Friday, June 30, 2017

Jessi’s Girls (1975)

          Discovering a watchable Al Adamson movie is a joyous moment for the ’70s-cinema explorer, so even though Jessi’s Girls is contrived and exploitive, it improves upon most of Adamson’s directorial adventures simply because the plot makes sense and the production values are relatively professional. For surprisingly long stretches of screen time, this low-budget Western is compelling thanks to a simple vengeance-mission narrative and the novelty, given the context, of a distaff protagonist. Redheaded beauty Sondra Currie stars as Jessica Hartwell, a Mormon woman traveling with her husband through the American frontier. A gang of thugs led by odious Frank Brock (Ben Frank) attacks the Hartwells, raping Jessica and killing her husband. Left for dead with a gunshot wound, Jessica finds her way to an isolated homestead, where grizzled loner Rufe (Rod Cameron) provides shelter and teaches Jessica how to use guns. Meanwhile, the film introduces several outlaw women, all of whom get captured by a marshal. In the story’s dopiest coincidence, Jessica stumbles upon the marshal’s wagon, kills him, and frees the outlaw women. That’s how they become participants in her vengeance mission.
          This movie’s obvious negatives are plentiful. Characterizations are trite, the plot shamelessly cops elements from the Raquel Welch movie Hannie Caulder (1971), and Adamson goes overboard with topless shots. This is hardly the sleaziest drive-in picture of the ’70s, but it was unquestionably designed to satisfy low appetites. Having said all that, the movie’s positives include qualities that are rare in the Adamson oeuvre. The story moves along at a good clip with virtually no glaring logic problems. The central character is interesting and sympathetic, with a fairly consistent behavior pattern. Supporting characters enter and exit the story when they should, so the picture isn’t bogged down with or derailed by pointless discursions. And the style is appropriate, from the dusty locations to the guitar-and-harmonica soundtrack. So even though Jessi’s Girls is ultimately nothing but a boobs-and-bullets cheapie, it’s palatable. For an Adamson movie, that’s saying a lot. You may now begin the Rick Springfield jokes you’ve been desperate to make since you first read the movie’s title.

Jessi’s Girls: FUNKY

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Glove (1979)

          Starring the inimitable John Saxon, who offers one of his most appealing performances, The Glove is a tonic for schlock-cinema addicts who are tired of mean-spirited exploitation flicks. The Glove is not gentle, per se, but it avoids the familiar traps of objectifying women and sanctifying pointless violence. Additionally, the picture overflows with lively character development and whimsical dialogue, sometimes to the detriment of the storyline, and the use of hard-boiled voiceover gives the piece a pleasing flow. So while The Glove is mostly a dud as an action picture, it’s pleasant to watch as a character piece involving an amiable bounty hunter and an even more amiable escaped convict. You may find yourself perplexed as to whom this picture was meant to satisfy, since the poster suggests a brutal urban thriller, but if you’ve spent too much time aiming your retinas at ugly stories about ugly people doing ugly things, the goofy humanism of The Glove offers a refreshing alternative.
          Saxon stars as Sam Kellogg, a Los Angeles-based bounty hunter with money problems. His ex-wife is after him for overdue alimony payments, so his treasured visitations with his young daughter are in danger of being revoked. The filmmakers present layer after layer of detail about Sam, so we learn that he gambles recklessly, gives bribes to former police-force colleagues for help tracking down hoodlums, and sometimes cuts breaks for hard-luck cases. Motivated by the promise of a $20,000 bounty, Sam spends most of the movie chasing Victor Hale (Rosey Grier), who seems terrifying the first time we encounter him. Having acquired a full suit of police riot gear, including a five-pound, lead-lined monstrosity known as a riot glove, Victor demolishes a car before pummeling one of the vehicle’s occupants nearly to death. However, subsequent scenes portray Victor as a gentle giant, entertaining local children by playing blues songs on guitar while hanging out in a tenement apartment. When Victor learns that Sam is after him, he calls the bounty hunter and says to back off, instead of, say, ambushing Sam with the glove.
          Although the filmmakers never reconcile the dark and light aspects of Victor’s portrayal, it’s enjoyable to watch a picture of this type that strives to make characters dimensional. The Glove also benefits from a cast stocked with familiar professionals: Joanna Cassidy, Joan Blondell, Michael Pataki, Aldo Ray, Keenan Wynn. In the end, is The Glove a jumble of contradictory intentions? Sure. But it’s hard not to appreciate elements including the pithy voiceover (“I felt like somebody had kicked me in the stomach and left their shoe there”) and the stunningly overwrought theme song, which must be heard to be believed.

