Saturday, October 25, 2014

1980 Week: The Sea Wolves

          Several veterans of the highly enjoyable military adventure The Wild Geese (1978)—including director Andrew V. McLaglen, star Roger Moore, and screenwriter Reginald Rose—reteamed for the offbeat World War II adventure The Sea Wolves. In fact, the original plan was to reunite all three main stars of The Wild Geese: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Moore. Alas, it wasn’t to be, so Moore costars in The Sea Wolves with the considerably older David Niven and Gregory Peck. As it happens, Niven and Peck are more appropriate casting, notwithstanding Peck being an American, since the story dramatizes a real-life incident during which a group of retired British cavalry officers were recruited for an espionage mission against the Nazis. Additionally, Niven and Peck had collaborated to strong effect in a previous manly-man adventure picture, 1961’s The Guns of Navarone.
          The Sea Wolves has a certain genteel charm owing to its old-fashioned presentation of Allied heroism and Axis treachery. However, the absence of the modern tonalities that McLaglen and Rose utilized so well in The Wild Geese—angsty antiheroes, twisted international politics—makes The Sea Wolves seem overly tame. The filmmakers’ attempts at integrating lighthearted comedy into the mix further diminish the life-or-death gravitas needed to make the derring-do scenes work. At its worst, the movie is flat and forgettable.
          Set in India, the picture begins by showing U-boats sinking British tankers, thus interrupting key Allied supply lines. British spies determine that information about the tankers is emanating from a radio transmitter hidden somewhere a port controlled by the neutral country of Portugal, meaning that no official invasion force can be sent to dismantle the transmitter. This situation gives rise to the bold idea of recruiting soldiers from the Calcutta Light Horse, many of whom are retired and living in India. Eager for another shot at military action, aging enlisted men train for their mission while the Light Horse’s officers—played by Moore, Niven, and Peck—conduct espionage in order to learn the exact location of the transmitter.
          Despite the tremendous appeal of the leading actors, The Sea Wolves is bogged down with predictable plotting and uninspired staging. Furthermore, the chemistry between the leads never clicks quite the way it did between the stars of The Wild Geese. Moore seems like he’s a generation apart from his costars, Niven looks bored, and Peck seems frustrated at playing such a vapid role after getting so much room to stretch in his two previous films, MacArthur (1977) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). One also suspects that McLaglen was exhausted after having directed two elaborate films—the larky ffolkes and the leaden Breakthrough—in the year prior to making the equally complex The Sea Wolves. Whatever the reasons, The Sea Wolves is watchable but a disappointment nonetheless.

The Sea Wolves: FUNKY

Friday, October 24, 2014

1980 Week: Brubaker

          Although his entire career is defined by conflict between artistic aspirations, political inclinations, and the seductive pull of movie stardom, Robert Redford hit an especially perilous juncture in 1980. He made his directorial debut with Ordinary People, in which he did not appear, and the project eventually earned Redford an Oscar for Best Director. His commitments to the U.S. Film Festival (later to become the Sundance Film Festival) were consuming more of his time. And the film industry’s steady slide toward corporate control was making it more and more difficult to secure financing for the kinds of grown-up movies that Redford produced in the ’70s. A moment of reflection was in order, so Redford took a four-year hiatus from acting following the release of Brubaker.
          These remarks are provided to give Brubaker some film-history context, since the movie is only so interesting on its own merits. An old-fashioned melodrama about prison reform, the picture boasts fine performances, an intense storyline, and unassailable morality. Yet it’s strangely forgettable in many ways. One problem is that the movie fictionalizes an amazing real-life saga, which has the effect of making the movie seem relatively trivial. (The lead character is based upon a reformer named Thomas Murton.) Another problem is the movie’s weak approach to characterization. The makers of Brubaker are far more concerned with demonstrating righteous indignation—and with showing the ugly extremes of inmate mistreatment—than they are with introducing viewers to distinct personalities. When combined with the film’s tendency to lapse into ornate speechifying whenever the title character decides to explain what’s wrong with the world, Brubaker ends up feeling more like a position paper than a proper drama. The movie is entertaining, if somewhat grim and pedantic, but it’s not vital.
          Redford plays Henry Brubaker, a warden who goes undercover as an inmate at the Arkansas prison he’s been hired to supervise. After witnessing abuse, bribery, graft, rape, and violence, Brubaker makes himself known to the prison population and then begins a crusade for reform that rattles officials in state government. The film’s large cast of top-shelf character actors is mostly wasted, since the picture is designed as the soapbox on which Redford stands while cataloging the ills of the Arkansas prison system. So, as pleasurable as it is to see Jane Alexander, Wilford Brimley, Matt Clark, Morgan Freeman, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Yaphet Kotto, Tim McIntire, M. Emmet Walsh, and others ply their craft, they all get crowded off the screen by vignettes that sanctify Redford’s character. However, since the making of Brubaker included behind-the-scenes tumult—original director Bob Rafelson was replaced, during production, with Cool Hand Luke helmer Stuart Rosenberg—the workmanlike nature of the picture is understandable.
          After his many exemplary achievements of the ’70s (All the President’s Men, The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Sting, The Way We Were), Redford had set an impossibly high bar for himself. Thus, seeing as how Brubaker arrived on the heels of yet another mediocre picture that squeaked out box-office success, The Electric Horseman (1979), it’s no wonder Redford wanted time to consider where to put his energies.

