Friday, July 31, 2015

Soul Hustler (1973)

          Sort of an Elmer Gantry for the counterculture era, this brief and fast-moving melodrama concerns a low-rent schemer who stumbles into a lucrative career as a rock-and-roll preacher performing under the name “Matthew, Son of Jesus.” The movie has a high kitsch factor, with 1950s/1960s teen idol Fabian Forte playing the starring role and DJ/actor Casey Kasem in the supporting cast. Yet because writer-director Burt Topper goes balls-out while portraying the lead character’s vices (everything from heroin to hookers), the picture has a pulpy sort of integrity. Superficiality ultimately keeps the piece mired in mediocrity, but Soul Hustler is enjoyable as what could perhaps be termed “thoughtful trash.”
          In the beginning, wandering longhair Matthew Crowe (Forte) bums around the country, bonding with fellow vagabond Brian Spencer (Larry Bishop) even as Matthew cultivates his gifts for bullshit and music. Crashing a tent-revival meeting overseen by middle-aged preacher Evin Calder (Tony Russel), Matthew fleeces the faithful for donations, thereby discovering his destiny. Under Evin’s tutelage, Matthew polishes his act, eventually donning saintly white robes and growing a scruffy beard so he can front a hot band and praise “my father, Jesus Christ.” Offstage, Matthew becomes a diva rock star, demanding private jets and other perks even as he indulges himself with drugs and women. Lurid aspects enter the story when Matthew’s drug use causes recovering addict Brian to relapse, when Matthew clashes over strategy with the avaricious Evin, and when sexy Helena (Nai Bonet) tries to wean Matthew off drugs with the promise of a healthy relationship. High-strung promoter Birnie, played by Kasem with a fierce salt-and-pepper perm, lingers around the periphery of Matthew’s story, booking steadily more important gigs until a climactic concert at the famed Forum in Los Angeles.
           Although none of the original tunes in the movie is especially memorable, some of the music has a tasty fuzzy-guitar Blood Sweat & Tears quality, which suits the milieu and the time; concurrently, Fabian’s obvious comfort onstage sells the illusion of Matthew as a charismatic star. Nonetheless, the filmmaking itself is perfunctory, and the story is predictable even though the rise-fall-rise arc is always somewhat satisfying because it parallels the normal cycles of real rock-star lives. No one should sample Soul Hustler expecting a deep movie full of surprises. Taken for the sensationalized cheapie that it is, however, Soul Hustler is an effective expression of the demons that plague a self-destructive and self-loathing hypocrite.

Soul Hustler: FUNKY

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Bees (1978)

While the most enduring pop-culture artifact stemming from widespread mid-’70s paranoia about killer bees is undoubtedly the recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live depicting the striped insects as Mexican banditos, Hollywood cranked out a few overheated horror pictures on the subject, as well. Disaster-flick titan Irwin Allen was responsible for The Swarm (1978), a big-budget flop starring Michael Caine, and Roger Croman’s low-budget factory New World Pictures was responsible for this dud starring John Saxon. In fact, according to a book about New World, Warner Bros. paid New World to delay the release of The Bees until after The Swarm passed through theaters. In any event, The Bees is just as silly as the Allen production, only without the redeeming values of a kitschy cast and a melodramatic narrative. The Bees opens in Brazil, where crossbred bees attack their keepers at a ranch owned by an international conglomerate. (The murky setup tries to involve both accidental and intentional blending of insect species, resulting in a super-aggressive hybrid.) Soon after the deadly incident in Brazil, a scientist named Sandra Miller (Angel Tompkins) smuggles killer bees into New York, where she reports to John Norman (Saxon), head of a company angling to get a monopoly on the world’s honey supply. Or something. The plot is so stupid and turgid that parsing details isn’t worth the effort, and even trying to watch the movie for the “exciting” scenes is pointless. Once killer bees start rampaging across the United States, director Alfredo Zacarías employs cheap animation to show massive swarms passing landmarks, and he uses grainy stock footage to illustrate the military response. Meanwhile, Saxon gives stilted line readings and John Carradine, in a supporting role, speaks in some amateurish hodgepodge of European accents. The whole pathetic enterprise concludes (spoiler alert!) with the protagonist realizing the bees have learned to communicate, then addressing a general assembly of the UN with this urgent message: “You have to listen to what the bees have to say!” Sadly, just when the movie reaches campy terrain, it ends instead of going full-bore into craziness.

