Tuesday, April 22, 2014

1980 Week: Hide in Plain Sight

          This quiet film dramatizes a traumatic circumstance drawn from real life—in the early days of the FBI's Witness Relocation Program, a Buffalo, New York, factory worker suffered unexpected collateral damage when his children disappeared overnight. At the beginning of the story, Frank Hacklin Jr. (James Caan) has a dodgy relationship with his ex-wife, Ruthie (Barbra Rae), who has become romantically involved with a small-time gangster named Jack Scolese (Robert Viharo). Frank tolerates the situation because Ruhie has custody of the two small children she had with Frank, and he deeply loves his kids. Meanwhile, Frank is just beginning a new romance of his own, with a schoolteacher named Alisa (Jill Eikenberry). After Jackie pulls a brazen robbery and gets caught, revealing how little loyalty Jackie’s mob cronies feel for him, slovenly local cop Sam Marzetta (Kenneth McMillan) and uptight federal agent Jason Reid (Josef Sommer) offer a new identity in exchange for testimony. Jackie takes the government’s deal, marries Ruthie, and decamps to parts unknown with the Hacklin kids.
          Unfortunately, nobody tells Frank what’s happening, so for a time he doesn’t even know whether his children are alive or dead. Over the course of the movie, Frank battles his way through government red tape with the sincere but useless assistance of attorney Sal Carvello (Danny Aiello) and with unwavering support from Alisa, whom Frank marries. The ordeal stretches on for years, culminating with chases across various state lines once Frank becomes desperate.
          Simply because it explores topical subject matter in a soft-spoken style that blends intimacy with righteous indignation, Hide in Plain Sight could easily have been a TV movie. Instead, it not only stars big-screen tough guy Caan but also represents the actor's first and only directorial effort. Caan’s work behind the camera is solid if not necessarily revelatory; one can imagine any number of capable filmmakers taking the material to at least this level of intensity, if not beyond. Therefore, what makes the synthesis of Caan's acting and directing interesting is the degree of restraint that he displays throughout Hide in Plain Sight. For an actor whose style is defined by macho volatility, it's noteworthy that he elected to underplay the bulk of his performance, and that he guided fellow actors toward similar quietude.
          That single directorial choice is what saves Hide in Plain Sight from being a issue-of-the week melodrama, since Caan creates an environment that feels like it’s populated by real people doing real things, with real emotional consequences. Could another filmmaker have hit harder? Sure. But could another filmmaker just as easily have made the narrative feel saccharine and trite? Absolutely. So perhaps Caan was exactly the right guy to make this movie. In any event, the reward for throwing his weight behind a meaningful true story is that Hide in Plain Sight is one of Caan’s most admirable films, a small gem nestled inside his impressive filmography.

Hide in Plain Sight: GROOVY

Monday, April 21, 2014

1980 Week: Superman II

          This post begins a new feature on Every ’70s Movie: Periodically, entire weeks of posts will be devoted to noteworthy theatrical releases from 1980, since nearly every 1980 movie was either written or produced in the '70s. For instance, today’s film is a direct sequel to one of the most beloved blockbusters of the '70s, and production on Superman II commenced years before the picture hit theaters. As the saying goes, we will return to our regularly scheduled program next Monday . . .
          Since very few sequels surpass their predecessors, second films that come anywhere close to matching the appeal of first films are rightfully viewed with great admiration. A fine example is Superman II, which combines key elements from Superman (1978) with an increased emphasis on action and humor. If Superman was the prelude, Superman II is the main event, delivering gigantic battles loaded with Super-flying, Super-punching, Super-kicking, and such. Better still, the movie is also funny and romantic. Superman II is far from perfect, of course, and learning about the project’s torturous backstory helps explain why. Nonetheless, even after the current era’s onslaught of superhero cinema, Superman II remains one of the most purely enjoyable comic-book movies ever made. As directed by Richard Lester (and, partially, Richard Donner), the picture never forgets to be fast and frothy.
          Picking up a thread from the prologue of Superman, the sequel focuses on three Kryptonian criminals, led by the cruel General Zod (Terence Stamp), who escape captivity when their outer-space prison explodes. The aliens travel to Earth and take over the planet, because Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve) has relinquished his superpowers in order to enjoy mortal love with reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Yet through the magic of Kryptonian science, Superman is able to reclaim his abilities in time to combat the evil troika. The three-against-one odds ensure lots of property damage while the characters duke it out in downtown Metropolis with fists, found objects (watch out for that bus, Superman!), and heat vision. Also woven into the mix is beloved baddie Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who tries to help the Kryptonians defeat Superman in exchange for—well, that’s a droll one-liner better discovered than described.
          Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind originally planned to shoot Superman and Superman II simultaneously, with Donner directing both pictures. Budget and schedule overruns derailed that scheme, and once the Salkinds resumed production on the sequel in the wake of Superman’s box-office conquest, relations with Donner had chilled. Enter Lester, who previously made the wonderful Musketeers movies for the Salkinds. Lester integrated his signature style of light farce to various scenes, juicing the rom-com textures of Clark Kent sequences and layering sly sight gags into Superman vignettes. Excepting the intermittent nature of Hackman’s presence (the actor shot a few sequel scenes with Donner but didn’t return once Lester took over), the integration of the two phases of production works quite well. It helps that John Williams’ majestic score creates unity, and that Reeve’s confidence in the leading role(s) grew exponentially between the Donner and Lester eras. He’s so smooth in this picture that he’s like Gary Cooper in tights.
          Superman II is filled with scenes both droll and exciting, from the systematic destruction of a small town to a memorable lovey-dovey bit at Niagara Falls. It all works, so long as one ignores the nonsensical way the filmmakers give Superman a new gadget or power every time they need to wriggle free of a narrative jam. Kidder locks into a charming screwball groove (she’s marvelous in the Eiffel Tower scene), Stamp gives great villain (“Kneel before Zod!”), and the movie feels like a logical summation of Superman rather than a random follow-up. Alas, the Superman film franchise faltered after Superman II and, as of this writing, has yet to recover. The final Reeve films of the ’80s were tacky, the 2006 reboot Superman Returns was too reverent to the 1978 original, and the 2013 re-reboot Man of Steel was too reverent to Superman II. Plus, the less said about the straight-to-video Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the better, since Donner wasn’t actually present for the entire making of Superman II. But, to borrow a phrase suited to the aforementioned Eiffel Tower sequence, we’ll always have Paris.

