Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 (1973)

          An adequate character study that owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Paddy Chayefsky-penned classic Marty (1955), this quiet little picture follows a sad-sack New Yorker who tries to expand his universe beyond childhood friends and the family business. Cowriter, producer, and director Joseph Jacoby has a good touch with actors, getting naturalistic work from his entire cast, and Jacoby captures the way that working-class folks from the outer boroughs sometimes develop romantic illusions about Manhattan and its denizens. Also working in the movie’s factor is Jacoby’s take on sophisticated urbanites taking Brooklyn natives for rubes. In some ways, Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 is a conventional coming-of-age flick, even though arrested development means the protagonist doesn’t face his developmental crisis until well after the conclusion of adolescence. In other ways, the picture is a simple exploration of how divisions of class, education, and ethnicity lead to prejudice. The film is very much a minor work, and it suffers for weak elements including a dopey musical score, but there’s something humane and real about what Jacoby has to say.
          George Trapani (John Lefkowitz) works for his father’s small printing company, but he’s bored with rituals like cruising with his friends while trying to score with local girls. One day, George meets a theatrical producer named Mark Lossier (Frank Quinn), who invites George to an audition because he thinks he can squeeze George for an investment. The audition is degrading, because Mark compels a parade of desperate women to perform a scene topless in front of salivating would-be investors. Willowy actress Jackie (Linda De Coff) impresses George by politely refuses to strip, so when he encounters her later, he asks her out. They date for a while, but then George realizes she’s slumming with him, leading George to question whether he’ll ever truly escape the confining identity he inherited at birth.
         Nothing in Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 will surprise, but Jacoby seems more concerned with generating empathy not only for George, but also for characters including Jackie and Mark. As George discovers, their worlds are larger than his, but they have their own problems. As portrayed by Lefkowitz with a bowl cut and a hangdog face, George is a moderately appealing protagonist. He’s admirable when he tries, and he’s pathetic when he tries too hard. Still, the movie never feels judgmental, especially because Jacoby shows George being repeatedly humiliated by his father. The mostly unknown actors comprising the supporting cast lend additional layers of credibility, and a young Danny DeVito fits right into the mix as one of George’s pals.

Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30: FUNKY

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Conversation Piece (1974)

          Born into nobility, the Italian director Luchino Visconti had a unique perspective on the foibles of the upper class, and Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, is in some ways a referendum on wealth. The protagonist uses his affluence to separate himself from the rest of the world, transforming his historic villa into a private museum filled with expensive artwork. The vulgar family that barges into his home and demands permission to rent an upstairs apartment is pure Eurotrash, transforming the whole world into the backdrop for their petty psychodramas. Caught between these exemplars is a handsome young hustler who has the aesthetic sophistication of the protagonist and the low morals of the vulgarians. Not every filmmaker has the curiosity or integrity to dissect his own social class and then present his findings to the world, no matter how unflattering, so it’s to Visconti’s credit that Conversation Piece paints a grim picture. Whether the movie also works as entertainment or even as a logical narrative is another matter, because much of the plot is predicated upon far-fetched behavior.
          The Professor (Burt Lancaster) contentedly occupies his Roman villa until the overbearing Marquise Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) shows up one day and demands a visit to the Professor’s spare apartment. Despite his repeated declarations that the rooms are not available for rent, she wears him down and leases the space for her daughter, Lietta (Claudia Marsani). Thereafter, Lietta begins elaborate remodeling without the Professor’s permission, leading to friction, and the Professor becomes involved in the life of Konrad Hubel (Helmut Berger), the Marquis’ lover. Eventually, Konrad uses the apartment as a crash pad following a beating, so the Professor becomes Helmut’s unlikely caretaker.
          Conversation Piece can be taken at face value as a human drama, and it can be interpreted as social or even political allegory. As with so many leftist European filmmakers who lived through World War II, Visconti often used his work to ponder the big questions of how and why society allows toxic influences to take root, and to celebrate individuals who reject isolation for involvement. Named for a type of artwork the Professor collects, Conversation Piece is perhaps most effective as exactly that—something to discuss after it’s over—since watching the picture is a bit tiresome. The movie looks beautiful, with elegant camerawork capturing meticulous sets and costumes, but much of the onscreen behavior is unpleasantly histrionic. And while Lancaster’s character is a beacon of decorum and sanity, his performance is mannered and theatrical to a fault. Like the movie around him, Lancaster suffers for an abundance of artifice, polemics, and stylization.

Conversation Piece: FUNKY

Friday, September 23, 2016

Deafula (1975)

The low-budget horror flick Deafula is about exactly what the title suggests, and every line of dialogue is delivered by way of American Sign Language. The noble goal of providing entertainment for an underserved population notwithstanding, Deafula is an embarrassment. Peter Wolf, the picture’s writer, director, and star, evinces little talent in any of his craft areas, so the movie is amateurish, boring, and discombobulated. The gist of the piece is that Steve Adams (Wolf), a seminary student with pillowy blond hair and a fondness for turtlenecks, occasionally transforms into bloodsucker named Deafula. This often happens during the daytime, which is odd, and during the transformations, Steve’s hair changes color, he grows a gigantic prosthetic nose, and his clothes morph into a tuxedo with a cape. What’s the sign for “WTF”? According to the backstory that’s doled out in awkward flashbacks, Steve’s mom consorted with Count Dracula, but Steve grew up believing that he had a strange blood disease requiring regular transfusions instead of vampirism. While detectives investigate Deafula’s killings, Steve searches for answers about his identity, hence the flashbacks. It’s all very jumbled and silly, culminating in a ridiculous scene of Deafula chatting with Count Dracula in a cave. Peculiar stylistic choices regarding sound exacerbate Deafula’s other problems. Although voice actors provide real-time translations for the ASL dialogue, music only appears intermittently, and long stretches of the film are silent. It is an understatement to say that Wolf’s images do not command attention without aural assistance. Once in a while, Deafula is so misguided as to become compellingly awful. In one scene, Steve sits with a buddy in a bar and orders peanuts from the waitress. Later in the same scene, Steve says, “A moment ago, I ordered peanuts.” Again, WTF? In any language, Deafula is ridiculous.

