Tuesday, July 7, 2015

1980 Week: Wholly Moses!

Unfunny, uninteresting, and unmemorable, this half-assed comedy set in Biblical times offers a drab Hollywood counterpart to the previous year’s Life of Brian, a controversial satire created by the madmen of Monty Python. Whereas Life of Brian is a deliberately offensive movie that asks provocative questions about the nature of religion, Wholly Moses! is a brainless compendium of sketches posing as scenes. Dudley Moore, trying but not succeeding to slide by on charm, stars in a modern-day wraparound sequence as Harvey, a New York City history professor taking a low-budget tour of the Holy Land. While exploring a cave with fellow tourist Zoey (Laraine Newman), Harvey discovers an ancient scroll that tells the story of a man named Herschel. Most of the movie depicts that story. Born to corpulent slave Hyssop (James Coco), Herschel (played as an adult by Moore) was set adrift on the Nile at the same time as Moses, but, by an accident of timing, led a life of little consequence instead of finding a grand destiny. Thus, the central joke in the movie is painfully similar to the central joke in Life of Brian—a schmuck’s existence runs parallel with that of a Biblical icon. Director Gary Weis and screenwriter Guy Thomas use this scenario as a framework for a string of uninspired gags, occasionally juicing the mix with cameos by familiar actors. (Dom DeLuise, John Houseman, Madeline Kahn, and Richard Pryor are among those who appear.) Typical of the lame gags in Wholly Moses! is the S&M-laden puppet show in the city of Sodom, or the throwaway reference to a graven-images store called “Chock Full of Gods.” Moore’s appeal isn’t nearly strong enough to make Wholly Moses! bearable, and Newman, of Saturday Night Live fame, is a non-presence. The only time the movie sparks briefly to life is during John Ritter’s droll cameo as Satan, even though Ritter wears a cheap satin costume and carries a plastic pitchfork. Despite the tacky trappings, Ritter injects amusing world-weariness into his role, at one point whining, “Well, here come the damned—they’ll be expecting me.”

Wholly Moses!: LAME

Monday, July 6, 2015

1980 Week: Caddyshack

          I’ve never quite understood why Caddyshack is so beloved, even though it features an unusual confluence of comedy actors—notably two generations of Saturday Night Live stars, Bill Murray and his predecessor Chevy Chase—and even though the movie fits into an appealing slobs-vs.-establishment continuum that stretches from Animal House (1978) to Ghostbusters (1984) and beyond. Maybe it’s my disinterest in sports, and maybe it’s my disinterest in stupidity, but the magic of Caddyshack escapes me. That said, it’s fascinating to observe how many different levels of comedy the film contains.
          The main plot, about a working-class caddy who endures rotten treatment from obnoxious country-club members until turning the tables on his oppressors, is satisfying in an obvious sort of way. A secondary thread, about the mano-a-mano competition between nouveau-riche vulgarian Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) and old-money creep Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), is performed in broad strokes by traditional comedy pros who make no pretense to real acting. Intermingled between these elements are scenes featuring the SNL guys, and that’s where Caddyshack really springs to life. Chase, who has top billing even though he plays a supporting role, is leading-man handsome as he performs at the apex of his charming-smartass skills, so watching him effortlessly render one-liners and sight gags is a kick. Chase only shows up every 20 minutes or so, but he crushes every time. Concurrently, Murray plays his scenes in virtual isolation, rendering a batshit-crazy characterization as a demented groundskeeper waging ultraviolent war against the pesky gopher who’s digging holes in the golf course where most of the movie’s action takes place.
          The irony is that none of these name-brand comedians is the movie’s protagonist. That honor falls to young Michael O’Keefe, so impressive in The Great Santini (1979) and so outgunned by his costars here.
          Cowritten and directed by frequent Murray collaborator Harold Ramis—who cowrote Meatballs (1979) and Ghostbusters, then cowrote and directed Groundhog Day (1993)—Caddyshack employs a scattershot approach to jokes. Some of the lowbrow stuff is embarrassing, such as the gag about a candy bar floating in a pool causing a panic among swimmers who mistake the thing for excrement. And some of the throwaway stuff is great, like the bits with a sleazy caddy supervisor played by Brian Doyle Murray, Bill’s brother and also one of the film’s screenwriters. However, the gulf between Dangerfield’s overbearing joke-a-minute attack and Murray’s sly shaping of a complete mythos is massive. And maybe that’s why fans dig Caddyshack—it’s got something for everyone, except for discriminating filmgoers. As a sidenote, Caddyshack introduced the theme-song artistry of soft-rock star Kenny Loggins, who later created tunes for Footloose (1985) and Top Gun (1986). Oh, and Chase was alone among the stars of the original film to reprise his role in the commercial and critical failure Caddyshack II (1988).

