Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mustang Country (1976)



          Joel McCrea, a durable star from the Old Hollywood era who was closely associated with the Western genre, signed off with the family-friendly outdoors adventure Mustang Country, in which an aging cowboy and an orphaned Indian boy work together to trap a wild horse that has outsmarted countless other wranglers. Benefiting from extensive location photography in Canada’s gorgeous Banff National Park, the picture delivers exactly what it promises—viewers get lots of scenes with animals fighting, jumping, and running—and it also serves McCrea relatively well, inasmuch as his character comes across as sweet, tough, and wise. Like many family films, Mustang Country is gentle to a fault, since the harshest thing that happens in the storyline is the death of an animal, and the picture’s young costar, Nika Mina, brings the whole enterprise down with his weak performance. Nonetheless, McCrea fans get to savor seeing a beloved personality from countless pervious Westerns ride in the saddle one last time, and nature fans get to relish panoramic images of bears and horses and other critters romping through crystalline lakes and resplendent forests with the snowy peaks of the Canadian Rockies looming nearby.
          Dan (McCrea) and his trusty Rottweiler, Luke, trek through the frontier by the Canada/Montana border while trying to capture a beautiful black mustang that cowboys have named “Shoshone.” When Dan tumbles from his saddle one day and falls unconscious, he’s discovered and nursed back to health by Nika (Mina), who recently ran away from school. Dan offers to escort the lad to his grandfather’s place, but when they discover the grandfather has died, Dan forms a partnership with Nika, figuring two people will have better luck capturing the mustang than one. Notwithstanding a subplot about a vicious grizzly bear, that’s the whole story, so Mustang Country is a thoroughly predictable saga about a young man gaining maturity while an old man reclaims youthful enthusiasm. McCrea is as comfortable onscreen as ever, though his characterization is a bit one-note, what with all the homilies and humility. Still, writer-director John Champion remembers to provide some sort of spectacle every 10 or 15 minutes. In between those highlights, he occasionally pads the picture with bland montages, and don’t be fooled by the prominent billing of costars Robert Fuller and Patrick Wayne—they’re out of the story after the first sequence, and then it’s nothing but McCrea and Mina for the rest for the ride.

Mustang Country: FUNKY

Monday, August 29, 2016

Catch Me a Spy (1971)



Bland, contrived, and almost laughably unhurried, the Cold War-themed romantic comedy Catch Me a Spy—sometimes marketed as Keep Your Fingers Crossed or To Catch a Spy—is the worst sort of international coproduction. The film’s American, English, and French leading actors employ clashing performance styles, and the episodic storyline seems as if it was designed to showcase as many European locations as possible. Especially because the narrative is cobbled together from elements viewers have encountered a million times before, Catch Me a Spy is as much of a hodgepodge as its multinational DNA. A little Kirk Douglas here for the American market, a little Marlène Jobert there to keep the Gallic crowd interested, and some high-speed action skimming across the surfaces of Scottish lakes for atmosphere. So, while Catch Me a Spy technically runs just 94 minutes, it feels much, much longer. The source of the movie’s problems, of course, is a rotten script. Jobert plays a woman whose Englishman husband gets arrested by Russian agents on espionage charges and extradited to the USSR, so she entreats British officials to arrange a prisoner exchange. When that endeavor fails (in the movie’s only truly funny scene), she tries to find another spy whom the Brits can trade for her husband. After encountering him several times under strange circumstances, she believes that Douglas’ character is the guy for the job. What ensues is dull and ridiculous. Even as she negotiates for her husband’s release, Jobert’s character spends endless amounts of time hanging out with Douglas’ character, eventually surrendering to his charms. Beyond questions of logic, where’s the danger, the excitement, the urgency? Douglas grins a lot but otherwise applies a style far too heavy-handed for this sort of piffle, while Jobert’s English is so tentative as to be distracting. To no avail, supporting players Tom Courtenay, Trevor Howard, and Patrick Mower all contribute work more interesting than that of the leads.

Catch Me a Spy: LAME

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Off-Topic: Now in Theaters


Just a quick word about a current movie with connections to the '70s. Despite being burdened with an awful title (which was extrapolated from a code name for a military operation), Anthropoid is a harrowing World War II thriller depicting the desperate and heroic effort by Czech resistance fighters to strike a blow against the Nazis by mounting an assassination attempt against Hitler's third-in-command officer. A smart and tough movie for grown-ups that blends slick entertainment techniques with relevant historical material, it's the sort of cinematic fare for which thinking viewers feel desperate this time of year, after way too many bloated blockbusters. Go see it, so long as you can tolerate gruesome violence. As for the film's '70s connection, the very same historical events were dramatized in 1975's Operation Daybreak, with Timothy Botoms, which was reviewed here on July 29, 2011. Although Anthropoid is the better of the two pictures, thanks to tighter storytelling, tougher interpersonal dynamics, and a vivid leading performance by Cillian Murphy, Operation Daybreak is a respectable thriller, as well. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

Black Heat (1976)



Even given the low expectations I have whenever encountering an Al Adamson film, Black Heat was a serious letdown, inasmuch as I feel asleep the first three times I tried to watch the thing. And while that remark could probably suffice as a review, I’ll soldier through a few lines in the same way I eventually soldiered through the movie. As the title suggests, Black Heat is a cop movie in the blaxploitation mode. Las Vegas detective “Kicks” Carter (Timothy Brown) works two cases at once, helping women escape indentured servitude as hookers while also tracking gunrunners who are trying to smuggle weapons to revolutionaries in Central America. Neither of these cases results in much onscreen excitement, and they don’t mesh together well, so Black Heat has a herky-jerky narrative rhythm that’s as annoying as the picture’s leaden pacing. One boring thing happens after another, with little in the way of transitions in between, so only the presence of Brown in most scenes gives the impression that all the pieces belong to the same puzzle. Making matters worse are Adamson’s characteristic descents into sleaze, such as a long gang-rape scene and a leering girl-on-girl vignette. As for the leading man, Brown is spectacularly uninteresting to watch, seeing as how he was something of a renaissance man offscreen; the former NFL player dabbled in singing and dancing as well as acting. About the only kind thing I can say about Black Heat—sometimes known as The Murder Gang—is that it’s photographed better than the usual Adamson fare, with many nighttime scenes benefitting from proper backlighting. But when the most compelling thing about a shot is the use of secondary illumination to separate figures from dark backgrounds—well, that pretty much says it all.