Deafula: LAME

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Alambrista! (1977)

          In a perfect world, we all would view others with the same degree of compassion and curiosity as filmmaker Robert M. Young, who transitioned from a career in socially conscious documentaries to a new life helming socially conscious fiction films. While not the most polished of storytellers, Young imbues his best films with a deep passion for underrepresented populations. Perhaps no project demonstrates these traits better than Young’s second dramatic feature, Alambrista!, the title of which translates to The Illegal. Using a docudrama approach to stretch the possibilities of a limited budget, the picture tracks the experiences of a young man who leaves his wife and child in Mexico to seek better-paying work as an undocumented laborer in America. By turns touching and tragic, Alambrista! puts a human face on a hot-button political issue, conveying insights that are as relevant today, if not more so, as they were in the late ’70s.
          Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), who speaks only Spanish, struggles to support his family with farm work in rural Mexico, and he dreams of making big money in the U.S. Coloring his viewpoint is ambivalence about his father, who made an illegal border crossing years ago and never returned. Roberto joins a several workers who slip through a fence in the desert, and he picks produce with them until INS officers arrest most of Roberto’s peers. He escapes, but his U.S. employers withhold his pay, leaving him stranded. Eventually, Roberto finds friends in America. Joe (Trinidad Silva) is a high-spirited illegal who speaks serviceable English, but their time together is cut short by a horrific accident. Later, Roberto meets Sharon (Linda Gillen), the waitress in a greasy-spoon diner. Young’s filmmaking excels during the Sharon sequences, because he gives Sharon incredible dimensionality without benefit of proper dialogue scenes between her and Roberto; we discover her lonely life as a single mother who goes to Evangelical services, and we explore her passionate and playful aspects until, once more, circumstances sever Roberto from a friend. Eventually, Roberto finds himself caught in a terrible cycle, because even though his first trip ends with financial disappointment and deportation, he feels compelled to return to the U.S., as if making another attempt will bring him closer to the illegal’s version of the American dream.
         While much of Alambrista! is harrowing, from the rigors of field work to the terror of riding on the undercarriage of a freight train, Young never sensationalizes the material. Instead, we see the cost of this lifestyle sketched on a simple man’s face in a way that’s neither condescending nor reductive. Yes, there’s a certain nobility-of-the-downtrodden flavor to Alambrista! that makes some stretches feel like homework. But because Young approaches his important subject matter with clarity and respect, while still adding entertainment elements by including musical passages and guest appearances by Hollywood actors (Ned Beatty, Jerry Hardin, Julius Harris), he ensures that watching Alamabrista! is rewarding on many levels. As a side note, Edward James Olmos’ bit part in this film began his long association with Young, who later directed Olmos in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) and many other projects for film and television.

Alambrista!: GROOVY

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Killer Inside Me (1976)

          One of several deeply flawed ’70s films containing an Oscar-worthy performance by Stacy Keach, The Killer Inside Me is the first of two movies, thus far, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel of the same name. (A 2010 version starring Casey Affleck received a more favorable critical response.) The material is strange, tracking the adventures of a small-town cop who secretly harbors homicidal tendencies, so the storyline asks viewers to take an unusual ride from wholesome Americana to deviant ultraviolence. Getting the tone of this one right would have challenged even the subtlest of filmmakers, a group to which rough-and-tumble action guy Burt Kennedy most certainly does not belong. Accordingly, the 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me is a mess from a tonal perspective, because it’s unclear whether the movie is a straight drama, a thriller disguised as a lighthearted character piece, a satire of American values, or some combination of all of those things.
          Keach finds a peculiar sort of true north, both in his onscreen performance and in his wry narration track, so his characterization tells a fatalistic but darkly funny story about a guy trying to make murder a part of his everyday life. Alas, the movie around Keach isn’t nearly as surefooted, even though some of the supporting performances are tasty and even though cinematographer William A. Fraker shrouds the film in evocative shadows. Those excited about exploring weird pockets of Hollywood cinema will be more inclined to cut The Killer Inside Me slack than those looking for straightforward escapism.
          Set in a small Montana town, the story follows Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Keach) through a colorful period in his life. To the casual eye, he seems like Mr. Nice Guy, because he romances a local schoolteacher, evinces great skill at de-escalating conflicts, and gets along with people on every rung of the social ladder. Secretly, however, Lou begins an affair with a local floozy, thereby entering into a triangle with his buddy Elmer (Don Stroud), son of rich landowner Chester (Kennan Wynn). All the while, viewers glimpse Lou’s demons thanks to flashes from childhood trauma, so when Lou freaks out and kills two people, we have an inkling why.
          The first half of the picture is all setup, and the second half is all repercussions. Throughout, the filmmakers provide colorful details and grim humor. In one entertaining scene, Lou welcomes a con artist (John Carradine) into his home and proceeds to scare the bejesus out of the guy, seemingly just for sport. In another vivid bit, Lou’s boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (John Dehner), employs unique vernacular to lament his poor marksmanship: “I can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo.” Although the movie never coheres, The Killer Inside Me is interesting and odd from moment to moment. Beyond Keach’s beautifully deranged performance, the picture boasts strong work from Carradine, Stroud, Wynn, Tisha Steriling (as the schoolteacher), and—reuniting Keach with a costar from John Huston’s Fat City (1972)—Susan Tyrell (as the floozy).