Caddyshack: FUNKY

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pray for the Wildcats (1974)

          Although the bleak made-for-TV drama Pray for the Wildcats echoes many downbeat theatrical features of the same era, the movie’s principal appeal stems from a cast comprising small-screen luminaries. William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, stars as a tormented ad executive; Robert Reed, from The Brandy Bunch, plays one of his colleagues; and Andy Griffith, beloved for the sitcom that bears his name, portrays a psychotic millionaire. Standing on the sidelines of the story is Police Woman beauty Angie Dickinson. Excepting perhaps Griffith, who attacks his monstrous role with glee, none of the participants does anything extraordinary here. Nonetheless, the combination of familiar faces and menacing narrative elements is noteworthy.
          Sam Farragut (Griffith) is an obnoxious mogul who enjoys using people. Sam’s latest plaything is Warren Summerfield (Shatner). Warren was recently fired, but his agency has kept Warren on the payroll while he transitions his clients to new reps. Adding to Warren’s problems are the dissipation of his marriage to Lila (Lorraine Gary) and the lingering effects of an extramarital affair. The main characters are introduced during a dirt-bike excursion, because Sam makes subordinates keep him company whenever he prowls the wilderness on two wheels. Thus, when Sam proposes—orders, really—that Warren and his fellow ad executives accompany Sam on a punishing dirt-bike journey from California to Mexico and back, Warren sees little choice but to participate. Coworkers Paul (Reed) and Terry (Marjoe Gortner) agree without hesitation to ride along, since they’re eager to get on Sam’s good side. Once the journey begins, two things become apparent: Sam is a sadist capable of rape and murder, and Warren is so depressed that he’s looking for an opportunity to kill himself in order to leave money behind for his wife and children.
          Thematically, this is ambitious stuff for a TV movie, even if the execution is a bit on the clumsy side and the dirt-bike gimmick is given far too much prominence. (The title stems from a moniker Sam places on the leather jackets he provides to his traveling companions, “Wildcats.”) Jack Turley’s script relies heavily on repetitive voiceover to hammer narrative information, and Robert Michael Lewis’ direction wobbles between blandness and intensity. Shatner, as always, skirts self-parody whenever he tries to portray powerful emotions, though it should be noted that his performance is comparatively restrained. Dickinson, Reed, and costar Janet Margolin deliver serviceable work, while Gortner believably incarnates an avaricious prick. Griffith easily dominates. The image of the Artist Previously Known As Sheriff Andy Taylor ogling a hippie chick in a Mexican bar and howling “Now we’re gettin’ in on, baby!” is hard to shake. So even if some of the dirt-bike scenes feel endless, the savagery at the heart of this offbeat little piece resonates.

Pray for the Wildcats: FUNKY

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Villain (1971)

Even with the colorful Richard Burton starring as a criminal so vicious that his first onscreen murder involves slashing a fellow with a straight razor and then hanging the poor slob’s body out of a high-rise window, the UK-made drama/thriller Villain is tedious. Running only 98 minutes but feeling much longer, the movie is one of myriad ’70s crime films that attempted to humanize gangsters by depicting their private lives and by dramatizing the constant danger of betrayal and capture. Based on a book by James Barlow, Villain also has an unusual gender-studies angle, since Burton’s character is bisexual. Oh, and Burton’s lover is played by the forceful British actor Ian McShane, who years later achieved fame on the HBO Western series Deadwood. Given the givens, Villain should be interesting. Yet somehow, the filmmaking team led by director Michael Tuchner transformed lurid raw material into something dull, lifeless, and turgid. The story tracks London gangster Vic Dakin (Burton) as he plans a payroll heist and as he struggles to keep his criminal house in order despite wounds inflicted by snitches and turncoats. Vic also spends quiet weekend mornings with his aging mother. The filmmakers periodically kick up the energy level, especially during the bloody heist scene, but more often than not, the movie presents flat dialogue scenes filled with drab exposition and predictable character dynamics. Burton exacerbates the movie’s inert quality because he’s absurdly miscast—naturally suited to playing anguished snobs, he’s out of his element portraying a vulgar thug with a Cockney accent. And even with the bisexual angle, McShane barely registers. Also wasted are the normally reliable British actors Joss Ackland, Nigel Davenport, and Fiona Lewis. Seeing as how the whole goal of the picture is to make viewers both empathize with and fear Vic Dakin, the fact that he engenders only an indifferent reaction indicates why Villain doesn’t work.

Villain: LAME

Friday, July 3, 2015

Coonskin (1975)

