Monday, July 25, 2016

Bloodline (1979)

          Audrey Hepburn was so selective in the final years of her screen career, often letting years lapse between projects, that it’s disappointing most of her latter-day output is rotten. She returned from a long hiatus to play Maid Marian in Richard Lester’s wonderfully melancholy adventure/romance Robin and Marian (1976), and it was downhill from there, beginning with this overstuffed potboiler adapted from one of Sidney Sheldon’s lowest-common-denominator novels. As always, Hepburn comes across well, her natural elegance and poise allowing her to rise above even the silliest scenes, but Bloodline does nothing to embellish her well-deserved reputation as one of the most magical performers ever to step in front of a movie camera.
          The story’s hackneyed inciting incident is the death of a pharmaceutical tycoon named Sam Roffe, which pits his only child, Elizabeth Roffe (Hepburn), against myriad cousins who want to sell the family’s massive international operation for some quick cash. Naturally, each of the cousins is some gradation of Eurotrash, plagued by adulterous entanglements, crushing debts, impending scandals, or all of the above. Just as naturally, Elizabeth is the only saint in the family, so not only does she block attempts to liquidate the company—the better to honor her beloved father’s wishes—but she becomes an active participant in the investigation of her father’s death. Oh, and during all of this, she falls in love with an executive at the family company, chain-smoking smoothie Rhys Williams (Ben Gazzara at his most intolerably smug). Yet that’s not quite enough material for Sheldon’s voracious narrative appetite, so Bloodline also follows myriad subplots relating to the cousins. Ivo (Omar Sharif) tries to keep his wife and three children separate from his mistress and his other three children. Alec (James Mason) digs himself into a deep hole with gambling losses, even as his beautiful younger wife, Vivian (Michelle Phillips), whores herself out to placate creditors. And so on. All the while, intrepid European cop Max (Gert Fröbe, the Artist Forever Known as Goldfinger) pieces clues together with the help of a supercomputer—as in, during many of his scenes, Max chats with the computer, which responds in a mechanized voice.
          Anyway, let’s see, what are we forgetting from this recitation of the film’s major elements? Oh, right—the subplot about the bald psycho killing women in snuff films.
          Yeah, Bloodline is that sort of picture, a semi-serious but simple-minded piece of escapism that periodically and ventures into the realm of exploitation cinema, resulting in dissonance. Picture a Ross Hunter movie suddenly morphing into a William Castle production, and you get the idea. To be clear, director Terence Young does his usual slick work within scenes, but the task of reconciling all of Bloodline’s incompatible elements would have defeated any filmmaker. Still, it’s impossible to completely dismiss Bloodline for a number of reasons, Hepburn’s presence being the most important of those. Furthermore, the cast is rich with talent, and Ennio Morricone’s score is characteristically adventurous, at one point going full-bore into a Giorgio Moroder-type disco groove. Plus, if nothing else, there’s always something colorful happening, good taste and logic be damned.

Bloodline: FUNKY

Sunday, July 24, 2016

1980 Week: The Big Brawl

          Like many American moviegoers of a certain age, I first encountered Jackie Chan in The Cannonball Run (1981), which featured the Hong Kong actor in a minor comedic role. Yet Chan actually made his first big play for U.S. notoriety the previous year, starring in the partially comedic martial-arts picture The Big Brawl for director Robert Clouse, of Enter the Dragon (1973) fame. After The Big Brawl and The Cannonball Run failed to create excitement around Chan, he returned to making films in Asia until finally conquering the U.S. in the late ’90s. Watching The Big Brawl now, it’s easy to see what 1980 audiences missed—and why they missed it. Clouse has a ham-fisted touch for comedy that runs counter to Chan’s meticulously rehearsed illusion of effortlessness, and the marketing materials accentuated violence. Viewers expecting straight-up chop-socky savagery must have been disappointed by all the silliness on display. That said, The Big Brawl is a mildly entertaining adventure that makes sense within the context of Chan’s subsequent career: This flick represents an early attempt at finding the synthesis between fighting and funny bits that distinguishes Chan’s most successful films.
          Set in Depression-era Chicago, The Big Brawl—which is occasionally known as Battle Creek Brawl—concerns Jerry (Chan), an ambitious young man who dates a nice white girl, Nancy (Kristine DeBell), and works part-time in his immigrant father’s Chinese restaurant. Against his father’s wishes, Jerry trains in martial arts with his uncle, Herbert (Mako). After making enemies of a big-time gangster, Dominici (José Ferrer), Jerry is coerced into entering a huge citywide brawl in Battle Creek, Texas, where dozens of combatants box and wrestle until the last man standing wins a cash prize.
          Powered by one-dimensional characterizations and predictable twists, the plot is forgettable. What makes The Big Brawl fun to watch, at least periodically, is Chan’s astounding physicality. In a lengthy roller-derby scene, he leaps and rolls like he’s made of rubber, using found objects and lightning-fast strikes to wipe out opponents. And during the brawl—which consumes a good 30 minutes of screen time—Chan runs the gamut from physical comedy to serious ass-kicking, even though the fight scenes all have a certain Hollywood falseness. Among the supporting cast, nobody excels beyond Chan and the always-dynamic Mako. However, the film has some great bursts of energy thanks to Lalo Schifrin’s memorable score. Laying Ennio Morricone-style whistles over a slinky jazz groove that would’ve made Henry Mancini proud, Schifrin locks into Chan’s playful frequency far better than Clouse ever does.

