Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Zebra Force (1976)

          Sensible people should give this schlocky action thriller a wide berth, but those with a taste for entertainingly stupid films will find Zebra Force a tasty morsel. Boasting cheap production values, a no-name cast, and storytelling so sloppy that it’s never clear which character is supposed to be the protagonist, the movie surmounts its shortcomings—in a manner of speaking—by moving along at a brisk pace, flying from one goofy scene to the next even though logic falls by the wayside within the first ten minutes. Plus, it should be noted that some of the performances are adequate, with sorta-kinda leading man Mike Lane giving an enjoyably cocksure turn as a Mafia enforcer. As for the story, it’s a whopper: Under the supervision of a physically impaired leader, a group of Vietnam vets robs several Mob-owned businesses, disguising their white faces with sophisticated masks that make the gangsters believe the robbers are all black men. And, to answer the obvious question, no, the filmmakers don’t actually use sophisticated masks for the masquerade scenes. Instead, black actors perform all the action until it’s time for the masks to come off, at which point the white actors wear patently fake-looking masks for a few seconds. Some low-budget movie illusions are so brazen that you almost have to compliment the filmmakers for their hubris.
          The general flow of the story is that after the first robbery, an irate Mafia boss sends his top guy, Carmine (Lane), to catch the thieves. Meanwhile, Lt. Claymore (Clay Tanner), whose face is scarred and whose right arm is missing, both thanks to battlefield injuries, masterminds his former Army unit’s get-rich-scheme. Strangely, he’s portrayed as a chipper all-American type; Claymore refers to his thugs as “a great bunch of guys,” and he makes them flush heroin seized during a bust because, “We’re not in this to hurt society but to rid society of some of its scum—and of course we reap the profit.” To imagine the full effect, you should know that he delivers all his lines through an electrolarynx, so he sounds like a robot. Especially because the storyline gets dumber and dumber as the movie progresses, Zebra Force is always thisclose to becoming genuinely terrible. Yet for the right viewers, it’s a hoot. Inexplicably, the same team behind Zebra Force made a sequel, Code Name: Zebra, which was released in 1987.

Zebra Force: FUNKY

Monday, February 27, 2017

Flesh Feast (1970)

Few cinematic swan songs are as undignified as Flesh Feast, the final screen credit for 1940s movie siren Veronica Lake. Well into a physical decline thanks to alcoholism and other difficulties, she hadn’t acted for several years before signing on for this bargain-basement horror flick, and her marquee value had been nonexistent for an even longer period of time. In this cheap, dull, and stupid picture, she plays a scientist experimenting with techniques for reversing the aging process. For reasons that are never clear, this mostly involves monitoring trays filled with maggots. At the beginning of the movie, the scientist’s nefarious employers kill a reporter who has gotten too close to the truth about the secret experiments, so the reporter’s editor continues the dead man’s investigation, abetted by a woman working undercover as the scientist’s assistant. After the opening murder, virtually nothing happens for about 40 minutes, and then the closest thing the filmmakers can conjure to a thrill is a lame vignette of a woman discovering a roomful of fake-looking corpses. Ineptly made on every level, Flesh Feast is distinguished by dialogue so arbitrary and sporadic that the soundtrack seems as if it was ad-libbed by the smartasses at Mystery Science Theater 3000. (One can’t blame Lake for seeming as if she’s reading off cue cards in many scenes, because the movie’s inane chatter doesn’t merit memorization.) To save you the unpleasantness of watching this whole movie, here’s the one enjoyably ridiculous moment: In the final scene, Lake’s character revives the body of Adolph Hitler (!) so she can toss maggots at his face as a means of avenging her mother, who died in a concentration camp. With that, Lake faded from the screen. She died three years after this film’s release.

Flesh Feast: SQUARE

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The President’s Plane Is Missing (1973)