The Killer Inside Me: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Moonshine County Express (1977)

          Since the ’70s were rotten with drive-in flicks about rednecks hauling white lightning through the woods with cops hot on their tails, there wasn’t much left to say about the subject by the time Moonshine County Express was made. That said, the textures of this low-rent genre were so firmly established that delivering a straight recitation shouldn’t have been too difficult—especially since Moonshine County Express was issued by trash-cinema titan Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. All of which goes to explain why Moonshine County Express is vexing. The movie has the usual barrage of zippy nonsense, so it’s never boring, per se, but the storyline is so sloppy that it’s hard to tell which of the two main characters is the protagonist. After all, John Saxon gets top billing for playing a racecar driver who moonlights running ’shine, but the narrative actually hinges on the character played by Susan Howard.
          After thugs kill an aging moonshiner, his three daughters learn that he left them a secret stash of valuable Prohibition-era whiskey, so the oldest daughter, Dot Hammer (Howard), begins selling the hooch to her dad’s old customers. This gets the attention of Jack Starkey (William Conrad), the kingpin of the area’s illegal-liquor business, since he’s the one who killed the father in the first place as a means of eliminating competition. Giving the story its small measure of complexity is J.B. Johnson (Saxon), who drives for Starkey until switching sides to help the imperiled Hammer sisters. There’s also a sheriff involved, but suffice to say nothing truly surprising happens.
          Still (no pun intended), it’s possible to groove on the film’s pulpy elements. Playing the Hammer sisters, Howard, Claudia Jennings, and former Brady Bunch star Maureen McCormick add eye candy, though all of them manage to keep their clothes since this PG-rated film is tame compared to other moonshine flicks. Saxon gives an unusually casual performance, and Conrad has a blast playing a cartoony villain. (Not every movie features the enormous Cannon star in a sex-fantasy scene featuring fishing tackle.) Furthermore, Dub Taylor plays a supporting role without his frontal dentures; the rootsy soundtrack features banjos and spoons and the like; and in one party scene, a bar band renders these peculiar lyrics: “Grandma’s got syphilis, Grandpa’s deranged, and all the children had their sexes changed.”

Moonshine County Express: FUNKY

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973)

          But for a few turns of fate, Steven Spielberg could have made his feature directorial debut with this drama about a former WWI pilot barnstorming across America with his young son. Spielberg wrote the story with an eye toward directing, but he was replaced, with Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson becoming the project’s driving force. Whatever charms the original story possessed must have been lost in translation, because the final film is such a misfire that the director, producers, and screenwriters all used pseudonyms in the credits. Can’t blame them. The central relationship, between the flyer and his son, is hopelessly underdeveloped. The main subplot, about a romance between the flyer and a woman he meets during his travels, is nonsensical. And the main character, the flyer, behaves so inconsistently that it’s as if he becomes a new person in every scene. The film’s choppy rhythms suggest that some overzealous tinkering occurred during post-production, but because many individual scenes is murky, it’s unlikely anyone could have made a worthwhile movie from the footage that director John Erman (credited as Bill Sampson) collected. About the only praiseworthy elements of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies are the aerial scenes, the cinematography, and the detailed re-creations of 1920s America.
           The story begins awkwardly, with “Ace” Eli Walford (Robertson) crashing a plane and killing his passenger, who also happens to be his wife. After a brief funeral sequence, Eli starts building a new plane and telling folks that he wants to become a barnstormer and take his young son, Rodger (Eric Shea), with him. The obvious fact that Eli is s dangerous maniac never even gets lip service. One day, tired of Eli’s procrastinating, Rodger burns the family house to the ground, so Eli just smiles and starts up the plane, beginning their adventure. And so it goes from there. Eli cheats and lies to potential clients, sleeps with every available woman, and disappoints his kid on a regular basis. Improbably, the story expands to include Shelby (Pamela Franklin), a stalker who chases Eli from one town to the next until she finally seduces him. None of this stuff makes sense, though the picture sure looks swell. As for the project’s star, Robertson is terrible, playing a cocksure daredevil in one scene, a cowardly swindler in the next, and a vulgar cad at other times. His performance is as discombobulated as the movie itself.

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies: FUNKY

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Candy Tangerine Man (1975)

