Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leave Yesterday Behind (1978)

          Tempting as it is to romanticize Carrie Fisher’s career in the wake of her shocking death at age 60, the truth is that outside of Star Wars movies, she was far more successful as a writer than she was as an actress. In fact, she didn’t properly lead the cast of a feature film until the obscure 1989 indie She’s Back, and most of her major screen credits are secondary roles as best friends and love interests. Acknowledging that drug problems and typecasting contributed to Fisher’s marginalization, it’s interesting to look at one of her first significant performances after the release of Star Wars (1977) to examine the question of whether Hollywood failed to understand her gifts or whether her gifts simply took time to mature. (Lest we forget, Fisher was only 19 when she first ventured to a galaxy far, far away.) In the respectable romantic telefilm Leave Yesterday Behind, Fisher plays a woman whose devotion helps a young man conquer emotional difficulties following an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.
          Occupying the leading role is the versatile John Ritter, then riding high on the success of his dopey sitcom Three’s Company and undoubtedly eager to display his dramatic chops. Within the film’s predictable and sentimental rhythms, he comes off quite well, conveying anguish and rage and vulnerability in a number of convincing moments. Fisher isn’t given nearly as much room to shine, since most of her repetitive scenes involve expressing sympathy, and she doesn’t elevate the material the way Ritter does. So while it’s likely Hollywood didn’t know what to do with the precocious starlet whom audiences first encountered in Shampoo (1975), it also seems fair to say Fisher hadn’t yet found the right balance between her innate qualities of humor and toughness. In Leave Yesterday Behind, she’s appealing and formidable in some moments, forgettable and shrill in others. As for the movie itself, it’s watchable as far as this sort of thing goes.
          Directed without much passion or style by Richard Michaels, the picture overcomes a choppy opening sequence to settle into a straightforward pattern of vignettes displaying the leading character encountering—and occasionally surmounting—obstacles. After losing the use of his legs because of a fall during a polo match, Paul Stallings (Ritter) becomes depressed and embittered, wreaking domestic havoc on his grandfather, Doc (Buddy Ebsen), whose sprawling farm provides a quiet sanctuary while Paul adjusts to life in a wheelchair. Marnie (Fisher) practices with her horse on the farm, so eventually she has a meet-cute with Paul. Discarding her boyfriend, David (Robert Urich), Marnie spends lots of time with Paul, quickly escalating from friendship to romance until Paul pumps the brakes out of fear he won’t be able to perform sexually. Meanwhile, Doc gives no-bullshit life lessons that force Paul to overcome self-pity so he can explore his potential. This stuff isn’t anywhere near as saccharine as it sounds, but it’s not profound, either. Still, alongside a minor role in the 1977 made-for-TV adaptation of William Inge’s play Come Back, Little Sheba, this humble telefilm is, by dint of her scant credits during this period, Fisher’s most substantial ’70s performance beyond her first appearance as Princess Leia. So there’s that.

Leave Yesterday Behind: FUNKY

Monday, January 30, 2017

Out of Season (1975)

          Even if one ignores the story’s implications of incest, Out of Season is a creepy little number. Cliff Robertson plays an American who visits the seaside British hotel run by his old flame, played by Vanessa Redgrave, then rekindles their affair—even as he sleeps with her adult daughter, played by pouty-mouthed sexpot Susan George. Oh, and more than half the film’s scenes comprise bitter arguments, with the mother and daughter spitting venom at each other while the ex-lovers trade vicious accusations and criticisms. This stuff never quite reaches the level of high art, but Alan Bridges’ stately direction, an intelligent script, and three strong performances give Out of Season a certain dark magnetism. And even though the picture is quite talky, one could do worse than listening to Redgrave and Robertson issuing reams of dialogue. George acquits herself well, compensating for one-dimensional shrillness by raising the movie’s temperature considerably during erotic scenes. It’s not fun to watch three people eviscerate each other, but Out of Season holds the viewer’s attention for nearly all of its 90 moody minutes. As for the film’s provenance, reports differ—some sources indicate that the picture is based on a play, though the credits are vague, and it appears the British dramatist Harold Pinter was at one point set to direct the picture. (He made his cinematic directorial debut with the previous year’s Butley, a similarly cruel film.)
          In any event, Joe (Robertson) shows up one day and surprises Ann (Redgrave), whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Both were married to other people in the intervening period, and Ann is caught in a nasty cycle of squabbles with her daughter, Joanna (George), who resents living in a tiny town. Watching Ann and Joe fall back in love drives Joanna mad with jealously, so she throws herself at Joe, who’s too much of a drunken, self-involved cad to refuse her. There’s more to the picture than that, but those are the broad strokes, so Out of Season unfolds like a thriller—how far will Joe take his illicit affair with Joanna, and when will Joanna spring her trap by revealing what’s happening to her mother? The story isn’t quite meaty enough to support an entire feature, so the narrative energy flags periodically; Bridges and his collaborators would have done well to add a subplot or two. Taken for what it is, Out of Season gets the job done. Robertson’s macho intensity strikes sparks against Redgrave’s pained coldness, and George plays sexual games with such uninhibited insouciance that she’s simultaneously seductive and unbearable, just the right toxic mixture for the situation. Pity the filmmakers didn’t stick the landing, but so be it.