The Big Brawl: FUNKY

Saturday, July 23, 2016

1980 Week: Alligator

          A highly enjoyable creature feature that revels in its own derivative nature and that occasionally feels like a real movie instead of a drive-in schlockfest, Alligator was one of the three above-average monster flicks that John Sayles penned during his breakout period, when he alternated between gun-for-hire gigs and early directorial efforts. Like Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), this movie conveys a strong sense of self-awareness, often simultaneously perpetuating horror-cinema clichés and winking at them. If nothing else, Alligator is almost certainly the best movie that anyone could have made on the basis of a ridiculous urban myth. The myth in question involves the notion that baby alligators adopted as pets survive in sewers after being flushed away by owners who discard the animals, growing to gigantic size beneath city streets.
          Sayles’ fanciful script adds a sci-fi flourish to this premise, tracking the lifespan of a particular baby alligator who survives by consuming animal carcasses that are illegally dumped from a laboratory conducting experiments on how to genetically increase the size of animals. Thus, once the titular creature begins his inevitable rampage, he’s a 37-foot mutant with a nasty disposition and a super-tough hide. Borrowing more than a few tropes from Jaws (1975), Sayles contrives an opponent who at first glance seems ill-equipped for defeating a gigantic monster—disgraced and unlucky policeman David Madison (Robert Forster). Once the alligator begins eating people in Chicago, David investigates and actually sees the alligator, reporting the amazing discovery to his superiors and receiving only disbelief and ridicule in return. Undaunted, David seeks help from a scientific expert, just as Sheriff Brody does in Jaws, so he teams up with reptile researcher Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker). Adding a bit of pathos to the mix, it turns out Robin owned the monstrous alligator when she was a little girl, and she was helpless to stop her parents from flushing the critter down the shitter. And later, just like in Jaws, concerned officials hire a grizzled hunter, Colonel Brock (Henry Silva), to wipe out the monster.
          Yes, it’s all very by-the-numbers, and some of the FX shots used to convey the scale of the monster are questionable. But as directed by the capable editor-turned-filmmaker Lewis Teague, who previously collaborated with Sayles on the potent crime picture The Lady in Red (1979), Alligator hums along nicely, bouncing from enjoyably creepy sewer scenes in which the monster is barely seen to outrageous above-ground sequences featuring the giant gator chomping on people. Forster grounds the piece with an appealingly grumpy characterization, and Sayles ensures that gentle sight gags and verbal humor complement the bloodshed. An almost completely unrelated sequel, Alligator II: The Mutation, was released in 1991 to universal scorn.

Alligator: FUNKY

Friday, July 22, 2016

1980 Week: Bad Timing

          Equal parts intellectual, provocateur, and sensualist, British cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg built a singular filmography during the active years of his career. (As of this writing, he’s semi-retired.) Known for his downbeat themes, fragmented storytelling, and startling depictions of sexuality, Roeg made a number of films that divided audiences, with advocates praising his inventive artistry and detractors labeling him a pretentious voyeur. As in all things, the truth probably lies somewhere between those extremes. In any event, while Roeg’s most celebrated works include Performance (1970), which he codirected, and Don’t Look Now (1973), the deliberately unpleasant Bad Timing occupies an important place in his ouevre. A challenging narrative puzzle that builds steadily toward one of the creepiest sex scenes in the history of mainstream cinema, the picture is unapologetically obtuse and unrepentantly adult. Sometimes known by the extended title Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, the movie explores a dark place where carnality and madness intersect.
          Singer/actor Art Garfunkel stars as Alex Linden, an American professor living and working in Vienna. Alex is introduced at a hospital where beautiful young American Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) has been admitted for a possible suicide attempt involving drugs. Police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) interrogates Alex about Milena, deducing that they’re lovers and suspecting that Alex knows more about Milena’s circumstances than he’s willing to share. Roeg presents the storyline as a complicated mosaic, jumping between different periods of the Alex/Milena relationship in order to paint a portrait of a love affair gone wrong. In scenes depicting the couple’s early courtship, the uptight Alex finds Milena’s impulsiveness and volatility exciting. Later in their relationship, he becomes judgmental and possessive, resenting that she’s married to an older man named Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliot) and screaming at her whenever he discovers she’s taken another lover. All of this culminates on the fateful night of Milena’s overdose, when Alex’s twisted devotion manifests in grotesque behavior.
          Bad Timing is powerful in fits and starts, even though long stretches are dull because they comprise awful people yelling at each other. Worse, the detective angle never quite works, and Keitel’s performance is artificial and mannered, whereas everyone else strives for naturalism. Garfunkel channels something grim and savage with his understated performance, so whenever Garfunkel’s character lets his unsavory side show, the effect is bracing. Russell, who subsequently married Roeg and starred in several more films for him, attacks scenes vigorously and lacks inhibition, which helps smooth over the bumpier aspects of her performance. Bad Timing is not as effective as it could and should have been, because the chilly aesthetic created by Roeg and writer Yale Udoff keeps viewers a safe distance away from the psychological brutality occurring onscreen. Every so often, however, the movie lands a body blow and leaves a nasty mark.

Bad Timing: FUNKY

Thursday, July 21, 2016

1980 Week: Borderline

          An action-movie star who prioritized quantity over quality, Charles Bronson made a lot of forgettable movies in his epic career, with the caliber of his projects suffering a precipitous drop in the 1980s as the combination of Bronson’s advancing age and his declining box-office appeal took a toll. Borderline captures the star in transition, because while the horrors of endless Death Wish sequels were still a couple of years in his future, it’s obvious the best material was no longer coming Bronson’s way. Cowritten and directed by Jerrold Freedman, who spent most of his career banging out generic TV movies, Borderline depicts the battle between U.S. Border Patrol Officer Maynard (Bronson) and resourceful human trafficker Hotchkiss (Ed Harris). As the well-financed Hotchkiss gets bolder and more ruthless with each illegal border crossing, Maynard becomes more determined to capture the “coyote,” especially after Hotchkiss murders one of Maynard’s deputies. And that’s basically the whole movie.
          Attempts at injecting the people in the movie with genuine characterization are feeble at best: Hotchkiss is a Vietnam vet, Maynard has a drinking problem, and so on. Similarly, Freedman’s supporting characters are feeble. Fresh-faced Border Patrol deputy Fante (Bruno Kirby) drifts in and out of the story without ever making much impact, and the callous businessmen backing Hotchkiss’ operation—rancher Carl Richards (Bert Remsen) and businessman Henry Lydell (Michael Lerner)—display slightly less than one dimension each. A glimmer of hope for narrative substance emerges during a sequence in which Maynard travels undercover as a Mexican to Tijuana along with migrant worker Elena Morales (Karmin Murcelo), whose child was killed in the same shootout that left the deputy dead, but like so many other threads in Borderline, Freedman doesn’t take this material anywhere satisfactory or surprising.
          Nonetheless, the subject matter is inherently interesting, the southern California locations suit the story well, and vivid actors pass through the movie. Beyond those mentioned, the cast also includes Norman Alden, John Ashton, Wilford Brimley, and Kenneth McMillan. Plus, since Bronson is strangely absent from many scenes—either because he’s not offscreen or simply bored—Harris steals the movie without trying. Borderline is sorta/kinda Harris’ movie debut, seeing as how he’d played minor roles on television prior to Borderline, as well as filming a tiny part in Coma (1978). He makes a hell of an impression, personifying Hotchkiss as a believably cold-blooded automaton since the sketchy script precludes the option of forming a proper characterization.