          Some movie ideas are too good to be true, in the sense that it’s difficult to imagine a fully satisfying story emerging from the idea. The made-for-TV mystery The President’s Plane Is Missing exemplifies this all-too-common circumstance. The title alone, and the premise it delivers, is tantalizing: What, exactly, would happen if Air Force One fell off radar? With today’s 24/7 digital connectivity, the premise wouldn’t work, because the whole world would know what happened almost instantly. In the early ’70s, there was a bit more leeway for stretching this scenario out to feature length, and, indeed, the storyline—extrapolated from a novel by Robert J. Serling—is fairly resourceful. Together with skillful direction by Daryl Duke and the competent work of a cast mostly comprising veteran B-listers, the crafty narrative makes The President’s Plane Is Missing relatively interesting as a far-fetched potboiler. That it ultimately devolves into a standard-issue conspiracy thriller is unsurprising, because, really, that’s one of only a handful of directions the premise could have led. To the filmmakers’ credit, they keep a few decent aces up their collective sleeve, so those who seek out this disposable picture will find the viewing experience pleasant enough.
          The film’s main characters are Vice President Kermit Madigan (Buddy Ebsen) and wire-service reporter Mark Jones (Peter Graves). When Air Force One disappears during bad weather near Winslow, Arizona, Madigan gets pulled into a constitutional crisis. He can’t assume the presidency until the death of his boss is confirmed, and yet he’s obligated to provide leadership while the president is missing. Naturally, there’s an international incident brewing, specifically a standoff with China. Hawkish advisor George Oldenburg (Rip Torn) advocates action, while doveish Secretary of State Freeman Sharkey (Raymond Massey) counsels caution. Meanwhile, Mark and his intrepid editor, Gunther Damon (Arthur Kennedy), sense that the available facts don’t tell the whole story, so they push through high-security firewalls to ferret out the truth. The picture’s balance of Oval Office intrigue and field investigation keeps things lively, and the performances are never less than professional. (Ebsen and Torn are the standouts, delivering, respectively, plainspoken integrity and ruthless ambition.) Helping things along is an energetic score by the prolific Gil Melle, featuring a Six Million Dollar Man-style combination of driving bongo beats and militaristic snare patterns.

The President’s Plane Is Missing: FUNKY

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Tomorrow (1972)

          Texan playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote was involved with two of Robert Duvall’s most important acting performances, his early breakthrough appearance as mysterious recluse Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and his Oscar-winning portrayal of faded country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983). Between those projects, the duo collaborated on Tomorrow, the screenplay for which Foote adapted from the William Faulkner story of the same name. It’s a minor piece, rightfully overshadowed by Duvall’s mainstream films of the same era, notably The Godfather (1971). Still, those who respect Duvall’s extraordinary talent and Foote’s homespun poetry can find much to appreciate here, because Tomorrow is a sincere character study exploring the repercussions of a simple man’s clumsy attempt at forming a human connection with a stranger.
          Shot in black and white and mostly set in and around a ramshackle sawmill that’s inactive during the off season, the picture betrays its theatrical origins—Foote’s first adaptation of the Faulker story was a play, which he expanded into the script for this project—and some viewers will find the experience of watching Tomorrow claustrophobic and dull. The characters in this piece are plain rural folks, and Duvall plays a man who mostly communicates through physical actions, drawling his sparse lines in a guttural monotone whenever he actually speaks. Yet while the accoutrements of the piece are specific, the themes are universal.
          Duvall plays Jackson Fentry, a man who has rarely ventured beyond his father’s farm until he takes a job as the winter caretaker for a sawmill located deep inside a thick forest. Claiming he doesn’t mind the prospect of spending months by himself in the woods, he’s in fact painfully lonely, so he welcomes the surprising arrival of Sarah Eubanks (Olga Bellin), a young pregnant woman who stumbles upon the mill one day. Abandoned by her husband and shunned by her parents, she’s even more alone in the world than Jackson. He provides shelter, and over the weeks preceding the arrival of her baby, they bond. Jackson proposes marriage, despite knowing that Sarah already has a husband somewhere. Thereafter, fate intervenes in cruel ways.
          The intimate scenes work best, with Duvall’s repressed primitivism balancing Bellin’s vulnerability and warmth—she comes across like a backwoods Blythe Danner. Scenes involving outsiders are almost as effective, because Foote articulates how Jackson tries to protect his newfound love, only to get harsh reminders of his powerlessness. The wraparound bits framing the story have less impact, and probably could have been discarded entirely, especially since they add another layer of sadness to a story that’s already downbeat. If only because Duvall is in nearly every scene, anchoring the film with intensity and emotional truthfulness, Tomorrow merits consideration as one of his key films, but it’s not for everyone.

Tomorrow: GROOVY

Friday, February 24, 2017

Cheerleaders Beach Party (1978)

The depressing thing about Cheerleaders Beach Party is the glimmer of wit visible beneath layers of dopey sex-comedy sleaze. Written by Chuck Vincent, a pornographer who occasionally made R-rated fare, the picture is tacky and tedious, rushing from one topless scene to the next and cramming in as many naughty high jinks and sexual references as possible in between. Yet the story makes sense, and it’s possible to imagine a version of the movie, with some comedy punch-up and a little restraint, becoming palatable. The plot involves a quartet of cheerleaders at Rambling University using sex and subterfuge to keep the football coach at another school from poaching Rambling’s top players with offers of better perks. (As the girls shout upon formulating their scheme: “One-tw0-three-four, who do we put out for? Rambling U, Rambling U—yay, team!”) Although the filmmakers don’t bother much with characterization, they provide a lot of incidents, so the story moves along, and every so often Vincent’s script features something resembling an intelligent line or a reasonable plot complication. For instance, the girls steal a van from Rambling’s coach, so in a running gag, he spends the whole movie chasing after the girls while driving their tricked-out animal-print sedan. Similarly, the climax involves the girls stealing medical samples of crabs and releasing the pests into the jockstraps of players before an important practice. These are bottom-feeding jokes, to be sure, but they reveal that a bit more effort was put into this thing than necessary, just as drawing the line at topless shots and partially clothed sex scenes reveals that the filmmakers didn’t go as far down the grindhouse rabbit hole as they could have. That said, this flick is still called Cheerleaders Beach Party, and it’s still a dimwitted sexcapade driven by awful disco music. Saying it could’ve been worse isn’t the same as saying it’s worth anyone’s time.

