Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1979)

          Inexplicably taking its name from a 1939 romantic ballad that was recorded enough times over the years to become a crusty standard, the weak heist comedy A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square stars the American actor Richard Jordan as an amiable criminal operating on foreign soil. When the UK-made picture begins, Pinky (Jordan) earns parole from a British prison by way of good behavior, promising his jailors that he plans to make an honest living as an electrical engineer. Stretching credibility way past the breaking point, Pinky soon lands a job at a major bank—because, apparently, British financial institutions don’t perform background checks on prospective employees. Anyway, Pinky plays things straight until he inadvertently reconnects with local crime lord Ivan (David Niven), who coerces Pinky into helping Ivan and his crooked gang rob the bank. Various twists and turns ensue, most of which are predictable.
          Although neither writer Guy Elmes nor director Ralph Thomas add much to the vocabulary of heist movies—quite to the contrary, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square is thoroughly forgettable and generic—the filmmakers benefit from a pair of nimble leading players. Jordan, the handsome stage-trained actor who generally fared better with heavy dramatic material, is left adrift throughout much of the movie, because the filmmakers seem unsure about whether to present Jordan’s character as cocksure or sincere. Nonetheless, Jordan lands a few key moments with emotional authenticity, especially during scenes depicting his character under duress. Costar Niven, meanwhile, effortlessly steals the movie with his carefree-urbanite routine, even though the plot requires viewers to accept Niven as having the potential to become a cold-blooded killer. Still, whenever Jordan as the crude and swaggering American is juxtaposed with Niven as the masterful and suave Englishman, it’s possible to see the culture-clash patter the filmmakers presumably envisioned.
          Supporting players Richard Johnson and Oliver Tobias add welcome flavors to the mix as, respectively, a dogged police inspector and Pinky’s best friend. Lost in the shuffle, however, are actresses Gloria Grahame and Elke Sommer. Grahame’s role as the mother of Tobias’ character is inconsequential, and Sommer merely provides eye candy by wearing a succession of slinky outfits and appearing in a laughably gratuitous nude scene. Another problem with the choppily edited movie is the terrible music score by the normally reliable Stanley Myers; the main theme sounds like the house band from Hee-Haw trying to play the theme from The Benny Hill Show.

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Emma Mae (1974)

          Before drowning in the muck of ultraviolent exploitation pictures, independent filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka made this flawed but worthwhile melodrama about a young black woman who moves from the country to the big city and learns tough lessons about men, police brutality, and racism. A prime example of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement sparked by African-American directors who seized the means of production in order to ensure that stories about black life were told honestly—instead of through Hollywood’s reductive prism—Emma Mae features naturalistic acting by a no-name cast, real locations, and semi-documentary vignettes of Compton circa the mid-’70s. Although Fanaka’s weakest contributions manifest in the area of screenwriting, seeing as how Emma Mae spends most of its running time searching for a story, the filmmaker’s alternately compassionate and indignant perspective leads him to capture many things that feel relevant and true.
          The movie begins with recently orphaned teenager Emma Mae (Jerri Hayes) arriving in Los Angeles to stay with members of her extended family. At first, her young cousins resist the notion of a new peer in their household. Emma Mae quickly proves her mettle, however, by standing up to a male bully in a physical fight. She also evinces stronger sensitivity to social codes than her relatives expected, for instance recognizing that she shouldn’t tag along to a house party and drag down everyone else’s fun by becoming a fifth wheel. Eventually, Emma Mae becomes romantically involved with a young man named Jesse (Ernest Williams III), who makes his living as a small-time drug dealer. When he’s arrested and thrown in jail, Emma Mae stands by her man, organizing friends and relatives to work at a car wash in order to raise bail money. When the cash Emma Mae earns at the car wash proves insufficient, she takes even more drastic measures, only to get slapped in the face by harsh realities.
          Fanaka lets the story meander at regular intervals, lingering on peripheral scenes such as a sexy young woman belly-dancing to attract car-wash customers, and some of Fanaka’s narrative choices are downright random, notably the vignette of Emma Mae’s clothes catching on fire during a party. Additionally, there’s only so much any filmmaker can accomplish with amateurish actors and dodgy technical execution. Nonetheless, Emma Mae—which is occasionally marketed under the ridiculous alternate title Black Sister’s Revenge—is worlds away from the ugly trash with which Fanaka is normally associated, particularly the vile Penitentiary (1979) and its sequels.