Brubaker: FUNKY

Thursday, October 23, 2014

1980 Week: The Big Red One

          Maverick B-movie director Samuel Fuller returned from a decade-long hiatus with The Big Red One, a World War II melodrama based upon Fuller’s real-life experiences as a soldier in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry. The picture closely follows a single squad’s experiences as the squad moves from one deployment to the next, spanning D-Day to the end of the war. Episodic, heavy-handed, and meandering, the picture is deeply flawed but nonetheless interesting. Among other things, The Big Red One doesn’t feature any commanding officers—the highest-ranking major character is a sergeant—so it’s very much a grunt’s-eye-view of combat. The soldiers in this movie follow orders without a sense of the overall conflict’s larger political and/or strategic significance, which makes the brutality the soldiers witness (and commit) seem especially gruesome. Additionally, Fuller has a great eye for locations, putting viewers right there in the muck and rubble with physically and spiritually existed Yanks as they plow through seemingly endless waves of enemy combatants. Because Fuller was not a subtle filmmaker, however, the movie’s realistic textures clash with the clunky themes of the storyline.
          For instance, the main emotional hook involves the squad leader, Sgt. Possum (Lee Marvin), who was traumatized years earlier when he unknowingly killed a German soldier moments after the World War I armistice was signed. Forever cognizant of war’s costs, Possum has zero tolerance for cowardice—and zero tolerance for avoidable bloodshed. Fuller pays off this character arc in the least believable way possible, ending the picture on a false note. Similarly, a subplot about Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) turns trite as Griff overcomes his initial cowardice during a highly unlikely moment of heroism.
          Despite all of its narrative excesses and shortcomings, The Big Red One has a hell of a climax, because—as Fuller’s squad did in real life—the movie squad liberates a concentration camp. Demonstrating uncharacteristic restraint, Fuller evokes the soul-shattering horror soldiers must have felt upon encountering the depths of human evil. Photographed in rich color by Adam Greenberg and held together by Dana Kaproff’s efficient musical score, The Big Red One is a grand old mess of a personal statement, which might explain why the film has suffered so much at the hands of outside forces. Although Fuller’s original version ran nearly three hours, Warner Bros. cut the picture to 113 minutes for its initial release. Commercial failure and complaints from Fuller about tampering followed. Years later, well after Fuller’s death in 1997, a restored version running 162 minutes was released to much approval by critics.
          In any form, The Big Red One is noteworthy because it’s so clearly a passion piece, and because the best moments ring true. As for Fuller, he remained undaunted by the box-office stillbirth of The Big Red One, directing one more American feature—the relentless race-relations melodrama White Dog (1982)—before transitioning to the small European films that comprise the twilight era of his long and singular career.

The Big Red One: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1980 Week: The Formula

          While it would be exaggerating to describe this conspiracy thriller as a massive waste of talent, it’s fair to say that the luminaries involved in the project should have been able to generate something more exciting. After all, stars Marlon Brando and George C. Scott both had Oscars to their names by the time they costarred in The Formula, and director John G. Avildsen had recently scored a major hit with Rocky (1976). Even the movie’s deep bench of supporting actors is impressive: John Gielgud, Marthe Keller, Richard Lynch, G.D. Spradlin, Beatrice Straight. Yet The Formula is talky instead of thrilling, and the mano-a-mano faceoff between the top-billed actors that’s promised by the film’s poster never really materializes. On the bright side, The Formula is a handsome-looking movie that benefits from intricate plotting and (no surprise) skillful acting.
          Written and produced by Steve Shagan, the picture begins with a prologue set in Germany during the final days of World War II’s European action. A Nazi general is entrusted with a shipment of valuable papers that Third Reich officials hope to trade for protection after Germany falls, but U.S. soldiers seize the shipment before the Nazi general can escort the papers to a safe place. Next, the movie cuts to the present, where LAPD Detective Barney Caine (Scott) begins investigating the murder of a former LAPD chief. Caine uncovers connections between the dead man and oil magnate Adam Steiffel (Brando), and he also links the dead man to various mysterious people in Europe. Despite skepticism from his superiors, Caine treks to Germany and discovers that the dead man was part of a conspiracy involving a World War II-era formula to convert coal into oil. The ramifications are huge, since replacing petroleum as the world’s primary source of fuel would change the global economic map. Intrigue follows as Caine chases leads with the help of Lisa Spangler (Keller), a German model whose uncle has a tragic connection with the conspiracy.
          The premise of The Formula is interesting and workable, so the problem with the picture is one of execution. Nearly all of Caine’s investigative work takes the form of personal interviews, and there’s a numbing repetitiveness to the way people get shot and killed by unseen assassins immediately after giving Caine vital information. Worse, since the hit men never seem to aim at Caine himself, there’s not much real tension. By the time the movie climaxes in a lengthy (and surprisingly casual) chat between Caine and Steiffel—one of only two scenes shared by Brando and Scott—a general sense of lethargy has taken hold. Still, nearly everyone contributing to The Formula does solid work, from the way Brando hides his character’s evil behind an avuncular façade to the way composer Bill Conti accentuates scenes with robust flourishes. However, because the story never reaches a boiling point, The Formula ends up feeling like an episode from a well-made TV detective show, albeit with fancier actors and more elaborate location photography.