Cheerleaders Beach Party: LAME

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander (1973)

After having watched countless low-budget ’70s movies about the brutalization of women, it’s hard to know what to say about them anymore. These are vile movies catering to vile appetites. To be clear, there’s a world of difference between something like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), which explores horrific psychosexual terrain as a means of exploring difficult questions about what makes people tick, and something like The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander. While far from the worst movie of its type, not only because it’s made with a modicum of skill but also because the exploitation scenes aren’t stretched out to fetishistic length, this picture is still so fundamentally grimy as to make the sensible viewer feel sullied by the time the closing credits roll. Anyway, to get a sense of what to expect, consider the flicks various titles: In addition to The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander, the picture is known as Cycle Psycho and Savage Abduction (hence the above poster). In fact, put those titles together, and you get the basic plot: A bloody slaying leads to cycle psychos committing a savage abduction. After a woman named Sarah Ridelander is murdered, her husband, Dick Ridelander (Tom Drake), escapes police scrutiny because of an airtight alibi. Yet he’s actually the guilty party, since he hired a maniac named Harry (Joe Turkel) to kill his wife. (Harry violated the corpse afterward.) Dick’s dreams of getting away with crime are derailed when Harry blackmails him with audio recordings of Dick ordering the murder. The price for silence is a pair of pretty girls Harry can rape and murder for kicks, so Dick enlists a group of bikers to kidnap would-be victims. Unpleasantness ensues. For those who care about such things, this movie provides a good showcase for offbeat character actor Turkel, familiar to cinema fans for his work in movies ranging from Paths of Glory (1957) to Blade Runner (1982). His performance isn’t imaginative, but his characterization is sufficiently loathsome and twitchy to create a few unnerving moments.

The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander: LAME

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Get Mean (1975)

          “Oh, dear God,” the gunfighter exclaims. “They got everything in this country!” The country in question is Spain, or at least this film’s funhouse-mirror version of Spain, and the reason for the gunfighter’s exasperation is that even though he’s an American from the Wild West, he’s encountered ghosts, gypsies, a Shakespeare-spouting hunchback, marauding Moors, a bitchy princess, and barbarian savages who may or may not be Vikings. Although it’s technically the final entry in a four-film spaghetti-Western series starring Tony Anthony as “The Stranger,” a knockoff of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” character, Get Mean—also known as Beat a Dead Horse, The Stranger Gets Mean, and Vengeance of the Barbarians—is a deeply weird phantasmagoria disguised as an action/adventure film.
          Many have noted similarities between Get Mean and Army of Darkness (1992), the final theatrical entry in Sam Raimi’s gonzo Evil Dead series, since both pictures involve sarcastic Americans facing monsters in otherworldly realms. Yet while Get Mean nearly matches Army of Darkness for imaginative strangeness, it lacks the playful wit of Raimi’s movies, so the movie is dull and flat when it should be exciting and whimsical. Anthony’s bland performance is one weak area, but it’s not the only one. Jokes thud, villains seem petty instead of nefarious, and scenes drag on way past the point when they cease being interesting.
          Thing get off to a lively start, because the Stranger gets dragged by a horse through a desert—past some sort of metallic orb thngy—into a ghost town, at which point the horse drops dead. Then the Stranger enters a saloon, which suddenly has people, and encounters folks dressed in costumes from various different historical periods. After a pointless bar brawl, Princess Elizabeth (Diana Loris) hires the Stranger to escort her to Spain. Cut to a map, revealing that the original location is in the Great Lakes (!), and a line tracks the Stranger’s trip to Spain by horse, train, and steamship. Upon reaching Europe, the Stranger gets roped into a war between the barbarians and the Moors, accepting the challenge to perform a labors-of-Hercules mission. At one point during his odyssey, the Stranger discovers his skin has turned black, just before he fights an angry bull. Other episodes during the movie include an implied lesbian orgy, a torture dungeon, and a shootout pitting the Stranger’s monstrous, multi-barreled hand cannon against the hunchback’s rotating gun turret, which is equipped with full-sized cannons.
          All of this sounds a lot more interesting than it is to watch, though Get Mean is somewhat lavishly produced. Director Ferdinando Baldi’s work is as unimpressive as Anthony’s, because in addition to awkwardly shifting between comic and serious tonalities, the filmmaker never quite maximizes the incredible visual potential of the material. Weird counts for something, but in the end, boring is boring. FYI, the preceding films in the series are A Stranger in Town (1967), The Stranger Returns (also 1967), and The Silent Stranger (1968).

