Saturday, October 31, 2015

Acapulco Gold (1976)

          A lighthearted crime drama about drug smuggling that takes place in Mexico, Hawaii, and the waters in between, Acapulco Gold is contrived, episodic, and silly, with more than a few moments that defy logic. In short, it’s a bad movie, and no subsequent praise should dispel that impression. However, there’s a certain easygoing energy to the piece thanks to spunky performances and to flourishes that, in a different cinematic context, would be referred to as “whimsical.” While viewers seeking a movie that’s credible or substantial should look elsewhere, those up for 105 minutes of bargain-basement escapism will find Acapulco Gold periodically diverting.
          The singularly atrocious Marjoe Gortner stars as Ralph, an insurance salesman who gets into a hassle while vacationing in Mexico. A nun asks him to hold a piñata, and then cops descend on Ralph because the piñata is full of drugs. He’s imprisoned for holding someone else’s stash, and no one believes he’s innocent. While behind bars, Ralph meets a drunken American sailor named Carl (Robert Lansing), and they become friends. Later, when a wealthy criminal named Morgan (John Harkins) hires Carl to sail Morgan’s boat from Mexico to Hawaii, Carl springs Ralph from jail and hires Ralph as his first mate. Concurrently, several federal agents from the mainland converge on Hawaii because of word about a big impending drug deal. Throw in a beautiful young woman named Sally (Randi Oakes), currently enmeshed with Morgan but open to Ralph’s advances, and you’ve got the set-up for an adventure of sorts.
          Part of what makes Acapulco Gold a hoot to watch is that many scenes transpire without anything actually happening. A good one-tenth of the movie comprises aimless vignettes in which Gortner’s and Lansing’s characters simply hang out in bars or on the deck of Morgan’s boat. Lansing is surprisingly engaging in these scenes, all cynicism and sarcasm, whereas Gortner contributes only his signature vapidity. Among the supporting players, Ed Nelson gives a fun turn as a swaggering D.E.A. agent, Harkins lends snobbish corpulence, and Oakes provides sun-kissed eye candy. There’s also a long helicopter flight past scenic locations in Hawaii, an explosion, and a runaway golf cart. It’s all quite random, but every so often, something colorful happens.

Acapulco Gold: FUNKY

Friday, October 30, 2015

Death Game (1977)

Allegedly based upon real events, this low-rent thriller is part of a cinematic continuum, spanning Play Misty for Me (1971) to Fatal Attraction (1987) and beyond, about the consequences of extramarital affairs with psychotic women. In Death Game, Bay Area businessman George (Seymour Cassel) is home alone one night while his wife and children are away, and answers the doorbell to find two attractive hippie chicks, Agatha (Sondra Locke) and Donna (Colleen Camp), looking helpless and lost. They claim they mistook George’s house for one with a similar address where a party is happening, so he lets the girls inside to use his phone. After some small talk that’s laden with sexual tension, the ladies strip naked and invite George into a threesome. He pays dearly for his dalliance, because the next morning, the girls commence destroying his property and threatening to charge with him rape. Agatha and Donna eventually bludgeon George and bind him. Later still, the odyssey descends into madness and murder. Death Game (sometimes known as The Seducers) could have been a salacious little thriller, but postproduction tinkering diminished whatever virtues director Peter S. Trayor’s raw footage possessed. The film is padded with irritating musical passages, including a headache-inducing opening-credits sequence set to a cloying song about daddy issues, and the nadir of the picture is a long interlude during which music plays over a shot of an overturned ketchup bottle. Seriously. Furthermore, all of Cassel’s dialogue was dubbed by another actor, which exacerbates the flick’s disjointed quality. Worse, the many long scenes of Agatha and Donna rampaging through George’s house are repetitive and shrill. The girls cry, dance, freak out, scream, and smash things, giving the impression that Camp and Locke were encouraged to improvise without much guidance. There’s a certain innate suspense to the premise, and the threesome scene is hot in a sleazy sort of way. Nonetheless, Death Game is choppy, meandering, and unpleasant, wrapping up with a pointless final scene that seems like a parody of ’70s-cinema bummer endings.

Death Game: LAME

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Journey Through Rosebud (1972)