The Bees: LAME

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

El Topo (1970) & The Holy Mountain (1973)

          Although the word “visionary” is often used by lazy critics to describe filmmakers with distinctive visual styles, to my way of thinking, a true cinematic visionary is someone who creates worlds that have never existed before. Based on the evidence of his two most famous films, Chilean provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky meets the criteria, because El Topo and The Holy Mountain explode with images and situations and themes that can’t be found anywhere else. The question, of course, is whether there’s any compelling reason besides curiosity to visit Jodorowsky’s universe.
          With regard to El Topo, it’s easier to answer in the affirmative, because the movie offers a strange theological meditation on familiar gunslinger iconography, blending counterculture-era philosophy with old-fashioned signifiers to create something new. Although El Topo is overwrought and silly and violent and ugly, it’s also inquisitive and passionate—which might explain why the picture was one of the earliest hits on the so-called “midnight movie” circuit. Yet Jodorowsky’s foll0w-up, The Holy Mountain, is too much of a not-so-good thing. Despite containing several mesmerizingly strange scenes, The Holy Mountain is so grotesque and pretentious that its power to shock wanes. After listening to someone scream for a long time, the noise isn’t startling anymore; it’s just irritating. Nonetheless, it’s likely that some fans consider these two movies among the highest accomplishments in cinematic history, because for all of their faults, El Topo and The Holy Mountain are the products of a unique mind.
          The opening scene of El Topo sets the bizarre mood. Black-glad gunfighter El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) rides a horse through a desert, holding an umbrella as his naked preteen son clutches his abdomen. El Topo dismounts, then tells the boy to bury his first toy and a photo of his mother in the sand, symbolically ending his childhood. Next, El Topo encounters a village whose inhabitants have been slaughtered. The streets are red with rivers of blood, and humans and livestock lie everywhere, some with innards sprawling out of massive wounds. Still dragging his naked son everywhere, El Topo vows revenge, then finds and castrates the man responsible for the slaughter; the villain subsequently kills himself rather than face life emasculated.
          Soon El Topo abandons his son (“Destroy me! Depend on no one!”), venturing off with one of the villain’s concubines to battle several of the world’s best fighters, each of whom teaches El Topo a philosophical or religious idea. Jodorowsky stages all of these odd scenes with artistry, composing striking frames and utilizing elaborate design to give each vignette its own outlandish flavor. Concepts flow freely throughout El Topo, at the cost of telling a compelling story. By the time El Topo transitions to a second passage, leaving the gunslinger storyline beside for obtuse material involving deformed people and religious frenzy, the movie has drifted into the ether.
          Still, El Topo is downright grounded compared to The Holy Mountain. The threadbare narrative of The Holy Mountain involves a religious allegory about a thief who resembles Jesus going through phases of spiritual enlightenment, eventually gaining such offbeat followers as a chimpanzee and a prostitute. Those watching The Holy Mountain closely will find ample fodder for interpretation, because Jodorowsky fills the movie with overt allusions to spiritual tenets; accordingly, The Holy Mountain is full to bursting with symbolism. Still, it’s hard to take Jodorowsky entirely seriously as a guru wearing the mask of a storyteller. The scene of the thief raging through a factory that makes Christ statues hammers the false-idols note a bit too obviously. The scene in which frogs race around a miniature castle wearing tiny knight costumes—until unseen incendiary devices cause the frogs to explode in slow-motion gore—feels needlessly cruel.
          And then there’s the sex machine.
          In one sequence, Jodorowsky outdoes himself from a design perspective by revealing an elaborate mechanical device meant to represent human sexual function in an art-installation context. A woman approaches the machine, strips half-naked, picks up a giant phallic object, and jabs the machine’s g-spot until the machine ejaculates a geyser of nasty-looking fluid. And we haven’t even gotten to the scene of the thief/messiah sitting on a glass bowl and filling it with excrement that an alchemist (again played by Jodorowsky) transforms into gold. Or the knife fight between the thief/messiah and a robed holy man in a giant chamber painted to resemble the inside of a rainbow.
          Jodoroskwy reportedly experimented with everything from LSD to mushrooms to sleep deprivation to yoga in order to access the transcendental plane while preparing The Holy Mountain, and it shows. For those who venture headlong into the cerebral wilderness with Jodorowsky, the movie is undoubtedly a bracing experience. For those of us rooted on terra firma, the movie—even more than El Topo—is alternately dull, grotesque, offensive, and ridiculous. Like El Topo, however, The Holy Mountain is never the least bit ordinary.

The Holy Mountain: FREAKY

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Allegro non troppo (1976)

          As did nearly every other cinematic genre, animation ventured into trippy dimensions during the ’60s and ’70s, producing movies that seem somewhat befuddling when viewed outside of their original contexts. The Italian animation/live-action hybrid Allegro non troppo is one such picture. Although made with tremendous craftsmanship and imagination, the picture is a bit of a drug-era relic. Even though it’s self-admittedly styled after the Walt Disney cult classic Fantasia (1940), Allegro non troppo doesn’t have an obvious raison d’etre the way the previous film does. Whereas Fantasia represented Disney’s bold attempt to fuse animation with classical music in order to create a new form of expression, Allegro non troppo is as much of a parody as it is a serious endeavor. That being the case, what are comedy fans to make of long sequences that lack humor, and what are thinking viewers to make of slapstick vignettes? Plus, it’s not as if filmmaker Bruno Bozzetto can claim that his movie is unique, given the Fantasia connection.
          The phantasmagoric picture begins with a black-and-white scene of a presenter/host (Maurizio Michell) introducing a performance by an orchestra conductor (Néstor Garay) and an animator (Maurizio Nichetti). As the conductor leads musicians in recitations of pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and other iconic composers, the animator draws scenes that spring to two-dimensional life. After each animated sequence ends, the movie returns to the black-and-white setting, with the action in the theater eventually becoming silly chaos thanks to the involvement of a pretty cleaning lady (Maurialuisa Giovannini) and, for no particular reason, a dude running around in a cheap gorilla suit.
          Some of the animated sequences are quite beautiful, notably a vision of evolution set to Ravel’s “Boléro” (one of two bits directly modeled after Fantasia). The animation is creative and fluid, with objects morphing into other objects in surprising ways, and the use of shadows to create dimensionality adds nuance. The style of the animated sequences varies wildly, because some scenes are fairly linear and literal, while others are impressionistic and surreal. All in all, it’s not hard to imagine ’70s stoners merrily responding to Allegro non troppo the same way they did to, say, blacklight posters. Nonetheless, by the time the movie concludes with a live-action sequence involving a mummy—during which two flesh-and-blood characters become animated characters before flying away—the inevitable and unanswerable question becomes, “What the hell was that about?” Some wierd ’70s movies are indulgent and some are provocative, but Allegro non troppo is merely whimsical, which means that it’s also disposable, despite being entertaining in fits and starts.

