides his suspicions from the young woman even as she flirts with him—and even as he (weakly) resists his lust for her. After the movie’s turgid middle passage, during which Giulio faces various family issues (“A frigid wife, a whoring husband, a pregnant daughter, and now an abortion for the grand finale!”), Giulio succumbs to temptation by taking Francesca to a hotel in Madrid for sex—lots and lots of sex. Francesca turns out to be a piece of work, at one point serving Giulio a cup filled with her own urine, and the story eventually moves in a bittersweet direction.
          Beyond its questionable psychosexual content, Stay As You Are has a few genuine cinematic virtues. The naturalistic cinematography by José Luis Alcaine is quite beautiful (some shots of Kinski, her long hair illuminated by the sun, are breathtaking), and Lattuada generates rich atmosphere with scenes of the artist-refuge neighborhood where Kinski’s character lives with an equally nubile roommate, who also, inexplicably, tries to seduce Mastraoinnani’s character. (The degree of male wish-fulfillment on display here is extraordinary.) In the end, Stay As You Are is probably half legitimate drama and half sex fantasy, which means it’s neither disposable softcore nor a truly lofty rumination on desire. It’s a grown-up movie that most viewers will seek out only for the purpose of reveling in Kinski’s beauty. (Available from www.CultEpics.com)

Stay as You Are: FUNKY

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pipe Dreams (1976)

          A bland soap opera that’s only of interest because it features the acting debut of Motown singer Gladys Knight, whose performance is inconsistent but occasionally persuasive, Pipe Dreams takes place in Alaska. Knight plays Maria Wilson, a strong-willed woman who travels from Atlanta in order to find her estranged husband, Rob Wilson (Barry Hankerson), a pilot serving the small community revolving around an oil pipeline in the frozen wilderness. Some of the movie is played for light comedy, because Maria bonds with a group of rural eccentrics including a boisterous old preacher and a delusional European who believes he’s descended from royal blood. Yet much of Pipe Dreams is absurdly melodramatic, with one of the subplots involving a long-suffering prostitute driven to suicidal depression after mistreatment by the nasty businessman who runs the pipeline operation. In fact, Pipe Dreams feels more like the pilot for a maudlin TV series than a proper feature, especially since the central love story is such a weak contrivance.
          There’s some novelty to the fact that Hankerson was married to Knight in real life at the time the movie was made; make what you will of the authenticity that Hankerson and Knight bring to scenes in which their characters argue. Nonetheless, the movie’s sexual politics feel downright retrograde, since Knight’s character spends the whole movie trying to win back the affection of a man who abandoned her, began a committed monogamous relationship with another woman, demands a divorce but still expects his orders to be followed, and affectionately calls his estranged wife “bitch.”
          The turgid plot begins with Maria arriving in Alaska, where she was promised a job as a radio operator at the local airport. Upon learning that the job is filled, she effortlessly walks into a high-paying gig as a bartender, and then just as effortlessly walks into friendships with several locals. Yes, this is one of those vapid soaps in which everyone is nice except for the male lead, a dog who needs to learn new tricks, and the villain, an irredeemable user due for a comeuppance. Calling Pipe Dreams shallow would be exaggerating. The movie feels padded, since meandering montages unfurl while Knight sings ballads and funk numbers on the soundtrack, and the myriad scenes of Hankerson and Knight bickering are repetitive. Still, Pipe Dreams is fairly inoffensive as flaccid ’70s dramas go, because the main narrative theme—however clumsily presented—is that a woman of true character can achieve anything she sets out to accomplish.

Pipe Dreams: FUNKY

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Underground (1976)

          As the militant branch of Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground was among the most controversial groups to emerge from the American political unrest of the late ’60s and early ’70s. To protest the Vietnam War and other issues, the Weathermen (as they were known colloquially) employed such dangerous tactics as bombing government facilities. By the mid-’70s, the core Weathermen were fugitives from justice. All of this explains why the Weathermen documentary Underground is an interesting historical artifact, even though it’s quite sketchy as a piece of cinema. Co-directed by Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler—all deeply committed to progressive causes—the picture essentially comprises one long rap session with a group of Weathermen. The radicals are partially obscured from view, appearing in silhouette or sitting with their backs to the camera, and so on.
          Accordingly, this is a talking-head doc without any talking heads, and the archive footage and text graphics that the filmmakers use to spruce up certain scenes are not enough to keep the film visually compelling. Given these limitations, would the material have been more effective as a book or a magazine article? The question is moot, because Underground is what exists.
          Much of what the radicals describe is fascinating and provocative. William Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dorhn, Jeff Jones and Cathy Wilkerson talk about class warfare, the insidious reach of the military-industrial complex, and the need for revolution to change America’s racist culture. The passion these people have for their mission feels completely real, even if some of their rhetoric sounds naïve. The radicals explain how fear is part of their everyday lives because they’re wanted by the Feds—and yet they claim to accept their daily anxiety because it parallels the fear pervading the underclass they champion. White privilege alert! Beyond aesthetic limitations and some dissonance of perspective, Underground has an intention problem. Because the interviewers are plainly sympathetic with their subjects, the movie isn’t remotely objective, which means it wasn’t designed to change the minds of people who consider the Weathermen criminals. So was the movie actually made as some sort of recruiting tool?
          Seen today, Underground serves a useful purpose as a historical artifact. During the time of its release, the value probably wasn’t so clear, which might be why the FBI subpoenaed the filmmakers, hoping to scare them into revealing the whereabouts of the interviewees. The FBI’s interest raises the most basic question about the Weathermen—were they revolutionaries or terrorists? Hearing the activists lay out their platform lets viewers draw their own conclusions.