Emma Mae: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Leadbelly (1976)

          Offering a simplistic overview of major events in the life of legendary blues/folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly’ or “Leadbelly” because of his muscular build, the slick biopic Leadbelly dramatizes the cause-and-effect relationship between Ledbetter’s difficult life and the soulful quality that infused his performances. Born in 1888 Louisiana, Ledbetter grew up in the racially divided South, eventually spending many years on chain gangs and in state prisons because his temper caused trouble and his race ensured that mercy from government officials was in short supply.
          Completely eschewing Ledbetter’s post-prison life, during which he had a complicated relationship with success, the movie kicks off with a long sequence illustrating why Ledbetter left home. After achieving minor local fame as a musician, Ledbetter (Roger E. Mosley) gets into a brawl with a neighbor who lodges a police complaint, so Ledbetter’s long-suffering father, Wes (Paul Benjamin), tells his son to flee in order to avoid imprisonment. Absconding to a red-light district, Ledbetter becomes a kept man for a madam named Miss Eula (Madge Sinclair), who gives him his nickname while also teaching him musical lessons about the blues. Next, Ledbetter hits the road with fellow musician Blind Lemon Jefferson (Art Evans), but another fight lands Ledbetter in prison. He escapes and lives briefly under an alias, but then he’s recaptured and sent to prison at Angola, where he serves a long term for a murder charge stemming from the death of a man whom Ledbetter claims he killed in self-defense. The movie then fudges history by combining major events that actually occurred during two separate stints at two separate jails—Ledbetter charms a governor into issuing a pardon, and Ledbetter’s music is discovered by iconic folk-song archivist John Lomax (James Brodhead).
          As directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Gordon Parks, Leadbelly is a notch more visually sophisticated than the average made-for-TV biopic of the same vintage, but in every other regard it’s quite ordinary. The script by Ernest Kinoy lacks depth, and only a handful of scenes involving supporting characters display real emotional power. In particular, a vignette of aging Wes visiting Angola and trying to buy Ledbetter’s freedom is a heartbreaker that says volumes about the black experience in the Jim Crow South.
          Having the vigorous Mosley play the title character at various ages is a problem, since slapping some gray into Mosley’s hair can’t mask Mosley’s youth, and the movie pushes Mosley’s talents way past their limits. He’s an appealing an expressive actor, and he does a fantastic job belting out Leadbetter’s tunes, but his range is far too limited for a role of this scope. In his defense, history seems to indicate that the real Ledbetter was often belligerent and self-destructive, so the choice to play the character as an underdog who overreacts to situations that challenge his manly identity is somewhat understandable. For all of its merits, however, Leadbelly leaves too much of the real Leadbetter story untold.

Leadbelly: FUNKY

Monday, March 2, 2015

Up! (1976)

          To create the fever-dream narrative of Up!, unlikely collaborators Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer—forever bonded by their mutual fascination with gigantic breasts—reteamed for the first time since Ebert wrote and Meyer directed the notorious big-studio flop Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). This time around, Ebert wisely used an alias to avoid tarnishing his status as a Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic. Since the crazy plot of Up! is riddled with tropes that Meyer put into nearly all of his movies, including satirical jabs at the Third Reich and vicious portrayals of duplicitous women, one suspects that Ebert’s primary contribution was the nonstop barrage of whimsically overwritten dialogue. (One character is referred to as “Gwendolyn, holy champion of fornication,” and a lurid piece of narration teases viewers thusly: “But where does the killer lurk still? Recall the clues, for there are no more.”)
          Beyond the movie’s weird approach to language, distinguishing characteristics of Up! represent pure Meyer excess—frenetic editing that renders coherence and logic nearly irrelevant; outrageously excessive close-ups of bouncing breasts and female pubic hair; lyrically composed nature tableaux that are really just tarted-up peeping-tom angles of happily humping humans; and, most importantly of all, a playfully perverse melding of sex and violence. Oh, and lest anyone miss the phallic meaning of the title, check out the way the right-side serif of the letter “U” is styled in the movie’s logo. Meyer was a man who embraced his pleasures wholeheartedly, so Up! was clearly designed as a compendium of things that got him off, whether that comprised ogling a pair of massive mammaries or portraying a Hilter-like character as a grotesque bisexual who pays men and women to abuse him. (Brace yourself for the sound effects during the rear-entry scene in “Adolph Schwartz’s” sex dungeon.)
          The weird storyline of Up! begins with the murder of the Hitler character by a masked assailant, and then tracks the adventures of buxom drifter Margo Winchester (Raven De La Croix). After being raped and left for dead, Margo gets a job at a diner run by closeted lesbian Sweet Li’l Alice (Janet Wood) and her put-upon boyfriend, Paul (Robert McLane). Soon, Margo becomes lovers with both Paul and corrupt local sheriff Homer Johnson (Monty Bane), even as the identity of the masked killer remains unknown. While the movie’s  narrative is really just a slender clothesline on which Meyer hangs lots of softcore sex scenes, the story also includes bizarre interludes of ultraviolence. In the strangest such passage, not one but two different men recover from massive axe wounds during a brawl that occurs simultaneously with a gang rape.
          Even at his best, Meyer’s crude and maniacal comic sensibility was hard to take, and Up! does not reflect Meyer at his peak. Rather, the picture arrived near the end of his long run as an exploitation kingpin, since he only made one more fictional feature before retiring his stockpile of dildos and Nazi paraphernalia. Although Meyer displays enough skin for even the most depraved viewer, complete with periodic appearances by famed stripper Kitten Navidad as the film’s nude hostess/narrator, Up! can’t muster the zing of prior Meyer epics. Except for brief interludes of surreal glee, the movie is grotesque instead of irreverent, and trashy instead of titillating. Even the climactic nude knife fight between two bodacious ladies in a riverbed fails to generate the cheap thrills that it should.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Love and Bullets (1979)