Allegro non troppo: FUNKY

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book of Numbers (1973)

A soufflé that wasn’t kept in the oven long enough to rise, the blaxploitation period drama Book of Numbers suffers from choppy storytelling, erratic acting, and a general lack of narrative focus. The only movie directed by versatile African-American actor Raymond St. Jacques, who plays a supporting role even though he’s billed as the lead, Book of Numbers is a discombobulated movie that appears to have been cobbled together from incomplete principal photography and then infused with lengthy passages of voiceover that explain the plot. Based on a novel by Robert Deane Pharr, the picture is set in Depression-era Arkansas. Fast-talking young hustler Dave (Philip Michael Thomas) and his middle-aged friend, Blueboy (St. Jacques), quit their jobs as waiters in order to become bookies in a small black community. Their encroachment into lucrative terrain angers a white gangster, who sends thugs to harass Dave and Blueboy. Meanwhile, Dave romances pretty Kelly Simms (played by “Band of Gold” singer Freda Payne). Violent confrontations ensue, leading inevitably to tragedy. Even though Book of Numbers is only 81 minutes long, some pointless scenes stretch on to interminable lengths, notably a music-driven church service. St. Jacques the director also squanders St. Jacques the actor, giving all the juiciest material to Thomas, later of Miami Vice fame. Although Thomas attacks his role vigorously, he comes across as more arrogant than empathetic. As such, it’s nearly impossible to care what happens, even on the rare occasions when the story temporarily achieves clarity and momentum. Oh, and word to the wise—the most widely available video master of this movie is ghastly, with atrocious image reproduction and muddy sound. Better presentation would improve the experience, but the catastrophic narrative problems would still be present.

Book of Numbers: LAME

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Pickup on 101 (1972)

          Contrived and hokey, the cross-generational road movie Pickup on 101 depicts the odyssey of three unlikely traveling companions: an elderly hobo, a manipulative musician, and a sexy young woman experimenting with the hippie lifestyle. Beliefs are challenged, relationships are formed, and secrets are revealed as the young people learn about integrity and mortality from their aged friend, and characters spend lots of time accusing each other of wasting their lives. On some level, the picture is respectable inasmuch as it has elements of sociopolitical questioning, with a dash of existentialism. Yet the chaotic tone of the piece—which wobbles between comedy, drama, erotica, and tragedy—reveals that Pickup at 101 is as directionless as its characters. Were it not for the presence of interesting actors in the leading roles, Pickup on 101 would be entirely forgettable.
          Without describing the tiresome circumstances by which the characters converge, suffice to say that the main group comprises Jedediah (Jack Albertson), an old-school vagabond who travels by hitching illegal rides on freight trains; Lester (Martin Sheen), a self-important musician willing to do or say anything in order to get what he wants; and Nicky (Lesley Ann Warren), a beautiful young woman who ditches her uptight boyfriend, Chuck (Michael Ontkean), because he puts down her interest in living on a commune. Jedediah, Lester, and Nicky share misadventures involving an exploding car, hidden cash reserves, hitch-hiking, a night in jail, and plentiful tension emanating from who does and/or doesn’t want to sleep with Nicky. Eventually, the story coalesces into a bittersweet quest, but that doesn’t happen until the last 20 minutes of the picture.
          Despite the skill of the actors involved, a general feeling of artificiality permeates Pickup on 101. For instance, the Nicky character represents the openness and optimism of hippie culture, and yet Warren is largely presented as an ornamental sex object. Similarly, the Lester character seems to represent dilettantes who play the counterculture game for opportunistic reasons, and yet Sheen vents a fair amount of legitimate righteous indignation against The Man. The Jedediah character is the most convincing one in the batch, perhaps because Albertson’s grizzled-wise-man routine is so appealing. Every so often, Pickup on 101 approaches provocative subject matter, as when Nicky contemplates turning tricks in order to survive, but then the movie retracts into blandly schematic storytelling. By the time the film reaches its hard-to-believe sentimental conclusion, the bogus textures of Pickup at 101 have overwhelmed the precious few resonant nuances.

