Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Warm December (1973)

          Something of an Afrocentric cousin to Love Story (1970), this romantic drama offers a gentle look at the impact that mortality has on the love life of a likeable protagonist. A widower based in Washington, D.C., Dr. Matt Younger (Sidney Poitier) travels to England for a vacation with his young daughter, Stefanie (Yvette Curtis). His goal is to spend time with European friends, ride his dirt bike in regional competitions, and show the Old World to Stefanie. One day, Matt encounters Catherine Oswandu (Ester Anderson), a mysterious beauty followed by shady-looking characters wherever she goes. After several more encounters, Matt discovers that Catherine is the rebellious niece of an ambassador from the (fictional) African country of Torunda. Despite disapproval from the ambassador, Matt courts Catherine, taking her on several dates, but Catherine regularly disappears in the middle of outings, so Matt suspects she has health problems. Once that suspicion is validated, the lovers explore options for continuing or ending their romance in the face of massive obstacles, and the whole matter is complicated by the bond that Catherine forms with Stefanie. In the broadest strokes, A Warm December is nothing but a trite soap opera. In the particulars, however, the movie reveals a bit more individuality.
          The dirt-bike scenes offer bursts of action, even though they never advance the plot, and Matt somehow manages to find every African-themed hotspot in England for dates with Catherine. (One exciting sequence involves a large musical ensemble fronted by singer Letta Mbulu, performing a Miriam Makeba tune called “Nonqonqo”; although the sequence does nothing to propel the story, it’s beautiful and thrilling as a stand-alone moment.) Poitier, who also directed the picture, shoulders much of the blame for the aimlessness of the material—at times, he seems more interested in shooting travelogue montages than in exploring emotions. Poitier also seems preoccupied with ensuring that his character comes across as a one-note saint, endlessly kind and patient and sensitive, which drains the movie of conflict and momentum. As for costar Anderson, she’s appealing, if a bit amateurish and stiff. Having said all that, A Warm December is pleasant enough to watch. The cultural details are interesting, the European locations are dynamic, and the themes are uplifting, so the movie is as humane as it is slight.

A Warm December: FUNKY

Friday, October 2, 2015

Logan’s Run (1977)

          The entertaining 1976 sci-fi picture Logan’s Run precluded a sequel, since all the storylines were wrapped up in a highly satisfying manner, but that didn’t stop MGM from exploiting the movie’s success. Hence Logan’s Run, a 90-minute TV movie that was broadcast just over a year after the feature was released and that served as the pilot for a short-lived TV series set in the same world as the movie. In fact, MGM hired William F. Nolan—who cowrote, with George Clayton Johnson, the original 1967 novel upon which the whole Logan’s Run franchise is based—to help write the pilot’s script. Alas, MGM failed to generate anything resembling the pulpy vibe of the theatrical feature. Offering a modified storyline with a heavier emphasis on subcultures existing outside the domed city in which much of the theatrical feature’s action takes place, the TV version of Logan’s Run is flat and goofy, with cartoonish sci-fi concepts played much too straight and fleeting attempts at comic relief failing miserably. Even sci-fi nerds failed to support this take on the material, so Logan’s Run was pulled from the airwaves after only 14 episodes were broadcast.
          As in the theatrical feature, the TV version of Logan’s Run takes place in the 23rd century, where attractive young people enjoy an idyllic existence in a domed city until the age of 30, when they attempt “renewal,” transference of their souls into newborn bodies. Logan (Gregory Harrison) and Francis (Randy Powell) are “sandmen,” cops who pursue citizens attempting to flee the city instead of seeking renewal. The lawbreakers are called “runners.” Already skeptical about the domed city’s social structure, Logan shifts allegiances when he saves spirited runner Jessica (Heather Menzies) from being killed by Francis. Logan and Jessica flee to the outside world, encountering two dangerous societies over the course of the pilot—a slave colony and a robot city.
          In favoring plot over characterization, story editor D.C. Fontana (of Star Trek fame) and her collaborators lose nearly everything that made the theatrical feature emotionally resonant. Harrison delivers a blank performance, doing things and saying lines simply because that’s what the script demands, and the rushed first act eliminates any potential for viewers to connect with the hero’s plight. Later, when kicky gadgets and ornate costumes and silly dialogue take the fore, the pilot becomes a bloodless showcase for geeky signifiers. The considerable skills of costar Donald Moffat are wasted, and leading lady Menzies’ earnestness isn’t enough to enliven a decorative role. Worst of all, the pilot sets the characters onto the equivalent of an aimless road trip, whereas the theatrical feature depicted a quest with a clear goal. Ultimately, the sleek black-and-gray sandmen costumes and the futuristic guns with the bright muzzle flashes, both retained from the theatrical feature, sustain more interest than any of the actors.

