Saturday, March 31, 2018

Parades (1972)

          More of a generalized expression of counterculture angst than a properly formed story, Parades takes several different approaches to its antiwar theme. In fact, the picture divides somewhat neatly into four episodes, but not by design—at regular intervals, the filmmakers seem to forget what story they’re telling and latch onto the next shiny object that enters view. First the movie is about a young deserter whose parents narc on him to the government. Then the picture explores the deserter’s experiences in a military prison, where a brutal sergeant subjects him to physical and psychological torture. Next, after a tragedy that most viewers can see coming way before it happens, the movie shifts into ensemble mode as prisoners process terrible events. Finally the movie resolves into a far-fetched melodrama, with a civilian protest outside the prison inspiring nonviolent activism behind bars, which in turn causes yet more bloodshed.
          It’s not hard to imagine a version of the same basic narrative achieving the desired effect, but getting there would have required more discipline than the makers of Parades could muster. Yet it’s wrong to dismiss Parades as a complete misfire. The film’s politics are consistent, and some of the young actors playing convicts attack their roles with vigor. One gets a sense of the folks behind this picture committing wholeheartedly to what they perceived as an important statement, and, to be fair, this endeavor was not completely without risk. Even though the youth audience circa 1972 was heavily behind the protest movement, many in the Establishment viewed those questioning the war as traitors. For those looking to make a splash in movies, there were less controversial subjects to explore.
          In any event, Parades has a few points of interest beyond its plot. Future TV stars David Doyle and Erik Estrada play small roles, and Barry Manilow did the theme song. (Yes, you read that right.) Incidentally, it appears that director Robert J. Siegel did major surgery on the picture after its original release, because reports indicate that the presently available version, released in 1980 as The Line, contains extensive new footage. Given how discombobulated the 1980 version is, however, it’s probably for the best that the original cut has faded from view.

Parades: FUNKY

Friday, March 30, 2018

Nunzio (1978)

          Although it’s unwise to make blanket statements about an entire genre, some observations of this type carry more weight than others. For example, few would challenge the assertion that a disheartening number of movies about mentally challenged characters are shamelessly manipulative. But here’s where nuance enters the discussion: What’s the difference between good audience manipulation and bad audience manipulation? I would argue that Forrest Gump (1994), which hides cheap sentimentality behind pretentions to historical and literary significance, is less honest than something like Nunzio, which is more typical of the genre. Put bluntly, Nunzio is heart-tugging crap, but it never tries to be anything other than heart-tugging crap.
          David Proval, who began his long film/TV career with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and later played a recurring role on The Sopranos, stars as Nunzio, who has the mind of a child even though he’s in his early 30s. Nunzio lives in Brooklyn with his mother and earns money as a delivery boy for the local corner market. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Nunzio, so the nice folks wave when he rolls by on his bicycle, and the cruel ones make fun of the way he sometimes puts on a cape while pretending to be Superman. Nunzio’s brother, James (played by James Andronica, who also wrote the script), alternately browbeats and protects his frustrating sibling, although James is ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The main storyline involves Nunzio pining for a pretty girl who works at a bakery, enduring an inappropriate sexual experience, and eventually stumbling across an opportunity to become a real-life superhero.
          Some elements of the storyline are laughably obvious, but others are downright peculiar, especially the sexual stuff. In its graceless way, the movie tries to ask big questions about society’s responsibility for unfortunate citizens, about the role of community in defining people’s characters, and about the place that true innocence has in the crass modern world. Yet the high-minded notions drifting through Nunzio’s bloodstream aren’t essential to the experience of watching the picture. Like so many other films about the mentally challenged, Nunzio is a feature-length pity party.
          Even though Andronica probably thought he was writing something along the same lines as Marty (1955) or Rocky (1976), beautiful stories about simple guys learning to love themselves, he actually rendered old-fashioned schmaltz, contriving one situation after another to contrast Nunzio’s sweetness with the coarseness of other people. Is that a theme worth expressing? Sure, why not. Was this the most effective way of expressing that theme? Doubtful. Still, Nunzio moves along briskly, overflows with local color thanks to location shooting, and features competent performances by costars Tovah Feldshuh, Teresa Saldana, and a woefully underused Joe Spinell. As for Proval, he notches sincere moments whenever he’s not overdoing things with creepy intensity.

