Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Squares (1972)

          Aptly retitled Riding Tall for a theatrical reissue and subsequent home-video release, this gentle character piece was part of an early-’70s boom in movies about modern-day rodeo cowboys, and it’s perhaps the least impressive of the batch. Gangly leading man Andrew Prine is slick with sarcastic dialogue, but he doesn’t achieve anything extraordinary here. Similarly, the opposites-attract premise pairing Prine’s character with a Vassar dropout is trite, and the overall storyline is episodic. Dodgy production values compromise certain scenes as well, notably the vignettes of Prine’s character busting broncs—hardly the mesmerizing stuff of Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, which was released the same year. So why bother giving Squares a moment’s thought? Because the movie’s best moments are charming and specific.
          Prine plays Austin Ruth, a ne’er-do-well sportsman who squanders money as soon as he earns it, which isn’t very often. After a particularly dispiriting defeat, he finds himself hitchhiking on a desert road. Chase Lawrence (Gilmer McCormick), who has fallen asleep at the wheel of a stolen Cadillac, nearly runs him down, so she repays him with a ride, and their flirtation begins. Austin surprises Chase by revealing soulfulness in unguarded moments, and Chase surprises Ruth by revealing grit—she’s been in jail, she’s broken with her conservative parents, and she’s wise beyond her years. Adding friction is the fact that the two rarely want the same thing at the same time, so when she’s feeling romantic, he’s usually feeling adversarial, and so on.
          Screenwriter Mary Ann Saxon, who appears never to have penned another movie, displays a gift for snarky patter, though her story structure leaves much to be desired. Prine, often cast as psychos or as disposable secondary characters, seems to relish playing a grounded lead, so even though he can’t fully overcome the shortfalls of the material, he’s winning in scenes that click. McCormick, who vaguely recalls Stockard Channing, makes a decent foil and conjures an appealing seen-it-all quality in her best scenes. Oh, and seeing as how the movie in general lacks a sense of direction, it should come as no surprise to learn that Squares sputters instead of culminating with a proper ending.

Squares: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

So Sad About Gloria (1975)

          As a general rule, learning that a horror movie was once skewered by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, means that it’s wise to give the film in question a wide berth. Sure enough, even calling So Sad About Gloria unremarkable requires generosity. That said, this clumsy little psychological thriller has some interesting elements, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of redeeming qualities. The filmmakers cut to a particular mysterious image so often that one becomes curious to learn the truth—who the hell is that guy banging away at a coffin with an axe? Similarly, the other recurring motif involving an axe, that of a murderer stalking into mansions and hacking away at unsuspecting women, seems so disassociated from the rest of the storyline that the desire for an explanation grows steadily as the movie progresses. The fact that most of this flick’s intrigue lives on the periphery of the narrative correctly indicates that the narrative proper is enervated. And while leading lady (and former Petticoat Junction costar) Lori Saunders is quite lovely, the limitations of her skills are considerable, so she’s a big reason why So Sad About Gloria lacks depth.
          At the beginning of the movie, aging Frederick (Dean Jagger) collects his twentysomething niece, Gloria (Saunders), from a mental hospital. Traumatized during childhood by witnessing her father’s death, Gloria is now deemed ready for a normal life—or, more specifically, a luxurious one, since she inherited her father’s considerable estate. Gloria tries to enjoy tranquil days of horseback riding and contemplation even as she’s plagued by strange auditory and visual hallucinations. Then she meets, falls in love with, and marries Chris (Robert Ginnaven), a sensitive writer who bizarrely sets up housekeeping with Gloria in a mansion where an axe murder once happened. Commence the usual “Is the really going crazy?” routine.
          As directed by Harry Thomason—who made several ’70s horror flicks before finding his true calling in the ’80s as a TV producer alongside wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason—So Sad About Gloria is as subtle as a right cross, but it has a few mildly creepy moments, especially toward the climax. It also has at least two different twist endings, the first of which is satisfying and the second of which is merely confusing. That’s how it goes with So Sad About Gloria—sometimes it’s a movie that deserves Elviras derision, and sometimes it isn’t.