Logan’s Run: FUNKY

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Willie Dynamite (1974)

          One of the slicker products from the original blaxploitation cycle, Willie Dynamite was produced by, of all people, David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, who entered the stratosphere a year later with Jaws (1975). Boasting decent production values and a solid storyline, Willie Dynamite is a bit on the moralistic side, telling the story of a pimp who learns how to leave the skin trade behind. The movie also suffers from a weak leading performance, because Roscoe Orman—who soon found his niche on Sesame Street, playing the character “Gordon” for 40 years—is amateurish in this, his first big-screen role. Orman cuts a striking figure with his bald pate and lean build, but his swagger is only periodically convincing, so he’s overshadowed by costar Diana Sands, who plays a social worker who counsels prostitutes. (“Consider me a consumer protection agency,” Sands’ character says. “A kind of Ralph Nader for hookers.”) Happily, Willie Dynamite has just enough absurd dialogue, campy supporting characters, and outrageous pimp couture to keep things tasty.
          When the story begins, Willie (Orman) seems like a man in full. Arriving at a hotel with a funky pimpmobile, a fur-lined costume, and a parade of ladies following in his wake, Willie is introduced with his own theme song: “He’s operating to cop your mind—Willie D!” In the course of supplying a Shriners convention with women, Willie gets into a hassle with his newest prostitute, Pashen (Joyce Walker), a delicate young beauty unsure about selling her body for a living. Later, Willie has problems with fellow pimps who want to form a consortium, and with social worker Cora (Sands), who wants to put Willie out of business even though they strike romantic sparks. Willie also has troubles with his disapproving mother, and he gets arrested. In the movie’s funniest moment, cops making an inventory of Willie’s clothing say he’s wearing a “brown coat,” causing an affronted Willie to squeal, “Brown coat? This is lamb! I paid over a grand for it!”
          The machinations of the plot get dull after a while, especially since Orman’s performance lacks depth, but the film’s pungent elements sustain interest. Worth special note is Roger Robinson’s flamboyant performance as Bell, Wilie’s main competitor, because Robinson complements his stylized line readings with bug-eyed facial expressions, queeny hand gestures, and a sartorial approach distinguished by long fingernails. Plus, it’s hard to dislike a movie that not only features a motivational pimp speech with a patriotic theme (“You gotta make him feel like he’s ballin’ the Statue of Liberty!”), but also includes the bizarre trash-talk line, “I’d father rape a watermelon!”

Willie Dynamite: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Beyond Atlantis (1973)

Dull and stupid, this Philippines/U.S. coproduction is a fantasy-adventure story about mainland criminals who venture to a mysterious island populated by fish/human hybrids in order to plunder a cache of priceless pearls. Virtually nothing in the movie works. The principal makeup effect involves pasting fake-looking fish eyes over the faces of the actors playing hybrids. One of the would-be highlights involves a fellow falling into a pit full of crabs. Crabs? That’s the most menacing creature the filmmakers could muster? The hybrids are inexplicably led by two normal-looking characters, an old man and his daughter, and the daughter is a slinky bleach blonde with perfect grooming and makeup. Whatever. The cast features a pair of American actors who spent much of the ’70s making bad movies in the Philippines: John Ashley plays a scuba diver with a mercenary attitude, and Sid Haig plays the crook who discovers the whereabouts of the pearls. (Indestructible Filipino actor Vic Diaz appears in a small role, lending his usual cartoonish corpulence.) Playing the movie’s nominal leading role is John Wayne’s son, Patrick Wayne, whose career peaked a few years later when he starred in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and if Beyond Atlantis isn’t the nadir of Wayne’s screen career, it’s close. Although most of Beyond Atlantis is boring, fans of bad cinema might enjoy the last 20 minutes or so, which include an underwater catfight, a poorly staged shootout, and the ridiculously long funeral sequence for a key character. One can actually feel the filmmakers straining to fill the screen with any old thing that might flesh out the running time of this insipid schlockfest.