Black Heat: LAME

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Your Three Minutes Are Up (1973)



          Strong acting elevates Your Three Minutes Are Up, a tonally confused dramedy about a straight-laced dude who tries to emulate his carefree buddy, leading to catastrophe. Beau Bridges plays the uptight guy well, articulating how his character envies his friend’s ability to change sexual partners daily and live beyond his means through various financial scams, while Ron Leibman is terrific—which is to say maddening—as the loudmouth swinger leaving a trail of bad debts and hurt feelings in his wake. The point seems to be that the uptight guy could use a little of his pal’s looseness, and the swinger could use a little of his friend’s social responsibility. Unfortunately, both characters come across as jerks. The uptight guy torments his fiancée by disappearing for an adventure, and the swinger is an outright liar and thief. That being the case, it’s hard to know whether viewers are meant to feel excited or repulsed when, say, the guys stiff two young girls with the check for an expensive meal or scam a payoff from an unlucky motorist by deliberately causing a fender-bender. Is this a bummer morality tale or a kicky thrill ride?
          At the beginning of the movie, Los Angeles working stiff Charlie (Bridges) is the typical movie schmuck, the sort of character Jack Lemmon played a zillion times for Billy Wilder and other directors. He slaves away at a soul-sucking job, endures constant criticism from his betrothed, Betty (Janet Margolin), and watches wide-eyed whenever Mike (Leibman) scores with a busty Scandinavian or some other sexpot. Then Mike’s life hits a wall. His bank account runs dry, his car is repossessed, and his unemployment benefits are cancelled because he’s lied about pursuing work. Mike asks Charlie for a lift to the airport, and that leads to an endless drive up the California coast, with mischievous idylls in Santa Barbara and the Bay Area. Charlie has a blast partying with hookers and running scams, though he knows his real life will eventually catch up with him, whereas Mike seems oblivious to the idea of consequences.
          Although the filmmakers clearly meant to imbue Your Three Minutes Are Up with humorous elements, very little of what happens is funny. Bridges’ character seems more depressed than pathetic, and Leibman’s is so obnoxious it’s hard to enjoy his rapscallion excesses. Yet if the movie is viewed a melancholy character study or as a critique of the carefree swinger lifestyle, Your Three Minutes Are Up is somewhat effective. One more thing: The Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy Sideways bears such a remarkable resemblance to this picture that it’s likely Rex Pickett, author of the novel upon which Sideways is based, saw Your Three Minutes Are Up and never forgot the experience.

Your Three Minutes Are Up: FUNKY

Friday, August 26, 2016

Chino (1973)



          An oddity among Charles Bronson’s prodigious ’70s output, the melancholy, European-made Western Chino has a few brief passages of action, but mostly it’s a minimalistic character study about a principled iconoclast. In fact, one could easily see John Wayne playing a meatier version of the title role. The protagonist of Chino has a characterization as lean as Bronson’s musculature, though he’s not precisely a man of few words, since he’s capable of loquacious moments. Where his enigmatic nature surfaces, and where the film’s storytelling becomes somewhat dubious, is in the area of this hard-driving man’s relationships with others. Living alone on a horse ranch, he seems like someone who prefers his own company, and yet he takes in a young orphan with little hesitation, he confidently woos a society woman who visits his ranch to ride horses, and he maintains a neighborly bond with a local Indian tribe. The filmmakers seem to like the romantic notion that their hero is more at peace with his horses than with other humans, but the overall flow of the story challenges the credibility of the premise. Combined with sluggish pacing and some iffy supporting performances, this thematic fuzziness dooms Chino to mediocrity, even though it’s noteworthy as one of the only Bronson movies to lead with its emotional aspect.
          The plot is suitably simple. Half-breed Chino Valdez (Bronson) lives quietly until young Jamie (Vincent Van Patten) rides onto his land with nowhere else to go. Chino gives Jamie a job and becomes a kind of surrogate parent to the lad. Later, cruel landowner Maral (Marcel Bozzuffi) annexes land that Chino has used for years, setting a fight in motion; Chino dislikes constraints as much as the wild mustang the filmmakers employ as a recurring metaphor. Later still, when Maral’s sister, Catherine (Jill Ireland), falls for Chino, it’s war, because Maral doesn’t want a half-breed soiling his family line. During the picture’s most violent passages, Chino gets into brawls with thugs and Maral has Chino whipped—rough stuff, to be sure, but mild by the usual Bronson standards. Playing Chino, Bronson cuts such a formidable figure that he’s believable as a man who can endure anything in the name of his beliefs. Furthermore, the film’s bittersweet ending has a gentle kick. Yet Ireland and Van Patten are so mechanical that their scenes lack energy, and the Maral character is hopelessly one-dimensional. On the plus side, the mellow guitar-and-harmonica-led score sets a distinctive mood, and the wide-open spaces of the film’s locations convey something about the title character’s don’t-fence-me-in soul.