          The kitschy appeal of this low-budget flick about pimps and gangsters in mid-’70s Los Angeles can be summarized by a line of dialogue from a supporting character: “I can’t sell you no chick, man—that just ain’t croquet! Shee-it!” That torrent of jive encapsulates the film’s questionable portrayal of African-American culture, its casual objectification of women, and its queasy way of finding humor in the gutter of human exploitation. Essentially a low-rent rehash of the cult-favorite pimp movie The Mack (1973), producer-director Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man is unrelentingly derivative, silly, and tacky, but it has a certain so-bad-it’s-good magnetism. After all, it’s hard to truly hate a thriller in which the hero’s classic 1930s car is tricked out with hidden machine-gun turrets.
          The picture opens with scenes showing how “Baron” (John Daniels) runs his empire on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. He intimidates his girls into meeting their quota of tricks per night, he easily defeats thugs who try to rip him off, and he repels gangsters seeking to muscle in on his territory. All the while, he wears natty suits, leather gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat, kicking ass (and peddling ass) in high style. Yet every so often, “Baron” retreats to the suburbs and becomes Ron Lewis, whose wife and kids think a job as a traveling salesman is what keeps him away from home so much. This revelation doesn’t exactly meet the minimum standard for imbuing a character with dimensionality, but at least it’s something. Most of the picture comprises the protagonist’s battles with other pimps and gangsters, as well as the cops who want to bust him, and eventually his long list of enemies expands to include a traitorous hooker. In throwing so many adversaries at the protagonist, however, the filmmakers dilute narrative focus, so The Candy Tangerine Man becomes a blur of “Baron” fighting this enemy and that enemy even as he tries, often in vain, to keep his girls safe. (In the picture’s most gruesome scene, a crook uses a knife to cut the breasts off a hooker.)
          The acting is generally rotten, the cinematography is unattractive, the editing is jumpy, and the production values betray the project’s meager resources. Nonetheless, sleazy energy infuses The Candy Tangerine Man, as when some poor slob gets his hand shoved into a kitchen-sink garbage disposal. (The same gag was employed, much more memorably, in the 1977 William Devane thriller Rolling Thunder.) It’s also worth noting that the picture has persuasive atmosphere thanks to extensive location photography, and, according to the opening credits, supporting performances by “the actual ‘hookers’ and ‘blades’ of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.”

The Candy Tangerine Man: FUNKY

Saturday, September 17, 2016

There’s Always Vanilla (1971)

          Horror-cinema icon George A. Romero’s first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a huge hit proportionate to its miniscule budget, but Romero didn’t take the obvious path of following up with another shocker. Instead, he made a romantic comedy infused with hip counterculture attitude, resulting in the muddled curiosity known as There’s Always Vanilla. Romero was the film’s director, cinematographer, and editor, so his gifts and shortcomings as a storyteller and technician are on full display, though viewers must dig deep to find traces of Romero’s signature themes, since he didn’t originate or write the material. In fact, the only distinctly “Romero” scene is a jarring late-movie sequence with horror-movie affectations. Suffice to say, this bit clashes badly with the rest of the film, and the presence of this discordant note accurately reflects how unfocused There’s Always Vanilla feels from start to finish.
          Set, naturally, in Romero’s longtime home base of Pittsburgh, There’s Always Vanilla concerns twentysomething slacker Chris Bradley (Raymond Lane), who speaks directly to the camera in documentary-style interludes that add little to the experience. Viewers learn that he’s a Vietnam vet disenchanted with Establishment values, that his father runs a successful manufacturing business, and that he knows more about what he doesn’t want to do with his life than what he actually wants to do with his life. Telling stories about passive characters is always difficult, and the team behind this movie didn’t meet the challenge well. Although the main thrust of the picture involves Chris’ romance with model/actress Lynn (Judith Ridley), much of the screen time, inevitably, concerns Chris talking about doing things instead of actually doing them. Whenever he stops philosophizing long enough to take action, he’s either a clown or a self-indulgent jerk. For instance, he talks his way into an ad-agency job, then walks out the minute he’s asked to generate work product.
          Among the film’s myriad narrative problems is indecision. It’s never clear if There’s Always Vanilla is an opposites-attract romance involving a guy with counterculture values and a woman with more conservative ideals, or if it’s a larger statement about the way society bludgeons iconoclasts. Sometimes, the picture is about all of those things, and sometimes it’s about entirely different things, because the script—credited to Rudy Ricci—meanders aimlessly. And then there’s the scene in which Romero falls back on his reliable horror-movie tricks. When Lynn goes to an abortionist, Romero shifts to angular, shadowy camerawork and uses aggressively paced editing to create a disquieting rhythm. It’s a potent scene, but it belongs in another picture. There’s Always Vanilla has some interesting moments, the acting is fairly naturalistic, and every so often, Romero channels his wry sense of humor effectively. Yet this one’s a footnote at best, not only to Romero’s filmography but also to the litany of movies about disaffected ’70s youth.

There’s Always Vanilla: FUNKY

Friday, September 16, 2016

J.C. (1972)

