Monday, November 30, 2015

The Great Balloon Adventure (1978)

          Originally titled Olly, Olly, Oxen Free, this attractively produced children’s film features a prominent supporting performance by Katharine Hepburn and a few passages of visual spectacle, but these elements are not sufficient to overcome the movie’s myriad shortcomings. Chief among the problems plaguing The Great Balloon Adventure is an anemic storyline, because the film’s three protagonists never confront anything resembling dramatic conflict, and they evade dangerous situations without much effort or risk. In lieu of genuinely exciting scenes, director/producer/co-writer Richard A. Colla fills the screen with vignettes that feel like placeholders. For instance, a lengthy scene of characters accidentally lighting fabric on fire is the closest equivalent the movie has to mortal danger, and the interminable soliloquy that Hepburn delivers late in the second act is the closest equivalent the movie has to something personally revelatory.
          In its broadest outlines, the premise of the movie seems like it should have generated colorful escapism bursting with themes of friendship and imagination. After all, the story concerns a young boy who decides to honor his late grandfather by rebuilding the hot-air balloon in which the grandfather once performed stunt shows. The Great Balloon Adventure opens in San Francisco, where preteen Alby (Kevin McKenzie) is obsessed by the memory of his grandfather, who performed under the name “The Great Sandusky.” Together with his pal, Chris (Dennis Dimster), Alby gathers money and tools for rebuilding his grandfather’s balloon. The boys trek to a nearby junk shop and encounter the shop’s eccentric proprietor, Miss Pudd (Hepburn). After briefly rebuffing the boys, she commits wholeheartedly to participating in their plan, providing free labor and material.
          The motivations of the characters are never explained in satisfactory ways, which contributes to the general air of artificiality and lifelessness pervading the project. (Bob Alcivar’s needlessly downbeat musical score doesn’t help.) While Colla’s actual filmmaking is quite slick, with passable special effects, vivid production design, and well-chosen camera angles, the storytelling is as enervated as the story itself. Nothing much happens, the movie unspools as a meditative pace, and the audience is left waiting in vain for the thrilling highlights that should appear but never do. The Great Balloon Adventure runs its course quickly, since the picture is only 92 minutes long, and the climax is visually interesting. Still, it’s hard to imagine young viewers sustaining attention during the talky bits, and it’s hard to imagine even the most devoted Hepburn fans enjoying the drably frivolous scenes involving the children.

The Great Balloon Adventure: FUNKY

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)

          A grim footnote to the epic saga of World War II, the fate of Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik speaks to the deepest questions about the relationship between morality and war. The only American soldier executed for desertion during World War II, and the first such U.S. casualty since the Civil War, Slovik was among thousands of soldiers who rebelled against fulfilling their military obligations while serving in Europe (as Slovik did) or the Pacific. The unique resolution of his case, however, has profound significance. If the purpose of a nation going to war is to protect its citizens, doesn’t killing one of those citizens betray the nation’s common purpose? Yet if soldiers are allowed to flee combat with impunity, how can the armed forces maintain discipline and morale, much less battlefield momentum? And even if generals and government officials seek to reconcile these questions by employing non-lethal forms of punishment for desertion, does the lack of an ultimate deterrent weaken the force of law? Once the complexities of individual personalities are thrown into the mix, the whole question of how to handle such situations becomes an ethical quagmire.
          To its great credit, the acclaimed telefim The Execution of Private Slovik does nothing to simplify these issues. Based upon William Bradford Huie’s book and adapted by writer/producers Richard Levinson and William Link together with cowriter/director Lamont Johnson, The Execution of Private Slovik is slightly more than a straightforward docudrama re-creation of historical events. Starring Martin Sheen at his most soulful, the picture opens with preparations for Slovik’s execution, then flashes back to sketch his life story and early military career before depicting the private’s final hours in meticulous detail. The picture employs a heavy narration track, with some of the voiceover stemming from Slovik’s letters and the rest of the voiceover emerging from supporting characters, each of whom offers a different perspective on the protagonist.
          Eventually, a portrait emerges of an unfortunate young man who spent his youth in and out of trouble, got his life together and settled down with an understanding young woman, and is thunderstruck by a draft notice that he’d been promised would never arrive because of his criminal record. From his earliest days of basic training to his final verbal exchanges with superior officers, Slovik self-identifies as a nervous individual who can’t deal with the stress of combat, but the Army denies his myriad requests to serve in a support function. Slovik eventually forces the Army’s hand by deserting, thereby triggering his arrest and court-martial process. Although viewers know that clouds of doom hang over the entire story, Slovik and the other onscreen characters never believe an actual execution will take place until the very moment it does. In that sense, the movie is about both Slovik and the U.S. military paying terrible costs for commitment to ideals.
          Sheen, who received an Emmy nomination for his work, hits myriad tonalities, from childlike obliviousness to deer-in-the-headlights terror, while Ned Beatty serves as the film’s de facto conscience by playing the military chaplain assigned to comfort both Slovik and the members of the firing squad tasked with killing Slovik. Both actors deliver work that suits the compassion, intelligence, and seriousness of the entire project.