Get Mean: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Black and White in Color (1976)

          Viewed from either a political or a technical perspective, Black and White in Color­­—a coproduction from France and the Ivory Coast that won its year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film—is highly impressive. The directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black and White in Color is a slick production with flawless costuming, photography, and production design, transporting viewers to West Africa circa 1915. Scenes inside dusty villages and military encampments are just as visually persuasive as scenes taking place on battlefields that sprawl from unforgiving plains to verdant jungles. Politically, the picture is just as strong, delivering a simple antiwar message by way of a quasi-farcical storyline about imperialist Europeans drawing unsuspecting Africans into pointless armed conflict. Yet there’s sometimes a gulf between ambitions and results. For all of its high-minded goals, Black and White and Color has significant shortcomings, worst of which is a tendency toward shallow characterizations. Annaud and his collaborators stuff the film with so many characters that none can be developed fully, so it’s hard to feel much emotional connection with the people onscreen, beyond normal sympathy for individuals mired in tragic circumstances. Given this weakness, Black and White in Color works better as a statement than as a story.
          The gist of the piece is that two European forts are situated in close proximity to each other, one occupied by French colonists and one occupied by Germans colonists. When French geologist Hubert Fresnoy (Jacques Spiesser) receives a care package containing months-old newspapers, he and his Gallic colleagues learn their country is at war with Germany. Despite the fact that the conflagration has been underway for some time with no impact on their lives, some of the Frenchmen experience a surge of nationalism and resolve to attack the German fort. They recruit natives as soldiers, offering household trinkets as payment. Tragedy, predictably, ensues.
          While some of the satirical moments in Black and White and Color are relatively subtle, too many are obvious. In one scene, for instance, a French priest rides in a chair carried by several natives, who sing in their own language about Europeans striking them as obese and odiferous. Oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics, the priest declares, “Oh, how I love this song!” Annaud films everything beautifully, whether he’s using long lenses to capture documentary-style details during crowd scenes or staging a trench-warfare scene in a rainy jungle ravine to amplify the physical discomforts of combat situations. He also gets a few scenes just right, notably the long sequence of a Frenchman leading a group over a tiny stream and pretending it’s the Rhine. Of such delusions horrific jingoistic arrogance is born. Nonetheless, Black and White in Color grows repetitive soon after the “declaration of war,” and it was a miscalculation to avoid making any of the Africans major characters. Annaud conveys considerable anthropological curiosity with his shots of natives going about everyday activities, but he inadvertently relegates Africans to the status of second-class citizens, which is one of the very things he skewers his European characters for doing.

Black and White in Color: FUNKY

Monday, February 20, 2017

Fight for Your Life (1977)

          According to William Lustig, CEO of cult-movie distributor Blue Underground, the original negative for the racially charged exploitation flick Fight for Your Life fell victim to Hurricane Sandy while being stored in New Jersey, Seeing as how the movie depicts a vile racist terrorizing a black pastor, it’s tempting to wonder if the destruction of the print wasn’t so much an accident as a deliberate act of God. After all, Fight for Your Life contains so much cruel ignorance and senseless violence that one can imagine a vengeful deity smiting the negative. In any event, the picture survives in digital form, so anyone who wants to spend 80-siomething minutes watching a demented redneck and his accomplices gang-rape the pastors daughter, kill various innocent bystanders, and psychologically torture the clergyman can do so at their leisure. Fight for Your Life is relatively well made for a film of its type, and the movie benefits from vigorous performances. The picture is also of mild interest for genre-cinema fans because it contains one of William Sanderson’s few starring roles. Known for his work in movies (Blade Runner), dramatic television (Deadwood), and sitcoms (Newhart), he’s among the industry’s most versatile players, so he’s long since made artistic amends for appearing in this, his first big-screen project. Plus, truth be told, he’s pretty good in Fight for Your Life, in the sense that he’s utterly repugnant in every scene. Rarely will you be more eager for a character to die.
          The flick begins with Jessie Lee Kane (Sanderson) and two accomplices escaping from a prison-transport vehicle. Hewing to the familiar Desperate Hours formula, the filmmakers place an unlikely refuge in Jessie Lee’s path, because he stumbles across the home of African-American minister Ted Turner (Robert Judd). Jessie Lee and his thugs kill people who approach the house and torment those inside, beating the minister and committing the aforementioned sexual assault. The Turners grow more defiant as the hours drag on, so at one point Ted’s wheelchair-bound grandmother unloads on the gun-toting Jessie Lee: “I’ll tell you something, Mr. Poor White Trash—you ain’t nothing but what you got in your hand! Your pappy shoulda thought of that before he stuck it in your mammy!” Given the predictable plot, it’s only a matter of time before the Turners get the better of their attackers. Meanwhile, police officers chasing the fugitives piece clues together—will they arrive in time to rescue the Turners, or to prevent the Turners from exacting revenge? In lieu of imaginative plotting, Fight for Your Life has a passable degree of suspense and a nauseating amount of hatred. Not only does Jessie Lee constantly spew the n-word, but he bombards his hostages with every other emotional, physical, and verbal humiliation he can imagine.

