Saturday, December 31, 2016

Nightmare in Blood (1978)

          Sometimes a crappy movie hits just enough sweet spots that it gets a pass, at least for viewers who love the specific things featured onscreen. Such is the case for me with Nightmare in Blood, a thoroughly unimpressive attempt at blending horror with pop-culture satire. Employing the familiar device of a real-life vampire masquerading as a fake vampire, the movie has zero big laughs and zero big scares, so it’s a washout in both of the two genres to which it belongs. Having said that, some scenes have a smidgen of eerie suspense, the production values are okay by low-budget standards, and the general shape of the piece is satisfying because a goofy buildup leads to a properly gruesome finale. Yet none of that is why I’m cutting Nightmare in Blood so much slack. No, this one’s all about geeky signifiers. Most of the action takes place in a beautiful old movie theater. Points. The villain is a flamboyant horror-movie actor known for playing vampires. More points. And one of the supporting characters is a weirdo who treats comic books like a religion, so several of his scenes take place inside a late-’70s comic shop complete with mint-condition issues of Kamandi and Sub-Mariner on the spinner racks. Major points. So when I say that I more or less enjoyed Nightmare in Blood, that’s the nostalgic context.
          The action surrounds the so-called “First Annual San Francisco Horror Convention.” Promoters including Professor Seabrook (Dan Caldwell) plan to show movies and spotlight a personal appearance by Malakai (Jerry Walter), a screen icon in the Lugosi mold. Plaguing the promoters is an uptight pundit named Dr. Unworth (Justin Bishop), a riff on real-life ’50s anti-comic crusader Dr. Frederic Wertham. Meanwhile, Malakai’s assistants, who may or may not be the supernaturally preserved Burke and Hare of legend, gather victims so their undead master can feast. Director/cowriter John Stanley plays all of this silliness way too straight, missing the opportunity to create something like, say, Fright Night (1985), which is quite similar from a narrative perspective but has a livelier tone. Still, Stanley fills his dumb and painfully flat movie with a few enjoyably peculiar touches. At one point, the comic-book worshipper ponderously opines, “Of mysteries I know little, of comics I know all—the truth of the universe can be found there.” For a few fleeting years during my childhood, I felt exactly the same way, so it would be disingenuous for me to malign Nightmare in Blood, even though it fails to meet any normal critical standards.

Nightmare in Blood: FUNKY

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977)

          A nervy experiment in speculative fiction, this lengthy made-for-television movie imagines what might have happened if Jack Ruby hadn’t killed Lee Harvey Oswald following Oswald’s arrest for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Interestingly, it’s the third such project, following a 1964 indie movie and a 1967 play, both of which are also named The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, but neither of which were used as source material for this telefilm.) As the title suggests, much of this picture depicts courtroom proceedings, during which such familiar topics as the potential presence of a grassy-knoll shooter and the impossible trajectory of the “magic bullet” are discussed. Before delving too deep, it should be noted that the movie cops out in a big way at the ending, using a convenient narrative contrivance to avoid presenting a verdict. Furthermore, although The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald has nothing approaching the intensity or power of JFK (1991), there’s an unmistakable parallel between this project and Oliver Stone’s controversial movie, so if you only have the appetite for one fictionalized story about whether Oswald acted alone, Stone’s is the better choice.
          The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald opens with historical events strongly suggesting Oswald had the opportunity, if not necessarily the motive, to kill JFK, though the filmmakers deliberately avoid showing the actual shooting. Following Oswald’s arrest, the film makes its big leap by showing Oswald’s infamous perp walk through the Dallas Municipal Building without the Ruby incident, so Oswald (John Pleshette) survives to stand trial. The government assigns Anson Roberts (Ben Gazzara) to prosecute, and flamboyant Matthew Arnold Watson (Lorne Greene) steps forward as defense attorney. Battle lines are drawn quickly. Roberts recognizes the civic benefits of resolving the case definitively and quickly, and Watson hits the same walls encountered by every skeptic who scrutinizes the JFK assassination, because he can’t identify a credible motivation for Oswald and he can’t believe Oswald was such an expert marksman that all three shots discharged from the Texas School Book Depository hit their targets.
          In the film’s most dynamic scene, Watson drags the jury to the depository and has two people, a decorated marksman and an amateur, attempt to re-create Oswald’s alleged shooting pattern while cars filled with mannequins are used to replicate Kennedy’s doomed motorcade. This scene combines logic, research, and style to make a strong argument against the possibility of Oswald acting alone. As with all things related to JFK’s assassination, however, every credible argument has a seemingly credible counter-argument.
          Within these inherently murky parameters, the folks behind The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald do some things well. A scene of Roberts receiving direct pressure from JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, is believable and unnerving; the notion that the government put its hand on the scale to deliver a desired result reverberates for anyone who’s ever questioned the findings of the Warren Commission. Where The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald falters is in the portrayal of Oswald himself. Presenting him as a cipher allows the filmmakers to generate mystery and suspense, but it’s a cheat, since the project’s very title promises insights into Oswald’s psychology. Nonetheless, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald commands a certain measure of attention. The underlying subject matter is fascinating and important, the performances are never less than adequate, and the use of many real artifacts and locations adds gravitas.

