Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Eye for an Eye (1973)

Whenever I discover one of the myriad low-budget shockers hidden in the darkest corners of ’70s cinema, I find myself asking which population the filmmakers envisioned as their target audience. Superficially, An Eye for an Eye, also known as The Psychopath, is a straight-up killer thriller, featuring a deranged character preying on folks who trigger his special pathology. Yet the picture has a touch of campiness. In one scene, the murderer surveys the contents of a suburban garage for possible killing implements, then chooses a lawnmower; pity the victim, who wakes up just in time to see the blades approaching her face. However, An Eye for an Eye is also a social-issue picture, seeing as how the killer targets parents who abuse their children. And then there’s the whole business of the killer’s day job—he’s the upbeat host of a kids’ TV show, operating puppets and speaking in silly voices. So is An Eye for an Eye camp, is it legit horror, is it melodrama, or is it satire? That the picture tries to be all of these things at once reveals the problem. Cowriter-director Larry G. Brown cant seem to pick a lane, and he isn’t good at navigating any of the pathways he explores. The suspense scenes are routine, so they only generate minor visceral responses (thanks to overwrought music on the soundtrack), and the serious scenes are ridiculous. Vignettes of Tommy a/k/a “Mr. Rabby” (Tom Basham) speaking with his mother feel like Psycho Lite, and Brown’s habit of cutting to extreme close-ups of Tommy’s eyes while he stalks his prey is more goofy than gruesome. By far the movie’s dorkiest scene is the one during which Tommy repeatedly snaps a towel in the direction of a woman’s face—but never actually strikes her—until she inexplicably faints. Assault with a deadly washcloth? Seriously?

An Eye for an Eye: LAME

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sir Roger Moore, 1927–2017

While the recent deaths of actors Don Gordon and Michael Parks have not gone unnoticed (see today’s post about the oddball Parks movie Love and the Midnight Auto Supply), the loss of Sir Roger Moore merits special mention.
Without going into the sort of long recitations of his career highlights that will rightfully emerge in the next few days, suffice to say one cannot imagine ’70s cinema without Moore, if only for his debut and great success as James Bond. In Live and Let Die (1973), The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), he quickly shifted from Sean Connery’s comparatively grounded interpretation of the role, bringing one-liners and silky charm to the fore, sometimes to the detriment of the franchise’s credibility but often to the delight of audiences. There’s no question the 007 movies got sillier as the ’70s progressed, culminating with the awful Moonraker (1979), but Moore’s obvious joy at playing the role was contagious during this period. It was the quintessential example of an actor being in on the joke and inviting viewers to play along. That he could anchor key scenes with respectable dramatic moments made the portrayal work as well as it did.
Although Moore’s non-Bond performances of the ’60s are more widely celebrated, especially his turn on the British TV series The Saint, I have boundless affection for two pictures he made in the ’70s with director Andrew V. McLaglen. In The Wild Geese (1978), Moore joins Richard Burton and Richard Harris to form the core of a mercenary unit, and in ffolkes (originally titled North Sea Hijack, released overseas in 1979 and here in 1980), he essays perhaps his most dimensional and unique non-Bond role. Playing an underwater-tactics expert foiling the takeover of an oil platform, he eschews women and favors cats, demonstrating bitchery and eccentricity instead of 007’s casual cool.
While speaking of those recently lost, I would be remiss in not mentioning Powers Boothe, even though he didn’t achieve notoreity till the 1980s. From his stunning performance as cult leader Jim Jones in The Guyana Tragedy (1980) to his work as Philip Marlowe to his turns in Southern Comfort (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985), and so many other projects, he demonstrated colorations of grace, menace, poise, and wit with singular presence.

Love and the Midnight Auto Supply (1977)