Fight for Your Life: FUNKY

Sunday, February 19, 2017

That Certain Summer (1972)

          The significance of this intimate telefilm derives as much from historical context as from the events depicted onscreen, because That Certain Summer is considered the first made-for-TV movie to present homosexual characters as dignified protagonists. Seen today, the picture might strike some people as inconsequential, for while That Certain Summer tells the touching story of a man forced to tell his teenaged son about a profound lifestyle change, the picture lacks dramatic fireworks. Everyone treats everyone else with respect, more or less; no one goes for the jugular during moments of conflict; and the closest the story gets to addressing political issues are a few dialogue exchanges pertaining to the limited rights enjoyed by gay men in early-’70s America. Yet because the narrative takes place in the progressive enclave of San Francisco, That Certain Summer isn’t about the restrictions society places on people. Rather, it’s about the challenges people face when asking others to change their perceptions. Not coincidentally, that’s just what the film itself asked viewers to do by casting mainstream actors in leading roles.
          Hal Holbrook stars as Doug Salter, a contractor who divorced his wife three years ago. Eventually, we learn that he told his ex-wife, Janet (Hope Lange), about his bisexuality before they got married, and that she, like so many women of her generation, presumed she could ease Doug into a permanent heterosexual lifestyle by creating a loving and stable home. By the time their son, Nick (Scott Jacoby), reached adolescence, Doug realized that he needed to live his true identity as a gay man. In the years since the divorce, Doug built a new life with a younger lover, Gary McClain (Martin Sheen), and they moved in together. When the story begins, 14-year-old Nick arrives for an extended summer visit with his father, unaware of how deeply Doug’s life has changed. In fact, Nick—like so many children of divorce—holds onto the hope that his parents will reunite. This summer, however, Doug has resolved to integrate the two halves of his life by introducing Nick to Gary, even though Gary pretends to live elsewhere so Nick isn’t confronted by too many shocking revelations at once. Nonetheless, the sensitive youth puts the pieces together and runs away from his father’s house, riding a trolley through the city while Doug and Gary search for him. Inevitably, the story gravitates toward the moment when Doug must tell the whole truth, despite the painful changes it will bring to his relationship with Nick.
          Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for their work on mystery shows (they created Columbo and co-created Murder, She Wrote), display the same humanistic subtlety here they brought to other made-for-TV movies, including The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) and My Sweet Charlie (1970). Both of those pictures were directed by versatile craftsman Lamont Johnson, as was That Certain Summer. Fine script and direction notwithstanding, this is primarily an actor’s piece. Sheen channels the suppressed tension of a man trying not to make a difficult situation worse until he briefly flashes anger during a confrontation with his brother-in-law (Joe Don Baker, great in a cameo role). Jacoby is good, too, investing the mostly one-note role of a confused kid with palpable anguish.
          Holbrook commands the film, playing gentle notes of ambivalence and pride and regret as a man who masks his identity in professional settings and desperately wants to be truthful in private settings. As seen through the eyes of his character’s son, who has yet to form prejudices but nonetheless receives demeaning signals from society, Doug is not a hero but an everyman. The sheer ordinariness of his situation is what makes That Certain Summer so meaningful.

That Certain Summer: RIGHT ON

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Nicole (1978)

Some bad movies survive because they’re entertainingly inept, some endure because they belong to popular genres, and others remain as documents of early work by people who later became stars. And then there are movies like Nicole, also known as Crazed, which linger because of boobs. Specifically, lowbrow distributor Troma’s video marketing for Nicole accentuates the fact that supporting actress Catherine Bach, of The Dukes of Hazzard fame, does a topless scene. Yet those who seek Nicole for an erotic charge are in for a shock: Nicole is confusing, strange, and unpleasant. Leslie Caron stars as Nicole, an insane rich bitch who builds a surrogate family of sycophants. She toys with people, for instance compelling Bach’s character to get a nose job and then secretly redecorating the young woman’s apartment and replacing the young woman’s wardrobe. Nicole seems vaguely interested in having a lesbian affair with Bach’s character, and yet Nicole also seems to recruit a young male lover for the woman, and to recruit an age-appropriate male lover for herself. Or maybe some of these people have a threesome. You see, the problem with Nicole—okay, one of the problems—is that cowriter/director István Ventilla employs such a pretentious, splintered storytelling style that it’s often difficult to understand what’s happening. Moments get cut up and fragmented, audio is juxtaposed with picture in seemingly random patterns, and behavior is never explained. Case in point: The movie opens with an everyman (Ramon Bieri) discovering his wife in bed with another man and then killing both of them. Cut to the same man working as Nicole’s driver. How did they meet? Does she know what he did? Were the murders investigated? Who knows? Who cares? As a leading character, Nicole is one of those bizarre screenwriter inventions, a collection of perversions and tics without any psychological glue, so Caron is seductive and urbane in one scene, hysterical and violent in the next. As with all things Nicole, nothing about the performance makes sense, and very little of it is interesting to watch.