          A well-intentioned meditation on the plight of the modern Native American that can’t quite lock into a storyline worthy of its themes, Journey Through Rosebud scores a few decent emotional hits but fails to make a lasting impression. The title describes a young man’s visit to the South Dakota town of Rosebud, and the lack of a hidden meaning in the title reflects an overall dearth of literary ambition. If the apex of narrative reach is a grand statement, then Journey Through Rosebud is a small assertion at best.
          Fresh-faced Kristoffer Tabori plays Danny, a longhaired draft dodger hitching his way through the American West. One day, he happens upon an Indian reservation, where he befriends bespectacled drunk Frank (Robert Forster). Although Frank is the nominal chief of his tribe simply by dint of heredity, Frank is so consumed with despair and self-loathing that he’s unwilling to comport himself with dignity, much less assume the mantle of leadership. Danny watches various white people abuse, cheat, and humiliate the Native Americans living in Rosebud, so Danny and Frank engage in philosophical discussions about one’s responsibility to combat injustice. Sometimes Frank assumes moral high ground because he performed military service, accepting a burden that young Danny shuns, and sometimes Frank undercuts himself with pathetic episodes of brawling and public drunkenness. Meanwhile, pretty Native American woman Shirley (Victoria Racimo) gets caught in the middle—when the story begins, she’s Frank’s lover, and when the story ends, she’s taken up with Danny. This being a bleeding-heart ’70s drama, everything builds toward a tragic climax that’s meant to be laden with emotion and meaning.
          While director Tom Gries stages scenes with his usual competence, Albert Ruben’s plodding script precludes the creation of genuine cinematic energy. Neither the circumstances nor the stakes of the story are made especially clear, and the character relationships feel writer-convenient. What keeps blood pumping through the movie’s veins are the performances, although even those are underwhelming. Tabori incarnates an acceptable if unimaginative vision of the arrogant youth who talks a good line about questioning authority even though he takes very little action, while Forster captures the dejected quality of his character without fully revealing the warrior that the script implies is buried inside Frank’s soul. So even though Journey Through Rosebud is more restrained than, say, Billy Jack (1971), it is yet another flawed attempt by Hollywood to dramatize the challenging realities of life on the rez circa the volatile American Indian Movement era.

Journey Through Rosebud: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Rockford Files (1974)

          The beloved ’70s detective series The Rockford Files got off to a, well, rocky start, when the show’s first installment, titled “Backlash of the Hunter,” was broadcast as a telefilm several months before weekly episodes began airing. As developed and written by series producers Stephen J. Cannell (later to become the king of the escapist action show) and Roy Huggins (who previously created the series The Fugitive and Maverick), the Rockford Files pilot contains most of the elements that gave the series its laid-back charm. Ex-con Jim Rockford lives in a trailer on the beach in Malibu, soliciting clients through an ad in the phone book. Something of an upbeat cynic, Jim expects the worst from people but hopes for the best. Perfectly capable of holding his own in fights, Jim nonetheless relies on avoidance, deceit, and trickery, since he’d rather do things the easy way. His network includes a crass LAPD detective; a squirrelly career criminal whom Jim met in the slammer; and Jim’s own dad, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford, a beach bum who handles odd jobs while Jim’s in the field. Most important of all, the pilot has James Garner in the leading role. Formerly the star of Higgins’ series Maverick, Garner is perfectly cast as a seen-it-all smartass who endures humiliating setbacks as often as he scores unlikely victories.
          Alas, the pilot movie tells a convoluted, inconsequential, and uninteresting story that’s delivered by way of one-dimensional characters and laborious plotting. The pilot also lacks the avuncular presence of series costar Noah Beery Jr., who played Rocky in the weekly episodes. (The pilot’s Rocky is Robert Donley, a capable actor who cannot match Beery’s avuncular flair.) As for the actual storyline, it’s a whodunit about a hobo killed at an LA beach, and Jim’s client is the hobo’s daughter, Sara (Lindsay Wagner, who later toplined The Bionic Woman). Clues eventually connect the murder to an old crime in Las Vegas, but the actual case is secondary to what the pilot reveals about Jim’s methodology. He cheats during fights. He lies to authorities and informants and suspects. He cuts deals on his day rate because clients are few and far between. “Backlash of the Hunter” is frustratingly uneven, though Garner’s charm and the skill of the supporting cast—which also includes Michael Lerner, Stuart Margolin, Bill Mumy, Joe Santos, Nita Talbot, and the indestructible B-movie icon William Smith—compensate for the iffy narrative. Once The Rockford Files found its groove, the series ran for six seasons, leaving the air in 1980, and then resurfaced between 1994 and 1999 for eight TV movies, all featuring Garner.

The Rockford Files: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nymph (1975)

Before he found his niche making TV shows and family-friendly features, director William Dear worked in exploitation cinema, though he displayed no flair for generating trash. Consider Dear’s wretched debut feature, Nymph, a meandering drama about a young man who ventures into the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in order to collect his father from a hunting trip because of a family emergency. An attractive young woman tags along for the voyage, though she’s hardly the sexpot described in the movie’s title; quite to the contrary, she’s inhibited by ’70s standards, refraining from intimacy until after she spends several days with her respectful would-be paramour. In fact, the only real sex in the movie, despite the come-on moniker, is a rape scene that happens inside the protagonist’s mind. Yet the lack of saucy content is hardly the biggest problem with this ineptly edited picture. Vast stretches of Nymph comprise shots of animals, bridges, cars, forests, trailers—really any old damn thing that captured Dear’s pictorial fancy—juxtaposed with rotten songs and/or voiceover tracks. Maybe 25 percent of the picture includes actual synchronized sound. And except for the bit when the protagonist and his girl run afoul of rednecks, virtually nothing happens. Dear cuts between dull scenes of the young couple chatting as they drive and even duller scenes of the protagonist’s father wandering through the woods, thinking aloud (by way of voiceover) about the elusive 16-point deer he wants to kill. Nymph is a numbingly uninteresting barrage of disassociated vignettes culminating in an ending so cryptic as to be pointless. The fact that Dear was able to build a career from such humble beginnings is remarkable.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Joshua (1976)