          Entertaining in a brainless sort of way, Love and the Midnight Auto Supply is partially the story of a redneck Robin Hood who contrives a scheme for funneling profits from his various criminal enterprises to a group of oppressed farm workers. Yet it’s also a sex comedy about the main character’s relationship with a madam, a love triangle involving a rich kid torn between a good girl and a hooker, and a political story tracking the adventures of a activist. These parts hang together about as well as the disparate elements of the soundtrack, which toggles between discofied riffs on “The William Tell Overture” and swamp-boogie grooves, some of which were generated by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Tom Fogerty. The picture bombards viewers with just enough car chases, intrigue, rebellious rhetoric, and sex to keep things interesting, but it’s fair to say writer-director James Polakof hadn’t the faintest idea what sort of movie he was making. Is Love and Midnight Auto Supply a drive-in flick for the southern audience, a with-it counterculture story for the college crowd, or straight shot of exploitation nonsense? The answer to all of these questions is yes, because, with apologies to Donny and Marie, Love and the Midnight Auto Supply is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.
          Michael Parks, enjoyably rural and bitchy with his cowboy hat, leather jacket, and snide remarks, stars as Duke, proprietor of Midnight Auto. He and his boys sneak into parking lots, strip cars belonging to rich folks, and re-sell the stolen parts. Midnight Auto adjoins a brothel operated by Duke’s girlfriend, Annie (Linda Cristal). Through convoluted circumstances, Duke gets involved with Peter (George McCallister), son of a local bigwig, and Peter’s revolutionary pal, Justin (Scott Jacoby). Together, these unlikely allies develop the aforementioned Robin Hood scheme. Explaining the details is pointless, since Polakof doesn’t worry much about consistent behavior or narrative logic, opting instead to rush from one colorful scene to the next. The picture is best when Parks occupies center stage, dispensing a darker hue of the good-ole-boy charm one normally associates with Burt Reynolds. Whether he’s barking at his sidekick (“C’mere, Stupid!”) or romancing Annie in a bathtub, Parks epitomizes southern-fried swagger. Those around him mostly flounder in search of roles to play, though everybody gets to do something cartoonish or nefarious or sexy. Long on vibe and short on everything else, Love and the Midnight Auto is a mildly enjoyable mess.

Love and the Midnight Auto Supply: FUNKY

Monday, May 22, 2017

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973)

Although there’s enough amateur-hour weirdness in Blood Orgy of the She-Devils to tickle pleasure centers in the brains of bad-movie fans, the picture never quite achieves catastrophic wrongheadedness. Sure, it’s dumb and incoherent and schlocky, but it’s quite restrained for a horror picture with a sexy title—thanks to the PG rating, the promise of an orgy goes unfulfilled—and for the most part, the picture is simply boring. Things get off to a good start with some groovy mechanized music and psychedelic FX during the opening titles. Then writer-director Ted V. Mikels shifts to a ritual scene featuring scantily glad dancing girls, a high priestess festooned with glitter, and bizarre cutaways to a beardy dude wearing a furry hat. The fun fades once Mikels commences storytelling, because the film quickly devolves into dull, incomprehensible nonsense. Patient viewers can eventually discern that the high priestess is up to no good, and that two young people—together with a professor of some sort—wish to derail the high priestess’ schemes. Scenes with the villainess, Mara (Lila Zaborin), have some camp value, especially when she goes into trances and speaks like a stereotypical Native American: “You take big shiny bird across big water! You come make little white squaw happy!” Also good for an occasional laugh are the cheaply superimposed effects, such as laser beams emanating from the professor’s hands. Yet even the one scene that almost works dramatically, a horrific flashback to Mara’s abuse in a previous life, gets undercut by anachronistic costumes and silly acting. On the plus side, those who soldier through to the ending get another ritual scene, and this time the dancing girls add spears to their routine.

Blood Orgy of the She-Devils: LAME

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fear on Trial (1975)

          Whereas the following year’s theatrical feature The Front (1976) memorably explores the tragic impact of the Hollywood blacklist on avowed leftists, the excellent 1975 telefilm Fear on Trial dramatizes the parallel horror of people whose lives were damaged by groundless accusations. Specifically, the movie adapts a memoir by John Henry Faulk, a broadcaster accused of being a communist in 1957. Despite the absence of evidence against Faulk, he was fired by CBS and became a pariah in the broadcasting industry, so he spent several years mired in litigation against Vincent Hartnett, the self-appointed public watchdog who “named” Faulk. With the counsel of elite attorney Louis Nizer, Faulk won a huge libel judgment against Hartnett, though Faulk was never able to reclaim his previous stature in his chosen field. According to Faulk’s book, he was targeted because of his involvement with AFTRA, a broadcasters’ union, reaffirming that busting trade guilds was a principal motivation of showbiz companies who hid behind the socially acceptable façade of an ant-communist crusade.
          Driven by David W. Rintels’ Emmy-winning script, which luxuriates in beautifully crafted dialogue, Fear on Trial benefits from excellent work on both sides of the camera. The skillful Lamont Johnson directs a sterling cast, led by William Deavne as Faulk. George C. Scott infuses the role of attorney Nizer with indignant fire, and some of the standout supporting players are Judd Hirsch, John Houseman, John McMartin, Lois Nettleton, Ben Piazza, and Dorothy Tristan. Production values are impeccable, re-creating 1950s New York in meticulous detail, and Bill Butler’s stately photography creates just the right somber mood. (Also notable is the absence of a musical score, because in this project, the words—some inspiring, some venomous—provide the melody.)
          The first half of the picture illustrates the insidious means by which an accusation could upend an individual’s life during the blacklist era. One day, Texas native Faulk is popular with coworkers and fans for his amiable personality and folksy storytelling, and the next, it’s as if he’s caught some terrible disease. The moment his name escapes Hartnett’s lips, Faulk encounters iciness from his employers, hostility from his wife, and warnings from friends who’ve already been blacklisted. Even issuing a humiliating declaration of innocence does nothing to impede Faulk’s downfall, because in the fraught Cold War climate, a Red whisper carries more weight than the truth. Faulk’s marriage breaks under the pressure of the situation, and the embattled broadcaster must accept handouts from friends to pay for legal fees and living expenses.
          The second half of the picture depicts the trial during which Nizer exposes Hartnett’s craven enterprise of selling names for profit, despite not having legitimate research with which to support his accusations. In one scene, a TV executive reveals he was told not to hire an eight-year-old child actor simply because Hartnett had smeared the child’s father.
          Fear on Trial starts out as a full-blooded drama before shifting into polemic mode during the trial scenes, so the talking-head stuff is less cinematically interesting. What keeps Fear on Trial vital from start to finish is the crispness of the writing and the impassioned nature of the acting. Devane is fantastic, charting a man’s evolution from a cheerful populist to a hardened veteran of the culture wars. Scott steals every scene he’s in thanks to his masterful way with complex dialogue, and every single player—no matter how small the role—rises to the level of the superlative material.