          If you’ve ever felt something was missing from your life because you’ve never seen a biker movie with religious themes, then J.C. is the answer to your prayers. That is, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that beyond its periodic blending of Christian imagery and rebel-cinema iconography, J.C. (sometimes known as The Iron Horsmen) is an inept vanity piece by writer, producer, director, and star William F. McGaha, whose obscurity is entirely deserved. McGaha’s only qualifications for playing a hog-riding messiah appear to be a shaggy beard and some with-it lingo, since he lacks charisma, formidable physicality, and rhetorical style. One gets the sense that if he hadn’t put this picture together, he’d be one of the interchangeable slobs in the background instead of the main focus. Reflecting its auteur’s shortcomings, J.C. is derivative, jumbled, and sluggish. That said, the notion of a savior on a Harley is so peculiar that it’s fascinating to watch J.C. partially to see if it fulfills the promise of the premise, and partially to marvel at the myriad ways McGaha bungles the storytelling. Plus, it’s not as if J.C. totally lacks the pleasing tropes of the biker-movie genre, although these tropes are delivered clumsily and in small doses.
          The picture opens in a city, where hirsute J.C. Masters (McGaha) gets into various hassles because of, you know, society. For instance, he quits a job on a construction crew after the supervisor has the temerity to critique J.C. for smoking dope at the job site instead of working. Also tormenting J.C. are occasional visions of a “giant winking eye” that he perceives as the voice of God. Eventually, J.C. announces to the members of his gang that he’s had a holy vision and wants to spread messages of peace and love. His people dig the idea and agree to accompany J.C. on his journey. However, the journey somehow morphs into a casual trip to J.C.’s hometown in backwoods Alabama, where J.C. reunites with his sister, Miriam (Joanna Moore). The bikers hang out at Miriam’s farm for several days, but the presence among their number of a black man irks the redneck locals. Enter racist Sheriff Grady Caldwell (Slim Pickens) and his vicious deputy, Dan Martin (Burr DeBenning), who vow to run the bikers out of town.
          By now, of course, the plot has devolved into nonsense, since it’s unclear why someone out to spread peace would beeline to the most intolerant place he knows and deliberately antagonize people who already hate him because of youthful transgressions. What’s more, the bikers’ version of “spreading peace” involves trying to rape Miriam, getting into fights with townies, and threatening to tear up the town if the Man gives them any shit. Very late in the picture, McGaha provides a threadbare explanation for the religious stuff, revealing that J.C.’s father was an evangelist who trained his young son as an apprentice, thereby making a mess of the boy’s mind. Or something along those lines.
          J.C. is discombobulated right from the beginning, and it’s also weirdly casual because McGaha’s performance is easygoing to a fault. Still, there are minor compensatory values. In one scene, J.C. introduces the folks on his crew, and their names include Beaver Bud, Beverly Bellbottoms, Dick the Disciple, Happy Von Wheelie, Mr. Clean, and Shirley the Saint. Later, J.C. opines to his sister about how silly it is for adults to use made-up names, justifying the behavior under the general rubric of being “free,” whatever that means. Your guess is as good as mine whether McGaha meant to celebrate or satirize counterculture behavior, but the most interesting moments in J.C. capture . . . something.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)

          This Brazilian fantasy/romance did well on the American arthouse circuit, giving director Bruno Baretto and leading lady Sônia Braga significant international exposure, and for decades afterward, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands reigned as the most successful film in Brazilian box-office history. The movie even got an American remake, although Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)—with Jeff Bridges, James Caan, and Sally Field—took considerable liberties with the storyline. Watching Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands today, it’s hard to guess why folks got so excited about the picture during its original release. American audiences might have been titillated by sexual content, and Brazilian viewers might have connected with the hints of magical realism, a storytelling style that’s always fared better in Central and South America than in the United States. Or maybe everyone just grooved on the risqué premise, because thanks to a supernatural contrivance, the title character has a threesome of sorts. In any event, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is an awkward piece of work, though of course it’s possible something was lost in translation.
          Set in Rio during the 1940s, the picture begins with bon vivant Vadinho (José Wilker) dying suddenly in the midst of a street party. His wife, Dona (Braga), surprises friends and relatives by grieving his loss, seeing as how they all knew Vadinho was irresponsible and unfaithful. The movie then kicks into an excessively long flashback telling the story of the couple’s marriage. Vadinho was a cad, no question, but he helped Dona evolve from a repressed prude to a fully realized sexual being, so her love for his carnal gifts trumped her resentment over being mistreated. Cutting back to the present, the film explores Dona’s impending second marriage to a boring pharmacist, Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça). Just as Dona resigns herself to a quiet life, Vadinho returns as a ghost, and somehow Dona is able to interact with him physically. Hence the title—a supernatural phenomenon allows Dona to enjoy the stability of her second marriage as well as the sexual thrills of her first.
          Setting aside some dodgy gender politics, the big problem with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is that the premise doesn’t manifest until the final act of the film. As such, viewers are left perplexed as to whether Vadinho’s return is “real” or simply a byproduct of Dona’s grief. (The American remake fixed this problem by moving the dead husband’s return much earlier the film.) Another narrative speed bump: Vadinho is such a horrible human being than it’s no fun watching him treat Dona like garbage everywhere except in bed. Nonetheless, Baretto presents the story energetically, and the actors all give highly committed performances, with Braga the standout. While her sexiness commands attention, the depth of her characterization is of greater importance, since she’s believable at every stage of Dona’s strange journey. 

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The UFO Incident (1975)

          Bolstered by the presence of fine actors in the leading roles, The UFO Incident is a peculiar take on a real historical incident. In the early 1960s, New Hampshire residents Barney and Betsy Hill claimed they’d been abducted by aliens, taken aboard a flying saucer for medical examinations, and brainwashed to forget what happened. Memories of the event haunted the couple’s dreams, so they submitted to hypnosis and provided details while a psychiatrist probed their unconscious minds. Reports of the Hills’ alleged abduction earned widespread attention, but because the Hills were unable to provide evidence, some people dismissed the story as a delusion or a hoax while others believed the incident really occurred. This made-for-TV movie tries to service the believers and the doubters simultaneously, and the wishy-washy approach doesn’t quite work.
          Scenes of the Hills experiencing traumatic flashbacks and/or providing testimony are played straight, whereas scenes with re-creations of alien contact have the eerie quality of a horror movie. It’s understandable why the producers included money shots of actors dressed like weird-looking aliens, because a purely journalistic presentation of this material would have been talky and underwhelming. Still, The UFO Incident is basically two very different movies squeezed into one package, with the grounded stuff coming across better than the fanciful vignettes.
          James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons play the Hills, a middle-class interracial couple. They bicker and bond like normal married people, and the filmmakers take pains to present the Hills as rational and thoughtful individuals, the better to lend credence to their reports of an extraordinary experience. Barnard Hughes plays the doctor who questions them under hypnosis. The overarching story of takes place in the “present,” with the Hills acceding to hypnosis only because their collective memories are so disturbingly synchronized—they dream the same impossible dreams. Dramatizations of the UFO event appear in suspenseful flashbacks.
          Executive producer/director Richard A. Colla and his collaborators drill down fairly deep into the Hills’ personalities, especially considering the film’s brief running time, so we learn about Barney’s fear of losing control and Betty’s fear of the unknown. Parsons shines in conversational scenes, conveying a woman of compassion and moral strength, while Jones excels in hypnosis scenes, sometimes breaking down from the strain of recalling otherworldly violation. The FX scenes are the least effective, not only because the actors and filmmakers seem less invested in those sequences but also because the alien costumes and spaceship look cheap. Perhaps The UFO Incident is best described as respectful, since the filmmakers avoid many opportunities to sensationalize the material; at its best, the picture is a matter-of-fact recitation enlivened by humane performances.