Nicole: LAME

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973)

          Casual fans who primarily know Peter Sellers from the Pink Panther movies may think his penultimate film, Being There (1979), represents Sellers’ only significant dramatic work, but of course that’s not the case—interspersed between his many comedies are a handful of serious films, though none captured the public’s attention the way Being There did. Among the actor’s lesser-known dramas is the UK production The Optimists of Nine Elms, released stateside with the abbreviated title The Optimists. Written and directed by Anthony Simmons, who based the script on his own novel and reportedly envisioned the movie as a starring vehicle for Buster Keaton, The Optimists of Nine Elms tells the bittersweet story of an ex-vaudeville performer, now eking out a sketchy living as a street performer. He befriends two latchkey kids, broadening their horizons by showing them more of London than the working-class slum where they live. He also teaches them life lessons of a sort, because he’s so disheartened with people that he directs all of his affection toward a scruffy pet: “You can forget all about humans,” he says. “You might as well take poison. But a dog’ll always be your friend.”
          As this remark suggests, The Optimists of Nine Elms is somewhat ironically titled. Yet because the movie is driven by twee musical scoring, features song-and-dance interludes, and ends on a sentimental note, it’s as if Simmons envisioned the movie as uplifting. (There’s a lot more Chaplin than Keaton in the film’s DNA.) Some will find the picture touching, but others will regard The Optimists of Nine Elms as dreary and dull.
          Sam (Sellers) lives in a hovel cluttered with broken-down showbiz paraphernalia. Every day, he treks to a busy street corner, puts on a flashy costume, and sings old-timey songs while his trained dog bops around with a cup for tips. Meanwhile, teenaged Liz (Donna Mullane) and her younger brother, Mark (John Chaffey), live nearby, mostly ignored by their dad, who works long hours, and their mom, who is preoccupied with housework. The kids stumble across Sam one day and become fascinated, eventually joining him on his daily outings. He’s kind some days and prickly on others, but he sees how badly the kids want a dog of their own and tries to help. In one of the film’s stranger scenes, he also takes the kids on a field trip to a pet cemetery. Fun! Sellers is okay here, wearing a prosthetic nose as he wobbles between lively and sullen; some viewers will find the spectacle of Sellers singing a toe-tapping version of “This Old Man” more interesting than others. As for the movie around him, it’s mostly quite gloomy, thanks to grimy locations and Mullane’s perpetually sour facial expressions, although the music—credited to Lionel Bart and the Beatles’ main man, George Martin—strives mightily to inject happiness.

The Optimists of Nine Elms: FUNKY

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Asylum of Satan (1972)

Mildly enjoyable in that familiar so-bad-it’s-good sort of way, schlocky supernatural thriller Asylum of Satan marked the directorial debut of William Girdler, whose later output includes the fabulously silly shockers Grizzly (1976) and The Manitou (1978). While this first effort lacks the gloss of those subsequent pictures, Asylum of Satan has Girdler’s usual attributes of far-out situations and zippy pacing. Put less gently, the movie is fast and stupid but without the compensatory quality of slick production values. The shaky premise goes something like this—after beautiful Lucina Martin (Carla Borelli) suffers an emotional episode of some sort, her doctor inexplicably transfers her to an asylum run by Dr. Jason Specter (Charles Kissinger). Populated by zonked-out patients wearing white-hooded robes, the asylum is a staging ground for Specter’s weird medical experiments and torture sessions. For reasons that defy understanding, Specter occasionally kills patients in ridiculous ways, such as releasing a vicious snake into a swimming pool so it can kill a patient in the water, or trapping a woman in a room full of bugs. (The image of cheap-looking plastic bugs “moving” across the patient’s body by way of stop-motion animation is particularly laughable.) While Specter terrorizes Lucina, her boyfriend, Chris Duncan (Nick Jolley), tracks her down, only to get rebuffed when Dr. Specter somehow disguises his asylum as abandoned building. One idiotic scene follows another until the climax, when Dr. Specter reveals his ultimate goal of sacrificing Lucina to Lucifer, played by a woman wearing the least convincing devil costume in movie history. Crap-cinema connoisseurs will relish Asylum of Satan, but mere mortals are advised to steer clear. In fact, here’s the best part, just to save you the trouble: During his search for Lucina, Chris learns from a cop that Dr. Specter “was picked up several times for devil-worshipping.”