Fear on Trial: RIGHT ON

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)

          Movies along the lines of Unidentified Flying Oddball underscore why Walt Disney Productions was in need of fresh ideas just prior to the studio’s first experiments with slightly more grown-up fare. A goofy riff on Mark Twain’s classic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the movie imagines a nerdy scientist flying a spaceship back through time to Camelot, where he helps King Arthur repel an attempted coup by the treacherous Sir Mordred. Not only had Disney already explored Arthurian mythology with the animated feature The Sword in the Stone (1963), but everything about Unidentified Flying Oddball is enervated. The characterizations are thin, the FX are rickety, the jokes are tepid, and the performances fail to impress. Some very young viewers might find the picture’s compendium of medieval settings, sci-fi concepts, and slapstick comedy distracting, but most viewers with ages in the double digits will grow restless quickly. Even though this movie ticks a few important boxes for live-action children’s entertainment by presenting a brisk and eventful storyline within a compact running time, nearly everything that happens onscreen is contrived and dumb, and it’s plain that Disney allocated a B-level budget for the production. One can literally see the strings on the protagonist during a climactic flying scene, a sure sign no one felt compelled to put forth their best efforts.
          The jam-packed storyline begins with a U.S. Senator refusing to finance an experimental NASA spaceship because flying the vessel would take an astronaut into space for decades. Clean-cut scientist Tom Trimble (Dennis Dugan) is tasked with creating a lifelike robot, so he produces Hermes (also played by Dugan). Thanks to a ridiculous set of circumstances, both Tom and Hermes are inside the vessel when it launches, so both find themselves in medieval England. Evil sorcerer Merlin (Ron Moody) conspires with Mordred (Jim Dale) to dethrone aging King Arthur (Kenneth Moore), but Tom and Hermes ally themselves with local lass Alisande (Sheila White) and others to help the king retain control over the Round Table. Typical of the movie’s gentle humor is the way Alisande carries around a goose, mistakenly believing the fowl is actually her father, transformed by one of Merlin’s spells. For the most part, Unidentified Flying Oddball is harmless, a barrage of misunderstandings and physical comedy peppered with the occasional clever gag. But, man, does this picture lack that beloved Disney magic. By the time the action climaxes with Tom flying in a suit of armor while Hermes uses the spaceship’s giant magnets as weapons, the picture shows the strain of trying to create spectacle without spending big money. This film promises Camelot and delivers Camelittle.

Unidentified Flying Oddball: FUNKY

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Sea Gypsies (1978)

