Monday, May 25, 2015

20th Century Oz (1976)

          After decades in which producers largely abstained from adapating L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, presumably to avoid comparisons with the timeless MGM musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), the ’70s saw a handful of bold new interpretations. The most famous of these projects is the all-black musical The Wiz, which hit Broadway in 1975 before becoming a film in 1979, but a lesser-known spin on Baum’s fictional universe emerged from Down Under around the same time.
          Released in Australia in 1976 and the Unites States a year later, 20th Century Oz—which was originally titled Oz: A Rock n Roll Road Movie—mostly squanders the brilliant notion of placing Dorothy Gale’s story within a modern glam-rock context. Writer-director Chris Löfvén seems to run out of creative gas at regular intervals, as if the chore of replacing Baum’s fantastical characters with real-world avatars is just too much. Additionally, it occasionally seems as if Löfvén is riffing specifically off MGM’s movie, rather than the Baum source material, so segments of the story that should be energized by musical numbers are not. That’s because, despite the subtitle the film bore during its Australian release, 20th Century Oz is not precisely a musical. It’s a drama that contains a few scenes in which characters perform music.
          The other big shortcoming to Löfvén’s approach is that he failed to invent a memorable stand-in for the Wicked Witch of the West; as a result, the movie’s Dorothy spends a lot of time wandering around the Australian countryside without any real obstacles in her way, save for the elusive nature of the movie’s Wizard character. Nothing lacks momentum quite like a road movie without a narrative structure predicated on clearly defined dramatic conflict. On the plus side, the allusions to glam-rock culture work well, and some of the tunes featured in the background of the movie are memorable, even if they’re not fully integrated into the storytelling.
          At the beginning of the movie, Dorothy (Joy Dunstan) is a 16-year-old groupie looking for kicks. Hopping into a van with a band that she sees perform one evening, Dorothy gets knocked unconscious during a car accident. She emerges into a dream state where the band members personify other characters, and the dream-state Dorothy decides she must attend a concert by sexualized rock star The Wizard (Graham Matters). Instead of Glinda the Good Witch, Dorothy meets a gay clothier named Glin the Good Fairy (Robin Ramsaay), who provides Dorothy with magic red shoes.
          20th Century Oz is decidedly adult, with four-letter words and fleeting nudity. That aspect of the picture pays off with the film’s best image—Dorothy peels back a shower curtain to discover The Wizard without his stage makeup, thereby providing a clever riff on a moment from the MGM movie while also saying something about the artifice of glam-rock. Getting there requires slogging through a lot of drab scenes, and it’s hard to generate much rooting interest in Dunstant’s petulant characterization. That said, good luck getting the movie’s bouncy theme song, “Living in the Land of Oz,” out of your head.

20th Century Oz: FUNKY

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lisztomania (1975)

          With the possible exception of The Devils (1971), which employs provocative imagery while telling a meaningful story about historical persecution, the musical biopic Lisztomania is British director Ken Russell’s most outrageous movie—no small accomplishment. Lisztomania is also one of the weirdest big-budget films ever made, since it contains a man riding a giant phallus like it’s a bucking bronco, composer Richard Wagner reincarnated as a machine-gun-wielding hybrid of Frankenstein’s monster and Adolf Hitler, and a climactic battle in which composer Franz Liszt flies a fighter jet built from organ pipes that blast his music like guided missiles. Not exactly Amadeus.
          Based upon a real-life phenomenon that occurred during the career of 19th-century Hungarian composer Liszt, who reportedly drove audiences into something like the frenzied adoration later associated with 20th-century rock stars, Lisztomania opens in such a juvenile fashion that writer-director Russell makes it immediately clear he is uninterested in simply re-creating history. Liszt (Roger Daltrey) cavorts in bed with aristocrat Marie (Fiona Lewis), kissing her breasts in time with the clicks of a metronome. She repeatedly accelerates the metronome’s speed, so Liszt accelerates his smooching. Then Marie’s husband arrives, and a “comical” duel ensues, during which Liszt—clad only a s sheet he’s tied around his privates like a diaper—tries to evade the rapier with which the husband hopes to castrate Liszt. From camera angles to editing and music, the whole scene is designed to feel like a cartoon, setting the childish tone for everything that follows.
          In the course of telling a story that’s only vaguely connected to the real Lizzt’s experiences, Russell portrays Liszt as a debauched celebrity pandering to public appetites with performances that are beneath his talent, while also spending much of his private time bouncing from one woman’s bedroom to the next. Liszt’s sexual wanderings climax with a fantasy sequence during which Liszt grows the aforementioned Godzilla-sized erection—which, at one point, several women straddle simultaneously.
          As the movie drags on, the plot grows to similarly oversized proportions. On instructions from the Pope (played by Ringo Starr of the Beatles), Liszt is charged with luring his former colleague, Wagner (Paul Nicholas), back to Christianity. This doesn’t go well, because Wagner has become an evil scientist preoccupied with bringing the Norse god Thor (Rick Wakeman) to life, although Thor, for some reason, wears the costume associated with the version of the character appearing in Marvel Comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Sprinkled amid this nonsense are various scenes in which Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who and the star of Russell’s previous film, Tommy (released a few months earlier in 1975), sings original rock songs. There’s more, too, including a scene decorated with ceramic buttocks that issue smoke through their—you get the idea.
          One imagines that Russell had a grand old time generating concepts and then seeing if his production team could realize them without quitting in protest of his bad taste. Furthermore, actors play their roles with tremendous glee. However, the level of stupidity on display throughout Lisztomania is staggering. Whereas Russell’s best films are the work of a sophisticated provocateur, Lisztomania feels more like the bathroom-wall scratchings of a 13-year-old boy who giggles whenever the subject of sex is raised. Suffice to say, Russell’s lifelong devotion to classical music found more worthwhile expression elsewhere.