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald: GROOVY

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Last House on Dead End Street (1977)

Providing more red meat for deranged moviegoers who patronized the previous year’s theatrical release Snuff, this abysmal horror picture is yet another low-budget exploitation flick purported to contain footage of real killings. Like Snuff, this craven enterprise went through a few developmental stages before becoming the atrocity that reached theaters in 1977. Originally released in 1974 as The Fun House, with a running time of three hours, the flick was whittled down to 78 interminable minutes and retitled to echo the moniker of Last House on the Left (1972), another grungy shocker designed to test viewers’ endurance. As for the various descriptions of Last House on Dead End Street as a surrealistic horror film, the picture is indeed weird, but not because of deliberate artistry—bad taste and cinematic incompetence are the reasons behind the film’s strange vibe. Long stretches feature characters wandering around while disembodied voices provide their interior monologues, and equally long stretches comprise excerpts from softcore porn, since several of the characters are in the business of making adult films. The overall gist is that a psychopath named Terry Hawkins (played by director Roger Watkins under a pseudonym) decides to make snuff films so he can earn money selling his products to depraved clients. Kinkiness ensues. In the climactic scene, a woman strips off her top, then places an animal hoof in the crotch of her jeans and forces a man to fellate the hoof until someone else kills the guy by burrowing the bit of a power drill into his skull. All the while, Terry/Roger films the carnage and laughs hysterically. It’s not enough to say that one hopes the people who made this film eventually got professional help. Similar assistance should be provided to anyone unfortunate enough to actually watch Last House on Dead End Street.

Last House on Dead End Street: SQUARE

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Death Driver (1977)

Earl Owensby, an enterprising actor/producer who made a string of successful pictures for the drive-in circuit during the ’70s and ’80s, rarely aimed for high art. Yet even by his low standards, Death Driver is a shabby piece of work. Bogusly billed as “The True Story of Rex Randolph,” it’s actually a fictional story set in the world of thrill shows, with Owensby playing a dude who became famous by attempting to drive a car through a flaming house while crowds watched. The general shape of the piece is that of a redemption saga, with Randolph (Owensby) searching for new forms of income and validation in the years following his brush with death. Viewers are asked to believe it’s a tragedy that Randolph can’t find anything more satisfying to do than attempting the same incredibly dangerous stunt again, even though he’s well past his prime and therefore unlikely to survive. Had Owensby and his collaborators demonstrated any measurable skill at characterization and drama, this storyline could have been poignant. Unfortunately, Randolph comes across as a backwoods scumbag. He steals cars and demolishes them in stunt shows. He cons a woman into sex by pretending he’s acquainted with a Hollywood talent agent. Et cetera. Instead of telling the sad story of a man who is only good at one thing, Owensby and his team tell the pointless story of an adrenaline junkie who feels entitled to whatever gratification he desires, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Death Driver is so vapid and wrongheaded that the only enjoyable aspect of the movie is sarcastic commentary spewed by the yahoo speaking over the PA system during race scenes. When a nameless guy who never appears onscreen delivers a film’s most dynamic element, that’s a sure sign something major is lacking.

Death Driver: LAME

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

Not just a beloved figure from my generation's childhood, but also a tremendous wit and a remarkable example of how unique individuals can transform adversity into artistry. As she wrote in "Wishful Drinking" -- "If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable."

Madame Rosa (1977)