The Glove: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Specialist (1975)

Featuring the sort of dippy plot one might expect to encounter in a bad TV crime show, The Specialist concerns a woman who hires herself out as a seductress for clients with legal problems. Specifically, she agrees to sit on a jury and beguile the married defense counsel, because his enemy hopes a scandal will lead to the man’s disbarment. The inherent logic problem, of course, is that courts take pains to prevent jurors from interacting with lawyers, so by the time the seductress has her first conversation with the lawyer—addressing him from the jury box while he’s trying the case—the stupidity level of the film is already off the charts. The Specialist also suffers from sleepy pacing, so even though it’s only about 90 minutes, it feels much longer. That said, The Specialist has some compensatory values. Leading lady Ahna Capri has a knockout figure, so her brief nude scenes are impressive. The same cannot be said of her performance, because she conveys too much sweetness for her role as a cynical manipulator. In terms of this flick’s campy pleasures, one need merely invoke the name Adam West. The former Caped Crusader plays the lawyer whom Capri’s character is tasked with seducing. West flounders his way through a murky performance, sometimes trying for babe-in-the-woods innocence and sometimes trying for studly swagger. His work is enjoyably terrible. Worth mentioning is the movie’s sleazy theme song, a lounge-lizard R&B number crooned by the inimitable Lou Rawls. Listening to the song, which is played at full length twice during the film, is almost as cringe-inducing as watching West grope Capri’s enormous breasts.

The Specialist: LAME

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Four Rode Out (1970)

          Distinguished only by its incessant cruelty, the American/European coproduction Four Rode Out is one of those bleak low-budget Westerns portraying the American frontier as a wasteland of morally bankrupt opportunists laying siege to innocents. Distinctly different from higher-minded projects with similar themes (e.g., Sam Peckinpah’s thematically complex Westerns), these cheap flicks embrace nihilism as a means of justifying lurid content. That said, there’s a crude sort of magnetism to films of this stripe, especially when actors lean in to the darkness infusing the storylines. Some of that happens in Four Rode Out, with grumpy Pernell Roberts and wicked Leslie Nielsen playing monstrous gunslingers while Sue Lyon, a world away from the sophisticated provocations of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), gets caught in between. While it’s necessary to indicate that nothing unique happens in Four Rode Out, and that the visual style of the picture is quite bland—all interchangeable desert locations and rickety-looking frontier towns—it’s also true that the picture boasts a certain morbidly appealing ugliness. There’s even some beauty in the mix, because the great folksinger Janis Ian contributes a song score and appears onscreen to warble a tune near the beginning.
          The plot begins with gruesome events. Mexican crook Fernando (Julián Mateos) slips into the bedroom of his gringo girlfriend, Myra (Lyon), and makes out with her until her father bursts into the room. Disgusted by their interracial and out-of-wedlock coupling, he commits suicide in Myra’s presence. Fernando flees. Soon U.S. Marshall Ross (Roberts) shows up to track Fernando down, as does an acerbic Pinkerton known only as Mr. Brown (Nielsen). By way of several overly convenient plot twists, Brown and Ross end up not only working together but also traveling with Myra, who hopes to cajole Fernando into surrendering without violence. Close proximity leads to crises including a rape, so by the time the pursuers find their quarry, emotions have reached a state of feverish intensity. In stronger hands, this basic material might have been more interesting, but director John Peyser fails to impose a distinctive point of view. Furthermore, the script often devolves into rambling nothingness, and the acting is inconsistent, with Lyon’s serviceable turn blocking the audience’s emotional pathway into the narrative. However, if frontier nastiness is enough to hold your interest, Four Rode Out has plenty.