The Formula: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

1980 Week: The Elephant Man

          Here’s one of my favorite bits of movie trivia—Mel Brooks is responsible for unleashing David Lynch on the world. Sort of. After expanding an American Film Institute student project into the bizarre feature Eraserhead (1977), Lynch caught the attention of a producer at Brooks’ short-lived production company, Brooksfilms. This led to Lynch getting hired as the director for The Elephant Man, which Lynch did not originate but which completely suits the filmmaker’s dark style. Thus, a connection was permanently formed between the funnyman who filled the Wild West with flatulence in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the experimentalist who combined huffing and rape in Blue Velvet (1986).
          Anyway, The Elephant Man is in some ways Lynch’s most accessible movie, even though it’s black-and-white, set during the Victorian era, and profoundly sad. Notwithstanding some flourishes during dream sequences, The Elephant Man is entirely reality-based, so Lynch doesn’t rely on any of his usual surrealist tricks. Instead, he demonstrates an extraordinary gift for stylized storytelling, because Lynch swaths this poignant narrative with a perfect aesthetic of murky shadows, silky rhythms, and undulating textures. (Lynch and his collaborators create such magical effects with editing, music, production design, and sound effects that the film seems to have a tangible pulse.) The director also guides his cast through masterful performances.
          Based on the real-life exploits of Joseph Merrick, an Englishman afflicted with neurofibromatosis, the movie tracks Merrick from the indignity of life as a circus attraction to the period during which he was accepted by polite society thanks to the patronage of a sympathetic doctor. Renamed John Merrick in the script, the character is a paragon of dignity, suffering the exploitation of cretins and the revulsion of gawkers without manifesting the rage to which he was surely entitled. The saintly portrayal tips the narrative scales, to be sure, but this approach suits the film’s overall themes: More than anything, The Elephant Man is about society’s inability to embrace unique people.
          When the story begins, Merrick (John Hurt) is kept as a virtual slave by a beastly carnival barker named Bytes (Freddie Jones). One evening, aristocratic Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) sees Merrick on display and marvels at Merrick’s deformities, which include an oversized head, a misshapen spine, and various large tumors. Treves buys Merrick’s freedom and contrives to find Merrick a permanent home inside a London hospital. Later, Merrick is presented to society and shown a mixture of pity and respect that he perceives as love. Crystallizing Merrick’s acceptance is his friendship with a famous stage actress (Anne Bancroft), who visits Merrick regularly without ever evincing disgust at his appearance. The demons of Meerick’s old life aren’t so easily kept at bay, however, because Bytes and other tormenters forever threaten to ruin Merrick’s salvation.
          Despite being made with consummate craftsmanship on every level (the movie received 10 Oscar nominations), The Elephant Man is painful to watch, simply because of the amount of suffering that Merrick experiences in every scene. Yet there’s great beauty to the film, as well, particularly during the heartbreaking final sequence, which is set to Samuel Barber’s exquisite “Adagio for Strings.” Part character study, part medical mystery, and part morality tale, The Elephant Man is a singular film of tremendous power.