          Executed with considerable polish and filled with familiar faces, Love and Bullets feels suspiciously like a real movie. After all, it’s ostensibly a crime thriller, and it stars Charles Bronson, who enjoyed more than a few successes in the realm of violent cinema. Yet the story has one of the most anemic second acts in screenwriting history, and the characters are preposterously undercooked. Adding to the list of shortcomings is a typically amateurish performance by leading lady Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife and his onscreen foil is far too many pictures. Having said all that, Love and Bullets has a few enjoyable passages of action and/or suspense, so even if the movie is the filmic equivalent of empty calories, at least some of the scenes have flavor.
          Bronson plays Charlie Congers, a detective based in Phoenix, Arizona. Federal agents show up one day and ask Charlie to travel to Europe, where onetime mob girlfriend Jackie Pruitt (Ireland) is in hiding. The Feds believe Jackie has incriminating information on big-time gangster Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger), her former lover, but the Feds offer convoluted reasons why they can’t cross international borders in order to collect Jackie. Charlie accepts the assignment, and before long he and Jackie are on the run from Joe’s hit men, who want to prevent Jackie from testifying. Naturally, the fugitives fall in love. The unusual wrinkle, which should have energized the story but never ends up adding much of anything, is that Jackie doesn’t actually have any useful knowledge about Joe’s criminal activities. Therefore, all the danger that arises from Charlie’s mission is pointless, which has the effect of making the movie feel pointless, as well.
          Despite the inconsequential story, the sleek surfaces of Love and Bullets offer minor pleasures—as is true for most of the movies directed by reliable journeyman Stuart Rosenberg, best known for a series of Paul Newman collaborations including Cool Hand Luke (1967). During one imaginative sequence, for instance, Charlie makes a blowgun out of found objects and then uses the weapon to dispatch several would-be assassins. Additionally, the tightly wound score by Lalo Schifrin evokes the menace of Jerry Goldsmith’s music and a bit of the whimsy of Ennio Morricone’s, so the movie has a lively soundtrack. Colorful players including Val Avery, Bradford Dillman, Michael V. Gazzo, Paul Koslo, Strother Martin, and Henry Silva attack their supporting roles vigorously, compensating mightily for Ireland’s tone-deaf acting. Bronson is just Bronson, familiar but formidable. And then there’s Steiger, shouting and strutting through one of his signature overwrought performances. Rarely has so much effort been exhausted to portray a character of so little importance.

Love and Bullets: FUNKY

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pigs (1972)

Throughout film history, enterprising actors have become producers in order to generate highbrow showcases for their talents. Occasionally, however, thespians bereft of marquee names have taken the opposite tack of producing exploitation films, presumably because those are the only types of pictures for which they can raise the necessary capital. So it is with Pigs, one of the strangest vanity projects of the '70s. Actor Marc Lawrence, screen veteran known for supporting roles as gangsters and other such thuggish types, wrote, produced, and directed Pigs, and he even cast his daughter, Toni, in the leading role. It’s worth noting that Pigs is a gruesome horror movie about an insane farmer who feeds murder victims to swine—just the kind of subject matter most people explore while making home movies their kids. Although Pigs eventually provides the gutter-level thrills that viewers might expect, namely gory murder scenes and nasty (but not explicit) images of farm animals chomping on human flesh, there's virtually nothing to recommend in this equally vacuous and vulgar picture. Characterization and narrative tension are barely discernible, the acting runs the short gamut from perfunctory to substandard, and the long wait between "exciting" scenes make the picture's 80-minute running time feel much longer. Amid lots and lots of screaming, the movie also includes several truly ugly scenes, such as the one during which Toni Lawrence’s character castrates a would-be lover with a straight razor. (One can only imagine the therapy bills that arose from Marc Lawrence asking his daughter to play this scene.) Furthermore, to indicate how far removed Pigs is from recognizable human reality, consider this line of dialogue, spoken by the inept sheriff (Jesse Vint) tasked with investigating reports of bloodshed at the swine farm: "I don't think there's a law against turning dead people into pigs." Maybe not, but perhaps there should be a law against making movies like this one.