Four Rode Out: FUNKY

Monday, June 26, 2017

Miss Melody Jones (1972)

By definition, the purpose of criticism involves identifying strengths and weaknesses in creative endeavors. Often that leads to positive results, with appraisers lavishing artists with compliments. Sometimes it goes the other way. And every so often, a critic lands in the unfortunate position of having to remark on something like Philomena Nowlin’s performance in the blaxploitation-themed showbiz saga Miss Melody Jones, also known as Ebony Dreams. Before we travel down that path, let’s set the scene. Shot on a meager budget and made with an equally meager amount of imagination, Miss Melody Jones tells the story of an upbeat young woman who makes a living as a stripper in a Los Angeles nightclub while trudging through one humiliating audition after another in search of stardom. She gets comfort and support from her gay roommate and, eventually, a warmhearted paramour with his own cinematic ambitions, but life is unkind to Miss Melody Jones. At her lowest, she takes an acting role as a gang-rape victim in a nudie flick. There’s nothing here viewers haven’t seen a zillion times before, except for the inimitable Philomena Nowlin. A shockingly inept actress, Nowlin screams nearly every line, and she does so in one of the most dissonant voices you will ever encounter. Imagine the sound of a cat that just inhaled helium. Even Fran Drescher would cringe. Yet for some reason, Nowlin was given one long monologue after another, so a good 15 percent of the movie comprises nothing but a bug-eyed, hand-flailing Nowlin screeching at top volume. Overall, Miss Melody Jones is innocuous, if a bit threadbare from a narrative perspective. But with regard to the film’s singular leading performance, spare yourself if you value your eardrums and your sanity.

Miss Melody Jones: LAME

Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Friends Need Killing (1976)

          Yet another story about a crazed Vietnam vet on a crime spree, My Friends Need Killing nearly works. The premise is intriguing and tragic, leading man Greg Mullavey’s performance is fairly credible, and writer-director Paul Leder came up with an offbeat ticking-clock device because the vet’s girlfriend shares her fears with a psychiatrist who determines that action must be taken to prevent bloodshed. Unfortunately, Leder’s direction is hopelessly inept, and the film’s production values are distractingly shoddy. What should have been a crackerjack thriller with a humanistic core—something on the order of a good Larry Cohen movie—instead becomes a dreary slog with too much gore and too little momentum. Worse, Leder slides into the exploitation-movie gutter with an unnecessary subplot during which the vet becomes a rapist. Since My Friends Need Killing probably isn’t exciting enough to stimulate the lizard-brain crowd, it’s unfortunate that Leder’s sleazy extremes alienate the thinking audience.
          After returning from Vietnam, Gene (Mullavey) suffers night terrors, alarming his wife, Laura (Meredith McRae). Turns out Gene believes that he and his comrades committed such heinous war crimes that all of them must die. He writes letters to his war buddies saying he’s going to visit them, and during each visit, Gene savagely murders one of his friends. Back home, Laura pieces together clues and talks to Gene’s shrink, so they eventually try to stop Gene’s bloody vengeance mission. Sometimes, Leder reveals what this movie might have been, as when Gene becomes conflicted about murdering a sensitive (read: gay) veteran. Other times, Leder follows the mindless thrill-kill path, devolving My Friends Need Killing into typical grindhouse junk. Still, the film has just enough compassion that it’s unwise to completely dismiss the endeavor. If nothing else, examining the way various filmmakers dealt with PTSD provides insights regarding attitudes toward veterans during a fraught time in American history.

My Friends Need Killing: FUNKY

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Newman’s Law (1974)

          Featuring George Peppard in the sort of maverick-cop role one normally associates with Clint Eastwood, Newman’s Law delivers an adequate dosage of mid-’70s crime-and-punishment melodrama, hitting all the usual notes of corruption, double-crosses, and rugged individualism. Working with a director and writer culled from the creative ranks of his short-lived TV show Banacek, Peppard renders typically bland work, though he’s quite believable when conveying the nastier aspects of his character. (Few actors channel icy cruelty quite as smoothly as Peppard did.) Newman’s Law benefits from extensive location photography and slick production values, so even though the picture comes across very much like an extended episode of a cop show, it’s a got a pleasing feature-film sheen. What it doesn’t have is a fresh or interesting story. Instead, writer Anthony Wilson churns through a familiar cycle in which our tough-guy hero, Detective Sergeant Vince Newman (Peppard), gets caught in a conspiracy wrought by crooked cops and nefarious drug dealers. Vince also wrestles with troubles in his private life, such as the rising costs of keeping his deteriorating father in a nursing home.
          Nonetheless, fans of ’70s cop cinema will have an easy time digesting this flick, which has just enough in the way of chases and fights and shootouts to satisfy undiscerning palates. What’s more, a couple of scenes are relatively vivid. In one, Peppard climbs atop a water tower and points a sniper rifle at a criminal’s hilltop mansion—themes of police driven to “righteous” illegality by the restrictions of the legal system are always inherently interesting. Another choice bit features Peppard questioning a stripper (played by nubile B-movie stalwart Pat Anderson) while she gives a private performance. Although forgettable and lurid on its own merits, the scene parallels a sexy vignette in the 1986 John Frankenheimer thriller 52 Pick-Up, which was penned by the great Elmore Leonard. Did Leonard see Newman’s Law and later mimic one of its scenes? In any event, Newman’s Law generates a sufficient degree of low-ebb excitement, in fits and starts, to get the no-nonsense job done. Plus, it’s got Abe Vigoda as a courtly gangster, so there’s that.