Out of Season: FUNKY

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Great American Cowboy (1973)

          Watching The Great American Cowboy today, it’s difficult to imagine why the picture won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. A cynical person might assume it’s because the movie is unthreatening and wholesome, celebrating familiar themes of rugged individualism without delving too deeply into much of anything. A less cynical person might assume that director Keith Merrill and his collaborators were given the Academy’s top nonfiction prize simply because The Great American Cowboy is as slick as a Hollywood fiction feature. Devices including slow-motion photography and split-screen editing are used to juice already-exciting images of rodeo stars riding broncos and bulls. Furthermore, an over-the-top musical score composed by Harold Farberman and performed by a full orchestra, heavy on the brass, gives The Great American Cowboy operatic scope. Chances are the truth lies somewhere between these possible explanations. For instance, aging Academy members might have enjoyed revisiting images and values from simpler times, even as with-it Academy members dug the film’s impressive technical polish. In any event, The Great American Cowboy does not reward fresh viewing as well as some other ’70s winners of the documentary Oscar. To these modern eyes, the movie is hopelessly repetitive and superficial. Worse, the frontier poetry of the narration track, as spoken by veteran Western-movie star Joel McCrea, is elegant but trite.
          The picture tracks a competition between aging rider Larry Mahan and a younger rider, Phil Lyne, both of whom vie for the nation’s top rodeo prize. The backstory is that Mahan won the prize for several years before Lyne took it away from him in an upset, so this movie dramatizes their rematch. Unfortunately, Merrill spends so little quality time with the riders away from rodeo grounds that it’s virtually impossible to care who wins. Both men come across as ciphers. Moreover, the way Merrill treats rodeo as a religion—parsing cryptic remarks from a 101-year-old veteran of the circuit and studying the adventures of preteen competitors at “Little Britches” events—has the effect of making the prize an abstraction. We don’t get a real sense of what winning means to either man. Instead, scene after scene conveys homilies about the dignity a dude finds by pushing himself past his own limits, and so on. Plus, after about a dozen different slow-mo shots of riders getting bucked off animals, the imagery loses its novelty. To be fair, The Great American Cowboy was probably the best documentary ever made about rodeos at the time of its release, and fans of the sport probably still find the picture compelling. Alas, if you’re not into rodeo, The Great American Cowboy is unlikely to make you a believer.

The Great American Cowboy: FUNKY

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Rider on the Rain (1970)

          Beyond his well-known success as a tight-lipped action star in American films, Charles Bronson had an extensive career in a wider variety of pictures made outside the U.S., only a few of which did as well on American screens as they did overseas. Rider on the Rain is a good example. A mystery-thriller with romantic elements, the movie was made in France and scored a major success there, but it made little impact during its original American release and has not been extensively distributed on home video. To a certain degree, the film’s American obscurity is understandable, since casual Bronson fans don’t seek out his pictures for emotional or intellectual nuance. And it’s not as if Rider in the Rain is some lost masterpiece. Quite to the contrary, it’s mediocre at best thanks to a murky and nasty storyline. What’s more, leading lady Marlène Jobert is hardly the most compelling of actresses, perhaps owing to the fact that she’s not a native English speaker; as in the middling To Catch a Spy (1971), which pairs Jobert with Kirk Douglas, she’s badly overshadowed here by a charismatic American star.
          In any event, Rider on the Rain recycles the familiar Hitchcock formula for romantic intrigue, but rampant misogyny renders the film thoroughly unpleasant. At the beginning the story, Mélancolie (Jobert) observes a strange man exiting a bus during a rainstorm in the small town where she lives. Later, after her domineering airplane-navigator husband Tony (Gabriele Tinti) leaves on a work trip, the mystery man invades Mélancolie’s house and rapes her. Gaining the upper hand after the assault, she kills him with a shotgun, then disposes of his body. Enter another mystery man, Dobbs (Bronson), who shows up with insinuations that he knows what happened. Dobbs terrorizes Mélancolie with threats of blackmail and violence, eventually revealing that he wants a bag of money the rapist had in his possession. Dobbs’ motivations change repeatedly as Mélancolie learns more and more about him, and the worst contrivance of the picture is that she falls for her mercurial tormentor.
          Director René Clément strives to lighten the mood with offbeat flourishes, such as Dobbs’ habit of tossing almonds at windowpanes, but the whole enterprise feels seedy. That said, it’s always a kick to watch Bronson operating outside his comfort zone, though he’s far more credible when his character acts aggressively than when his character acts seductively. (He constantly refers to Mélancolie as “love-love,” borrowing a phrase printed on her underpants—really!—but the nickname ends up sounding like “glub-glub” half the time.) Additionally, Hitchcock fans may enjoy this movie’s overt homages to the Master of Suspense—the rapist’s name, for instance, is a nod to one of Hitchcock’s favorite storytelling devices.