Pigs: LAME

Friday, February 27, 2015

Scorchy (1976)

          Confusing, dull, and ugly, the crime thriller Scorchy stars sexy actress/singer Connie Stevens as an FBI agent who works undercover as an international smuggler. The general thrust of the story is that the heroine's life becomes complicated once she learns that a wealthy acquaintance has become a smuggler, meaning that to catch a criminal she must betray a friend. Not exactly the freshest story. In fact, the only things separating Scorchy from the average TV movie of the same era are gory kills and topless shots. That said, lurid action movies have their low pleasures, so it's not as if a film of this type needs to accomplish much. Yet meeting even minimal expectations is more than the folks behind Scorchy can manage. The storyline is needlessly convoluted, as evidenced by the presence of at least three major villains; character development and recognizable human emotion are as absent from the script as basic logic; and the stop-and-start pacing makes Scorchy feel disorganized, episodic, and repetitive.
          For example, the movie stops dead halfway through its running time for an epic chase scene that involves characters pursing each other on foot, in a commuter train, on dune buggies, and finally on motorcycles, suggesting the filmmakers wrongly assumed that a big jolt of action would generate a few moments of interest. Alas, because the action is staged as clumsily as everything else in Scorchy, the chase scene does not have the desired effect. The movie’s banter is just as bad. After Stevens' character tells her supervisor that he should relax by saying, "You need a good blowjob," he cheerfully replies, "You're a fruitcake, you bitch." Stevens, who found her biggest success as a Las Vegas entertainer, is attractive but vapid, and the caliber of the supporting cast is reflected by the inclusion of future small-screen player Greg Evigan (BJ and the Bear), who made his big-screen debut with Scorchy. Only B-movie veteran William Smith, playing one of the many villains, delivers the kind of teeth-gnashing intensity one expects from this sort of slop. Adding insult to injury, some available prints of Scorchy feature a godawful synthesizer score that was added to the movie for its VHS release in the 1980s.

Scorchy: LAME

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wuthering Heights (1970)

          Despite its enduring stature as one of the most exquisite novels ever written, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) has yet to receive a definitive screen adaptation. If only by default, the most acclaimed version to date is a 1939 drama starring Laurence Olivier as brooding romantic antihero Heathcliff. Yet by dint of the era in which it was made, the Olivier movie is chaste, even though the level of implied sexual tension is high, so there was ample reason to revisit the material in the '70s, by which time restraints upon the depiction of taboo subjects had loosened. Ironically, however, pushing cinematic boundaries is not the defining characteristic of the 1970 Wuthering Heights, which was a rare venture into the world of highbrow cinema for B-movie specialists American International Pictures. Although Patrick Tilley's intelligent script both accentuates the lurid elements of Brontë's story and adds a few dark flourishes (such as intimations about Heathcliff's parentage), the movie is, by comparison to other pictures released at the same time, as restrained as the 1939 version was in its day.
          Making this stylistic choice even more surprising is the involvement of director Robert Fuest, who later made his name helming gory but visually inventive thrillers including The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Rather than running with the supernatural elements of Brontë's tale, Fuest and his collaborators offer a straight transposition of the novel, albeit with a handful of additions to and/or deletions from the original narrative. What emerges from this creative process is a movie that's perhaps a bit too respectable. The image-making, mood-setting, and storytelling are all exemplary, but leading actors Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton fail to generate the necessary romantic heat. Make no mistake, this isn't some uptight Masterpiece Theatre take on Brontë. Quite to the contrary, this Wuthering Heights is filled with betrayal and cruelty and heartbreak, often pitched at a high level of emotional intensity. The minor but important caveat is simply that the actors living inside Fuest's artfully composed frames don't reach the transcendent heights, no pun intended, to which they aspire.
          Still, there's a lot to admire here. The underlying story, of course, is remarkable—a twisted ordeal of capricious fate, overpowering love, and spiteful violence set against the metaphorically rich backdrop of remote estates dotting the hills and valleys of the English moors. Contributing fine elements to the movie are cinematographer John Coquillon, whose claustrophobic and crisp images capture the story's inherent fusion of danger and intimacy; composer Michelle Legrand, whose plaintive melodies speak for the characters' tortured souls; and title designer Maurice Binder, who sets the atmosphere perfectly with grim tableux of ragged peaks juxtaposed with overcast skies. Plus, even if Calder-Marshall and Dalton seem too controlled to get lost inside their animalistic characters, the performers look their parts thanks to unruly hair and wild eyes—the image of Cathy and Heathcliff as two halves of one otherworldly entity comes across clearly.

Wuthering Heights: GROOVY

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

End of the World (1977)

