Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Hard Knocks (1979)

          By the late ’70s, actor Michael Christian had spent a decade struggling to capitalize on the minor notoriety he gained from a recurring Peyton Place role—hence this would-be star vehicle, which the fading actor wrote and produced. Alas, the story he contrived was never likely to attain mainstream acceptance. You see, Christian cast himself as a Hollywood gigolo who freaks out after getting abused by a sadistic john, then flees to the countryside, where he befriends a kindly grandfather and a verging-on-womanhood teenager. The first half-hour of the movie is arrestingly sleazy, with disco music throbbing over montages filled with full-frontal nudity; the middle of the film is as gentle as a Disney picture; and the climax, featuring Christian’s character getting chased by trigger-happy cops, is overwrought B-movie pulp. The differing tonalities of the movie’s three sections clash so harshly that Hard Knocks—which has also been distributed as Hollywood Knight and Mid-Knight Rider—is a thoroughly confusing cinematic experience.

          When viewers meet him, Guy (Christian) is caught in a dangerous rut, turning tricks primarily for older female clients but occasionally getting beaten by men who don’t like how he earns his money. When an encounter with rich clients in Beverly Hills turns ugly, Guy loses his cool and beats one of the clients nearly to death, then skips town rather than face consequences. The fugitive gigolo finds shelter on a farm occupied by Jed (Keenan Wynn) and Jed’s granddaughter, Chris (Donna Wilkes). A kind of surrogate family takes shape until a bar brawl lands Guy in jail—which, in turn, leads the local sheriff to connect Guy with police reports about the Beverly Hills incident.

          Had a better writer polished the raw materials of Christian’s lurid storyline, something coherent might have resulted—because despite the overall clumsiness of this picture’s execution, there’s an interesting core pertaining to the malaise of a character who can’t decide whether he’s cheapened his soul beyond redemption. It’s also a bummer to report that Hard Knocks gets worse as it progresses. The last section is predicated on sketchy character motivations, and the middle section gets so dull that at one point the film stops dead for a “comical” montage of Christian and Wynn riding a sidecar motorcycle. Still, what makes Hard Knocks impossible to completely dismiss is that rough first section, released months before the immeasurably better American Gigolo (1980). The sex-work stretch of the picture is dark, grimy, and sad, powered by affectless voiceover and pulsing musical rhythms. As rendered by director/cinematographer David Worth, this stuff isn’t good filmmaking, per se, but it’s vividly grungy.

Hard Knocks: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Three Warriors (1977)

          Demonstrating that the contributions of a single artisan can improve even the shabbiest material, this Native American-themed outdoor adventure is disposable but for resplendent cinematography by the great Bruce Surtees, who imbues every shot with depth and weight, achieving especially beautiful results during lengthy sequences set in high-altitude forests. (There’s a reason Surtees was Clint Eastwood’s go-to DP for several years.) So even though Three Warriors presents an unrelentingly trite narrative, and despite director Kieth Merrill’s unsure way with actors, the movie is visually rewarding from its first frame to its last. Also worth noting, of course, is the filmmakers’ commitment to celebrating the Native American experience and to showcasing minority performers.
          The story revolves around Michael (McKee “Miko” RedWing), an Indian teenager who lives with his mother and siblings in Portland. The kids’ father died years earlier, a tragedy that hangs over the whole storyline. The family treks to their old home, Warm Springs Indian Reservation, for a visit with Grandfather (Charles White-Eagle), who is committed to living as traditionally as possible. Initially, Michael is angry and sullen about spending time in the country, but when Grandfather takes Michael on an outdoor journey that has perilous aspects, the boy learns to respect his heritage. Specifically, Grandfather buys Michael a seemingly lame horse, then guides Michael through nursing the animal back to health. Adding contrived tension is a subplot involving a poacher (Christopher Lloyd) who regularly invades Indian land to capture and slaughter wild mustangs. There’s also some comic-relief material involving a newly arrived park ranger (Randy Quaid) who struggles to bond with Native Americans.
          Everything that happens in Three Warriors is predictable, so the first half of the picture is slow going, especially because Michael is portrayed as such a petulant little twit that it’s unpleasant to watch his incessant tantrums. Yet once Michael’s transformation begins, Three Warriors shifts gears by focusing on lively shots of regal animals and magnificent locations. The sequence in which Michael captures an eagle’s feather (yes, that old cliché) is enjoyable because of its meticulous detail, and the final showdown with the poacher generates mild excitement. RedWing never made another movie and White-Eagle has a thin filmography, so that speaks to their limited skillsets. Quaid is somewhat appealing while Lloyd provides drab one-note villainy. In lieu of acting firepower, the movie has Surtees’ expert camerawork and the keen visual sense of director Merrill, best known for his Oscar-winning doc The Great American Cowboy (1974).