The Elephant Man: RIGHT ON

Monday, October 20, 2014

1980 Week: Airplane!

          Not too long ago, I attended a speaking engagement by former Seinfeld writer-producer Peter Mehlman, during which Mehlman spent a few moments discussing Airplane!, the iconic disaster-movie spoof created by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. Mehlman recalled buying a ticket for Airplane! during its original release and watching the movie from his usual cynical remove—until the scene when Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) stops at an airport newsstand. Noticing a sly throwaway sight gag—the newsstand’s adult-magazine section is labeled “whacking material”—Mehlman turned to a fellow moviegoer and said, “I’ve really gotta start paying attention here.”
         And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of Airplane! Some of the jokes are inspired, some are merely okay, and some are silly, but there are so damn many jokes that watching Airplane! is like huffing pure comedy. “Don’t call me Shirley.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” “Give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.” “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” “Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.” And, of course, “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” (Devoted Airplane! fans will recognize that last line as a straight lift from 1957’s Zero Hour!, the vintage potboiler that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker used as the template for Airplane!)
          Densely packed into 88 minutes of nostop insanity, Airplane! not only slaughters the disaster-movie genre but takes the mile-a-minute comedy style perfected by Mel Brooks in the ’70s to an entirely new level. Devoting the least possible screen time to an actual story, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker treat every single line of dialogue as either a set-up or a punchline. They also discard logic and reason, as well as most laws of aeronautics and physics, to reach for jokes wherever jokes can be found. Death, drugs, gender, race, sex—it’s all fair game. And it’s all in good fun, because even though countless Airplane! gags are in bad taste, there’s not a mean-spirited millisecond to be found. The most unique element of Airplane! is the brilliant casting of supporting roles. Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker rightly reasoned that hiring dramatic actors to play their scenes with deadly seriousness would maximize the absurdity of the situations. Thus, square-jawed Lloyd Bridges, Graves, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Stack revived their careers by learning how to spoof their own images. (Nielsen ran the farthest with this opportunity, headlining the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Naked Gun franchise throughout the ’80s.)
          Not everything in Airplane! has aged well, with the disco gags and the bit about the Peace Corps volunteers teaching basketball to Africans feeling especially creaky, but the best stuff in Airplane! still kills. Stack pummeling solicitors while racing through an airport. Passengers lining up, with various weapons, to quiet a hysterical woman. Otto the Autopilot getting the best manual inflation in screen history. A preteen passenger shooting down an age-appropriate suitor by saying she takes her coffee “black, like my men.” The list goes on. Even though Airplane! is about a plane in danger of crashing, the movie reaches cruising altitude immediately and then keeps climbing all the way to the goofy finale. Hell, even the credits are funny: Playing on the familiar “Best Boy” credit, Airplane! acknowledges “Worst Boy: Adolf Hitler.”

Airplane!: RIGHT ON

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bug (1975)

          The final film produced by B-movie kingpin William Castle, Bug starts out like a standard-issue monster movie, then morphs into a tragic character study about a mad scientist. Later, Bug enters quasi-surrealistic terrain thanks to inexplicable character motivations, jarring lapses in story logic, and a gonzo finale peppered with apocalyptic overtones. Very little of what happens in Bug makes sense, but the film is strangely beguiling nonetheless. Bug opens with an impressive earthquake sequence that’s staged entirely inside a small church. Next, director Jeannot Szwarc’s probing camera reveals that giant, mutated cockroaches have invaded the small California town in which the church is situated. Meanwhile, the story zeroes in on Prof. James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman), a science teacher at the local college. Thanks to clues provided by townie Gerald Metbaum (Richard Gilliand), who witnessed strange phenomena in the desert, Parmiter determines that the cockroaches emerged from deep inside the earth after the quake. Evolved for survival under massive pressure, the bugs have the ability to spark fires. Yet Parmiter’s realization comes too late to prevent tragedies including the death of his own wife (Joanna Miles), so Parmiter seeks revenge against the killer insects.
          That’s when Bug drifts into craziness. Parmiter captures a specimen, holes up in a remote cabin, and performs experiments including crossbreeding the “firebugs” with common cockroaches. A diving bell is involved. Concurrently, characters wander around town as if nothing unusual is happening, even though citizens are dying from spontaneous combustion at a rapid clip. On one level, Bug is so outrageously stupid that it’s almost a comedy. On another level, the movie is fleetingly effective as a horror show, thanks to elaborate scenes of bugs crawling onto people and then bursting into flames. On a third level, Bug is fascinating simply because the storyline is constructed in such an eccentric way—for the last 45 minutes of the movie, nearly all the screen time is devoted to scenes of Parmiter hanging out with bugs in his makeshift lab. Dillman’s twitchy performance is fun to watch, even though his characterization is cartoonish and silly, and director Szwarc—who later returned to the shock-cinema genre with Jaws 2 (1978)—shoots the material for maximum pulpy impact. Not a single frame of Bug can be taken seriously, but insufficient credibility has never been on obstacle for enjoying creature features.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Human Factor (1979)