Asylum of Satan: LAME

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Black Starlet (1974)

          Telling the familiar story of a young woman degraded by the humiliating compromises she makes while pursuing Hollywood stardom, Black Starlet should be a disposable exploitation flick. The budget is low, the cast is unimpressive, and the exploitation quotient is high enough to become bothersome, with gratuitous nudity periodically distracting from the story. Yet Black Starlet meets and nearly exceeds the very low expectations set by its subject matter and title. Star Juanita Brown, who acted in a handful of ’70s drive-in flicks, grows into her role, becoming stronger as her character falls from hopefulness to cynicism. While certainly not a skillful performance, her work is committed enough to put the movie across. Similarly, director Chris Munger and his collaborators put sincere effort into making clichéd characters and scenes feel fresh. Everything in Black Starlet is rote on the conceptual level, from the sleazy agents and producers to the horrific scenes of men demanding sexual favors in exchange for career opportunities, but the way Munger lingers inside scenes—rather than speeding through them—allows a sense of unease to take root.
          Waking up one day next to a man she clearly regrets sleeping with, Clara (Brown) steps to a window and looks out at Los Angeles, then flashes back to events that led to her current situation. In her old life, despite having taken years of acting classes, she was a millworker going through a dull routine with a loser boyfriend prone to bar brawls. After one too many humiliating Saturday nights, she left him and made her way to Hollywood, where she got a job in a dry-cleaning shop while hustling for acting work. Enter Brisco (Eric Mason), a scumbag agent willing to trade his services for sex. He got Clara’s career started, but he also spread the word she was willing to oblige, leading her into the beds of one bottom-feeding producer after another. Ignoring good advice from the few kind souls she encountered in Los Angeles, including business manager Ben (Rockne Tarkington), Clara became “Carla,” a drugged-out, self-loathing, tempestuous diva.
          What makes Black Starlet more or less palatable are the moments wedged between exploitation-flick extremes. An early scene features Clara waiting on a street corner for a bus. After several men stop their cars to solicit her, presuming a black woman alone on the street must be a hooker, a motorcycle cop threatens to arrest her, so Clara jumps into the next man’s car just to get away from the cop. That man steals all of Clara’s money. Lesson learned. Later, in the dry-cleaning shop, Clara endures hectoring from her boss, Sam (Al Lewis), a cigar-chomping putz who refers to all his customers as “slobs” and obsessively yells: “Don’t press above the crotch!” Individually, each of these scenes is serviceable, but cumulatively, they give the vapid storyline a foundation in human reality.

Black Starlet: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Celebration at Big Sur (1971)

          Something of a footnote to Woodstock (1970), the classic documentary immortalizing the most famous musical happening of the ’60s, Celebration at Big Sur was filmed just weeks after the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, but it wasn’t released theatrically until almost two years later. Featuring several artists who also performed at Woodstock—plus a notable performer who did not, Joni Mitchell—Celebration at Big Sur is choppy and inconsistent, with interrupted songs, truncated versions of artists’ sets, and lots of peripheral nonsense comprising the picture’s brisk 83-minute running time. Despite a few musical highlights, the most interesting stretch of the picture involves vituperative Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young member Stephen Stills brawling with an obnoxious heckler. After the fight, Stills gets onstage and says how grateful he is that “some guys were there to love me out of it,” then adds, in words that seem like a parody of flower-child parlance, “We gotta just let it be, because it all will be how it’s gonna.” Whatever it takes to keep the vibe going, man. As for those musical highlights, Joan Baez delivers her usual professional renderings of tunes including “Sir Galahad,” Mitchell offers an ornate reading of “Woodstock,” CSNY churns through (part of) “Down by the River,” and Mitchell teams with David Crosby, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, and Stills for a zesty version of “Get Together.” Woodstock Lite, to be sure, but pleasant enough.
           Regarding this project’s backstory, from 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held on the grounds of the mind-expanding Esalen Institute, located on a scenic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The performances in Celebration at Big Sur were filmed in 1969. Hollywood comedy writer Carl Gottleib produced the picture, but he failed to provide a guiding aesthetic or theme—random vignettes capture everything from a pointless conversation with a local cop to shots of Crosby and Stills taking a nude sauna with other longhairs. One can’t help but get the sense of West Coast progressives desperately trying to get in on the Yasgur’s Farm action, even though the Big Sur event seems antiseptic and exclusive by comparison to Woodstock. And by the time the filmmakers try to jazz up the style of the picture with solarized double exposures while Mitchell adds a yodeling freakout to the end of “Woodstock,” the grasping for cultural relevance becomes almost painfully desperate. Celebration at Big Sur captures a moment, but other films—including not just Woodstock but also Monterey Pop (1968)—capture almost exactly the same moment much more effectively.