Given the popularity of disaster films in the ’70s, it was inevitable that some enterprising producer would make a movie about the apocalypse, and it was probably just as inevitable that the resulting film would be awful. Produced by grade-Z horror/sci-fi purveyor Charles Band, End of the World contains so many colorful elements that it should be a crap-cinema jamboree—the plot involves conspiracies, natural disasters, religion, and space aliens. Yet Band clearly held the purses strings tightly closed throughout production, so what viewers actually see are lots of interminable scenes featuring people talking about interesting things that are happening elsewhere. The opening scene includes a few weak pyrotechnic effects, and the finale showcases tacky sci-fi transportation effects that wouldn’t have passed muster on an episode of Star Trek. In between is an ocean of nothing. The plot, such as it is, concerns NASA scientist Andrew Boran (Kirk Scott), who detects weird signals beaming from somewhere on Earth into outer space. Meanwhile, news reports indicate a surge in natural disasters. Andrew and his wife, Sylvia (Sue Lyon), track the signal to a remote convent. Soon, Andrew and Sylvia discover that a priest named Father Pergado (Christopher Lee) is actually an alien in human disguise, and that he’s been sent to annihilate Earth lest the “disease” of humankind spread throughout the universe. All of the actors in the film (including the aforementioned plus big-screen veterans Lew Ayres, Macdonald Carey, and Dean Jagger) look bored, which is understandable, and not even the persistent bleeps and bloops of the tacky electronic score are enough to enliven the lethargic footage. Worst of all, End of the World isn’t so aggressively stupid that it achieves camp value. Instead, it’s just lazily stupid, raising the unanswerable question of why Band and his people bothered to waste time making this drivel.

End of the World: SQUARE

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Galileo (1974)

          Arguably the least compelling of the many high-minded films produced and/or distributed under the American Film Theatre banner, this dull adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play The Life of Galileo bombards the audience with eloquent scientific and theological debates without drawing viewers into the humanity of the story. It’s quite an accomplishment to make a bloodless film about a visionary who was persecuted as a heretic, but problems ranging from excessively arty cinematic flourishes to a overwrought leading performance consign Galileo to the realm of tedium almost from the first frames. Considering the damn thing runs 145 endless minutes, trying to find the redeeming values of Galileo is a chore, though such values do indeed exist. The film’s source material has an impressive history. After Brecht debuted his original German-language version, he collaborated with actor/director Charles Laughton on an English-language adaptation. The revered stage and film veteran Joseph Losey directed the first production of the English-language version, in 1947, and the play was revived in the 1950s before reaching the screen in 1974, again with Losey directing.
          Set in the time of the Inquisition, Galileo tells the real-life story of Galileo Galilei, a mathematician and astronomer who clashed with the Catholic Church by using telescopes to prove Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Rome persecuted Galileo because of the Catholic Church’s contention that man, made in God’s image, was the center of the universe. As Galileo unfolds, the conflict between the lead character and his religious opponents gets mired with socioeconomic issues, because Galileo needs patronage from the moneyed class in order to continue his endeavors, so the pressure to recant is powerful—even before agents of the Inquisition use torture to impose their will.
          All of this should be fascinating stuff, representing the eternal war between doctrine and logic, but Losey makes one stylistic misstep after another. The casting of Israeli actor Topol is the worst of these errors, because as evidenced in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Topol’s forte is portraying simple men with powerful emotions. Not only is his accent distracting, considering that nearly every other actor in the film is British, but Topol is too primal a creature to seem believable as one of history’s great intellectuals. The performance isn’t bad, per se, but it’s wrong for the context. Further distancing the viewer from the story is Losey’s use of a Greek Chorus comprising several high-voiced boys, who appear onscreen periodically to sing about the plot. Music becomes even more intrusive later, when the movie stops dead for an extended musical number during which a theatrical company within the story summarizes Galileo’s crisis in song. Several fine actors—including Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, and Michael Lonsdale—enliven supporting roles, and the production is generally quite polished and professional. Nonetheless, the lack of a beating heart at the center of the drama is a nearly fatal flaw.

Galileo: FUNKY

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cover Girl Models (1975)

          Ostensibly a thriller about beautiful American women mired in foreign intrigue, Cover Girl Models actually feels more like a dull melodrama about a horny photographer trying to score with his models, with an anemic subplot about Far East crime bubbling under the surface until the ludicrously contrived action finale. Like most exploitation films from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Cover Girl Models provides exactly the sort of cheap thrills that viewers might expect, including car chases and gunfights and nude scenes. Nonetheless, the picture is executed with so little imagination that it’s difficult to sustain even prurient interest, and the actress given the greatest prominence has the least screen presence of the three “cover girl models” mentioned in the title. The picture begins promisingly with a scene in Los Angeles, where acidic fashion editor Diane (Mary Woronov) instructs he-man photographer Mark (John Kramer) to escort three models to Hong Kong for a fashion show and a photo shoot. Unlike the rest of the picture, this one scene has a modicum of snap and wit. Then Cover Girl Models settles into its normal stultifying groove.
          Before leaving for his trip, Mark does a poolside shoot during which his mousy assistant, Mandy (Tara Strohmeler), accidentally gets doused, resulting in a wet T-shirt. Suddenly cognizant of her assets, Mark recruits her for the Hong Kong trip, along with busty and glamorous blondes Barbara (Pat Anderson) and Claire (Lindsay Bloom).  Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Mark spends his downtime trying to get his models naked on camera—since he moonlights for girlie magazines—and he romances whichever model seems the most amenable at any given time. Meanwhile, Asian criminal Kulik (Vic Diaz) takes advantage of the unsuspecting models by trying to hide illicit items in their luggage. Eventually, a suave Asian cop named Ray (Tony Ferrer) shows up to karate-chop bad guys and to protect the ladies from Kulik’s minions. The movie also features lots of slow-motion shots of ladies twirling in dresses. Yawn. With horrific lounge-style music undulating behind most scenes,  Cover Girl Models fails to generate excitement or novelty, except perhaps for one very strange line of dialogue: During a topless photo shoot, Mark tells Mandy that she’s wearing “the 49th-most luxurious g-string in the entire world.”