Rider on the Rain: FUNKY

Friday, January 27, 2017

Kill the Golden Goose (1979)

Prior to costarring in this low-budget thriller, Bong Soo Han applied his martial-arts mastery to movies by training Tom Laughlin to fight for the Billy Jack movies, and by playing the villain in “A Fistful of Yen,” the epic Enter the Dragon spoof that comprises most of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). The Billy Jack movies are cult classics, and “A Fistful of Yen” is hilarious, so Master Han should have quit while he was ahead. Playing an American police detective tasked with stopping an international assassin, Han gives a lifeless non-performance in Kill the Golden Goose, creating the impression that he spoke all of his English-language dialogue phonetically. Anyway, the picture’s real star is another martial-arts champion with zero onscreen charisma, the hulking Ed Parker. He plays “Mauna Loa,” a hit man hired to kill three witnesses whose testimony could help a government investigation topple a corrupt oil company. Simply because he has more screen time as well as a love interest, Mauna Loa functions as the story’s protagonist, even though hes a one-dimensional murderer. And so it goes throughout this thoroughly rotten flick, which trudges through various dull suspense-movie clichésbrutal murders, clandestine meetings, resourceful moves by dogged investigators, blah, blah, blah. Every so often, either Han or Parker gets into a martial-arts fight, but those scenes underwhelm, as does everything else. In fact, only two weird scenes grab the viewer’s attention. In one, characters attend a costume party at a disco (watch for the shot of someone wearing a vintage Planet of the Apes mask), and in the other, a ridiculous ballad underscores a scene of Mauna Lao getting it on with his lady. Dig the lyrics: “I want to climb all over you and crawl inside your mind—I want to caress you like a summer breeze and tickle your body with mine.” Wow.

Kill the Golden Goose: LAME

Thursday, January 26, 2017

True Grit: A Further Adventure (1978)

          Hollywood didn’t get the unique tone of Charles Portis’ wonderful Western novel True Grit (1968) right until the 2010 adaptation by the Coen Brothers, but misunderstanding the material didn’t stop filmmakers from putting Portis’ memorable supporting character Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn onscreen three times previous, to varying degrees of success. John Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit (1969), which sanded the book’s rough edges to offer bland entertainment, and he reprised the role in Rooster Cogburn (1975), featuring Katherine Hepburn as a woman who tests crusty marshal Cogburn’s romantic mettle. Paramount, which made the 1969 movie but not the sequel, dredged out Cogburn once more for the mediocre telefilm True Grit: A Further Adventure, this time with character actor Warren Oates playing the role. Presumably owing to copyright issues, True Grit: A Further Adventure ignores the existence of Rooster Cogburn by picking up immediately after the action of the 1969 film, continuing Cogburn’s odyssey as the hired protector of spirited teenager Mattie Ross. (Kim Darby played the role in True Grit, and Lisa Pelikan does the honors here.)
          When Cogburn delivers the body of a fallen friend to the man’s homestead, Cogburn and Mattie discover that the dead guy’s widow, Annie Sumner (Lee Meriwether), has fallen on hard times, forcing her three sons to seek work in a rough frontier town where the main business is a mine. Moreover, because Cogburn lost his traveling money in a card game, he, too, needs work. That’s how Mattie ends up trapped in the frontier town with him. Cogburn discovers corruption while teaching life lessons to the Sumner boys, and eldest son Christopher Sumner (Jeff Osterhage) develops a thing for the willful Mattie, who uses her fierce personality and quick wit to help Cogburn secure a lucrative job as a bounty hunter. The story then ventures into beats echoing the plot of both Portis’ original novel and the 1969 movie, with Cogburn and Mattie chasing varmints to a remote hideout. Although the script for True Grit: A Further Adventure is adequate on a moment-to-moment basis, the episodic storyline never adds up to much, and the pacing is sluggish. Although most of the supporting performances are drab, Pelikan gets points for making her version of Mattie thornier than Darby’s interpretation. As for Oates, he’s as wonderful as always, grubby and rural and salty, but the film’s antiseptic style keeps him on too tight a leash.