          When surveying foreign films of the past, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using major awards as a guidepost, as if recognition from American critics and industry professionals automatically separates extraordinary international movies from mediocre ones. Among the many reasons why that methodology doesn’t always work is that some films get elevated because of timing. Consider Madame Rosa, the offbeat French picture that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1977. Seen today, it’s disjointed, grim, and a bit tedious, bouncing from awkward comedy to mawkish sentimentality to overt political messaging, all within the parameters of a story about death and orphans and racism and whores. There’s a lot of edifying stuff here, but neither the story nor the storytelling feels organic. One gets the sense of writer-director Moshé Mizrahi striving to make a statement through his characters rather than exploring characters and discovering a theme within their fictional experiences.
          So why did Madame Rosa earn such impressive accolades? One explanation is nostalgia, since the picture contains an important latter-day performance by French actress Simone Signoret, whose 1950s triumphs include winning an Oscar as Best Actress for the English-language movie Room at the Top (1959). As suggested earlier, however, the more likely explanation has to do with timing. Madame Rosa tells the story of an Arab and a Jew forming a surrogate family together, and it was released during a moment when the world’s attention was focused on Arab-Israeli relations, following the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the heroic rescue of Israeli hostages from Arab terrorists at a Ugandan airport in 1976. Even though Madame Rosa is quite dark, the light of hope burning at the movie’s center obviously resonated with Hollywood tastemakers in 1977.
          Viewed outside its original context, the film’s intentions seem as noble as ever, but the shortcomings become more evident.
          Signoret plays Madame Rosa, an Auschwitz survivor and retired prostitute who now makes her living caring for the unwanted children of other prostitutes, who send money to pay for the kids’ upkeep. Aging, ill, and overweight, Madame Rosa lives in a walk-up apartment, her infirmities diminishing her ability to function as a housekeeper. More and more, she relies on her favorite houseguest, a young Algerian boy named Momo (Samy Ben Youb). As the film progresses, he segues into the caretaker role while also confronting aspects of his identity. Mizrahi takes the narrative to some unexpected places, and his scene work is never less than intelligent and sensitive, but he loses control over the movie’s tone on several occasions. The simplest scenes, between Madame Rosa and Momo, are about human connection intersecting with deception and dementia. Scenes depicting Momo’s adventures in the world are less disciplined. He forms bonds with animals and people, then willfully destroys those bonds, suggesting he’s immature and self-loathing, and yet he also engages in heady philosophical debates, suggesting he’s precocious and self-confident. So by the time Mizrahi reaches the story’s morbid final moments, we’re left somewhat perplexed about Momo’s true nature, resulting in dissonance with the unambiguous nature of Madame Rosa’s characterization.
          Although Madame Rosa is not for everyone, some exceedingly patient and tolerant viewers may still respond to the picture’s odd emotionality.

Madame Rosa: FUNKY

Monday, December 26, 2016

High Velocity (1976)

          If you’re willing to overlook a pointless story and sludgy pacing, you might be able to enjoy some of the surface pleasures in High Velocity, an action thriller shot in the Philippines. Leading man Ben Gazzara and costar Paul Winfield strike up decent male-bonding chemistry during their scenes together as mercenaries on a dangerous mission, and Kennan Wynn conjures a passable degree of intensity playing the obnoxious American businessman whom the missionaries strive to rescue from a jungle hideout. Also contributing more than the movie deserves is composer Jerry Goldsmith, whose incredibly prolific output (he scored five other pictures the same year, including Logan’s Run and The Omen) rarely diminished the quality of his work. Among the major players who fail to impress, Britt Ekland adds nothing to a small role as the wife of Wynn’s character, and director Remi Kramer—well, this was his first and last feature film, so that tells you what you need to know about the caliber of the storytelling. Nonetheless, High Velocity contains an adequate number of action scenes, so every so often the movie rises from its stupor to deliver a fleeting thrill.
          Set in some unnamed corner of the Far East, the picture begins by introducing Andersen (Wynn), a blustery executive who treats his local help terribly and isn’t much kinder to his beautiful trophy wife (Ekland). Militia types kidnap Andersen, so the wife hires Vietnam veteran Baumgartner (Gazzara) to plan a rescue operation. He, in turn, solicits the assistance of former comrade-in-arms Watson (Winfield). Various double-crosses ensue, as does a long trek into remote terrain. Sadly, much of the picture comprises dull scenes of the mercenaries staking out the guerilla’s camp. More lively are bits featuring Andersen in captivity, because his kidnappers force the Ugly American to confront the effects of his company’s imperialism. Excepting the friendship between the two mercenaries, nothing in this picture pings emotionally, and the narrative valleys outnumber the peaks. There’s also the little matter of how the plot doesn’t end up making all that much sense once everything is resolved. Yet somehow the combination of skilled actors in three leading roles and a steady stream of zesty cues from Goldsmith keeps High Velocity borderline watchable.

High Velocity: FUNKY

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Dream for Christmas (1973)

          It should come as no surprise that some of the folks involved with this wholesome TV movie, including costar Lynn Hamilton and director Ralph Serensky, were also associated with The Waltons. Like that family-friendly series, A Dream for Christmas is a gentle story predicated on the notion that people are inherently good. What better message for this particular holiday? It’s also useful to note that inspirational stories about African-American characters were still somewhat rare in the early ’70s, when black moviegoers and TV watchers were more likely to see their experience through the prism of stereotypes that were at best reductive and at worst demeaning. With actors of color portraying all the principal roles in A Dream for Christmas, the film offers heartfelt themes related to community, family, religion, and sacrifice. So while it’s easy to criticize the picture for its soft touch, the world can never have enough narratives celebrating the virtues of diversity and kindness.
          Set in 1950, the picture opens in rural Arkansas. Reverend Will Douglas (Hari Rhodes) packs his family into a beat-up car for an impending move to Los Angeles, where Douglas is slated to become the pastor of a small church. His wife, Sarah (Lynn Hamilton), and his aging mother, Grandma Bessie (Beah Richards), accept the necessity of the move, but Will’s three kids are traumatized by leaving the only place they’ve ever known. Upon arriving in L.A., the Douglas family discovers that Will’s new church is endangered. Local developer George Briggs (Robert DoQui), who is also black, plans to raze the church so he can build a shopping center. With Christmas looming on the calendar, Will sets out to persuade George that the church should be preserved, then bolsters his argument by restoring the facility and expanding the congregation. Meanwhile, Will’s family experiences various hardships, ranging from health scares to schoolyard bullies.
          This being a feel-good telefilm, the story’s ending is never in much doubt, but the performers make the journey pleasant thanks to sincere acting. Rhodes, a rank-and-file film/TV actor who never found a breakout role, seems inhibited by the G-rated tone (and presumably a rushed shooting schedule), so he’s merely engaging and stalwart. Hamilton and Richards dig a bit deeper, though each is burdened with syrupy moments, and young George Spell comes off well as Will’s highly principled son. Yet perhaps the most admirable aspect of A Dream for Christmas is the way it expresses a gospel-inflected notion without oppressive religiosity. Even as the gooey score by David Rose tries to pluck viewers’ heartstrings, the cast’s earnest work keeps A Dream for Christmas relatively grounded.