          Arguably the best of many films actor Robert Logan made in the late ’70s about brave men protecting children from the dangers of life in the great outdoors, The Sea Gypsies benefits from a fairly lavish budget, which allows for not only impressive scenes depicting a storm at sea but also extensive location photography in coastal Alaskan wilderness. Like the Wilderness Family movies that Logan made with independent producer Arthur C. Dubs, this film borrows many qualities from live-action Disney fare while avoiding excessive sentimentality. While it would be exaggerating to call The Sea Gypsies gritty, it’s a great-looking adventure film expressing worthy themes, not least of which is respect for the natural world. Logan’s easygoing persona helps put the thing over, because he works a quintessentially ’70s sensitive-guy mode without seeming preachy or wimpy.
          The story begins in Seattle, where widower Travis Maclaine (Logan) and his two young daughters load their yacht for a six-week voyage into the Pacific. Since a magazine is helping bankroll the trip, Travis reluctantly accepts reporter Kelly (Mikki Jameson) as a passenger. Unbeknownst to the crew, young African-American orphan Jesse (Cjon Damitri Patterson) slips onboard just before castoff, only to be discovered once the boat is out to sea. A horrific storm causes the boat to sink off the coast of Alaska, so the group makes camp and hunts for food during several harrowing weeks before discovering, by way of a broadcast they hear on their precious radio, that the search for their yacht has been suspended. This prompts the dramatic question of how Travis and his people can possibly escape their temporary refuge before winter arrives.
          As should be evident by now, nothing in this story is fresh or surprising, but that’s not the point of a movie like The Sea Gypsies (later re-released as Shipwreck). Per the template established by a zillion similar Disney flicks, The Sea Gypsies is all about the idea that danger strengthens family bonds. It’s a quaint homily, no question, but it goes down smoothly when it’s presented well, as happens here. None of the actors are standouts, though Logan seems so comfortable in the wild that he creates the persuasive illusion of a born naturalist. Some of the inevitable animal scenes veer toward cuteness, thanks to a pelican whom the kids name “Pinnochio,” a friendly seal, and so on, but vignettes featuring near-fatal encounters with bears, orcas, and wolves have real tension. Moreover, the means the castaways use to survive seem thoroughly believable. Logan and director Stewart Raffill were into a solid groove, having previously collaborated on the Dubs productions The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975) and Across the Great Divide (1976). They ended their run on a high note.

The Sea Gypsies: GROOVY

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Student Teachers (1973)

Roger Corman’s New World Pictures made so many iterations and variations of its sexy-nurses franchise that it’s challenging to keep straight which events occur in which movie, especially with motifs such as Dick Miller playing a sleazy coach appearing in more than one film. Nonetheless, I feel confident classifying The Student Teachers as the most befuddling installment. Amid the familiar tropes of feminist rhetoric, lingering sex scenes, and raunchy comedy, the movie churns through a grody subplot about a serial rapist, then concludes with a bizarre heist sequence featuring one of the leading ladies dressed as a nun—while she drives the unlikely getaway vehicle of a school bus. An early credit for director Jonathan Kaplan, who eventually graduated from drive-in schlock to mainstream pictures, The Student Teachers begins with the usual formula. Three hot women who work at the same place have experiences related to sex, and the experiences eventually interrelate. Tracy (Brooke Mills) moonlights as a nude model and gets involved with a peeping tom. Rachel (Susan Damante) takes a bold approach to teaching sex ed, sanctioning her students to make their own stag film. And Jody (Brenda Sutton) has the oddest adventure, pretending to become a drug dealer in order to help authorities capture a supplier. Naturally, each of these storylines includes an epic-length topless scene—or, in the case of Tracy’s subplot, several epic-length topless scenes. Yet it’s hard to reconcile the disparate elements. The Tracy vignettes are innocuously erotic, scenes of Rachel clashing with Miller’s character are semi-comedic, and the rape sequences—during which the assailant wears a plastic clown mask—are horrific. So by the time the campy finale arrives, the movie has become hopelessly muddled in terms of theme and tone. The unfortunate viewer who soldiers through this flick is left only with a bitter aftertaste and the sure knowledge that 90 minutes have been wasted.

The Student Teachers: LAME

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Invasion of the Blood Farmers (1972)

Incompetent sludge of interest only to bad-movie addicts, Invasion of the Blood Farmers was filmed somewhere in the wilds of downstate New York on a reported budget of less than $25,000, and it’s fair to say that cowriter, producer, and director Ed Adlum overspent. For while this painfully boring and stupid excuse for a horror picture has almost certainly delivered a return on the original investment thanks to its inexplicably long life on home video, the film itself looks as if it cost $25, not 1,000 times that amount. Continuity is virtually nonexistent, editing mistakes are rampant, the storyline is nearly incoherent, and the acting ranges from bad to nonexistent, which is to say that some players simply stand in place and recite dialogue without anything resembling intention or intonation. Online remarks suggest that some of the cast members were paid in beer, and it’s not difficult to imagine they imbibed their paychecks before appearing on camera. At least then the performers would have legitimate excuses for their embarrassing work. In any event, as the title suggests, Invasion of the Blood Farmers concerns a cult whose members kidnap people, hook them up to homemade intravenous tubes, and drain the victims’ blood for nefarious purposes. Maybe they’re aliens or maybe they’re Satanists, but it doesn’t really matter. The characters are so dippy that you won’t care who survives, and you won’t care why the killings are happening in the first place. Hell, good luck even staying awake while the main villain, a queeny young guy wearing ridiculous gray flourishes in his hair to appear wizened, gives campy monologues about the principles of his cult, the “Sangroids.” Whatever. Thanks to its PG rating, Invasion of the Blood Farmers doesn’t have much blood, so even those seeking a straight shot of no-budget gore are likely to be disappointed.