True Grit: A Further Adventure: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Punk Rock Movie (1978)

          An impressive historical artifact created by a DJ who happened to be in the right place at the right time, lo-fi documentary The Punk Rock Movie captures vintage performances from several of the most important British acts to emerge during the original punk-rock era. The Clash, Generation X (with Billy Idol fronting), the Sex Pistols, and Siouxsie and the Banshees are among the groups on display, mostly in performance footage but also, occasionally, in candid clips. Anyone looking for you-are-there reportage of what it felt like to catch seminal acts at the Roxy, a London club that presented punk music exclusively for several months, will devour The Punk Rock Movie. From the pierced and tattooed kids bopping around the dancefloor to the attitudinal musicians screeching onstage, the punk scene is depicted in all its ugly glory. As for the question of whether anyone who isn’t predisposed toward punk might dig watching this flick, an easy test is the scene featuring the group Eater tossing a pig’s head onstage, chopping up the head with cleavers, and then tossing the pieces into the audience. To be fair, that’s as extreme as the movie gets, but it says something about the youthful extremes of old-school punk. Sometimes these brash sounds conveyed political rage, as when the Sex Pistols satirized the British monarchy with “God Save the Queen,” and sometimes they represented little more than kids being obnoxious.
          In any event, the story behind the picture is that Don Letts, a DJ at the Roxy, used a Super-8 camera to record bands and audiences during the club’s punk period. His access was as remarkable as the litany of groups he got on camera, though the actual music is very much a matter of taste. Some acts who later adopted slicker styles, notably Siouxsie and the Banshees, appear here in fairly rough early incarnations, whereas famous short-lived acts, especially the Sex Pistols, operate at the height of their powers. Letts’ filming style is competent but ordinary—being limited to one camera prohibited him from covering any single performance with multiple angles. Still, he mostly trains his eye on the most interesting things onstage, so it’s a kick to see Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash pounding out “White Riot,” or to see a pre-MTV Billy Idol howling “Walking in the City” with Generation X. FYI, the Pistols’ performance—their first with infamous bassist Sid Vicous—was the only set shot outside the Roxy, because Letts caught the band at a London movie theater. More trivia: In the U.S., this picture was released as The Punk Rock Movie from England.

The Punk Rock Movie: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Night Visitor (1971)

          By dint of being made in gloomy Swedish locales and starring two of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actors, The Night Visitor is an offbeat hybrid of Bergman-esque psychological darkness and pure escapist pulpiness. The story, about a killer who sneaks out of an insane asylum in order to murder a woman and frame his brother-in-law for the crime, is wildly inventive but also a bit silly, thanks to the far-fetched means by which the killer achieves his goals. Concurrently, the film is much, much darker than any American version of the same material would be, since the only purely sympathetic character—a dogged police inspector played by Trevor Howard—is a cipher rather than an active participant in the movie’s psychological gamesmanship. That said, The Night Visitor has as much technical polish as any Hollywood movie, even though the style is unrelentingly melancholic. The film’s locations are deeply evocative, particularly the remarkable stone edifice used to represent the asylum, and an iconic American composer, Henry Mancini, provides the effectively dissonant scoring.
          When we first meet him, Salem (Max Von Sydow) cuts a strange figure. Dressed only in underclothes and boots, he emerges from a sewer pipe some distance away from the towering asylum. Running through a cold winter’s night, he arrives at a farmhouse where Ester (Liv Ullman) argues with her husband, Anton (Per Oscarsson). Salem sneaks into the house and does a number of strange things, such as planting a necktie inside a doctor’s bag. Soon we discover the method to his madness (or vice versa), because he kills the beautiful Emmie (Hanne Bork) and plants a necktie as “evidence.” After Salem flees, the inspector begins his investigation, disbelieving Anton’s wild theory that Salem was responsible. Later, Salem makes another excursion from the asylum to permanently seal his hated brother-in-law’s fate, and that’s when The Night Visitor presents its most arresting sequence. Using sheets and clothing tied into ropes—as well as other equally resourceful means—Salem creeps through passageways, tunnels, and windows to escape the asylum, thereby demonstrating how he committed the original crime. Director Laslo Benedek keeps Von Sydow onscreen as often as possible (rather than a stunt man), selling the illusion of Salem achieving a superhuman task.
          The detective portion of the story is almost as effective, with Howard’s character using a combination of intuition and perseverance to track down every lead, no matter how unlikely it is to bear fruit. A Hollywood version of this material would inevitably have overstated the cat-and-mouse dynamic, while also giving gentler qualities to Andersson’s character, but it’s the sheer chilliness of The Night Visitor that makes it so interesting to watch. Instead of coming across like a melodrama, the picture feels like a procedural set in a cruelly unfair universe.