Bare-bones storytelling can work wonders in the action genre, because it's exciting to see narratives stripped down to the essentials of characterization, circumstance, and motivation. However, excluding even one of those elements creates insurmountable problems. Sometimes, less is less. That's certainly true of the interminable Western Joshua, a revenge saga starring blaxploitation stalwart Fred Williamson. Eschewing characterization altogether, the movie begins with a group of frontier thugs invading a farmer's homestead, murdering the farmer's black maid, and kidnapping the farmer's sexy mail-order bride (Brenda Venus). Shortly afterward, the maid's adult son, Joshua (Williamson), arrives at the homestead because his tenure as a conscripted soldier in the Civil War has ended. Upon learning what happened, Joshua heads into the wilderness to hunt down the outlaws who killed his mother. Excepting distasteful scenes in which the thugs repeatedly rape the mail-order bride and a bland interlude during which Joshua has an adventure with a woman (Isela Vega) who’s just as circumspect as he is, the preceding description reflects everything that happens in Joshua. Padded with endless riding sequences and set to a plodding, shapeless score that comprises a handful of uninspired cues repeated and repurposed ad nauseam, the movie advances with a herky-jerky rhythm, gaining a modicum of energy whenever gunfire erupts and then slipping back into tedium once the violence ends. Williamson is the only name-brand actor in the picture, but his work is as perfunctory as the contributions of the forgettable supporting cast. Even the film's picturesque Utah locations fail to impress, simply because director Larry Spangler's imagery is so unimaginative.

Joshua: LAME

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Shoot (1976)

          If you’re willing to overlook a completely unbelievable premise, then this tense drama about guns and the men who love them makes for a somewhat exciting viewing experience. The acting is solid, the cinematography and production values are excellent, and the story features a number of peculiar twists, as well as explosive action scenes. However, if you’re the sort of viewer who prefers movies that stem from logical concepts and then proceed along the lines of credible human psychology, then Shoot is not for you. The moment this film reaches what screenwriters refer to as the “inciting incident,” all semblance of reality goes out the window.
          The movie begins with several buddies heading into the wilderness for a hunting trip. Leading the pack is Rex (Cliff Robertson), a tightly wound businessman who formerly served as an officer in the U.S. military. He’s first seen strapping on a pistol like it’s part of his everyday wardrobe, and then cleaning a rifle with stroking movements so gentle and passionate that the visual analogy to masturbation is impossible to miss. Once Rex and his pals reach a deep forest ravine, they encounter another group of hunters—and then, for no discernible reason, one of the hunters from the other group opens fire. Rex and his people retaliate, and Rex kills one of the “enemy soldiers.” The mysterious hunters then withdraw, leaving Rex and his friends alone with their confusion about what the hell just happened. Later scenes compound the bewildering nature of the firefight. Rex and his guys refuse to report the incident. Rex studies newspaper obituaries until he discovers the identity of the man he shot, and then he visits that man’s widow, who spews lots of xenophobic dialogue. Rex has an affair with a friend’s wife, since the filmmakers apparently need us to know that their protagonist is virile in bed as well as on the battlefield. Rex quarrels with his fellow hunters, especially Lou (Ernest Borgnine), about a proper response to the incident. Finally, Rex recruits a private army, complete with automatic weapons and heavy equipment, for a siege on the forest, where he’s sure the “enemy soldiers” await a rematch.
          None of this makes much sense, but Shoot is acted with considerable skill and it’s beautifully photographed by DP Zale Magder, from the artfully composed interior scenes to the pristine visions of snow-covered forests. There’s also an interesting theme buried in the movie, something about the consequences of escalation, although the potency of theme is diminished because of its symbiotic connection to a poorly supported narrative. Still, there’s something about this particular genre—movies derived from Deliverance (1972)—that speaks to issues of male identity and militarism in an endlessly interesting way.