Chino: FUNKY

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976)



          The little-girl-lost genre had a couple of banner years in 1979 and 1980, with sensational news stories about teen runaways inspiring numerous theatrical and made-for-TV features about young girls falling victim to psychos and sleazebags. Hence this telefilm starring Eve Plumb, famous for The Brady Bunch (1969–1974), as a sweet young thing who flees the heartland, hits trouble in Los Angeles, and becomes a hooker. Plus, as if the notion of virginal Jan Brady walking the streets wasn’t sufficiently distasteful, her character’s first john is played by William Schallert, the kindly dad from The Patty Duke Show (1963–1966). Is nothing sacred? The funny thing is that despite its salacious premise, Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway is moralistic and uptight—so many characters urge the protagonist to rejoin conventional society that the picture feels like a stern PSA. This schoolmarm quality drains the movie of its potential vitality, resulting in flat and predictable storytelling. What’s more, Plumb is unconvincing when her character becomes a tough city girl, though she conveys wholesomeness well.
          The parade of clichés begins with Dawn (Plumb) taking a bus from her hometown because her single mom is too irresponsible to provide a proper home. The second Dawn sets foot in Hollywood, she's assaulted and robbed. On the bright side, sort of, she befriends a tough black hooker, Frankie Lee (Marguerite DeLain). Later, Dawn meets sensitive street boy Alexander (Leigh McCloskey), and they move in together, but Dawn is so innocent that their relationship is platonic. When money troubles become intolerable, Dawn asks Frankie Lee for an introduction to her pimp, Swan (Bo Hopkins). Naturally, he's a sadist with a thing for mind games. How deeply will Dawn sink into the skin trade before coming to her senses? Will one of her friends suffer a gruesome fate that makes her realize the error of her ways? Will a tough-talking social worker arrive to provide condescending lectures and sobering statistics? If you've seen even one movie of this type, you know the answers to all of these questions.
         The appeal of this utilitarian melodrama, such as it is, stems from watching a familiar face in a new context. Indeed, there's something unnerving about seeing Jan Brady in skintight slutwear, and in hearing her describe her first sexual encounter: "I felt nothing—just stared at the ceiling and became a woman. What a hype." Hopkins is somewhat menacing in a role so underdeveloped that describing it as one-dimensional would be exaggerating, and TV stalwart Georg Sanford Brown provides the requisite youthful gravitas as the social worker. A sequel titled Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn followed in 1977, earning cult status by depicting gay themes frankly. Plumb returned for Alexander, this time in a supporting role.

Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Manipulator (1971)



          It’s hard to decide which image best encapsulates the weirdness of The Manipulator, a thriller with Mickey Rooney as a psychopathic movie professional holding a woman hostage in a warehouse and pretending she’s the star of a movie he’s directing. One contender is the long sequence of Rooney dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, complete with plumed hat and prosthetic nose, while he spews reams of faux-poetic dialogue. Another possibility is the shot of Rooney rocking back and forth in a chair, his eyes bulging in madness, as he screams the lyrics of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Yet perhaps the winner is the scene in which Rooney slathers his face with garish harlot makeup, sweeps his wispy hair into a Caesar style, and minces his way through a verbal affectation so stereotypical it would give Paul Lynde pause. Clearly imagined as a tour de force, The Manipulator instead comes across as a tour de farce.
          It’s not as if Rooney was incapable of good work in the later years of his career, even though his eccentricities often overshadowed the charm that made him one of America’s biggest stars during the 1930s and 1940s; one need only revisit his performance in, say, the TV movie Bill (1981). Yet it seems late-period Rooney needed strong directors to keep him under control, and he’s allowed to run wild in The Manipulator. To be clear, The Manipulator—sometimes known as B.J. Lang Presents—was never destined for greatness. It’s a claustrophobic and far-fetched lark with an inherently repetitive storyline, essentially a one-man show that doesn’t go anywhere.
         Nonetheless, actors live for these kinds of opportunities, since being the primary focus of an entire movie allows for rare levels of multidimensional characterization. Alas, that doesn’t happen here. Rooney’s character is loopy from beginning to end. Plus, to be blunt, playing crazy actually lowers the degree of difficulty for flamboyant performers—any random thing they do is permissible. The challenge in a role like this one is going deep and small, but Rooney does the opposite, despite fleeting moments that convey a peculiar sort of vulnerability.
          In any event, the story is laughably threadbare. We never see B.J. Lang (Rooney) kidnap Carlotta (Luana Anders), and we never learn how he came into possession of a warehouse filled with movie equipment. Myriad scenes comprise tight closeups of Rooney screaming at the camera. Similarly, many scenes feature Fellini-esque dream imagery—naked people dancing, grotesque partygoers participating in orgies, and so on. Unpleasant flourishes juice the images, whether visual (e.g., strobe lights) or aural (e.g., discordant electronic bleeps). Accordingly, the tone is all over the place. Much of The Manipulator is designed to horrify, but some scenes drift into broad comedy, like the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from bit of Rooney doing a Chaplinesque dance within sped-up camerawork. The sum effect is as perplexing as it is wearying. Anders’ nonexistent acting range doesn’t help, and neither does the disappointment of watching the fine actor Kennan Wynn enter and exit the film so briefly and so pointlessly.
          On some level, The Manipulator is fascinating simply because Rooney displays so many wild colors, and there’s a kernel of satirical edge to the premise, which echoes Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). Mostly, however, The Manipulator is 85 minutes of sadism and screaming and strangeness. 