The Night Visitor: FUNKY

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Premonition (1976)

          A bad movie that contains so many interesting things it almost becomes a good movie, The Premonition tells the strange story of a psychotic woman who teams up with her carnival-clown boyfriend to kidnap her biological daughter from the child’s adoptive parents. Oh, and the parents use paranormal means to find the missing child. The first half of the premise is emotional, the second half of the premise is bizarre, and the pieces don’t fit together at all. Worse, The Premonition unfolds like a horror movie, complete with bloody murders and disturbing comin’-at-ya moments. By most rational standards, The Premonition is a mess, too touchy-feely for the shock-cinema crowd, and too gruesome for conventional audiences. Yet it’s exactly that peculiar mixture of elements that makes the picture arresting. Calling The Premonition a noble failure might require giving the filmmakers way too much credit, but the film occupies an odd middle ground between arthouse pretentiousness and grindhouse sensationalism.
          It also helps that The Premonition features the unusual character actor Richard Lynch. Whereas he usually played tough-talking villains, Lynch gets to add surprising flourishes, including a touch of interpretive dance, to his portrayal of an unhinged carny. Like other aspects of The Premonition, his performance isn’t good so much as it’s peculiar. As with the movie itself, the less the performance “works,” the more watchable it becomes. The broad strokes of the plot are as follows. Andrea (Ellen Barber) seems weirdly preoccupied with a young girl named Janie (Danielle Brisebois), so she asks her boyfriend, Jude (Lynch), for help abducting the girl from Professor Miles Bennett (Edward Bell) and his wife, Sheri (Sharon Farrell). Turns out Andrea recently left a mental institution, and the Bennetts became Janie’s guardians when the government deemed Andrea an unfit mother. After the abduction, Miles seeks help from his colleague, Dr. Jeena Kingsly (Chitra Neogy), an expert on precognition, telepathy, and the like. Never mind that police detective Mark Denver (Jeff Corey) is on the case.
          Director Robert Allen Schnitzer tries to create dreamlike images on the cheap, so some scenes have the desired ethereal feel while others seem grungy because of focus problems and shoddy lighting. The sum effect, however, is suitably disorienting. Even lapses in story logic help create an eerie vibe, because it’s difficult to understand why certain things happen, and the climax is outlandish in the extreme. The Premonition isn’t fun to watch, partially because the subject matter is grim, and partially because Farrell plays the same hysterical note again and again throughout her grating performance. Still, it’s inexplicably difficult to look away while this one’s unspooling.

The Premonition: FUNKY

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ransom for a Dead Man (1971)

          On its own merits, the made-for-TV crime picture Ransom for a Dead Man is an enjoyable if somewhat far-fetched story about a murderess trapped by the complications of her attempt at committing the perfect crime. The title refers to her main gimmick—killing her husband, then pretending he was kidnapped and using doctored audio recordings to create the illusion of his voice delivering ransom demands while police are present to hear the phone call. Playing the murderess is the highly capable Lee Grant. She conveys nefarious duplicity while her character acts the victim, and she unleashes nastiness when her character pushes a stepdaughter out of the way so the murderess can claim her dead husband’s fortune. Still, Ransom for a Dead Man emphasizes plot over characterization, and the filmmakers never bother to humanize the murderess. So why bother talking about this picture? Because the police officer who finally traps the murderess is none other than Lieutenant Frank Columbo of the LAPD.
          As played by Peter Falk in dozens of TV movies spanning 1971 to 2003, Columbo is one of the most popular crime-fighters in small-screen history, even though he never appeared in a proper weekly series. The reasons for his popularity are plainly evident throughout Ransom for a Dead Man, and, in fact, Grant’s character explicitly describes the investigator’s unique methodology in a monologue, detailing how Columbo disarms suspects by pretending to be absent-minded, gullible, and simple, even though he’s remarkably clever, observant, and shrewd. Ransom for a Dead Man is such a thorough introduction to Columbo that even the character’s famous rumpled raincoat makes its first appearance here. Yet in some ways, Ransom for a Dead Man isn’t the ideal template for the many Columbo adventures that followed, seeing as how the lieutenant employs a civilian to execute a dangerous and legally questionable sting operation as the final trap for snaring the resourceful murderess. To find a pristine example of Columbo’s sleuthing, it’s best to check out the character’s next appearance and the first official episode of the recurring telefilm series, Murder by the Book, which broadcast later in 1971. The pedigree of that one explains why it’s so good: Steven Bochco wrote the script and Steven Spielberg directed.
          Getting back to Ransom for a Dead Man, you’ll note that the phrase “pilot episode” has not yet been used. Like a Columbo mystery, this gets tricky. Originally played by Bert Freed, Columbo first appeared in “Enough Rope,” a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. The episode’s writers, Richard Levinson and William Link, repurposed the character for their play Prescription: Murder, which in turn became a 1968 TV movie with Falk as a less disheveled version of Columbo. Therefore it wasn’t until Ransom for a Dead Man that the version of Columbo beloved by generations of TV fans made his debut, raincoat and all.