Pickup on 101: FUNKY

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Scalawag (1973)

Choppy, episodic, and saccharine, the family-friendly adventure Scalawag represented an ignominious directorial debut for actor Kirk Douglas. The movie features such maudlin devices as crying children, cutesy musical numbers, sentimental monologues, a talking parrot (voiced by Mel Blanc!), and a weak subplot about a bad man finding redemption by serving as surrogate father to a child. Yet even these offenses would be tolerable if Scalawag was a rip-roaring action picture. It is not. Filmed on an insufficient budget in a singularly unattractive mountain region of Serbia, the movie looks cheap and ugly, a problem exacerbated by Douglas’ dodgy camerawork. Some scenes don’t cut properly, others have such profound screen-direction problems that it’s difficult to parse spatial relationships, and some scenes just look drab. The tone of the piece is just as chaotic. Set around the middle of the 19th century, Scalawag takes place in the deserts of California. Peg (Douglas), a one-legged pirate, leads a rough gang including twins Brimstone and Mudhook (both played by Neville Brand), Fly Speck (Danny DeVito), and Velvet (Don Stroud). Through convoluted circumstances, the pirates join forces with Latin stud Don Aragon (George Eastman), as well as the beautiful Lucy-Ann (Lesley-Anne Down) and her preteen brother, Jamie (Mark Lester). Together, the characters search for gold. Each character is either anonymous or trite, the plotting is amateurish, and the double-crosses and lies that are supposed to generate dramatic conflict instead produce confusion. Douglas is a terrible ham throughout, Stroud is wasted in a nothing role, DeVito plays a cartoonish imbecile, Down is ornamental, and Lester comes across like a lab-generated child-star robot. Plus, why bother to make a pirate picture if nearly all the action takes place on dry land? Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of dumb.

Scalawag: LAME

Friday, July 24, 2015

Snoopy Come Home (1972) & Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977)

          Introduced in 1950, Charles M. Schulz’s newspaper strip Peanuts was a beloved institution by the time the franchise expanded to include animated TV specials in the ’60s. The brand grew further with the release of A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), the first in a series of animated theatrical features that ran in tandem with the ongoing TV specials. The second feature, Snoopy Come Home, is noteworthy in that it forefronts the canine character Snoopy, known to millions as the intelligent and resourceful companion to kindhearted but long-suffering franchise protagonist Charlie Brown. Despite suffering from a questionable musical score—more on that later—Snoopy Come Home epitomizes many of the best qualities in Schulz’s fictional universe.
          Directed by Bill Meléndez, who helmed most of the classics Peanuts specials, Snoopy Come Home begins with vignettes juxtaposing the misadventures of the Peanuts gang with scenes in which Snoopy gets the sense that he’s no longer needed. The beagle is particularly incensed by the intrusion of “No Dogs Allowed” signs throughout his community, provoking Snoopy to whip out his familiar typewriter and pen irate letters to local officials. Later, Snoopy receives word that his former owner, a young girl named Lila, has been hospitalized and wants to see her old pal. Snoopy announces his plans to leave Charlie Brown’s home, which occasions a tear-filled going-away party—easily one of the saddest scenes ever presented in a Peanuts movie or special. Will Snoopy come home? Even if the answer to that question is never in doubt, the movie is full of teachable and tender moments, as well as the gentle humor for which Peanuts is justly famous. In fact, had this storyline been employed for a TV special, Snoopy Come Home could have become a classic. Stretched to feature length, the piece has a hit-and-miss feel.
          For every sweet scene depicting the interaction between Snoopy and humans, there’s a dreary montage set to one of the many songs composed for the film by Richard and Robert Sherman, the songwriting duo famous for Mary Poppins (1964) and other Disney musicals. Gifted as they are at crafting catchy lyrics and melodies, the Shermans often can’t resist maudlin extremes. (Actual lyric: “Happy laughter is contagious!”) There’s a huge gulf between the juvenile quality of the Shermans’ songs and the sophistication of Schulz’s script. (While playing Monopoly, the formidable Lucy Van Pelt proclaims, “I’m going to destroy you economically, Charlie Brown!”) Ultimately, the good stuff in Snoopy Come Home outweighs the dubious stuff, especially because the movie perfectly captures what melancholy feels like.
          The next Peanuts feature, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, lacks the emotional high points of its predecessor. A lighthearted adventure romp filled with character-driven humor, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown features the Peanuts gang attending a summer camp and participating in a lengthy rafting race. Once the race begins, the Peanuts boys occupy one raft, the Peanuts girls pilot another one, a gang of grade-school bullies rides in a third raft, and Snoopy and his avian pal, Woodstock, man the final raft. Once again written by Schulz and directed by Meléndez, the picture has sensitivity and warmth, portraying bullies as losers whose cravenness will ultimately lead to their undoing, and the story is told from a kids’-eye-view perspective. The vignettes with Snoopy sharing wilderness adventures with Woodstock are particularly droll—at one point, Woodstock climbs atop a sleeping, snow-covered Snoopy’s nose and builds a ski resort before Snoopy wakes. Similarly, the running gag about iron-willed Peppermint Patty ruling the Peanuts ladies by faux democracy (“All right, Marcy, time for the secret ballots!”) is quite sly. Yet the storyline is predictable and the villains are simplistic, so even though Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown is slicker, Snoopy Come Home has more impact.
          After the 1980 feature Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!) completed the original Schulz/Meléndez theatrical cycle, the franchise soldiered on with decades of TV specials, and then a brand-new theatrical feature, the CGI-rendered The Peanuts Movie, debuted in 2015.