The Manipulator: FREAKY

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Terminal Island (1973)



Squandering a kicky idea with bland execution, Terminal Island has the state of California dumping its convicted murderers onto a remote island to let the killers fend for themselves. (One imagines that John Carpenter must have encountered this movie before conceiving his own convicts-on-an-island opus, 1981’s Escape from New York.) As cowritten and directed by Stephanie Rothman, Terminal Island has moments of violent energy, but the characters are so underwritten and the general demeanor of the movie is so sleazy that it’s hard to care what happens. Among the many important things the picture lacks is a dynamic leading character, which means that secondary characters and villains command attention in a way that makes the story feel aimless and episodic. The movie begins with new convict Carmen (Ena Hartman) arriving on the prison island of San Bruno, 40 miles off the California coast. With male inmates vastly outnumbering females, the women are slaves ruled by cruel boss Bobby (Sean Kenney) and his right-hand man, Monk (Roger E. Mosley). After enduring physical and sexual abuse, Carmen and the women escape to join a rebel faction led by A.J. (Don Marshall). War for control over the island ensues. The plot works well enough in fits and starts, but Rothman stops the movie dead for leering topless scenes and nasty vignettes, such as the bit where a woman places honey on a man’s (offscreen) junk, then whacks a nearby tree to summon a swarm of bees. Ouch. Costar Phyllis Davis brings considerable sexual heat to the movie, and a young Tom Selleck gives a passable performance as a doctor convicted of murder on trumped-up charges. Given the potential of the premise, however, Terminal Island is nowhere near the drive-in delight it should be.

Terminal Island: LAME

Monday, August 22, 2016

1900 (1976)



         While much has been written about American auteurs of the ’70s derailing their careers with overly indulgent projects, the phenomenon was not exclusive to the United States. After notching a major international hit with the controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972), Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci created 1900, a five-hour epic tracking the course of Italian politics from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of World War II. The movie has all the heaviosity and scale it needs, and Bertolucci’s central contrivance—following an aristocrat and a peasant who were born in the same location on the same day—gives the sprawling narrative a pleasing shape. The film’s images are lustrous, with regular Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro applying his signature elegant compositions and painterly lighting, and the film’s music is vibrant, thanks to the contributions of storied composer Ennio Morricone. Beyond that, however, 1900 is frustrating.
          The presence of American, Canadian, and French stars in leading roles diminishes the authenticity of the piece; a subplot about a sociopath becoming a sadistic Axis agent leads to laughably excessive passages of gore and violence; and Bertolucci indulges his sensuous aspect to such an extreme that he comes off like a fetishist obsessed with, of all things, excrement and penises. The movie has too much of everything, eventually devolving into a lumbering procession of strange scenes expressing a trite political message about poor people having morals and rich people being assholes.
          The first stretch of the picture, essentially a lengthy prologue, introduces the grandfathers of the protagonists. Alfredo Berlinghieri the Elder (Burt Lancaster) is the benevolent padrone of an estate, and Leo Dalcò (Sterling Hayden) is a peasant in his employ. Both welcome grandsons on the same day in 1900. The children grow up to be close friends, despite one enjoying privilege and the other doing without. Later the boys become young men. Alfredo (Robert De Niro) has learned from both his humanistic grandfather and his scheming father, so he enjoys crossing class lines while also treasuring power and wealth. Olmo (Gérard Depardieu) is a political firebrand, resentful of the ruling class no matter what face it wears.
          As life pushes the childhood friends apart, they watch Italy split along similar lines, with aristocrats forming the backbone of the Fascist movement while laborers suffer. Personifying the rise of the Fascists is Atilla Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland), whom we first meet as an enforcer helping Alfredo’s father maintain discipline on the estate. Naturally, the movie has a love story, revolving around Alfredo’s relationship with the unhinged Ada Chiostri Polan (Dominique Sanda). After many twists and turns, the story transforms into a politicized morality play as vengeful workers reclaim power from the Fascists.
          Bertolucci and his collaborators present some meaningful insights about important historical events, so the film is strongest when it sticks to polemics. Matters of love, lust, and madness are handled less gracefully. The most extreme scenes involve Atilla performing grotesque acts of violence. Rather than shocking the viewer, these sequences render Atilla so inhuman as to be one-dimensional, which stacks the political deck unfairly. Bertolucci is just as undisciplined with bedroom scenes. It’s quite startling, for instance, to see an actress playing an epileptic hooker manually pleasuring De Niro and Depardieu in full view of the camera. Wouldn’t suggesting the action have communicated the same narrative information? Similarly, do viewers need to see the actors playing the younger versions of the leads examining each other’s genitals? And what’s with the scene of Lancaster stalking a young girl into a barn, asking her to milk a cow because it turns him on, rhapsodizing about life while squishing his feet up and down in pile of feces, and then forcing the poor girl to slide her hand into his pants?
          It’s tempting to believe there’s a clue about the source of the film’s excess during an elaborate wedding scene, because a character presents the gift of a white horse named “Cocaine.” After all, doing too much blow was the creative downfall of many a Hollywood director.
          Whatever the reason, Bertolucci lost control over 1900 as a literary statement fairly early in the movie’s running time. Perhaps no single moment captures the ugly bloat of 1900 better than the harshest Atilla scene. After Atillia rapes a young boy, Bertolucci shows Atilia killing the child, lest a potential witness to his crimes survive. Fair enough. But instead of simply shooting the child, Atilla picks up the boy by his feet, spins him around the room, and repeatedly smashes the boy’s head against a wall until it cracks open like a watermelon. In the twisted aesthetic of Bertolucci’s 19oo, too much is never enough.