The Execution of Private Slovik: GROOVY

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Petey Wheatstraw (1977)

          Calling the supernatural comedy Petey Wheatstraw the best of Rudy Ray Moore’s ’70s films requires more than a few qualifiers. First, all of Moore’s ’70s movies are terrible, suffering from amateurish production, bad acting, excessive crudeness, and general stupidity. Second, Moore’s appeal lives in his over-the-top vulgarity, and Petey Wheatstraw is comparatively tame. Third, the sole reason why Petey Wheatstraw surpasses other Moore pictures is that Petey Wheatstraw tells a somewhat coherent story in a manner that vaguely resembles conventional entertainment. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this flick is a good entry point for those unfamiliar with Moore’s singular screen presence. A cult-favorite standup whose routine included boasting, rhyming, smut, trash talk, and pimptastic fashion, Moore was an early architect of elements that later embedded themselves into hiphop culture. That’s why his pictures are considered significant touchstones within the blaxploitation genre. In Petey Wheatstraw, Moore stars as a comedian named Petey, who is murdered by a competitor and then approached in the afterlife by Lucipher (G. Tito Shaw) with a proposition. If Petey agrees to marry Lucipher’s ugly daughter, Petey will be resurrected with special powers so he can avenge himself. Hence the film’s unofficial full title, Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-LawAfter accepting Lucipher’s offer, Petey returns to Earth armed with the devil’s enchanted pimp cane and smites various bad guys. Then he decides to renege on his bargain, leading to a showdown with the Lord of the Underworld.
          Every frame of Petey Wheatstraw is ridiculous. During a prologue depicting Petey’s birth, his mother delivers a watermelon before she delivers the baby, who emerges as a five-year-old boy eager to smack everyone in sight. As a teenager, Petey endures abuse from bullies until he encounters an old man who teaches him kung fu. Lucipher entices Petey by providing a harem full of demon women with horns on their heads, all of whom Petey exhausts with his remarkable stamina. And yet the most absurd scene is probably the one that's meant to be tragic—after a little boy is caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting, much wailing and weeping ensues. What the hell does a cheap ploy for audience sympathy have to do with a rhyming super-stud turning Satan into a chump? As with all of Moore’s atrocious movies, it’s best to just go along for the rambunctious ride and marvel at the sheer idiocy onscreen.

Petey Wheatsraw: LAME

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pound (1970)

          Perhaps the best way to wrap one’s mind around the weirdness of Pound is to accept that the counterculture era of the late ’60s and early ’70s was a time of experimentation fueled by sociopolitical dissatisfaction. Seen in that light, the wild central notion of Pound makes a twisted kind of sense—by employing an ethnically diverse group of human actors to portray dogs who occupy a large cage while awaiting adoption or euthanasia, writer-director Robert Downey Sr. makes an oblique statement about the way society discards unwanted citizens. All these characters want is the right to run free—and, of course, to get laid, since Downey devotes a fair amount of screen time to canine carnality. Based on Downey’s 1961 play The Comeuppance, this picture is far too avant-garde and vulgar to “work” in any conventional sense. It’s a hip statement for hip audiences. Considered on its own bizarre and satirical terms, however, the movie has gravitas, integrity, and purpose.
          After a dog is abandoned outside a New York City animal shelter, the matron on duty transports the animal to a large holding pen filled with other canines. Then, with a brisk cut, Downey replaces the dogs with human actors, many of whom have obvious visual signifiers relating to the dogs they represent. Boxer (Stan Gottleib) wears a pugilist’s robe and trunks. Greyound (Antonio Fargas) wears a track suit, since he’s a racing animal. The sole feline in the bunch, Siamese Cat (Ching Yeh), is depicted as an Asian man with a long beard. And so on. Once he establishes the contrivance of humans-as-animals, Downey begins a sort of existential melodrama, with the animals lamenting their certain doom while rhapsodizing about the lives they enjoyed before imprisonment. In a sequence that sympathetic viewers undoubtedly find poignant, a Puppy (played by the director’s five-year-old son, future movie star Robert Downey Jr., in his screen debut) arrives at the pound and is adopted almost immediately because of his cuteness.
          The interplay among the dogs touches on themes pertaining to hippie culture, race relations, and other progressive concerns. There’s also an element of bedroom farce, related to the unlikely presence in the pound of a penguin. (Don’t ask.) Downey hits certain satirical targets more squarely than others, and his penchant for profanity-strewn dialogue gives the film an unhelpful quality of puerility. (The abundance of sex talk, as well as discreetly filmed sex acts, earned the picture an X rating.) Every so often,  Downey’s insouciance gains focus, as in musical montages set to fierce rock tunes featuring with-it lyrics (e.g., “So I went for a bummer in the pound/on the baddest shit I ever found”).
          Yet the whole enterprise is acted and filmed with great precision, so Pound never spirals into random weirdness; quite to the contrary, the film is a textbook example of deliberate weirdness. It is also, allegedly, a comedy, though the combination of grim subject matter and strange presentation will render the experience of Pound quite humorless for some viewers, this one included. A challenge for those who can’t groove with the central joke and presumably a wicked delight for those who can, Pound is arguably Downey’s most audacious movie, though he gained wider attention for the racially themed Putney Swope (1969) and the religiously themed Greaser’s Palace (1972).