          Like many iconic directors who began their careers in the studio era, Otto Preminger fared poorly in the ’70s—with each successive picture, his old-fashioned style seemed more and more disconnected from current trends. Adding to the problem was the filmmaker’s apparent creative fatigue, because Preminger’s final films are even more static and talky than the ones he made in his heyday, which is saying a lot. This doesn’t mean, however, that Preminger had lost his ability find interesting material. Quite to the contrary, the director’s last feature film, The Human Factor, is an intelligent and restrained spy thriller adapted from a book by one of the genre’s grand masters, Graham Greene. Had a filmmaker with more passion tackled the project, The Human Factor could have achieved a much greater impact. As is, it’s respectable but unimpressive.
          Set in England, the story concerns two MI6 analysts, Marcus Castle (Nicol Williamson) and Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi). Castle has settled into a quiet existence with his wife, Sarah (Iman), a former spy whom he met while working for the UK in South Africa, and her son. Conversely, Davis hates the dull routine of a desk job, preferring the high life of nightclubs and women. When clues from within the USSR alert ambitious security officer Colonel Daintry (Richard Attenborough) to a leak in MI6’s African division, Daintry collaborates with a ruthless superior officer, Dr. Percival (Robert Morley), on an investigation into the activities of Castle and Davis. Describing any more of the story would reveal key plot twists, but suffice to say that Greene’s narrative plays provocative games with duplicity, personal agendas, and political affiliations, as well as the X factors of bloodlust and careerism.
          In fact, nearly everything about The Human Factor works except for Preminger’s direction. Tom Stoppard’s script is intelligent, if a bit mechanical, and the cast is excellent, with the exception of model-turned-actress Iman, who’s quite weak in this, her debut performance. Williamson defines a believable sort of middle-class discomfort, which is surprising to encounter in this context; Jacobi essays a would-be swinger whose style outpaces his substance; and Attenborough is terrific as a company man who maintains rigid control until he realizes the dangerous repercussion of his brazen maneuvers. Morley’s performance is a bit odd, for while he delivers lines with his usual panache, he often seems as if he’s reading dialogue from cue cards, and the lengthy sequence of Morley making exaggerated facial expressions while reacting to a topless dancer is unpleasant to watch. The stripper scene is one of many that Preminger both films unimaginatively and lets run to excessive length; these shapeless stretches dilute the story’s potential impact.
          The Human Factor eventually comes together in a credibly unresolved sort of way, since everyone involved in the story becomes affected by revelations and suspicions. Nonetheless, the movie isn’t nearly the elegant descent into darkness it should have been.

The Human Factor: FUNKY

Friday, October 17, 2014

Here Come the Tigers (1978)

Helmed by Sean S. Cunningham, who later found a niche in teen-themed horror by directing Friday the 13th (1980), this low-budget family comedy is a shameless rip-off of The Bad News Bears (1976). Like The Bad News Bears, this movie depicts a ragtag Little League team getting whipped into shape by a reluctant coach. Among other elements brazenly stolen from The Bad News Bears, the picture features a juvenile delinquent who becomes a star player and a soundtrack peppered with classical music. Yet while Bill Lancaster’s ingenious script for The Bad News Bears completely avoided the usual cute-kid excesses of family films by featuring a cantankerous coach and foul-mouthed youngsters, Here Come the Tigers is nearly as sickly-sweet as a Disney movie. In the bizarre opening sequence, kindhearted policeman Eddie Burke (Richard Lincoln) talks an older colleague out of committing suicide by agreeing to become a Little League coach. Then Eddie’s bumbling partner makes a bet on Eddie’s baseball success. These contrived circumstances set the stage for Eddie’s first encounter with his team, which includes such misfits as Art “The Fart” Bullfinch (Sean P. Griffin), whose distinguishing characteristic is indeed flatulence. By 10 minutes into the movie, which is about when the first scatological joke happens, it’s clear that viewers have traveled a long distance from the sharp satire of The Bad News Bears. Leading man Lincoln delivers a truly bland performance, and none of the child actors pop as memorable personalities. Additionally, all of the baseball scenes feel like limp re-enactments of bits from The Bad News Bears, complete with montages of botched plays and running gags about imaginative training techniques. Cunningham’s direction runs the gamut from basically competent to numbingly generic. There’s nothing to genuinely hate in Here Come the Tigers, since it’s a feel-good story about an adult teaching children to respect themselves, but there’s also no reason to watch a carbon copy of an infinitely better movie.

Here Come the Tigers: LAME

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Every ’70s Movie is Four Years Old!

Once again, it’s time to thank the many readers who visit Every ’70s Movie regularly, as well as the casual fans who pop in from time to time. Since this blog is very much a labor of love, feedback and readership stats are vital to letting me know that people dig the work. While the exact number of movies that meet the criteria for this blog remains a moving target, my best guess right now is that the tally will top out around 2,650 titles. As of this week, just over 1,500 movies have been reviewed, so the two-thirds milestone is visible on the horizon. To provide illumination for any who are curious, my criteria is roughly this—any English-language, feature-length fiction film that received a theatrical release in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 1970, to Dec. 31, 1979, is fair game. Because the story of ’70s cinema includes many other interesting colors, I’m also reviewing the era’s most significant documentaries, foreign films, and made-for-TV movies. To keep things lively, this year I introduced a recurring feature called “1980 Week,” so every three months, one seven-day week of this blog highlights releases from what could arguably be described as the last year of the ’70s. After all, nearly every 1980 release began its life cycle in 1979 or earlier. (The next “1980 Week” begins on Monday.) As I move through the back half of my master list of ’70s movies, more and more detective work—as well as other resources—will be required to track down copies of films, so I’ll close with my annual request for donations. (See the top of the blog's right-hand column.) If you enjoy this blog regularly, please consider helping out so I can tell the story of ’70s cinema all the way to the end. Meantime, thanks again for reading, and looking forward to chatting with you via the comments function.