          Featuring an outrageous barrage of images, themes, and words about race, the animation/live-action hybrid Coonskin is among the most incendiary products of the blaxploitation era. A casual viewer stumbling onto any part of the film would probably find the material shockingly racist, and the reaction would be compounded by the discovery that Coonskin was written and directed by a white man. Taken in context, however, Coonskin is a deeply complicated piece of work. Part satire and part tragedy, it’s a sexualized and violent phantasmagoria about the cancerous reach of racism. The question of whether filmmaker Ralph Bakshi justifies his extremes by placing his work into a sociopolitical framework is one that each individual viewer must explore, because the content of Coonskin is deliberately offensive. By presenting grotesque caricatures of African-Americans, gays, Italians, Jews, rednecks, women, and so on, Bakski tries to confront small-minded attitudes. Yet in so doing, he unavoidably perpetuates stereotypes. Some influencers in the African-American community have embraced the movie over the years, while many others have vilified the piece as the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime.
           Coonsin opens with a series of vignettes. First, two animated characters, both African-American dudes dressed like pimps, appear over a live-action background to deliver a volley of angry humor. (The first line of dialogue is “Fuck you!”) Next, actor/singer Scatman Crothers appears onscreen to perform a jive-talkin’ ditty about the troubles of being a “nigger man” while the opening credits appear. Finally, the story proper begins, with two black convicts, Pappy (Crothers) and Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), prepping for a prison break in a live-action sequence. While the inmates hide from guards, Pappy tells Randy a fable that Bakshi illustrates with animated sequences. The fable involves three black men—Brother Bear (voiced by Barry White), Brother Rabbit (voiced by Thomas), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone)—getting into hassles with the law down south. Soon, the group heads for Harlem, where Brother Rabbit kills a high-powered gangster and takes over the criminal’s operation. As Brother Rabbit rises to power, he and his friends get into hassles with corrupt cops, manipulative prostitutes, and vengeful mobsters, among others. Lots of animated bloodshed and sex ensues.
          Many scenes blend cartoons and live-action images within the same frame—Bakshi recruited ace Hollywood cinematographer William A. Fraker to shoot the live-action material, and Fraker provides an appropriately gritty look. Long stretches of Coonskin are surrealistic, with Bakshi embarking on flights of artistic fancy. A woman turns into a butterfly. A deceased fat man gets buried, but his body parts keep popping up through the dirt of the grave, as if the earth can’t contain his girth. A voluptuous streetwalker wearing an American-flag costume blows away a horny guy by using the cannon hidden in her crotch. Concurrently, the race-themed dialogue goes as far over the top as the animation does. “I’m tired of trying to segregate, integrate, and masturbate!” “I sees you, Lord, and you fuckin’ well better see me!” “Killin’ crackers, I guess that’s cool!” Even the religious material is inflammatory. A 300-pound preacher calling himself “Black Jesus” performs in front of his flock while nude, his junk flailing to and fro, and another preacher uses the gospel as a come-on to lure a man into a brothel. When Bakshi opens fire with his satirical machine gun, no one escapes unharmed.
          In many ways, Coonskin is deeply alive, with creativity and indignation and passion powering every frame. And yet the movie is also a mess, with herky-jerky storytelling, potshots at easy targets, and underdeveloped characters. It’s more of an experience than a proper movie. Is the experience worthwhile? For some viewers, the answer to that question will be a resounding yes, because Coonskin gives it to bigots with both barrels. However, the disjointed, grotesque, and juvenile aspects of the movie are big turnoffs for those who expect their sociopolitical discussions to unfold on a higher plane. By any regard, Coonskin is Bakshi’s boldest movie, which is saying a lot seeing as how he made the world’s first X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat (1972).

Coonskin: FREAKY

Thursday, July 2, 2015

No Blade of Grass (1970)

          One of myriad early-’70s sci-fi flicks featuring an ecological apocalypse caused by man’s abuse of the planet, No Blade of Grass was made in the UK by he-man actor-turned-director Cornel Wilde, who served as coproducer, writer, and director. Wilde’s storytelling style is clumsy in the extreme, relying on such hokey devices as heavy-handed voiceover at the beginning and end. Additionally, Wilde doesn’t sustain a consistent tone. At one point, for instance, the movie abruptly cuts from a brutal scene of the hero euthanizing someone to a chatty vignette of the hero walking through the countryside with his traveling companions. There’s also an irritatingly mechanical quality to the progression of narrative events, with Wilde contriving scenes solely to advance pedantic messages about compassion and conservation.
          The picture begins with an elaborate montage juxtaposing scenes of overpopulation, pollution, and famine with voiceover provided by Wilde. Then the story proper introduces John Custance (Nigel Davenport), an eyepatch-wearing UK architect who has friends in the British government. John is privy to advance information about a plague that’s spreading across the earth, destroying every patch of grain and grass that it touches. John’s brother, David Custance (Patrick Holt), departs London for a remote countryside estate in Scotland, where he hopes to build a shelter in anticipation of society falling apart. Thereafter, the movie shows John and his family making a pilgrimage to Scotland amid growing anarchy. John soon becomes a postapocalyptic Pied Piper, gathering more and more people to his flock even as the group has bloody conflicts with roving bands of savages. Does it all end with lots of “My God, what have we done?” hand-wringing? Of course it does.
          No Blade of Grass wobbles between talky scenes that fail to illuminate characters and violent scenes that occasionally contain surprising bursts of gore. (In one bit, a housewife gets cut nearly in two by a close-range shotgun blast.) Davenport, as always, brings a certain zest to his performance, but the disjointed nature of Wilde’s screenplay prevents Davenport from forming a believable or consistent characterization. Meanwhile, the largely anonymous British supporting cast performs interchangeable roles competently. The movie also contains, for no discernible reason, a lengthy birth scene integrating real documentary footage of a messy human birth. Restraint, they name is not Cornel Wilde.