Beyond Atlantis: LAME

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

          While it pales in comparison to the same year’s big-screen Sherlock Holmes adventure The Seven Per-Cent Solution, this entertaining telefilm boasts a colorful cast, a fine script, and more-than-adequate production values. The picture also represents Roger Moore’s first and only attempt at playing Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, and he’s a good fit. Not only does Moore’s velvety voice make long scenes of Sherlock explaining things an auditory pleasure, but the snobbishness inherent to Moore’s screen persona meshes nicely with the aloof quality of the Holmes character. There have been so many wonderful interpretations of this particular investigator that offering superlatives is imprudent, so it will suffice to say that Holmes and Moore do each other justice.
          Written as a screen original by veteran TV scribe Alvin Sapinsley, directed by the reliable Boris Segal, and set to jaunty music by Richard Rodney Bennett, Sherlock Holmes in New York opens in London, with Holmes spoiling the latest scheme of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty (John Huston), who vows revenge before escaping. Soon afterward, Holmes receives word that his on-again/off-again lover, actress Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling), is in peril. Thus Holmes and his trusty biographer/sidekick, Dr. Watson (Patrick Macnee), travel to New York, where Irene is performing. Holmes learns that Irene’s son—whose father may or may not be Holmes himself—has been kidnapped, and that Moriarty is responsible. The catch? Moriarty has stolen all the gold from an international exchange, and Holmes is warned that if he helps police recover the stolen loot, Adler’s son will suffer the consequences. Dum-dum-dum!
          Sapinsley’s script hits nearly all the required notes well. The dialogue is elevated, the criminal scheme is outrageous, and the interplay between Adler and Holmes is deep, encoded, and sexy. (Rampling looks especially beautiful here, with her signature iciness suiting the role of a woman capable of intriguing the brilliant Holmes.) Despite wearing a goofy perm and sideburns, Moore cruises through his performance with great flair, and Macnee employs a gruff vocal style instead of his usual sing-song tones, which makes his Watson a fine complement to Moore’s suave Holmes. If there’s a weak link in the cast, which also includes the great David Huddleston as an NYPD detective, it’s Huston, who delivers an over-the-top interpretation of Moriarty; that said, Huston appears in just a few scenes, and he raises the energy level whenever he appears.

Sherlock Holmes in New York: GROOVY

Monday, September 28, 2015

Black Eye (1974)

          Fusing blaxploitation and film noir but suffering from a weak storyline that makes the whole picture feel enervated, Black Eye is a tolerable mystery/thriller featuring a characteristically confident leading performance by Fred Williamson. The movie isn’t a misfire, per se, and it’s got a fair amount of sleaze, so there’s a certain lurid appeal. Nonetheless, nearly everything about Black Eye is second-rate. The characters are all overly familiar archetypes, the central mystery feels murky and unimportant, and the general vibe is that of a disposable TV episode. That said, Black Eye runs a gamut of tonalities. At one extreme, a frothy romantic montage features Williamson’s character and his girlfriend riding a bicycle built for two. At the other extreme, Williamson visits the set of a porno movie to question someone who has valuable information. Oh, and that aforementioned girlfriend? She’s bisexual. So it’s not as if Black Eye is completely bereft of provocative elements.
          The problem is that the filmmakers never commit wholeheartedly to a particular style. The movie is tame one minute, tough the next, and turgid all the way through. The wheezy story begins with the death of an aging screen star in Los Angeles. Someone steals the star’s distinctive walking stick from the star’s casket, setting a Maltese Falcon-type mystery in motion. Who stole the stick? Why is the stick so valuable? And what secrets will the investigation uncover? Also thrown into the mix is a subplot about a desperate father (Richard Anderson) employing Williamson’s character, Stone, to find his missing daughter. And then there’s the whole business of Stone’s relationship with Cynthia (Teresa Graves), who splits her time between romps with Stone and trysts with female lovers. Cynthia’s sexual identity is a source of much consternation for the decidedly heterosexual Stone.
          Complaining that the plot of Black Eye is hard to follow is beside the point, since mystery narratives thrive on confusion and obfuscation, but it’s hard to care much about what happens. Stone has very little personal connection to the case, and the plot threads tethering the missing girl to the walking stick are flimsy. Therefore, Black Eye unfolds as a series of somewhat disconnected scenes, including a chase or two, some fistfights, the occasional sexual encounter, and lots of drab vignettes in which Stone pumps people for uninteresting information. Calling it anything more than passable would require exaggeration.

Black Eye: FUNKY

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1975)

A bad movie that would have been so much better had its big scenes taken flight, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York is admirable for being a glossy studio movie about the problems faced by women in a time of changing gender roles. Furthermore, the movie represented a terrific opportunity for comedic actress Jeannie Berlin co capitalize on her breakthrough performance in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which was directed by Berlin’s mother, Elaine May. Alas, the dexterity and vulnerability that Berlin displayed in The Heartbreak Kid fails to impress in this context. Playing a sad-sack Pennsylvanian who experiences romantic woes while traveling with a fast crowd in New York City, Berlin comes across as pathetic instead of poignant. Worse, watching her character vacillate in unbelievable ways—one minute she’s a doormat, the next she’s a tough cookie—is painfully dull. The story couldn’t be simpler. Sheila (Berlin) moves to New York in order to get away from her (cliché alert!) oppressive Jewish mother. Sheila takes a room with flaky actress Katie (Rebecca Dinna Smith), who pushes Sheila to shed her inhibitions. The movie starts its slow spiral into nothingness during a scene of Sheila following Katie’s advice by “dancing” with a mop in order to emulate current dance moves; what should have been an explosion of physical-comedy joy is instead a sad and lonely vignette. While attending a party, Sheila meets a young doctor, Sam Stoneman (Roy Scheider), and she sleeps with him on their first date. Upon realizing that she had a one-night stand, Sheila becomes enraged—and then spends the rest of the movie trying to win a permanent place in Sam’s heart, even as he becomes romantically involved with Katie. Based on a novel by Gail Parent, who earned fame as a writer on The Carol Burnett Show in the late ’60s, Sheila Levine Is Dead doesn’t work as a character study, a comedy, or a contemplation of social issues. It’s a romantic melodrama disguised as a women’s picture, and it’s a slog to watch, even with the always-vibrant Scheider effectively sketching a character who realizes he’s an asshole but is reluctant to change his ways.