The Dove (1974)

          Based on the real-life adventures of an American sailor named Robin Lee Graham, who began a five-year solo trip around the world while he was still a teenager, The Dove could conceivably have become a probing existential drama. Instead, the movie’s screen time is divided unequally between sailing scenes, which are interesting, and romantic interludes, which are not. The real Graham met and married a fellow American, Patti Ratteree, while he was traveling, so the filmmakers mostly treat Robin’s journey as an obstacle to his relationship with Patti. It’s only near the end of the picture that the filmmakers start using weather as a metaphor to investigate the deeper reasons why Robin felt compelled to prove himself. In particular, sequences of Robin enduring a horrific storm and suffering through a month of windless days feel like precursors of the excellent Robert Redford film All Is Lost (2013), which is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon as the most harrowing film ever made about a solo ocean voyage.
          The Dove, which is named after the small sailboat that Robin steered around the world, begins in L.A. with Robin (Joseph Bottoms) leaving port for his long voyage. So little backstory is provided that the leading character feels like a cipher at first, which means the early passages of The Dove provide little more than aquatic spectacle. The storytelling gets clearer—and far less distinctive—once Robin reaches his first major port of call, where he meets Patti (Deborah Raffin). Around the same time, Robin begins his love/hate relationship with a series of correspondents from World Travel magazine, which has an exclusive on his story. (In real life, Robin worked with National Geographic.) By about 20 minutes into its running time, The Dove settles into a repetitive pattern: sailing scene, dry-land scene with Patti and/or journalists, teary goodbye scene, then back to the beginning of the cycle for another loop.
          Although director Charles Jarrott and his crew do an adequate job of shooting nautical vignettes—the storm sequence is genuinely harrowing—the movie tends to lose energy whenever Robin docks his boat. Leading man Bottoms (one of actor Timothy Bottoms’ three younger brothers) performs with more sincerity than skill, so he’s rarely able to enliven stiffly written scenes, of which The Dove has many. Raffin fares much worse, since she was prone to wooden performances anyway; some of her line deliveries in The Dove are embarrassingly amateurish. Even composer John Barry falls victim to the movie’s mediocrity, delivering one of his least interesting scores and contributing the melody for a fruity theme song, “Sail the Summer Wind,” which appears twice during the movie. FYI, The Dove is one of only three features that iconic actor Gregory Peck produced; the others are The Big Country (1958) and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972).

The Dove: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fellini’s Roma (1972)

          At one point in Fellini’s Roma, a dreamlike pastiche of vignettes featuring famed Italian auteur Federico Fellini’s impressions of Rome, the director appears (as himself) to supervise the crew that’s making the movie and to chat with bystanders who worry that the director’s vision of their beloved city will be too extreme. In voiceover, Fellini provides the translation for a concerned Roman citizen: “He is afraid that in my film I might present [Rome] in a bad light. He is telling me that I should show only the better side of Rome—her historical profile, her monuments—not a bunch of homosexuals or my usual enormous whores.” The citizen’s angst is only somewhat justified. While Fellini does inevitably feed his appetite for images of grotesque prostitutes with two elaborate sequences depicting auctions at brothels (one high-class, one not), Fellini’s Roma runs the gamut from crude to sophisticated. As the director explains in the opening narration, the movie doesn’t feature a narrative, per se. Rather, it’s a series of sketches.
          Fellini’s Roma begins with snippets from the director’s childhood in the Italian countryside, where Rome was spoken about as a magical place far away. Later, the movie cuts to a re-creation of Fellini’s first visit to the city. Then, finally, the movie drifts into a succession of random scenes. Long stretches of Fellini’s Roma are filled with aimless montages of architecture, meals, and scenery (much of which is viewed from moving cars). Everything’s shown through the director’s unique prism, meaning that ethereal textures of light and smoke pass through scenes while actors occasionally wear exaggerated makeup and behave in stylized ways. Still, a travelogue is a travelogue, so the “neutral” scenes in the movie are only so interesting. Meanwhile, the extreme vignettes—during which Fellini indulges his predilection for cinematic opulence—often reflect style in search of substance. One of these strange scenes, for instance, depicts a fashion show presenting flamboyant new uniforms for cardinals, nuns, priests, and even the pope. As elaborate as this scene is, it feels expendable.
          Conversely, the handful of scenes that are executed with comparative restrain seem to work best. In one impressive sequence, Fellini re-creates the chaos at an average performance at a variety theater circa the early 1940s. Even though this bit features such vulgarities as teenagers masturbating in their seats and a mother encouraging her young child to urinate on the theater floor, Fellini beautifully describes the contours of a community’s ecosystem—the families, hecklers, louts, and performers sustain each other. In the film’s most magical sequence, an underground work crew burrowing a train tunnel discovers a centuries-old chamber filled with gorgeous painted frescos, only to watch the fresh air that enters the chamber age the frescos instantly. Moments like this one remind viewers how masterful a storyteller Fellini could be whenever he wasn’t trying to live up to his reputation as a provocateur.