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Goin’ Coconuts (1978) & The Great Brain (1978)

          Made to squeeze a few extra bucks from fans who couldn’t get enough of singing siblings Donny and Marie Osmond by watching the devout Mormons’ weekly variety show on TV, Goin’ Coconuts is an anemic comedy/thriller featuring the Osmonds playing themselves. While traveling to Hawaii for a gig, Marie meets a priest who gives her a necklace as a gift, only it turns out the priest is a gangster in disguise, and the necklace is a valuable artifact. Upon arriving in Hawaii, Marie and her brother Donny are chased by various goons who want the necklace, even though it takes the Osmonds some time to figure out why they’ve been targeted. While all of this unfolds, Donny tries to spark romance with a pretty blonde named Tricia (Cystin Sinclaire), whom the audience knows is merely trying to get the necklace, and the Osmonds struggle to fulfill their performance obligations.
          The movie also features interminable scenes of the bumbling crooks seeking to acquire the necklace. The crooks are portrayed by such Hollywood als0-rans as Ted Cassidy (best known as “Lurch” from the ’60s Addams Family series) and Harold Sakata (who played henchman “Odd Job” in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger). Additionally, gifted comic actor Kenneth Mars embarrasses himself by recycling his Nazi accent from The Producers (1967) and his fake-arm shtick from Young Frankenstein (1974) to play one of the villains. Only Herb Edelman, playing the Osmonds’ long-suffering manager, renders a credible comic performance, though he’s stuck with atrocious dialogue. Goin’ Coconuts is shot in the flat style of bad ’70s television, and every punch line is delivered with an eye roll, a wink, or a long pause to accommodate expected laughter. Donny and Marie do little to diminish their reputations as hard-working entertainers, and they grind through musical numbers with their usual all-smiles professionalism. Still, there’s a reason why they failed to expand their reach into movies, and that reason is Goin’ Coconuts.
          The same year that Donny and Marie made their big-screen play, younger brother Jimmy Osmond starred in a movie of his own, The Great Brain. Based on a book by John D. Fitzgerald (actually the first in a long series of novels), The Great Brain is a bargain-basement rip-off of Tom Sawyer, with moon-faced Jimmy Osmond cast as Tom Fitzgerald, a preteen swindler living in a Utah frontier town circa the 1890s. Episodic and flatly directed, the movie slogs through sad and/or whimsical events that teach Tom the error of his self-serving ways. In a typical lighter moment, he concocts an intricate deal to sell the puppies that a friend’s dog is about to deliver and manages to make anyone who questions his motives feel guilty. In a typical heavier sequence, Tom helps a friend find a new purpose in life after the friend loses a leg to a gangrene infection.
          The underlying material is okay, if a bit preachy, but the execution is deadly. The camerawork is dull and mechanical, the performances by child actors range from mediocre to stiff, and Jimmy Osmond lacks any special flair except in one scene when he’s convincingly furious. The main problem, however, is the crushing familiarity of the piece, since every single element—from the cornpone narration to the wild schemes that the lead character invents—borrows from the Mark Twain playbook and pales by comparison with the master’s style. Unsurprisingly, The Great Brain marked the beginning and the end of Jimmy Osmond’s big-screen acting career.

Goin’ Coconuts: LAME
The Great Brain: LAME

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Malicious (1973)