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York: LAME

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Gardener (1974)

So bizarre and cheaply made that it occasionally seems surreal, The Gardener—sometimes known as Garden of Death or Seeds of Evil—concerns a studly gardener who may or may not be responsible for the deaths of several past employers, but who definitely has magical powers over plants. Representing a strange convergence of the mainstream and the underground, the picture costars Katharine Houghton, who earned fame by costarring with her real-life aunt, Katharine Hepburn, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and Joe Dallesandro, who earned his notoriety by appearing in a series of Andy Warhol-produced features, often without clothes. Dallesandro is nearly as clothing-averse in The Gardener, applying his signature lifeless acting style to the role of a shirtless weirdo who seduces his clients in between sessions of communing with greenery. Set to absurdly lush music, the story begins well, thanks to an intriguing scene of a woman waking in a hospital bed and then suffering a fatal heart attack when she sees a plant in her hospital-room windowsill. The movie then slips into a mundane groove. After underappreciated housewife Ellen (Houghton) hires Carl (Dallesandro) to tend her garden—wink, wink—Ellen’s husband, John (James Congdon) notices strange things happening. Plants start to grow out of season and/or with tremendous speed, and plants multiply at a disturbing pace. Meanwhile, Ellen investigates clues suggesting that Carl committed foul play at his previous jobs, even as she (weakly) resists the allure of his chiseled face, gleaming mane, and muscular body. Very little of what happens in The Gardener makes sense, especially once the movie arrives at its bewildering climax, and the acting is generally poor. Nonetheless, the film has a certain train-wreck appeal, and writer-director James H. Kay (who never made another movie) commits wholeheartedly to the wackadoodle story. In other words, while some viewers may find The Gardener entertainingly weird, most are likely to find themselves bored and confused.

The Gardener: LAME

Friday, September 25, 2015

Deep Red (1975)

          Complaining about the excesses and shortcomings of Dario Argento’s celebrated giallo thriller Deep Red serves little purpose, because the folks who dig this sort of movie expect little more than stylish violence, and the people for whom the film’s rough edges would be problematic are unlikely to ever watch Deep Red. A visually dynamic shocker with absurdly detailed gore, indulgently long suspense sequences, and a murky storyline that exists mostly as a means of stringing sensationalistic set pieces together, the film has inarguable cinematic merits. Furthermore, it’s a safe bet that Deep Red and other ’70s Argento pictures influenced the work of such American horror/thriller auteurs as John Carpenter and Brian De Palma. Nonetheless, there’s no avoiding the fact that Deep Red was designed to be unpleasant. Except during sequences that get bogged down in turgid plotting, the picture largely achieves its goal of making viewers uncomfortable, sometimes through crude means (onscreen bloodshed) and sometimes through subtler methods (the generation of legitimate suspense). And even though the script by Argento and frequent Fellini collaborator Bernardino Zapponi actually devotes quite a bit of time to character development, the value of the picture ultimately resides in its ability to provoke revulsion. Therefore, despite being made with considerable artistry, Deep Red is not high art. If anything, it’s the exact opposite of that.
          Set in Turin, Italy, the meandering movie begins with atmospheric scenes culminating in the murder of a psychic. The killing, which occurs in a high window of an apartment building, is witnessed by an English musician named Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), who lives and works in Italy. Marcus soon becomes obsessed with determining the murderer’s identity. Helping him investigate are friends of the deceased psychic as well as a reporter named Gianna Brezzi (Darla Nicoldoi). The plot grows more complicated with each passing scene, eventually becoming almost incomprehensible as Argento adds in myths and rumors and whatnot, hence the picture’s bloated original running time of 126 minutes. (During its initial American release, Deep Red earned an “X” rating for its violence, only to get trimmed down for mainstream US exhibition.) As with many of Argento’s pictures, the style is ultimately more important than the substance. Argento’s probing camerawork is exciting to watch, with cameras floating and soaring through spaces whenever the director isn’t composing striking static shots. Pushing these images along is an undulating original rock score by Italian band Goblin, whose spooky grooves have a hypnotic appeal. As for leading man Hemmings, his work is chilly and intense, though in his defense, Hemmings’ character exists to drive the story, rather than the other way around.