Newman’s Law: FUNKY

Friday, June 23, 2017

You and Me (1974)

          Logic might suggest that any marquee-name actor who desires to direct a movie can aggregate the necessary resources for a slick production, but projects on the order of You and Me prove that’s not always true. Despite being at the apex of his Kung Fu fame, David Carradine scraped together only a meager budget for this gentle road movie about a biker bonding with a little boy. Presumably Carradine prioritized creative autonomy over production values, because You and Me nearly has the feel of a home movie. For instance, the picture features cameos by the director’s brothers, Keith and Robert Carradine, as well as an appearance by his then-girlfriend, Barbara Hershey (billed as “Barbara Seagull”). It also sounds as if she and Carradine sing the folksy theme song together. Yet while David Carradine may have had an enjoyable experience working with family and friends, the pleasure doesn’t fully transfer to the audience. You and Me is harmless, and the simple story radiates enough warmth to make the experience of watching the movie palatable, but the characters are one-dimensional at best, and nothing of consequence happens.
          In the opening scenes, Zeto (David Carradine) and two biker buddies harass the customers of a small roadside bar, leading to the death of a random dude. Zeto splits from his buddies, the better to evade capture, and happens upon young Jimmy (Chipper Chadbourne), the son of an irresponsible welfare mom. Jimmy talks his way into Zeto’s company, tagging along while Zeto hides at a small farm operated by Wynona (Bobbi Shaw). She hires Zeto as a handyman, but she also has eyes on a permanent romantic situation. Eventually, authorities investigating the murder at the bar discover clues pointing to Zeto’s whereabouts, so a small measure of dramatic tension enters the mix.
          Always an interesting actor, Carradine works his most appealing groove here, the philosophical wanderer. Yet the storytelling in You and Me is cryptic to a fault, so Carradine’s character seems more opaque than intriguing. Similarly, the relationship between the biker and the boy is hard to believe. Nonetheless, there are worse ways to idle away 90-ish minutes. Every so often, a familiar face comes along (beyond the aforementioned, Gary Busey appears in one scene), and a generalized sense of humanism and sincerity pervades the piece, even if the storytelling mechanics are clumsy.

You and Me: FUNKY

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Pony Express Rider (1976)

          Some genres have such satisfying textures that even mediocre examples of those genres can make for pleasant viewing. So it is with Westerns produced on respectable budgets. Like consuming a disposable episode of a cowboy-themed TV show, watching Pony Express Rider is an agreeably pointless exercise. Many of the familiar themes are here, such as honor and vengeance. The costumes, locations, and sets evoke the comfort-food milieu one associates with Hollywood oaters. And some the usual suspects populate the supporting cast: Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor. So even though the story is trite and unfocused, it’s possible to mindlessly groove on the polished look and somber mood of the piece. However, it should be said that the title is something of a misnomer, as the protagonist doesn’t actually join the Pony Express until halfway through the picture, and afterwards his involvement with the famous courier service is relatively inconsequential to the plot. If there’s a great story to be told about the bold men who carried mail through the dangerous frontiers of America’s Wild West, this is not that story. Instead, Pony Express Rider is a standard-issue revenge saga.
          At the beginning of the picture, Johnnie (Stewart Petersen) flirts with his best gal, Rose (Maureen McCormick), until her animalistic brother, Bovey (Buck Taylor), intervenes. He beats Johnnie, deeming him an unworthy suitor for his kin. Tensions rise further when Bovey’s father, Trevor (Henry Wilcoxon), accepts a post as governor of the Nevada Territory, leaving Bovey in charge of the family spread. Power-mad Bovey clashes with Johnnie’s father, Jed (Ken Curtis), leading to Jed’s death. Murkiness ensues. Jonnie sets out to avenge his dad by killing Bovey, though it’s never clear why that involves anything more than marching to Bovey’s house with a gun. Plus, once Johnnie hits the road for nebulous reasons, Bovey commences stalking Johnnie. Huh? At some point, Johnnie stumbles across a dead Pony Express Rider and takes responsibility for that man’s route, since he’s going in the same direction anyway. Again, huh? If you’re able to overlook the nonsensical plotting, it’s possible to enjoy the sleek camerawork, dusty riding scenes, and rote citations of Western-movie signifiers. Expecting anything more will lead to frustration.