The UFO Incident: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bury Me an Angel (1971)

Sometimes the poster is better than the movie. Beyond the kicky graphic of a curvy woman brandishing a shotgun, the one-sheet for Bury Me an Angel offers this priceless copy: “A howling hellcat humping a hot steel hog on a roaring rampage of revenge.” If you insist on learning whether Bury Me an Angel lives up to his hype, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Although the film’s underlying plot is serviceable—after a biker kills her brother, badass mama Dag (Dixie Peabody) hops on a scooter and hunts down the killer—the execution is atrocious. From the first scene, which depicts aimless debauchery in a garage, writer-director Barbara Peeters displays pure ineptitude, failing to give scenes focus while also failing to define characters. It even takes a while to realize that the victim was Dag’s brother and not her boyfriend. Given the sloppy start, it’s no surprise the movie regularly veers off course. Dag recruits two male bikers, Bernie (Clyde Ventura) and Jonsie (Terry Mace), to accompany her on the road, but the scenes involving the trio lack purpose and urgency. About the only cogent fact to emerge is that Dag has some sort of sexual hang-up. (Scuzz-cinema fans can rest assured that Dag’s hang-up doesn’t prevent Peeters from filming Peabody in the altogether.) In the dullest sequence, Dag interacts with a biker artist named Ken, who’s played by Dan Haggerty, the biker-movie regular who later found fame playing mountain man Grizzly Adams. Also of minor interest is an appearance by gangly character actor Alan DeWitt, previously seen as an undertaker in the biker flick Angels Die Hard (1970). Anyway, you can see the problem—not only is the poster for Bury Me an Angel more interesting than the movie, even the IMDB credits of the supporting actors are more interesting than the movie. Sure, there’s a kinky twist at the end, but it’s so sudden and unearned that, like everything else about Bury Me an Angel, it’s not worth investigating.

Bury Me an Angel: LAME

Monday, September 12, 2016

Mr. Ricco (1975)

          It’s not wrong to describe Mr. Ricco as disposable escapism featuring a past-his-prime star pandering to cinematic fashion by appearing in a gritty urban thriller with more than a little Dirty Harry in its DNA. And, indeed, very little about Mr. Ricco or leading man Dean Martin’s performance will linger in your memory after you watch the picture. So whether or not you dig this flick depends almost entirely on your appetite for that quintessential ’70s-cinema vibe. Shot in slick widescreen on dingy and glamorous locations throughout San Francisco, Mr. Ricco has a hip attitude, a jangly jazz score, lively supporting performances, plenty of violence, and a smidgen of sarcasm thanks to the title character’s wiseass dialogue. If you go for this sort of thing, you’ll devour Mr. Ricco like a hearty serving of comfort food. If not, you’ll likely—and understandably—dismiss the picture as soulless Hollywood product.
          Martin plays a defense lawyer named Joe Ricco, and the filmmakers embellish the title role with colorful flourishes. Joe’s a smooth-talking widower whose friendships with cops blur ethical boundaries, he cheats at golf, and he tolerates all the weed his young associates smoke while doing legal research, because, hey, live and let live. When the story begins, Joe gets black radical Frankie Steele (Thalmus Rasulala) acquitted on murder charges, earning adoration from the counterculture and enmity from the Establishment. After two cops are killed, Frankie emerges as Suspect No. 1, so Joe gets pulled into dual intrigue—even as he investigates whether Frankie’s really guilty, he tries to track the fugitive down before trigger-happy police find him. Notwithstanding a few subplots, the most important of which involves a mystery figure who might or might not be Frankie trying to kill Joe at regular intervals, that’s basically the plot. What Mr. Ricco offers beyond its serviceable narrative is vivacity. Future sitcom star Cindy Williams appears briefly as Joe’s spunky secretary, and future Miami Vice guy Philip Michael Thomas plays a suspect whose sister hires Joe. Reliable character actor John Quade turns up in a couple of scenes as a grinning pimp. Oh, and Frankie leads an underground group called the Black Serpents. You get the idea.
          Director Paul Bogart doesn’t drench every scene in style, but he uses well-chosen actors and locations to create a world that feels coherent, if not necessarily realistic. Accordingly, all the menacing and posturing and scheming in this movie goes down smoothly, particularly when the nocturnal, small-combo syncopation of Chico Hamilton’s score enlivens the images. Plus, every so often, the picture embraces its own cartoonishness, as in this monologue from Joe’s police-captain friend George, played with gritted-teeth crankiness by Eugene Roche: “I don’t need you to tell me my job. I’ve been doing it for 20 years—20 years of being shot at and beat up on by sick, filthy creeps whose own mothers would’ve flushed ’em down the toilet if they’d known how they were gonna turn out!”