Cover Girl Models: LAME

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hollywood Man (1976)

          The basic narrative gimmick underlying Hollywood Man is terrific—a desperate filmmaker turns to the Mob for financing, only to have mobsters deliberately undermine his production because they want him to default so they own his entire life instead of just one movie. In fact, a similar concept appeared, probably by sheer coincidence, in Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty, which became the delightful 1995 comedy film of the same name. Anyway, Hollywood Man loses its way very quickly because the filmmakers get sidetracked with a boring subplot about friction between the enforcers hired by the mob to bedevil the indebted director. Moreover, characterization is not a strong suit in Hollywood Man, so even with charismatic B-movie titan William Smith playing the main role, it’s hard to get engrossed in what should be the story’s primary emotional journey. That said, the movie has some mildly entertaining high points, it moves along fairly well, and costar Don Stroud has a blast playing an arrogant stuntman.
          The picture starts in Hollywood, naturally, where actor/director Rafe Stoker (Smith) has invested $125,000 of his own money into a new biker movie, even though the genre—which made him a star—has mostly gone out of fashion. (There’s an element of autobiography here, since Smith, who cowrote and produced Hollywood Man, came up through biker movies.) The mogul who financed most of Rafe’s previous flicks refuses to give the director end money, instead referring Rafe to a mobster with deep pockets. Fully aware of the attendant dangers but desperate to complete his opus, Rafe offers his profit participation in other movies as collateral, thus motivating his benefactor to sabotage principal photography.
          Unfortunately, the makers of Hollywood Man, including veteran B-movie director Jack Starrett, lose focus once they introduce Harvey (Ray Giardin), an unhinged thug leading a team of brutal killers. In fact, the picture’s most dynamic scene—an epic slow-motion scene of Harvey slaughtering people on a beach with a machine gunhas very little impact on the main story. More relevant are fun behind-the-scenes bits, such as the vignette of Rafe debating with a stuntman over whether a shot of a bike jump is useable since the stuntman’s fake moustache came off partway through the gag. Hollywood Man isn’t a total loss, but it represents yet another missed opportunity to channel Smith’s animalistic intensity into a storyline as muscular as the actor himself.

Hollywood Man: FUNKY

Saturday, February 21, 2015

King Frat (1979)

A shameless rip-off of Animal House (1978) that outdoes the previous movie’s gross-out factor while giving only lip service to the antiestablishment attitude that gave Animal House its small measure of credibility, King Frat bludgeons viewers with 85 hyperactive minutes of scatological stupidity. Consider the atrocities of the opening-credits sequence. As the slobs of Pi Kappa Delta drive around in the fraternity’s official car—a hearse, natrually—the boys drink beer and moon everyone they encounter, culminating in the tender moment when J.J. “Gross-Out” Gumbroski (John DiSanti) breaks wind while mooning the nearby college president, who then drops dead of a heart attack. Instead of expressing concern for the fatality they just caused, the lads return to their frat house, thus completing the morning beer run. And so it goes from there. One of the Deltas is a Native American named Chief Latrine (Dan Chandler), of the Kissawang tribe. Yes, kiss-a-wang. Previous generations of Kissawangs helped name the school Yellowstream University, as Chief Latrine explains: “My ancestors pissed in the white man’s water for 50 years. White man never knew. Fucking dummies!” Can it get worse? Oh, yes, it can get worse. The centerpiece of the film is an epic farting contest from which “Gross-Out” is disqualified for the infraction of defecating in his pants while attempting to expel gas. There’s a running gag about a rival fraternity’s obsession with massive phalluses. A long scene features “Gross-Out” teaching a new frat brother how to induce vomiting, and “Gross-Out” demonstrates his technique by puking onto the active grill of a Chinese restaurant, where the cooks serve the frat boy’s regurgitated food to customers. There’s also a long sequence during which a dude wearing a gorilla suit is rushed to an emergency room because his persistent erection makes the young woman straddling him unable to detach herself. Even though cinematic history has proven there’s an audience for vulgar comedy, the makers of King Frat provide vulgarity without actual comedy. The kicker is that King Frat is filmed competently and that the storyline is clear (albeit outrageously derivative), so King Frat looks somewhat like a real movie even though the smell test reveals the truth.