Ransom for a Dead Man: FUNKY

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Spider’s Strategem (1970)

          Having made a conscientious exploration of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970s films, I can say with confidence that I’m not impressed. More specifically, while I acknowledge that Bertolucci has a gorgeous visual style and a unique gift for capturing the sensual reality of moments, I find his storytelling consistently murky and pretentious. And even though The Spider’s Strategem lacks some of his usual distracting fetishism (i.e., erotic and scatological elements), the film epitomizes other shortcomings. Adapted from a short story about 1920s Ireland, the movie spins a complex and interesting yarn about the gulf between legacy and reality. As in the source material, a son returns to the town where his revered father was murdered, only to discover that the lore surrounding his father’s heroic demise is largely fabricated, thereby forcing the son to decide whether it’s best to reveal the facts or to leave his father’s inspirational myth intact. There’s enough thematic heft in that premise to support an entire movie, and, indeed, the narrative has shades of John Ford’s classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
          Yet this wasn’t enough for Bertolucci. He transposed the plot to contemporary Italy, morphing the dead father into a famous anti-fascist activist. Fair enough. But then Bertolucci took a further step by integrating a trope of surrealism. Throughout The Spider’s Strategem, the protagonist has weird experiences leading him to question whether he’s dreaming or suffering at the hands of perverse conspirators. As a result, the movie starts and ends with clarity, but the middle of the film is confounding and shapeless. Bertolucci plays silly games like having the same actor play the son and the father, often having both characters appear during the same scene, ostensibly to reflect the protagonist’s tormented state of mind while he wrangles the mysteries of the past. All of this is hugely ambitious, and yet The Spider’s Strategem runs just 100 minutes, making it the shortest of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films. On one level, Bertolucci tried to accomplish too much, changing a linear narrative into something dreamlike and fractured, and on another level, he didn’t try to accomplish enough, because The Spider’s Strategem doesn’t have the epic sprawl that would have been necessary to effectively convey so many different layers of meaning.
          Worse, the picture is infused with heavy symbolism that only the most devoted viewers will bother parsing, as well as tiresome speeches about the nature of fascism. It’s not as if the film is impenetrable, but it’s needlessly dense and elusive. Presented without arthouse affectations, The Spider’s Strategem could have been the equivalent of a great Hitchcock thriller, conveying powerful notions about deception, family obligations, and political machinations. As is, viewers must peer through fog to find those themes. That said, The Spider’s Strategem is greatly elevated—as are all of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films—by the extraordinary cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Employing his signature touches of subtle Rembrant lighting and balletic camera moves, Storaro makes even the most arbitrary and indulgent of Bertolucci’s images seem considered and purposeful.

The Spider’s Strategem: FUNKY

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Late Great Planet Earth (1979)

          I’ve made no secret of my boundless affection for ’70s schlockumentaries that use highly questionable pseudoscience as the jumping-off point for creepy “what if?” scenarios, so I freely acknowledge my predisposition toward junk on the order of The Late Great Planet Earth. Even though the film essentially says the world will end in the year 2000, an assertion that most would agree has proven untrue, I still enjoyed watching this irresponsibly provocative compendium of doomsday theories extrapolated from Biblical prophecies. Much credit goes to Orson Welles, who appears onscreen as host and provides voiceover narration. Although this was undoubtedly a quick paycheck gig that meant nothing to Welles, his unique speaking style, all melodic gravitas and poetic timing, makes the malarkey sound magical. Similarly, big props to composer Dana Kaproff, who contributes a hugely dramatic score suitable for a big-budget horror movie. Together, Kaproff and Welles give The Late Great Planet Earth scale and style. Make no mistake, this is a genuinely bad movie, 90 minutes of outrageous bullshit thrown onscreen by way of silly Biblical re-enactments, stock footage, and talking heads. But if you go for this sort of thing, as I do, you’ll find much of The Late Great Planet Earth darkly entertaining. That is, whenever the movie doesn’t slip into one of its periodic, sleep-inducing lulls.
          The dude behind this ridiculous project is self-proclaimed Biblical historian Hal Lindsey, who is the main on-camera interview subject and also the co-author of the successful nonfiction book upon which the film is based. (Originally published in 1970, The Late Great Planet Earth reportedly sold over 25 million copies.) According to Lindsey, the fact that many prophecies expressed in the Bible have come true means that every prophecy in the Bible eventually will come true. The red flags this sort of sketchy logic raises are countless, so it’s best to simply groove on The Late Great Planet Earth as a paranormal thrill ride. Lindsey’s big move involves claiming that the formation of Israel in 1948 was the first in a chain of events foretelling the arrival of the antichrist. He and the filmmakers then create a laundry list of “signs” the end times are a-comin’. Somehow, computers, famine, killer bees, pollution, processed food, and recombinant DNA all meet the criteria, as does the spread of cults, Eastern religion, and Wicca. To illustrate these points, the filmmakers raid the stock-footage vaults, throwing everything from volcanoes to various shots of sunbathing women onscreen. The top of the picture is fun, with creepy Biblical vignettes, and the climax is wonderfully excessive with its Dr. Strangelove-style montage of mushroom clouds. In between is a whole lot of silliness, some of it laughably colorful and some of it laughably drab.