A Dream for Christmas: FUNKY

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Winter Soldier (1972)

          While the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) is probably the definitive cinematic exploration of the Vietnam War to be released during the war, the lesser-known doc Winter Soldier is an important companion piece. Unfairly marginalized during its original release, Winter Soldier encapsulates a three-day press conference that Vietnam Veterans Against the War presented in Detroit in early 1971. During the event, dozens of vets spoke publicly about war crimes they had committed and/or observed in Southeast Asia, painting a horrific picture of U.S. troops murdering, raping, and torturing Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, sometimes with the tacit approval of officers and sometimes by direct command from superiors. Among the illusions the speakers tried to dispel was the notion that the U.S. military’s daily body counts included only combat personnel. According to the vets in Winter Soldier, even an infant killed by a bomb that a pilot dropped out of boredom was reported to HQ as a righteous “kill.”
          Given this film’s incendiary content, it’s remarkable that antiwar protestors failed to use Winter Soldier as a rallying point, and it’s telling that mainstream media ignored the movie, with all three TV networks refusing offers to air Winter Soldier. At the time this picture was released, huge swaths of America were still in denial about the nature of the Vietnam War. To be fair, the filmmaking collective that created Winter Soldier never intended to practice balanced journalism, per se. The film simply records testimony, along with evidence in the form of photos and film clips that soldiers brought home from Vietnam, with the goal of opening viewers’ eyes to war crimes. What’s more, the filmmakers take the stance that the soldiers giving testimony are themselves victims, having been indoctrinated during basic training to regard Asians as subhuman. This is one-sided agitprop, with the only dissenting voice being a black activist who argues that white soldiers are hypocrites for decrying racial violence abroad while ignoring racial injustice at home.
          Questions about its journalistic approach notwithstanding, Winter Soldier is powerful, especially considering that most the footage comprises talking heads. The deeds the speakers describe are shocking. Throwing people out of aircraft for kicks. Skinning victims to send frightening messages to the enemy. Razing villages populated only by civilians. Raping women in the presence of their children. Collecting the ears of victims and wearing them like trophies. Most of the men who testify in Winter Soldier seem tormented by the experiences, and one vet breaks down in tears. Additionally, most blame the war itself, or more specifically the twisted politics behind the war. Left unexplored is the question of consequences. The vets claim they couldn’t do anything to stop atrocities, kicking the blame up the chain of command and thereby effectively absolving themselves.
          Considering the moral ambiguities of Winter Soldier raises forces the viewer to engage with the issues that made the Vietnam War such a gruesome international quagmire. As such, Winter Soldier is an essential historical document even though it’s more of a polemic than a dialectic. FYI, Winter Soldier received a significant reissue in 2005, pulling it from obscurity and giving it a place among the key documentaries about Vietnam.

Winter Soldier: GROOVY

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

          More useful as a historical artifact than as a proper cinematic experience, politically charged documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton is two movies awkwardly fused together. When production began, director Howard Alk and his collaborators intended to make a piece about the Black Panther Party, with a focus on Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter. Whether Alk’s team envisioned the final result as balanced reportage or one-sided propaganda became irrelevant when, partway through filming, Hampton was killed during a police raid. Adapting to changed circumstances, the documentarians began compiling evidence and testimony relating to Hampton’s death, eventually forming the opinion that Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department. The final film begins with a walk-through of the crime scene, then proceeds through nearly an hour of footage from the first version of the production before shifting to an investigation into Hampton’s death. To call this editing approach awkward requires great understatement. One gets the sense that Alk either failed to collect sufficient footage to make a legitimate film about Hampton’s death, or that he simply lacked the will to reconfigure material he’d already filmed and/or edited.
          Whatever the case, The Murder of Fred Hampton is not especially compelling or persuasive as an activist expression, even though the simple facts of the case imply the Chicago PD used excessive force. Where The Murder of Fred Hampton has utility, however, is in documenting the anger and purpose and vitality of the Panthers during their period of greatest political currency. More specifically, the picture is a monument to Hampton’s efficacy as a messenger, the very strength that, according to the filmmakers’ thesis, made him a target for political opponents. Watching Hampton rap about education and ideology reveals the complexity of his political thought, making it impossible to dismiss him—and, by extension, the Panthers—as mere violent radicals. Like so many counterculture groups that took root during the Vietnam era, the Panthers asked important questions about American values in the age of the military-industrial complex. Unlike other groups, they took the racial aspects of such conversations seriously, arguing that toppling the white majority from power was the only way to deliver equality for minorities. Seen in this light, it’s easy for sympathetic viewers to accept this documentary’s underlying premise, that Hampton was eliminated as part of a systematic effort to snuff a revolutionary movement with the potential to change the structure of American society.