No Blade of Grass: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Doctors’ Wives (1971)

          Pure trash that’s bearable only because of the lurid storyline and the presence of many skilled actors, Doctors’ Wives is a melodrama about the problems of wealthy surgeons and their long-suffering spouses. Somewhat improbably, the movie revolves around a murderer’s elaborate scheme to escape police custody and flee to Europe. And if that makes you think that perhaps a thoughtful examination of the medical community is not the real goal of this movie, then congratulations, you’ve cracked the code. Even with two lengthy surgery scenes that integrate bloody documentary footage, this movie’s about the healing arts in the same way that the 1980s TV show Dynasty was about big business. The nominal milieu is nothing but an excuse for depicting people with too little compassion and too much money.
          The main characters are Dr. Brennan (Richard Crenna) and his estranged wife, Amy (Janice Rule); Dr. Gray (Carroll O’Connor) and his self-loathing wife, Maggie (Cara Williams); Dr. Randolph (Gene Hackman) and his embittered wife, Delia (Rachel Roberts); and Dr. Dellman (John Colicos). In the opening scene, Dr. Dellman’s horny wife, Lorrie (Dyan Cannon), announces her plan to sleep with all of the doctors in order to report back to the women on each man’s sexual failing. When Dr. Dellman catches Lorrie in bed with a surgeon, he shoots her dead, wounding the surgeon in the process. Dr. Dellman confesses and surrenders to the police, but then he contrives a plan. He uses dirty secrets to blackmail his fellow doctors for getaway money, and when he’s asked to perform emergency surgery on a boy who requires Dr. Dellman’s specialized services, Dr. Dellman makes arrangements to slip out of the hospital, avoiding the cops who are watching him. Also thrown into the mix is a tawdry subplot about Dr. Brennan’s extramarital affair with an African-American nurse, Helen (Diana Sands), as well as a separate subplot about a doctor’s wife stealing his meds in order to feed her appetite for morphine.
          Suffering from one-dimensional characterizations and trite dialogue, Doctors’ Wives is so generic that even the best actors in the cast operate, no pun intended, while handicapped by the material. O’Connor and Sands wring some pathos out of key scenes, but otherwise everyone is stuck delivering obvious lines amid predictable scenarios. At least the flmmakers keep things moving along quickly, so viewers never have to linger on any particular scene very long. It says a lot that Cannon, the liveliest actor in the cast seeing as how Hackman is hamstrung by the limitations of a small secondary role, disappears from the movie after the first 10 minutes. When a movie that’s largely about sex loses its principal sexpot early, that’s a sure sign of trouble.

Doctors’ Wives: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Silver Bears (1978)

          Featuring noteworthy participants in front of and behind the camera, the international-caper comedy Silver Bears should work. Every so often, however, talented people miss the mark for reasons that defy comprehension, resulting in disappointments like this one. Silver Bears isn’t a disaster, and nobody in the movie does anything embarrassing, although costar Cybill Shepherd’s performance is iffy. Yet Silver Bears is inert. Despite being cowritten by one of Hollywood’s pithiest wordsmiths and despite starring the reliable Michael Caine, Silver Bears is too confusing, too silly, and too uneven to merit any reaction other than indifference.
          Here are the broad strokes of the convoluted storyline. English swindler “Doc” Fletcher (Caine) gets American mobster Joe Fiore (Martin Balsam) to buy a Swiss bank, using down-on-his-luck Italian aristocrat Gianfranco di Siracusa (Louis Jourdan) as a front. Gianfranco then convinces “Doc” to invest in an Iranian silver mine owned by Gianfranco’s cousins, Agha (David Warner) and Shireen (Stéphene Audran), as a means of bolstering the bank’s assets. This brings the group into the orbit of UK mogul Charlie Cook (Charles Gray), who helps control the world’s silver market. Later, American banker Henry Foreman (Joss Ackland) hears the Swiss bank is onto something big, so he sends underling Donald Luckman (Tom Smothers) to buy the Swiss bank. Donald brings his wife, Debbie (Shepherd), along for the ride, and soon “Doc” romances Debbie as part of an elaborate scheme to defraud nearly every other character in the storyline.
          Cowriter Peter Stone, who achieved caper-cinema immortality with the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn romp Charade (1963), sprinkles an amusing line here and there, since he presumably was hired to embellish an existing script by Paul Erdman. Alas, even Stone’s delicate touch isn’t enough to compensate for bewildering story elements, one-dimensional characters, and unbelievable plot twists. Shepherd’s character alone is a tangle of contradictory behaviors, because she’s mousy at one moment and promiscuous at the next. Caine and Jourdan try to slide by on charm, but the minute either actor steps offscreen, it becomes apparent that whatever he just said or did was nonsensical. Still, the assortment of actors in Silver Bears is beguilingly random. Charles Gray from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)? David Warner from Straw Dogs (1971)? Tom—make that Tommy—Smothers??? Overseeing the whole mess is Czechoslovakian director Ivan Passer, who paces scenes briskly but shoots them without any special style, a problem exacerbated by Claude Bolling’s dorky musical score.

Silver Bears: FUNKY

Monday, June 29, 2015

Born Again (1978)