Fellini’s Roma: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Project: Kill (1976)

Shot in the Philippines by an American director with American leading actors, this shoddy action/thriller picture contains a handful of moments that almost work, but the movie overall is incoherent and inept. Leslie Nielsen, back when he was still a wooden dramatic actor, stars as John Trevor, the chief instructor at a secret training camp for government operatives. He’s grown weary of using drugs and mind control to transform recruits into killers, so he flees the base and seeks refuge with former war buddies who are based in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the government sends John’s lieutenant, Frank Lasseter (Gary Lockwood), to track him down. Complicating matters is the fact that both men use the same drugs as their trainees, so John is going through painful withdrawal. Another wrinkle is the murky presence of a Filipino crime boss, Alok Lee (Vic Diaz), who wants to find John before Frank does. In theory, Project: Kill should be a simple chase story. In practice, however, it’s a mess. Director William Girdler, who generally fared better in the realm of monster movies, can’t do much of anything with the jumbled script, which is credited to David Seldon and Galen Thompson. Moreover, Girdler botches many scenes by creating logic gaps the size of the Grand Canyon. For instance, many scenes feature characters walking away from fistfights and/or shootouts as if nothing happened. Similarly, John spends most of his time romancing a pretty Chinese woman, Lee Su (Nancy Kwan), even though he knows his brain is disintegrating and even though he’s supposed to be finding a safe hideout. Furthermore, the picture’s action scenes are confusing—Frank and John are supposed to be super-deadly martial artists, but Lockwood (who is genuinely terrible in the film) and Nielsen move with the grace of skid-row drunks. Project: Kill also suffers from cheap production values and nonexistent transitions between scenes. Capping all of these problems is the difficulty of taking Nielsen seriously, given his subsequent career as a comic actor. In fact, one scene features a line Nielsen could have delivered in one of his Naked Gun movies—while lamenting to Lee Su that it’s hard to shake his mind control, John says, “I’m not programmed to love.”

Project: Kill: LAME

Monday, October 13, 2014

Death on the Nile (1978)

          The all-star period mystery film Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was such a commercial and critical success that another big-budget Agatha Christie adaptation was sure to follow. And while Death on the Nile is far less posh than its predecessor, it’s still quite enjoyable—more so, perhaps, than the stolid Orient Express. Clever and intricate though they may be, Christine’s books are not high art, and the makers of Death on the Nile treat the source material as pulp, whereas director Sidney Lumet and his Orient Express collaborators took the dubious path of treating Christie as literature. In any event, Death on the Nile plays out like a quasi-sequel to the earlier film, since both pictures feature Christie’s beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Albert Finney played Poirot in Orient Express, but Peter Ustinov assumes the role in Death on the Nile, marking the first of six films in which he essayed the character.
          As per the usual Christie formula, the narrative follows a large number of interconnected characters, all of whom eventually land in the same place—a steamer churning down the Nile River in Egypt—for a long voyage filled with intrigue and murder. The picture begins in England, where penniless Jacqueline (Mia Farrow) begs her rich friend, Linnet (Lois Chiles), to provide employment for Jacqueline’s fiancée, Simon (Simon MacCorkindale). Linnet steals Simon from her friend, marries him, and embarks on a honeymoon trip through Egypt. Yet Jacqueline chases after them, taunting the newlyweds with threats of revenge. Eventually, Linnet and Simon encounter the vacationing Poirot, requesting his assistance in dispatching the nettlesome Jacqueline. Various other characters enter the mix, and before long it becomes clear that everyone except Simon and the neutral Poirit has a grudge against Linnet.
          It’s giving nothing away to say that she dies about an hour into the 140-minute film—after all, the story can’t be called Death on the Nile without a corpse—so the fun stems from Poirot’s ensuing investigation. The pithy detective performs a thorough review of all the possible suspects, even as more people are killed, finally unraveling the true killer’s identity during a Christie staple—the final scene of Poirot gathering all the suspects in a room and then explaining, with the help of elaborate flashbacks, how he connected clues. It’s all quite far-fetched and formulaic, but there’s a good reason why Christie is considered the queen of the whodunit genre. It also helps that Anthony Shaffer, the playwright/screenwriter behind the intricate mystery film Sleuth (1972), did the script, and that director John Guillermin provides a brisk pace and a sleek look.
          As for the performances from the huge cast, they’re erratic. On the plus side, Ustinov is droll as Poirot, David Niven is urbane as his sidekick, and the best supporting players (Jane Birkin, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey, I.S. Johar, Maggie Smith) provide the varied textures asked of them. However, some players are badly miscast (Jack Warden as a German?), and some deliver performances that are too clumsy for this sort of material (Chiles, Farrow, George Kennedy). That leaves Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury, both of whom treat their parts like high camp; neither tethers her characterization to human reality, but both fill the screen with palpable energy.
          By the end of the picture, one does feel the absence of Lumet’s sure hand, since he did a smoother job of unifying his Orient Express cast members than Guillermin does here. Nonetheless, in the most important respects, Death on the Nile delivers Christie as pure silly escapism, which seems about right.