Borderline: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

1980 Week: The Earthling

          A staple on cable TV in the early ’80s and also one of the final statements of actor William Holden’s long and venerable career, the US/Australia coproduction The Earthling is a strange movie that feels like a conventional one. Slickly directed by Peter Collinson and boasting gorgeous location photography of Australian forests and mountains, The Earthling has such a literary quality that it seems as if it was extrapolated from a short story, although the narrative was written directly for the screen. Holden plays a dying man who returns to the Australian wilderness where he was raised so his life can end where it began. His plan hits a bump when he witnesses a car crash that leaves a 10-year-old boy orphaned. Instead of escorting the child back to civilization, Holden’s character yells at the frightened youth and tells him to fend for himself, until finally agreeing to become the boy’s guardian. Holden’s character then drags the kid along as he ventures deeper into a remote forest.
          Some movies about inspirational relationships between old and young characters concern the teaching of life lessons. The Earthling has some of that stuff in its DNA, but it’s also about the teaching of death lessons. Had the filmmakers done a better job of defining their characters, the movie could have become a timeless meditation on using compassion to overcome the impermanence of human existence. Instead, The Earthling is something like a rough draft of that hypothetically fascinating movie.
          The picture is murky right from the start. Patrick Foley (Holden) arrives in a small Australian town, where he briefly reconnects with a childhood friend named Christian (Alwyn Kurtis). This simple scene should have allowed the filmmakers to answer basic questions, such as why Patrick has an American accent and why he left home. Instead, the scene is a prickly argument about how Patrick doesn’t appreciate the people who love him, culminating with Christian’s accusation that Patrick’s plan to die alone is characteristically selfish. Like so many other things in The Earthling, this crucial scene kinda works and kinda doesn’t. The main thrust is clear, inasmuch as it’s impossible to misunderstand how the filmmakers want viewers to perceive the main character, and yet the details are so fuzzy that it’s hard to genuinely believe what’s happening.
          And so it goes throughout The Earthling. Patrick and the orphan, Shawn (Ricky Schroder), bond simply because the story needs them to bond, not because the filmmakers present evidence of real human connection. It doesn't help that tow-headed Schroder is the quintessential Hollywood kid actor, exuding innocence as he cries glycerin tears. Still, the wreckage wrought by Holden’s years of offscreen hard living lend gravitas and poignancy to his characterization, meaning that he’s in a different—and superior—movie than the one occupied by his costar.

The Earthling: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

1980 Week: Hangar 18

          Only the brave or the brazen dared to make UFO movies in the immediate aftermath of Steven Spielberg’s monumental Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which realized nearly all the potential of the genre in spectacular fashion. Undaunted, the happy hacks at Sunn Classic Pictures forged ahead with their own entry into the flying-saucer genre, Hangar 18, perhaps emboldened by their success in the paranormal realm with such “documentaries” as Beyond and Back (1978) and The Bermuda Triangle (1979). Anyway, Hangar 18, which shamelessly borrows plot elements from Peter Hyams’ larky sci-fi adventure Capricorn One (1978), begins in space, where the crew of a space-shuttle mission witnesses a UFO striking a satellite. Returning to earth, the astronauts (played by Gary Collins and James Hampton) seek an explanation for what happened but get a run-around from officials, even as their boss (Darren McGavin) receives the true story. Turns out the UFO crash-landed on earth and was recovered by the U.S. military, then hidden in a secret hangar in the Southwest. (Shades of Roswell, New Mexico.) McGavin’s character is tasked with examining the spaceship.
          Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., a presidential aide (Robert Vaughn) conspires to keep the whole mess secret until the impending election because—how convenient!—the president recently scolded his opponent for suggesting that UFOs might be real. Making the story even sillier is an action/adventure subplot about the astronauts trying to find the secret hangar, and a very Star Trek-ish thread about McGavin and his team entering the spaceship, discovering quasi-humanoid bodies inside, and trying to decode the alien language they discover on the ship’s computers. Had any of this been put across persuasively, Hangar 18 could have built up a tremendous head of steam, but the filmmaking and storytelling exist on the level of a bad TV movie, with each scene feeling more outlandish than the preceding all the way to the anticlimactic ending. Even with its goofy storyline and C-lister cast (apologies to Messers. McGavin and Vaughn), Hangar 18 represents a sort of pinnacle moment for Sunn Classics, combining myriad layers of speculative-fiction bullshit—ancient astronauts, government conspiracies, and so on—into one cartoonish pseudoscience extravaganza. Call it a close encounter of the tepid kind.