King Frat: LAME

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Tamarind Seed (1974)

          After making a huge splash in the ’60s, thanks to Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), actress Julie Andrews mostly sat out the ’70s, appearing in just three movies that decade—all of which were directed by her husband, Blake Edwards. Interestingly, each of these pictures attempts to inject overt sexuality into Andrews’ wholesome image. Darling Lili (1970) overreaches by casting Andrews as a World War I femme fatale, and 1o (1979) boldly features Andrews as an aging beauty whose lover is tempted by a much younger woman. The role Andrews plays in The Tamarind Seed falls between these extremes, and the middle ground suits her talents well.
          Adapted by Edwards from a novel by Evelyn Anthony, The Tamarind Seed concerns average Englishwoman Judith Farrow (Andrews), who works as a secretary for an office of British Intelligence. While on vacation in the Caribbean, Judith is approached by suave Russian Feodor Sverdiov (Omar Sharif), who expresses romantic interest. Suspicious that he’s playing her for access to sensitive government information, Judith resists Feodor’s advances—only to have Feodor blithely admit that he was in fact tasked with seducing her. The twist, he says, is that he’s grown genuinely fond of her and wants to pursue a relationship despite the complications. Surprising herself, Judith accepts the overture and tries to make things work, even as spymasters from the UK and the USSR monitor the couple’s courtship as if it’s an ongoing international incident.
          Although the movie is ultimately a bit of a muddle, since Edwards can’t fully decide whether the film is a romance with an espionage backdrop or a spy story with a romantic backdrop, The Tamarind Seed has many virtues. The production is as lush as that of a 007 movie, right down to the participation of Bond regulars John Barry (composer) and Maurice Binder (title-sequence designer). Andrews gives a more credible turn as a cynical grown-up than you might expect, and it’s a startling to see Mary Poppins strolling around in a bikini. Sharif does his usual smug-stud routine, casually issuing such insulting lines as, “You don’t know how charming it is to meet an intelligent woman who does stupid things.”
          Better still, Edwards populates the supporting cast with fine actors including Dan O’Herlihy and Anthony Quayle, who do what they can to energize confusing subplots about double-crosses and moles and, surprisingly, an intelligence operative trying to keep his homosexuality secret. Quayle’s character sums up the whole distrustful milieu with a pithy monologue: “My line of business has taught me three things—no one’s to be trusted, nothing is to be believed, and anyone is capable of doing anything.”
          The Tamarind Seed gets mired in lots of repetitive material, from long scenes of Andrews and Sharif debating politics in exotic locations to quick vignettes during which high-ranking officials capriciously decide the fates of their underlings. It’s all quite sophisticated, but also sterile and, particularly in the realm of dialogue, pretentious. The movie is more rewarding than it is frustrating, but it’s a close call.

The Tamarind Seed: FUNKY

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

While it’s not as if the title Werewolves on Wheels raises expectations of superlative cinematic art, the very least the title promises is extensive footage of bikers turning into monsters. Alas, even that is more than the makers of this tedious flick can manage. Although the picture is photographed handsomely and benefits from brief interludes of eerie musical scoring, Werewolves on Wheels has such a thin storyline that long passages of the film comprise nothing but quasi-documentary footage of bikers hanging out, picking fights, and screwing their compliant female companions. Worse, lycanthropy is incidental to the narrative, since the principal drama—such as it is—stems from conflict between a motorcycle gang and the members of Satan-worshiping cult. After a dull first 20 minutes, during which viewers meet the interchangeable members of the gang, the story gains a smidgen of momentum once the bikers arrive at the weird temple occupied by the robe-wearing cultists. Led by a guru named “One” (portrayed by B-movie stalwart Severn Darden), the cultists ply the bikers with drugged bread and wine, then perform some weird ritual involving a sacrificed cat, a stolen hair, and the sexual violation of a girl from the biker gang. Once the bikers leave the temple, the ritual somehow has the effect of turning random bikers into werewolves, resulting in brief and unclear scenes of nocturnal monster attacks. (Although the movie is only 85 minutes long, the first werewolf doesn’t appear until nearly 40 minutes have elapsed.) Mistaking the murders for the direct handiwork of the cultists, lead biker Adam (Steve Oliver) leads his people on a revenge mission, only to have that endeavor subverted by a mass transformation of several bikers into canines. The climax of the film is an unexciting showdown around a campfire, during which the afflicted bikers wear silly hair masks and growl like children pretending to be monsters for Halloween. If anything of genuine interest happens in Werewolves on Wheels, it’s accidental and it passes quickly.