Snoopy Come Home: GROOVY
Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown: FUNKY

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Images (1972)

          Long on atmosphere but short on logic, Images is the closest thing to a pure horror movie that Robert Altman ever made. Telling the story of a woman who suffers delusions while succumbing to paranoia and other mental problems, the picture feels a bit like the indulgences of someone making their first forays into the world of psychology. The pathology is a bit too tidy, the symbolism is a bit too obvious, and the violent climaxes are a bit too predictable. Nonetheless, the contributions of world-class collaborators compensate for the shortcomings of the script, which Altman wrote, and the piece has a certain lingering power.
          Set in a remote British countryside, the picture opens by introducing viewers to Cathryn (Susannah York), a children’s-book author who spends lonely days inside a sprawling mansion that’s miles away from other houses. Through dreamlike imagery rendered with sly edits and supple camera moves—as well as an elaborate soundtrack comprising atmospheric music, multilayered voice-overs, and otherworldly sound effects—Altman puts across the idea that Cathryn is the victim of her own overactive imagination. She accepts phone calls that may or may not be real, in which strangers and friends suggest that Cathryn’s husband is unfaithful, and she hears noises that may or may not emanate from invaders in her home. Later, when Cathryn’s foul-mouthed and foul-tempered businessman husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), returns home from work, Cathryn embraces him until she hallucinates that he’s actually a different man. The person whom she “sees” is Rene (Marcel Bozzufi), a former lover who died. You get the idea—Images is a tightly contained story about one woman spiraling into madness.
          Altman has great fun with the possibilities created by this set-up, especially when he employs carefully planned editing to generate illusions; in one creepy scene, Cathryn stands on a high hilltop, then looks down into the valley below and sees herself, looking back up to the figure on the hilltop. Trippy! The problem with this sort of story, of course, is that anything can happen and nothing has real consequence. After all, couldn’t the whole movie be a dream? Picture the endless cycle of an Escher print, and you’ve got the vibe.
          Within those parameters, however, Altman and his collaborators do some wonderful things. John Williams, no stranger to composing suspenseful movie scores, gives even the most obtuse scenes real emotional edge, while Stormu Yamashita (credited with creating “sounds”) complements Williams’ melodies with unnerving aural jolts. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, continuing some of the bold visual explorations that he and Altman began with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), employs fluid camera moves and probing zooms to fill the screen with movement, helping Altman achieve an overall sense of disquiet. And while York gives a passionate, uninhibited performance, the title sets expectations appropriately—this one’s more about images than people, because the characters are merely colors on Altman’s palette. Ultimately much more satisfying as an exhibition of film craft than as a simulacrum of storytelling, Images is a beguiling oddity that stands apart from the rest of Altman’s work.

Images: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Save the Children (1973)

          Equally interesting as a compendium of vibrant musical performances and as a record of an ambitious black-pride event, the musical documentary Save the Children was filmed at the 1972 Operation PUSH exposition in Chicago, a massive convention featuring live music, religion, speeches, and a variety of exhibitors promoting black-owned businesses and causes. The event drew a spectacular array of African-American singers, including some of Motown’s biggest stars, and it was overseen by the fiery Rev. Jesse Jackson, several of whose moving sermons are featured in the documentary. Save the Children is quite long for a film of its type, running just over two hours, but the spectrum of music is amazing, and the beauty of the cause energizes every frame, even if some artists, like the Jackson 5, treat their appearances like generic concerts instead of contributions to a social movement.
          Opening and closing with Jesse Jackson, who also appears intermittently throughout, the documentary cycles through more than a dozen musical performances, some of which are shown in their entirety, some of which are truncated, and some of which are intercut with newsreel-type footage showing the realities of everyday African-American life. Many sequences explode with the pure joy of musicality, while others have serious undertones. The movie’s title stems not only from one of Jesse Jackson’s impassioned oratories, and also from the refrain of a poignant song that Marvin Gaye performs onstage.
          Most of the artists appearing in Save the Children are shown at the height of their powers, so Mavis Staples (fronting the Staple Singers) renders vocals so blistering it’s a wonder she makes it off the stage alive, while soul sirens including Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight lay down smooth grooves. Among those making more frivolous contributions are the Chi-Lites, the Jackson 5 (young Michael Jackson leads a medley including “ABC” and “I Want You Back”), the Main Ingredient, and the O’Jays. Cannonball Adderly represents the jazz world, Isaac Hayes provides his signature hot-buttered soul, and the Temptations deliver a thumping run through “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Also present on the stellar roster is the great Bill Withers and a relatively obscure R&B thrush named Zulema, who energizes her number with industrial-strength vocals.
           Yet perhaps the most touching performance comes from Sammy Davis Jr. In remarks prior to his tune, Davis all but asks for permission to perform, as if he realizes that his Rat Pack association separates him from the back-to-basics ethos of the black-pride movement. Subsequently, after performing a hokey but impressive version of “I Gotta Be Me,” Davis weeps onstage, basking in the glory of a massive all-black audience. The years have tarnished Jesse Jackson’s reputation, and the ’70s black-pride movement has evolved and splintered, but it’s worth remembering the PUSH event as a model for blending music with social action.