Nunzio: FUNKY

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Road Movie (1973)

          Telling the grim story of two truckers who travel across America with a tough hooker as their passenger, Road Movie epitomizes the New Hollywood aesthetic, even though its level of notoriety is infinitesimal compared to that of similar films by, say, Monte Hellman and Bob Rafelson. As cowritten and directed by the adventurous Joseph Strick, Road Movie is a dark meditation on the circumstances of unfortunate people whose pursuit of independence leads nowhere. There’s a reason the blunt title works—for the characters in Road Movie, life is all about leaving the pain of yesterday behind while chasing the possibilities of tomorrow.
          Road Movie opens by introducing Janice (Regina Baff), a jaded young woman new to the skin trade. Older hookers laugh as she hustles drivers at a truckstop, and she pathetically drops her price in half just to turn a trick. Janice quickly discovers the danger of working the trucker circuit: Since drivers feel invulnerable inside their rigs, many of them abuse Janice as she moves from town to town, one rough ride at a time. Enter Gil (Robert Drivas) and Hank (Barry Bostwick), two young partners trying to make a go of their independent trucking operation. They hire Janice, and then Gil—a cocksure bastard who rants about not wanting to pay union dues, because why should he pay to support other people’s healthcare—slaps Janice around for a thrill while screwing her. Hank has a gentler way about him, but Janice rightly calls him on his choice to align himself with a son of a bitch.
          As Road Movie trundles along, the three have experiences that can’t rightly be called adventures—more like travails. Janice punishes Gil by yanking the power cord on the refrigerator car the boys are hauling, ruining an entire load of meat. And when the guys get into a brawl with other truckers, Janice comes to the rescue by whipping out a straight razor and slashing the guys’ attackers. Gradually, we learn what pushed Janice onto the road, and what compelled Gil and Hank to start their own business. One of the film’s tricky implications is that Janice, the character who endures the most self-inflicted humiliation, might be the only one who sees the world clearly—until she goes completely insane, that is.
          It’s hard to say whether Road Movie “works” in any conventional sense, because it seems Strick was after something more than a morality tale, although Road Movie has that sort of a narrative shape. The picture achieves its greatest impact by presenting specific characters in specific situations as a means of asking difficult questions. What is ambition? What is freedom? What is human connection? Is the portrayal of Janice feminist or misogynistic? Are Gil and Hank antiheroes or merely facets of the same prism as Janice? Is the horrific finale literal or figurative? To some degree, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because sparking the viewer’s imagination is an accomplishment in and of itself.
          Aiding Strick greatly in his peculiar endeavor are the leading performers, each of whom commits to an unsympathetic character. Yet it’s Strick’s seemingly endless directorial curiosity that drives this piece: Frame after frame of Road Movie juxtaposes vignettes about three sad people with disheartening POV shots looking out truck windows at ugly commercialization littering Middle America’s thoroughfares.

Road Movie: GROOVY

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Windsplitter (1971)

          Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) was one of those generation-defining hits that inspired countless homages, so it’s tempting to dismiss all of them as faint echoes of the original. Yet doing so would overlook respectable efforts including The Windsplitter, which borrows iconography and themes from Easy Rider without directly copying that film. And while in many ways The Windsplitter is clumsy and obvious compared to Hopper’s picture, it’s not as if Easy Rider is the most articulate and refined piece of popular entertainment ever created. In fact, The Windsplitter expresses certain notions even more effectively than Easy Rider does. The key difference between the pictures is that the hog-riding rebels of Hopper’s movie live and breathe the hippie ethos, whereas the main character of The Windsplitter is merely mistaken for someone who does that.
          Set in small-town Texas, The Windsplitter explores what happens when hometown boy Bobby Joe (Jim McMullen) returns after a 10-year absence. During that time, he’s become a Hollywood movie star using his proper name, Robert Brandon. Town officials invited Bobby Joe home for a celebration in his honor, expecting the same clean-cut kid they knew a decade ago. Instead they get a longhair with a fringe jacket and wraparound shades who zooms into town atop a powerful motorcycle. Town officials, particularly the local Reverend (Paul Lambert) are aghast, but local kids embrace Bobby Joe like he’s an ambassador from a foreign country. Writer-director J.D. Fiegelson, who later had a middling career in television, takes a meticulous approach to dramatizing conflict. Bobby Joe’s  father (Jim Siedow) views everything about his sons new lifestyle with contempt, even revealing that he didn’t see Bobby Joe’s hit movie. Bobby Joe tries to pick up where he left off with Jenny (Joyce Taylor), but she’s the daughter of the Reverend, who fears that Bobby Joe’s influence will lead the town’s youth to ruination. Bobby Joe also reconnects with boyhood friend R.T. (Richard Everett), but the town’s other blue-collar types offer a much different welcome—threats leading to real violence. Everything moves steadily toward a public assembly where Bobby Joe is scheduled to crown the high school’s homecoming queen.
          In its broad strokes, The Windsplitter is contrived and predictable, pitting a with-it seeker against close-minded dolts. But in its specifics, the movie reveals depth and sensitivity. The Reverend isn’t just a fire-and-brimstone hatemonger. Jenny isn’t just a small-town girl beguiled by the promise of the outside world. R.T. isn’t just a simpleton grease monkey. And Bobby Joe, who eschews drugs and meaningless sex, doesn’t match the image formed in the minds of those who judge him. To be clear, Fiegelson’s storytelling is not sophisticated. Some of his dialogue thuds, and his most villainous characters are one-dimensional. But because The Windsplitter explores an interesting culture clash from a thoughtful angle, the movie’s grim finale feels organic rather than preconceived.