Invasion of the Blood Farmers: SQUARE

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971)

          “That’s the main drawback of this particular hobby,” notes Bill Alren. “The feeling of shame.” Alren’s hobby is spying on women in various states of undress, whether that manifests at peeking up a coworker’s skirt while she bends over or using binoculars to ogle bikini-clad ladies on a beach near his house in Los Angeles. As you might imagine, Bill’s hobby is a source of friction in his marriage to the beautiful but anguished Lisa (Joanna Shimkus). Even though Bill makes a good living as a stockbroker and provides her with a comfortable home, she’s frustrated by the mindless rhythms of a childless housewife’s lifestyle, so the discovery of Bill’s proclivity for peeping is the final straw. Since she leaves Bill within the first half-hour of The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, the bulk of the movie concerns Bill’s attempts to gain control over his lascivious impulses and to woo Lisa back into his life. Created by two of the key players behind The Graduate (1967), novelist Charles Webb and producer Lawrence Turman, this picture lacks the sociological heft of its predecessor, but it’s a respectable hybrid of comedy and drama with a few pithy observations about modern relationships.
          Among the film’s strongest elements are Richard Benjamin’s leading performance and the intelligent (if occasionally glib) screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. Benjamin and Semple operate on the same level, articulating melancholy from the safety of a sarcastic remove, but because the central character is in some ways experiencing his own life from an outside-in perspective—he’s aware of the damage he inflicts but can’t or won’t stop himself—the arm’s-length style works. Turman, making his directorial debut, generates unhurried pacing that allows the gently plaintive textures of Fred Karlin’s score to add emotional dimensions. Yet Turman misfires a few times, especially during the climax, so there’s a reason a decade elapsed before he helmed another film: His work is adequate but not special. The same could be said of the film overall. It’s a little bit amusing, a little bit insightful, and a little bit sexy, but one strains to define any area in which the content or execution is superlative. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, and the cast is colorful: Elizabeth Ashley plays Lisa’s sister, Adam West plays the husband of Ashley’s character, and B-movie queen Tiffany Bolling plays a mysterious seductress.

The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker: FUNKY

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Manhandlers (1974)

If you can wrap your mind around the concept of a movie in which three women strive to bring integrity to the massage business despite interference from mobsters, then, congratulations, you’re the target audience for The Manhandlers. While not nearly as sleazy as its premise might suggest, this lighthearted drama has an unavoidably leering quality, since the comely protagonists stroke men’s bodies for a living. The notion that they draw the line as to which areas they’re willing to stroke is what kicks the threadbare plot into gear. Katie (Cara Burgess) inherits a massage parlor after gangsters kill her uncle, the previous owner. Katie is shocked to discover that the ladies working at the parlor use massage sessions as come-ons for—well, let’s just stick with retail terminology and call it “upselling.” After dismissing the working girls, Katie recruits two friends, an actress bored with doing commercials for products including “Madonna Vaginal Spray” and a secretary tired of dodging her handsy boss, then re-opens the massage parlor without the prostitution component. This aggravates local gangsters, who demand a slice of her profits, but Katie somehow becomes romantically involved with a young mobster and—oh, never mind. The Manhandlers is relatively inoffensive, insomuch as it could have been cruder, but the movie is painfully dull and predictable; although some of the performances are acceptable, nothing much happens. The producers deserve some measure of respect for resisting the temptation to stock The Manhandlers with gratuitous nudity and salacious happy-ending scenes, but they didn’t replace the missing sensationalism with anything of commensurate interest. And if there’s a quasi-feminist statement here, something about women taking control of their destinies, it’s obscured by the titillating nature of the premise.

The Manhandlers: LAME

Sunday, May 14, 2017

3 Million Page Views!

Once again, thank you to the intrepid readership of Every ’70s Movie for pushing the blog past another significant milestone. As of this weekend, the blog has been viewed over 3 million times, and the monthly readership numbers continue to humble me. Now that the blog is into its final year of daily publishing, it’s a thrill to see that so many people remain passionate about a subject that I find endlessly fascinating. What happens once I complete watching and reviewing all the ’70s movies I can find is a discussion for another day, so for now I’ll simply encourage loyal readers to consider donating via the PayPal button on the home page. Tracking down the most obscure titles from the ’70s incurs expenses, and I want to get as close at I can to achieving the mission statement baked into this unique project’s title. Readers are also encouraged to scan posts from recent weeks asking for information about the availability of hard-to-find titles, as any and all help finding such films is greatly appreciated. Meantime, enjoy the daily reviews, months of which are still on deck, and as always, keep on keepin’ on!