So Sad About Gloria: FUNKY

Monday, February 26, 2018

Chain Gang Women (1971)

Even by the low standards of Crown International Pictures, the marketing for Chain Gang Women is shameless, suggesting that the movie belongs to the lurid women-in-prison genre that, at the time of this film’s release, was generating big returns for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Instead, Chain Gang Women is about two male convicts on a chain gang. Weed (Michael Stearns) is an aggressive career criminal, while Harris (Robert Lott) is a pothead imprisoned for a minor drug offense. Following the usual routine for these types of stories, Weed breaks out while shackled to Harris, thus dragging an “innocent” guy into a crime spree. As for the women of the title, they’re Weed’s victims. First he cajoles Harris into going home, where Harris’ girlfriend acquires a hacksaw for removing the escaped convicts’ chains. Then Harris stupidly agrees to runs an errand, giving Weed an opportunity to rape Harris’ girlfriend. Later, Weed drags Harris (and the girlfriend) along to a rural house, where Weed lays siege to an old guy and his young wife. That occasions another rape. Slow-moving dreck populated by interchangeable characters, Chain Gang Women makes Corman’s various women-in-prison flicks seem zesty and imaginative by comparison. Even the use of potent blues-rock songs on the soundtrack and some zippy split-screen imagery aren’t enough to make Chain Gang Women interesting.

Chain Gang Women: LAME

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The All-American Boy (1973)

          It’s hard to imagine a cryptic, downbeat, pretentious character study like The All-American Boy receiving a major-studio release during any time other than the New Hollywood era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, because everything about this strange picture epitomizes what was wonderful—and frustrating—about that glorious period. Viewed charitably, writer-director Charles Eastman’s movie is like an enigmatic song by, say, Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, inasmuch as the film contains beautiful flashes of humanity and insight, even though the overall meaning is elusive. Eastman divides the film into sequences, even subtitling the picture “The Manly Art in Six Rounds,” and the story unfolds impressionistically. In each “round,” the main character occupies a slightly different stage of life, and the recurring theme seems to be that he’s boxing with existence itself—sometimes he struggles to break free of small-town claustrophobia, and sometimes he acts out against the expectations associated with success. (Central to The All-American Boy is that quintessentially ’70s archetype, the I-gotta-be-me protagonist whose self-involved caprice vexes everyone he meets.)
          Jon Voight, working hard to transform Eastman’s sketch of a protagonist into a fully rendered portrait, stars as Vic Bealer, a thirtysomething guy from a rural community who dreams of becoming a champion boxer. Throughout the movie, Vic moves back and forth between his boxing life, where he achieves success under the tutelage of vulgar trainer Arty Bale (Ned Glass), and his domestic life, where he romances both Drenna (Anne Archer) and Janelle (E.J. Peaker). Vic wins championships and steadily proceeds toward a spot on the Olympic team, then inexplicably walks away from sports. He also builds a life with Janelle, even fathering a son, before destroying that situation, as well. Yet Eastman tries to show Vic manifesting something akin to moral authority, as when he rebuffs a pathetic business overture from his brother-in-law (Art Metrano).
          One assumes the gist of the piece reveals itself in the final sequence, during which someone tells Vic that freedom is an illusion—shades of the famous line from “Me and Bobby McGee”—so it’s possible Eastman was after something about ’60s/’70s wanderers playing a dangerous game by naïvely pursuing individualism. He might also have been after something about masculinity, paralleling the brutality of boxing with the way Vic inflicts pain on the people in his life.
          The All-American Boy is maddeningly vague, but many individual scenes are potent. The edgy surrogate-father stuff with the manager is vivid, as is an uncomfortable sequence of Vic visiting Janelle in a recording studio while she lays down vocals for a pop song. Every so often, The All-American Boy edges into pure grandiosity, particularly during the climax, which involves a helicopter, a marching band, and rolling fields of tall yellow grass, all photographed in glorious long-lens widescreen by cinematographer Philip Lathrop. Since Eastman never directed another movie, The All-American Boy recalls another arty 1973 picture from a one-and-done filmmaker, James William Guercio’s dark Electra Glide in Blue. Although Electra Glide is infinitely more grounded, both are beguilingly offbeat.