The Windsplitter: GROOVY

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Hard Road (1970)

          At one point in The Hard Road, which blends educational-film elements into a narrative framework, narrator Dr. Byron Clark poses a rhetorical question about a young man imprisoned for drug charges: “Will he be cured for good, or will he again seek the dreams and fantasies that are pushed out of a hypodermic needle?” On first blush, this sounds a bit like the uptight moralizing of Reefer Madness (1936), but on closer inspection, the language is actually somewhat restrained. And that, in microcosm, is the experience of watching The Hard Road. Structurally, the picture is an old-fashioned cautionary tale, explaining how a teenage girl’s pregnancy leads her into a lifestyle of moral rot. Yet in the particulars, The Hard Road has something that might almost be called nuance.
          Director Gary Graver, who also shot the picture, employs imaginative camera angles for drug-trip sequences, seemingly trying to capture both the appeal and the danger of hallucinogens. Similarly, the script portrays the protagonist’s parents as status-obsessed alcoholics, so it’s not as if the movie lays the blame for youth-culture excesses squarely on kids. The Hard Road isn’t a hip movie by any measure, but it’s not precisely square, either. After pretty suburban 17-year-old Pamela (Connie Nelson) gives up her baby for adoption, Pamela’s parents hope she’ll change her wanton ways. Dad gets Pamela a job as the receptionist for a talent booker, and a rock star she meets at work takes her to bed. Pamela also befriends a girl who turns tricks to pay for her boyfriend’s dope habit. Eventually Pamela gets pregnant again, breaking with her parents and finding herself adrift, with only unreliable crooks and drug addicts for support.
          Despite amateurish acting and that problematic narration by Dr. Clark, The Hard Road moves along fairly smoothly for most of its running time. Yet every so often, the picture stops dead for a bit of visual lecturing, as when animation and photos are used to track the spread of VD through the body. Therefore it’s awfully hard to guess the intended audience for this film. The picture is too scolding for the exploitation-flick crowd, and too lurid for family viewing. So is The Hard Road sincere or is it sleazy? Considering how much porn Graver has directed over the years, the needle tips uncomfortably toward “sleazy,” but still . . .

The Hard Road: FUNKY

Monday, March 26, 2018

Six Hundred and Sixty-Six (1972)