          Over the course of the 98 sexually charged minutes that comprise Malicious (original title: Malizia), Italian actress Laura Antonelli cements her screen persona as a fantasy figure, because every scene shows men fantasizing about her figure. And while the film itself is problematic, Antonelli delivers much more than an erotic charge. She’s believable and likeable and vulnerable, even when the narrative surrounding her seems far-fetched. It’s also worth noting that Antonelli benefits from the artful compositions and lighting of master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who gives Malicious more of an elegant sheen than the lurid narrative deserves.
          After his wife dies, fabric salesman Ignazio (Turi Ferro) discovers that his wife arranged for a housekeeper to take her place. The housekeeper is Angela (Antonelli), a humble and self-sacrificing young woman who seems unaware of her own beauty. Yet Ignazio is highly aware of Angela’s looks, as are Iganzio’s two grown sons, especially teenager Nino (Alessandro Momo). Angela proves herself useful by cooking wonderful meals, helping Ignazio’s youngest son overcome a bedwetting problem, and straightening Ignazio’s household. All the while, Ignazio becomes more and more obsessed with Angela, eventually enlisting the help of a priest to get the church’s blessing for marrying Angela. Concurrently, Nino makes sweetly flirtatious gestures, such as leaving flowers in Angela’s room every morning, until her acknowledgment of his kindness gives him license to act more boldly. He gropes her while other people are in the room, and he starts demanding peeks at Angela’s body. Inexplicably, she’s aroused by his misbehavior. In one scene, she lets Nino peel off her panties while they’re both sitting at the dinner table with the rest of the family (and the aforementioned priest). In another scene, she performs a striptease even though she’s aware that Nino has brought a teenaged friend to join him in watching Angela through a peephole. And so it goes from there.
          The psychology of Malicious gets so twisted that the film makes zero sense except as an exaggerated form of male wish-fulfillment, and in fact, Nino seems a lot more like a dangerous stalker in many scenes than a love-struck admirer. Somehow, Antonelli glides through with her dignity intact, even though most of the movie is set to raunchy music suitable for a dingy burlesque hall, and even though the climactic scene is a chase that would have felt at home inside a horror movie. The kicker, of course, is that Malicious is ostensibly a comedy. If you feel women exist only to serve men, then, yeah, sure, Malicious is a hoot and a half.
          In any event, Malicious elevated Antonelli to the status of a minor international sex symbol, so for the remainder of the ’70s, most of her movies received American releases. In 1979 alone, U.S. audiences got to see the saucy pictures The Divine Nymph (originally released in Italy in 1975), Secret Fantasy (a holdover from 1971), Til Marriage Do Us Part (recycled from 1974), and Wifemistress (previously issued in Europe in 1977), as well as The Innocent, a posh Luchino Visconti drama that originally graced European screens in 1976. Antonelli continued playing sexy roles, amid other acting jobs, until 1991, when drug charges pulled her into a 10-year ordeal of legal battles. She never acted again, and she died in 2015. Ironically, Antonelli’s last film was a reprise of her early conquest: She and fellow castmates reunited for Malizia 2000 (1991), a direct sequel to Malicious.

Malicious: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Fast Charlie . . . The Moonbeam Rider (1979)

          Not many of David Carradine’s projects for penny-pinching producer Roger Corman edge into the realm of credible cinema, but Fast Charlie . . . The Moonbeam Rider, a motorcycle picture set in the 1920s, is highly watchable even though certain elements are undercooked. Rather than displaying his martial-arts acumen or posturing like some tight-lipped tough guy, Carradine gets to demonstrate equal measures of charm and vulnerability as a World War I veteran who exaggerates the scope of his military service while swindling friends and strangers alike until the love of a stalwart woman instills him with a newfound sense of pride. The character arc is predictable, and so is the outcome of the cross-country road race that gives the story its structure. Nonetheless, the film’s creative team—which includes reliably unpretentious B-movie director Steve Carver and story co-author Ed Spielman, who helped create Carradine’s famous TV series Kung Fu—keeps things lively with an eventful narrative and flashes of colorful dialogue. Although the picture slips into dull ruts now and then, particularly during racing scenes in which it’s hard to tell one dust-covered motorcyclist from another, the movie’s best moments have style and swing.
          Carradine plays Charlie Swattle, a con man who recruits guys from his old U.S. Army motorcycle-courier unit to serve as a pit crew for the impending race, which begins in St. Louis and terminates in San Francisco. Complicating matters is the fact that Charlie abandoned his unit during combat, so most of his former friends now hate Charlie. He sways them with promises that he’s changed. Also falling under silver-tongued Charlie’s spell is Grace (Brenda Vaccaro), a waitress who tags along with Charlie ostensibly because he owes her money. None of this material is particularly fresh, and neither is the subplot about the avaricious motorcycle entrepreneur who considers Charlie a threat. Yet the undemanding fun of a picture like this one involves watching archetypal characters dance to familiar rhythms. Carradine’s character escapes deadly traps while pulling scams and telling lies, Vaccaro’s character pushes him to ask more of himself, and the war buddies played by L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong threaten Charlie with violence if he disappoints them again—you get the idea. Fast Charlie . . . The Moonbeam Rider isn’t drive-in trash, since the film’s PG rating precludes sex and vulgarity, so it’s better to describe the flick as drive-in comfort food.

Fast Charlie . . . The Moonbeam Rider: FUNKY

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Mind Snatchers (1972)