Lisztomania: FREAKY

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Street Law (1974)

          An Italian-made vigilante picture informed by the same zeitgeist that produced Death Wish—which hit U.S. screens only weeks before Street Law debuted in Europe—this nasty little movie has gained a minor cult following. It’s an exciting thriller with tremendous forward momentum, and leading man Franco Nero gives a relentless performance that approaches self-parody, especially because the film’s dialogue was shot in phonetic English and then dubbed during post-production. Other significant flaws include the perfunctory and sexist portrayal of the protagonist’s wife, a greasy musical score shot through with disco colorations, and a fetishistic portrayal of violence. Nonetheless, energy is energy, and Street Law has plenty of that. Accordingly, even though Street Law is so simplistic from a narrative and political perspective that it makes Death Wish seem subtle by comparison, the picture has a crude sort of visceral power that cannot be denied.
          When the movie opens, straight-laced engineer Carlo (Nero) visits a bank for a simple business transaction. Three armed robbers enter the bank, beating anyone who stands in their way, including Carlo. While making their getaway, the criminals abduct Carlo as a hostage, beating him even more along the way and forcing him to endure a terrifying car chase. Eventually, Carlo gets away, only to discover that the police have little hope of catching the crooks and that Carlo’s wife, Barbara (Barbara Bach), expects Carlo to move on with his life. Ashamed and humiliated at the way the criminals treated him, Carlo vows to find and kill his attackers. Yet instead of taking the Death Wish route of annihilating random thugs like they’re symptoms of a disease, Carlo gets methodical. He uses deception and surveillance to infiltrate the underworld, eventually identifying the bank robbers. Later, in a plot twist that strains credibility, Carlo bonds with a crook named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), who provides Carlo’s ultimate entrée into the world of the bank robbers.
          Street Law is almost a mood piece in the way it strings together larger sequences, some of which are aimless driving montages, and some of which are symphonies of suffering. Carlo gets his ass kicked repeatedly, somehow emerging more resolute each time. The movie offers very little in terms of characterization (Bach, for instance, is barely in the movie), and the whole narrative stems from the iffy notion that a man who won’t fight back isn’t a man. Still, some of Carlo’s resourceful moves are quite clever, and director Enzo Z. Castellari knows how to generate brutal excitement, so nearly every scene in Street Law feels as if it concludes with an exclamation point.

Street Law: FUNKY

Friday, May 22, 2015

Abar, the First Black Superman (1977)

          There’s a fascinating allegorical story about modern race relations buried somewhere inside the misguided blaxploitation/sci-fi adventure Abar, the First Black Superman, but sifting the good elements from the terrible ones requires considerable effort. While writer-producer James Smalley came up with a few provocative ideas, and generally displays a sound approach to characterization, his dialogue is clunky and he loses narrative focus at regular intervals. Smalley also picked the wrong creative partner in director Frank Packard; the incompetence with which Packard handles actors is dwarfed only by the incompetence with which he handles camerawork. Abar is shot in such a lifeless style, and edited so awkwardly, that it’s the definition of amateurish. And the acting? Except for leading man Tobar Mayo, who puts across an interesting combination of charisma, intensity, looseness, and swagger, the players in Abar deliver almost unremittingly ghastly work. Making matters worse, the movie was clearly shot on such a tight budget that extra takes were considered a luxury, so some scenes contain distracting flubs and pauses. All of which is a long way of saying that expectations for Abar should be adjusted accordingly.
          The story revolves around black scientist Dr. Kincade (J. Walter Smith), who moves into a white neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Met with vicious racism, which manifests as protests and violence, Dr. Kincade insists on staying put so he can make a point about the resilience of African-Americans. Abar (Mayo), a bald activist associated with a group called the Black Front of Unity, shows up one day to help dispel protestors in front of Dr. Kincade’s house. Dr. Kincade subsequently hires Abar as a bodyguard, despite their philosophical differences. Abar’s all about bringing black intellectuals back to the ghetto, while Dr. Kincade prioritizes assimilation. This stuff hums along fairly well, excepting a silly dream/flashback/whatever to the Wild West era, until about 30 minutes before the movie is over, at which point Dr. Kincade gives Abar a serum that activates Abar’s latent psychic powers. Abar uses his new abilities to right wrongs, earning a reputation as a public menace in the process. This stretch is confusing and odd. Nonetheless, the scrappy appeal of Abar, The First Black Superman is captured by the moment when Abar introduces himself to Dr. Kincade: “How do you do? John Abar, crusader.” In scene after scene, Abar lets you know where it’s at, man.