          Made by an evangelical Christian organization, Six Hundred and Sixty-Six has a clear agenda: frightening non-believers into embracing God before it’s too late. Yet the picture doesn’t fall into the familiar Christian-movie trap of smothering viewers with gentle homilies. Instead, the movie starts in a dark place and goes deeper into despair until reaching a suitably intense ending. Better still, the film exudes intelligence and specificity, thanks to a resourceful script by Marshall Riggan, and the use of a claustrophobic location gives the piece a strong Twilight Zone vibe. That said, the movie is hugely flawed. Although director Tom Doades shoots well, using deep shadows and sharp lines to create moody images, Six Hundred and Sixty-Six comprises nearly wall-to-wall dialogue, and the performances are stiff, with actors robotically over-enunciating dialogue. Had Doades started the film in a buttoned-up fashion and then gotten more naturalistic as the narrative gained tension, he might have achieved a better result.
          The film takes place in the near future, when the world has divided into Eastern and Western factions. American soldier Col. Ferguson (Joe Turkel) is the new operations officer at an underground bunker that he assumes is a missile silo. In fact, it’s a repository of human culture, with artwork stored alongside computers stuffed with literature and philosophy. The movie explores what happens when nuclear war unfolds aboveground, damaging the life-support mechanisms of the underground bunker. Things skew theological after that happens. The bunker’s main computer is programmed to recite random snippets of poetry, speaking in a sexy female voice and ending every announcement with “I love you.” One of the poetry snippets is a Bible verse, which gets the men in the bunker wondering if the nuclear event was actually the apocalypse.
          Every twenty minutes or so, the filmmakers juice Six Hundred and Sixty-Six with a quick action scene (some folks go crazy in close quarters), but mostly the film is talk, talk, talk. Some of the chatter is highly engaging and some less so, but it’s all a bit much. Although Turkel’s work is never more than serviceable, Byron Clark gives an unnerving supporting turn as Tallman, the erudite curator of the underground archive—is he a mad genius or just mad? Even for devotees of end-of-the-world cinema, Six Hundred and Sixty-Six is a tough sit—too dry, too religious, too slow—but if you accept the picture on its own terms, Six Hundred and Sixty-Six is consistently ominous and provocative.

Six Hundred and Sixty-Six: FUNKY

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Fox Affair (1978)

If you stumble onto blurbs about this low-budget thriller set in disco-era New York City, you’ll encounter tantalizing but contradictory data—some sources describe this as blaxploitation, while others suggest a girl-power actioner. In truth, The Fox Affair tells the uninteresting story of two sleazy con artists—glorified pimps, really—who seek help from a young woman of their acquaintance after a Far East deal goes south, causing enemies to send an assassin from Hong Kong. (All the main characters are white, by the way, so its a mystery how the blaxploitation mislabeling originated.) The young woman from whom the con artists seek aid is Felicia Fox (Kathryn Dodd), a former beat cop now working as a meter maid but also, apparently, moonlighting as an escort. It’s all very murky, especially since Felicia doesn’t appear until the movie is halfway over. The Fox Affair is a hodgepodge of drab dialogue scenes, inept action beats, and sexploitation. One long scene comprises the main characters leering at naked women through a two-way mirror, and another involves musclemen preening for naked ladies in a steam bath. (One fellow brags about his high-protein diet: “I ate three chickens last night!”) Since the leading actors are as forgettable as their characters and the rudderless storyline, the only interesting thing about The Fox Affair is the snapshot it provides of how vulgar people with money lived in late-’70s Manhattan: chrome furniture, feathered hair, shaggy rugs, tailored suits, and way too much machismo.

The Fox Affair: SQUARE

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Ravagers (1979)

          There’s no good reason for sci-fi thriller Ravagers to be as dull as it is. Even setting aside the lively cast—more on that in a minute—the picture features a serviceable postapocalyptic storyline, in which gangs of violent people called ravagers prey on settlements of vulnerable people to steal food and other supplies. The underlying premise holds that something poisoned the world’s water, making it nearly impossible to grow new food, so everyone still alive competes for resources. Though hardly new, shouldn’t these concepts be enough for a passable mixture of pulpy adventure and social commentary? Before you answer that question, let’s get back to the cast: Ravagers stars Richard Harris, and supporting him in much smaller roles are Ernest Borgnine, Art Carney, Seymour Cassel, Anthony James, and Woody Strode. That lineup explains why Ravagers isn’t a total waste of time, even though the actors are squandered as badly as the potential of the storyline.
          Set in the near future, Ravagers begins with Falk (Harris) bringing precious food back to his companion, Miriam (Alana Hamilton), who dreams of someday finding a place called Genesis, where food is rumored to grow. Alas, ravagers led by a vile leader (Anthony James) followed Falk to his hiding place, so they rape and murder Miriam, leaving Falk for dead. He survives and exacts some revenge, then flees into the countryside with the ravagers in pursuit. Falk meets assorted benevolent people until stumbling across an installation supervised by Rann (Borgnine), who clashes with Falk over strategies for holding the outside world at bay.
         Some of the film’s episodes are more interesting than others, but the pacing is glacial and the movie is nearly over before Rann appears. Yet the shape of the narrative isn’t the worst problem plaguing Ravagers. In nearly every scene, actors stand still with their faces blank, as if they’re waiting for director Richard Compton to give them something to do or say. The movie’s script is so enervated that character development is nonexistent, with people defined by their situations instead of their personalities. This sort of one-dimensional approach can work in fast-paced movies, but it’s deadly for slow-paced movies like Ravagers. Adding to the onscreen lethargy are vapid turns by Stewart and nominal leading lady Ann Turkel. Ravagers is more or less coherent, but as goes Harris’ performancea wispy suggestion of what he might have done with a proper screenplayso goes the whole disappointing picture.