          Prior to achieving stardom with The Deer Hunter (1978), Christopher Walken played his first leading film role in this peculiar sci-fi drama based upon Dennis Reardon’s play The Happiness Cage. (The film is sometimes exhibited under the same title as the play.) While The Mind Snatchers is a frustrating piece of work thanks to half-baked ideas and a meandering narrative, it’s fascinating to watch Walken’s acting because he does not employ the affectations that later defined his screen persona. Bereft of his stop-and-start vocal rhythm and sudden gestures, Walken delivers a powerfully unadorned performance—even though, ironically enough, he portrays a character whom others perceive as being mentally unbalanced.
          Set in West Germany, the picture introduces U.S. Army Private James H. Reese (Walken) as a volatile troublemaker. He gets into fights with fellow soldiers, partygoers, and even his long-suffering European girlfriend. After Reese is brought to the attention of Dr. Frederick (Joss Ackland), the psychiatrist behind a mysterious experiment backed by the Army, Reese is transported to a remote hospital with only two other patients—talkative Southerner Sergeant Buford Miles (Ronny Cox) and a young soldier named Tommy, whose head is bandaged and whose only communication is involuntary screaming. Turns out Dr. Frederick designed an experimental probe that he inserts directly into the brain. The probe connects to antenna protruding through the subject’s skull, and the antenna relates to a switch the subject has at his disposal. Whenever the subject feels angry or depressed, the subject can hit the switch and stimulate a pleasure response. The film’s drama, such as it is, stems from the fact that Dr. Frederick wants only voluntary subjects, so he plays mind games with Buford and Reese in the hopes they will volunteer.
          That’s where the movie veers off-course. Reese comes across as a one-note rebel, patterned too closely after the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Kesey’s book was published in 1962, and Reardon’s play premiered in 1969.) Meanwhile, Buford is a compendium of writer-convenient extremes. The story also includes the dull cliché of a cold-hearted Army general who demands results no matter the human cost. (Old pro Ralph Meeker essays this role in a forgettable performance.) By the time The Mind Snatchers spirals into its highly predictable final act, logic problems have achieved crushing weight, and the repetitive cycles of the storyline have grown tiresome. That said, director Bernard Girard—a veteran of episodic television who made a handful of minor features—films scenes quite well, and Walken and Cox give the best imaginable renditions of poorly conceived characters.

The Mind Snatchers: FUNKY

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Battle of Love’s Return (1971)

Before co-founding the low-budget production/distribution company Troma Entertainment in 1974, Lloyd Kaufman was one of the myriad ambitious young auteurs to hit the cinema scene at the apex of the counterculture period. While many of his peers were eager to make serious pictures about the big sociopolitical issues of the day, Kaufman leaned toward whimsy—as well as a uniquely ramshackle cinematic approach. Then as now, Kaufman is a cheerful hack unwilling to invest the time or money it takes to get things right. Hence Kaufman’s second feature, The Battle of Love’s Return, a strange amalgam of physical comedy, pathos, and social commentary. Kaufman stars as dim-witted New Yorker Abacrombie, a putz who lives in a basement hovel and works for a company run by the loathsome Mr. Crumb (played by the director’s real-life father, New York lawyer Stanley Kaufman). Some of Abacrombie’s adventures lampoon the difficulty that stupid people have when trying to accomplish simple tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning, and some of the character’s exploits stem from misunderstandings. In a typical bit, Abacrombie tries to help an old lady, only to be misperceived as a masher. Abacrombie also gets hit by a car, suffers the scorn of his dream girl (Lynn Lowry), whose character is identified in the credits as “Dream Girl,” and winds up in the military during the picture’s arty finale. For long stretches of the movie, Kaufman lets the camera roll while uninspired actors perform what appear to be improvisatory bits, which compounds the problems of an inherently episodic narrative. So even though The Battle of Love’s Return has a certain grungy integrity, the flick is so amateurish, boring, and pointless that it’s hard to muster praise. Strange as it sounds, The Battle of Love’s Return is a pretentious movie by a deeply unpretentious filmmaker.

The Battle of Love’s Return: LAME

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? (1975)

A dreadful attempt at black comedy in which nearly every joke falls flat, and in which nearly every characterization is predicated upon some irritatingly stupid contrivance or stereotype, I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? was apparently prepared as a starring vehicle for British funnyman Peter Sellers, but it’s not as if the presence of replacement star Bob Dishy is the problem. A reliable comedic player in films, plays, and television who thrived in supporting roles (as subtlety was never his forte), Dishy does everything he can to enliven old-fashioned gags powered by idiotic non sequiturs and laborious wordplay. Dishy plays Jordan Oliver, a cheerfully corrupt businessman who gets fired from his father-in-law’s company for embezzlement. The same day, his wife says she wants a divorce, adding that she plans to leave Jordan with nothing. Jordan responds by taking out a $1 million insurance policy on his wife and conspiring to kill her, which leads to the movie’s main farcical notion—after Jordan hires a hit man, the assassin subcontracts the work, the subcontractor hires someone else, and so on. So when Jordan learns that his insurance policy has been cancelled, he must track down all of the weirdos who have inherited the contract on Jordan’s wife in order to prevent the murder. Although director Steven Hilliard Stern films I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? with his usual polished style, the script is abysmal. (Sample routine: “He practices brain surgery—it affects the brain.” “How can brain surgery affect the brain?” “He practices on his own brain.”) At one point late in this tedious movie, the filmmakers become so desperate to generate gags that they accidentally enter the realm of surrealism. When three characters in enormous fat suits sneak into a weight-loss clinic, they encounter a screaming-queen doctor wearing Kabuki makeup and speaking in a Bela Lugosi accent, who’s assisted by a man cross-dressing in a nurse’s costume. Huh? Adding to the movie’s sins, terrific character actors Severn Darden and Richard Libertini, each of whom plays multiple roles, are utterly wasted.