The All-American Boy: FUNKY

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Music Lovers (1970)

          Relative to British director Ken Russell’s many other biopics about troubled artists, The Music Lovers falls somewhere between the grounded darkness of Savage Messiah (1972) and the vulgar excess of Mahler (1974)—never mind the deranged Lisztomania (1975), which exists in a universe all its own. Offering a florid take on the life of Russian composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers has several long passages that are both lyrical and rational, cleverly dramatizing the way artists use their work to speak to the people in their lives as well as to society in general. But then, as happens with depressing frequency throughout Russell’s career, the director’s lower instincts take control, dragging The Music Lovers into psychosexual ugliness.
          Set in Russia during the second half of the 19th century, The Music Lovers tracks Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) over many years. At the beginning of the picture, he works as a music teacher while periodically performing original compositions that only a few people appreciate, so in one early sequence, Russell places significant characters in the audience of a recital, then uses insert scenes to depict how each person reacts to Tchaikovsky’s melodies. Eventually, key relationships take shape. Tchaikovsky marries a fan, the emotionally unstable Antonia (Glenda Jackson), even though he’s gay. Concurrently, the wealthy Nadezhda (Izabella Telezynksa) becomes Tchaikovsky’s patron on the condition they never meet. Predictably, these dynamics prove untenable. As Antonia descends into insanity, Tchaikovsky’s refusal to sleep with her becomes a wedge in their combative relationship. Meanwhile, Nadezhda suffers from unrequited love, lusting for the man whom she financially supports but from whom she remains distant. It’s all very twisted, the situation made even more fraught by Tchaikovsky’s conflicted feelings about his sexuality, by the danger to his status if his gay liaisons become public knowledge, and by trauma originating with his mother’s death from cholera.
          Some scenes in The Music Lovers are so lovely that it’s a shame Russell couldn’t control his impulses—a sequence of people dressed in white as they dance among birch trees in a snowy forest is mesmerizing, and it’s not the only passage with real visual splendor. During the film’s best moments, Russell creates shots that time perfectly with Tchaikovsky’s music, thus conjuring an intoxicating form of heightened reality. And then he goes wild. In one of the film’s crudest moments, a feverish Antonia offers herself to Tchaikovsky while they ride on a rocking train, so Russell cuts back and forth between closeups of Jackson’s nether regions and reaction shots of Chamberlain looking close to nausea. It’s a degrading moment for everyone involved, not least the audience. Jackson easily steals the picture with her unbridled performance, though her powerful work reveals, by comparison, the limitations in Chamberlain’s stilted acting. In a way, that contrast epitomizes the problem with The Music Lovers—the movie periodically loses Tchaikovsky because of the lurid focus on the troubled women in his life.

The Music Lovers: FUNKY

Friday, February 23, 2018

Quadroon (1971)

Unlike the notorious Mandingo (1975), this low-budget drama about slavery in the American South circa the 1830s represents a serious attempt at exploring intersections between personal and sociocultural dynamics. Alas, the good intentions are undercut by hideous acting—the performers in Quadroon seem like community-theater regulars giving cold readings. Accents come and go, dialogue is delivered stiffly, and emotional heat is restricted to scenes of outright passion and/or violence. Made properly, the same script could have resulted in something quasi-respectable. Instead, Quadroon is lifeless. Naïve Northerner Caleb (Tim Kincaid) arrives in New Orleans to stay with his Aunt Nancy (Marinda French) and her family. Caleb soon learns about quadroons, women born of white Creole fathers and black slave mistresses. These mixed-race ladies are raised to be elegant and polite—ideal mistresses for successive generations of Creole men. Predictably, Caleb meets and falls in love with a beautiful quadroon, Coral (Kathrine McKee), and he makes enemies with the most powerful Creole in town, Cesar Dupree (George Lupo). A battle for Coral’s body and soul ensues. The racial politics here are complicated and troubling, as during a scene in which the Creole villain commands slaves to gang-rape a woman who defies him. Nonetheless, Quadroon tells a sufficiently provocative story that for a few moments here and there it’s possible to look past the amateur-hour acting. As soon as reality inevitably reasserts itself, however, Quadroon loses its marginal appeal.

Quadroon: LAME

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Late Liz (1971)

Not every bad film manages to fail on multiple levels, but The Late Liz bombs as an alcoholism melodrama, a story of Christian faith, and a late-career showcase for faded Oscar winner Anne Baxter. Based on a book by Gert Behanna, who in real life credited God with saving her from booze, The Late Liz has the ugly visual style of a cheap TV movie, the stiff dramaturgy of a public service announcement, and the over-the-top messaging of a Sunday-morning sermon. Worse, Baxter is genuinely terrible here, cooing much of her dialogue coquettishly and bulging her eyes for emphasis during heavy scenes. Watching Baxter strut into the foreground or dramatically turn away from the camera suggests nothing more than a laughable soap-opera performance. That’s a shame, because she’s effective whenever she stops trying so hard, and she looks quite lovely except in scenes when she’s meant to appear bedraggled. Had Baxter opted for sincerity instead of flamboyance, she might have made this sketchy project palatable. Anyway, Baxter plays Liz Hatch, an upper-crust Californian whose drinking torpedoes two marriages and sends her rushing toward self-destruction until one of her sons, Peter (William Katt), returns from Vietnam as a devout Christian determined to share the good word with his mother. Katt plays the material so straight that he seems like a robot, and the great Jack Albertson is wasted in a supporting role as a kindly priest. Therefore Steve Forrest, of all people, gives the picture’s most vibrant turn, playing Liz’s second husband. Incidentally, those who dig camp will find much to enjoy here, thanks not only to Baxter’s overheated performance but also to the florid dialogue (“You’re not only a drunk, you’re a nymphomaniac!”). What’s more, Tonight Show regular Foster Brooks shows up in one scene to do his patented friendly-drunk routine.