Abar, the First Black Superman: FUNKY

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shatter (1974)

          Even though it’s not particularly entertaining or memorable, the violent thriller Shatter ticks a few interesting boxes in terms of film-history trivia. The only action movie released by UK’s Hammer Film Productions in the ’70s, Shatter was the second of two projects that Hammer coproduced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Productions, the reigning champions of martial-arts cinema during that era. The other Hammer/Shaw picture was the very strange Dracula flick The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, which mixes bloodsuckers and martial artists to bewildering effect. Somewhat similarly, Shatter is a straightforward pursuit/revenge story that simply happens to include lots of martial-arts scenes because the narrative unfolds primarily in Hong Kong. Additionally, Shatter was the final Hammer project to feature the great Peter Cushing, a staple in the company’s monster and sci-fi offerings since the 1950s. A final bit of trivia worth mentioning is that Shatter was the last film directed by Michael Carreras, a second-generation Hammer executive who occasionally helmed films for the company. Carreras took over production of Shatter after the project’s original director, American low-budget filmmaker Monte Hellman, was fired.
          Given this rich context, it would be pleasurable to report that Shatter is a zippy shot of escapism. Alas, it’s forgettable and turgid, with anemic performances and interchangeable supporting characters. A grumpy and tired-looking Stuart Whitman stars as Shatter, an assassin hired by mysterious entities to kill an African dictator. This first event is presented with a certain amount of kicky style, because Shatter uses a gun disguised as a camera. Traveling from Africa to Hong Kong in order to collect payment, Shatter soon learns that he’s been double-crossed by international power broker Hans Leber (Anton Diffring). Shatter also gets into a hassle with UK government operative Paul Rattwood (Cushing). Hiding in dingy hotels and scouring nightclubs for clues about the conspiracy in which he’s become entwined, Shatter eventually joins forces with martial artist Tai Pah (Ti Lung), which occasions scenes in which Shatter throws punches while Tai throws kicks. Innumerable other movies explore similar material more effectively, such as the Joe Don Baker romp Golden Needles and the Robert Mitchum thriller The Yakuza (both released, like Shatter, in 1974). Therefore, Shatter represents a weak attempt at entering the post-Enter the Dragon chop-socky sweepstakes—as well as an odd and disappointing chapter in the Hammer saga. 

Shatter: FUNKY

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Delicate Balance (1973)

          Fun fact: When screenwriter Ernest Lehman won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which was adapted from Edward Albee’s play of the same name, Albee was not amused. He lamented that Lehman won the award for “typing” because the film incorporated so much text from the play. Perhaps that’s why Albee wrote the screenplays for the next two film adaptations of his own work, both of which were basically direct transpositions from stage to screen. Following the made-for-TV Zoo Story (1964), Albee helped bring his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Delicate Balance to movie theaters. Produced for the American Film Theatre and starring the venerable Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance offers more suburban angst in the mode of Virginia Woolf. From start to finish, the movie is filled with sophisticated people unleashing fusillades of extravagant language to attack each other’s psyches. And while A Delicate Balance lacks the wow factor that Virginia Woolf achieved onscreen, it’s still a ferocious rumination on the anxieties of people whose luxurious lifestyles allow them to wallow in their entitled misery.
          Director Tony Richardson films the piece simply, letting his camera roam through the interiors of a grand house but often simply locking the camera down while masterful actors burn through lengthy exchanges and monologues. Albee’s verbal style is deliberately literary here, for even though he uses false starts and incomplete sentences to great effect, most of the play comprises perfectly crafted grammar tinged with sad poetry. As the character Claire remarks at one point, “We submerge our truths and have our sunsets on troubled waters.” Not exactly casual chit-chat.
          Hepburn and the great British actor Paul Scofield play Agnes and Tobias, wealthy New Englanders in late middle age. As bitter and caustic as they are with each other, Agnes and Tobias descend into outright hostility whenever they engage with their current houseguest, Claire (Kate Reid), Agnes’ alcoholic sister. Things get even worse when the couple’s best friends, neighbors Edna (Betsy Blair) and Harry (Joseph Cotten) show up unexpectedly one evening and announce they’re moving in with Agnes and Tobias because some unidentified fear has made their own home seem terrifying. And then Agnes and Tobias’ 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Lee Remick), arrives following the end of her fourth marriage, adding another set of emotional and psychological problems to the mix.
          A Delicate Balance explores many themes, including alienation, betrayal, detachment from reality, and the façades people create in order to tolerate life’s disappointments and indignities. Heavy drinking plays a role, as well. Characters talk about “silent, sad, disgusted love” and the “plague” that personal problems represent when introduced into new environments. Albee tackles this subject matter on a largely metaphorical level, with characters assaulting not just each other but also the qualities they represent. As Agnes says to Tobias in a particularly shrewish moment, “Rid yourself of the harridan—then you can run your mission, take out sainthood papers.”
          Whether all this gets to be a bit much is a matter of taste, though the quality of the piece is beyond reproach. Hepburn, Reid, and Remick incarnate the paradox of powerful women who make dubious life choices, while Cotten and Scofield portray emasculated men desperately trying to assert themselves. And while watching 133 minutes of humorless vitriol is not precisely fun, Albee’s extraordinary language and his keen insights make the experience rewarding intellectually, if perhaps not viscerally.