The Murder of Fred Hampton: FUNKY

Thursday, December 22, 2016

He Is My Brother (1975)

          Hey, remember that wholesome movie starring former teen idol Bobby Sherman as a castaway trapped on a leper-colony island in the Pacific? No? Well, chances are you’re not alone, because He Is My Brother ranks among the most obscure mainstream movies of the ’70s. The picture has a respectable degree of Hollywood gloss, and it benefits from the participation of familiar talents including Keenan Wynn, who plays the priest overseeing the leper colony, and director Edward Dmytryk, who closed out his long career in ignoble fashion by helming this box-office dud. While you might understandably think that He Is My Brother should be avoided like, well, a leper colony, the movie isn’t awful, per se. To be clear, it’s formulaic and padded and predictable, with more than a few shoddy performances, and the overly sincere moralizing of the piece makes He Is My Brother feel like a PSA for overseas missionary work. One should not investigate this movie with expectations of surpassing quality. Nonetheless, some elements of He Is My Brother deserve respect, including Wynn’s performance and the provocative issue of modernism clashing with primitivism.
          Jeff (Sherman) and his preteen brother, Randy (Robbie Rist), wake in the leper colony following a shipwreck. Jeff is aghast, fearing that he and his brother will immediately contract leprosy, but Brother Dalton (Wynn) calms them down, explaining that the disease only spreads after long periods of exposure, and further explaining that he’ll put the brothers on the next supply ship when it leaves the island. Trapped among the lepers, Jeff watches Brother Dalton battle to keep his flock intact while an indigenous mystic, The Kahuna (Joaquin Martinez), promises salvation for those who return to ancient ways. Then complications ensue. Jeff and his brother miss their boat, and Jeff becomes romantically involved with an island girl, Luana (Kathy Paulo). None of this is deep or surprising, but it’s all moderately interesting even though Sherman gives a hopelessly vapid performance. The gruffness of Wynn’s portrayal provides helpful balance, the locations are alluring, and the themes are meaningful no matter how clumsily they’re handled.

He Is My Brother: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

          There’s a bad tendency in critical circles of attributing greatness to art simply because it’s made by great artists, which is to say that anything rendered by someone with a record of significant accomplishments is therefore, by definition, significant. I’ve certainly been guilty of this infraction, heaping undeserved praise on work that I wanted to be good simply because of my loyalty to the creator of that work. And, it should be said, important artists in any field deserve the benefit of the doubt, at least to a certain degree; sometimes it’s helpful for an artist to expand his or her body of work without necessarily bettering past accomplishments. The goal of this preamble is to contextualize my declaration that I don’t know what the hell to make of Luis Buñuel’s penultimate feature, The Phantom of Liberty.
          Conventional in its technical execution but abstract in most other regards, the movie comprises a series of loosely connected episodes, all of which seem to satirize the upper class, a lifelong target of Buñuel’s comedic invective. Some stand-alone vignettes are amusing, and others are pleasantly weird, but I didn’t lock into the film’s frequency at all, finding The Phantom of Liberty flat and pointless more often that not. However, many intelligent people swear the film is brilliant, and Buñuel said it was among his favorite creations. So who am I to say if it’s “bad” or “good”? After all, if I’ve gone too far in the other direction, lauding work that didn’t deserve accolades, it logically follows that I’ll periodically err in the other direction, missing the virtues of something wonderful. Accordingly, before I offer a bit of description, I’ll leave it at this—The Phantom of Liberty did nothing for me, but Buñuel was such a skilled filmmaker, even at this late stage of his life, that I’m confident something of value imbues the picture.
          The Phantom of Liberty opens in Spain during the time of Napoleon. Crude French soldiers invade a crypt, and a male statue swats one of the soldiers after the soldier kisses a female statue. On the surface, it’s a dumb sight gag right out of an Abbott and Costello flick, but underneath, it’s laden with all sorts of weighty political stuff about class and culture. And so it goes from there—every so often, The Phantom of Liberty provides something accessible and silly, like the image of monks drinking and smoking while they play poker with a woman, but more frequently, the film presents things that would require either a political-science degree or superhuman insight into Buñuel’s mind to correctly interpret. The movie’s code isn’t fully secret, which is to say that mindful viewers can arrive at valid interpretations, but, plainly, only the filmmaker truly knew what the sum effect of the movie was meant to be.
          As to the question of whether the picture genuinely has a grand design, it’s interesting to consider the most successful comedy scene, which is obvious and self-contained. In the scene, several well-to-do people gather for a dinner party, then sit on commodes that surround a table and perform excretory functions while chatting. Upon achieving relief, a guest discreetly asks the maid, “Excuse me, where is the dining room?” Also during the scene, a mother admonishes her child for being so rude as to mention food at the table. It’s a simple flip of social conventions, and the absurdity of the scene is entertaining, but what’s the point? To imply that everything normal and polite is inherently ridiculous, or simply to make viewers engage reality on a deeper level by presenting an upside-down version of reality? Like I said before, I recognize there’s something resonant here, but damned if I can figure out what that is.