Deep Red: FUNKY

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Starsky and Hutch (1975)

          The pilot movie for the TV series Starsky and Hutch is roughly equivalent to low-budget theatrical features about cops from the same era, thanks to a pulpy mix of attitude, automotive fetishism, intrigue, and sleaze. Among other enjoyable qualities, the pilot movie—which is meatier than the average episode of the ensuing series—takes place in an overcast, trash-strewn vision of downtown Los Angeles, rather than the antiseptic, sun-drenched version of the city that dominates most vintage screen representations.  Starsky and Hutch opens with a wonderfully creepy scene. As a young couple makes out in a red-and-white Gran Torino, hitmen Cannell (Michael Conrad) and Zane (Richard Lynch) casually stroll up to the car and shoot the lovers to death. Cut to our heroes, LAPD detectives Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (David Soul) and Dave Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser), the latter of whom drives a Gran Torino just like the one at the murder site. This connection is the first in a series of clues revealing to Starsky and Hutch that they’ve been targeted for murder. The cops scour the underworld for information, allowing writer William Blinn to showcase the detectives’ extensive stool-pigeon network and their willingness to get tough with bad guys even as they display a soft touch with hard-luck cases.
            At least in this first adventure, the differences between the leading characters aren’t particularly striking, although Starsky is a bit more slovenly than his pretty-boy partner. The stars’ performances draw crisper distinctions than their written characterizations, with Glaser doing a bit of a dese-dem-dose accent while Soul coos his lines smoothly. The most iconic scene from the pilot, at least in relation to the franchise’s kitsch value, is a bit during which Starsky and Hutch invade a gangster’s steam room, wearing only towels and shoulder holsters. To the credit of all involved, the moment is played completely straight. Also noteworthy is the relative lack of gunplay; Starsky and Hutch don’t engage in a shootout until the climax, relying instead on connections, endurance, and wiseass wit. Oh, and while the pilot includes future series regular Antonio Fargas in the familiar role of flamboyant hustler/informant Huggy Bear, the detectives’ boss, Captain Dobey, is played in the pilot by Richard Ward, rather than Bernie Hamilton, who assumed the role for the run of the series.  Although Starsky and Hutch (which later altered its title to Starsky & Hutch) ran only four seasons, leaving the airwaves in 1979, the franchise has lingered in pop culture; Hutch’s golden mane and turtlenecks, as well as Hutch’s knit caps and lumpy cardigans, resurfaced in the hit 2004 comedy movie Starsky & Hutch, starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.

Starsky and Hutch: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hooch (1977)

Before vapid leading man Gil Gerard found his signature role in the campy TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), he appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows, none of which did much to elevate his stardom or to establish Gerard as a talent worthy of serious attention. Nonetheless, his productivity earned Gerard sufficient stature to claim behind-the-scenes involvement in some of his projects, such as the flavorless and plodding moonshine saga Hooch, for which Gerard served as cowriter and coproducer in addition to playing the starring role. A dull recitation of redneck-cinema clichés that’s populated by one-dimensional stereotypes instead of characters, Hooch is as bereft of entertainment value as it is of original ideas. It’s also poorly made, with anemic character introductions, shoddy transitions, and an undernourished musical score. More than anything, Hooch suffers from a lack of urgency, with the pacing of the movie feeling as laid-back as Gerard’s screen persona. The most that one can say is that Hooch is tolerable, but even mustering that much praise requires effort. It's all just so empty and trite. Gerard plays Eddie Joe, a moonshiner mired in competition with beardy and corpulent Old Bill (William T. Hicks). Eddie Joe juggles relationships with two women, one of whom is Bill's daughter, so we’re meant to perceive him as an irresistible charmer who enjoys living dangerously. The fun-and-games period of Eddie Joe's life ends when New York City gangster Tony (Danny Aiello) arrives as a lead man for crooks seeking to enter the moonshine business. Intrigue of a dimwitted sort ensues. So, too, do unnecessary scenes like the bit of Gerard and costar Melody Rogers performing a country song onstage at a hoedown. Aiello, appearing fairly early in his long career, keeps things lively during his scenes by rendering an over-the-top caricature of a goodfella. Reason enough to watch the flick? Not hardly.

Hooch: LAME

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An Enemy of the People (1978)