Three Warriors: FUNKY

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Stop! (1970)

          Years before he made the strange vampire saga Ganja & Hess (1973), multihyphenate Bill Gunn wrote and directed this arty meditation on identity, mortality, and sex. Made for Warner Bros. and slapped with an X rating, Gunn’s movie was either given scant distribution or completely shelved, depending on which reference material one consults. Whatever the particulars, Stop! largely disappeared after 1970, so as of this writing it’s only viewable through rare festival screenings and/or private copies. It should be noted that some of those private copies (including the one viewed for this post) feature edits imposed on the movie by Warner Bros., so it is conceivable that Gunn’s original version is substantially different.
          As for the Warner Bros. version, it’s beguiling, erotic, sad—and more than a little pretentious, given the obvious influence of European filmmakers then popular with the intelligentsia, notably Michelangelo Antonioni. When Stop! connects, the experience is hypnotic and unsettling. And when the movie doesn’t connect, it’s indulgent and needlessly opaque. The story begins with attractive young couple Michael (Edward Bell) and Lee (Linda Marsh) traveling from the U.S. to Puerto Rico because of a recent tragedy—Michael’s brother killed his wife and then himself. Over several sweaty days in San Juan, Michael and Lee navigate sexual bliss and marital strife while it becomes evident that Michael is nearly as tormented as his late sibling. When Michael and Lee encounter another couple, played by Marlene Clark and Richard Dow, new sexual complications ensue and the threat of violence is omnipresent.
          While Stop! is occasionally (and deliberately) cryptic, the film overflows with mood. Gunn and cinematographer Owen Roizman employ striking compositions, some quite melodramatic, so every shot feels like a piece of an art installation. The leading actors are all lean and pretty, allowing Gunn to use the angles and surfaces of the human body like colors in a painting, especially during atmospherically filmed sex scenes. (Despite the X rating, nothing explicit is shown.) Gunn also employs trippy editing techniques, from the predictable (languid montages set to ominous music) to the unpredictable (splices that render unclear who is having sex with whom). And while the dialogue can tend to be obvious and stilted (“I really think I love you—I don’t know”), Gunn renders several memorably weird moments of human interaction. The vignettes involving a prostitute are as humane as they are unflinching, and the scene during which Lee paints her husband’s toenails while he makes out with Clark’s character feels personal and real.
          Yet the test of a piece like Stop! is not its ability to command attention with glossy images and alluring flesh, but rather its ability to explore heavy concepts. A superficial reading of Stop! would interpret the title literally, thus positioning the picture as Gunn’s plea for people to transcend psychosexual gamesmanship. However it seems unlikely Gunn was after anything that reductive or tangible. Note, for instance, the centrality of mental illness and sexual identity. Does every story about a lost soul need to end with a definitive moment of self-discovery? Clues regarding the answer to that question may be found in the picture’s bold final shot, which won’t be spoiled here. Among other things, Stop! is a descent into the unknowable—so for some viewers, the final shot might seem like a cop-out, while for others, the image could be the perfect grace note. Perhaps the highest compliment one can offer Gunn’s little-seen debut is to call it a mosaic that reveals as much about the beholder as it does about itself.