The Phantom of Liberty: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974)

          Lore emanating from insular communities can be fascinating, because local legends are shot through with metaphors reflecting ideals and superstition; the nature of fictional characters elevated to heroic status is as revelatory as the nature of figures regarded as monsters. All of which goes to say why the offbeat fantasy picture The Legend of Hillbilly John is interesting even though it’s far from impressive as a piece of filmmaking. Based on stories by Manly Wade Wellman, an imaginative fiction writer who spent time in the Ozarks researching the folklore of mountain people, The Legend of Hillbilly John concerns a traveling troubadour whose guitar has magically powered silver strings that repel the devil. Moving from one rural enclave to the next, the hero discovers residents living in fear of various oppressive forces, then helps the residents escape tyranny by, in some fashion or another, robbing the oppressive forces of their power. Taken to its most literal extreme, this mode of supernatural crimefighting manifests as the hero battling a giant bird that’s put onscreen by way of old-fashioned stop-motion animation. In other words, the narrative spirit is willing but the cinematic flesh is weak.
          The story’s hero, John (Hedges Capers), is an easygoing singer whose Grandpappy John (Denver Pyle) loses a fiery musical duel with the devil. Thereafter, John carries a magic guitar from one Appalachian community to the next, accompanied by a dog he calls “Hunter Hound.” In one very long sequence, John escorts a dangerous man called Zebulon Yandro (Harris Yulin) to a meeting with Yandro’s ultimate fate. And in the most dynamic sequence, John duels with “Ugly Bird” atop Hark Mountain. Somewhat holding the pieces of the story together is Mr. Marduke (Severn Darden), a host/narrator who lists among the enemies plaguing the Appalachian Mountains the devil and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (The insertion of a ’70s ecological message is as pointless as it sounds.) Some have noted that a core flaw in this weird picture is the way the filmmakers altered John’s personality from the source material, transforming him from a backwoods avenger to a peace-and-love hippie. Indeed, the less authentically rural a moment in this movie is, the less entertainment it provides. Still, there’s something inherently unique about The Legend of Hillbilly John, though curious viewers should be advised to set their expectations very, very low.

The Legend of Hillbilly John: FUNKY

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Legend of Frank Woods (1977)

The Legend of Frank Woods is a re-edited and slightly expanded version of a picture called The Hell You Preach, which was completed in 1972. Notable additions include a few new scenes featuring former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue in a minor role. The original film, which comprises most of the running time, is a hopelessly routine Western about a gunfighter who assumes the identity of a preacher and starts a new life in a frontier town. (The plot of a 1974 telefilm starring Marjoe Gortner, The Gun and the Pulpit, is suspiciously similar.) Iffy acting, grungy cinematography, and jumpy editing exacerbate the trite narrative, as does a logy storytelling style. Leading man Hagen Smith has an interesting physical presence with his shaggy beard and tall frame, but his performance offers merely a faint echo of Clint Eastwood’s signature stoicism. Supporting player Michael Christian is moderately better as the local hothead who picks trouble with the fake preacher, but the plotting is so enervated that the conflict between these characters never feels believable. Viewers are asked to accept that the arrival of a tough stranger changes every imaginable dynamic in a community, not because of anything the filmmakers show to the audience, but simply because that’s the way of things in stories of this type. There was potential for comedy here, as when the villain tests the fake preacher by demanding the man drink whiskey, and there was potential for suspense, as when the mischief of local crooks puts the hero into a position where he must reveal his identity by taking action. Instead, the folks behind The Legend of Frank Woods opted for by-the-numbers filmmaking—with some some of the important numbers missing.