Hangar 18: FUNKY

Monday, July 18, 2016

1980 Week: The Shining

          Perhaps even more interesting than The Shining itself is the enormous culture of debate, scholarship, and theorizing that has emerged around the film. At the most extreme edge of this peripheral realm is the insane 2012 documentary Room 237, during which various fans explain their bizarre readings of the movie while director Rodney Ascher employs clips from The Shining, as well as other archival material, as “evidence” supporting the readings. In the most memorable sequence, a Kubrick obsessive says The Shining contains Kubrick’s admission that he helped NASA fake the 1969 moon landing.
          Drifting back to Earth, another fascinating byproduct of The Shining is the conflict between Kubrick and Stephen King that even Kubrick’s death could not conclude. King, who wrote the popular horror novel upon which the film is based, famously denounced Kubrick’s movie because of liberties the director took with King’s storyline. For context, it’s important to note remarks that Kubrick made during his lifetime to the effect that only bad novels merit cinematic adaptation, because they can be improved upon. Hell hath no fury like an author scorned, or, for that matter, an auteur.
          Why is The Shining the object of so much fascination? Devotees of the movie would attribute its longevity to pure cinematic power—beyond mere scares, the film contains provocative allegories and unnerving ambiguities. The Shining also contains one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic performances, complete with the famous moment when he hacks through a doorway with an axe, then pokes his head through the resulting hole and hisses, “Here’s Johnny!” Yet The Shining probably lasts simply because it’s so many things to so many people, hence the varied interpretations found in Room 237. The Shining is a horror movie, to be sure, complete with gory murders and unexpected jolts, to say nothing of ominous atmosphere that lasts from beginning to end. Moreover, The Shining is a character study, an exercise in paranoia, a fantasy with supernatural elements, and a tragedy. So even though it’s excessive and frustrating and weird, it’s almost completely unique. Employing King’s novel as a springboard, Kubrick—who cowrote the script with Diane Johnson—embarked on a demented flight of fancy.
          As has been endlessly reported in articles and books and documentaries, Kubrick utilized painstaking production techniques, building a gigantic set, shooting innumerable takes, and attenuating production over a reported 500 days. The parallels between this Bataan Death March approach to filmmaking and the storyline are inescapable, because The Shining follows author Jack Torrance (Nicholson) as he and his family occupy the remote Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers while Jack tries to write a novel. Some combination of Jack’s mental problems and unknown forces occupying the hotel transform Jack from a family man into a maniac. Caught in the path of his rampage are his timid wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their psychically gifted son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Things don’t go well for anyone.
          Kubrick shoots the hell out of his remarkable set, creating mesmerizing images with gimmicks including Steadicam photography, while the eerie score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind accentuates the oddity of it all. By the time the film concludes with an epic nighttime chase through an outdoor maze blanketed in snow, Kubrick has generated such a potent quality of claustrophobia and fear that The Shining is more than just spooky—it’s upsetting. 

The Shining: GROOVY

Sunday, July 17, 2016

1980 Week: The Mirror Crack’d

          The Agatha Christie vogue that began with Murder on the Orient Express (1974) fizzled quickly, but not before several big-budget mediocrities were unleashed on the public. Of these lesser Christie adaptations, the British-made The Mirror Crack’d is interesting because it doubles as a catty story about Hollywood, complete with performances by several iconic American actors. The Mirror Crack’d doesn’t work for a lot of reasons, ranging from an inconsistent tone to the way the main detective is sidelined throughout most of the action. Viewed as glossy camp, however, The Mirror Crack’d offers minor distractions. Set in England during the 1930s, the story revolves around a group of Hollywood professionals visiting Great Britain for a movie shoot. Christie’s matronly detective Miss Marple (Angela Lansbury) happens upon the shoot at the same time a series of murders begins, so, naturally, it falls to Marple and her intrepid nephew, Inspector Craddox (Edward Fox), to identify the killer. In classic Christie fashion, the investigation reveals years of secrets and lies, all of which Marple explains in a lengthy final scene.
          The murder-mystery stuff is fine, if a bit perfunctory, so what really connects is the showbiz satire. Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor play aging screen queens who trade nasty barbs, while Tony Curtis plays the sleazy agent/husband of Novak’s character and Rock Hudson plays the film-director husband of Taylor’s character. Naturally, there’s a mistress in the mix, as well. Made without any pretense to sophistication, the film is bitchery. Looking in a mirror, Taylor’s character coos, “Bags, bags, go away, come back again on Doris Day.” Another gem: “I could eat a can of Kodak and puke a better movie.” You get the idea. Lansbury is great fun whenever she’s onscreen, and in retrospect her performance seems like an audition for the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996). Yet for much of the movie, she’s absent, with Fox doing the heavy investigative lifting. As for the big names, Curtis, Hudson, and Taylor are cartoonish but appealing, while Novak is embarrassingly bad.

The Mirror Crack’d: FUNKY

Saturday, July 16, 2016

1980 Week: Serial

          Perhaps more than any other American movie released in 1980, Serial makes an appropriate cinematic headstone for the ’70s, meaning the spiritual ethos of that wild decade rather than the chronological decade itself. Set in California’s Marin County, that affluent enclave long maligned as a nesting place for overly entitled white folks with a weakness for cultural fads, Serial concerns a character who’s sick to death of people talking about feelings and self-realization and social issues, because what he really craves is the Eisenhower-era ideal of a secure career and a stable home. This protagonist enjoyed getting his rocks off during the anything-goes ’70s, and he’s hip enough to grasp why his daughter joins a cult and why his best friend becomes a swinger, but when the unchecked consciousness-raising of the ’70s leads his wife to seek meaning outside the home, enough is enough. Like the disappointed boomers whom Lawrence Kasdan depicted so sharply thee years later in The Big Chill (1983), the nominal hero of Serial is a ’70s man diving headlong into the consumerist, conservative ’80s.
          Based on a novel by Cyra McFadden, Serial has more in the way of concepts and themes than it does in the way of narrative clarity. Although the picture ostensibly tracks the adventures of businessman Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull), it’s really more of an ensemble piece. Similarly, although the picture fares best when it cruises along with verbal satire, director Bill Persky and his collaborators unwisely attempt laugh-out-loud farce at many points, such as the hellzapoppin climax. That stuff falls flat more often than not, and the chaos it creates adds to the sense that Serial is an unwieldy mess. After all, the movie involves gay romantic drama, a motorcycle gang, myriad sexual affairs, a suicide, and many other things. Will the real Serial stand up? And for that matter, does the title, which was extrapolated from the source material, really make sense given how the story evolved during the transition from one medium to another? Oh, well.
          Its discombobulated nature aside, Serial contains some wonderful stuff. Mull slays with his signature deadpan delivery, and his rendering of the line “I’m going to love-bomb the shit out of them” is priceless. The name of the movie’s cult, the Church of Oriental Christian Harmony, is a fabulous one-liner. Costar Sally Kellerman’s remark, “I want to talk about how I’m having trouble talking about it,” captures the ridiculous extremes of the Me Decade, as does the bit when Tuesday Weld, as the wife of Mull’s character, castigates Harvey for daring to criticize her daughter in front of friends: “Do you know what you’ve done to her peer-group dynamics?” Mention should also be made of Tom Smothers’ droll supporting performance as a hippy-dippy clergyman, as well as Bill Macy’s fine work portraying the hero’s confused pal. Alas, there’s a lot of stuff in Serial that is the opposite of wonderful. Christopher Lee is horribly miscast, and the portrayal of gay characters is grossly dehumanizing.