A Delicate Balance: GROOVY

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Strawberry Statement (1970)

          Arguably the hippest of several fiction films that dealt with unrest among American college students during the Vietnam era, The Strawberry Statement has not aged especially well. Presented in a freewheeling style and revolving around a protagonist who kinda-sorta shifts from noninvolvement to radicalism, the movie has plenty of attitude and style. Moreover, the way the filmmakers link activism with sex says something interesting about horny dilettantes worming their way into the realm of politically committed youths. Yet by failing to predicate the story on real issues (the motivation for the film’s major protest is a fictional urban-development issue), and by failing to place a true radical at the center of the story, The Strawberry Statement ends up conveying an experience that’s tangential to the chaos pervading American campuses in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
          Set in and around a fictional San Francisco college, the picture stars Bruce Davison as Simon, an apathetic student who digs having a good time, but mostly thinks about grades and post-graduation career opportunities. When he meets an attractive radical named Linda (Kim Darby), Simon slips into the activist community as a way of making time with her. Later, when Linda is away from school for an extended period, Simon dallies with another activist hottie, and he allows the misperception to spread that he was beaten by police during a demonstration. This naturally gets Simon into Linda’s good graces once she returns to school, so the new couple splits their time between radicalism and romance, though Simon remains only marginally interested in actual politics. Finally, events at a major demonstration force Simon to definitively choose a side in the us-vs.-them conflict.
          Based on a book by James Simon Kunen, which documented real-life student unrest at Columbia University, The Strawberry Statement is openly sympathetic with student demonstrators, often portraying cops as faceless paramilitary goons. The most appealing grown-up in the movie is a shopkeeper (James Coco) who happily gives groceries to the radicals so long as they let him pretend he’s being robbed, thus enabling him to file a bogus insurance claim. In fact, scenes with ironic humor often work best in The Strawberry Statement. One hopes, for instance, that the following line was written with a wink: “I’m only 20, so I’ll give the country one more chance.” Other strong elements include the soundtrack, featuring tunes by CSNY and other rock acts, and the visual style, with fisheye lenses and offbeat upside-down camera angles used to accentuate disorientation. Does it all come together for a cohesive expression of a singular theme? Not really. But does The Strawberry Statement’s shambolic structure capture something about a wild time? Yes.

The Strawberry Statement: FUNKY

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Baron (1977)

          Nominally a blaxploitation flick—albeit one that was released well after the blaxploitation craze had peaked—The Baron is really more of a character study about a movie-industry hustler. It’s not the most sophisticated picture, and the story lags during the middle, but there’s just enough credibility, novelty, and seediness to make The Baron somewhat interesting. Calvin Lockhart, a Bahamaian actor whose crisp speaking style and rigid bearing create an aristocratic comportment, stars as Jason, a headstrong actor/director/producer trying to assemble financing for his latest project. (We’re shown a snippet of the in-progress movie, which stars Jason as the swaggering multimillionaire adventurer “Baron Wolfgang von Trips.”) When Jason’s primary financier announces that a studio wants to buy the underlying literary property—but also wants to replace Jason as actor, producer, and director—Jason is crushed. Later, when the backer dies in an accident, Jason realizes that he’s responsible for money the backer borrowed from a gangster named Joey (Richard Lynch).
          Desperate for cash, Jason initially reaches out to a drug dealer nicknamed “The Cokeman” (Charles McGregor), and then he consents to becoming a live-in gigolo for an aging society dame played by old-Hollywood star Joan Blondell. Suffice to say, Jason’s moves don’t sit well with his girlfriend, Caroline (Marlene Clark), who struggles to understand why he can’t let go of his cinematic dreams and simply live a normal life.
          The Baron suffers from logy pacing, a problem exacerbated by sleepy music (jazz great Gil Scott-Heron contributed to the score). Additionally, Lockhart is so straight-laced that he’s not the right guy to play a fast-talking schemer descending into an abyss of humiliation and lies. That said, Lynch makes a terrific bad guy, oozing oily charm as he insinuates himself into Jason’s life, and Blondell hints at the pathos of a lonely woman who must purchase companionship. Yet the most interesting aspect of the story is actually the one that gets the least attention. As in the earlier B-movie Hollywood Man (1976), the notion of a filmmaker getting bankrolled by the Mob creates all sorts of interesting possibilities. Yet The Baron’s cowriter and director, Philip Fenty, explores virtually none of them. Nonetheless, The Baron pulls things together for its final act, thanks to a memorable last confrontation between Jason and Joey and an offbeat chase scene.