1900: FUNKY

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)



          In this serviceable docudrama from Sunn Classic Pictures, the company behind myriad pseudoscience documentaries, a somewhat reasonable case is made that Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth was asked to participate in a conspiracy that originated in Washington D.C., but then took his own initiative to murder President Abraham Lincoln and thereafter became the perfect patsy for the very people who once tried to use him. The Lincoln Conspiracy even goes so far as to suggest that the man whom authorities claimed they shot dead following a manhunt was not Booth, and that witnesses were paid to give false testimony about Booth’s activities as a means of making the whole affair go away. As with most conspiracy theories, the problem is a lack of conclusive proof. Although various assertions are persuasive, viable counter-arguments abound.
          Comprising dramatic scenes and historical re-enactments, The Lincoln Conspiracy begins at the end of the tale, with the execution of Booth’s historically documented accomplices. Then, with the rich tones of Brad Crandall’s narration leading the way, the film flashes back to vignettes explaining how Booth and his Southern cronies made plans that ran parallel with the scheming of Northern politicians, who wanted Lincoln neutralized for their own reasons. Chief among those reasons was the fear of Southern politicians reclaiming their stature in the U.S. Congress. It all makes a certain kind of sense, and yet at the same time it all seems like malarkey, so The Lincoln Conspiracy fits the Sunn Classic brand of enjoyably irresponsible provocation.
          Bradford Dillman gives a pleasantly campy performance as Booth, while costar John Dehner lends cartoonish gravitas to the role of northern conspirator Col. Lafayette C. Baker. Playing Lincoln in a few inconsequential scenes is avuncular John Anderson. There’s a bit of derring-do every so often, such as a chase scene or a gunfight, but most of the picture comprises people talking in rooms. The filmmakers explain machinations and motivations well, so it’s easy to follow along—perhaps too easy, seeing as how much of the narrative is spoon-fed. Furthermore, it’s peculiar that the filmmakers avoided depicting key moments of the narrative, such as Booth’s infamous leap from Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre to the stage. In any event, The Lincoln Conspiracy is fun to watch, whether you consume it as sensationalist silliness or troubling agitprop, because the folks at Sunn Classic were experts at exploiting viewers’ fascination with the unknown. 

The Lincoln Conspiracy: FUNKY

Saturday, August 20, 2016

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)



          While the prospect of a Marjoe Gortner vanity project may not sound enticing, seeing as how the preacher-turned-actor spent most of the ’70s appearing in rotten B-movies, Gortner’s participation as leading man and producer of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is deceptive. He’s all over the flick, playing a showy part and spewing crazed monologues, but he’s better here than usual, striving for and almost achieving charming-devil lyricism. More importantly, he shares the screen gracefully. Nonetheless, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is an odd movie. Adapted by Mark Medoff from his own award-winning play, it’s part character study, part social commentary, and part hostage-crisis thriller. The disparate elements clash with each other, sometimes creating narrative whiplash, and Englishman Peter Firth is wildly miscast in role patterned after the Marlon Brando/James Dean style of rural American greasers. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? ultimately rewards attention—thanks to an abundance of action, occasional shots of pathos, and some strong acting moments—but it’s neither credible nor satisfying.
          Most of the picture takes place at a tiny diner in New Mexico, where several characters converge on a fateful day. Angel (Stephanie Faracy) is the simple-minded waitress, and Stephen “Red” Ryder (Firth) is the angst-ridden night cook. Traveling through town are classical musician Clarisse Ethridge (Lee Grant) and her manager/husband, Richard (Hal Linden). And then there’s Vietnam vet-turned-drug dealer Teddy (Gortner) and his hippie-chick girlfriend, Cheryl (Candy Clark). Desperate for cash and drunk on exerting power over people simply because he has a gun, Teddy takes everyone in the diner hostage and forces them to do humiliating things (e.g., making out with each other, etc.). Drama stems from character revelations that occur under pressure, as well as the question of how much crap the hostages can endure before fighting back. Because the story is set in 1968, there’s also a trope of counterculture-vs.-Establishment friction, which never quite clicks.
          Particularly when the story veers into full-on action/suspense terrain, it’s difficult to parse what sort of a statement Madoff wants to make. In lieu of thematic clarity, viewers get spectacle, mostly in the form of Gortner holding forth. While he doesn’t embarrass himself, a dramatic powerhouse he is not, so the film’s wings carry it only so high. Of the supporting players, Faracy makes the strongest impression, hitting her notes just right, even though she spends most of her screen time with Firth, whose performance is distractingly false—he seems as if he’s reading each line for the first time and struggling to replicate American idioms. 

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?: FUNKY

Friday, August 19, 2016

Stanley (1972)



          A reptilian riff on the 1971 shocker Willard, which concerned a demented boy who commands an army of rats, Stanley concerns a demented adult who commands an army of snakes. Although the movie goes slack at regular intervals, resulting in an overlong running time, Stanley offers just enough in the way of creepy-crawly moments and outright gruesomeness to sustain casual interest. The picture also benefits from a weirdly compelling performance by leading man Chris Robinson, later a fixture on American soap operas. While his acting isn’t especially charismatic or skillful, he’s just competent enough to sell the illusion of being more comfortable around snakes than people, and that’s the most important thing the makers of Stanley needed to put their grim little story over. While some of the creature scenes underwhelm, like the bit during which a bad guy dives into a pool filled with snakes that look harmless, Stanley doesn’t want for money shots of rattlers clamping their jaws onto victims’ bodies.
          Set in rural Florida, the picture follows the exploits of Tim Ochopee (Robinson), a Vietnam vet who makes his living capturing rattlers and selling their venom to a local doctor. Tim treats the snakes like friends, especially his beloved Stanley, for whom Tim provides a mate. (The pitter-patter of little scales soon follows.) The villain of the piece is Thomkins (Alex Rocco), a local businessman whom, Tim suspects, had Tim’s father killed. Thomkins is a piece of work, groping his teenage daughter and threatening to turn every snake he encounters into a belt. Also in the mix is Sidney (Ray Baumel), the proprietor of a local strip club, and his wife, aging exotic dancer Gloria (Marcie Knight). They use snakes that Stanley provides in Gloria’s act. As the story progresses, Tim’s world falls apart. Sidney tells Gloria to start killing snakes during her act, and Thomkins orders a hit on Tim and his pets. Tim fights back against his various enemies, using his friends’ fangs as weapons. Despite lackadaisical pacing, the plot builds nicely, and the final moments are morbidly satisfying. One more thing: Good luck forgetting the scene where Tim serves a formal dinner to his scaly pals, because the entrée is mice under glass.