The Late Liz: LAME

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dirtymouth (1970)

          Three years before Dustin Hoffman channeled controversial comic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s stylish biopic Lenny (1974), a different interpretation of the same true story was presented in the low-budget drama Dirtymouth, written and directed by Herbert S. Altman, with Bernie Travis in the leading role. If neither of those names sounds familiar, it’s because Altman’s only other credit is a horror movie from the ’60s and because Dirtymouth was Travis’ first and last film. Therefore, the surprise of Dirtymouth is not that it exists, but rather that it’s a fairly competent effort. Although the picture problematically whitewashes the real Bruce’s drug use, Dirtymouth does an okay job of tracking the way Bruce’s expression of anti-Establishment attitudes triggered his persecution by authorities.
          When the picture begins, Lenny (Travis) is already an established comedian, but he’s frustrated by doing conventional material in grimy nightclubs, often sharing the stage with novelty acts and strippers. Lenny gradually channels his anger into routines about politics and religion, so word of mouth draws more people to his shows, earning him guest shots on TV shows. Manifesting a self-destructive streak that Altman doesn’t even try to psychoanalyze, Lenny pushes his content by integrating curse words and incendiary remarks, even as he tries to woo the beautiful Iris (Courtney Sherman), whose conservative parents find Lenny despicable. Dirtymouth culminates in re-creations of vignettes from Bruce’s infamous legal battles, with enemies trying to classify Bruce’s comedy as obscenity.
          Comparing Travis’ performance to Hoffman’s in Lenny is unfair, seeing as how Hoffman had the benefit of a better director and a better script, but the portrayals share something in common—both actors get the anger right without actually being funny. Like Lenny, this picture is about Bruce the tragic culture warrior, not Bruce the edgy funnyman. Unlike Lenny, Altman’s film mostly ignores the real Bruce’s hardest edges, so while it’s not as if Altman strives to make Bruce sympathetic, per se, the characterization in Dirtymouth pales next to the prismatic presentation in Lenny. Yet it’s not as if Altman plays things completely straight; in some scenes, he features fantastical visions of Bruce’s routines, and in others, he exaggerates reality, as when actors playing judges and lawyers wear cartoonish makeup. There’s also a fair amount of nudity and rough language. Still, all the half-hearted praise in the world can’t mitigate the Lenny problem—Dirtymouth mined this material first, but Lenny is superior in every way.

Dirtymouth: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Slick Silver (1975)

It’s difficult to actively dislike an amiable regional production like Slick Silver, since one gets a sense of enterprising filmmakers doing their best to emulate tropes they’ve seen in “real” movies while also sharing something of their local idioms with the world. Nonetheless, a dull viewing experience is a dull viewing experience, and Slick Silver never builds much in the way of empathy or momentum. A gentleman named R. Terrell Reagan, who also wrote and executive-produced this project but never made another film, stars as Slick Silver, a fast-talking schemer roaming through Texas and thereabouts. Early in the movie, he befriends a guitar-slinging hitchhiker named Leroy (Hal Fletcher), whom Slick nicknames “Strummer Goldenstring.” Flim-flam ensues. The guys pose as public-health officials and convince a farmer to hand over several chickens by convincing her the birds are victims of a hemorrhoid outbreak. They encounter a traveling preacher, then steal his clothes and leave him tied to a tree while they try to fleece the congregation that was awaiting the preacher’s arrival. They persuade a black guy to pose as their chauffeur so they can run a number on women in a rich neighborhood. And so on. Although most of the actors in the film render generic work, Reagan does a passable con-artist routine, and some of the scams are mildly imaginative. Unfortunately, there’s zero depth of character and the story goes nowhere, so after the first 15 minutes or so, you’ve seen everything Slick Silver has to offer—that is, unless the pie-fight sequence toward the end counts as novelty.