The Baron: FUNKY

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Stroszek (1977)

          Not much in Werner Herzog’s early filmography suggests a strong sense of humor—his breakthrough movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), is a harrowing saga involving incest, madness, murder, and obsession—but Stroszek is probably as close as the filmmaker ever came to making an outright comedy. To be clear, Stroszek is very much a Herzog film, because the storyline is bleak, fatalistic, and tragic. However, there’s a strong sense of irony and satire running through the picture, and Stroszek offers a skewed outsider’s vision of rural America, since most of the picture was shot in Wisconsin. The strangeness one often associates with Herzog’s movies is present, as well. For example, poultry plays a major role in the final scenes.
          Stroszek opens in Berlin, with the release from prison of simple-minded Bruno Stroszek (played by real-life artist/musician Bruno S.). After receiving a long speech from the prison warden about how Bruno needs to avoid booze because excessive drinking gets him into trouble, Bruno happily exits the prison—carrying his accordion and trumpet—and walks into a nearby establishment called “Beer Heaven.” Picking up the pieces of his old life, Bruno reconnects with elderly eccentric Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and friendly prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). Together, they form a surrogate family, even though each is basically a loser. After Eva gets roughed up one too many times by her pimp, the trio relocates to America, where Mr. Scheitz’ nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinksi), operates a low-rent auto garage in the boonies. While Bruno works for Clayton and Eva works as a waitress, the Germans pursue their version of the American Dream, even buying a large mobile home. Alas, their spending outpaces their income, so domestic strife emerges.
          On every possible level, Stroszek is both exactly what it appears to be—a simplistic travelogue performed by nonactors—and so much more. Herzog’s use of untrained performers creates an oddly credible vibe, because the behavior of the people onscreen is so peculiar that it rings true. Haven’t we all met people who seem out of sync with the rest of the world, as if they take commands from voices only they can hear? Similarly, the straightforward narrative, which is almost completely bereft of plot twists, has the mundane quality of real life. Things just happen. And, this being a Herzog film, most of those things are disorienting and/or disappointing.
          Leading man Bruno S., a former mental patient in real life, doesn’t really act, per se; rather, he simply exists on camera, delivering his singular mix of childlike enthusiasm and deep-seated ennui. In one scene, he makes a sculpture from what appear to be Lincoln Longs, then says, “Eva, I have constructed a schematic representation of how Bruno feels when they’re gently closing all the doors to him.” Indeed, the myriad scenes in which life removes the character’s sense of security are unexpectedly moving. By the time this film’s offbeat protagonist responds to a series of setbacks by making his escape with a frozen turkey as a traveling companion, he becomes something of a hero, even though his predicament is a direct result of drunkenness. To cite a metaphor that will only make sense after seeing Stroszek, we’re all just chickens dancing our way to oblivion.
          Herzog has expressed his nihilistic worldview more powerfully in other films, but he’s rarely done so with a tonality so closely approaching warmth.

Stroszek: GROOVY

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979)

          Running down the cast of Skatetown, U.S.A. should explain why the movie is such a glorious train wreck—that is, if the title didn’t do the job already. Happy Days kid Scott Baio plays Richie, a fast-talking hustler who wants to help his best friend, Adonis-like blond Stan (Greg Bradford), and Stan’s nymphomaniac sister, Susan (Maureen McCormick, a/k/a “Marcia Brady” from The Brady Bunch), win a roller-disco championship. The team’s destination is Skatetown, U.S.A., a rink located on the Santa Monica peer and operated by stressed-out comedian/entrepreneur Harvey (Flip Wilson), who spends most of his time keeping his diminutive second-in-commend, Jimmy (Billy Barty), from hitting on voluptuous ticket-seller played by ’70s TV starlet Judy Landers. Meanwhile, an evil roller-skating gang led by Ace (Patrick Swayze, in his embarrassing movie debut) tries to fix the context, employing the strategy of intimidating Harvey with threats of violence and sending gang member Frankey (Ron Palillo (a/k/a “Arnold Horshack” from Welcome, Back Kotter) to distract Susan. Yes, that means Skatetown, U.S.A. includes scenes of Horshack and Marcia Brady necking in a convertible.
          While all of this “intrigue” unfolds, grade-Z comedy actors perform stupid bits, rock singer Dave Mason appears periodically to perform tunes including “Feelin’ Alright,” and a DJ character called “The Wizard” (Denny Johnston)—who wears some sort of gigantic albino-Afro wig—uses magic laser beams to make roller skaters appear. Oh, and most of the film’s screen time is consumed by endless roller-disco scenes, including tightly choreographed routines by ensembles, as well as eroticized duets such as Swazye’s bondage-themed dance set to a mediocre cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” Need it be said that Skatetown, U.S..A. concludes with a Rebel Without a Cause-style chicken run between Ace and Stan, who zoom down the Santa Monica Pier on skates equipped with rockets? Or that Wilson plays a second role, as his own character’s wife, in drag? Notorious as one of the few ’70s movies with major actors never to be released on any form of home video, Skatetown, U.S.A. is staggeringly awful from the first frame to the last. Although clearly made with a decent budget and featuring some impressive dancing, the movie is atrocious in terms of acting, direction, and writing. And yet that’s why it’s weirdly compelling, and something of a cult favorite among devotees of cinematic misfires. The horrors of Skatetown, U.S.A. are legion.