Ravagers: FUNKY

Friday, March 23, 2018

Boogievision (1977)

Despite marketing materials suggesting similarities to The Groove Tube (1974), Boogievision is actually a counterculture story about independent filmmaking, although it does features a few fake commercials. Struggling director Mick (Michael Laibson) discovers that his girlfriend’s dad, Burt (Bert Belant), is a producer, so Mick submits a script. Turns out Burt makes porn, so he hires the young filmmaker to crank out a skin flick. Mick rebelliously spends Burt’s money to make a politicized sci-fi freakout (with lots of nudie shots) called Lizard Women from Outer Space, and Burt is aghast when he discovers what happened. There’s no use fretting that Boogievision writer-director James Bryan botched his main story, which could have worked if it had fleshed-out characters, because delivering a straightforward narrative is clearly not what Bryan was after. Echoing the behavior of his main character, Bryan was all about, like, doing his own thing, man. Thus Boogievision meanders through pointless discursions and shapeless conversations, gradually drifting more and more toward unhinged druggy nonsense, only occasionally reverting to linear plotting. As for the caliber of the Bryans comedy, fake commercials in Boogievision include a trailer for The Excrementists, a scatological riff on The Exorcist (1973), and the film-within-a-film features political rhetoric from “The Radical Feminoids” as well as a chat with a lizard woman (meaning a topless starlet wearing a cheap-looking mask), who is upset about the commercialization of reptile hides. Viewed in tandem with the right controlled substances, maybe this stuff was amusing back in the day. Viewed sober in 2018, not so much.

Boogievision: LAME

Thursday, March 22, 2018

How Come Nobody’s on Our Side? (1975)

          If you’re willing to overlook a huge problem—the absence of a real story—then you might be able to groove on the silly pleasures of How Come Nobody’s On Our Side? A wannabe farcical comedy about two bikers who try to score bread by running drugs across the Mexican border, the picture stars two veterans of ’60s/’70s biker flicks, Larry Bishop and Adam Roarke. Here, they work in the mode of classic comedy duos: Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, etc. Although Bishop and Roarke put forth mighty efforts, the jokes aren’t strong enough to sustain interest, and their characters aren’t sufficiently differentiated to create strong friction. Worse, the plot lacks forward momentum until the climax, which resorts to that dullest of clich├ęs, a madcap chase scene. It’s fitting that the movie features a scene of our heroes escaping trouble in a hot-air balloon, because from start to finish, this whole thing runs on fumes.
          After Brandy (Bishop) and Person (Roarke) quit a job playing bikers in a low-budget movie, they hit the road looking for new opportunities. Enter Brigitte (Alexandra Hay), Person’s freethinking sister. For some reason she has a groovy house on the beach in Los Angeles, so the bikers hang out there for a while. Eventually someone has the bright idea to run dope, triggering complicated schemes—Brigitte seduces a cop to get the use of his uniform so Brandy, posing as a policeman, can squeeze information from a border guard, and so on. Some of the schemes are mildly amusing, and the film’s banter is periodically entertaining, but the lack of narrative focus grows more and more frustrating as the picture drags on. Plus, some bits just don’t work, like the vignette of the bikers buying drugs from a couple played by Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner.
          Apparently filmed in 1972 but shelved until 1975, How Come Nobody’s on Our Side? is a missed opportunity, because Bishop and Roarke render such an appealingly cranky buddy-picture vibe that better material might have resulted in success. But in addition to constructing a flabby plot, writer Leigh Chapman shows a weakness for sitcom-style jokes. The aforementioned balloon scene involves the bikers begging a little person for a ride before resorting to physical threats. At that point, the little person exclaims: “Why didn’t you say that in the first place? Look at all the time you wasted trying to reason with me!” As with so much of How Come Nobody’s on Our Side?, it’s enough to make you almost laugh.