Shoot: FUNKY

Saturday, October 24, 2015

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

          A gonzo gorefest that occasionally achieves mesmerizing levels of awfulness, and yet also generates a mild, slow-burning sort of tension despite its best efforts to operate solely on the level of over-the-top shock value, I Drink Your Blood seems to bear a heavy influence of George Romero’s horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Like that picture, I Drink Your Blood is a low-budget exploitation flick about a plague spreading across the boonies, turning everyday people into monsters. Unlike that picture, I Drink Your Blood is campy and ridiculous, thanks to amateurish direction, inept acting, and rotten dialogue. Also dragging the picture down into the muck is an overreliance on bloodshed and dismemberment, all rendered in full color for the “enjoyment” of the audience. I Drink Your Blood is tacky in the extreme. It is also, however, mildly amusing, though probably not in the manner the filmmakers intended.
          The picture opens with a small group of cultists performing a ritual in the woods at night. Most of the cultists are naked, except for a zaftig young woman who wears a patterned muumuu, and the leader of the cult is Horace Bones (played by one-named Indian actor Bhaskar). Intense and muscular, Horace wears long hair and a headband, making him look as if he hails from the Dakotas instead of Madras, and he spews his lines through a thick accent. “Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid-head—drink from his cup, pledge yourselves, and together we’ll all freak out.” Sadly, the whole movie can’t maintain that level of counterculture excess. The die for the picture is truly cast when two of the cultists break from the ceremony to chase and rape a young woman whom the cultists catch spying on them; immediately afterward, another cultist explains that the young woman was an invited guest, and Horace throws a hissy fit. Does any of this make sense? Of course not.
          And so it goes throughout  I Drink Your Blood. The cultists drive along a country road in their panel van until engine trouble stops them, and then for kicks, they push the van over a cliff into a ravine, even though one member of the cult remains inside the van, napping. Those crazy kids. Later, the cultists invade a small town, claiming an abandoned house as their temporary residence, even though it’s filled with rats. Cue a cheerful “rat hunt” montage, which concludes with a queeny cultist presenting a sword on which he’s skewered several rats so he can cook a shish kabob at that evening’s barbecue.
          But wait, it gets weirder.
          One of the businesses in the small town is Mildred’s Bakery, which specializes in meat pies. Naturally, Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks) is a hot twentysomething. Mildred’s little brother, Pete (Riley Mills), goes out into the woods one night, shoots a rabid dog, returns to the scene later with a giant syringe so he can extract the dog’s blood, and then injects the tainted plasma into meat pies that Mildred sells to the cultists. Faster than you can say “rabid cultists,” the mischievous hippies become foaming-at-the-mouth cannibals. At its apex, I Drink Your Blood depicts the spread of rabies extending to other people in the area, prompting the strange image of several hard-hat-wearing construction workers chasing after victims while wielding machetes. (Machetes?) I Drink Your Blood is gloriously dumb, and the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to violate good taste are so feeble as to almost seem endearing.

I Drink Your Blood: FREAKY

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friends (1971) & Paul and Michelle (1974)

          A teen-romance drama made in England, Friends is perhaps best known for its soundtrack, because Friends was the first movie for which pop star Elton John (and his perennial lyricist, Bernie Taupin) created a song score. The tunes aren’t especially memorable, but the melodic title number has the piano-driven intimacy of John’s early albums. As for the movie, it’s interesting if unremarkable. Directed by the versatile Lewis Gilbert, who also generated the original story, Friends depicts first love as a transformative experience. The young protagonists leave all traces of the adult world’s cynicism and disappointment behind while they create a private universe of companionship, affection, and, eventually, passion. Just as the characters idealize their own lives, Gilbert idealizes the characters, casting attractive young people with marginal acting skills because they make a pretty picture when photographed together. Accordingly, there’s an unavoidable veneer of superficiality to the whole enterprise, as well as a certain leering quality whenever Gilbert lingers on topless shots of his youthful leading lady.
          Set in France, Friends introduces viewers to 14-year-old Michelle Latour (Anicée Alvina) and 15-year-old Paul Harrison (Sean Bury). She’s an innocent dreamer ready for adventure, and he’s the spoiled son of a British businessman. Before long, they become friends and run away together to the French countryside, where they take up housekeeping in a small cottage. Paul gets work so they can pay bills, and the friends become lovers, resulting in a pregnancy. Meanwhile, investigators hired by Paul’s father track down the runaways. That’s about it for the plot, and if it seems as if the story lacks the conflict necessary for dramatic momentum, you’ve guessed correctly. Friends coasts by on glossy surfaces and musical montage sequences and romantic interludes. The movie is pleasant to watch, with a few lyrical passages, but the lack of narrative substance results in tedium, no matter how sweetly John sings on the soundtrack. Still, it’s easy to imagine people succumbing to the film’s slight charms, and Friends notched a Golden Globe nomination in the now-defunct category of Best English-Language Foreign Film.
          Unwilling to leave well enough alone, Gilbert and the original actors reunited for a sequel three years later. Without giving away the ending of the first picture, suffice to say that Michelle and Paul begin the sequel having not seen each other in three years. Despite objections from his father, Paul tracks Michelle down, only to learn that she’s living with a handsome and sensitive American pilot named Gary (Kier Dullea), who is almost 30. Nonetheless, Gary knows all about Paul—in fact, Gary’s helping to raise Paul’s child—so Gary does not object when Michelle says she wants to give her romance with Paul another try. Then it’s back to the same cottage from the first film, at which point Gilbert weaves between flashbacks and new scenes in which Michelle and Paul grapple with grown-up issues of careers, economics, and time management. The sequel has a bit more edge than the first picture, simply because the presence of romantic rivals creates problems, but the limitations of the actors (particularly Alvina) become even more evident the second time around.
          On the plus side, Alvina is lovely to behold in both films, and the respect with which Gilbert treats his characters’ unique relationship guides his storytelling choices, so both pictures are tender and thoughtful. Oddly enough, the ending of Paul and Michelle demands a sequel even more strongly than the ending of Friends did, though a third film never materialized.