          This milquetoast religious drama credits Jesus with the redemption of lawyer-turned-Nixon-advisor Charles Colson, who was convicted and imprisoned for his role in the Watergate cover-up. Based on Colson’s book, the movie takes its title from Colson’s conversion to fundamental Christianity in the period between his departure from the White House and his entrance into a federal work farm. Viewers are asked to believe that the Charles Colson who naïvely followed Nixon’s orders was a different man from the Charles Colson who bravely accepted responsibility for crimes against the U.S. Constitution. And if this sounds like an awfully convenient explanation, then, well, who ever knows the truth of what happens inside another man’s soul?
          Written and shot in the perfunctory style of an assembly-line TV movie, Born Again stars Dean Jones—best known for a string of silly Walt Disney comedies—as Colson. His performance is adequate at best, because whenever Jones peels off his glasses to cradle his face in his hands and weep, he seems more robotic than sincere. Like Jones’ performance, the script by Walter Bloch depicts Colson’s conversion without actually making a case for why viewers should believe what they’re seeing. During the heat of the Watergate investigation, Colson’s rich friend Tom Phillips (Dana Andrews) explains that he was born again after realizing that wealth is an empty reward. This encounter flicks a switch in Colson’s mind. Overnight, he begins spouting Bible passages. He also builds bridges with onetime political enemies who share his love for Jesus. By the time Colson is an inmate, leading Bible-study lessons and wooing African-American criminal Jimmy Newsom (Ramond St. Jacques) to the bosom of the lord, the whole movie feels a bit silly, especially since scene after scene is underscored with saccharine music.
          Yet the most egregious shortcoming of Born Again might be the way the filmmakers lay all the blame for Colson’s problems solely on Nixon. After all, wasn’t the lesson of Watergate that we need to beware political conspiracies, not just overzealous individuals? And doesn’t the suggestion that Nixon was some earthly agent of the devil absolve people like Colson of personal responsibility? With all due respect to the faithful people who made this movie—which was coproduced by an entity called Prison Fellowship Ministries—briskly discarding issues of ambition, complicity, greed, moral relativism, and willful ignorance seems both rhetorically and socially dubious.

Born Again: LAME

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Flash and the Firecat (1976)

          Enterprising low-budget filmmakers Beverly and Ferd Sebastian cranked out a handful of zesty drive-in pictures during the ’70s, including this vapid lovers-on-the-run romp, which feels very much like myriad Roger Corman productions featuring the same basic storyline—think Moving Violation (1976), Thunder and Lighting (1977), and so on. With their rascally heroes, scantily clad heroines, and tiresome car-chase scenes, these pictures are all basically interchangeable. That said, Flash and the Firecat has some pleasant passages thanks to lively leading actors and the use of dune buggies instead of conventional vehicles, though it won’t meet anyone’s criteria for quality cinema. In fact, it won’t even meet anyone’s criteria for exploitation cinema, since the Sebastians offer such a tame presentation of kidnapping, prostitution, and other crimes that the movie is rated PG. 
          Flash and the Firecat starts out well enough. Leggy blonde Flash (Tricia Sembera) and her crafty boyfriend, Firecat (Roger Davis), spend their time making out and riding dune buggies, since they’re apparently averse to working for a living. Eager to score cash, they contrive a ballsy scheme. Flash uses her looks to coax a 13-year-old boy into her dune buggy while Firecat visits the boy’s father, a bank manager. Claiming that his partner has kidnapped the boy—and using a carefully timed phone call to sell the illusion—Firecat nabs ransom money and flees. Then Flash releases the boy unharmed. Soon, the bank manager tells local top cop Sheriff Thurston (Dub Taylor) what happened, so Thurston puts his incompetent deputies on the case. Next, an operative of the bank’s insurance company, towering Milo Pewitt (Richard Kiel), shows up to help recover the bank’s money. Thereafter, Firecat and Flash zoom around the boonies, hiding at places including a whorehouse, while being chased by bumbling cops and the relentless Milo.
          Leading man Davis has an amiable quality, emulating Paul Newman’s mischievous screen persona, and leading lady Sembera is competent and sexy. Taylor, always a hoot, energizes his scenes with southern-fried lunacy, at one point barking to the very tall Kiel: “You can kiss my ass if you can bend down that far!” Kiel, best known as “Jaws” from the James Bond blockbuster The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), is looser than usual, though he’s saddled with a trite characterization. Even at a scant 84 minutes, Flash and the Firecat eventually wears out its welcome. When Corman’s people made movies like this one, they knew that eventually some sort of emotional hit was required to give all the mayhem meaning. Conversely, the Sebastians’ brisk little movie runs on fumes.

Flash and the Firecat: FUNKY

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Trash (1970) & Heat (1972)