I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now?: LAME

Friday, November 20, 2015

La Grande Bouffe (1973)

          An exercise in absurdity delivered by way of a narrative that explodes with grotesque excess, La Grande Bouffe tells the strange story of four European men who sequester themselves in a private estate with the goal of eating themselves to death. In lieu of explanations for why the characters want to die, cowriter/director Marco Ferreri explores behavior in loving detail, shooting the picture with the elegantly controlled color schemes and supple photographic textures of an art film while filling his frames with sumptuously designed locations and props. The disconnect between Ferreri’s rarified cinematic style and the low nature of what he films is bewildering, because La Grande Bouffe features epic flatulence, an exploding toilet that covers leading man Marcello Mastroianni with excrement, gruesome images of corpses stored in meat lockers, quasi-explicit sexual encounters, and the unpleasant spectacle of a man suffering a heart attack during a traumatic bowel movement. By comparison, the throwaway scene of the prostitute vomiting because she’s overeaten is tame.
          Although describing the plot of La Grande Bouffe serves little purpose since lots of crucial information is deliberately withheld, Ferreri and cowriter Rafael Azcona offer tantalizing hints about their characters. Mastroianni plays an airline pilot who, in modern parlance, would be described as a sex addict. Does he wish to die before he loses his looks and his virility? Philippe Noiret appears as a judge so incapable of leaving his childhood behind that he lives in his boyhood home under the emasculating supervision of his sexually voracious nanny. Ugo Tagnazzi plays a chef who seems successful and well-adjusted, though he’s an obsessive perfectionist with regard to food preparation. And Michel Piccoli plays a television producer who might or might not be a repressed homosexual, but who definitely has a difficult relationship with his daughter. The filmmakers give each character a hint of hopelessness and suggest that each character has a major unfulfilled wish—Mastroianni’s character restores a glorious old sportscar, Noiret’s character meets a woman he wants to marry, and so on.
          At the risk of a horrible pun, there’s a lot to digest here. There’s also a lot to endure, since most of what happens onscreen during this overlong film is repugnant. Mastroianni’s horny character hires hookers, which leads to exploitive scenes of the fully clothed male actors groping nude female costars and/or slathering the women’s bodies with food. In one of the film’s most intriguing elements, the men befriend a heavyset schoolteacher played by Andréa Ferréol. Initially portrayed as an innocent, the schoolteacher reveals an appetite for debauchery and gluttony commensurate with that of the self-destructive protagonists. The way her character nurtures the four men without judging or even questioning their behavior says something. What exactly that something might be of course remains mysterious, as do so many aspects of La Grande Bouffe. This movie is bizarre, disgusting, and enigmatic, but it’s also inexplicably fascinating, and the fine actors perform their outrageous roles with gusto and sensitivity.

La Grande Bouffe: FREAKY

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Death Journey (1976)

So many bad films are viable contenders for title of The Worst Thing Fred Williamson Ever Made that it’s unnecessary to describe the crime thriller Death Journey as the nadir of the prolific actor/filmmaker’s career. Suffice to say that it’s as awful as anything anyone ever made. Running a scant 74 minutes, telling a clichéd story without any fresh spin, and descending into utter monotony at regular intervals, Death Journey has the sort of script one normally encounters in student films, and the technical polish one normally encounters in bargain-basement porn. Williamson plays Jesse Crowder, a former policeman now working as some sort of generic gun-for-hire in Los Angeles. When the DA’s office in New York realizes that testimony from a former mob accountant is their only hope of getting a conviction against a mob boss, the DA’s office hires Crowder to escort the accountant from LA to New York at a fee of $25,000. Where does the DA’s office get that kind of cash? Never mind. Crowder spends the movie effortlessly defeating the various assassins tasked with killing the accountant, even though he occasionally hits the pause button on his adventures so he can sleep with compliant women. (As always, Williamson devotes much of his cinematic energy to burnishing his tough-stud persona.) Filmed with minimal competence and set to painfully repetitive music, Death Journey grinds along without generating any real excitement or surprise, essentially presenting a cheap facsimile of a thriller. Even the fact that Williamson always seems believable in badass roles is irrelevant, because Williamson spends so much time sleepwalking through pointless scenes with his shirt open that his smugness and vanity are the real stars of this vacuous drivel. FYI, Williamson played Crowder again in three subsequent films: Blind Rage and No Way Back (both of which were released, like Death Journey, in 1976), as well as The Last Fight (1983).

