Monday, May 28, 2018

Chicago 70 (1970)

          One of the stranger cultural reactions to the notorious “Chicago 7 Trial” was an absurdist theater production blending excerpts from courtroom transcripts with allusions to Alice in Wonderland alongside satirical interjections somewhat in the style of the Marx Brothers. Chicago 70 is a cinematic adaptation of that play. Presumably, the idea behind both versions of the piece was to skewer the absurdity of putting left-wing activists on trial for the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention, even though the real culprits were Chicago’s police department and the city’s mayor, Richard J. Daley. Featuring such iconic characters as Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale, the trial was a flashpoint in the counterculture era, but the story’s insane sprawl has stymied most attempts at reducing the trial to a feature-length narrative. Hence such experimental treatments as this film and Chicago 10 (2007), alongside occasional mainstream piece including Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987). Anyway, there’s not much to say about Chicago 70 beyond the description provided earlier—as written by the unlikely figure of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Chicago 70 is a flimsy gimmick stretched to feature length.
          Performing on a stripped-down set, actors spew transcript excerpts in a rapid-fire style, transforming history into farce. Sometimes actors switch roles, sometimes characters are represented by props instead of people, and sometimes the movie cuts from the court action to silly interludes—after the judge forgets the name of a defendant, for instance, he plays charades until remembering the name. Given its frenetic presentation, Chicago 70 mostly fails as a delivery device for information, so viewers unfamiliar with the real historical events are encouraged to learn facts elsewhere. Even for those who know the story, however, Chicago 70 hasn’t aged well. Stripped of the relevance it presumably had during its original release, the movie now seems childish and noisy, except for an imaginatively rendered and somewhat poignant sequence depicting the moment when Seale was bound and gagged. As for the film’s politics, the lopsided depiction of activists as valiant warriors and court officers as fascist buffoons is unhelpful.

Chicago 70: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)

          Success creates demand for repeat performances, hence this Philip Roth adaptation starring Richard Benjamin, a follow-up to the well-received Goodbye, Columbus (1969), which had the same actor/source material combo. Portnoy’s Complaint did not fare well, as represented by the fact that the picture began and ended the directorial career of Ernest Lehman, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriters. Whereas Goodbye, Columbus leavened its harshest elements with tenderness, Portnoy’s Complaint is unremittingly loud and vulgar. The film is not without its virtues, thanks partly to the psychosexual preoccupations of the source material and partly to the skill of the actors on display, but the picture is as fake and mean-spirited as Goodbye, Columbus is authentic and humane.
          Benjamin plays Alexander Portnoy, a horny civil servant who becomes involved with uninhibited fashion model Mary Jane Reid (Karen Black). Not only is she a Gentile, fulfilling one of self-hating Jew Alexander’s deepest fantasies, but she’s also nicknamed “Monkey” because of her agility in bed. The nearly illiterate Mary Jane is a plaything for Alexander, who gets to feel superior while lecturing her about culture and virile while driving her wild during sex. Yet the more she pushes for a real relationship, the more he cuts at her self-image with sarcasm. Revealing that Alexander eventually drives Mary Jane to suicide doesn’t spoil Portnoy’s Complaint, because the movie is built around a therapy session during which Alexander explores his guilt over the way he treated Mary Jane. He also works through his relationship with his oppressive mother, Sophie (Lee Grant), as well as his addiction to masturbation.
          One must admire Lehman’s commitment to presenting Alexander so unflinchingly—and since Jack Nicholson got away with playing men like this many times, the no-prisoners approach had precedents. Yet very little in Portnoy’s Complaint works. The movie is fast and slick, but it’s neither erotic nor illuminating. Instead, it comes across like a misguided morality tale wrapped inside a dirty joke. Still, Portnoy’s Complaint features a wild array of acting styles. Black has a few supple moments before slipping into harpy mode; the hopelessly miscast Grant plays for the cheap seats; Jill Clayburgh lends fire to a small part as a woman invulnerable to Alexander’s charms; and Jeannie Berlin, best of all, lends humor and pathos to the role of a bedraggled woman whose encounter with Alexander goes awry.

Portnoy’s Complaint: FUNKY

Thursday, May 17, 2018

French Quarter (1978)