Friends: FUNKY
Paul and Michelle: FUNKY

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Incoming Freshmen (1979)

Here’s the sort of thing that passes for humor in the abysmal sexploitation flick Incoming Freshmen, one of many terrible collegiate farces released in the wake of Animal House (1978). In a running gag, enormously fat Professor Bilbo (B.M. Culpepper) becomes flustered while lecturing to classrooms filled with nubile women, because he imagines the ladies standing up, disrobing, and performing sexy antics. Yes, that’s the whole joke—an overweight man’s sexualized imagination triggers leering nudie shots. And that’s probably the high point of the movie, because at least that running gag steams from a clear idea. The rest of the movie is sludge. The main storyline involves small-town girl Jane (Ashley Vaughn) adjusting to life with her promiscuous roommate, Vivian (Leslie Blalock), during their first year of college. Jane is the subject of endless will-she-or-won’t-she dialogue, none of which is interesting. The movie also features a boring subplot about the infidelity of Jane’s boyfriend back home, vignettes of college dudes attempting to sleep with Jane, assorted debauchery and revelry around the campus, and vulgar recurring scenes in which horny guys lose their composure every time they see a woman with a shapely figure. At its worst, Incoming Freshmen cuts abruptly to an “imaginary” shot of a sexy girl slithering out of her halter top, simply because men in the preceding scene ogled her breasts. Incoming Freshmen is like the erotic highlight reel running through an adolescent boy’s mind—free-association objectification. Anyway, just before the movie sputters to a pathetic conclusion, a rock band wearing animal masks performs a song called “Do the Goat” during a party scene. More weirdness of that ilk would have gone a long way toward making Incoming Freshmen palatable.

Incoming Freshmen: SQUARE

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Seduction of Mimi (1972)

          Bold, political, and satirical, the ’70s movies of Italian director Lina Wertmüller can be thrilling from an intellectual perspective, challenging the viewer with philosophical and socioeconomic ideas that are presented with overwhelming passion. When Wertmüller’s stuff clicks, watching her movies is like listening to an inspired orator hold forth on something crucially important. The flip side is that when Wertmüller’s stuff doesn’t click, a screaming headache is never far behind. Take, for example, The Seduction of Mimi, in which nearly every sentence and visual flourish is delivered with either an actual exclamation point or a metaphorical one. Combined with the repulsive behavior patterns of the film’s protagonist, Wertmüller’s histrionic presentation makes The Seduction of Mimi a chore to watch, even though the film is executed with the director’s usual imagination and skill.
          Wertmüller’s go-to leading man, Giancarlo Giannini, stars as Carmelo, a small-town laborer known colloquially by his nickname, “Mimi.” In what Wertmüller presumably envisioned as a major comic flourish, Mimi is asked to vote for a Mafia-backed candidate in a rigged election, but then votes for the candidate he actually wants—a radical Communist—because he was promised the ballots were secret. When the truth comes out, Mimi becomes a target for Mafia reprisal, so he skips town, leaving his wife behind. Relocating to a big city, Mimi falls for a radical activist and visits her day after day until she succumbs to his charms. They move in together and she becomes pregnant, but then Mimi gets word that he must return to his hometown and see his estranged wife. The gist, apparently, is to explore complex intersections of female empowerment, male identity, personal responsibility, and political idealism—because amid all of the political stuff, a major subplot emerges once Mimi discovers that his wife was unfaithful. Never mind the fact that he abandoned her, and never mind the fact that he started a family with another woman. The climax of the picture involves an enraged Mimi trying to murder his wife because of the “shame” she has brought upon him.
          Maybe it’s an Italian thing, and maybe it’s a political thing, but this plot element doesn’t translate well, because Mimi comes across as a Neanderthal with monstrous double standards. As to whether this unpleasant turn diminishes the validity of the film’s political elements, I plead ignorance. It could well be that Wertmüller threaded the narrative needle in some way I’m not sophisticated enough to perceive, forming a sly satire of one political ideology versus another through the prism of male/female friction. All I know is that while I was watching The Seduction of Mimi, I didn’t care that I felt like I was missing something because I wanted the characters to stop screaming at each other. Oh, well. In an unlikely turn of events, this picture was adapted for American audiences, becoming the underwhelming Richard Pryor comedy Which Way Is Up? (1977).

The Seduction of Mimi: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cyclone (1978)

          Mexican B-movie helmer René Cardona Jr. hit some kind of personal-best record when he concocted Cyclone, which mashes together cannibalism, natural disasters, and sharks. Why stop with just one lurid element when three would be better? The funny thing is that while most of Cyclone is inept and schlocky, with poorly dubbed English-language dialogue and nonexistent characterizations, several sequences are genuinely unsettling. By relying on the old Lifeboat device of trapping people aboard a vessel that’s floating in the ocean with no hope of rescue, Cardona evokes feelings of claustrophobia, despair, horror, and paranoia. Alas, like the waves of nausea that afflict some of the characters, these moments of emotional truth pass quickly, allowing the movie to settle back into its rut of sensationalistic drudgery. Notwithstanding the film’s title, Cyclone gets the whole business of a vicious tropical storm over with rather quickly. In the first 10 minutes, viewers are introduced to folks on a fishing vessel, a glass-bottom tourist boat, and a plane. Then comes the storm, which is depicted with bargain-basement FX and grainy stock footage, so by 20 minutes into the 100-minute movie, the cyclone is over.
          After a few twists of fate, all of the survivors end up on the glass-bottom boat, and they endure excruciating hunger until killing and eating the scruffy little dog whom one of the passengers regards as her surrogate child. That sequence is tough to watch. After consuming the dog, it’s a short leap for the survivors to consume human flesh once people on the boat begin dying. Sharks hit the scene a bit later, and rest assured Cardona manufactures a feeding-frenzy sequence that’s just as half-assed as the aquatic horror in his previous opus, Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977). Although the characters in Cyclone are largely interchangeable, some notable actors appear, including Carroll Baker, Arthur Kennedy, and Lionel Stander, as well as Mexploitation fave Hugo Stiglitz. As a final note, Cardona and his team demonstrate their usual penny-pinching approach to musical scoring in Cyclone, because the exact same ominous music cue gets played every 10 minutes or so. In other words, if you watch the movie and feel like you’re stuck on a loop, the repetitive and slow-moving narrative isn’t the only reason why.