Underground: FUNKY

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Big Boss (1971) & Fist of Fury (1972) & The Way of the Dragon (1972)

          Like James Dean, martial artist Bruce Lee casts a long shadow over popular culture despite making precious few films before his death at a young age. Much of his legend stems from Lee's only completed Hollywood movie, Enter the Dragon (1973), which casts the actor as a kung-fu secret agent. The picture hit theaters shortly after Lee died, creating a mythological quality that still endures. Yet Lee, who first gained notice among American audiences by playing a sidekick on the short-lived U.S. superhero show The Green Hornet (1966-1967), actually notched three starring roles in Hong Kong before making Enter the Dragon. Released many times under many titles, these pictures often blend into the overall flow of Lee's filmography, which is further muddied by posthumous releases of partially completed projects as well as various films starring imitators, such as the infamous Bruce Li. While many pictures billed as Bruce Lee movies should be ignored, these three represent the early stages of what should have been a long and glorious screen career.
          The Big Boss, sometimes distributed as Fists of Fury, is generic to the point of tedium until it gains momentum about halfway through. Set in a quasi-rural section of Hong Kong, the picture concerns workers at an ice factory who rebel against their oppressive employers, eventually uncovering a scheme to smuggle heroin out of the factory in ice blocks. Lee plays Cheng, a martial-arts master who has promised never to fight again. Staying with relatives who work in the factory, Cheng watches problems mount without taking action. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense, seeing as how two of Cheng's friends disappear, and seeing as how it's plain that the factory's owner (Ying-Chieh Han) is a vile monster. Once Lee cuts loose, things get fun—he busts out his nunchucks, mows down opponents with his signature cocksure intensity, and, at one point, whomps a villain so hard the man's body propels through a wall, leaving a man-shaped hole in his wake. The Big Boss also benefits from a slick widescreen look, though the inevitable bad dubbing of the film's American-release version makes every character sound as chipper as resident of Mayberry.
          Fist of Fury—also known as The Chinese Connection and not to be confused with The Big Boss' alternate title, Fists of Fury—improves on its predecessor by getting to the ass-kicking stuff faster, though character scenes remain a weakness. Lee plays Chen, former student of a revered teacher at a Hong Kong martial-arts school. Upon returning home for the teacher's funeral, Lee discovers that the teacher was likely murdered by conspirators associated with a competing school. The proprietors of the other school are Japanese, so national prejudice is a major element of the plot. Throughout Fist of Fury, Lee slips more and more comfortably into his ideal persona as a larger-than-life badass, righting wrongs and smiting the intolerant. In one scene, he high-kicks a sign reading "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" into a zillion pieces, and in another scene, he fights his way through an entire school's worth of enemy fighters without suffering an injury. The iconic moment from Fist of Fury is a gorgeous shot in which Lee stands stock still except for his hands, which the camera tracks in slow motion so his hands leave ghost images behind.
          Excepting the aborted Game of Death, which wasn't completed until after Lee died, the actor’s final film prior to Enter the Dragon was The Way of the Dragon, which was re-released, after Lee's blockbuster, with the new title Return of the Dragon. By any name, The Way of the Dragon is mediocre at best. Nonetheless, it's noteworthy as the only movie that Lee wrote and directed, and it contains perhaps the single best fight scene in all of Lee's filmography—an epic smackdown with American martial artist Chuck Norris, set inside the Roman Colosseum. Watching these two titans with very different styles is mesmerizing, because Lee is as fast and graceful as Norris is relentless and thunderous. Getting to that climactic scene requires trudging through lots of nonsense. Lee plays Tang, a Hong Kong martial artist sent to Rome in order to help the lovely Chen (Nora Miao), who owns a Chinese restaurant in the Italian city. Mobsters want to put the restaurant out of business, so Tang trains the wait staff to fight while also battling many adversaries on his own. Early scenes are bogged down in idiotic slapstick, such as a running gag about Tang's overactive excretory functions, and the acting by supporting players is wretched. Nonetheless, the Lee-Norris fight has plenty of wow factor.
          The takeaway from all three pictures is that Lee was ready for bigger things. Invariably, he's the best element of each movie, not just because of his remarkable athleticism but also because of his innate star power. None of his Hong Kong movies is a classic, but Lee himself was.