Mr. Ricco: GROOVY

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) & Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

          Exploitation-flick hack Al Adamson brings the Mile High Club crashing to the ground with these awful movies about horny flight attendants. Styled after Roger Corman’s sexy-nurse movies of the early ’70s, The Naughty Stewardesses is a melodrama concerning several friends who score in the air and on the ground. The heroine is Debbie (Connie Hoffman), a nice girl from a small town who’s shocked by her big-city friends’ sexual antics. In a party scene, she recoils when a pal is presented with a man covered in frosting and candles like he’s a birthday cake, then proceeds to, ahem, blow out the candles in full view of party guests. Yet Debbie’s no prude, because when she falls for a photographer named Cal (Richard Smedley), she poses nude during a portrait session. “I feel so free,” she coos. “Perhaps by taking off my clothes, I took off my mask, too.” Oy.
          Things get complicated when Debbie accepts an invitation from an older man, Brewster (Robert Livingston), to visit his pad in Palm Springs. He’s a randy old goat, and he eventually sleeps with most of the stewardesses in the story, even getting one compliant gal to test out an elaborate sex gadget called a “Persian Penguin.” The movie jumps erratically between incompatible storylines and tonalities all the way to a pointlessly violent climax. Yet parts of The Naughty Stewardesses are strangely compelling simply because scenes go on forever. That said,  the picture’s magnetism is strictly of the traffic-accident variety. Still, Hoffman is quite lovely, even though she can’t act, so Adamson might have been able to make something luridly enjoyable from this material if he’d cut this picture down from 102 sluggish minutes to, say, 80 zippy ones.
          Blazing Stewardesses is even worse. Although the sequel features some of the same actors playing some of the same characters, the movie is largely unrelated to its predecessor. Conceived as an homage/spoof of old Western movies, the picture takes part of its title from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), and the sexy-stewardess stuff shares screen time with nonsense about a frontier madam, a noble rancher, and villains on horseback. Making Blazing Stewardesses even more disjointed is the presence of past-their-prime comedy duo the Ritz Brothers, who contribute lots of embarrassing facial expressions and stale patter. At one point, costar Yvonne De Carlo, playing the madam, stops the movie dead to warble a corny song. Blazing Stewardesses is such an overstuffed mess that the stewardesses don’t spend much time blazing, so this wannabe sex comedy has a dangerously low sex quotient. Hoffman underwhelms once more, though her beauty remains arresting, but costar Regina Carrol, playing Debbie’s busty friend, gives a performance so awful, thanks to childish vocal delivery and lobotomized facial expressions, that her scenes are unwatchable. As for the overall movie, Blazing Stewardesses is so dumb that an unfunny joke about the Ritz Brothers eating a giant sandwich gets repeated as the closing gag.

Naughty Stewardesses: LAME
Blazing Stewardesses: SQUARE

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Ballad of Billie Blue (1972)

The sort of religious picture that gives religious pictures a bad name, The Ballad of Billie Blue tells the fictional story of a pop singer who descends into a spiral of booze, ego, and violence, only to be saved by a preacher who brings the gospel to a prison work farm. According to movies like The Ballad of Billie Blue, the world outside the Christian faith is a hornet’s nest of avarice, cruelty, and lust, but the moment a fallen soul trades the secular for the sacred, all is forgiven and trouble becomes a thing of the past. That this message is delivered by way of atrocious acting and bargain-basement dramaturgy makes the whole enterprise even less appealing. Some Christian viewers may find The Ballad of Billie Blue palatable simply because of the subject matter, but others will likely find it intolerable, unless they approach The Ballad of Billie Blue as an unintentional comedy. Billie (Jason Ledger) is already famous when the movie starts, so the drama during the first half of the picture stems from his conflicts with a craven manager (Ray Danton), an opportunistic journalist (Marty Allen), and an unfaithful wife (Sherry Miles). Billie gets drunk in a bar one night and punches the journalist, who then blackmails the singer to get exclusive, unfettered access to Billie’s life. Meanwhile, the manager and the shrewish wife have an affair. When the wife kills the manager during a fight, Billie takes the fall for her, and the journalist is only too happy to bury the singer with bad press. Once in jail, Billie bonds with hot-headed convict Justin (Erik Estrada) until traveling preacher Bob (Robert Plekker) arrives with homilies about “a Jesus kind of love” and God’s “life assurance plan.” Blah, blah, blah. Among the awful cast, Miles stands out by giving a truly hideous performance comprising uncertain line readings delivered at top volume, while Allen nearly matches her ineptitude. Danton and Leger are serviceable at best, and it says a lot that Estrada does the best work of the whole bunch.