Cyclone: FUNKY

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mafu Cage (1978)

          Boundary-pushing ’70s movies went to some highly inappropriate places, from the animated fornication of Fritz the Cat (1972) to the comedic infanticide of Bad (1977) and beyond. In some instances, filmmakers were after shock value, and in others, satire was the intention. Then there are films on the order of The Mafu Cage. Although this batshit-crazy melodrama depicts characters and situations that have no connection to human reality, director Karen Arthur and her collaborators play the material completely straight. In other words, the only thing  weirder that the events portrayed onscreen in The Mafu Cage is the notion that intelligent people thought this story was worth telling.
          Adapted from a play by Eric Wesphal by screenwriter Don Chastain, the movie is primarily set in a sprawling Los Angeles mansion, several interior rooms of which have been filled with plants and tribal art so the rooms resemble a sprawling jungle. The reason? Deranged twentysomething Cissy (Carol Kane) previously lived in Africa with her father. After he died, Cissy moved in with her older sister, a professional astronomer named Ellen (Lee Grant). For reasons that defy understanding, Ellen indulges Cissy’s desire for a simulacrum of her African lifestyle, hence the offbeat décor. Additionally, family friend Zom (Will Geer) regularly acquires primates that Cissy keeps as pets in a large cage. She calls each primate “Mafu,” but she has a nasty habit of beating the animals to death while screaming the phrase “Dumb shit!” over and over again. The drama of the story, such as it is, stems from Ellen’s overdue realization that it’s time to stop acquiring primates. She pays dearly for cutting off her twisted sister’s supply.
          Adding to the peculiarity of the piece are several overt scenes describing the incestuous lesbian relationship between Cissy and Ellen. (Very little sexual activity is shown, but in one scene, Cissy talks about cupping Ellen’s breasts and making Ellen “gush.”) The Mafu Cage also features many extended sequences of Kane behaving like a lunatic. She dances around the house to the beat of recordings featuring tribal drums, mimicking the undulating movements of African rituals. She slathers herself in face paint while eavesdropping on her sister. And she screams. A lot.
          Kane’s performance is a compendium of over-the-top antics, rather than a genuine attempt at rendering the dimensions of a troubled human being. Depending on your personal tolerance, she’s either fascinatingly terrible or painfully atonal. Oddly, the fact that Grant comes across as rational decreases the movie’s efficacy, because it’s impossible to believe that her character would tolerate such volatile life circumstances. And when you throw in the actor best known as Grandpa Walton dancing around the house with Kane while he wears a primitive-looking ape costume—well, let’s just say that the strangeness of The Mafu Cage increases exponentially with each passing scene. So, too, does the ugliness of the movie, because watching the crazed Cissy murder an innocent primate is enough to make any animal-loving viewer feel genuine hostility toward the filmmakers.

The Mafu Cage: FREAKY

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1978)

          An earnest exploration of problems bedeviling America’s inner cities,  A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was adapted from the noted Alice Childress novel of the same name. Put bluntly, the story doesn’t work in terms of cinematic narrative, because Childress, who also wrote the screenplay, failed to define the central focus, thereby falling into the myriad traps of episodic structuring. Is the movie about a young man’s descent into heroin addiction? Is it about that same young man’s fraught relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, a stand-up guy who struggles to break through the protagonist’s youthful arrogance? Or is the story about the difficulties that the protagonist’s mother and teachers face when trying to instill a sense of cultural pride and personal purpose, despite the bleak milieu of life in South Central Los Angeles? The answer to all of these questions is “yes,” and that’s the problem—with rare exceptions, the trick to adapting novels for the screen involves peeling away subplots and themes until only the core story remains, giving filmmakers the tools they need to create onscreen momentum. That didn’t happen here. So, while a great deal of what happens in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich is believable and poignant, the parts never cohere into a potent statement.
          The main character is Benjie (Larry B. Scott), a teenager caught between good and bad influences. On the good side, he’s got his stalwart mother, Sweets (Cicely Tyson); her boyfriend, Butler (Paul Winfield); and an Afrocentric schoolteacher, Nigeria (Glynn Turman), who encourages Benjie’s nascent writing ability. On the bad side are various neighborhood lowlifes, including the dealers who draw Benjie into heroin use. While the scenes of Benjie injecting himself are bracing, they feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the story until the second half of the picture, which focuses on Benjie’s attempt to kick his deadly habit. Similarly, it’s unclear that the movie’s most important relationship is the one between Benje and Butler until very close to the end of the movie, when Winfield’s intense work raises the dramatic quality of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich to a level suiting the seriousness of the subject matter.