          Producer Andy Warhol and writer-director Paul Morrissey were prolific collaborators in the ’60s and ’70s, reaching the commercial zenith of their partnership with the campy gorefests Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). More typical of the Warhol/Morrissey aesthetic, however is a trilogy of grungy docudramas about street people, all starring somnambulistic stud Joe Dallesandro. Typifying a certain downtown aesthetic, thanks to filthy locations, ramshackle storytelling, and unglamorous actors, Flesh (1968), Trash, and Heat offer unflinching looks at what straight-laced people would classify as deviant lifestyles. These are challenging pictures to watch, not only because so much of what’s shown onscreen is ugly but also because Morrissey mostly eschews tools that might help sustain interest, such as economy and suspense. As exemplified by Dallesendro’s tendency to perform scenes in the nude, these pictures are about letting it all hang out.
          Whereas Flesh tells the story of a low-rent gigolo, Trash is the tale of a zonked-out junkie. Dallesandro plays Joe, a perpetually bewildered New York City heroin addict who spends the movie drifting in and out of sexual situations, even though the only kind of scoring he wants to do involves getting dope. The style is set right in the first scene, because the opening image is a close-up of Dallesandro’s pimple-covered buttocks as he receives (offscreen) fellatio from a shapely dancer. Unable to get the desired response, the dancer then performs a striptease, but Joe merely lies on the couch, still unable to get an erection. Once this pointless vignette runs its course, Joe wanders into other situations, eventually spending most of his time with his undersexed girlfriend, Holly (played by female impersonator Holly Woodlawn). Various “highlights” of the picture include Joe shooting up on camera and Holly servicing him/herself with a Coke bottle. Oh, there’s also a scene during which a young woman patiently extracts lice from Joe’s pubic hair.
          Trash isn’t quite as dull and puerile as this description might suggest, though Morrissey clearly savors real-time grotesquerie. The picture has a mildly satirical quality, sometimes poking fun at the slovenly excesses of street people and sometimes skewering the ridiculous behavior of wealthy dilettantes who slum for kicks. The sum effect of all this gutter-level camp is that Trash feels like a John Waters movie on downers. (Lest we forget, many of the characters in Lou Reed’s classic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” notably a certain transvestite named Holly, were inspired by members of Warhol’s clique.)
          Discovering the redeeming values in Heat is difficult. Set in Los Angeles instead of New York, but filled with the same downtrodden losers as the previous pictures in the trilogy, Heat stars Dallesandro as Joey, an opportunistic young man trading on his past fame as the teenaged costar of a TV series. Taking up residence in a typical LA apartment complex with a courtyard surrounding a pool, Joey makes a deal to have regular sex with the complex’s obnoxious, overweight landlady in exchange for discounted rent. He also encounters Jessica (Andrea Feldman), a deranged young woman living in the complex with her infant child—the product of a drug-addled one-night stand—and her lesbian lover. Jessica’s middle-aged mother, Sally (Sylvia Miles), is a faded actress who once appeared with Joey on his TV show, so Jessica hopes that Joey can help persuade Sally to cough up extra cash, seeing as how Jessica doesn’t work. Joey quickly gloms onto the lonely and neurotic Sally, becoming her lover and spending long stretches of time in the mansion she won in her divorce from a wealthy man.
          Everyone in Heat is a delusional striver, except perhaps for the simple-minded transvestite who wanders around the apartment complex while masturbating 24/7. Miles’ performance has some Shelley Winters-style grandiosity, but the rest of the acting is sloppy and unmemorable, just like Morrissey’s camerawork. Even more problematic is the derivative nature of the piece, since Heat is basically a thick-headed riff on Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). So unless wallowing in human desperation is your idea of fun, Heat is too amateurish, contrived, and dreary to merit your attention.

Trash: FUNKY
Heat: LAME

Friday, June 26, 2015

Candy Stripe Nurses (1974)

New World Pictures’ tacky series of sexy-nurse flicks finally sputtered out with the release of Candy Stripe Nurses, a dull and formless compendium of empty characters, flat storylines, and perfunctory sex scenes. Once again, the movie follows the interconnected adventures of three attractive young women who work as nurses—actually nonprofessional support staffers known as candy-stripers—while navigating romantic entanglements in their private lives. Written and directed by Alan Holleb, the movie lacks anything resembling a consistent purpose, style, or tone. Whereas some of the previous sexy-nurse movies had counterculture elements and/or wiseass humor, Candy Stripe Nurses is merely amateurish and episodic and uneven, without any memorable high points to reward viewers’ attention. Adding to the general sleaziness of the endeavor, all three of the movie’s leading characters are high-school students. Promiscuous blonde Sandy (Candice Rialson) sleeps with a string of men, eventually working her way into the bedchamber of a rock star suffering from sexual dysfunction. Artistic blonde Dianne (Robin Mattson) studies dance and dates a doctor while preparing for medical school herself, but she takes a wild turn by having an affair with a basketball player who’s being doped by an unscrupulous physician eager to fix games. Latina troublemaker Marias (Maria Rojo) decides that a young man accused of robbing a gas station is being framed, then plays detective in order to clear his name. Each storyline includes at least one extended sex scene, since the New World people were a lot more interested in showing the actress’ breasts than in showing their dramatic range, and poor Rialson—a charming girl-next-door type who also appeared in the bizarre talking-vagina comedy Chatterbox! (1977)—seems to spend nearly all her screen time dressing and undressing. Nothing particularly interesting happens in Candy Stripe Nurses, although colorful B-movie stalwart Dick Miller shows up for a tiny role as a basketball-game heckler who shouts, “Your mother blows goats!” So there’s that.