The Ballad of Billie Blue: LAME

Friday, September 9, 2016

Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971)

A clumsy retelling of historical events that were previously dramatized by director John Ford in The Fugitive (1947), this low-budget melodrama begins with the crazed ruler of a Mexican state declaring war on the Catholic Church, then tracks the journey of the last priest to evade the strongman’s grasp. Despite telling an interesting story full of intense sociopolitical themes, Rain for a Dusty Summer—also known as Guns of the Revolution—doesn’t work. The first problem stems from misleading credits, since Ernest Borgnine has top billing for his role as the brutal dictator. Borgnine appears in the movie so fleetingly that it seems as if he shot all of his material in an afternoon. (Adding to the forgettable nature of his appearance, Borgnine’s weak attempt at a Spanish accent comprises little more than pronouncing the name of his character’s country as “Me-hee-co.”) The next big problem involves tone. Scenes depicting the priest’s adventures as he moves from one hiding place to another are gentle and lighthearted, complete with chipper music that would seem appropriate accompanying circus performances. The dissonance between serious subject matter and silly style destroys the film’s credibility. Accordingly, whenever the filmmakers try to get heavy, as during the downbeat final scene, it’s as if they're rebooting the movie while it's still underway. And while Humberto Almazán is okay in the leading role—affable in a Disney-flick sort of way—his lack of dimensionality derails any efforts to render narrative complexity. In fact, it’s easier to list the many things Rain for a Dusty Summer lacks—among them a compelling secondary villain and a viable sense of urgency—than to identify praiseworthy elements. Thats why its probably best to stick with the Ford version of this worthwhile material, or to wait for someone else to tackle the story in the future.

Rain for a Dusty Summer: LAME

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)

          Essentially an ultraviolent cartoon, this Quentin Tarantino favorite exaggerates beloved tropes of martial-arts cinema to a ridiculous degree. The title character, for instance, is a blind teacher who travels feudal China on a vengeance mission, and his chosen weapon is the “flying guillotine.” Picture a hatbox that accordions out when snapped into place atop a target’s head. The blind teacher launches the weapon from long distances, and then yanks the chain that’s attached to the device in order to spring the trap. The victim is decapitated instantly, with the head delivered to the blind teacher when he retracts the chain. All patently impossible, of course, but that’s the spirit of this movie. Master of the Flying Guillotine is entertaining in a manic and perverse sort of way, but it’s not to be taken seriously.
          Interestingly, Master of the Flying Guillotine is the rare sequel that has achieved more notoriety than the original film from which it was derived. That would be One Armed Boxer (1971), released in the U.S. in 1973 as The Chinese Professionals. Both pictures star and were written and directed by Taiwan’s Jimmy Wang Yu. In the first picture, a character known as One-Armed Boxer (Yu) killed disciples of a martial-arts school. In Master of the Flying Guillotine, the disciples’ teacher, Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), seeks payback. Learning of a national martial-arts competition, Sheng travels to the site of the contest and systematically kills every one-armed martial artist he encounters until squaring off with One-Armed Boxer during the epic finale. As should be obvious, the plot is so thin it can barely sustain an entire movie, and, sure enough, Master of the Flying Guillotine loses the thread partway through.
          A good 30 minutes of the picture depict the competition, with one outlandish matchup after another, while the narrative treads water. Yet this storytelling gambit sorta-kinda works, simply because the battle scenes are outrageous. One fighter magically extends his forearms until they’re as long as spears. A brawl takes place with the combatants balancing on poles that rise above a field of sharp metal blades, so the first guy to fall gets perforated. In an unrelated but similarly silly scene, One-Armed Boxer impresses the students at a martial-arts academy by demonstrating his ability to climb walls and walk on ceilings, as if he’s Spider-Man. Perhaps the loopiest moment in Master of the Flying Guillotine is the scene where Sheng detects a one-armed man in a bar, unleashes his weapon, and lops off the schmuck’s head—without triggering more than a few raised eyebrows from onlookers.

Master of the Flying Guillotine: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bittersweet Love (1976)

           This offbeat melodrama dramatizes the repercussions of accidental incest. Directed by journeyman helmer David Miller, the picture is competent and even rather sensitive, benefiting from sincere leading performances by Meredith Baxter-Birney and Scott Hylands as lovers who discover they’re siblings. (Don’t be fooled by Lana Turner’s top billing, since she has an important but secondary role.) The question, of course, is whether the world needed a story about incest, since it’s not as if the circumstances portrayed in the narrative reflect some recurring social problem. Quite to the contrary, the filmmakers twist themselves in knots to contrive a situation resulting in a brother unknowingly marrying his own sister.
          Anyway, architect Michael (Hylands) has a meet-cute with single girl Patricia (Baxter-Birney). They fall in love quickly, arranging to wed in Canada at the home of Michael’s parents, Howard (Robert Lansing) and Marian (Celeste Holm). All the while, Patricia’s wealthy parents, Ben (Robert Alda) and Claire (Turner), are traveling overseas. Eventually, the newlyweds visit Ben and Claire with photos from their nuptials, and Claire recoils when she sees a photo of Howard. Turns out she had an affair with him while she was courting Ben, and she never told Ben their daughter was fathered by another man. She never informed Howard, either. That is, until she calls him up for a meeting and shares the sordid news. Adding urgency to the whole business is the revelation that Patricia has become pregnant. How can Claire tell Ben of her infidelity? How can both sets of parents break their children’s hearts? What will Patricia do about the baby? You get the idea.
          Even though the premise of the movie is contrived, the rest of Bittersweet Love is reasonable. The way that Claire’s secret is revealed to characters one at a time makes sense, while also creating opportunities to experience different types of shocked reactions. Howard, who hadn’t yet met his wife when he slept with Claire, responds with pragmatism and sadness, his loved ones the victims of Claire’s duplicity. Ben, conversely, reacts with the pain of betrayal. As for Michael and Patricia, their reactions comprise most of the film’s content, and it’s interesting to see how the choices the filmmakers make about who accepts and who rejects the new reality parallel traditional gender roles. One could even go so far as to say that a few grains of truth find their way into the overheated soup of the film’s various emotional confrontations.

Bittersweet Love: FUNKY