Pony Express Rider: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another Son of Sam (1977)

Like most unspeakably bad exploitation movies with elements of sex and violence, Another Son of Sam has its defenders among the psychotronic set, some of whom wax poetic about the movie’s spellbinding incompetence. If that’s your cinematic intoxicant of choice, imbibe freely and Another Son of Sam will likely take you where you want to go. However, if you hope for something more closely resembling a coherent and purposeful viewing experience, this one’s not for you. The sole directorial effort by one Dave A. Adams—who also served as the picture’s writer, producer, casting director, stunt coordinator, and editor—this grungy, zero-budget regional production tells the dull story of an escaped lunatic and the policeman who is determined to recapture him. In referencing David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam” serial killer, the title of this flick is a shameless come-on suggesting that innocents will get slaughtered in capricious ways. That more or less happens, but because Another Son of Sam is rated PG, it’s not as if the shock value hits high levels. The closest Adams gets to real tension is when he lingers on grimy POV shots, but even that device is underserved because Adams’ cutting is so bewilderingly choppy. Scenes start and stop with no discernible reason, post-production audio emerges from mysterious sources in discombobulating ways, and trainwreck performances by nearly the entire cast add to a generalized air of people stumbling around aimlessly while the camera rolls for arbitrarily chosen periods of time.

Another Son of Sam: SQUARE

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Nashville Sound (1970)

          Filmed in 1969 to capture an all-star anniversary concert at the Grand Ole Opry, the storied “mother church” of country music, this serviceable documentary balances behind-the-scenes insights about the careers of wannabe stars with polished vignettes featuring established artists. Most of the picture comprises blandly shot footage of performances on the Opry stage, and there’s value in seeing vintage clips of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, and Dolly Parton, among many others. Yet one is challenged to identify much difference between this content and, say, appearances by these folks on TV shows from the same era. About the only thing elevating the Opry scenes is the interstitial material, with performers including Bill Anderson crowding around microphones to read crass commercials. A general sense emerges of an Opry broadcast not as a pristine showcase for musical excellence but rather a commodity like any other type of mainstream entertainment. Therefore, the most interesting elements of The Nashville Sound are the moments showing B-listers trudging through humiliating spotlight gigs (as when Jeannie C. Reilly performs a new tune for a handful of listeners at a party thrown by a label executive), plus the recurring trope illustrating the arrival on the Nashville scene of new singer-songwriter Herbie Howell. 
          Among the star performers, Charley Pride stands out with his keening sustained notes during “Kaw-Liga,” Parton charms with her unvarnished performance of “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and Cash renders a typically rousing version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” An in-studio jam session featuring a young Charlie Daniels, among other slick players, generates the most heat, musically speaking, whereas blander performances (such as Reilly’s turn on the Opry stage with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”) quickly fade from memory. Some of the sequences of pure reportage, such as a golf tournament featuring Glen Campbell, come and go so quickly as to be meaningless—and, to be frank, the material that gets the most attention, Howell’s story, is merely okay. Although earnest, Howell is not particularly interesting as a musician or as a presence, so it’s hard to get excited about his quest for stardom. Nonetheless, the project as a whole provides an interesting snapshot of a particular industry at a particular time, in some ways very different from and in other ways very similar to the modern country-music scene.