The Legend of Frank Woods: LAME

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972)

          Somewhat entertaining even though its storyline is confusing and far-fetched, The Groundstar Conspiracy benefits from a sharp leading performance by George Peppard, who was always a bit more convincing playing cold-blooded monsters, as he does here, than he was playing romantic heroes. Specifically, Peppard plays Tuxen, the security boss at a secret government facility. When a major explosion occurs on the facility, Tuxen accuses the lone survivor, David Welles (Michael Sarazzin), of sabotage. Unfortunately for Tuxen, Welles was injured in the explosion, so he’s not only badly disfigured but also amnesiac. And that’s when things get loopy. Tuxen has plastic surgeons repair Welles’ face, hoping the sight of his own features will jog the accused man’s memory, and then Tuxen tortures Welles to extract information. None of this works, so Tuxen releases Welles, secretly tracking the suspect’s movements all the while, and watches as Welles finds shelter with Nicole Devon (Christine Belford), a woman he barely knows. The plotting gets sillier and sillier as the movie progresses, with what should be the central mystery—what’s going on at the facility and who perpetrated espionage to learn that information—becoming background noise.
          Like so many thrillers on the lower end of the conspiracy-movie spectrum, this picture gets so caught up in its own ridiculous machinations that the story virtually evaporates. That said, some folks might enjoy watching The Groundstar Conspiracy simply because of star power and vibe. The unrelenting cruelty of Peppard’s character is darkly compelling, and Sarrazin’s offbeat screen persona suits his role well. With his pronounced brow and bulging eyes, Sarrazine always looks a bit off, and yet he conveys great intelligence and sensitivity even in half-baked projects like this one. Leading lady Belford, an ice-queen beauty with an aristocratic quality, doesn’t fare quite as well, but of the three leads, she’s burdened with, by far, the least credible role. Based on a novel by L.P. Davies and helmed by the resourceful Lamont Johnson, The Groundstar Conspiracy has most of the things one associates with the conspiracy-thriller genre, from chases and fights to hidden secrets and “shocking” revelations. It feels, looks, and sounds like a proper conspiracy thriller. But from its muddy opening scenes to its laughably dumb conclusion, The Groundstar Conspiracy epitomizes the shortcomings of the genre while failing to demonstrate the strengths.

The Groundstar Conspiracy: FUNKY

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Children of Sanchez (1978)

          Based on a nonfiction book by Oscar Lewis, an American anthropologist who spent time in Mexico studying the lives of the working class and gravitated toward the Sanchez family as a microcosm for his subject matter, The Children of Sanchez is an odd sort of a movie. Given the scope and socioeconomic significance of the material, a miniseries might have been a more appropriate format, allowing characterization and subplots to sprawl, thereby creating depth and texture. Crammed into a movie running about two hours, the storyline feels rushed and superficial, so every time director Hall Bartlett and his collaborators linger on something nonessential, the picture becomes rudderless. Specifically, because larger-than-life star Anthony Quinn plays the patriarch of the Sanchez family, his character receives a disproportionate amount of attention, even though the real protagonist of the story is Consuelo Sanchez, the patriarch’s willful daughter. Moreover, because Consuelo’s story depicts a woman finding her way to feminism, the source material’s original focus on economic issues gets overshadowed. It’s also distracting that smooth-jazz musician Chuck Mangione composed the score, because his distinctive flugelhorn riffs and disco-influenced grooves lack subtlety, drowning tender scenes with flamboyant sonics.
          Covering multiple decades in the life of the Sanchez family, the picture begins, more or less, with the death of a matriarch. After Jesus Sanchez (Quinn) buries his wife, he becomes angry and remote, which causes anguish among his children. Eventually, he becomes a brute holding men and women alike to caveman standards of morality, beating and berating anyone who defies his commands or offends his sensibilities. Jesus is also a monstrous hypocrite, maintaining households with several common-law wives and supporting illegitimate children throughout Mexico City even as he calls his adult daughters whores simply because they date men. Upon reaching adulthood, Conseulo (Lupita Ferrer) reaches her limit, fretting that in her society, “only a man has rights.” The tipping point is when Jesus turns a housekeeper into a mistress. After Consuelo calls him on his boorish behavior, he ejects her from the house. Most of the film’s second half concerns her attempts to build a new life. Concurrently, Jesus wins a large amount of money in a lottery, soon discovering that wealth can’t heal the divides he’s caused within his own family.
          If The Children of Sanchez sounds like a soap opera, that’s about right—which is a shame, because chances are something meaningful and relevant could have been made from Lewis’ book. In fact, some of Quinn’s scenes have weight, illustrating the damage a formidable man can do while serving only his own interests.

The Children of Sanchez: FUNKY

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hot Times (1974)