The Big Boss: FUNKY
Fist of Fury: FUNKY
The Way of the Dragon: FUNKY

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Jailbait Babysitter (1977)

The title of this cheaply made exploitation flick is enough to set expectations appropriately low, and, indeed, the movie provides neither less nor more than the title promises. It’s a crude, dumb picture about a pretty 17-year-old whose conflicted attitudes about sex lead to trouble. Los Angeles teen Vicki (Therese Pare) works as a babysitter for middle-class families, but as soon as her employers leave her alone, she invites her boyfriend, Robert (Roscoe Born), into the employers’ houses for long makeout sessions. Unlike her loose friends, Vicki won’t go all the way, so Robert’s frustrated. One evening, Vicki invites several friends to a house where she’s working, and during the ensuing party, a male friend nearly rapes Vicki. She flees, and the guy pursues her until Vicki runs into the path of a car driven by Lorraine (Lydia Wagner), a grown-up who exits her car and brandishes a gun to make the would-be rapist withdraw. Lorraine takes Vicki home, offering the young woman a place to stay until she gets her head together. One day, Lorraine leaves Vicki car keys and money, so Vicki hits the town trying to act as sophisticated as her patron, with disastrous results culminating in a close encounter with a pile of animal excrement. Then Vicki discovers Lorraine is a hooker, which leads to the following priceless dialogue from Lorraine: “No way was I training you to be a hooker—but I can teach you how to watch out for dog shit!” That line paints a clear picture of where this picture’s at—Jailbait Babysitter is like a strange hybrid of an Afterschool Special and a skin flick. It’s also extremely boring, with terrible actors playing trite scenes against a backdrop of bargain-basement production values. The smut factor is fairly low, mostly comprising topless scenes, so Jailbait Babysitter manages to simultaneously fail as erotica and melodrama. It’s not the most shameful movie of its type, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Jailbait Babysitter: LAME

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kenny & Company (1976)

          Capturing the wonderment of childhood without slipping into sentimentality is tricky, and that’s just what producer/writer/director Don Coscarelli achieves with Kenny & Company, the first movie that he directed alone. Depicting the adventures of an average 12-year-old kid living in the suburbs of southern California, the movie takes a warm look at everything from bullies to first love to Halloween to mortality. In many ways, it’s a typical coming-of-age comedy, and yet there’s something endearingly authentic about the picture’s specifics. Featuring kids’-eye-view narration, the scrappy little movie emphasizes the people, places, and things that affect the worldview of film’s young protagonist. For viewers who were kids in the ’70s, Kenny & Company offers a blast of pure nostalgia to the fleeting period in life when days seemed to stretch out forever.
          The episodic storyline takes place in the fall, when Kenny (Dan McCann) and his misfit buddies anxiously await Halloween. Most of the time, Kenny explores the world alongside his best friend, Doug (A. Michael Baldwin), though the duo somehow inherited a clumsy nerd named Sherman (Jeff Roth) as a perpetual tag-along. The boys do foolish things like planting cherry bombs under trashcans and sitting atop the trashcans so the resulting explosions will launch them into the air. They also endure the practical jokes of Doug’s father (Ralph Richmond), a Secret Service agent who finds it hilarious to lock up kids with his handcuffs and then pretend he’s lost the keys. Kenny tries to work up the nerve to ask out his pretty classmate, even as he clashes with a bully who demands protection money. The real world isn’t kept totally at bay; hearing that an aging neighbor is approaching death and then learning that his beloved dog is terminally ill forces Kenny to wrestle with existential questions.
          Although Kenny & Company is not the slickest of movies, the piece works overall. Coscarelli keeps his kid actors from playing cute, and he kicks the movie into overdrive during the climactic Halloween sequence, which unfolds like a surreal horror movie. (Not coincidentally, Coscarelli has spent most of his subsequent career making surreal horror movies, including the Phantasm series.) Best of all, Coscarelli gets Kenny’s attitude just right, encapsulating the hopefulness of youth and shooting it through the prism of the southern California sunshine. As Kenny says in a typical line of voiceover, “What if she likes me? Boy, that’d be bitchin’. Goin’ steady with Marcy would be great!” Seeing as how Kenny & Company features of a scene of Doug’s father unloading his .45 and handing the gun to a group of kids as a plaything, this movie’s all about reveling in a time that was bereft of the everyday anxieties we take for granted today.