Save the Children: GROOVY

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sweet Kill (1972)

An embarrassing credit for everyone involved, this sleazy killer-thriller emerged from the bowels of Roger Corman’s ’70s operation, representing all the worst qualities of the Corman brand and none of the best—with the exception of giving a promising filmmaker his first crack at directing. Curtis Hanson, who later graduated to sophisticated dramas and thrillers including L.A. Confidential (1997), displays zero flair while helming the sordid saga of Eddie Collins, a twisted gym teacher who gets off on killing pretty young women and, eventually, sexually violating their corpses. In the fine tradition of low-rent shockers that rip off Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Sweet Kill also introduces a mother fixation, since Eddie’s problems date back to a childhood trauma. In any event, the movie is painfully dull to watch because long stretches of time pass during which nothing happens; worse, even when Hanson unleashes something colorful like the disposal of a body, events unfold in quasi-real time, thereby eliminating momentum and suspense. Plus, naturally, the movie reflects Corman’s tendency to compensate for weak narratives with gratuitious nudity, so nearly every actress who appears in Sweet Kill parades around either topless or fully nude in sequences that are more perfunctory than erotic. (The movie actually climaxes with a sort of greatest-tits montage comprising quick glimpses of all preceding skin scenes.) Adding to the overall awfulness of Sweet Kill—which is occasionally exhibited by the alternate titles The Arousers and A Kiss from Eddie—is the presence of 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter in the leading role. While his willingness to play against type is admirable, he attacks the part with more gusto than skill, resulting in a flat and somewhat inept characterization.

Sweet Kill: LAME

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Moonshine War (1970)

          Among the many reasons why fans of the pithy novelist Elmore Leonard celebrated the wonderful ’90s movies adapted from his books—Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and so on—is the fact that Leonard had been poorly served by Hollywood in previous decades. Consider The Moonshine War, for which Leonard received screen credit as the adapter of his own novel. Whether because of studio interference, weak direction, or other unknown factors, the movie that reached theaters bears little of Leonard’s distinctive stamp. Some of the characterizations are colorful and some of the dialogue is tasty, but otherwise the movie is murky and tepid, unremittingly artificial, and weighed down by colossal miscasting. (Playing the film’s principal Kentucky rednecks are a pair of corn-fed Midwesterners and a pair of urbane New Yorkers.) While The Moonshine War is basically tolerable, not a single frame of the film can be taken seriously.
          Set during Prohibition, the convoluted plot begins with federal agent Frank Long (Patrick McGoohan) arriving in Kentucky to visit an old Army buddy, Son Martin (Alan Alda). Son is a successful moonshiner, and Frank reveals an audacious scheme to extort money from Son in exchange for keeping Son’s operation secret from the government. Son, backed by an army of hillbilly goons including the cheerfully corrupt Sheriff Baylor (Will Geer), refuses Frank’s overture. Then Frank calls in the heavy artillery—a psychotic former dentist named Dr. Taulbee (Richard Widmark), who travels with a trigger-happy sidekick. Frank wages war against Son’s people until tragedies reveal to Frank that he’s gone too far. Directed without any comprehension or flair by journeyman Richard Quine, The Moonshine War is as hard to follow as it is to believe. For the first hour of the movie, it’s unclear whether Frank is the hero or the villain, and because he never clearly articulates his agenda to anyone, it’s hard to shake the sense that maybe he’s running some elaborate sting on behalf of the government. The movie’s buttery-soft Metrocolor look is a problem, too, since bright lighting and eye-popping colors make most of the film’s scenes feel as sprightly as musical numbers. Together, the problems of look and tone make it difficult to discern whether The Moonshine War is supposed to be a comedy or a drama or both.
          Yet it’s bad casting that ultimately dooms The Moonshine War. McGoohan, with his crisp diction and snobbish demeanor, is absurdly out of place in every single scene, to say nothing of the fact that he seems cold and cruel. Alda, such a fine interpreter of the Sensitive American Man, does his best to sell an illusion of illiteracy and primal emotion, but he, too, is not where he belongs. Widmark fares slightly better as a smiling psycho, perhaps because he played versions of the same role for decades, and Geer seems perfectly at home chugging white lightning from Mason jars and spewing down-home aphorisms. It’s also worth noting the random folks who play small roles, including Harry Carey Jr., Teri Garr, Bo Hopkins, John Schuck, Tom Skerritt, and jazz singer Joe Williams.