Serial: FUNKY

Friday, July 15, 2016

1980 Week: Middle Age Crazy

          During one of the many dream sequences that permeate Middle Age Crazy, successful but unhappy builder Bobby Lee Burnett (Bruce Dern) imagines that he’s on trial for the way he lives his life. “I find you guilty,” the dream judge declares, “of preventing your family from exercising their God-given right to tell you a bunch of shit you don’t want to hear.” That vignette illustrates everything that’s wrong—and right—about Middle Age Crazy. At a baseline level, the movie says something truthful about the way men of a certain era felt trapped after achieving the American dream. It’s the old “things you own end up owning you” conundrum. And yet the scene also illustrates that in order to solve his problems, all Bobby Lee needs to do is get the fuck over himself.
          Although technically released during the first year after the Me Decade concluded, Middle Age Crazy is infused with the absurd narcissism of the entitled suburban white male circa the late ’70s. Barraged by sociocultural messaging about self-actualization, Bobby Lee represents faceless millions who couldn’t tell the difference between having it all and having enough—which is why it’s tough to care about Bobby Lee’s journey. He’s so self-centered that he can’t appreciate what he has. Making matters worse, the film’s narrative problems are compounded by execution issues. Director John Trent has a clumsy touch for dramaturgy and pacing, so he presents the content of Carl Kleinschmitt’s bland script without any special spin. For most of its running time, the picture just sits there like a run-of-the-mill TV movie. While Middle Age Crazy would be disappointing under any circumstances, it’s especially irritating because the picture was one of two projects that helped derail the career momentum Dern gained with his Oscar nomination for Coming Home (1978).
          Dern earned his first shot at top billing in the early ’70s, headlining a number of interesting but unsuccessful projects, as well as a few outright turkeys, Coming Home gave Dern another chance. Middle Age Crazy and the perverse psychodrama Tattoo (1981) tanked, so Dern was thereafter relegated to supporting roles in expensive pictures and starring roles in low-budget indies. That said, Middle Age Crazy demonstrates why Dern was never destined for sustained leading-man status. Even when playing innocuous scenes, he’s got a strange twinkle in his eyes—and whenever his character gets angry, he’s frighteningly intense. Dern’s gifts include his bone-deep commitment and his myriad idiosyncrasies, so it’s a waste to put him in something as mundane as Middle Age Crazy, which was based upon, of all things, a song by Jerry lee Lewis.
          It doesn’t help that the actors surrounding Dern aren’t in his league. Ann-Margret makes a valiant stab at the thankless role of Bobby Lee’s crass wife, and the rest of the actors in this Canada/US coproduction are competent but forgettable. As for the story—yawn. Bobby Lee buys a fast car, sleeps with a younger woman (a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, no less), and tells an obnoxious client to take a hike. All of this plays out like an anemic version of Blake Edwards’ sexy hit 10 (1979), though the vibe is actually more grim character study than robust sex comedy. Despite flashes of insight, the movie is ultimately as middling as it is maddeningly mild.

Middle Age Crazy: FUNKY

Thursday, July 14, 2016

1980 Week: Any Which Way You Can

The box-office success of Every Which Way But Loose (1978) all but ensured that audiences hadn’t seen the last of Clint Eastwood playing Philo, a trucker with an orangutan for a pet and a side career as a bare-knuckle fighter. Whereas Every Which Way But Loose is an awful movie that can be explained away by assuming that Eastwood wanted a break from playing tight-lipped avengers, Any Which Way You Can is inexcusable crap. Rehashing the narrative elements of the previous film and sprawling across an absurd 118-minute running time, Any Which Way You Can is punishingly stupid. The die is cast during the opening-credits scene, a dull montage of a pickup truck driving while Eastwood and Ray Charles croon a ghastly country song titled “Beer’s to You” on the soundtrack. Then comes the insipid storyline. After being dumped by country singer Lynn (Sondra Locke) in the previous film, Philo retires from fighting, but gangsters offer him $25,000 to tussle with Jack (William Smith), a brawler with a reputation for beating his opponents to death. Meanwhile, Philo has misadventures with his drinking buddy Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and Orville’s foul-mouthed mother (Ruth Gordon). Everything unfolds predictably. Friends ask Philo not to fight, and then criminals blackmail him into participating. At regular intervals, the movie stops dead for musical performances (by Locke, Glen Campbell, and others), as well as scenes of Clyde defecating in police cars and sharing a hotel room with a frisky lady orangutan. At one point, Clyde cavorts to the accompaniment of a song called “Orangutan Hall of Fame.” By the time Any Which Way You Can reaches its nadir—cross-dressing bikers, a 20-minute fistfight, homophobic dialogue—the idiocy has become intolerable. Although Eastwood wasn’t done scratching his comedy itch (please give the 1989 clunker Pink Cadillac a wide berth), at least Any Which Way You Can ended the actor’s orangutan era.