The Nashville Sound: FUNKY

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974)

The notion of a mother training her daughters in the arts of seduction and thievery is enjoyably kinky, so the low-budget thriller Mama’s Dirty Girls should have a scandalous quality. Unfortunately, because the storyline is so one-dimensional and predictable, the filmmakers never fully exploit the potential of their seedy premise. Moreover, because so much screen time gets chewed up on ogling nude scenes, Mama’s Dirty Girls devolves from its very first scenes into yet another drive-in flick pandering to low appetites. While this isn’t a completely brainless picture, it’s nowhere near smart enough to merit serious consideration. Gloria Grahame, a long way from her best work, stars as Mama Love—yep, that’s her character name—the mother of three sexy young-adult daughters. Mama’s favorite scheme involves roping a wealthy man into marriage, then tasking one of her kids, usually Becky (Candice Rialson), with teasing the man into such a sexual frenzy that he attempts rape. This gives Mama the pretext to kill the man and seize his property. Never mind how records of this sort of thing tend to follow a person from one municipality to another, and never mind that the first time we see Mama off a husband, she and two of her daughters slash the guy to death with straight razors. Hard to tell the cops a three-on-one slaughter was self-defense. Anyway, the filmmakers miss the obvious plot opportunity of having one of Mama’s daughters rebel against family tradition, so the plot is quite dull, with Mama beguiling a new man while daughters attempt separate gold-digging enterprises. As you might expect, the characterizations are weak and the dialogue is stiff, though some of the acting is okay. Seasoned pro Grahame and promising ingénue Rialson nearly make the movie palatable. Nearly.

Mama’s Dirty Girls: LAME

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Scandalous John (1971)

          Man, it’s hard to get a bead on this one. A modernized (unofficial) adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote, this comedy-drama hybrid ostensibly tells the story of a proud old rancher succumbing to dementia, which prompts him to rail against imagined enemies and shoot guns at strangers. In his mind, he’s a Wild West hero fending off varmints, but in reality, he’s a deranged coot getting by on handouts from his granddaughter, a professor at a small college. Notwithstanding the granddaughter’s occasional visits, the protagonist’s only companion is a Mexican laborer who crossed the U.S. border illegally to seek employment. A local developer wants to push the rancher off his dilapidated spread, so the protagonist battles forces he cannot possibly defeat. Were the comedic elements extracted, the storyline would seem frightening or sad. Indeed, the vibe of Scandalous John wobbles between melancholy and whimsical, with some scenes played for laughs while others strive for pathos as the picture drags its way through a bloated 113-minute running time.
          Yet the strangest thing about Scandalous John is that it’s a G-rated family film from Walt Disney Productions. Prior to the company’s experiments with grown-up fare in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this might well have been the bleakest live-action feature the company had ever released. Brian Keith, his features buried beneath bushy facial hair and one eye perpetually squinted shut, stars as John McCanless, who fancies himself a gunslinger protecting his land from Apaches and thieves. He lumbers about his dusty house, hollering and ranting and singing, even as his granddaughter, Amanda (Michele Carey), tries to keep John from injuring himself. She hires Paco (Alfonso Arau) as a caretaker, and John soon embraces the fantasy that Paco is a bold comrade-in-arms. Facing various past-due notices, John endeavors to drive his herd to town for a cattle sale, though his herd comprises only one ragged-looking steer. Meanwhile, Jimmy Whitaker (Rick Lenz), son of the developer who wants John’s land, tries to help John as a means of wooing Amanda.
          Scandalous John includes several colorful episodes, such as a silly bit of John and Paco riding their mounts into a store and an action-filled climax, but much of the picture comprises leisurely scenes of Keith delivering florid monologues in garbled frontier-speak. (More than a few lines are indecipherable.) Keith is such a charismatic and forceful actor that watching him hold forth should be fascinating, but Scandalous John becomes tedious thanks to redundancy. Instead of one or two choice moments to set the tone, the movie offers perhaps a dozen long-winded soliloquies. Wistful scoring by Rod McKeun adds to the general sense of preciousness. It’s tempting to give Disney points for trying something this dark, but because the studio undercut the artistic qualities of this piece with dodgy elements including the stereotypical characterization of Paco, Scandalous John is, at best, an offbeat misfire.

Scandalous John: FUNKY

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Black Connection (1974)