Slick Silver: LAME

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Child (1977)

Horror-flick clichés abound in The Child, a low-budget entry into the creepy-kid genre. Out in the boonies, pretty twentysomething Alicanne (Laurel Barnett) arrives to begin her job as caretaker for Rosalie (Rosalie Cole), the 11-year-old daughter of a nasty old guy who lives in a decaying mansion. (The child’s mother died some time previous, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Naturally, Alicanne receives warnings about the house (and about the 11-year-old) from a kindly neighbor, and, naturally, she ignores these warnings. All the usual nonsense happens. Strange behavior. Troublesome mysteries. Weird noises. And still Alicanne remains in the house, even as she learns about several recent unsolved murders. Turns out Rosalie has supernatural control over zombie-like creatures, and that she’s guiding her “friends” to murder people whom she feels were complicit in her mother’s death. Inasmuch as it has a steady stream of chase scenes taking place in quasi-atmospheric locations, The Child might have enough shock-cinema mojo to keep undemanding horror addicts entertained. Those who actually want originality, a proper story, or real thrills—not so much. The movie’s shortcomings include distracting dubbing, laughable gore FX, iffy production values, obnoxious music, underwhelming jolts, and weak acting. If only because The Child lacks outright cruelty and misogyny, it’s far from the worst type of ’70s drive-in horror, but that remark should not be misconstrued as praise.

The Child: LAME

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974)

          Sometimes fate does cruel things to artists’ legacies, as demonstrated by the fact that a strange horror movie about cannibalism was the last project from Laurence Harvey, who both starred in and directed Welcome to Arrow Beach, but died at the age of 45 while the film was in postproduction. That Harvey seems wildly miscast in the film’s leading role only adds to the overall strangeness of watching Welcome to Arrow Beach. Born in Lithuania, raised in South Africa, and educated in England, Harvey was most definitely not an American. So why does he play a traumatized Korean War vet living on a California beach? And why is the sister of Harvey’s character played by English-Canadian actress Joanna Pettet, who looks nothing like Harvey and employs a convincing American accent that accentuates how foreign Harvey’s speaking style sounds given the nature of his role?
          The story begins with hippie hitchhiker Robbin (Meg Foster) accepting a ride from a hot-rod driver, who crashes soon afterward with Robbin in his car. Cops including Sheriff Bingham (John Ireland) and Deputy Rakes (Stuart Whitman) respond to the accident and discover cocaine that Robbin insists belongs to the driver, who is badly hurt. Weirdly, the cops release Robbin and do nothing while she strolls onto a private beach. Then, while Robbin skinny-dips, Jason Henry (Harvey) ogles her through a telescope from his house above the sand. Later, Jason offers hospitality, which Robbin accepts only when she learns that Jason lives with his sister, Grace (Pettet). Yet Grace isn’t happy to meet Jason’s new houseguest, reminding Jason that he’d promised not to get in trouble with girls anymore. And so it goes from there—Robbin ignores obvious warning signs until a frightening encounter occurs, but once she escapes the chamber of horrors hidden inside Jason’s house, her past encounter with the cops makes them doubt her sensational claims about an upstanding citizen.
          Although the movie takes quite a while to get to the creepy stuff, there’s never any doubt where the story is going, since the first scene includes an epigraph about cannibalism. Therefore the picture lacks real suspense, and the overly mannered quality of Harvey’s acting further impedes the movie’s efficacy as a horror show. In fact, many stretches of Welcome to Arrow Beach edge into camp, as when Harvey cuts repeatedly from closeups of his own eyes to closeups of Foster’s character eating the world’s bloodiest steak. Just as unsubtle is the film’s suggestion of incest: At one point, Harvey and Pettet kiss passionately. Since it’s impossible to take Welcome to Arrow Beach seriously, perhaps  it’s best to regard the picture as drive-in junk with a posh leading actor. After all, the stylistic high point is a scene in which Harvey’s character lures a woman into a photo studio, then switches from holding a camera to holding a meat cleaver.