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich: FUNKY

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Axe (1974)

Barely qualifying as a feature film given its 65-minute running time, this logic-impaired horror picture was originally titled Lisa, Lisa and then slapped with the lurid moniker Axe during reissues. Rest assured that an axe does indeed get utilized during one of the film’s myriad murder scenes, so at least writer-director Frederick R. Friedel delivers on that level. On other levels, not so much. The behavior of the characters is often nonsensical, and the basic premise—a captive proves more dangerous than her captors—is familiar. Furthermore, even though the tone is consistently menacing and there’s a measure of artistry to some of the editing and photography, the combination of leaden pacing and a somnambulistic leading performance keeps the picture from building a head of steam. Worse, a solid 20 minutes of the very short running time are wasted on drab filler scenes. In any event, the movie opens violently, with a trio of crooks led by the cold-blooded Lomax (Ray Green) beating a man to death and causing the victim’s male lover to jump out a high-rise window rather than face such abuse. To avoid capture, the thugs leave the city for the countryside. Then Friedel cuts to a remote house where young adult Lisa (Leslie Lee) lives with her invalid grandfather. Lisa is a space case who seems to take special pleasure in slaughtering chickens. Therefore, once Lomax and his cronies arrive at Lisa’s house and demand lodging at gunpoint, the audience knows it’s just a matter of time before Lisa gets homicidal. This being a ’70s movie somewhat in the grindhouse mode, naturally the trigger for Lisa’s rampage is an attempted rape, and naturally the scenes depicting Lisa’s murder spree are filled with copious amounts of gore. To his credit, Friedel tries to give his troubled protagonist a few emotional shadings, so at one point she considers attempting suicide rather than inflicting violence on others. However, these weak attempts at narrative flourishes are for naught, because Friedel’s storytelling is as amateurish as the leading lady’s acting.


Friday, October 16, 2015

Kung Fu (1972)

          “I seek not to know the answers,” soft-spoken Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine says at one point, “but to understand the questions.” And that, in a handful of words, captures what made the Western TV series Kung Fu (1972-1975) unique. Superficially, the novelty of the series involved juxtaposing Eastern martial arts with the traditional milieu of the American frontier—and, for that matter, giving Eastern martial arts some of their earliest mainstream exposure in the U.S. On a deeper level, the series was about spirituality, seen through the prism of a soulful young man struggling to reconcile his quest for inner peace with the realities of a violent world. That fascinating paradox infuses the Kung Fu pilot movie, which has aged beautifully. A strong piece of work introducing all of the clever stylistic flourishes of the series while remaining grounded by leading man David Carradine’s compelling performance, Kung Fu works well both as a stand-alone narrative and as a lead-in for the subsequent series.
          As did episodes of the weekly show, Kung Fu cuts back and forth between “present-day” scenes of the American West and flashbacks to China, tracking Caine (Carradine) as he makes his way through the U.S. with only the humble rags he wears and the small pack he carries on his back. In flashbacks, we learn that when he was an orphaned child, Caine won entrance to a Shaolin temple by demonstrating endurance and humility. Trained in martial arts and spirituality, Caine left the temple but soon found trouble—after witnessing the pointless murder of a beloved teacher, Caine responded by killing the Chinese nobleman who was responsible. Fleeing China to avoid execution, Caine travelled to America, where his long-lost brother lives. The contrivance of the series is that while Caine searches for his brother, he happens upon a new group of troubled people every week, helping them with his combat skills and his transcendent worldview even as bounty hunters hired by the Chinese aristocracy try to capture or kill Caine.
          In the pilot movie, Caine finds work on a railroad crew, eventually leading a rebellion against callous white overseers who endanger Chinese laborers in the name of quick profits. As directed by Jerry Thorpe, who later won an Emmy for directing one of the series’ weekly episodes, the Kung Fu pilot is visually impressive. The Western scenes are crowded and dusty, while the flashback scenes to the temple have a magical quality thanks to image-softening lens filters, moody lighting, and the selective use of slow motion. (The abundance of candles within the temple, as well as the gentle flute music on the soundtrack, adds to the soothing effect.) Playing Caine’s principal mentor, the blind Master Po, Keye Luke gives an indelible performance, making the script’s fanciful analogies and aphorisms sound like wisdom for the ages. Radames Pera is equally well cast as Young Caine, capturing the character’s determination and need for connection, and it’s a kick to see David Carradine’s real-life younger half-brother, Keith Carradine, playing Caine as a teenager.
          Not every episode of the ensuing series works as well as this pilot movie, and some of the stylistic flourishes lost their potency through repetition. (Furthermore, the less said about the 1987 TV movie Kung Fu: The Next Generation and the 1993-1997 syndicated series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, both of which are set in the present with David Carradine playing a descendant of his original character, the better.) Nonetheless, the first Kung Fu movie set a high bar in terms of artistic, cultural, and thematic ambition. No surprise, then, that controversy emerged over its authorship—to this day, rumors persist that Bruce Lee generated the idea for the show, although what’s undisputed is merely that Lee was briefly considered for the leading role.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Every ’70s Movie Is Five Years Old!