The Late Great Planet Earth: FUNKY

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Golden Rendezvous (1977)


          Adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s pulpy adventure novels emerged regularly throughout the ’70s, though none achieved the stature of The Guns of Navarone (1961), the most successful movie yet derived from a MacLean story. Watching Golden Rendezvous offers a quick reminder of why so many of these pictures failed to generate excitement. An action saga set on the waters of the Caribbean, Golden Rendezvous has a little bit of everything—bombs, double-crosses, fist fights, gambling, gun fights, hijacking, knife fights, murder, sex, and so on. The overarching story makes sense once all the pieces fall into place, but the character work runs the questionable gamut from iffy to one-dimensional, and the gender politics belong to an earlier era. In other words, Golden Rendezvous is regressive macho silliness so determined to avoid depth and substance that whenever it seems like a moment of true human feeling is about to appear onscreen, the filmmakers introduce some element of danger and/or violence. And if there’s any meaning or theme being served here, then it’s only because the filmmakers failed in their efforts to keep such things at bay. Golden Rendezvous is pleasant enough to watch for the action scenes, and the cast is plenty colorful, but you’ll forget having watched the thing before the end credits finish rolling.
          Richard Harris stars as John Carter, first officer on a boat that hauls cargo but also includes a high-end casino. When criminals led by Luis Carreras (John Vernon) hijack the ship, Carter springs into action, forming covert alliances with trustworthy crewmen and passengers while also using sneaky tactics to eliminate thugs one by one. The plot becomes more ridiculous with each passing scene, so by the end of the picture, Golden Rendezvous involves not just the hijacking but also a blackmail scheme and even a nuclear bomb. MacLean was a whiz at generating suspenseful situations, but credibility was never his strong suit. Still, Harris is enjoyable here, all lanky athleticism and roguish charm, and several solid actors support him. Besides Vernon’s reliable villainy, the picture offers, in much smaller roles, John Carradine, David Janssen, and Burgess Meredith. As for leading lady Ann Turkel, one can’t blame Harris for trying to help his then-wife build an acting career—this was the third of four Harris movies in which she costars. As went their marriage, alas, so too did her run in big-budget movies.

Golden Rendezvous: FUNKY

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hometown U.S.A. (1979)

After making a pair of entertaining drive-in pictures about the American south, actor-turned-director Max Baer Jr., of The Beverly Hillbillies fame, inexplicably jumped onto the ’50s-nostalgia bandwagon by making a crude ripoff of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), even though several copycat pictures had already been released. Baer’s contribution to this disreputable tradition, Hometown U.S.A., starts off innocuously enough, shamelessly replicating scenes of teenagers getting into mischief while cruising down Main Street in hot cars. Then the movie degrades into idiotic sex farce, to the point where the climax seems as if belongs in an entirely different film. Nonetheless, some viewers might find the first hour of the picture more or less tolerable as an homage to Lucas’ nostalgic hit. Set in 1957, Hometown U.S.A. tracks the exploits of three teenagers—nerdy Rodney “The Rodent” Duckworth (Gary Springer), smooth T.J. Swackhammer (Brian Kerwin), and tough Recil Calhoun (David Wilson). Also woven into the mix is a blonde dreamgirl named Marilyn (Pat Delaney), whom Rodney sees driving around town at regular intervals. Is this almost exactly the same premise as American Graffiti? See the use of the word “shamelessly” above. Yet while Lucas’ movie is family-friendly, treating adult themes in such a restrained manner that American Graffiti was rated PG, Baer takes the crude route, earning his movie’s R-rating with vulgar sexcapades. Rodney has dreams in which his classmates cheer while he screws Marilyn. Rodney steals a car and adopts the name “Rod Heartbender,” then squires an awkward girl who turns out to be a freak with a thing for public exposure and taunting bikers. And that’s atop the usual vignettes of juvenile delinquency, with kids pranking cops and stealing hubcaps, all to the accompaniment of beloved ’50s pop songs. Hometown U.S.A. follows a sad spiral from harmlessly stupid to painfully stupid, degrading women and destroying viewers’ brain cells as it slinks along from one derivative and/or dopey scene to the next.