          Since the Crown International logo usually heralds low-budget movies that disappoint in predictable ways, it’s worth singling out French Quarter, which disappoints in unpredictable ways. At first, the movie adheres to the familiar little-girl-lost style, tracking a naïve young woman who stumbles into sex work. Then the picture makes a hard turn into period melodrama, with nearly an hour of the 101-minute film set in the 19th century. Nestled into the period material are subplots about a drug-addicted lesbian, a friendship between a white piano player and his black counterpart, and voodoo rituals. Both timelines feature auctions in which bidders compete for the privilege of deflowering a young woman. There’s a lot going on in French Quarter, so even though the movie is thoroughly contrived and silly, none could accuse the filmmakers of playing it safe.
          After her father dies, Christine (Alisha Fontaine) leaves her rural home and becomes an exotic dancer. One day, she’s drugged by a crook who plans to auction off Christine’s virginity. Then, by way of a hallucination or time travel or whatever, Christine becomes Trudy, the newest arrival at a New Orleans brothel. The same crisis ensues, with Trudy’s virginity getting put up for sale. Hope emerges in the form of a romance with Kid Ross (Bruce Davison), the new piano player in the brothel, who also bonds with black musician Jelly Roll (Vernel Bagneris). For reasons that defy understanding, co-writer/director Dennis Kane takes a prismatic approach to the story, exploring the lives of other prostitutes, some of whom have colorful names including “Big Butt Annie,” “Coke-Eyed Laura,” and “Ice Box Josie.” Yet Kane also makes room for lengthy stripping scenes, a Sapphic makeout session, and the aforementioned voodoo rituals. It’s a mess, with one scene attempting sensitive character work and the next presenting grindhouse sleaze, so French Quarter ultimately has little of interest for serious viewers.
          Those who savor bizarre cinema might find French Quarter more palatable. The cast blends starlets including Lindsay Bloom and Ann Michelle with cult-fave actors Bruce Davison and Lance LeGault—plus Virginia Mayo, a 1940s star appearing here in grand-dame mode. It should be noted that every so often, the picture almost gets something right, as in this hard-boiled voiceover: “If there’s one thing I know about New Orleans, anybody who wants something real bad is gonna get it real bad.” Incidentally, French Quarter came out the same year as Pretty Baby, a controversial studio picture with similar subject matter, and actor Don Hood plays minor roles in both films.

French Quarter: FUNKY

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Brotherly Love (1970)

          Adapted by James Kennaway from his play Country Dance (the title under which this British/American coproduction was released in the UK), Brotherly Love features Peter O’Toole at his most gloriously unhinged, with elegant Susannah York providing an effective counterpoint. The movie is long-winded, pretentious, and unpleasant, but in some ways those qualities are virtues—although Brotherly Love lacks true resonance, it has a certain sort of twisted integrity. The gist of the piece is that Sir Charles Ferguson (O’Toole) is a deranged aristocrat who enjoys complicating the relationship between his sister, Hilary (York), and her estranged husband, Douglas (Michael Craig), although none dare name the reason why until the final confrontation. By that point, of course, viewers have gleaned that Sir Charles’ affection for Hilary goes beyond the normal feelings of one sibling for another. Unanswered questions include how aware Hilary is of her brother’s incestuous interest, and how she truly feels about his ardor. In one scene, for instance, she rises from a bathtub so Sir Charles can drape her with a towel before removing his own modest covering and slipping into the bathwater.
          Woven into the storyline is a thread about Sir Charles attempting self-destruction, as when he deliberately fires a shotgun a few inches from his ear, and another thread about Sir Charles devolving into madness. O’Toole plays this psychosexual stuff with his usual mixture of authority and obnoxiousness. In some scenes, he’s remarkably sensitive as he weaves through complex dialogue and intricate behavior—but in other scenes, he simply shouts for emphasis, bludgeoning the already-questionable textures of Kennaway’s script. Not helping matters is the presence behind the camera of director J. Lee Thompson, a man best known for helming violent thrillers. He’s beyond his ken here, incapable of creating or maintaining a consistent tone. Thompson’s emphatic scenes are tiresome, and his quiet scenes are just tired. Only the dexterity of the cast and the visual interest of Scottish locations keep the piece watchable at its most undisciplined. That said, all involved deserve praise for the understated final showdown between Sir Charles, Douglas, and Hilary—that one moment, played in a dark basement, has the grounded anguish missing from the rest of the movie.

Brotherly Love: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Speeding Up Time (1971)

Blaxploitation sludge made on a pathetic budget, Speeding Up Time has something to do with a young writer tracking down the crooks who killed his mother by burning down her house while she was inside. Yet it’s a struggle to parse even that simple premise, given writer/director John Evans’ inept storytelling. Either he ran out of money or simply forgot to collect important footage, but either way, this film comes across as a the rough assembly for perhaps two-thirds of a movie, with zero effort put into creating placeholders or transitions to cover the gaps. The fact that Speeding Up Time found its way not only into theaters but also onto home video speaks more to the ravenous appetites of those exhibition platforms during the ’70s and ’80s than anything else. Anyway, here’s some of the nonsense that happens. Our hero, Marcus (played by the fabulously named Winston Thrash), visits a poet who inspires Marcus to repeat the phrase “I am prepared” several times. Prepared for what? Who knows? Who cares? Later Marcus wakes from a dream (or premonition or whatever) about his mom’s house burning down, then snaps at his mother for suggesting he settle down. After that, Marcus works on his writing in the bathroom until the toilet overflows, ruining his work. Wait, all this time I haven’t stored my only copies of documents on bathroom floors? I knew I was doing something wrong! Eventually, Marcus zooms his vintage car through a drive-in lot during a tepid chase scene, gets it on with a young lady during a crudely shot sex scene, and makes aggressive remarks to gangsters. Oh, and just to create the illusion of political relevance, he also spews some vaguely revolutionary jive.

Speeding Up Time: SQUARE