Stanley: FUNKY

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Run, Cougar, Run (1972)



          A live-action nature adventure from Walt Disney Productions that delivers exactly what the title promises, Run, Cougar, Run benefits from extensive photography of real animals in real locations. Moreover, like the best Disney pictures about the natural world, Run, Cougar, Run doesn’t shy away from brutal aspects of survival in the outdoors. Death informs nearly every scene, since the title character, a mountain lion roaming through the rugged landscapes of Utah’s Arches National Park, spends most of her time either killing prey to feed her three kittens or evading the deadly rifles of sportsmen who want her hide. Sure, there’s the usual cutesy stuff, such as a sequence of a kitten unwisely licking the hide of a toad that excretes a repellent fluid from its skin, and the affable narration, spoken by Ian Tyson, coats everything in a warm glow. Nonetheless, for viewers who adjust their expectations appropriately, Run, Cougar, Run provides an hour and a half of undemanding entertainment as well as a wholesome message about leaving wild animals alone. Lest this message get lost, the theme song is called “Let Her Alone.” (Performing the tune is Ian & Sylvia, the Canadian folk duo comprising Tyson and his first wife.)
          To keep things moving along, the filmmakers weave a proper story into the critter footage. Etio (Alfonso Arau) is a kindly Mexican sheepherder who tends his flock near the wilderness that mountain lions call home. He’s named a female lion “Seeta,” and whenever she comes near his herd, he picks up his guitar and sings. Instead of attacking the sheep, Seeta grooves on the music before departing. Into this idyllic situation comes Hugh (Stuart Whitman), a professional hunter. Paid by two weekend-warrior types to find easy targets, Hugh identifies Seeta and her mate as potential victims. Despite Etio’s protests, Hugh leads a hunt that ends with the death of Seeta’s mate, so the rest of the picture depicts her struggle to survive the hardships of single parenting and the perils of the hunters. Everything is handled quite gently, of course, and Arau’s easygoing character makes for a pleasant throughline—when he croons, it’s like watching a Latino Jim Croce perform, what with the bushy hair and thick moustache. Run, Cougar, Run is far-fetched, predictable, and tame, but aren’t those exactly the qualities one expects from Disney’s brand of family-friendly comfort food?

Run, Cougar, Run: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bad Ronald (1974)



         Despite the absurdity of its premise, the made-for-TV thriller Bad Ronald is enjoyably creepy. According to the kooky logic of the film’s plot, it’s possible for a family to purchase and move into a house without noticing that someone’s living in a hidden alcove—because, apparently, the unseen squatter generates neither sounds nor smells that arouse suspicion. Whatever. The name of the game here is cheap thrills. In that regard, Bad Ronald achieves its goals well enough. Young Scott Jacoby, who built a minor career in features and TV projects from the late ’60s to the early ’90s, is suitably otherworldly as the title character, a mama’s boy in the Norman Bates tradition, and versatile director Buzz Kulik infuses ridiculous scenes with as much emotional reality as he can conjure. The actors comprising the solid supporting cast, including Dabney Coleman, Lisa Eilbacher, Kim Hunter, and Pippa Scott, hit their respective notes adequately, and, in a counter-intuitive way, the sheer improbability of the project works in its favor. Bad Ronald is so far-fetched that after the viewer gets over the weirdness of early scenes, a generalized acceptance for bullshit settles in, allowing the viewer to go along for the ride.
         At the beginning of the picture, middle-aged Elaine Wilby (Hunter) lives alone with her bizarre teenaged son, Ronald (Jacoby). He accidentally kills someone and runs home to Mom for help. She supervises the conversion of a pantry into a hiding place, and then she stocks it with supplies. This ruse works for a while, even though cops sniff around the house, suspecting Ronald of committing the murder. Then Elaine dies, so her house goes on the market. Enter the Wood family. They move in totally unaware of Ronald’s presence, even though he sneaks out from his hiding place at night, eventually fixating on the Wood family’s eldest daughter, Ellen (Eilbacher). And so it goes from there. To their credit, everyone in the cast plays this outlandish material straight, and several scenes tap into the universal fears of home invasion and voyeurism. Additionally, the trope of Ronald building a fantasy world through drawings he makes on the walls of his tiny room serve as a metaphor representing his delusional state.

Bad Ronald: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)