Any Which Way You Can: LAME

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

1980 Week: The Idolmaker

          Based on the real-life experiences of Bob Marcucci, the rock-music impresario who led Frankie Avalon and Fabian to teen-idol fame in the 1950s, this heavily fictionalized drama is forever on the cusp of becoming as formulaic and trite as the average made-for-TV biopic. Happily, the innate skills of the participants elevate the material just enough to keep The Idolmaker interesting, and the way the protagonist comes across as a hard-driving prick neutralizes any accusations that the piece is mere hagiography. Another reason The Idolmaker merits attention is that it marked the big-screen debuts for several notables: In addition to being the first feature directed by Taylor Hackford, who broke big two years later with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), this movie introduced actors Peter Gallagher and Joe Pantoliano.
          Primarily set in New York City, The Idolmaker follows the adventures of Vincent Vacari (Ray Sharkey), an ambitious songwriter who realizes that his ethnic look and receding hairline will prevent him from becoming a star. Channeling his energies into talent management, Vincent discovers swaggering sax player Tomaso DeLorusso (Paul Land), then gradually transforms the young man into a heartthrob with the stage name “Tommy Dee.” Success follows, as do problems. Tommy’s ego grows out of control, and he dallies with underage groupies. Meanwhile, Vincent develops a love/hate relationship with Brenda Roberts (Tovah Feldshuh), editor of a teen-idol fan magazine—instead of collaborating with Brenda, Vincent competes with her. Like so many people in show business, Vincent suffers from a mixture of insecurity and vanity, because he can’t reconcile his behind-the-scenes success with his desire to perform onstage. Eventually, Vincent realizes he can’t rely entirely on Tommy, so he grooms a new foundling, Guido (Peter Gallagher), into Caesare, using a hype campaign to create the impression that Caesare is a star before he’s performed in public. The mind games that Vincent plays with Guido/Caesare push tensions in Vincent’s life to a breaking point.
          Featuring original songs penned by Brill Building stalwart Jeff Barry, The Idolmaker has authenticity to spare. Hackford shoots concert scenes well, and he shapes performances meticulously. The movie’s a bit too squeaky-clean, giving drug use and illicit sex the arm’s-length treatment, and the script (credited to Edward Di Lorenzo) falls into highly predictable rhythms. Gallagher’s performance is a problem, as well. Attacking scenes way too vigorously, he shows his lack of experience and frequently seems ridiculous. However, this is Sharkey’s movie from top to bottom. Reaching a career pinnacle that earned him a Golden Globe, Sharkey incarnates a very specific kind of fast-talking hustler, while also showing aspects of sensitivity and wounded pride that make the songwriting aspect of the character believable.

The Idolmaker: GROOVY

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

1980 Week: Little Miss Marker

          Envision The Sting (1973) without the zing, and you get an idea of what to expect from Little Miss Marker, a crime-themed comedy set in the Depression. Based on a vintage Damon Runyon story and written and directed by Hollywood vet Walter Bernstein, the movie wants desperately to recapture the effervescence of classic screwball comedies. It doesn’t. But thanks to star power and slick production values, the movie is watchable, provided your tolerance for schmaltz is high. Little Miss Marker is one of myriad movies featuring the perpetually crusty Walter Matthau as a cynical loner softened by the experience of becoming the surrogate parent to a sweet child. Adding to the movie’s sugar level is the presence of leading lady Julie Andrews. While her screen coupling with Matthau stretches credibility, her innate dignity elevates the whole production. Matthau plays “Sorrowful” Jones, a pitiless bookie forever at odds with local gangster Blackie (Tony Curtis), whom Jones has known since childhood. One day, a client who doesn’t have the cash to pay off a bet leaves his six-year-old daughter, “The Kid” (Sara Stimson), as collateral. When the girl’s father fails to return on schedule, Jones takes the Kid home as a means of protecting his investment.
          Limp comedy stems from the farcical situation of Jones trying to play homemaker. Later, once Jones learns that the Kid’s father has died, he resists turning her over to authorities, ostensibly because doing so would require Jones to explain his criminal enterprise. In reality, of course, he’s fallen for the kid and wants to protect her from the big, bad world. Complicating matters is Blackie’s scheme to open a new gambling joint, with money borrowed from Jones, and to fix a horse race involving a thoroughbred owned by society dame Amanda (Andrews). Figuring out where all this stuff is headed doesn’t require much imagination. When Runyon wrote the original story in 1932, the narrative might have seemed fresh and fun. Nearly 50 years later, the cocktail lost its fizz. Had Bernstein presented Little Miss Marker with a frenetic pace and  different casting (namely, someone with more sass than Andrews), he might have put the thing over. Instead, he made something passable bordering on tedious. That said, one can do worse than watching the talented cast—which also includes Brian Dennehy, Lee Grant, Kenneth McMillan, and Bob Newhart—strut their stuff.

Little Miss Marker: FUNKY

Monday, July 11, 2016

1980 Week: My Bodyguard

          Note: While I'm on vacation, please enjoy a double-dose of 1980 movies with two weeks of brand-new posts about the year that brought the '70s to a close. Included in this super-sized batch of 1980 reviews are two movies recently requested by readers. Regular reviews of 1970s features will resume on Monday, July 25. Meantime, keep on keepin' on!
          Charming but slight, this crowd-pleaser about a pair of high-school misfits who yank each other from their doldrums was the promising directorial debut of actor/producer Tony Bill, whose subsequent output has been merely competent. Seen with hindsight, My Bodyguard is pocked with rough edges, including awkward tonal shifts and threadbare dramatic transitions. However, the endearing work of the two leads blends with an overall humanistic sensibility to cast the movie in a warm glow from start to finish. Therefore, even though the film's basic storyline is a clichéd underdog saga, only the most hard-hearted viewer can resist the pull of My Bodyguard. Set in Chicago, the picture concerns nebbish teenager Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace), who transfers from a private academy to a tough public school. Clifford's father, Mr. Peache (Martin Mull), is the live-in manager of a posh hotel, but Mr. Peache is forever distracted by the antics of his aging mother. Gramma (Ruth Gordon) is a cheerful eccentric who spends her evenings making outrageous sexual overtures to men in the hotel bar.
          Upon arrival at his new school, Clifford recklessly embarrasses the school bully, Moody (Matt Dillon), thereby making a permanent enemy of the punk who shakes down nerds for lunch money. Meanwhile, Clifford becomes aware of a mysterious classmate named Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), who is rumored to have missed school because he murdered someone. Once Clifford meets Ricky, he recognizes a kindred spirit—someone misunderstood for his sensitivity—even though Ricky is physically formidable because he's bigger and older than his peers. After one too many run-ins with Moody and his goons, Clifford hatches a wild idea and hires Ricky to serve as his bodyguard. Although there's little suspense regarding whether the main characters will overcome their differences, somehow it all works.
          Whenever Clifford and Ricky celebrate their newfound companionship (as in the climactic scene of a long motorcycle ride through city streets), the effect is genuinely uplifting. Similarly, the final showdown between the heroes and their enemy is as thrilling as it is simplistic. Dave Grusin's robust music keeps the movie energetic and propulsive, while judicious editing (credited to Stu Linder) keeps scenes focused and tight. Yet it’s the performances that make My Bodyguard fly. Dillon and Makepeace, both of whom had just begun their film careers, fill the screen with believable emotions, while Baldwin, in his movie debut, tears into the colorful role of a gentle giant with a traumatic past. Others in the solid cast are John Houseman, playing an enjoyably contrived cameo role, and the very young Jennifer Beals and Joan Cusack, both of whom play dorky students.