Welcome to Arrow Beach: FUNKY

Saturday, February 17, 2018

J-Men Forever (1979)

          Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor, two of the guys from counterculture comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre, wrote this silly flick marrying a new soundtrack (and a few new scenes) to selected clips from old Republic serials. Hence the juxtaposition of Captain America, Captain Marvel, Rocket Man, and other characters with verbal jokes about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. There’s a plot, something about an evil DJ called the Lightning Bug trying to take over the world with mind-controlling rock music, but the narrative is just a way of stringing gags together. To Bergman’s and Proctor’s credit, they mostly avoid offensive and/or scatological humor, so J-Men Forever is family-friendly, or at least as family-friendly as a flick about dope-smoking government agents can be. Are most of the jokes dumb and forgettable? Of course. But criticizing the movie for failing to meet standards to which it never aspired seems pointless. Better to contextualize this as a (very) minor link in the chain stretching from What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and beyond. Repurposing old movie clips may not be the most imaginative style of storytelling, but it’s not the least imaginative, either.
          Bergman and Proctor play “J-Men” in black-and-white clips that are shot to resemble the style of the Republic footage with which new scenes are intercut. They send agents (in the form of Captain America, etc.) to battle the Lightning Bug in his many guises. As for the jokes, the following should tell the tale: “You don’t know disco from Crisco!” “Good morning, Los Angeles, this is K-R-A-P!” And so on. The heroes’ office is in the “J-Men’s Room” of the Pentagon (in “Washington AC/DC”), and instead of yelling “Shazam!” Billy Batson shouts “Sh Boom,” triggering a cover of the old tune “Sh Boom Sh Boom.” The point seems not to satirize the Republic clips, but rather to use the clips as a means of taking the piss out of old-fashioned sensibilities in general. Fair enough. But seeing as how the pop-culture landscape of the ’70s also included National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live and the like, it’s easy to see why the gently derisive J-Men Forever failed to garner much attention.

J-Men Forever: FUNKY

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Orphan (1979)

Drifting along the meandering currents of low-budget horror flick The Orphan are pieces that, assembled differently, might have comprised an offbeat psychological thriller—a little cross-dressing here, a touch of pedophilia there. Alas, how these pieces relate in this context is anyone’s guess. The story is set in the 1930s—anachronistic costumes and hairstyles notwithstanding—and the gist is that after his father dies, preteen David (Mark Owens) receives an unwanted new guardian, Aunt Martha (Peggy Feury). Her disciplinarian ways don’t sit well with David, who enjoys hanging out with Akin (Afolabi Ajayi), the African houseguest who was a friend of David’s late father, and spying on the family’s attractive young maid, Mary (Eleanor Stewart). Another of David’s hobbies is wearing women’s clothes, though at one point he’s interrupted while cross-dressing, so he strips off his bustier, shoves it in a toilet, and flushes, thereby causing the toilet to overflow. If you’re thinking that none of this sounds particularly horrific, how about the dream sequence during which David imagines his tongue being ripped from his mouth? Some murders happen in The Orphan, but they’re presented so cryptically that it’s hard to tell which events are meant to be figments of David’s imagination. Nonetheless, someone must have thought that writer/producer/director John Ballard was onto something, seeing as how ace cutter Ralph Rosenblum was brought in as “editorial consultant” and Janis Ian was hired to write and perform a theme song. Ian’s song is pretty, and one assumes Rosenblum helped strengthen a few moments, but the sum effect of The Orphan is bewildering. FYI, The Orphan was occasionally marketed as Friday the 13th: The Orphan, so the producers of Friday the 13th (1980) had to pay the copyright owners of Ballard’s flick for the use of the title.

The Orphan: LAME

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Keep Off My Grass! (1975)

A brief description makes counterculture comedy Keep Off My Grass! sound promising, since Micky Dolenz (of the Monkees) plays a sweet hippie kid searching for a place where he can nurture his little marijuana plant in peace. Unfortunately, that’s only one piece of a simultaneously overstuffed and underwhelming movie. Keep Off My Grass! begins with retailers on the main drag of a small city upset about hippies loitering in front of their stores. The retailers buy a small abandoned town and give it to the kids, who build their own society from scratch. Predictably, the hippies replicate the same Establishment hang-ups against which they once rebelled: capitalism, law and order, etc.  Done right, this movie could have become an essential satire of its period. Instead, Keep Off My Grass! is drab, shapeless, tonally inconsistent, and visually unimaginative. One subplot concerns a hippie guy who gets possessive about his lady. Another revolves around a young man who upsets his Jewish parents by shacking up with a hippie chick. And the Dolenz material mostly sidelines the endearing pot-plant angle for dreary vignettes of Dolenz’s character trying to lose his virginity. There’s also a needlessly dark subplot about folks living in the small town adjoining the hippie community taking extreme measures to drive the hippies away. Dolenz’s goofy charm isn’t nearly sufficient to make this stuff interesting to watch, especially since he only plays a supporting role, despite marketing materials implying he’s the star. FYI, Keep Off My Grass! features an early screen appearance by future TV star Gerald McRaney, whose casting as the rebellious Jewish kid is a bit of a stretch, and this was the only movie that comedian Shelley Berman ever directed. He did not miss his calling.