Skatetown, U.S.A.: LAME

Friday, May 15, 2015

I Will, I Will . . . for Now (1976)

          More or less watchable because if its charismatic leading actors, but otherwise quite rotten thanks to limp comedy and primitive gender attitudes, I Will, I Will . . . for Now attempts to paint a raucous picture of marriage in the ’70s. Elliot Gould and Diane Keaton play estranged spouses who attempt reconciliation by commissioning a detailed legal contract that spells out their respective responsibilities, and their scheme gets sidetracked because both spouses pursue relationships outside the marriage. Cue lots of remarks from Gould’s character about why it’s okay that he flirts with the sexy neighbor who lives downstairs, and lots of shrewish whining from Keaton’s character about why her husband needs to spend more time talking about his feelings. As cowritten and directed by old-school comedy pro Norman Panama, once a gag writer for Bob Hope’s radio shows, I Will, I Will . . . for Now gives voice to ideologies that must have seemed positively regressive when the movie was originally released; watched today, the picture’s not quite cringe-inducing, but it’s close.
         Les Bingham (Gould) is financially successful but romantically frustrated, because he’s still in love with his wife, Katie (Keaton). Alas, she’s moved on to someone new, whom Les doesn’t realize is Les’ best friend and lawyer, Lou Springer (Paul Sorvino). When Les and Katie attend an offbeat commitment ceremony together, they both react to the nation of partners laying out expectations through a contract rather than simply mouthing old-fashioned marriage vows. Les persuades Katie to give their romance another shot, at which point the believability and logic of the story utterly disappears. Literally the instant that Katie moves back into Les’ building, his eyes nearly pop out of his head while he ogles Jackie Martin (Victoria Principal), a onetime Playboy centerfold who lives a few floors below Les. Then, despite a few interludes of romantic outings and sexual bliss, Les resumes bad habits—ignoring Katie, smoking smelly cigars, watching sports incessantly, etc. He also spends time in Jackie’s apartment, even accepting a copy of The Joy of Sex from her. This is Les’ idea of reconciliation?
          Panama weakly mimics the manner in which Billy Wilder used actors including Jack Lemmon to make his sex-farce stories sing, for example throwing in a running joke about Les’ bad back, and the movie revolves around the idea that women can’t resist men who behave like Neanderthals. By the time the movie culminates in an elaborate sequence at a sex-therapy retreat, Panama has succumbed to male wish fulfillment, creating a scenario by which Les can romp around a bedroom with Jackie free of guilt—while still preserving a chance of keeping Katie. Oy. Gould does what he can, faring best in the film’s loosest scenes, while Keaton seems adrift without the benefit of a real role to play. Principal is merely ornamental, but Sorvino does well, even spicing some scenes with opera singing.

I Will, I Will . . . for Now: FUNKY

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Shanks (1974)

          Throughout his lengthy career, William Castle’s cinematic efforts ranged from the sublime (producing 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) to the ridiculous (equipping theater seats with electronic buzzers in order to jolt viewers during screenings of 1959’s The Tingler). Much of his work fell between these extremes, because even though Castle’s hucksterism often outpaced his artistry, there’s no denying the simple pleasures of, say, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. Yet the last film that Castle directed, Shanks, exists in a weird little universe all its own. By any reasonable critical estimation, it’s an utter disaster, because it’s predicated on so many strange contrivances that it crumbles under the weight of its own silliness. Furthermore, the use of family-friendly storytelling devices to communicate a tale about reanimated corpses is as creepy as the movie’s implied romance between a man in his 50s and a adolescent girl. Atop all that, the movie’s leading performance—by famed French mime Marcel Marceau—is ridiculous. Thing is, using reasonable critical estimations in order to appraise Shanks is beside the point. One can only revel in the peculiarity of the thing, and marvel that Castle got someone to fund such a deeply misguided enterprise.
          First off, Shanks is a silent film. Except when it isn’t. After a title card announces that “William Castle Presents a Grim Fairy Tale,” an opening scene drenched with optical effects and syrupy music introduces viewers to Malcolm Shanks (Marceau). A deaf and mute puppeteer who wants only to fill the world with joy, Malcolm lives with his beastly sister, Mrs. Barton (Tsilla Chelton), and her drunken husband, Mr. Barton (Philippe Clay). Inexplicably, the Bartons live off money that Malcolm makes as a laborer, even though he seems to spend most of time entertaining local children with puppet shows.
          In the first of many confusing plot twists, Malcolm answers a call to work for a man named Walker (also played by Marceau), who is some sort of Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist living in a castle near Malcolm’s village. (Never mind that Malcolm’s “village” looks suspiciously like an American suburb.) Walker has concocted a means of reviving dead animals, so when Walker dies, Malcolm reanimates his friend. Then Malcolm goes on a killing spree, eventually reanimating several corpses—which he controls through the use of a tiny electronic device—in order to cover his tracks. Until a biker gang shows up at the castle. During all of this nonsense, Malcolm woos a wholesome young girl named Celia (Cindy Eibacher), though Castle is cryptic about whether Malcolm wants to be Celia’s guardian or her lover.
          Long stretches of Shanks pass without dialogue (Castle even uses old-timey title cards), but then full-dialogue scenes intrude periodically. If there’s a consistent aesthetic at work, it’s hard to recognize. Additionally, the plotting gets so laborious that at one point, Castle uses a title card to plug a narrative hole: “Old Walker cannot attend Celia’s birthday party this evening because Malcolm (in a gesture of mercy) buried his friend several days ago.” Huh? Never the most visually sophisticated filmmaker, Castle enters the realm of outright incompetence at regular intervals, sometimes employing the old Ed Wood trick of cutting to inanimate objects in order to bridge jumps in camera coverage. Dreary, dull, morbid, sloppy, and tasteless, Shanks is unquestionably one of the oddest movies ever released by a major American studio, in this case Paramount Pictures.