Death on the Nile: GROOVY

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Darktown Strutters (1975)

          Some generous viewers have characterized this overwrought satire of race relations as a spoof of the blaxploitation genre, but if there’s a successful joke buried anywhere in the picture, it escaped me. Designed like a live-action cartoon, complete with exaggerated body language, flamboyant costumes, oversized props, sped-up camerawork, and “wacky” sound effects, Darktown Strutters—which occasionally bears the alternate title Get Down and Boogie—is more of a recipe for headaches than a recipe for humor. The picture is too linear to work as a drug-era phantasmagoria, and too stupid to take seriously. Worse, writer George Armitage and director William Witney demonstrate horrible taste by trying to wring jokes from such grim subjects as police brutality, racism, and rape.
          While Armitage later evinced strong gifts for offbeat comedy (he wrote and directed the 1997 cult favorite Grosse Pointe Blank), this project very much represents the erratic early days of his career. In fact, there are many connections between the style of this picture and the excesses of Gas! –Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. (1970), a strange youth-culture sci-fi epic that Armitage wrote and Roger Corman directed. Corman’s brother, Gene, produced Darktown Strutters, while Roger’s company, New World Pictures, handled distribution chores.
          The plot of Darktown Strutters is fairly simplistic. Syreena (Trina Parks) is the leader of an all-female biker gang. When she learns that her mother has been kidnapped, Syreena teams up with an all-male gang led by Mellow (Roger E. Mosley). Eventually, Syreena discovers that her mother’s kidnapper is Commander Cross (Norman Bartold), the Colonel Sanders-like overlord of a barbecued-ribs empire. Meanwhile, Syreena has several run-ins with a trio of bumbling cops, puts pressure on black citizens who fear reprisals from Commander Cross, and rocks her way through several musical numbers.
          Even though every single element of Darktown Strutters is absurd, the costumes are among the most grating components of the film. Syreena and her fellow female bikers wear helmets tricked out with bedazzled feathers and wings. The dudes in Mellow’s gang dress like stereotypical Southern-fried fools, all floppy hats and overalls, except with rhinestones. One of Commander Cross’ outfits is a superhero-style costume comprising pink tights, silver-lame boots and undies, and a pig mask. Especially when actors wearing ridiculous clothes skitter across the screen with their arms and legs pumping to emulate “jive” movements, it’s embarrassing to watch the performers humiliate themselves.
          In terms of narrative, the movie drifts down so many blind alleys—goofy chase scenes, tiresome production numbers—that the story becomes hopelessly obscured. And then everything culminates with the revelation of bizarre nonsense about Commander Cross using a machine to generate offspring without the involvement of women—which somehow relates to why he kidnapped Syreena’s mother. Trust me, you won’t feel like making the effort to parse this crap, either. Darktown Strutters is not utterly devoid of charms, since leading lady Parks is beautiful and tough, costar Mosley is energetic, and the interesting actors Dick Miller and Stan Shaw appear in small roles. Additionally, some of the R&B tunes on the soundtrack are terrific. But, man, it’s all way too much—so the viewers most likely to groove on this singular experience are those who savor cinematic trainwrecks.

Darktown Strutters: FREAKY

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow (1973)

          Unsurprisingly, this low-rent comedy/horror picture is rarely marketed by its ridiculous original title. Instead, prints usually bear the moniker Invasion of the Girl Snatchers, which was first slapped onto the movie by an enterprising video distributor in the ’80s. By any name, however, this is disposable stuff on every level. The convoluted plot involves cops investigating a string of abductions, only to discover that the culprits are cult members in the service of an alien/demon/wizard/whatever. The movie also features some vague trope of replacing women’s minds with those of aliens so the women become automatons or zombies or something. The Hiden of Maukbeiangow is incrementally more palatable than the usual ’70s exploitation=flick sludge simply because it features attempts at humor, and there’s a lot to be said for a bad movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. Nonetheless, the combination of an incomprehensible plot, shoddy production values, and terrible acting is toxic no matter the circumstances. There’s a reason why Lee Jones, the cowriter, director, and cinematographer of this dud, never helmed another feature.
          To be charitable, however, it’s somewhat possible to see what Jones was after, even though he clearly lacked the skills needed to realize his vision. For instance, there’s a lot of interplay between Aph (Charles Rubin), the alien/demon/wizard, and the lead kidnapper, Freddie (David Roster). While Aph tries to cast a spell of dramatic intensity through faux-Shakespearean language, hip counterculture type Freddie takes the piss out of him by explaining that he doesn’t understand what the hell Aph is saying. This running gag almost works, thanks to Roster’s enthusiastic performance—the actor resembles modern-day comedian Jack Black in terms of behavior and physicality. Less successful are sight gags like the bit about a poorly made self-destructing audiocassette. Plus, of course, long stretches of The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow are simply boring or sleazy, if not both. (Case in point: A long scene of a topless woman tied to a slab during an alien medical procedure.) Some viewers might have fun reveling in this movie’s awfulness, and some might chuckle occasionally at bits that were indeed meant to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine anyone truly enjoying all 93 minutes of this muddle-headed misfire.

The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow: LAME