Formless blaxploitation junk featuring three members of music group the Checkmates Ltd. in acting roles—naturally, they provide the soundtrack—The Black Connection is also known by a more provocative title, Run, Nigger, Run. The alternative moniker gives a better sense of the storyline, or at least the confusing blur of narrative events that passes for a storyline. After a whole bunch of aimless scenes featuring secondary characters, the piece resolves into a melodrama concerning African-American crook Miles Carter (Bobby Stevens), who’s having some sort of trouble with white gangsters. Best guess is he’s a pusher and they’re his suppliers, but now he wants a bigger piece of the action, or else he’s running a scheme on the gangsters and they get wise. Whatever. The Black Connection is so thoroughly terrible that parsing the details isn’t worth the effort. The acting is atrocious, the filmmaking is inept, and the storytelling is rotten. Only the funk tunes on the soundtrack are passable, though your guess is as good as mine why the film contains a ballad with the lyric, “Would you like to buy my pretty balloon?” In any event, devoted blaxploitation junkies might be able to find a few amusing moments amid the meandering nonsense. There’s some fighting, some sex, and some tough talk. The best zinger is spoken by young woman when characterizing an adversary’s shortcomings: “The trouble with her is she don’t know a lady when she sees one—and I’m a motherfuckin’ lady!” Clearly.

The Black Connection: LAME

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Worm Eaters (1977)

From a cinema-studies perspective, jack-of-all-trades filmmakers are inherently interesting, since there’s something pure about artists who write, direct, and act in their own stories. That is, unless the stories are idiotic crap along the lines of The Worm Eaters, a cheaply produced comedy/horror hybrid featuring characters who do exactly what the title suggests, albeit not voluntarily. The flick’s protagonist is Herman Umgar (played by director Herb Robins), a middle-aged backwoods dullard who inherits lakeside property. The local mayor and his nefarious cronies conspire to steal the land from Herman, incorrectly assuming that Herman lacks both a paper deed to prove his ownership and the will to fight for his property. After some getting-to-know-you scenes during which we learn that Herman’s best friends are his pet worms, who are radioactive or supernatural or whatever, the movie gets down to business. Herman slips worms into food that enemies eat, and thereafter the victims become were-worms. Before long, Herman has a basement full of people stuck in mid-transformation. To achieve this effect, Robins has actors tuck their abdomens and legs into slimy sheathes, then wriggle on the floor while covered in goo. Accentuating these unpleasant images are the weird textures of bargain-basement electronic music. Meanwhile, the picture’s “humor” ranges from the scatological (lots of belching, an onscreen nasal discharge) to the stereotypical (Robins speaks in a bizarre quasi-Cajun accent). It’s all quite wretched to behold, and if there’s a seed of a viable satirical idea buried in here somewhere, it never took root. The Worm Eaters is to be avoided at all costs, unless you desperately need to see closeup shots of worms wriggling in the mouths of actors committed to helping Robins realize his dopey vision.

The Worm Eaters: SQUARE

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Teenage Graffiti (1977)

          Never mind the title, a deceptive and tacky attempt at linking this picture with a certain nostalgic hit directed by George Lucas. Originally titled Country Dreamin’, then given a more commercial moniker before reaching theaters, this low-budget melodrama concerns the wanderlust that a young man raised on a farm experiences after graduating from high school. Over the course of a lazy summer, Josh (Michael Driscoll) has fun with his buddies at the local swimming hole, dodges his girlfriend’s requests for commitment, faces temptation upon becoming friendly with a lonely housewife, and wrestles with questions about his future. Additional story material stems from conflicts between Josh and two foster brothers, because even though they’re the rightful heirs to the farm where they all live, Dad is partial to Josh. It’s not quite fair to say that Teenage Graffiti is a situation in search of a story, seeing as how Josh goes all the way from graduating to making a final decision about his next move, but the storytelling is leisurely at best. It’s also worth nothing that Teenage Graffiti is not in any substantial way a comedy, despite being classified that way in many authoritative sources.
          The vibe of the picture is set by an early scene, during which a friend of Josh’s drives onto the farm in a bitchin’ convertible covered in paintings of clouds and rainbows. As the friend wheels the car around the property, Josh playfully chases after the vehicle, asking where it came from and requesting a ride. Turns out it’s a graduation gift for Josh from his folks. The way that cowriter/director Christopher G. Casler takes his time getting to the point of the scene speaks volumes. Nonetheless, the movie conveys some sense of what it’s like to be at the stage of life when time seems like an endless resource. Characters get into mischief, experiment with sex, and succumb to long-simmering impulses. Eventually, circumstances force a reckoning that defines the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
          None of this should suggest that Teenage Graffiti is a substantial picture, because it most surely is not. Rather, the movie expresses a common human experience in an unvarnished way. Peripherally, it also captures a cultural moment with the supporting character of a beardy young philosopher who spends his days meditating nude in a remote cabin. Given that Teenage Graffiti was released in 1977, a decade after the Summer of Love, the presence of this character says something about how the hippy ethos took a while to reach rural communities.