Death Journey: SQUARE

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Night Creature (1978)

A craptastic horror picture that can’t decide whether it's a supernatural epic about a magical feline or a tragedy about an egotistical patriarch who recklessly endangers his family, Night Creature would be utterly unwatchable if not for the presence of top-billed star Donald Pleasance. Many scenes revolve around shots of the offbeat British character actor staring into the camera, his huge eyes bulging with weird intensity, and Night Creature contains one of Pleasance’s signature freakouts, with the actor screaming like he’s receiving transmissions from another universe. Moreover, the execution of Night Creature is so incompetent and the story is so silly that Night Creature is unintentionally hilarious from time to time, even though the movie’s default mode is tedium. Set in Thailand, the flick begins with famous author/hunter Axel MacGregor (Pleasance) participating in a hunt for a deadly black leopard. Yet the leopard proves a formidable adversary, attacking and mauling MacGregor. The hunter then puts a bounty on the animal, so when the leopard is captured, it is delivered to MacGregor’s private island. He releases the cat for a private hunt, seeking to reaffirm his virility by killing the animal on his home turf. Unbeknownst to MacGregor, his two adult daughters choose that very moment to visit MacGregor’s island, so MacGregor soon realizes that he’s put his loved ones in danger. The setup is contrived and ridiculous, but it could have generated a few cheap thrills. Alas, cowriter/director Lee Madden never knows where to put his camera, and he either forgot to shoot important scenes or failed to recognize that transitional moments would be helpful. Even with a heavy narration track leading the way, Night Creature is confusing, especially when Madden creates the impression that there’s a spiritual link between MacGregor and the ferocious jungle cat. And the less said about the romantic triangle between MacGregor’s daughters and their macho guide, the better.

Night Creature: LAME

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)

          The Oscar-winning documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest is a prime example of how artistry and nonfiction storytelling can gracefully coexist. Comprising extraordinary 35mm footage that was captured during a 1970 Japanese expedition and embellished with narration adapted from the journals of the real-life figure after whom the film is named, The Man Who Skied Down Everest explores themes of ambition, challenge, hubris, humility, spirituality, and tragedy. Because almost none of the people depicted onscreen speak English, the sole voice heard throughout most of the film is the narrator who recites translated excerpts from the title character’s journals. This makes The Man Who Skied Down Everest feel like the interior monologue of a bold individual undertaking something that should be impossible. (The narrator is Canadian actor Douglas Rain, best known for another audio-only role: He played HAL 9000 in the 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
          At times, protagonist Yuichiro Miura comes across as a poetic iconoclast determined to chart his own path in a world that steers most people toward conformity. At other times, he seems like a spiritual wanderer questioning why misfortune often strikes the most vulnerable among us. Unquestionably, Miura had a role in guiding how he was portrayed, and producer Budge Crowley (who oversaw the transformation of the raw materials into this elegant film) set out to tell a particular story that requires a particular sort of protagonist. Nonetheless, the sum effect of the picture is quite powerful even if the content was skewed to embellish Miura’s stature as a daredevil with depth.
          The statistics featured in the narration, all of which seem borne out by the accompanying visuals, are staggering. The expedition, which embarked from Katmandu, involved 800 porters carrying 27 tons of gear. It took the group 12 days just to reach the halfway point of their journey, and then Sherpas assumed the responsibility for guiding the way and transporting gear. The last three miles of the trip—a final ascent to the top of the world’s highest mountain—took 40 days because of long rest stops required for acclimation to changes in air quality and temperature. By the final stretch, men carrying approximately 65 pounds of gear apiece traveled through an environment in which the temperature drops 100 degrees at night, and in which the air contains half the oxygen it does at sea level. As Rain says in the narration, “It is almost too much effort to live” near the top of the mountain. Adding to the hardship of the endeavor is a cave-in that kills six Sherpas, and the most contemplative passage of the film concerns Miura asking whether it’s worth continuing a athletic challenge after such a loss of life. “These mountains are beginning to steal my identity,” the narrator remarks, “They tell me how to feel.”
          The climactic ski run, during which Miura wears oxygen gear and uses a parachute to keep from achieving deadly acceleration, is presented by way of a long, unbroken shot, and it’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Less a testament to the power of man and more a somber meditation on man’s struggle to find harmony with his environment, The Man Who Skied Down Everest is so much more than a sports documentary, even though the heart of the film is a remarkable physical achievement.

The Man Who Skied Down Everest: RIGHT ON

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Roommates (1973)

Sexploitation trash that feels like a watered-down version of Russ Meyer’s pervy classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), The Roommates tries to include a little bit of everything—generation-gap drama, hard-punch-line jokes, soap-opera romance, twisted violence, and so on. None of it works. As such, the only viewers likely to genuinely enjoy The Roommates are those who savor gratuitous nudity, since nearly every starlet featured in the cast gets naked at some point. And if there’s an actual plot driving the movie, it’s nearly undetectable, because The Roommates unspools as a series of largely disconnected vignettes, with the only throughline stemming from the housing arrangement that the nubile leading characters have in common. Twentysomethings Beth (Roberta Collins), Brea (Laurie Rose), Carla (Marki Bey), and Heather (Pat Woodell) travel to scenic Lake Arrowhead, California, for a summer-vacation getaway. Once there, the ladies get into mischief. One of them dates a younger boy whom she meets while working as a camp counselor. Another experiences a humiliating one-night-stand with an older guy. Most of them get stalked by a cross-dressing wacko who eventually escalates his torment of Lake Arrowhead denizens from stabbing people to opening fire on a crowd with a rifle. (The shooting scene, which blends homicide with psychosexual elements, is the closest the movie gets to being interesting.) Making the whole enterprise especially distasteful is the way cowriter/director Arthur Marks opens and closes the movie with clunky one-liners, to say nothing of the bumper-sticker politics that permeate the brainless dialogue. If watching pretty young women deliver insipid lines while nonsensical things happen around them is your bag, then The Roommates is for you. Otherwise, steer clear.