Keep Off My Grass!: LAME

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cry for Me, Billy (1972)

          Many familiar ’70s-cinema textures converge in the bleak Western Cry for Me, Billy, which boasts a handful of riveting scenes but underwhelms overall. The film’s biggest problem is a predictable storyline, so director William A. Graham’s leisurely approach exacerbates inherent sluggishness. Additionally, leading man Cliff Potts, a workaday actor in films and television from the late ’60s to the late ’90s (notwithstanding minor recent appearances), wasn’t up to the task of carrying a movie. Oh, and it should also be noted that despite his prominent billing, the great Harry Dean Stanton only appears in about 10 minutes of the movie, mostly in the beginning and then again toward the end.
          Gun-toting drifter Billy (Potts) wanders into a tiny town, where he observes several Cavalry soldiers withholding water from a group of thirsty Indian prisoners. Incensed, Billy gives water to the prisoners, but later, when several prisoners escape, Billy watches helplessly while the soldiers kill the remaining Indians. Then Billy leaves town and encounters Little Sparrow (Maria Yolanda Aguayo), one of the escapees. She’s a beautiful young woman who for some reason is completely nude until Billy gives her a blanket. Despite a language barrier (the only word she ever speaks in the movie is Billy’s name), the two fall in love. Then, of course, the soldiers return to spoil their idyll, and bloodshed ensues.
          Given the trite narrative, Cry for Me, Billy should be interminable, but several elements redeem the movie. Markson’s dialogue is excellent, and he does a terrific job sketching the minor characters whom Billy and Little Sparrow encounter. Better still, the cinematography by Jorden Cronenweth is gorgeous; in scene after scene, Cronenweth finds clever ways to put the sun behind actors, creating beautiful pictorial depth. Also priaseworthy are brief but effective turns by Stanton, James Gammon, Don Wilbanks, and others. Alas, the main story, though presented with great care, underwhelms until the grim final act. FYI, Aguayo, who later married her costar Potts, was originally billed as “Xochitl,” an Aztec word for “flower,” hence some online sources giving that word as the name of her character. The alias represented a failed attempt to give her screen debut a bit of intrigue.

Cry for Me, Billy: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I Love My Wife (1970)

          Yet another would-be comedy cataloging the “difficulties” of being a successful white dude with a stable marriage, I Love My Wife stars Elliott Gould as Dr. Richard Burrows, a self-centered prick whose insatiable lust masks a deep reservoir of self-loathing. There’s actually a respectable character study buried inside the feeble jokes and wobbly attempts at sex farce, so viewers sympathetic to Gould’s shaggy screen persona might be able to cherry-pick this overlong picture and imagine a better film comprising only the most thoughtful scenes. However, doing so requires tolerance for watching Richard cuckold his long-suffering wife; objectivity and deceive his adoring mistress; and regularly ignore his two children, who didn’t ask to get born into a dysfunctional family. Moreover, those who track down I Love My Wife hoping for sexy laughs are bound to be disappointed—although the movie features a steady procession of attractive women in erotic scenarios, the protagonist is an unbearable putz.
          A prologue shows Richard becoming fascinated with sex during his childhood and, later, losing his virginity to a hooker. Then he meets and marries Judy (Brenda Vaccaro), but she falls from Richard’s favor the minute she reveals she’s not that into oral sex. Worse, she gains weight after bearing his children—hence pitiful scenes of Richard sleeping with a sexy nurse (JoAnna Cameron) and complaining to her that his wife doesn’t understand him. After that dalliance runs its course, Richard aggressively pursues a married model, Helene (Angel Tompkins), who leaves her husband to be with Richard. But of course she’s not enough for him, since no one ever will be. You begin to see how a serious treatment of this material might have clicked, and in fact most of the actors play the material so straight that I Love My Wife feels like a drama much of the time. Alas, it seems writer Robert Kaufman and director Mel Stuart were after hilarity, or at least satire. Viewed from that perspective, the movie’s an utter failure.