          Notwithstanding an uncredited bit part in the 1976 B-movie Dixie Dynamite, Steve McQueen ended a four-year screen hiatus by starring in a film that’s the opposite of the glossy action thrillers that made him famous. An Enemy of the People is an unassuming adaptation of an 1882 Henrik Ibsen play, and McQueen plays an intellectual from behind a mask of glasses, long hair, and a thick beard. It’s hard to tell whether his intention was to destroy his own screen person, to prove he could act, or simply to try something new. Whatever the motivation, the experiment was only partly successful, because An Enemy of the People pushes McQueen far beyond his limited range. Nonetheless, his obvious desire to convey intelligence rather than just coasting on charm is admirable, and the film itself is solid, if a bit antiseptic. So while it’s easy to imagine a “real” actor delivering a scorching performance in the same role, the novelty of seeing McQueen stretch is what keeps An Enemy of the People from feeling like a museum piece.
          As written for the screen by Alexander Jacobs, who employed Arthur Miller’s adaptation of the Ibsen original, the setup is simple. Dr. Thomas Stackman (McQueen) is the doctor in a small town known for a spa that draws water from a nearby spring. The town’s mayor is Thomas’ domineering older brother, Peter (Charles Durning). One day, Thomas receives the results of a chemical analysis that he requested, and the information is damning: The spring water has been poisoned by spiloff from a mill, which means the spa must be closed for public-safety reasons. Thomas tries to spread the bad news, but local residents oppose him, fearful the report will destroy the town’s principal source of revenue. Even Peter betrays Thomas, scheming with the town’s wealthiest citizens to have Thomas branded an “enemy of the people.” All of this is powerful stuff, touching on themes of free speech, greed, and persecution.
          Director George Schaefer does little to disguise the material’s theatrical origins, employing soundstages for both exterior and interior scenes. Similarly, the choice to adorn Durning’s face with massive fake eyebrows and an unconvincing beard was imprudent—and indicative of the production’s overall artificiality. Yet bogus trappings are insufficient to suppress Durning’s extraordinary skill, so he elevates all of his scenes, as does costar Richard Dysart, who plays a sly power-monger. (Leading lady Bibi Andersson’s work is earnest but perfunctory.) All told, the pluses of An Enemy of the People outweigh the minuses, though it’s no surprise the film received an indifferent reception; An Enemy of the People delivers none of the things that fans associate with McQueen, and McQueen’s acting is more noble than noteworthy. Still, the movie is an interesting facet of a great screen career, and the inherent quality of the source material makes the experience of watching An Enemy of the People edifying.

An Enemy of the People: GROOVY

Monday, September 21, 2015

Treasure Island (1973) & Oliver Twist (1974)

          Beyond subjecting the world to decades of iffy TV cartoon series (from The New Adventures of Superman in the 1960s to BraveStarr in the 1980s), as well as occasionally producing live-action programs (raise your hand if you wasted more than a few Saturdays watching The Shazam!/Isis Hour in the ’70s), Filmation Associates made a brief foray into the realm of adapting classic literature for the big screen. Filmation’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was followed by a version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and both were released by Warner Bros., which wisely ended the deal before any more mediocrity was unleashed.
          Shamelessly copying the Disney formula of blending comedy with high adventure and songs, Treasure Island is passable at best. The narrative is basically faithful to the source material, and new wrinkles—such as a pirate who wheezes musical notes because of the harmonica that’s visibly lodged in his throat—don’t exactly add value. Worse, the songs are pathetic and unmemorable, and it’s hard to understand why Filmation hired Davy Jones, of the Monkees, to play the leading role seeing as how his character sings just one number. Anyway, intrepid young Englishman Jim Hawkins (Jones) stumbles into possession of a treasure map, which makes him the center of intrigue involving dueling pirate factions. An eventful sea voyage and a surprising trip to a mysterious island ensue. So do silly antics involving a mouse with a taste for liquor, as well as innumerable renditions of the traditional tune “Dead Man’s Chest,” whose “yo-ho-ho” refrain probably should have been retired from other uses once it became a staple of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney’s theme parks. The uninteresting voice cast of Treasure Island also features tiresome TV funnymen Richard Dawson and Larry Storch, and Filmation’s signature “limited animation” style ensures anemic visuals. In sum, Treasure Island is colorful, inoffensive, and altogether mindless—more “yo-ho-hum” than “yo-ho-ho.”
          Yet Oliver Twist makes the preceding film seem inspired by comparison. (To say nothing of redundant—the Oscar-winning live-action musical Oliver!, culled from the same source material, was released just a few years previous, in 1968, and Hanna-Barbera made an animated version for television, called Oliver and the Artful Dodger, in 1972.) Repeating a stylistic misstep from Treasure Island, Filmation modified Oliver Twist by adding animal characters, as if the original narrative was insufficient to command attention. Hence "Squeaky," the nervous frog that long-suffering protagonist Oliver carries around in his pocket throughout most of the movie, and the trio of creepy birds who lurk around the villain's lair and perform evil errands. Whatever. The power of Dickens' story isn't entirely lost, thanks to grim episodes of Oliver being mistreated by various "friends" and guardians along the way to escaping poverty once he finds a wealthy surrogate family. Yet the combination of flat animation and weak vocal performances is toxic. (The cast includes some of the same folks who participated in Treasure Island, notably Davy Jones and Larry Storch.) As for the original songs, they barely merit a mention. Some are generic. Some are insipid. Some are saccharine. All are forgettable. That said, a cursory review of online commentary indicates that Filmation’s Oliver Twist has actual fans, mostly folks who saw the picture at a young age and now retain nostalgia for the escapist pleasures of their childhood. With all due respect to those with fond memories of Squeaky, it's a good thing the Filmation/Warner Bros. union was terminated after just two films.