The Roommates: LAME

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Little House on the Prairie (1974)

          A precursor to the oppressively wholesome dramatic series of the same name, the telefilm Little House on the Prairie is a solid piece of work considering that principal creative force Michael Landon generated 98 minutes of slick entertainment without employing any real dramatic conflict. Famous for his role as Little Joe Cartwright on the megahit Western series Bonanza (1959-1973), Landon served as coproducer, director, and star for this adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book. The book, second in a long series extrapolated from the author’s childhood adventures, offers a warm autobiographical sketch of the Ingalls family’s relocation from Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie circa the 1860s. As dramatized by Landon, from a script by Blanche Hanalis, Little House on the Prairie is a heartening study in goodness, perseverance, and tolerance.
          Dauntless patriarch Charles Ingalls (Landon) leads his family on a dangerous trek through rough rapids, unforgiving plains, and winter storms until they arrive in open land they believe is available for settlers. Befriending a grizzled but kindly settler named Isaiah Edwards (Victor French), Charles and his wife, Caroline (Karen Grassle), build a small house in which they nurture their children, despite the ever-present threat of hostile Indians and natural disasters. Putting a heavy focus on religious faith, the film depicts the Ingalls clan surmounting the Indian problem quite easily—since it turns out the local natives are friendly people interested only in cultural exchange and the trading of goods—and surviving the potential catastrophe of a brush fire thanks to divine intervention, in the form of a sudden rainstorm. Through it all, Charles teaches lessons while sounding a lot more like a ’70s family therapist than an Old West pioneer. Charles and his relatives talk about their feelings a lot, particularly in scenes between Charles and his daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert), whose character provides the film’s narration. (This device continued during the series, in which the Laura character inherits the nickname “Half-Pint.”)
          Landon’s performance in this movie is charismatic to a fault, since many scenes feel as if they were designed solely to showcase the saintly qualities of the protagonist, and even the moments when Charles displays weakness embellish the hero-worship approach. That said, humanistic values are commendable in any context, and it’s hard to fault the film’s message about the importance of familial loyalty, hard work, and humility. Plus, there’s a lot of narrative business about the ubiquity of dirt on the prairie, and there’s even a running gag about spitting, so the film isn’t totally antiseptic—though it’s close. As to whether the world actually needed 204 episodes and three reunion movies continuing the Ingalls odyssey, well, that’s a discussion for another day.

Little House on the Prairie: FUNKY

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Mad Bomber (1973)

          Bottom-feeding director Bert I. Gordon is best known for his various movies about giant monsters—such as the execrable H.G. Wells adaptation The Food of the Gods (1976)—but he occasionally brought his dubious storytelling skills to bear on more conventional subjects. As the cowriter and director of The Mad Bomber, Gordon explores the dangers of deranged people walking the streets of America’s cities. Suffice to say that Gordon’s engagement with the psychological aspects of the story does not occur on an elevated plane. Quite to the contrary, Gordon presents a trite cause-and-effect explanation for why his bomber is mad, and Gordon’s dramatization of police efforts to capture said bomber imply that Gordon learned everything he knows about investigative procedure from watching bad movies. In fact, everything about The Mad Bomber is so overwhelmingly stupid that the movie passes through the Rubicon of awfulness and enters that special realm of enjoyably terrible cinema. Although The Mad Bomber is quite dull for most of its running time, every scene features a laughably nonsensical action or line or plot development.
          The demented individual referred to in the title is William Dorn, played by leather-faced TV veteran Chuck Connors in an amusingly inept performance. Driven mad by the death of his young daughter, he creates homemade bombs and detonates them at places where he believes his daughter was mistreated. Tasked with capturing the bomber is seasoned cop Lieutenant Geronimo Mitchell (Vince Edwards), a grumpy iconoclast who beats suspects, picks locks, and tampers with evidence. Caught between these two characters is rapist George Fromley (Neville Brand), who saw Dorn at a crime scene and is therefore Mitchell’s best hope for identifying the bomber. As sax-driven funk music better suited to a porno movie grinds on the soundtrack, Mitchell tries to pressure Fromley into testifying even as Dorn stalks the rapist.
          It’s all very bland, predictable, and unbelievable, with Edwards delivering a performance as indifferent as Connors’ is overwrought. On the plus side, Brand is creepy and twitchy as the rapist who also gets kicks by shooting stag reels of his mousy wife. And if nothing else, the rapist character’s final onscreen moment is laugh-out-loud funny because Gordon exhibits marvelously bad taste in the way he juxtaposes sex and violence.

The Mad Bomber: FUNKY