With more than 1,750 reviews of ’70s movies completed. Every ’70s Movie has reached a milestone with the completion of five years of daily publication. The end of this massive project is visible in the horizon, though there are still years of reviews yet to appear. Since these occasions provide natural opportunities for taking stock, here are some statistics. As of this writing, my best guess is that approximately 2,675 titles meet my criteria for inclusion—American feature films released theatrically in the U.S. between January 1, 1970, and Dec. 31, 1979, with a smattering of key documentaries and foreign films. (Porn is excluded, so I’ll leave the project of reviewing Every ’70s XXX Movie to some other brave soul.) With the addition of TV movies, which enjoyed an apex of popularity and variety during the ’70s, and releases from 1980, many of which were completely or partially produced during the ’70s, my goal is to land somewhere around 3,000 total reviews, and that content ideally will become a book down the road. (Or, more realistically, a mutli-volume book set.) Meantime, there’s work to be done tracking down remaining titles, and I’ve definitely reached a stage where creating this blog involves tangible costs. So, once again, it’s time to ask you, my valued readers, for support. Please cosider donating through the PayPal icon located near the top of the homepage’s right-hand information column. (To those who’ve given generously in the past, thank you again.) Oh, and one last number—the tally of total page views for the site presently stands at an amazing 1.8 million, meaning that a total of 2 million, something I never thought possible, is likely to become a reality before this project is done. Thank you, and keep on keepin’ on!

The Emigrants (1971) & The New Land (1972)

          Screened in tandem, The Emigrants and its sequel, The New Land, comprise nearly seven hours of narrative material, all depicting the travails of a 19th-century Swedish family that relocates from their homeland to Minnesota. Accordingly, the first question that must be asked is whether cowriter/director Jan Troell needed seven hours to communicate the story that he tells across the two pictures. The simple answer to that question is no, but the simple answer is deceptive. It’s inarguable that both The Emigrants and The New Land contain superfluous scenes. Similarly, both films suffer from extraordinary bloat. Important scenes drag on past the point of impact, minor scenes are given too much screen time, and Troell periodically stops the drama cold to linger on an idyllic shot of a stream or a panoramic view of a forest. Both films are so indulgent, from the perspective of content and pacing, that it’s tempting to joke that Troell set out to tell an epic story in real time.
          Yet buried inside the expanse of these movies, and indeed woven into the very fabric of scenes that run longer than they should, is something deeply important—a sense of chronological weight. In telling a story about an era that precedes the fast-paced modern age, Troell found an appropriate style for conveying the drudgery of work, the monumental scope of international travel, and the sheer hardship of survival. Making audiences feel as if they’d been on an exhausting journey wasn’t the only way to explore the themes of the Vilhem Moberg novels upon which the two films are based, but it was an artistically credible way of doing so. No surprise, then, that massive acclaim was showered upon The Emigrants and The New Land both at home in Sweden and internationally.
          The first film introduces viewers to Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max Von Sydow) and his wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), as well as Karl Oskar’s younger brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg). In the broadest strokes, Karl Oskar realizes that he cannot sustain life in Sweden anymore, thanks to a deadly combination of famine, poverty, and religious persecution. With several children in tow, the Nilssons and several of their friends embark on a brutal journey from Sweden to America. By the time Karl Oskar finds what he deems the perfect location for a new homestead in the woods of Minnesota, the first movie is over. The New Land dramatizes the struggles that Karl Oskar, his family, and other Swedes encounter while trying to become successful farmers despite language barriers, limited resources, and the threat of hostile Indians. Much of the second picture is devoted to a harrowing adventure that Robert experiences when he leaves the homestead to seek gold in California.
          Although joyful moments occur periodically, deprivation and tragedy dominate The Emigrants and The New Land. Part history, part soap opera, and part tribute to indomitable settlers, these films are monumental in their dimensions. The stories cover decades, and the entire lives of certain characters are depicted. Troell accentuates subtle tropes, so many scenes feel impressionistic or even surreal, even though the movies address certain topics (especially religion) with detailed dialogue. At their best, these pictures have the sort of immersive realism that later became commonplace in American miniseries derived from literature. The Emigrants and The New Land require tremendous attention, patience, and stamina from viewers, so the movies are not for everyone, especially because the narratives are bleak. By any measure, however, the films represent extraordinary accomplishments.
          The labors of Troell and his collaborators were recognized by entities including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—both movies were nominated as Best Foreign Film in their respective release years, and The Emigrants has the odd distinction of receiving Oscar nominations in two separate years, because when the film was rereleased, it earned a nomination as Best Picture, rare for foreign films in any circumstances. FYI, Hollywood generated a short-lived TV series based on the material. Costarring Kurt Russell, The New Land aired for all of one month in the fall of 1974, flopping so badly that half the produced episodes were shelved.

The Emigrants: GROOVY
The New Land: GROOVY