Tail Gunner Joe (1977)

          While not an outstanding biopic, the made-for-TV Joseph McCarthy saga Tail Gunner Joe has many virtues, not least of which is a fundamental lesson the American people still haven’t learned. After all, McCarthy was a blustery fearmonger who destroyed people’s lives based on nothing but hearsay and innuendo—if not outright falsehoods—and he built his political career not on his own ideals and accomplishments, but by promising to rid America of enemies that, conveniently, only he had the power to identify. Sound familiar? Trade Congressional hearings for televised campaign rallies and Twitter rants, and the parallels between McCarthy and Donald Trump become apparent. They’re very different men following very different trajectories, but they align in the areas of hubris, recklessness, and strategy. Moreover, both McCarthy and Trump fall well below the average in terms of conscience and shame. As McCarthy did, Trump succeeds by aggrandizing himself and victimizing those with less power. All of which is a way of saying that even though Tail Gunner Joe is completely respectable in every important regard, from acting to scripting to technical execution, it’s ordinary except as a cautionary tale with echoes that continue to resound well into the 21st century.
          The movie opens with the Army-McCarthy Hearings of the mid-1950s, which culminated in lawyer Joseph Nye Welch’s famous condemnation, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Between the introduction of the hearings and the delivery of that condemnation, the movie uses the contemporary framing device of a reporter investigating the McCarthy era, thereby connecting flashbacks tracking McCarthy’s rise and fall. The reporter is Logan (Heather Menzies), assigned to the story by an unnamed veteran editor (Charles Cioffi) who covered McCarthy back in the day. Her angle is determining how and why McCarthy aggregated so much power with a witch hunt ostensibly designed to discover communists hiding in American government and private-industry jobs. Peter Boyle plays McCarthy in the flashbacks, which comprise most of the picture’s running time. The portrayal is all bluster and smoke, conveying the idea that McCarthy struck his early supporters as a charming scamp, only to lose favor as he devolved into a hate-spewing demagogue. The implication is that McCarthy got lost in his own rhetoric, gravitating toward his witch hunt because it was the platform that got him the most attention, then dooming himself to political oblivion by pressing the issue past the point of reason. The filmmakers also stress that, like Richard Nixon, McCarthy had a long history of smearing political opponents with bogus accusations.
          The title stems from a colorful sequence depicting McCarthy’s WWII service in the Pacific theater. Frustrated at being grounded, “Tail Gunner Joe” climbed into a plane on the tarmac and wasted nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition blasting coconut trees. His antics won him widespread news coverage, so McCarthy began his first Senate campaign while still in uniform—even though it was illegal to do so.
          Writer Lane Slate and director Jud Taylor do a workmanlike job of presenting their interpretation of McCarthy’s psychological makeup, though the film almost inevitably slips into mechanical rhythms once the endless cycle of scenes depicting legal proceedings begins. Not helping matters is a cast largely comprising B-list actors—Andrew Duggan, John Forsythe, Henry Jones—because the film sparks whenever someone powerful appears, such as Ned Beatty or Burgess Meredith, then lags when they disappear. Boyle’s deliberately repellant performance needs more counterpoint than it gets until the climax, when Meredith, portraying Welch, beautifully delivers the “decency” monologue. In a clumsier moment of speechifying, Logan—the reporter—laments that her peers in the Fourth Estate gave McCarthy his agency by providing free press every time he said something outrageous. “McCarthy calls Truman a traitor,” she says. “That's not news, that’s madness.” Again, in the era of Donald Trump launching one baseless accusation after another at Barack Obama and countless other targets of his unhinged invective, all of this sounds depressingly familiar.

Tail Gunner Joe: GROOVY

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Medicine Ball Caravan (1971)

          Watching the hippie-era documentary Medicine Ball Caravan, it’s plain that Warner Bros. threw a bunch of money at the project, elaborately filming a counterculture group’s colorful trek from San Francisco to the heartland, then enlisting Martin Scorsese, credited as the film’s executive producer and post-production supervisor, to jazz up the footage with creative editing and ironic musical counterpoints. Yet all the bells and whistles in the world aren’t enough to make this film anything more than a tacky attempt at exploiting the popularity of Ken Kesey’s “magic trip” escapades of the ’60s, which were documented in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 nonfiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Since no feature-length film emerged from Kesey’s exploits, the plan at Warner Bros. must have been to point cameras at the next group of drugged-out adventurers departing from the Bay Area for parts unknown. Unfortunately, hoping that documentarians will capture something important is not the same as actually capturing something important. Notwithstanding some decent musical performances, by random acts including Alice Cooper and B.B. King, Medicine Ball Caravan is a forgettable slice of Woodstock-era life.
          Comprising about 150 people in more than a dozen vehicles, the titular caravan traveled to various cities over the course of 21 days, ostensibly to spread the peace-and-love ethos. Concerts were staged in various cities to draw locals, and the hope, one assumes, was to create educational encounters between hippies and straights. A few such interactions happen, as when the film’s French-born director, François Reichenbach, chats up an old cowboy who says he digs the hippies’ rebel spirit. Showing a flair for the overdramatic, Reichenbach then gushes, “You’re the most wonderful man I ever met!” Pleasant as it is to see a cosmopolitan artist leave his bubble, moments like this one don’t resonate, especially since Reichenbach (and/or Scorsese) devotes so much screen time to nonsense. In one scene, a guy whacked out on dope spews motor-mouthed gibberish, and in another, longhaired dudes—as well as Reichenbach’s camera—ogle hippie chicks while they take a group shower. Editing gimmicks including split-screen imagery do little to enliven the material.
          Still, it’s not as if Medicine Ball Caravan—sometimes known as We Have Come for Your Daughters—is a total waste. As one of the caravan participants says, “Half of this is groovy and half of it is rotten—we’ll groove on the groovy part of it and try to make the rotten part better.” Fair enough.