Kenny & Company: GROOVY

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Seven Minutes (1971)

          For skin-flick maven Russ Meyer, making Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) at Twentieth Century-Fox was a singular moment—with all the resources of a major studio at his disposal, he got to indulge his fancies for gonzo editing, in-your-face imagery, outrageous sex scenes, and voluptuous women like never before. For his follow-up, however, Meyer had to keep it in his pants, metaphorically speaking. Although The Seven Minutes tells a story that’s all about sex, the presentation is decidedly chaste. And while Meyer’s films are often hard to follow given his fragmented narrative approach, The Seven Minutes is downright murky—adapted from a novel by Irving Wallace, the picture throws so many characters and plot twists at the audience that it’s challenging to track what’s happening until the extended courtroom sequence that serves as the film’s climax. And even then, one-dimensional characterizations and wooden performances render the people in the movie nearly interchangeable.
          The film’s main thrust, exploring how communities define pornography, should have been a natural fit for Meyer, but it turns out the filmmaker was more skilled at creating actual smut than generating cerebral melodrama about smut. Without getting into the tiresome specifics, the story revolves around a novel called The Seven Minutes, written by a mysterious author named J.J. Jadway. Once banned, the sexually graphic book is reprinted by an enterprising publisher, which leads to the arrest of a California bookseller. Then a disturbed young man commits a rape, and investigators suspect he was driven into a sexual frenzy by reading The Seven Minutes. Politicians pounce on the situation for opportunistic reasons. Eventually, an intrepid attorney scours the globe for clues about Jadway in order to exonerate the book and to strike a blow against censorship.
          Thanks to the weird combination of lifeless acting and lurid subject matter, The Seven Minutes feels like a sexed-up episode of Dragnet. People deliver speeches instead of dialogue, and nearly every “mainstream” character is presented as a grotesque. Therefore, whenever Meyer lets his freak flag fly—for instance, intercutting a sexual assault with a Wolfman Jack radio performance—it feels like part of some other, transgressive movie accidentally got mixed in with the straight stuff. The mostly undistinguished cast includes aging movie queen Yvonne De Carlo and then-unknown Tom Selleck, as well as Meyer regulars including Charles Napier and Edy Williams. All of them seem adrift, because The Seven Minutes is neither sufficiently disciplined to work as a proper drama nor sufficiently wild to qualify as a counterculture statement. After The Seven Minutes crashed and burned, Meyer wisely returned to the realm of independently made skin flicks.

The Seven Minutes: LAME

Monday, June 15, 2015

Yessongs (1975)

          Considering the group's stature as one of the quintessential progressive-rock bands, charting new terrain in terms of complex melodies and wild song structures, the first concert movie featuring Yes is surprisingly conventional. Despite opening with trippy images by painter Roger Dean, who illustrated many of the group's classic album covers, and notwithstanding a few tricked-up sequences during which abstract slow-motion images lend a dreamlike quality, Yessongs is a straightforward document of the band in concert, recorded with unimaginative camerawork and woven together with ordinary editing techniques. Truly experimental visual artifacts from the band wouldn't emerge until later in Yes' run, particularly during the '80s, when the band embraced music-video stylization at the same time the Yes sound evolved to include drum machines and other New Wave-era affectations. Nonetheless, Yessongs is useful as an artifact of the group's breakthrough period, since the movie was filmed during a 1972 tour supporting the enduring album Close to the Edge.
          Yessongs—not to be confused with the live album of the same name, which contains slightly different content—captures everything from the ridiculous (keyboardist Rick Wakeman's sparkly cape) to the sublime (Jon Anderson's impossibly high elfin vocals). Another factor in the movie's favor is brevity, since Yessongs is only 76 minutes long. The picture never has time to wear out its welcome. Yessongs has a short track listing, because, as per the prog-rock norm, most songs are suites comprising several tunes mashed together; additionally, both Wakeman and wizardly guitarist Steve Howe perform extended solos. The highlights, predictably, are hits—“I’ve Seen All Good People," "Roundabout," "Your Move," "Yours Is No Disgrace." Each song explodes with creativity, intricacy, and power, showcasing the band's meticulous playing as well as its ability to generate pounding rock grooves. Even heard through the tinny sound of the movie's slipshod mix, strong material resounds.
          That said, whenever the filmmakers try to emulate the sensory attack of, say, Pink Floyd, things get iffy. For instance, what's with all the macro closeups of water bubbles superimposed with druggy animation? And for that matter, what's with Wakeman's goofy inclusion of "Jingle Bells" during his keyboard-tower freakout? Maybe it's best to characterize these excesses as the cost of hearing Howe travel up and down the fretboard with quicksilver musicality, or of hearing Anderson hit notes that should exist beyond the auditory range of anything but canines.

Yessongs: FUNKY