Hometown U.S.A.: LAME

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Rolling Man (1972)

          At first glance, the made-for-TV drama Rolling Man might seem like little more than an offbeat mediocrity with an interesting-ish cast. Prolific TV-movie guy Dennis Weaver plays a tow-truck driver who loses custody of his kids while serving a prison term for assault, then struggles to find them upon gaining his release. Supporting him are Donna Mills, Agnes Moorehead, Sheree North, Slim Pickens, Don Stroud, and country singer Jimmy Dean. The story is a bit of a mess, because the leading character tends to stumble in and out of episodes, lingering in places when he should be looking for his kids, so there’s not much in the way of forward momentum until the last 20 minutes or so. Yet the exemplary work of a behind-the-scenes player elevates Rolling Man. By dint of airing about two weeks before another 1972 telefilm, Goodnight, My Love, this picture represents the directorial debut of Peter Hyams, who later became a successful feature-film helmer known for action pictures, conspiracy thrillers, and sci-fi sagas. He does terrific work here, not only by imbuing Rolling Man with a naturalistic pictorial style but also by guiding his actors to render lived-in performances. What’s more, the picture has strong rural atmosphere, from the believable dialects of the characters to the gritty look of low-rent locations including racetracks and trailer parks.
          The movie’s unlucky protagonist is Lonnie (Weaver), a simple guy who enjoys working for mechanic Chuck (Pickens) because the lifestyle allows him to avoid heavy responsibilities. But when Lonnie discovers that his wife is two-timing him with racecar driver Harold (Stroud), Lonnie freaks out, chasing the lovers and running them off the road. After the wife dies in the crash, Lonnie beats the tar out of Harold, blaming him for the tragedy. Years later, after leaving jail, Lonnie discovers that his mother (Moorehead) sent his kids to live with a foster family, so Lonnie embarks on a quest to find the two boys, though he’s periodically derailed by dalliances with pretty women. Eventually, circumstances lead to a showdown between Lonnie and his old nemesis Harold. The script never quite clicks, partially because the bond connecting Lonnie to his sons isn’t established well at the beginning. However, nearly every scene in Rolling Man works as a stand-alone piece. Hyams knew what he was doing, as evidenced by the fact that he graduated to big-screen directing after the near-simultaneous release of his first two made-for-TV efforts.

Rolling Man: FUNKY

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Jesus Trip (1971)

          The virtues of this biker flick are relative. Firstly, the picture gets points for being slow, moody, and understated, since most movies about scooter trash opt for noisy collisions of raucous music and unsavory behavior. Secondly, the film has an unusual look, even by the standards of other low-budget ’70s flicks, because to my eyes, it seems as if virtually no artificial lighting was used. Nearly the entire story takes place outside, often during dawn or dusk, and the few interior scenes involve practical lights, such as candles and overheads. Combined with some imaginative camera angles, this visual approach gives The Jesus Trip an appealingly handmade quality. It’s worth noting that director Russ Mayberry spent most of his long career directing episodic TV, so the style of this movie is about as far away from his work on, say, Ironside or The Partridge Family as one could imagine. The downside to all this praise is that, ultimately, The Jesus Trip is just another biker flick. The title refers to the fact that a biker gang hides out in a church and kidnaps a nun. Otherwise, from the long montages of guys driving their hogs down open highways to the subplot about a humiliated cop stalking bikers so he can exact revenge, the beats of the storyline are as ordinary as the look is unusual.
          Led by Waco (Robert Porter), a gang of bikers cruises through a small town and gets into a hassle with highway patrolman Tarbaro (Billy “Green” Bush). The particulars are murky, but the gist is that the bikers accidentally stole motorcycles filled with heroin, making them targets for both corrupt and legitimate cops. The bikers seek refuge with nuns, and Sister Anna (Tippy Walker) bonds with Waco while nursing him for a gunshot wound. Later, after the bikers abduct Anna during a getaway, she develops romantic feelings for Waco even as Tarbaro, who’s hung up on her, chases the bikers. Many viewers will lose patience with The Jesus Trip, and understandably so—for long stretches, nothing much happens. Those who stay with the picture will encounter some interesting things, notably a horrific scene during which Tarbaro buries people in the sand, leaving just their heads exposed, then leads his buddies in riding their motorcycles past the buried people’s heads with just inches to spare. (Kudos to the stunt players for their fearless work.) The Jesus Trip also gets darker and darker as it goes along, portraying bikers as victims and cops as savages, so it gains a certain crude toughness by the time the grim ending arrives.

The Jesus Trip: FUNKY