Werewolves on Wheels: LAME

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dixie Dynamite (1976)

          The rampaging-rednecks genre took a distaff turn in the mid-’70s, resulting in lowbrow pictures along the lines of Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976), ’Gator Bait (1974), and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976). Like the other members of its dubious cinematic breed, Dixie Dynamite grinds together various drive-in signifiers, resulting in a meandering string of chase scenes, explosions, leering glances at curvaceous bodies, and—because apparently no B-movie party is complete without one—a rape scene. While Dixie Dynamite has meager pleasures to stimulate the viewer’s reptile brain, expectations of good acting, meaningful storytelling, and social relevance should be set aside. Although Dixie Dynamite is far less exploitive than other pictures of the same ilk (since there’s barely any flesh on display), one should not form the impression that the filmmakers substituted substance for sleaze—erotic content is simply another item on the long list of things the film lacks. Oh, and don’t be fooled by Warren Oates’ top billing, because the grizzled veteran of myriad rough-and-tumble movies has perhaps 15 minutes of mostly inconsequential screen time.
          Rather than Oates, the picture spotlights forgettable starlets Jane Anne Johnstone and Kathy McHaley as, respectively, Dixie and Patsy Eldridge, the adult daughters of a moonshiner named Tom Eldridge (Mark Miller). When the picture begins, morally conflicted Sheriff Phil Marsh (Christopher George) escorts IRS agents to Tom’s homestead, where the agents try arresting Tom for tax evasion. Tom makes a run for it, and Phl’s overzealous deputy, Frank (Wes Bishop), opens fire on Tom’s car, causing an accident in which Tom is killed. Tom’s daughters, who were away from home at the time of the tragedy, initially respond by accepting help from family friend Mack (Warren Oates) and by seeking jobs. Yet local crime lord Dade McCrutchen (Stanley Adams) ensures the girls can’t catch a break. In fact, he’s out to displace every smalltime moonshiner in the county so he can gain a monopoly, and he was behind the IRS raid on the Eldridge place. Out of options, the Eldridge girls become robbers, distributing most of their loot to poor people, and they contrive a plan to get revenge on McCrutchen. Trigger-happy deputy Frank becomes a target as well, especially after he forces himself on Patsy.
          Even with colorful actors including R.G. Armstrong, George, and Oates in the cast, Dixie Dynamite fails to generate any real interest, though it’s borderline watchable thanks to an adequate number of action scenes. The movie even has some enjoyably ludicrous moments, such as the vignette of Oates’ character teaching the girls to ride motorcycles while a singer on the soundtrack croons, “There’ll be a sunshine highway if you’re going my way.” Also worth mentioning is the scene in which a villain gets launched into the air like a rocket when a bundle of dynamite explodes. Eagle-eyed viewers not lulled into submission by the general monotony of the movie might be able to spot Steve McQueen during a sequence depicting a dirt-bike race, because the actor plays an unbilled cameo.

Dixie Dynamite: FUNKY

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Grand Duel (1972)

          Squinty-eyed American actor Lee Van Cleef made so many spaghetti westerns in the ’60s and ’70s that the pictures are largely interchangeable. For instance, while The Grand Duel has its merits, it’s not memorable. The plot is the usual hokum about a righteous sheriff and a wrongly accused gunslinger, et cetera, and watching the movie is pleasant enough for fans of sweaty sagas about angry dudes killing each other in the desert. Furthermore, even though The Grand Duel lags considerably in the middle, the picture starts and ends well, and it provides a handful of exciting or at least vivid scenes along the way. Made in Europe in 1972 but not released in the U.S. until 1974, the picture—which is also known as The Big Showdown and Storm Rider—stars Van Cleef as Clayton, a lawman tracking down escaped convict Phillip Vermeer. (Phillip is played by handsome Italian actor Alberto Dentice, billed under the Americanized stage name “Peter O’Brien.”)
          Long story short, it seems Phillip was convicted of murdering a man known only as “Patriarch,” the overlord of a frontier town called Saxon City. Patriarch’s three sons, the Saxon Brothers, took over Saxon City after their father died, and the Saxon Brothers are convinced that Phillip was responsible for their father’s death. Clayton, however, claims to know for certain that Phillip is innocent, so after a long stretch during which it seems as if Clayton is either delivering Phillip to justice or planning to trade him for a bounty, a fragile alliance forms between the men. Meanwhile, thugs hired by the Saxons chase Clayton and Phillip through the barren wilderness until Phillip breaks from Clayton and returns to Saxon City so he can clear his name. Story-wise, nothing out of the ordinary.
          What gives The Grand Duel a modicum of zippy energy is the combination of predictable and unexpected elements. On the predictable side, Van Cleef commands attention with his man-of-few-words routine, making impossible gunshots and scaring people into retreat with his deadly stare and his vicious put-downs. Additionally, the picture has the usual spaghetti-western stylistic tropes—a histrionic score, grotesque-looking extras, wild zoom-in shots. On the unexpected side, the movie features an Old West spin on the ugly cliché of the gay psychopath, thanks to Klaus Grünberg’s gonzo performance as Adam Saxon. Wearing an all-white ensemble worthy of Truman Capote (picture a floppy hat and a flowing scarf), the Adam character seems genuinely perverse because he experiences orgasmic pleasure while mowing down a canyon full of innocent victims with a Gatling Gun. For better or worse, in the world of spaghetti westerns, wackadoodle intensity often represents an acceptable substitute for rational dramaturgy.

The Grand Duel: FUNKY