Candy Stripe Nurses: LAME

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

          The eclectic French director Louis Malle made comedies, character studies, documentaries, Hollywood movies, and provocative stories about sex. In fact, it’s often difficult to find a single authorial voice guiding his work. Somewhat like the American filmmaker John Huston, Malle was a curious intellectual who found a style to suit each project. Within Malle’s expansive filmography, however, certain movies contain aspects of veiled autobiography. For instance, Malle has said that Murmur of the Heart is a flight of fancy borrowing facts from his real life, whereas Au revoir les enfants (1987) re-creates actual events. In some ways, Murmur of the Heart is Malle’s most challenging film, owing equally to content and style. The style is episodic and loose, with a clear narrative purpose emerging only toward the end of the film’s running time. The content, put bluntly, is incest—played not for shock value but, unbelievably, for warmth.
          As did the young Louis Malle, 15-year-old Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) lives a privileged existence, grooving on American jazz records and savoring the doting attention of his beautiful mother, Clara (Lea Mssari). After various misadventures involving his brothers, including a colorful visit to a brothel, Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur. (This, too, happened to the real Malle.) Clara accompanies Laurent to a sanitarium, which is part medical facility and part vacation resort. Adding complexity to the situation is Laurent’s knowledge that Clara has been cheating on Laurent’s father. Concurrently, Clara encourages Laurent’s romance with a fellow patient at the sanitarium, a pretty young lady Laurent’s age. The end result of these events is that Laurent and Clara arrive at an unusual level of intimacy—they’re like best friends, each pushing the other to be his or her ideal self. One drunken evening, they express their intimacy in bed. Malle’s handling of the scene is remarkably sensitive and subtle, so the moment feels neither romanticized nor sensationalized. It simply happens, and it feels like the believable culmination of a unique relationship—a secret but not a sin.
          Although the way Malle threads this particular needle is the most unusual aspect of Murmur of the Heart, it’s but one of many fine things the filmmaker achieves. He depicts Laurent as a complex and dimensional individual, no small feat when portraying adults, to say nothing of young people, and he paints a vivid picture of life among the Gallic intelligentsia during the heyday of France’s Vietnam entanglement. Nothing in this movie is pat or tidy, so the piece sometimes feels unruly. And yet once Malle arrives at the critical moment, it’s clear he needed to travel down myriad pathways in order to explain the critical encounter. The great accomplishment of the film is helping viewers understand something that should, in the abstract, be incomprehensible. Better still, the film never asks viewers to make a value judgment; like all of Malle’s best movies, Murmur of the Heart illustrates the unexpected places that people go, asking the audience only for empathy.

Murmur of the Heart: GROOVY

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jackson County Jail (1976)

          Thanks to credible characterizations and solid acting, Jackson County Jail is a cut above the usual drive-in sludge from the Roger Corman assembly line. Whereas myriad similar films from Corman’s ’70s companies use the women-in-prison angle as an excuse for cartoonish titillation, Jackson County Jail is played totally straight, emphasizing the horror of abuse and the tragedy of lives squandered on criminality. Calling Jackson County Jail a real movie might be stretching things, since the picture is a sensationalistic compendium of violent vignettes, but it’s a drive-in flick that a thinking viewer can watch without feeling totally ashamed afterward. Among other things, the movie features Tommy Lee Jones in one of his first big roles, and he elevates every scene in which he appears.
          Continuing his practice of providing juicy starring roles to onetime leading ladies whose careers had lost momentum, Corman cast delicate beauty Yvette Mimieux to strong effect in Jackson County Jail. Playing a confident professional woman whose sheltered life experience mostly comprises time spent in Los Angeles and New York, Mimieux seems appropriately out of place once her character falls into a web of crooked redneck cops and noble hillbilly thieves. Specifically, Dinah (Mimieux) leaves LA after discovering that her longtime boyfriend is unfaithful. Somewhere in the boonies, Dinah foolishly picks up two hitchhiker, who then steal her car and possessions—including her ID—at gunpoint. Next, a local sheriff (Severn Darden) places her in jail for vagrancy. When the sheriff leaves the police station for the evening, night deputy Lyle (William Molloy) rapes Dinah, but during the assault she shoves him against cell bars, delivering a fatal head injury. Then Coley Blake (Jones), the career criminal in the next cell, grabs the inert Lyle’s keys and leads Dinah in a jailbreak. During the ensuing getaway and manhunt, Dinah becomes friends with Coley, learning his cynical perspective on life.
          Written by Donald Stewart, who later worked on fine films including Missing (1982) and the first three Jack Ryan adventures, Jackson County Jail is humane and intelligent, even if the story occasionally lapses into trite car chases and gunfights. The movie also benefits from stalwart turns by supporting players Robert Carradine, Howard Hesseman, Nan Martin, Betty Thomas, and Mary Woronov. And on some level, the horrors of this movie’s vivid rape scene provide balance for the innumerable Corman productions in which sexual assault is irresponsibly presented as erotica.

Jackson County Jail: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Watched! (1974)

Every cinefile has endured the dispiriting experience of realizing that an obscure but promising-sounding film actually deserves its outsider status. Case in point: Watched!, a paranoid drug film starring Stacy Keach. Seeing as how Keach was not only one of the most vibrant actors of the ’70s but also, sadly, a real-life drug addict before he ended his relationship with cocaine, the synchronicity between actor and subject matter would seem ideal. Yet writer/director John Parsons squandered the opportunity, because Watched! is amateurish, boring, and opaque. Keach stars as Mike Mandell, a California assistant district attorney celebrated for putting drug dealers in jail—at least until he becomes a drug addict himself. The movie toggles between scenes of straight Mike, a hardass in a suit who shows criminals no mercy, and user Mike, an alternately wild- and vacant-eyed waste case who spends his time trying to score with women whenever he’s not trying to score dope. Interspersed between these elements, naturally, are weird dream sequences. Although the lead character was apparently based on a real attorney who fell into an abyss of drug use, Parsons can’t figure out how to put across the story. The opening titles situate onscreen events “sometime in 1980,” which was six years in the future at the time Watched! was made. Huh? Furthermore, Parsons dives right into cutting between different phases of Mike’s life, without giving audiences the benefit of anything to orient them. Worst of all, Parsons employs a cheesy cinema-verité technique of displaying “surveillance footage” recorded by authorities. This translates to flat scenes of Keach delivering aimless monologues in tight closeups. One of Keach’s great gifts is intense focus, so asking him to loiter in static frames while spewing reams of drab dialogue wastes his talent. Harris Yulin costars as a cop who first works with Mike and later works against Mike, though his scenes are as lifeless as everything else in Watched! In fact, “watched” is the last thing this ponderous movie should be.