Medicine Ball Caravan: FUNKY

Friday, May 12, 2017

King, Queen, Knave (1972)

          Ten years after Stanley Kubrick released his problematic version of Lolita (1962), another iffy adaptation of a sexy Vladimir Nabokov novel reached the screen, albeit with a much less impressive pedigree. In King, Queen, Knave, David Niven costars with fading sexpot Gina Lollobrigida and minor British actor John Moulder-Brown, while Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski calls the shots. These folks tell an unappealing story about adultery, deceit, greed, lust, and murder. There are even allusions to incest and patricide. The kicker is that King, Queen, Knave is a comedy—or at least it tries to be one. Although Niven lends his signature pithiness, the storytelling never finds the right balance between dark and light elements. At its least surefooted, the picture feels more like a thriller than a comedy, especially during a climactic scene that recalls Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), which, not coincidentally, was cowritten by Skolimowski.
          Charles Dryer (Niven) is a super-wealthy European businessman married to icy beauty Martha (Lollobrigida). They agree to look after Frank (Moulder-Brown), the only son of Charles’ recently deceased brother. The college-aged Frank is a nervous, stuttering klutz who can’t see without his glasses, and the minute he gets an eyeful of Martha, he’s overcome with lust. (To ensure we understand this, Skolimowski includes a tacky scene of Frank masturbating to a picture of Martha.) Sensing an opportunity, Martha seduces Frank, then tries to persuade him to kill Charles so they can share his fortune. Complications of the least interesting sort ensue, not least of which is a bizarre running gag involving Professor Ritter (Mario Adorf), whose pet project involves fabricating artificial skin that feels like real human flesh.
          None of the three main characters is remotely sympathetic, because Charles cheats on his wife with random bimbos, Frank betrays his uncle’s trust, and Martha is a would-be murderess. Whatever satirical edge the material may have possessed in its original form did not make it to the screen. Skolimowski renders some imaginative camerawork, such as crane shots tracking characters’ progress up flights of stairs, though just as often, his overzealous angles feel amateurish; the less said about the undercranked fisheye-lens shots during sex scenes, the better. While still quite alluring (she was in her mid-forties at the time of filming), Lollobridgida gives a trite performance, all petulance and teasing, and Moulder-Brown is annoying, his blithering-idiot routine growing tired within seconds of his entrance. So it falls to Niven, ever the smooth professional, to put this thing over. Whenever he’s onscreen, the picture is bearable.

King, Queen, Knave: FUNKY

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Three on a Meathook (1973)

The beginning and ending of this salaciously titled grindhouse flick deliver exactly what you'd expect, clumsily filmed scenes of attractive women getting chased and slaughtered by a rural psychopath. In between, writer-director William Girdler attempts something that might generously be termed a character study, thanks to slow-moving scenes of a young man tormented by guilt over murders he doesn't remember committing. The juxtaposition of narrative elements is ridiculous, since scuzz-cinema fans are likely to get bored watching the protagonist fret, while those who engage with the picture's reflective elements will find the aimless scripting and lumpy performances disappointing. Girdler deserves credit for trying to inject humanity into a lurid drive-in flick, but the movie is way too sleazy to take seriously. And what's with all the musical interludes featuring characters walking through the countryside while hippy-dippy tunes play on the soundtrack? Anyway, country bumpkin Billy (James Pickett) encounters a group of young women after their car has broken down in the boonies. He offers lodging, but upon bringing the girls home, Billy's father (Charles Kissinger) warns that Billy is prone to violence around women. Sure enough, the girls are murdered that night by axe, knife, and shotgun, so the next day, the father cleans up the mess and tells Billy to head into town and get his head straight. The distraught young man strikes up a relationship with a friendly barmaid, eventually inviting her to visit the farm. This goes poorly. Girdler's "twist" in the final act is predictable, and the movie's logic problems are catastrophic. For instance, why doesn't anyone look for the women who go missing? Later in his career, Girdler made several enjoyably silly genre pictures (e.g., the 1976 creature feature Grizzly). Based on the dismaying evidence of this movie, he was wise to leave meatier subject matter (no pun intended) to others.