How Come Nobody’s On Our Side?: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Running Wild (1973)

          A well-meaning family adventure with an animal-preservation theme, Running Wild feels like a TV movie that somehow drifted to the big screen and gained 30 minutes of extraneous footage along the way. The cast is strictly B-list, the technical execution is perfunctory, and the storytelling is trite, so this thing would have gone down more smoothly as a 74-minute quickie. Set in Colorado, the movie begins with freelance photographer Whit Colby (Dina Merrill) snapping pictures of wild mustangs near a canyon. Then malevolent Crug Crider (Morgan Woodward) buzzes the herd with a helicopter, startling several horses into running off a cliff. Whit reports what she’s seen to local land agent Jeff Methune (Lloyd Bridges), kicking the story into gear. Jeff is responsible for looking after the animals and people on Indian terrain, where the incident happened, so he’s got a complicated relationship with local fatcat Quentin Hogue (Pat Hingle, who also associate-produced the picture). Quentin wants to buy the land for cattle grazing, so (unbeknownst to Jeff) Quentin enlists goons including Crug to murder mustangs, hoping that elimination of the herd will clear the way for his land grab. Whit, a big-city lefty with an activist spirit, has something to say about all of this.
          Made somewhat in the mode of a Walt Disney picture, albeit without cutesy vignettes and mile-a-minute pacing, Running Wild goes to all the predictable places: Jeff and Whit fall in love; Jeff has bad blood with Crug, leading to a big fistfight; and the climax involves Jeff’s young son becoming endangered while trying to help wild horses. Nothing that happens in the picture is overtly stupid, but nothing that happens in the picture is special, either. Although scenes of mustangs roaming through canyon country are picturesque, way too much time gets chewed up by romantic material involving Bridges and Merrill, especially since the filmmakers fail to construct believable obstacles to that relationship. Bridges character is cranky (but not too cranky) and Merrills character is icy (but not too icy). Except for harsh vignettes of animal abuse, most of the picture could just as easily be titled Running Mild. And with all due respect to Mr. Hingle, a reliable actor of limited range, it’s not a good sign when he gives the most invested performance in a picture, unless one counts Woodward’s demonic scowling as an actual characterization.

Running Wild: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Electric Chair (1976)

The second and final picture directed by J.G. Patterson Jr., who died before this film hit theaters, drama/thriller hybrid The Electric Chair is a weird viewing experience, but not in a good way. Built around the sensationalistic promise of scenes filmed inside a real prison’s death row, The Electric Chair devotes about a quarter of its screen time to horror elements including violent crimes and, as the title suggests, a lengthy execution scene. The horror material comprises grimy scenes of pain and suffering accompanied by grating electronic noises that pose as a musical score. Yet what makes The Electric Chair truly strange is everything else in the movie. Patterson tracks the confusing story of a dual murder, a criminal investigation that results in a false arrest, and finally a melodramatic court trial that unexpectedly reveals the identity of the real killer. These scenes are mesmerizingly bad not only because of Patterson’s clumsy camerawork and stilted writing, but also because of his propensity for casting amateurs (or incompetent professionals) in prominent roles. Actors in The Electric Chair often seem as if they’re reading off cue cards, parroting lines they were fed just before the camera rolled, or improvising based upon insufficient guidance about what to say. The confident actors look foolish and the nervous actors look embarrassed. Some might enjoy laughing at these bits, but the wise viewer avoids The Electric Chair entirely, since watching the picture is like enduring an evening of deranged community theater.

The Electric Chair: LAME

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Female Bunch (1971)

Based on its title and release year, you’d think The Female Bunch was a low-budget riff on Sam Peckinpah’s violent Western The Wild Bunch (1969). Instead, it’s a wobbly mixture of crime, feminism, revenge, and the group dynamics of a cult-like organization. Although the movie contains many interesting ideas and a handful of intense scenes, it also has the usual problems of movies directed by (or, in this case, co-directed by) Al Adamson. Scenes don’t cut together, sound work is sloppy, and transitions are pathetic. Notwithstanding a prologue, the movie begins with Sandy (Nesa Renet) experiencing man trouble in Vegas. Enter Sandy’s go-go dancer buddy Libby (Regina Carrol), who invites Sandy to join a group of women who live on a desert ranch. Leading the group is whip-cracking Grace (Jennifer Bishop), who has high expectations of loyalty: Sandy’s initiation test involves climbing into a coffin and letting Grace bury her alive. No men are allowed on Grace’s ranch except, for some reason, aging horse wrangler Monti (Lon Chaney Jr.). After establishing this fraught scenario, the movie loses focus during a shapeless second act featuring crime sprees, a druggy lesbian scene, and a debauched trip to Mexico. Toward the end of the picture, the plot snaps back into place and the movie’s level of violence increases dramatically. So while The Female Bunch has thrills, it also bombards the audience with lots of discombobulated nastiness. Although Bishop is suitably fierce, watching Chaney in his last film role is depressing, since he’s bloated and his voice is nearly gone, and this picture doesn’t mark a high point in costar Russ Tamblyn’s career, either.