Celebration at Big Sur: FUNKY

Monday, February 13, 2017

Haunted (1977)

          Time for another so-bad-it’s-good wonderment. The misguided horror picture Haunted begins in the Old West, when corrupt palefaces sentence a Native American woman to death on charges of witchcraft. A century later, a weird family resides in a ghost town. Leading the family is loutish stepfather Andrew (Aldo Ray). He’s married to Michelle (Virginia Mayo), a blind widower who spends her time playing the same song over and over again on an organthat is, whenever she’s not vividly describing memories of the first time she had sex. Even though she’s only in her 50s, she’s portrayed as suffering from dementia, a source of great sadness for her two young-adult sons. Meanwhile, the phone company inexplicably installs a phone booth in the cemetery occupying the center of the ghost town. Andrew gets calls on this phone that transform him into a psychopath. Eventually, a mysterious redhead named Jennifer (Anne Michelle) wanders into town, and she may or may not be the reincarnation of the Native American witch from the prologue. Strange and unpleasant things happen, but life, more or less, goes on—Michelle’s sons proceed with plans to put her in an asylum, and her oldest son enjoys a sudden romance with Jennifer. Sort of. When he falters during a makeout session, she asks if he’s gay and he says he’s not sure.
          Virtually nothing in Haunted makes sense, but the movie is so catastrophically bad that it’s compelling to watch. For instance, the opening-credits scene features the Native American woman riding topless through the desert while Billy Vera over-emphatically sings the ridiculous song “Indian Woman” on the soundtrack (“She rides the waves of the curse she lives! Her hate keeps her going! She’ll never forgive!”). Throughout the movie, writer-director Michael A. DeGaetano’s dialogue is awkward, stilted, and weird, so the chatter regularly slips into self-parody. Upon Jennifer’s arrival, Michelle remarks, “We haven’t had any visitors since yesterday—it’s been years!” Even though the film’s production values are borderline adequate, nearly every scene has a massive flaw in continuity, dramaturgy, logic, or storytelling, if not all of the above. The music is especially egregious, with upbeat numbers during gruesome scenes and laughably rotten lyrics decorating original songs. (Brace yourself for the picture’s noxious love theme, “A Distant Time.”) Unsurprisingly, Haunted is a washout in terms of horror, because it’s too difficult to follow what’s happening to actually find any of the onscreen events frightening.

Haunted: LAME

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cannon (1971)

          Investigators with offbeat gimmicks were a staple of mystery fiction long before television came along, but by the ’70s, Hollywood had perfected the art of repackaging the same old whodunit storylines by featuring unusual protagonists. Columbo hid his wit behind a façade of simple-mindedness, McCloud was a cowpoke in the big city, Ironside was confined to a wheelchair, Kolchak solved paranormal mysteries, and so on. Yet some of these gimmicks were so threadbare as to be almost laughable. The most notable attribute of private investigator Frank Cannon, who fought crime during five seasons spanning 1971 to 1976 and returned for a 1980 telefilm, is girth. Yep, he’s big. Corpulent, fat, morbidly obese, rotund—take your pick. The character has other traits, but his size is a point of conversation from his first appearance forward. Thanks to smart scripting and a winning performance by star William Conrad, Cannon spends the enjoyable pilot movie that preceded his weekly series coming across as clever and dogged and resourceful. He even gets into brawls and foot chases. Characters remark on his weight, as does Cannon himself, but mostly he gets down to the tricky business of solving a murder and untangling a conspiracy. Particularly because this pilot has such a fine supporting cast of versatile character actors, it’s unsurprising the movie connected well enough with audiences to trigger a series. But, still, the sheer laziness of the whole enterprise—this one’s different, see, because he’s fat! There’s a reason they used to call TV a vast wasteland.
          One day, ex-cop Cannon gets a letter from Diana Langston (Vera Miles), the widow of an old friend. Traveling to the small desert town where she runs a motel, Cannon investigates the man’s death and gets stonewalled by local cops including Lt. Redfield (J.D. Cannon) and Deputy Magruder (Earl Holliman). Turns out the whole small town is under the thumb of crime boss Virgil Holley (Murray Hamilton), and things get even more complicated once Cannon discovers that Lt. Redfield’s sexy wife, Christie (Lynda Day George), has dangerous romantic ties outside her marriage. Despite several attempts on his life as well as threats of incarceration, Cannon helps Diana learn how and why her husband died, cleaning up Diana’s town in the process. Written by series creator Edward Hume, the Cannon pilot has the same qualities as other series from Quinn Martin Productions (The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco, etc.), notably crisp characterizations and strong visual interest, so even when the story gets garbled—a common trap for mystery shows—the action, locations, and performances command attention. (Also featured in the cast are Norman Alden, John Fiedler, Lawrence Pressman, Barry Sullivan, and Keenan Wynn.) Is the story about anything? No. And excepting a few twists, is the story genuinely fresh or surprising? No again. But detective shows are comfort food, and in that regard, Cannon is a hearty meal, suitable for the appetite of its protagonist.

Cannon: GROOVY