Shanks: FREAKY

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Open Season (1974)

          Presenting horrific behavior in a matter-of-fact style, Open Season is unusual among the myriad ’70s movies about the corrosive effects of violence. Whereas many ’70s films engaging this subject matter use vigilantism as a prism for exploring morality, Open Season takes a decidedly nihilistic approach. The principal characters are three average Americans who spend their annual camping trips hunting human beings for sport. Some brisk but pointed dialogue late in the movie explains why: The friends became addicted to killing people while serving in Vietnam. Pretty heavy for a European exploitation movie that caters to the international audience by featuring several American actors. Sleekly filmed by UK director Peter Collinson (helmer of 1969’s The Italian Job), this slow-burn thriller stars Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, and Richard Lynch as the hunters.
          Their characters are introduced effectively at a backyard barbecue, the apex of suburban normalcy, before they kiss their wives and children goodbye and depart for their annual getaway. Upon reaching the boondocks, the dudes drink heavily and zero in on a young couple traveling the same roads. Nancy (Cornelia Sharpe) is a sexy blonde, and her companion, Martin (Alberto de Mendoza), is a clean-cut dweeb whom the hunters correctly guess is having an extramarital affair with Nancy. The hunters pretend to be cops in order to pull over the couple’s car, and then the hunters abduct the couple, transporting their hostages to a lakeside cabin miles from civilization. The hunters toy with the couple, forcing Martin to do housework while cleverly manipulating Nancy into believing she can seduce her way out of trouble. After the men have their fun with Nancy, the real gamesmanship begins—the hunters release Martin and Nancy into the wild with a 30-minute head start, and then the hunters gather high-powered rifles and begin their pursuit. 
          The best sequences of Open Season depict savagery casually. The hunters use good manners while humiliating Martin and shackling Nancy so she can’t escape. Worse, they treat their whole adventure like a regular hunting trip, downing beers and trading jokes even as they prepare for sadistic homicide. The filmmakers wisely eschew musical scoring during many scenes, letting the creepy onscreen events manufacture mood without adornment. When music does kick in, however, some of the misguided attempts at replicating hillbilly melodies are distracting. The acting is uneven, though Fonda, Law, and Lynch simulate camaraderie well. (FYI, William Holden makes a mark in a very small supporting role.) Best of all is the film’s final half-hour, during which a remote island becomes a killing ground. Once the characters in Open Season throw off their pretenses, the savage heart of this nasty little movie beats loudly.

Open Season: GROOVY

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Assassination of Trotsky (1972)

Muddled and pretentious, this British drama takes the strange tack of inventing a fictional character in order to tell a story pulled from real-life. In 1940 Mexico, a Russian agent named Ramón Mercarder killed Leon Trotsky, the exiled founder of the Red Army. After helping to lead the Russian Revolution, Trotsky became a political enemy of Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin and fled the USSR for Mexico. Stalin then ordered Mercader to assassinate Trotsky, thus silencing a powerful opposition voice. Since all of this historical material is fascinating, the narrative path followed by the makers of The Assassination of Trotsksy is befuddling. Nicholas Mosley’s script presents the fictional Frank Jackson (Alain Delon) as Trotsky’s killer-in-waiting, and then wastes inordinate amounts of screen time on confusing scenes depicting the codependent relationship between Frank and Gita Samuels (Romy Schneider), who works as a housekeeper in Trotsky’s villa. They scream at each other a lot. Director Joseph Losey, who seems utterly lost in terms of what sort of movie he’s trying to make, generates marginal Day of the Jackal-style interest by showing Frank’s meticulous preparations for killing Trotsky, though this material ultimately feels superfluous. Similarly, the film includes many scenes of the aging Trotsky (Richard Burton) wandering around his villa and giving speeches about how the true meaning of Marxism has been overwhelmed by Stalin’s brutal totalitarianism. Eventually, the picture brings its disparate elements together when Frank uses his relationship with Gita to insinuate his way into the villa and befriend Trotsky, whom he then kills with a hammer to the back of the head. This occasions more yelling, because Burton transitions from the prior somnambulistic mode of his performance and commences a Grand Guignol freakout replete with geysers of blood pouring down his face. Just as Delon’s eyes are hidden behind sunglasses throughout most of the movie, whatever virtues The Assassination of Trotsky has are impossible to see through the fog of a lifeless and meandering storyline.