          The individual born George William Jorgensen Jr. achieved international notoriety in 1951, when headlines revealed surgery had transformed George into Christine Jorgensen. Yet while Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) echoes Jorgensen’s circumstances, it took almost 20 years for Hollywood to tackle the tale properly. Seen today, The Christine Jorgensen story is almost impossibly square, with contrived story elements and hokey narrative flourishes. The movie is respectful inasmuch as Christine is the brave heroine, but questionable otherwise. Still, even a somewhat serious exploration of the trans experience was groundbreaking for a major-studio release in 1970.
          The movie’s early scenes concern 7-year-old George in 1933, and director Irving Rapper stacks on the signifiers. George is fascinated with dolls. He doesn’t like football because it’s “too rough.” He puts on his sister’s clothes and uses his mother’s makeup. All the while, Dear Old Dad tries to get George to man up, while Long-Suffering Mom wonders how George will ever be happy. Especially with simplistic narration by the post-surgical Christine leading the way, the childhood scenes are schematic in the extreme. Things take a turn for the histrionic once the film introduces grown-up George (played by newcomer John Hansen). During his time in the Army, he’s pilloried for being effeminate, and a hooker taunts him when he refuses her advances. Becoming a fashion photographer, George suffers further abuse, and he violently repels a rape attempt by a male boss. Eventually, George learns of a doctor in Copenhagen who can help.
          Preceding the surgery scene is a blunt vignette of the doctor explaining what will happen, complete with charts, and a comically overwrought dream sequence that, the voiceover explains, illustrates how George must die so someone new can be born. Once Christine emerges, she’s so ultra-feminine that she frets about everything and gets embroiled in a Douglas Sirk-style love story. (This romance, between Christine and the journalist tasked with writing her love story, never happened in real life.) Pushing everything along is a ridiculous musical score that would have worked better for a 1940s horror movie, because in The Christine Jorgensen Story, emotions run the gamut from the operatic to the even more operatic.
          Hansen’s cornball performance sets the tone. In the pre-surgery scenes, he’s an emotional wreck whenever he isn’t a mincing shutterbug, and in the post-surgery scenes, he’s an emotional wreck whenever he isn’t a world-weary recluse. The movie accurately identifies a random distribution of hormones as the reason for Christine’s challenges, so The Christine Jorgensen Story gets points for correctly stating that nothing was ever wrong with Christine. Nonetheless, The Christine Jorgensen Story shares problems with the more recent The Danish Girl (2015). Like that film, The Christine Jorgensen Story treats its protagonist as some delicate flower too good for the world around her.

The Christine Jorgensen Story: FUNKY

Monday, August 15, 2016

Alex & the Gypsy (1976)



          Eccentric, literary, and unpredictable, Alex & the Gypsy has all the makings of a minor classic from the New Hollywood era. The filmmaking is naturalistic but slick, the performances are vivid, and the romantic storyline crosses cultural boundaries by putting a caustic everyman together with a reckless young woman from the fringes of society. The dialogue sparks at regular intervals, and the love scenes are bracing without being explicit, because where else can one encounter Jack Lemmon acting peeved because Geneviève Bujold isn’t sufficiently responsive to his labors during oral sex? For that matter, where else can one encounter a young James Woods dressed like a modern-day Bob Cratchit because his employer enjoys irony? Alex & the Gypsy has attitude and style and wit for days. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a credible story or even consistent characterizations. The picture tries a lot of admirable things but fails at many of them.
          Alex Main (Lemmon) is a low-rent bail bondsman in Los Angeles, and his only employee is accountant/gofer Crainpool (Woods). Alex learns that Maritza (Bujold) has been arrested for attempted murder. As we learn in flashbacks that are awkwardly interspersed throughout the movie, Alex and Maritza used to live together. He met her under ridiculous circumstances, fell under her exotic spell, and suffered a broken heart when she skipped out on him. Now he’s reluctant to provide bail services, even though he still carries a torch. Sap that he is, he bails her out. The story of the movie comprises Alex’s seriocomic attempts to keep Maritza captive until her hearing, plus his efforts to gather evidence that might clear her.
          As directed by John Korty, a skillful maker of documentaries and TV movies whose theatrical features are usually disappointments, Alex & the Gypsy has great moments. A typically colorful scene involves Maritza reading palms at a Greek picnic, or Alex lulling himself to sleep with blinking traffic lights be bought at a police auction because they remind him of fireflies. Lemmon is wonderfully cranky here, balancing a hot temper with vulnerability, and Woods makes a terrific foil. Bujold, like her character, is the wild card. Obviously miscast (she’s French-Canadian), the unique actress renders a tough sort of sensuality, striving valiantly to make sense of a poorly conceived role.
           Yet it’s the script that undermines the best efforts of everyone involved. Behavior and motivations make little sense, and the structural game of jumping between flashbacks and the present creates confusion without delivering compensatory benefits. Still, this is a strange little movie for a major star and a major studio to have made, so even if it’s not a proper New Hollywood artifact, it’s an example of the New Hollywood’s influence. Mainstream movies soon left this sort of adventurousness behind.

Alex & the Gypsy: FUNKY

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Zodiac Killer (1971)



          Thrown together quickly as a means of exploiting public interest in the gruesome exploits of a real-life serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco area during the late ’60s and early ’70s, this low-budget flick puts forth a wholly fabricated theory of the murderer’s identity, even telling much of the story from his perspective. According to this movie, the man known as “Zodiac” is actually Jerry, a postman with psychological problems. He feels greater connections to his pets than he does to people; he worships at a shrine where he communicates with his “followers,” who are really just voices in his head; and he treats murder like a hobby. Some of this material works, but the acting, production values, and storytelling are all lackluster. (Leading man Hal Reed has some okay moments blending boy-next-door charm with sadistic menace, but his characterization is cartoonish overall.) Notwithstanding the circumstances of certain crimes, the main thing the filmmakers took from the M.O. of the real Zodiac is vanity, since the real Zodiac loved taking credit for his crimes. The movie Zodiac gets off on dropping clues about his identity, exults in stumping cops, and rages whenever someone else gets publicity for his murders.
          In the picture’s best scene, Jerry chats with a bartender who obnoxiously proclaims that he’d know a killer if he saw one, even as Jerry draws the famous Zodiac symbol in salt on the bar. After Jerry leaves, the bartender wipes away the symbol without noticing. Alas, more typical of The Zodiac Killer are long scenes concerning Jerry’s neighbor, a horny trucker who pretends to be an executive so he can score with chicks. Had the makers of The Zodiac Killer taken a docudrama approach and simply put known events onscreen, this picture might have been an interesting curio. Instead, they opted for ridiculous scenes like the finale, during which Jerry pushes an aging invalid’s hospital bed down a steep hill, cackling as the fellow tumbles to his death. In some ways, this is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill gorefest—but the glimmers of reality that permeate the movie by dint of the subject matter make The Zodiac Killer moderately interesting.