Watched!: LAME

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stay As You Are (1978)

          Were this film stripped of its trappings as a European art piece, it would stand revealed as the salacious story of a middle-aged man who cheats on his wife with a troubled young woman, even though circumstantial evidence suggests he might be the young woman’s father. Yes, Stay As You Are tackles the serious issues of adultery, betrayal, and incest by way of a glossy presentation that extensively showcases costar Nastassja Kinski sans clothing. Stay As You Are is a fairly credible movie, inasmuch as the philandering protagonist experiences an existential crisis, so it’s not as if the filmmakers pat him on the back for sleeping with his maybe-daughter. Still, despite a romantic score by Ennio Morricone and a jaunty performance by leading man Marcello Mastraoianni, Kinski’s formidable sexual power is the focus. She’s mesmerizing whenever she’s onscreen, whether dressed or not, even though her performance is tentative.
          Cowritten and directed by Alberto Lattuada, Stay As You Are stars Mastroianni as Giulio, an Italian architect who meets a schoolgirl named Francesca (Kinski) while traveling on business. Despite learning that he knew Francesca’s late mother and therefore might be her biological father, Giulio hides his suspicions from the young woman even as she flirts with him—and even as he (weakly) resists his lust for her. After the movie’s turgid middle passage, during which Giulio faces various family issues (“A frigid wife, a whoring husband, a pregnant daughter, and now an abortion for the grand finale!”), Giulio succumbs to temptation by taking Francesca to a hotel in Madrid for sex—lots and lots of sex. Francesca turns out to be a piece of work, at one point serving Giulio a cup filled with her own urine, and the story eventually moves in a bittersweet direction.
          Beyond its questionable psychosexual content, Stay As You Are has a few genuine cinematic virtues. The naturalistic cinematography by José Luis Alcaine is quite beautiful (some shots of Kinski, her long hair illuminated by the sun, are breathtaking), and Lattuada generates rich atmosphere with scenes of the artist-refuge neighborhood where Kinski’s character lives with an equally nubile roommate, who also, inexplicably, tries to seduce Mastraoinnani’s character. (The degree of male wish-fulfillment on display here is extraordinary.) In the end, Stay As You Are is probably half legitimate drama and half sex fantasy, which means it’s neither disposable softcore nor a truly lofty rumination on desire. It’s a grown-up movie that most viewers will seek out only for the purpose of reveling in Kinski’s beauty. (Available from www.CultEpics.com)

Stay as You Are: FUNKY

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pipe Dreams (1976)

          A bland soap opera that’s only of interest because it features the acting debut of Motown singer Gladys Knight, whose performance is inconsistent but occasionally persuasive, Pipe Dreams takes place in Alaska. Knight plays Maria Wilson, a strong-willed woman who travels from Atlanta in order to find her estranged husband, Rob Wilson (Barry Hankerson), a pilot serving the small community revolving around an oil pipeline in the frozen wilderness. Some of the movie is played for light comedy, because Maria bonds with a group of rural eccentrics including a boisterous old preacher and a delusional European who believes he’s descended from royal blood. Yet much of Pipe Dreams is absurdly melodramatic, with one of the subplots involving a long-suffering prostitute driven to suicidal depression after mistreatment by the nasty businessman who runs the pipeline operation. In fact, Pipe Dreams feels more like the pilot for a maudlin TV series than a proper feature, especially since the central love story is such a weak contrivance.
          There’s some novelty to the fact that Hankerson was married to Knight in real life at the time the movie was made; make what you will of the authenticity that Hankerson and Knight bring to scenes in which their characters argue. Nonetheless, the movie’s sexual politics feel downright retrograde, since Knight’s character spends the whole movie trying to win back the affection of a man who abandoned her, began a committed monogamous relationship with another woman, demands a divorce but still expects his orders to be followed, and affectionately calls his estranged wife “bitch.”
          The turgid plot begins with Maria arriving in Alaska, where she was promised a job as a radio operator at the local airport. Upon learning that the job is filled, she effortlessly walks into a high-paying gig as a bartender, and then just as effortlessly walks into friendships with several locals. Yes, this is one of those vapid soaps in which everyone is nice except for the male lead, a dog who needs to learn new tricks, and the villain, an irredeemable user due for a comeuppance. Calling Pipe Dreams shallow would be exaggerating. The movie feels padded, since meandering montages unfurl while Knight sings ballads and funk numbers on the soundtrack, and the myriad scenes of Hankerson and Knight bickering are repetitive. Still, Pipe Dreams is fairly inoffensive as flaccid ’70s dramas go, because the main narrative theme—however clumsily presented—is that a woman of true character can achieve anything she sets out to accomplish.

Pipe Dreams: FUNKY