My Bodyguard: GROOVY

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Doll’s House (1973, UK) & A Doll’s House (1973, USA)

          In an odd coincidence, two films of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House arrived in 1973, one in theaters and one on television. Both take place in 19th-century Norway, where housewife Nora revels upon hearing that her husband, uptight banker Torvald, has earned a major promotion, because the change marks an end to the family’s monetary woes. When Torvald fires a subordinate named Krogstad, the disgruntled man blackmails Nora with evidence that she once forged documents for a bank loan. The ensuing melodrama reveals what little respect Torvald has for his wife—hence the title, which refers to men treating women as playthings. Given the story’s ultimate theme of a woman’s self-realization, it’s obvious why the material seemed timely during the early feminist era.
          The British version, ironically enough, has American roots. It’s a filmed record of a Broadway production that was adapted from Ibsen by the celebrated UK playwright Christopher Hampton. The Broadway show featured revered British actress Claire Bloom in a tour-de-force performance, and Bloom re-creates her meticulous work in the movie. Director Patrick Garland largely ignores any cinematic possibilities in the play, opting for intimate scenes taking place on fully dressed approximations of the stage production’s sets. At his worst, Garland slips into bland cuts back and forth between flat close-ups, particularly during the final, lengthy showdown between Nora and Torvald. What Garland’s A Doll House lacks in visual imagination, however, it makes up for in dramatic firepower.
          Bloom runs the gamut from frivolous to manic to regal, and her costar—the sublime Anthony Hopkins—imbues Torvald with a mixture of inflated ego and repressed desperation. Playing key supporting roles are Denholm Elliot, bitter and cruel as the maligned Krogstand, and Ralph Richardson, elegantly sad as Nora’s aging friend, Dr. Rank. One can’t help but wonder what a filmmaker more adept at stage-to-screen adaptations, perhaps Sidney Lumet, could have done with the raw material of these finely tuned performances, but at least theater fans can savor great work forever. Plus, in any incarnation, Ibsen’s prescient notions about women liberating themselves pack a punch. Consider this passage from the British film: After Torvald exclaims, “No man would sacrifice his honor for love,” Nora replies, “Millions of women have.”
          Seeing as how Jane Fonda was a fierce combatant on the front lines of the ’70s culture wars, it’s not surprising she felt Ibsen’s statement merited a fresh adaptation. Alas, she proved unlucky twice. First, she clashed with director Joseph Losey, and second, she completed her project after the UK version had already reached theaters. That’s why the Fonda film landed on TV—producers rightly estimated the limits of the public’s appetite for this material. In nearly every way, Losey’s take on A Doll’s House is inferior to the Bloom/Hopkins version, even though Losey’s comparatively sophisticated camerawork creates more visual interest than Garland’s stodgy frames.
          The big problem is that the casting never clicks. Fonda gives an adequate performance, with intense moments of fervor and physicality weighted down by stilted readings of classical-style dialogue. Viewed in context, she’s an outlier. Fine European actors including Trevor Howard (as Dr. Rank) and David Warner (as Torvald) seem natural delivering reams of ornate dialogue while stuffed into period costumes, but none of them truly connects with Fonda—her performance exists in isolation from the rest of the picture. Plus, since the gangly Warner somewhat resembles a frequent Fonda costar, it’s impossible not to picture Donald Sutherland in the Torvald role and wonder what that dynamic might have been like. That said, Edward Fox is excellent in the Krogstand role, radiating predatory heat. Yet the thing that should have supercharged this spin on A Doll’s House, Fonda’s offscreen passion for gender equality, makes key moments feel more like stand-alone political speeches instead of organic elements of interpersonal confrontation.

A Doll’s House (UK): GROOVY
A Doll’s House (USA): FUNKY

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979)