Treasure Island: FUNKY
Oliver Twist: LAME

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975)

          One of the earliest theatrical features to be shot on videotape, Give ’em Hell, Harry! is a live recording of a one-man stage show, complete with audience reactions, and the subject is the eventful presidency of Harry Truman, America’s commander-in-chief from 1945 to 1953. The versatile James Whitmore stars, and his ability to command attention for nearly two hours is impressive. Replicating Truman’s brash Midwestern persona—an amiable tangle of combativeness, humor, and straight-shootin’ aphorisms—Whitmore attacks the role, and yet his desire to entertain never seems desperate. Rather, he comes across like an actor who respects that the audience’s time is valuable, and that theatergoers deserve to see and hear something interesting during every minute they spend looking at the stage. Whitmore earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for the picture, and he won a Grammy for an LP recording of the stage show’s audio. Written by Samuel Gallu and codirected by Peter H. Hunt (who mounted the stage show) and Steve Binder (who orchestrated the film version), the play covers Truman’s entire presidency—the partial term he inherited when FDR died, and the full term to which he was elected—while also providing snippets of his earlier life.
          Gallu’s text employs a number of awkward gimmicks. Whitmore reads letters aloud as he writes them. He engages in conversations with people who are neither heard nor seen, meaning that Whitmore says his lines, pauses, and then paraphrases what the other person said. Whitmore also periodically slips into costumes, such as a doughboy uniform, when the text refers to earlier periods. Given the affability and vigor of Whitmore’s performance, the in-your-face artificiality works fairly well, especially because Gallu presents the show as a greatest-hits recitation of colorful moments. And if a bit too much emphasis is placed upon Truman’s salty humor, suggesting that he had a Will Rogers-style quip ready for every occasion, one can’t fault the team behind Give ’em Hell, Harry! for wanting to ensure continuous audience engagement.
          Beyond the laugh lines, the most resonant portions of Give ’em Hell, Harry! involve Truman espousing high principles. In one scene, Truman describes hatemongering Sen. Joseph McCarthy as “that most lamentable mistake of the Almighty’s,” and in another scene, Truman laments that “financial control is in the hands of two few.” (Sadly, that line rings as true now as it ever did.) Arguably the high point is Truman’s verbal confrontation with an angry mob of KKK members after the Klan issues death threats against Truman. Whitmore infuses this scene with moralistic passion, righteous indignation, and understandable fear. Yes, this movie’s vision of Truman is idealized. However, seeing as how Truman changed history as the first world leader to employ a nuclear weapon in combat—surely one of the weightiest decisions a human being has ever made—there’s no question that his presidency merits examination, as well as a degree of reverence.

Give ’em Hell, Harry!: GROOVY

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Swap Meet (1979)

One of those wretched late-’70s sex comedies that employs a colorful gathering place as the setting for a superficial ensemble story, Swap Meet bludgeons viewers with 85 minutes of nonstop stupidity. Some of the jokes are moderately better than the picture’s mindless default mode, some of the performers have more polished comedy skills than others, and the movie benefits from brisk pacing. That said, dumb gags are dumb gags, no matter how rapidly they follow each other, and the movie reeks of desperation and sleaziness. Among the various narrative threads is the adventure of Ziggy (Danny Goldman), a wimpy little dude who functions as the announcer/greeter at a weekly swap meet situated inside a Southern California drive-in theater. Ziggy longs for a better job, and he also pines for comely blonde Annie (Cheryl Rixon), a hooker who operates out of the drive-in’s lavatory and services customers in their cars. Also featured are a group of young adults, including Doug (Jon Gries), who wishes to impress a girl by defeating a bully in a car race (or something like that). Swap Meet is simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped, so it’s hard to know which storylines the filmmakers consider important. As a result, the movie unspools as a series of montages and vignettes. In the montages, people use enterprising means to procure goods they can sell; the colorful opening bit features thugs stealing pieces of the Hollywood sign during one of its periods of decay. In the vignettes, actors portray broad stereotypes while enacting insipid scenarios—we’re talking bathroom farce, rudely interrupted oral sex, skateboarding accidents, a running gag about a foul-mouthed psychic, and a quick scene featuring Danny DeVito as an auto mechanic. There’s also a disco theme song. In a word, tiresome.