The Moonshine War: FUNKY

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Steagle (1971)

          Call this one The Secret Life of Walter Shitty. Featuring buttoned-down Richard Benjamin as a self-involved New York City college professor who uses the frightening circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis to travel the country and score with women by assuming various fake and glamorous identities, The Steagle is very much about the imaginary life of the typical American male. Yet while James Thurber’s classic short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” depicts an innately good person who dreams of having heroic qualities that he doesn’t possess in real life, The Steagle depicts an intellectual who realizes that if he lies without conscience to people who are below his mental level, he can get away with nearly anything. There’s a relevant nugget buried inside the story—something about how the Cuban Missile Crisis forces the lead character to acknowledge that his comfortable lifestyle is built upon humiliating compromises—but it’s impossible to root for a prick who exploits tragedy in order to cheat on his long-suffering wife.
          That said, The Steagle has some passages of dry humor, Benjamin is a stone-cold pro at playing repressed urbanites, and the travelogue storyline ensures that the picture is filled with ’70s flavor, albeit mostly of the squaresville variety. So even though The Steagle is maddening in terms of ethics and morality, it’s more or less watchable as brisk escapism. Based on a novel by Irvin Faust, The Steagle is the only Hollywood feature directed by the acclaimed production designer Paul Sylbert, the twin brother of another acclaimed production designer, Richard Sylbert. Both men earned reputations as pithy sophisticates, so it’s possible to see how Paul Sylbert might have envisioned The Steagle as a send-up of American values. Whatever larger vision he had for the piece, unfortunately, didn’t reach the screen. As presented, The Steagle is chilly, episodic, mannered, and occasionally pretentious; in some scenes, it’s even difficult to separate flights of fancy from what’s really happening.
          With all of these major problems compounding the inherent flaw of an unsympathetic protagonist, it’s a wonder The Steagle isn’t an outright disaster. Perhaps Benjamin’s everyman relatability provides the necessary glue, and perhaps Sylbert’s storytelling is slyer than it appears to be at first glance. In any event, The Steagle—the title of which stems from an arcane bit of sports trivia—is part of a long tradition of narratives presenting the heterosexual American male as an embattled creature who needs to fly free every so often in order to retain his sanity. Happily, the caveman mentality that informs The Steagle drifts further into memory with each passing year, which means that movies like The Steagle now serve as a reminder of how ugly the Bad Old Days of sexism actually were.

The Steagle: FUNKY

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Money (1976)

Before he became a revered curator of America’s cinematic memory, creating documentaries and montages such as his beloved sort Precious Images (1986), Chuck Workman made a few images that weren’t so precious. For instance, he wrote and directed this disjointed and frustrating drama/thriller about desperate people, which is often distributed under the title Atlantic City Jackpot. By any title, this picture is a mess, although the basic idea is sound. Roland (Graham Beckel) is a loser who flits around the edges of Atlantic City, piecing together a living with gambling, petty crimes, and scams. Meanwhile, Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) is a successful businessman whose ambition has caused trouble; smothered in debt, Richard floats by on advances from one sketchy deal to the next. Eventually, these characters intersect because Roland’s spaced-out girlfriend, Lucy (Regina Baff), babysits in Richard’s house. One evening while Lucy isn’t paying attention, Roland slips into Richard’s house and kidnaps Richard’s two children. Had the movie started this way and then become an examination of the extremes these two men are willing to chart in the name of self-preservation, The Money could have been interesting. Instead, the kidnapping doesn’t happen until very late in the story, so most of the screen time is consumed by nonsense. In one scene, Roland kneels on the sand beneath the famous Atlantic City boardwalk and watches a bunch of crabs scurry around while an unseen PA blasts carny hollers about a sideshow attraction called “The Ape Lady.” This goes on forever. Edited with an itchy trigger finger by the usually reliable Paul Hirsch, The Money jumps back and forth between flat scenes, trying and failing to create energy through juxtaposition. Yet while the acting and cinematography are passable, the storytelling is pathetic. And don’t be fooled by video packaging emphasizing the participation of Danny DeVito, because the diminutive actor has only one inconsequential scene as a bartender.

The Money: LAME

Friday, July 17, 2015

Welcome to My Nightmare (1976)