 I Love My Wife: FUNKY

Monday, February 12, 2018

Hedda (1975)

          Although the adjective fearless often gets attached to actresses who play dark or uninhibited roles, perhaps no mainstream performer has so consistently earned that description than Glenda Jackson did during her heyday from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. (She continued acting, often in fine projects, through the early ’90s before shifting to a political career.) For some projects, particularly those directed by frequent collaborator Ken Russell, Jackson descended so far into psychosexual darkness as to become feral. Similarly, in films such as this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler, Jackson ignored the conventional impulse to engender audience goodwill. When Jackson essayed monsters, as she does here, she did so to spectacular effect.
          To be fair, calling Ibsen’s complex protagonist Hedda Gabler a monster isn’t exactly correct; while much of what she does is borderline sociopathic, Ibsen ensures that we see what drives her. So does Trevor Nunn, the writer-director of this intense adaptation. Casting the story in an amber glow that counters the ice surrounding Hedda’s twisted heart, Nunn employs intimate compositions that either trap characters together uncomfortably or reveal the distance (metaphorical and physical) between them. Nunn’s film is precise and unflinching, just like Jackson’s explosive leading performance.
          Summarizing the plot does little justice to the grim textures of Ibsen’s narrative, but the broad strokes are as follows. Although Hedda (Jackson) is married to Jorgen (Peter Eyre), a socially inept intellectual of marginal promise, she cruelly flirts with Judge Brack (Timothy West), who wants to have an affair with her. Enter Hedda’s simple friend, Thea (Jennie Linden), who is involved with another intellectual, Eijert (Patrick Stewart—with hair!). Long ago, he and Hedda were lovers, and they still have a dangerous bond. As the story progresses, Hedda identifies which characters are obstacles to her dreams of a comfortable lifestyle, then sets in motion a horrific chain of events.
          Just as none would mistake Hedda Gabler for safe classical theater, none would mistake Hedda for a stodgy stage adaptation. Lurking inside the ornate language and posh costume designs is something truly malignant, a skillful exploration of the million ways people hurt each other. Burning at the center of thing is a remarkable character brought to frightening life by an extraordinary performer. Even when she goes big with a gesture or a monologue, Jackson finds truth in Hedda’s grasping for power—and in her startling realizations of powerlessness. So even though everyone around her does fine work, especially Nunn, this experience is all about the portrayal that earned Jackson, as of this writing, the final of her four Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Joe Panther (1976)

          Telling the story of a modern-day Seminole Indian youth torn between the limitations of life in his impoverished village and the potential moral compromises of pursuing opportunities in the outside world, Joe Panther is clumsily effective. The story is eventful, the protagonist’s journey is meaningful, and the themes of assimilation and identity create believable points of conflict. Made with more sophistication, Joe Panther might have earned a place among the best coming-of-age stories from the ’70s. Unfortunately, the film falls short of contemporary standards for racial sensitivity thanks to any-minority-will-suffice casting, and thats but one of many flaws. Nonetheless, Joe Panther is commendable for a few moments of genuine emotion as well as at least one scene of thrilling action.
          Living in a close-knit but financially troubled Seminole village near Miami, fatherless Joe Panther (Ray Tracey) worries about how to provide for his mother and his younger brother. Joe isn’t thrilled by his prospects in the village, and it galls Joe to watch his best friend, Billy Tiger (A Martinez), put on alligator-wrestling exhibitions for tourists. When Joe hears about a job on a fishing boat owned by kindly Captain Harper (Brian Keith), Joe accepts a wild challenge as a condition of employment—he must venture into the Everglades and capture an 11-foot gator that Harper’s brother can use as a tourist attraction at his resort. The mission becomes Joe’s trial by fire, especially when his wise Uncle Turtle (Ricardo Montalban) offers ominous warnings about the dangers of the Everglades.
          Casting Latin actors in prominent Seminole roles is distracting, and the thriller subplot that dominates the last third of the movie is a bit much. Yet parts of Joe Panther have real grit. The sequence of Joe trapping a giant alligator is frightening, and the bond that Martinez and Tracey convey is persuasive. So even if the movie often edges into drab formulas, as when both Keith and Montalban give monologues about the meaning of life, the picture’s intentions seem pure. Everything right and wrong about Joe Panther is epitomized by the gentle theme song, which is performed by soft-rock hitmakers England Dan & John Ford Coley—the message is there, but the choice of messengers is highly questionable.

Joe Panther: FUNKY