The Assassination of Trotsky: LAME

Monday, May 11, 2015

Firepower (1979)

          A bad movie that occasionally manages to hold the viewer’s attention through a combination of familiar faces and spectacle, Firepower tells a convoluted story about mercenaries trying to kidnap a reclusive billionaire whom the U.S. government hopes to prosecute for criminal acts. Helmed by British action specialist Michael Winner, best known for Death Wish (1974), the picture showcases a truly odd collection of actors: James Coburn, Sophia Loren, and O.J. Simpson are the big names, while the supporting cast includes Billy Barty, Anthony Franciosa, Vincent Gardenia, Victor Mature, Jake LaMotta (!), and Eli Wallach.
          The plot is as overstuffed as the cast. In the opening sequence, Adele (Sophia Loren) watches in horror as her husband, a pharmaceutical researcher, dies in a lab explosion. Convinced her husband was murdered by operatives of a mysterious industrialist named Karl Stegner, who owns a drug company that’s under government investigation, Adele provides incriminating evidence to federal agent Frank Hull (Gardenia). Frank wants to arrest Stegner, but Stegner lives on a remote estate in the Caribbean, protected by anti-extradition laws. And that’s when things get really confusing.
          Frank seeks help from mobster Sal Hyman (Wallach), who offers to kidnap Stegner in exchange for a blanket pardon. Sal then calls in a favor from retired assassin Jerry Fanon (Coburn), who agrees to do the Stegner job for $1 million. Yet Jerry’s got a secret of his own. Jerry enlists his twin brother, Eddie, to . . . seriously, it’s not even worth explaining. Firepower is bewildering from a narrative perspective, but one gets the sense Winner realized he was building a giant heap of nothing, because he cuts the movie at an absurdly fast pace, rushing from chose scenes to double-crosses to explosions to gunfights to nighttime invasions. At any given moment, lots of colorful stuff is happening, even if it’s virtually impossible to know who’s doing what to whom, or why.
          Coburn somehow manages to emerge unscathed, his coolness seeing him through the movie’s muddiest sections, though others don’t fare as well. Loren seems perplexed by her constantly changing characterization, so she spends most of her time posing for Winner’s myriad ogling shots of her cleavage. Simpson delivers his usual perfunctory work, while stone-cold pros ranging from Gardenia to Wallach try to ensure that individual scenes make as much sense as possible. For all his shortcomings on this project as a storyteller, Winner compensates somewhat by shooting violence well, so it’s possible to absorb the most vivacious scenes of Firepower as straight shots of adrenalized nonsense.

Firepower: FUNKY

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Brood (1979)

          David Cronenberg’s horror movies are filled with indelibly unpleasant images, but it’s hard to top the surreal variation on childbirth that occurs near the climax of The Brood. Without spoiling the sickening spectacle, suffice to say there’s a lot of licking involved. And, as in the best of Cronenberg’s fright flicks, the image is about so much more than simply provoking revulsion and shock—it speaks to deep and disturbing themes that the Canadian provocateur has explored throughout his many bio-horror phantasmagorias. In this special pocket of Cronenberg’s filmography, the only thing worse than the terrors lurking inside our own bodies is the nettlesome human tendency to alter physiology, risks be damned.
          In this case, the individual playing God is one Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a therapist who has invented a field called “psychoplasmics.” He teaches patients to push negative emotions out through their skin, resulting in lesions and sores. From Hal’s Machiavellian perspective, this is a messy but necessary path to catharsis. Although Hal has a full complement of acolytes at his handsomely appointed institute just outside Toronto, not everyone is a believer. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) is upset because his estranged wife, Nora (Samantha Eggar), is under a sort of lockdown for intensive therapy, and because Hal has begun working with the Carveths’ young daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds). Frank employs various means (some legal, some not) in order to reclaim his daughter, somewhat like a concerned relative trying to free a loved one from a cult compound. Complicating matters is a series of gruesome murders committed by childlike mutants. Eventually, Frank helps authorities connect the murders to Hal’s research, though the task of confronting the good doctor—and whatever sort of weird creatures are hidden at his institute—falls to Frank.
         Although The Brood is a slow burn, with long stretches of screen time elapsing in between violent scenes, the combination of Cronenberg’s artistry and the immersive mood generated by his collaborators helps sustain interest. A serious student of metaphysical, psychological, and scientific subjects, Cronenberg puts across science-fiction stories exceptionally well by creating utterly believable environments and terminology, and by building characters who seem like genuine academics. The Hal Raglan character, for instance, is plainly a maniac because of his willingness to endanger the lives of others in the name of research, but Cronenberg ensures that the therapist never seems like a monster. Similarly, the people (and creatures) who do terrible things in The Brood are victims as much as they are victimizers. Cinematographer Mark Irwin’s naturalistic lighting energizes Cronenberg’s meticulously crafted frames, while composer Howard Shore—providing his first-ever movie score—conjures incredible levels of dread. More than anything, The Brood is a testament to Cronenberg’s unique storytelling style, which blends classical structure and methodical pacing with a natural affinity for the macabre and the perverse.

The Brood: GROOVY