The Zodiac Killer: FUNKY

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Death Drug (1978)



Contrived, pedantic, and uptight, Death Drug is such a squaresville morality tale about the dangers of controlled substances that it’s almost a cousin to the infamous Reefer Madness (1936). In Death Drug, a promising young musician with a loving wife and a steady day job spirals downward while becoming addicted to angel dust, so the story moves inexorably toward a heavy-handed finale. According to the folks who made Death Drug, all it takes is one puff of dope to turn an otherwise responsible citizen into a self-destructive maniac. Not helping matters is the presence of leading man Philip Michael Thomas. Later to achieve fame as the costar of the seminal ’80s TV series Miami Vice, Thomas has the unfortunate affliction of being a weak actor who somehow believes he’s a genius. His swagger is so out of step with his unconvincing performance that he’s absurd to watch, especially when he mimics the wigged-out state of a user experiencing traumatic hallucinations. The film itself is just as ridiculously blunt, depicting said hallucinations literally, as in crocodiles and rats and such appearing from nowhere. As for the plot, a sentence will suffice. Jesse (Thomas) works as a plumber while pursuing his career as a musician, but when he gets introduced to dope with the promise that it will stimulate his creativity, he loses his job and alienates his long-suffering wife, Carolyn (Vernee Watson-Johnson). He also performs in a disco with the Gap Band, so there’s that. More interesting than Death Drug itself is the film’s weird home-video incarnation. Released to capitalize on Thomas’ fleeting Miami Vice fame, the home-video version has a pretentious introduction from Thomas, some revamped editing, and, jammed right into the middle of the movie, the entire music video for Thomas’ awful 1985 single “Just the Way I Planned It.” That bit is almost as cringeworthy as Thomas’ big dramatic scene in Death Drug, when he confronts his estranged father with a barrage of screaming and tears.

Death Drug: LAME

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Iceman Cometh (1973)




         Whereas most of the esoteric movies released under the American Film Theatre banner in the early ‘70s were adaptations of then-contemporary plays, this sprawling production puts a 1946 Eugene O’Neill drama onscreen. In some ways, this is a monumental film, because veteran director John Frankenheimer steers an excellent cast comprising several significant Hollywood players. Moreover, while the sets are simple, Frankenheimer shoots scenes as if he’s making a big-budget feature, cleverly employing deep-focus camerawork and shadowy lighting to provide dimensionality and nuance. Excepting the way an unusually long running time makes viewers hyper-conscious that all the action takes place in one location, The Iceman Cometh bears none of the usual signs marking a pennywise stage-to-screen adaptation. However, that running time must dominate any discussion of the picture, since The Iceman Cometh is four hours long, with two intermissions providing respites along the way.
           Amazingly, even this sprawling duration doesn’t include all of O’Neill’s original text, which raises the question of why Frankenheimer and his collaborators didn’t cut even deeper. It’s easy to envision a more condensed version of this same project having even more impact, what with its abundance of fine acting and the innate value of O’Neill’s poetic monologues and tragic themes.
          Set in a New York City bar circa 1912, the story revolves around a gaggle of lost souls who drink themselves into oblivion rather than facing the hopelessness of their everyday lives. On one particular day, the barflies await the arrival of traveling salesman Hickey (Marvin), a bon vivant who enlivens the place with annual visits. Before his entrance, the story introduces several sad characters. Most prominent is Larry (Robert Ryan), an aging political radical now resigned to the inevitable approach of death. Despite his unkempt hair and scraggly whiskers, he comes across as the unsentimental intellectual of the group. Others making their presence known include the bar’s proprietor, Harry (Fredric March), who speaks with a thick Irish brogue; Rocky (Tom Pedi), the rotund bartender who moonlights as a pimp; and Don (Jeff Bridges), a young man whose activist mother was recently thrown in jail, leading him to seek aid from her onetime colleague Larry. By the time Hickey arrives, it’s clear that everyone is mired in some horrific personal crisis. They need the solace of their let-the-good-times-roll friend.
          No such luck.
          Things seem off the minute Hickey walks through the door, and he soon reveals that his wife died. What’s more, he’s adopted a callous new philosophy. In monologue after monologue, Hickey explains that his friends’ “pipe dreams” are merely distractions from the grim reality of life, and should be abandoned. In essence, he’s traded optimism for nihilism and become an evangelist for his new belief system. Revelations ensue, leading to a new tragedy and then, inevitably, to Larry’s painful epiphanies—as the deepest thinker in the group, his reaction to Hickey’s depressing spectacle speaks for the anguish buried inside the hearts of everyone at the bar.
          Setting aside questions of the literary worth—critics and scholars have spent decades debating where The Iceman Cometh belongs in its author’s canon—the film abounds with meritorious elements. Drawing on his experience staging dramas for live television, Frankenheimer uses his camera masterfully, sometimes juxtaposing two characters in tight frames and sometimes defining group dynamics with meticulous tableaux. He also  moves the camera well, especially when he underscores key moments with subtle push-ins.
          The acting is just as skillful. Some performers, including Bridges and March, essay supporting roles with intensity and specificity, providing just the right colors to fill out the painting. Marvin, whom one might expect to be the standout given his flamboyant role and top billing, is good but perhaps not great, playing scenes with exquisite dexterity even though he never quite achieves the desired level of revelation and vulnerability. So it’s Ryan, surprisingly, who provides the soul of the piece. Once maligned as a wooden he-man, he revealed interesting dimensions in his later work, often imbuing villainous roles with cruelty and cynicism. Here, he’s a broken man desperately seeking reasons to put himself back together, then despairing when he can’t find any.

The Iceman Cometh: GROOVY