The Female Bunch: LAME

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Big Time (1977)

          Noteworthy as the lone venture into film production and screenwriting for legendary Motown singer-songwriter William “Smokey” Robinson, Big Time is an amateurish but mostly pleasant blaxploitation comedy that benefits greatly from a funky soundtrack composed by, naturally, the estimable Mr. Robinson. The picture also has three appealing actors in leading roles. Christopher Joy gives an amusing turn as a low-rent hustler who gets into trouble by messing with the Mob’s money. Roger E. Mosley is entertaining as a crook with a pimptastic wardrobe, who may or may not be as tough as he seems. And leading lady Jayne Kennedy, playing an insurance investigator who goes undercover to entrap Joy’s character, is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter if her performance is merely adequate—after all, the description “merely adequate” could just as easily apply to Big Time itself, so why not enjoy the sights and sounds that make Big Time bearable?
          Eddie Jones (Joy) is a con artist specializing in fake accidents (think neck braces and frivolous lawsuits). A string of bad decisions have left him in debt to J.J. (Mosely), who threatens violence if Eddie doesn’t make good. In a typical scene, J.J., who has his initials inscribed on vanity plates and on custom-made gold teeth, compels Eddie to leap from a moving car even though Eddie’s wearing only a towel. Desperate to pay his debts, Eddie enlists his buddy Harold (Tobar Mayo) for help running schemes. Eddie also woos Shana (Kennedy) following a meet-cute during an accident, though he’s too dim to recognize her hidden agenda. Eventually, Eddie stumbles onto a crime scene and steals a suitcase full of cash. This upsets mobsters, who are portrayed as a bunch of fat Italians sitting around a table covered with pizzas.
          Once the FBI enters the storyline, things get confusing fast, so during a good 30 minutes of Big Time, it’s difficult to track who’s doing what to whom and why. Also distracting: The way Shana’s partner delivers most of his lines in a bad Humphrey Bogart impersonation. Presumably influenced by the anarchic vibe of Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies from the mid-’70s, Big Time is blaxploitation without degradation, which counts for something. The language is gentle, the racial portrayals aren’t especially vulgar, the violence is tame, and Kennedy maintains her dignity by never wearing less than a bikini. So even though Big Time is dopey, it’s an amiable romp set to a slick Motown groove, and every third or fourth attempt at a joke nearly connects.

Big Time: FUNKY

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977)

          If you want a conscientious examination of Howard Hughes’ early adventures in Hollywood, read no further. This tawdry biopic, released to capitalize on public interest after Hughes’ death in 1976, transforms the making of Hughes’ notorious war epic Hell’s Angels (1930) into something out of Penthouse Letters. Once Hughes (Victor Holchak) gets an eyeful of buxom starlet Jean Harlow (Lindsay Bloom), he makes a bet that if he can transform her from a bit player to a movie star, she’ll sleep with him. What ensues is a feature-length flirtation driven by vulgar banter and sensationalistic events. (For example, Jean rubs ice on her nipples before shooting a scene in order to get a reaction from a lifeless costar.) As co-written and directed by B-movie guy Larry Buchanan, Hughes and Harlow offers caricatures instead of people, cheap gags instead of situations, and weak attempts at salt-of-the-earth wit instead of real dialogue. That the picture is mostly watchable can be attributed to the traffic-accident appeal of the real history being depicted, and also to Bloom’s zesty performance as a woman who’s seen it all but still wants to believe in something better.
          The picture begins with the premiere of Hell’s Angels, during which Howard and Jean fret about the reactions of the audience and those of Hollywood censor Will Hays (Royal Dano). Then Hughes and Harlow flashes back to episodes from the making of Hell’s Angels. When Jean first meets Texas oil heir Howard, he’s already sunk $2 million into his movie and churned through directors. Once he assumes helming chores himself, Howard identifies Jean as a possible female lead, even though she moonlights as a hostess in a brothel. Naturally, Jean assumes the offer comes with strings, but instead Howard makes the salacious bet. Throughout a production cycle fraught with difficulty, the two run hot and cold with each other. They also share their deepest ambitions and fears. In a typically clunky line of dialogue, Howard opines: “We’re both just a couple of a country kids trying to make it in this hellhole of Hollywood.” Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes, avatars of morality in a cesspool? Whatever you say, Mr. Buchanan.
          The film’s most entertaining scenes feel like renderings of apocryphal stories, as when Howard berates veteran filmmaker Howard Hawks (Adam Roarke) for poaching stunt performers. Other vignettes work simply because Bloom, who enjoyed an undistinguished career in B-movies and TV shows, channels cynicism so effectively. (As a curvy blonde in ’70s Hollywood, one imagines that Bloom had plenty of life experience to use as inspiration for her performance.) Holchak, who also worked extensively in TV, looks the part and has a few sincere moments, but let’s just say his portrayal of Hughes is not definitive. Ultimately, how palatable you’ll find this picture depends on your appetite for showbiz lore, because Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell is a tacky rendering of a compelling story.

Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell: FUNKY

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Single Girls (1974)

Featuring the sort of lurid plot that later powered episode after episode of Charlie’s Angels, this sleazy drive-in picture tracks a serial killer who stalks visitors at a Caribbean resort where guests overcome sexual hangups by sleeping with each other. Naturally, all the female guests are twentysomething babes and most of the male guests are middle-aged. In one scene, the psychobabble-spewing proprietor of the resort encourages his guests to free themselves by “milling,” which involves turning off the lights so everyone can grope freely. This experiment goes awry when someone either bites or cuts a buxom young woman’s breast. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Codirected by the exploitation-flick brain trust of married couple Beverly and Ferd Sebastian, The Single Girls works about 40 percent of the time, delivering cheap thrills and nudie shots by way of coherent storytelling. The rest of the time, the movie ambles from one disassociated vignette to the next. Therefore, one’s tolerance for this sort of thing depends entirely on how much joy one is able to derive from watching ladies scream, screw, shower, and strip. Although the movie has a few proper dramatic scenes, mostly involving the trouble that sexy redhead Allison (Claudia Jennings) has with a possessive ex-boyfriend, those bits come across like filler, no matter how hard the appealing Jennings tries to give a real performance. Incidentally, Jennings also starred in the Sebastians’ next opus, ’Gator Bait, which was released later in 1974.

The Single Girls: LAME

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Tiger by the Tail (1970)

          Twisty thriller Tiger by the Tail is damn near the perfect Christopher George movie, inasmuch as the film’s shortcomings parallel George’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor. In the same way that George looks and sounds like the ideal macho leading man, thanks to his hairy chest and square jaw, Tiger by the Tail has the ingredients for fun escapism: betrayal, chases, drama, gunplay, money, murder, sex. Yet in the same way that George’s acting ability withers upon close inspection, since his performances always rely on mannered line deliveries and stiff poses, Tiger by the Tail has zero happening below the surface. The characterizations are shallow, the plot is far-fetched, and the thrills feel like callbacks to moments form other (better) movies. Note how the credits trumpet the first major appearance of a starlet named Charo—in her handful of scenes as the performer in a local bar, the future Love Boat regular comes across like a poor substitute for Brigitte Bardot, as if any curvy European blonde will suffice.
          Regarding the plot, Steve Michaels (George) returns from Vietnam to a Southwestern resort town, where he immediately clashes with his older brother, Frank (Dennis Patrick), the manager of a racetrack. During a brazen robbery, Frank is killed. Steve gets framed for the crime, sparking a battle of wits between Steve and erudite Sheriff Chancey Jones (John Dehner)—can Steve prove his innocence before Chancey gathers enough circumstantial evidence to put Steve away? Naturally, there’s a million bucks at stake, too.
          The scenes between Chancey and Steve strike sparks, even if screenwriter Charles A. Wallace gets carried away with the lawman’s lofty dialogue, so it’s disappointing whenever Tiger by the Tail gets mired in uninteresting peripheral material. Scenes with Charo dancing and singing are dull, while those with Tippi Hedren as Steve’s old flame aren’t much better. Tiger by the Tail also has way too many characters, with Lloyd Bochner, Alan Hale Jr., and Dean Jagger rendering disposable performances. Furthermore, the movie drags at 109 minutes seeing as how it doesn’t have enough real story to support that much screen time. Yet all these flaws reinforce why Christopher George was the right man for the job. A better movie would have attracted a better actor, and vice versa.

Tiger by the Tail: FUNKY