          Years of merchandising and reunion tours have kept face-painted rockers Kiss in the public eye, but Gene Simmons and co. weren’t the only ’70s FM-radio favorites to weave elements of classic horror movies into their stage shows. Vincent Damon Furnier, better known by his stage name Alice Cooper, actually preceded Kiss in the practice of blending ballads with bloodshed. Like Kiss, Cooper eventually traded the fake gore for PG-rated thrills, the better to please the young children who became part of his fan base. By the time Cooper released the concert film Welcome to My Nightmare, his antics were about as threatening as the average episode of Scooby-Doo. Nonetheless, Welcome to My Nightmare is fun to watch because it captures Cooper at the apex of his popularity, and because the concert tour that’s documented in this movie was  so ambitious. Dancers! Monsters! Special effects! Vincent Price’s voice on a recording! Most of this stuff is pure camp, of course, but the tunes are fairly strong, and the overall presentation is entertaining.
          A little bit of context is necessary. In the early ’70s, Alice Cooper was the name of both Furnier’s stage persona and the tight rock band he fronted. Alice Cooper, the band, earned fame with attitudinal hits including “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out,” while their stage shows often climaxed with a fake head getting chopped off by a guillotine. In 1975, Cooper went solo and released Welcome to My Nightmare, which features the ballad “Only Women Bleed.” To promote the album, Cooper and choreographer/director David Winters created an elaborate stage show telling the story of the album from start to finish. (In the songs and the show, a young man named Steven becomes trapped in a phantasmagoria of demons, monsters, and spiders.) The team shot the show twice. First, they videotaped the performance on a soundstage, adding even more elaborate costumes and effects and sets, to create the Emmy-winning TV special Alice Cooper: The Nightmare. Then they shot part of the tour, complete with real audiences, to create this feature film. Overkill? Sure, but restraint wasn’t exactly the guiding principle of Cooper’s ’70s career.
          The separation of Cooper from his old backing band means that during many scenes, Cooper is alone onstage except for dancers, resulting in a high kitsch factor. The sequence of Cooper wearing a white tuxedo and a white top hat while high-kicking with dancers wearing skeleton costumes is silly. Yet the lengthy sequence during which two dancers dressed as spiders crawl up and down a giant web while Cooper’s guitarists engage in a shrieking six-string duel is a treat for the ears and the eyes. Cooper runs through the expected hits (“I’m Eighteen,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “School’s Out”), as well as playing all of Welcome to My Nightmare. The material is uneven, and Cooper’s croak of a voice is unremarkable. However, there’s a lot to be said for an artist willing to work this hard in order to keep his audiences amused.
          Today, rock bands seeking to create spectacle have arsenals of digital technology at their command. Back in the day, folks like Alice Cooper and Kiss made their wonderments by hand. Especially since Kiss never made a proper concert movie in the ’70s (a shocking oversight by the entrepreneurial Mr. Simmons), Welcome to My Nightmare might be the best artifact we have from the original, low-tech “shock-rock” era.

Welcome to My Nightmare: FUNKY

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Final Programme (1973)

          Although British production designer-turned-director Robert Fuest won lasting affection from the genre-cinema community by making a pair of stylish and weird Vincent Price thrillers, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1973), the rest of his oeuvre is spotty. For instance, the sci-fi thriller The Final Programme should have been Fuest’s magnum opus, because he served as writer, director, and designer, adapting the bizarre narrative from UK sci-fi scribe Michael Moorcock’s novel of the same name. Alas, the lighthearted eccentricity that makes the Phibes movies so enjoyable works against Fuest here. Although it’s plain the picture was at least partly envisioned as a satire, Fuest’s script is so confusing, overwrought, and silly that it’s hard for viewers to grasp the basic chain of events, much less what any of the strange things happening onscreen are supposed to mean. The Final Programme has a certain gonzo energy, and many scenes explode with dynamism in terms of inventive cinematography and resourceful production design. Yet the sum is less than the parts.
          The story’s unlikely protagonist is Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who behaves and dresses like a spoiled rock star, wearing flamboyant outfits and boozing 24/7. After Jerry’s father dies, Jerry is approached by various parties interested in an experiment that Jerry’s father left unfinished, so Jerry is pressured to surrender microfilm hidden in the family estate. Meanwhile, Jerry has learned from his spiritual advisor (Hugh Griffith) that the world is going to end soon, so Jerry plans to amuse himself by blowing up the family estate with napalm. Hence the peculiar scene of Jerry visiting an arms dealer in a giant room decorated like the inside of a pinball machine and filled with go-go dancers rolling around in massive ball-shaped bubbles. Another random subplot involves Jerry attempting to free his sister (Sarah Douglas) from captivity, because she’s held hostage by a third sibling (Derrik O’Connor), who keeps the sister drugged. This situation occasions a gunfight between Jerry and his brother, during which the combatants use space-age needleguns instead of regular pistols.
          Jerry also becomes involved with a covert organization headed by people including the cannibalistic Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), since the organization needs Jerry’s help for an experiment (or, in the movie’s parlance, “programme”) designed to create a new life form that can replace humankind. And if you’re not already bewildered, there’s also a kicky scene featuring a crazed ex-military officer, Major Wrongway Lindbergh (Sterling Hayden), who sells Jerry an antique plane for the proposed napalm strafing.
          None of this makes sense, and Fuest utterly fails to situate the viewer with a clear understanding of the story’s circumstances. Is this the distant future or the near future or simply an alternate reality? Are Jerry and the other scientists inane or visionary? Is the whole thing a send-up of trippy sci-fi, or a serious speculative story with a whimsical attitude? Best not to worry about such questions. Watched casually, The Final Programme presents a string of distracting vignettes, some of which are funny (e.g., the climactic battle, during which the “hero” pathetically shouts, “Help! I’m losing!”), and some of which are astonishingly stupid (notably the goofy final scene). FYI, The Final Programme was released in the US as The Last Days of Man on Earth, which promises a lot more large-scale excitement than the movie actually delivers.

The Final Programme: FUNKY