Teenage Graffiti: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

All Screwed Up (1974)

          Another frenetic and noisy movie from Italian director Lina Wertmüller, whose films usually blend radical politics and social satire in challenging ways, All Screwed Up suffers for either a deficiency or an overabundance of plot, depending on how you view these things. Instead of a clear linear storyline with momentum, the picture contains a number of interconnected episodes, with a large group of characters gradually converging to form a community. It’s never difficult to track what’s happening, but it is difficult to understand why X event is shown as opposed to Y event. One gets the sense of Wertmüller barreling through her subject matter, stopping every time something catches her attention, and then barreling forward again once she’s lost interest. And yet at the same time, there’s a vague sense of an overall narrative plan, leading up to the politically charged statement of the final scenes. Plus, because a character remarks that life is “all screwed up” at one point—while lamenting the seemingly pointless cycle of working for a living—it’s tempting to define the movie as a simple criticism of bourgeoisie ideals. Chances are Wertmüller was after something more complicated than that.
          In any event, the film begins when two country bumpkins, Gino (Luiigi Diberti) and Carloetto (Nino Bergamini), arrive in the big city of Milan to start a new life. They soon encounter Adelina (Sara Rapisarda), a hysterical young woman also newly arrived and looking for her cousin. So begins the process of the bumpkins building a surrogate family. Much is made of the leading characters’ naïveté, so, for instance, a friendly hustler talks them into buying a stolen bike. Later, as the bumpkins crash and burn at various demeaning jobs, one of them tries his hand at robbery by assisting a crook during a break-in. (This occasions one of the movie’s funniest moments, because the bumpkin gets nervous about upsetting objects in the immaculate home they’re robbing: “It’s a pity to make such a mess—these people are so neat!”) Lots of other stuff happens, too. A friend of the bumpkins freaks out because his wife keeps having kids, including quintuplets, and yet the friend has a meltdown when his wife tries to refuse sex.
          Speaking of sex, Carletto becomes involved with Adelina, then resents that she won’t sleep with him for religious reasons, so he takes a friend’s advice and rapes her. (“Now you’ll be a little quieter,” he says afterward.) All Screwed Up gets uglier as it goes along, with Wertmüller’s twisted gender politics resulting in a barrage of mixed messages. And if you can tell me what the scene of a gangster demanding that an enemy’s car get “encased in moldy shit” has to do with anything, then you made a whole lot more sense of All Screwed Up than I did. The picture addresses many relevant themes, including aspiration and class and gender and greed and marriage and working conditions, but for me, the experience of watching the picture was so disjointed and unpleasant that I lost the will to search for deeper meanings—even though I’m confident they’re hidden somewhere.

All Screwed Up: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tubby the Tuba (1975)

Based on source material held in some esteem (more on that later), Tubby the Tuba is among the lesser animated features released during the ’70s, so even though the story is a harmless morality tale extolling worthy virtues, the experience of watching the picture is quite tedious. Dick Van Dyke provides the voice for the title character, an overweight brass instrument depressed that all he does is provide repetitive “oompah-oompah” rhythms. One day, he breaks from his orchestra in search of a melody to play. Yet Tubby gets sidetracked when he takes a job at a circus, delivering pails of water to thirsty elephants. One of the pachyderms, Mrs. Elephant (Pearl Bailey), asks for a demonstration of Tubby’s musical skills and rejoices in what she hears. (“That oompah turns me on!”) This leads to Tubby becoming a star attraction at the circus, which in turn causes Tubby to become an insufferable diva. Will our hero regain his humility? Will he find a melody to play? As Tubby the Tuba follows the blandest possible children’s-entertainment patterns, the answers to these questions should be painfully obvious. Tubby’s story originated as a narrated classical-music piece in the 1940s, and it was first animated, via stop-motion, for an Oscar-nominated 1947 short film. The expansion of the piece to feature length did not serve poor Tubby well. Even with Van Dyke valiantly striving to inject his characterization with pathos, the narrative is enervated and predictable and stupid, with the material added to flesh out the running time coming across as pure filler. By the time Tubby meets an underappreciated singing frog, the filmmakers seem absolutely desperate to compensate for the limitations of their one-dimensional leading character. Putting this sort of thing over requires magic, but Tubby the Tuba is never more than mundane. One might even say it’s oompathetic.

Tubby the Tuba: LAME