           Detailed, lengthy, and somewhat meticulous, this made-for-TV dramatization of heiress Patricia Hearst’s kidnapping and reconditioning by political radicals offers an adequate recitation of an event that ranks among the most notorious episodes in 1970s America. The title is a bit of a misnomer, partially because the protagonist is the FBI agent supervising the search for Hearst, and partially because the filmmakers fail to provide real insight into Heart’s psychological state. This is outside-in storytelling rather than inside-out, so a more accurate title would have been The Search for Patty Hearst. Yes, the picture depicts all the infamous moments, such as Heart’s participation in a bank robbery, but this is not the same as trying to explain Hearst’s experience of Stockholm Syndrome. Moreover, while TV mainstay Dennis Weaver is serviceable in the leading role of the FBI agent, Lisa Eilbacher isn’t given room to explore all of Hearst’s complicated dimensions. The actress is good enough in the most important scenes that one wishes the filmmakers had put her front and center.
           Shot in a slick but unadorned style, with some scenes energized by handheld, verite-style camerawork, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst opens by setting up the circumstances of FBI agent Charles Bates (Weaver). A veteran investigator, he’s facing professional obstacles including the imposition of a new mandatory retirement age and various public outcries for government transparency following the Watergate controversy. When Hearst is kidnapped, he’s under a microscope in every way imaginable. Worse, his investigation is hampered because most leads emanate from the San Francisco counterculture, and the denizens of that realm harbor profound anti-law-enforcement sentiments. Disappointingly, the filmmakers portray Bates as a saint with a badge, so even when his investigation stalls, we’re expected to root for his success. Employing hagiography techniques is not the best way to instill the viewer with confidence in the credibility of storytelling. The scenes with Hearst have more edge. She’s taken at gunpoint from her home, tossed in a lightless closet, tormented with propaganda and psychological seduction, and generally disengaged from her own identity over the course of weeks-long captivity. Eventually, she is rechristened Tania, a soldier in the Symbionese Liberation Army, so it’s Tania, rather than Hearst, who carries a machine gun into the bank robbery alongside SLA comrades.
           Again, seeing this stuff is one thing, but making us feel and think what Hearst did is another, and the higher ambition is beyond this project’s scope. Still, the see-it-now method renders a few vivid sequences, notably the violent standoff between police and an SLA contingent in Watts, and the score by John Rubenstein adds layers of eeriness and tension. Better still, the filmmakers do a fair job of explaining how leads and legwork eventually led FBI agents to Hearst’s final hiding place, and the parallels that are drawn between internal conflicts at the FBI and similar friction within the SLA are interesting. Also worth nothing is the presence in the supporting cast of actors who later achieved fame: indie-cinema sexpot Rosanna Arquette, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul guy Jonathan Banks, and future horror-cinema fave Robert Englund.

The Ordeal of Patty Hearst: FUNKY

Friday, July 8, 2016

Hi-Riders (1978)

          Basically a biker flick featuring drag-racing cars instead of motorcycles, this moderately entertaining exploitation flick benefits from copious amounts of action as well as moody cinematography by Dean Cundey, who later became a favorite of directors John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis. In fact, the best reason to watch this forgettable picture is to savor the grainy shadows with which Cundey imbues the storyline. As for that storyline, it’s wise to set your expectations low and still leave room for disappointment. The gist is that Mark (Darby Hinton) and his girl Lynn (Diane Peterson) prowl the countryside in their tricked-out car looking for suckers to race. One night, they drag against thuggish Billy (Roger Hampton), a member of a gang called the Hi-Riders. He loses but refuses to pay his debts, so they chase after him and land at Hi-Riders HQ. After the gang’s leader, T.J. (Wm. J. Beaudine), sides with the newcomers, Mark and Lynn decide to hang out with the gang for a while. Later, when a young guy from a local town is killed during a drag race with a Hi-Rider, the man’s father, Mr. Lewis (Stephen McNally), sics rednecks on the Hi-Riders. Mark and Lynn get caught in the crossfire.
          Noting how much of this stuff is predicated on silly coincidences is futile, because the characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to care what happens. Still, Hi-Riders zips along fairly well. Burly Hampton is enjoyably nasty during early scenes, perky Peterson has fun spewing automotive trivia while playing an engine freak, and director Greydon Clark peppers the cast with a trio of familiar Hollywood players. Mel Ferrer and Ralph Meeker give indifferent performances as small-town cops, and craggy Neville Brand plays a bartender. Additionally, spunky rock tunes by a band called “Coyote and the Pack” fill the soundtrack. Does any of this high-octane noise mean anything, or will you even recall a frame of Hi-Riders after the credits roll? No, but the same could be said about most of the biker movies after which Hi-Riders is patterned. This is unapologetic lowest-common-denominator sludge, with exciting stunts and rebellious attitude and snarling bad guys, all set to the rhythm of roaring engines. 

Hi-Riders: FUNKY

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Darker Than Amber (1970)

          The first of numerous manly-man adventure flicks directed by Robert Clouse, Darker Than Amber is a grim piece of business filled with macho stoicism, nasty fistfights, and sexy babes. It’s escapism with a melancholy stripe, too brutal and tragic to pass for the average Saturday-matinee fluff, even though it’s not actually deep or probing. Beefy Australian Rod Taylor drives the piece with his appealing performance as quasi-investigator Travis McGee, a creation of prolific mystery novelist John D. MacDonald. McGee lives on a houseboat and shares adventures with his portly buddy, Meyer (Theodore Bikel). Although McGee claims to work only for a 50% finder’s fee whenever he recovers something a client has lost, he’s really a man of idiosyncratic but steadfast principles. Accordingly, the minor enjoyment of Darker Than Amber is watching how romantic entanglements with beautiful women draw McGee out of his shell and transform him into a violent crusader. Also noteworthy, of course, is the procession of 007-style spectacle and thrills, from mysterious dames hanging around gambling parlors to nefarious killers testing McGee’s mettle in personal combat. No viewer is likely to encounter anything in Darker Than Amber that he or she hasn’t seen before, but it’s a tasty slice of pulp fiction nonetheless.
          Things kick off when hulking thug Terry (William Smith) tosses unconscious beauty Vangie (Suzy Kendall) off a pier with a heavy weight tied to her legs. Unbeknownst to Terry, McGee sees the fall from a nearby boat and misinterprets it as an attempted suicide, so he rescues Vangie. This draws him into not only a love affair with the beautiful blonde, but also a dangerous mystery. Things get episodic very quickly, so there’s not much in the way of forward momentum, but most of the vignettes are interesting. For instance, a long passage of McGee getting dragged into a remote swamp by a would-be killer has an Elmore Leonard-esque sardonic edge. Kendall’s seductive quality bounces nicely off Bikel’s courtliness and Taylor’s swagger, while Smith, with his massive biceps and absurd bleach-blonde hair, channels villainy with characteristic focus and intensity. Better still, Clouse keeps things edgy and moody even when the story lags, finally shifting the movie into high gear with the brutal showdown between McGee and Terry that concludes the film.

Darker Than Amber: FUNKY