After making several well-received projects as part of the independent-cinema fringe, filmmaker Jim McBride moved toward the mainstream with this vulgar, wisecracking sex comedy, which nearly becomes pornography during several scenes. Set in the New York City area, the picture concerns a high-school schnook named Archie Anders (Henry Cory), whose hormones are driving him crazy. Archie’s beautiful girlfriend, Bette (Amy Farber), has become a devotee of Eastern religion, so she torments Archie during sex by insisting that he refrain from ejaculating for spiritual reasons. This sets the plot of Hot Times—also known as A Hard Day for Archie—in motion. Put bluntly, this is a movie about a young man with a near-constant erection trying desperately to find a sex partner who’s willing to go all the way. In what one presumes were intended to be outrageous comedy setpieces, Archie tries to score with hookers, porn actresses, promiscuous local girls, and so on. Every so often, something mildly amusing happens, but then McBride bludgeons the moment with an obnoxious sound effect or silly narration. Archie’s pal Mughead (Steve Curry) provides said narration, and here’s a sample: “He’d never been next of skin to so much feminology in all his years!” The movie is full of these would-be witticisms, as when Archie’s sister issues a barrage of puns when she discovers Archie masturbating: “Hey, Mom, he’s gonna have a dishonorable discharge!” Were the rest of the movie not so repetitive and sleazy, McBride’s enthusiastic wordplay might have seemed endearing. Yet Hot Times is mostly an endless procession of nude scenes, interspersed with vignettes of softcore coupling. Those who watch sex comedies to ogle female flesh will get their fill, but those who prefer a balance of edifying and erotic content will be disheartened.

Hot Times: LAME

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Kitty Can’t Help It (1975)

Later re-released as The Carhops (because some of the characters are waitresses at a drive-in restaurant), this abysmal sex comedy involves a group of young women trying to get their friend laid properly. The protagonist, Kitty (Kitty Carl), can’t find a man who satisfies her, so she shares her problem with buddies who include hookers and swingers, as well as carhops. All of them tell their boyfriends and/or husbands to sleep with Kitty, but none gets the job done. It’s not as if Kitty has compunctions about screwing her friends’ significant others. Instead, “comedic” circumstances intrude just when things get hot. In one scene, Kitty and a dude try humping in the desert, but Kitty freaks out when a large iguana appears nearby. Seeking to look macho, the dude not only picks up the iguana but also tries to kiss the lizard, which bites the dude’s tongue. And so on. Kitty Can’t Help It comprises one underwhelming scene after another, and most of the acting is shoddy. One exception is the versatile Jack DeLeon, whose psychopathic character torments Kitty whenever the filmmakers decide, unwisely, to include something serious; DeLeon’s portrayal is miles away from his best-known recurring role as an urbane homosexual on the sitcom Barney Miller. Yet the only genuinely famous person in the cast is Pamela Des Barres, who plays one of Kitty’s generous friends. Previously known as “Miss Pamela,” Des Barres is a notorious rock-music groupie who penned the definitive memoir on servicing popular musicians, I’m With the Band (1987). Weirdly, Wes Craven served as one of this schlocky film’s editors, even though he’d already directed his first horror movie, The Last House on the Left (1972).

Kitty Can’t Help It: LAME

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Two English Girls (1971)

          Exploring the hurtfulness of male caprice and the inner lives of complicated women with a novelistic style, François Truffaut’s Two English Girls is intelligent and meticulously constructed, though that can be said of nearly all of Truffaut’s films. Yet Two English Girls lacks the special fire that enlivens Truffaut’s chilly storytelling approach in his best pictures. As he evolved, Truffaut largely eschewed the guerilla-style filmmaking of his debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959), opting for polished classicism that prioritized character and plot over bravura camerawork. Whenever he got his teeth into a great story, this modality was effective, helping viewers get lost in the thickets of provocative narratives. In projects such as Two English Girls, the mannered storytelling has a nullifying effect, as if the movie is a pretty picture contained by a frame instead of something more immersive. One cannot fault Two English Girls for its acting, cinematography, or editing, et cetera, but the total experience is weirdly bloodless.
          Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the picture opens in turn-of-the-century Paris. Handsome young Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his mother receive a visitor from England, Ann Brown (Kate Markham). She’s charming and lovely and worldly, so Claude happily accepts her invitation to visit the Brown family in Wales. Once Claude arrives, Ann tries to forge a romantic match between the Frenchman and Ann’s peculiar sister, Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). Despite her eccentricities, Muriel makes her way into Claude’s heart, but then Claude’s mother—fearing the possibility of an inappropriate mate for her only son—demands the couple spend a year apart. The remainder of the picture explores the impact of the separation, which has a liberating effect on Claude but leads to heartbreak in the lives of the Brown sisters.
          Two English Girls tells a small story, and the idiosyncratic nuances that Truffaut inserts into the movie aren’t quite enough to make the picture feel special. Scenes of Muriel talking directly to the camera seem false, and the intrusive narration—spoken by Truffaut—drains the movie of subtlety by providing overly detailed explanations for what people feel and think during important scenes. It’s all very clinical, but not to any notably meritorious end; simply letting the characters and story breathe would have delivered something more intimate and resonant. Still, the technical execution is up to Truffaut’s usual high standards, and the performances are generally good. Léaud, best known for playing Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego in the Antoine Doinel movies, offers an opaque screen presence, so it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to perceive Claude as a cad, a naïf, or something in between. Markham is alluring in a buttoned-up sort of way, and Tendeter is fairly good at conveying quiet desperation. Alas, the moments when her character’s repressed emotions burst forth underwhelm, like so many other elements of this ultimately forgettable film.

Two English Girls: FUNKY