Swap Meet: LAME

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Hitter (1979)

          Produced well after the blaxploitation genre had lost its momentum, this low-budget drama/thriller resolves into a solid action piece toward the end of its running time. Getting to the final act requires patience, because the picture starts out as a flimsy blaxploitation riff on the Paul Newman classic The Hustler (1961). Then cowriter/director Christopher Leitch gets stuck in a bad groove during an extended sex-comedy sequence that not only feels like it belongs in another movie, but quickly wears out its welcome. Despite these problems, The Hitter has strengths, notably Adolph Caesar’s authoritative performance as an aging schemer. It’s not saying much to indicate that Caesar is more impressive than the film’s leading man, Superfly guy Ron O’Neal, but it’s a compliment to Caesar’s work that he seems to elevate O’Neal by providing a formidable scene partner.
          Echoing the beginning of The Hustler, this picture opens with cocky drifter Otis (O’Neal) showing up in a pool hall owned by Louisiana Slim (Bill Cobbs), a ruthless crime boss. Otis defeats Louisiana Slim in a pool game, and the humiliated gangster swears revenge. Otis flees the pool hall and encounters Nathan (Caesar), a down-on-his-luck fellow with a fast mouth and a million ideas for money-making scams. The focus of the picture then shifts rather awkwardly from billiards to boxing, because once Nathan discovers that Otis used to be a pro fighter, he volunteers to manage Otis in a series of illegal street fights. This starts the countdown to an inevitable showdown with Louisiana Slim, who also manages fighters. In the movie’s dodgiest sequence, Nathan takes Otis to a cathouse and makes a bet that the two men can each service three women in less than 30 minutes. The Nathan component of the sequence is mildly amusing, but the Otis component comprises sleazy shots of naked starlets grinding against O’Neal and moaning to the accompaniment of the film’s zesty funk/jazz soundtrack. During the cathouse sequence, Otis falls for working girl Lola (Sheila Frazier). Predictably, she’s Louisiana Slim’s girlfriend, so when she runs off with Nathan and Otis, her departure adds to Louisiana Slim’s ire.
          Nothing in The Hitter is surprising, but the supporting actors give such lively performances that the movie isn’t a bad ride, especially once things get heavy. And if nothing else, The Hitter reaffirms that Hollywood missed out by failing to find a niche for Caesar until very late in his short life. After The Hitter, he didn’t make another movie until the racially themed A Soldier’s Story (1984). Caesar’s work in A Soldier’s Story earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, leading to a flurry of steady work before he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1986.

The Hitter: FUNKY

Thursday, September 17, 2015

City Beneath the Sea (1971)

          Two aspects of producer Irwin Allen’s cinematic identity converged in this campy sci-fi movie, which was made for television as the pilot for a series that never materialized. The project echoes Allen’s past, because Allen produced the 1964-1968 adventure series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well as the 1961 theatrical feature from which that series was adapted. Yet City Beneath the Sea also hints at Allen’s future, because the picture is a disaster saga, and Allen’s name became synonymous with the disaster genre once he unleashed The Poseidon Adventure (1972). City Beneath the Sea scores as high on the Cheese-O-Meter as anything Allen ever made. The narrative is silly, the performances are robotic, and the storytelling is primarily designed to showcase elaborate costumes, sets, and special effects. That said, City Beneath the Sea is brainless fun, with laughably one-dimensional characters struggling to survive a series of absurd crises. Every scene bursts with exposition, because screenwriter John Meredyth Lucas struggles to include all of the pulpy plot elements provided by Allen, who is credited with writing the story. Seen today, City Beneath the Sea feels like a relic from a distant time, because the pristine design style represents a mid-century-modern vision of the future. “Sleek” is the watchword, and nobody on this production was afraid of using bright colors.
          Set in 2053, the movie begins with the U.S. President (Richard Basehart) demanding that former Navy Admiral Michael Matthews (Stuart Whitman) return to duty as commander of Pacifica, a huge underwater research installation. Here’s the laugh-out-loud premise: The U.S. has been transferring its cache of gold from Fort Knox to Pacifica because of seismic activity near Fort Knox, and now the U.S. has learned that it must also transfer a huge store of fissile radioactive material to Pacifica for safekeeping, because only proximity to gold keeps the material from exploding. Oh, and a giant meteor is about to crash into the Earth, with Pacifica the likely ground zero, so the dozens of people living underwater must abandon the station as soon as the gold and radioactive material are secured in a meteor-proof vault. As if that’s not goofy enough, City Beneath the Sea features an “aquanoid,” a mutant who can breathe either air or water. Woven into all of this hogwash are the various cardboard characters one always finds in Allen’s pictures: The stalwart hero blamed for an accident he didn’t actually cause, the bereaved widow whose recriminations crush the stalwart hero beneath a mountain of guilt, the duplicitous lieutenant planning an evil scheme, and so on. (As for that evil scheme, it’s a brazen gold heist, since City Beyond the Sea clearly needed even more plot material.) In addition to Basehart and Whitman, actors providing the film’s wooden performances include Joseph Cotten (who appears in just one short scene), Rosemary Forsyth, Robert Colbert, and Robert Wagner.

City Beneath the Sea: FUNKY