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws (1978)

          Here’s a peculiar one. About one-third of Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws is exactly what viewers might expect, a shameless riff on a certain Burt Reynolds blockbuster. There’s even a subplot about a woman running from the son of a vulgar sheriff. Yet the other two-thirds of Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws comprise an inept but sincere music-industry saga told from the perspective of someone with real-world experience. Jesse Lee Turner—the executive producer, cowriter, and star of this flick—enjoyed a minor novelty hit with the 1959 song “Little Space Girl” before his recording career sputtered. Presumably the goal of this enterprise was to get things going again, so the film features Turner performing several original songs.
          The picture opens in a tiny Texas town where ne’er-do-wells J.D. (Turner) and the Salt Flat Kid (Dennis Fimple) dream of showbiz success. J.D. is a singer-songwriter while the Kid is both J.D.’s accompanist and a ventriloquist. In jail after a bar brawl, the guys meet a fellow inmate who claims to be a music manager. Before he skips town, the “manager” scams cash from the guys and offers a business card they believe is their ticket to success. Off to Music City they go. Along the way they meet two ladies, one of whom is being pursued by Sheriff Leddy (Slim Pickens). The movie makes quick work of the ensuing Burt Reynolds-style high jinks before devoting much more screen time to the rigors of pursuing fame in Nashville. The guys hook up with a real manger, albeit a sketchy one, and they find allies in empathetic locals. Inevitably, the story climaxes with a make-or-break concert.
          Even though Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws is amateurish, the story is coherent, the leading actors are as enthusiastic as their characters, and the content is more or less family-friendly. In other words, the picture is wholly innocuous—except for some iffy flourishes. We’re talking a chase scene featuring “The William Tell Overture,” a major subplot (the girls and the sheriff) that completely disappears, and the truly bizarre spectacle of J.D.’s stage persona. While singing, Turner crouches and gyrates and twists as if he’s being electrocuted. Naturally, on-camera audiences pretend to be driven wild by his antics. Yet Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws—which has also been exhibited as Smokey and the Outlaw Women and J.D. and the Salt Flat Kid—is more of a curiosity than anything else inasmuch as it documents a stage in Turners odd trajectory. At some point after the movie faded from view, he shifted from entertainment to evangelism, though he eventually blended his interests by recording Christian albums. More recently, Turner has proselytized for the MAGA movement. 

Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws: FUNKY

Monday, August 1, 2022

Goodbye, Franklin High (1978)

          Rarely has a coming-of-age story featured stakes as preposterously low as those found in Goodbye, Franklin High, the story of a privileged young man trying to decide between a full-ride scholarship to Stanford and an invitation to join a field team for the Los Angeles Angels. Adding to the protagonist’s “difficulty” is a pretty girlfriend so committed to their relationship that she not only gifts him with sex on his 18th birthday, but forgives him for making a raunchy spectacle of himself by dancing with another girl at a party. One’s very soul cries for the anguish of Will Armer, a feather-haired California kid facing too many appealing choices. Sarcasm aside, it’s hard to generate real animus for Goodbye, Franklin High because the PG-rated melodrama eschews vulgar clichés associated with teen movies of the ’70s. Instead of giggling dopes who spend their days toking in vans and cruising for sex at the beach, the kids in this movie are comparatively grounded young adults trying to enjoy their last carefree days before assuming grownup responsibilities. And to cut writer Stu Krieger and director Mike MacFarland some slack, they try to confront Will with dilemmas beyond questions of his future plans.
          Will’s dad (William Windom) has a dangerous case of emphysema, and Will’s mom (Julie Adams) may be having an affair. Given these complications, Goodbye, Franklin High occasionally threatens to become a real movie instead of a trifle. That it never makes this leap is attributable equally to the shortcomings of Krieger, MacFarland, and leading man Lane Caudell. Giving a performance as deep as a Donny Osmond song, Caudell tries to express big-time anguish but never seems more upset than a kid whose ice-cream cone just fell on the ground. Caudell’s youthful costars—Darby Hinton, as Will’s buddy, and Ann Dusenberry, as Will’s girlfriend—render equally bland work, though one gets the sense this production lacked the resources for multiple takes. Screen veterans Adams and Windom achieve something closer to credibility, especially during a sequence in which the protagonist’s family addresses the rumored infidelity of Adams’s character.
          Featuring generic disco tracks during party scenes and several gentle singer-songwriter tunes penned and recorded by Caudell (who also had a short career in pop music), Goodbye, Franklin High is harmless and forgettable. Only through comparison with skeevier teen flicks of the same period do those adjectives become compliments. FYI, star Caudell, writer Krieger, and director MacFarland collaborated on another forgotten 1978 movie, the music-themed drama Hanging on a Star—which, like this picture, was released by short-lived company Cal-Am Productions.

Goodbye, Franklin High: FUNKY