Three on a Meathook: LAME

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Molly and Lawless John (1972)

          A decade before he became a moustachioed fixture in small-screen westerns, a clean-shaven Sam Elliott starred in this quiet but respectable oater, a frontier love story exploring the complicated relationship between an outlaw and a sheriff’s wife. Featuring long stretches of silence and very little music, Molly and Lawless John is all about the energy that transfers between people thrown into close proximity at vulnerable moments. While Ellott’s performance is a bit obvious, blustery one moment and weepy the next, costar Vera Miles works a more nuanced groove, sketching various shadings of loneliness and naïveté before her character grows armor thanks to challenging circumstances. The tension between their different performance styles helps compensate for the generic quality of the film’s direction and writing. In many important ways, Molly and Lawless John fails to show viewers anything new, because the same sensitive-gunslinger dynamics permeate countless previous movies and TV shows. Yet the picture realizes its humble goals adequately, and the intimate narrative—most scenes feature just the title characters—helps conjure a degree of depth and warmth. Moreover, the storyline provides just enough complications to keep things interesting all the way to the grim but satisfying ending.
          Captured following his participation in a violent bank robbery, Johnny Lawler (Elliott) gets thrown in jail by foul-tempered Sheriff Marvin Parker (John Anderson). Parker’s put-upon wife, Molly (Miles), is tasked with providing the inmate’s meals while Parker is away on business, and she finds herself fascinated by the handsome prisoner. Sharing his fears about being executed, he touches her heart, so she reveals painful truths about her loveless marriage. Convinced they’ve bonded, she helps John escape, and their next adventure begins. Revealing more would diminish what little surprise the film offers. Suffice to say that life on the run isn’t what either of them expected, especially when they happen upon a stranger in trouble and become unlikely caretakers for an innocent. Despite being a fairly gentle movie, Molly and Lawless John plays rough on occasion, as when John appraises Molly’s looks: “You ain’t much, but you’re a hell of a lot better than nothin’.” Moments like that one get to the core of what makes the picture (mildly) rewarding—Molly and Lawless John explores the limited choices available to both criminals and women in the Wild West, thereby telling a story with aspects of class and gender, rather than the typical Western themes of male identity and personal honor.

Molly and Lawless John: FUNKY

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970)

          How close does this flick get to navel-gazing? It’s a matter of inches. In one scene, excruciatingly self-absorbed protagonist Jonathan (Jordan Christopher) lays in bed with his girlfriend, toying with his chest hairs and lamenting how difficult it is to style them. Upset that his girlfriend doesn’t appreciate the importance of this problem, he suggests she take male hormones. “That way,” he says, “you could share my experience.” Surely both Jonathan and the filmmakers are being playful here, but the presence of such a trivial scene indicates the picture’s myopic perspective. This is yet another hip youth-culture story tracking the misadventures of an entitled dude who resents that life demands he consider other people’s feelings. Like the same year’s The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, this is a character study of a capricious jerk, so the drama stems from situations in which the “hero” discovers that others don’t value his feelings as highly as he does. In modern parlance, these supposedly with-it guys are snowflakes, delicate and prone to melting.
          Jonathan makes his living as a cab driver, and he spends his evenings at cool New York parties, bouncing from one sex partner to the next while finding amusement by helping his nebbish pal, Winslow (Robert Walden), meet women. Alas, self-interest always wins. During a party scene, Jonathan introduces Winslow to a nymphet, but when Winslow botches casual conversation, Jonathan accepts the nymphet’s offer of a tryst. At least until her prattling bores him. Then he abandons her. Nice guy. Eventually, Jonathan begins a proper relationship with a nice girl, only to betray her the first time a more attractive woman offers sex. You get the idea. Complications ensue, but they all run along the same line—how many people will Jonathan injure with his thoughtlessness, and how hypocritical will he become when demanding forgiveness and loyalty despite his transgressions?
          The grotesquerie of male ego notwithstanding, The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker has some appealing aspects. Though unexceptional, the acting and filmmaking are competent. Some scenes are quirky in that special oh-so-’70s way, as when Jonathan demands that his girlfriend prove her altruism by handing out salt-shakers to strangers. A weird motif depicts Jonathan’s ongoing battle with the ants infesting a cabinet beneath his kitchen sink; at various times he declares open combat and temporary amnesty while addressing the insects. Better still, glimmers of truth emerge through the muck of the storyline, which is alternately arch, pretentious, and vapid, though sometimes interesting. The best moment features Jonathan’s declaration of independence, culminating in a sad revelation: “I’m not rebelling,” he says. “That takes strength, initiative, courage, foresight, determination. I’m just earning an easy living. I drive a taxi because I’m basically very lazy. . . . I found myself already, and I was very disappointed.”

The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker: FUNKY