Superman II: RIGHT ON

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stone (1974)

          Just as the biker-movie craze was losing steam in the U.S., where it originated, the genre found new life Down Under. Yes, Stone is an Australian flick about two-wheelers and the violent men who ride them, complete with bar brawls, a biker funeral, drug-trip montages, senseless violence, unexpected poeticism, and, of course, the beloved combination of compliant chicks and plentiful booze. Stone starts like gangbusters and has a somewhat enjoyable action finale, but it goes slack in the middle once the filmmakers realize they’re run out of plot. Thus, Stone is not only a loving tribute to American biker movies but also a stylistic cousin to them—because, after all, most U.S. biker movies fall apart in the middle, too. It’s all about fighting, freedom, and fucking, man, so we don’t need your rules and your structure. Can you dig it?
          In Stone, someone is systematically terminating members of an outfit called the Grave Diggers, so an undercover cop is assigned to ride with the gang until the culprit (or culprits) can be identified. Predictably, the bikers resist the intrusion of an outsider, but when muscle-bound policeman Stone (Ken Shorter) proves his mettle in a fight, the Grave Diggers cautiously accept him into the fold. Turns out the folks behind the assassinations are business-suited conspirators who want the bikers eliminated because one of the Grave Diggers witnessed a political assassination. Further complicating matters is the fact that the biker who saw the event, hulking Toad (Hugh Keays-Byrne), was so wigged out on acid at the time of the murder that he’s not sure whether what he saw really happened.
          Obviously, the plot is not the big draw here—but what Stone lacks in substance, it makes up for in scuzzy style. The Grave Diggers all look believably filthy and wasted (real Aussie bikers participated in the making of the film), the “kills” are flamboyantly nasty, and it’s a kick to see the behaviors of American motor clubs transposed to the environs of coastal Australia. In particular, it’s amusing to hear typical I-gotta-be-me biker speeches rendered in Aussie accents. (Imagine feasting your ears on this spiel: “Whoever got you’s gonna get got, too . . . ol’ Satan’ll be in there with you, so you’ll be all right.”) Stone also benefits from a handful of snazzy design flourishes, like the boxy sidecar driven by a Grave Digger during the funeral, or the crazy eye-patch/missing tooth ensemble sported by biker Dr. Death (Vincent Gil). Furthermore, Stone is slathered front-to-back with crunchy rock music courtesy of Billy Green. Given the low expectations that reasonable folks bring to the biker-movie genre, Stone satisfies with its piquant mixture of lurid elements. If tested by any higher standards, however, the picture would be found wanting.

Stone: FUNKY

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Young Graduates (1971)

The ’70s-era operating principles of B-movie factory Crown International Pictures remain mysterious to me, because while other companies occupying the same low rung of the film industry during the ’70s regularly cranked out fast-paced potboilers, Crown International instead made turgid melodramas padded with pointless montage sequences. The unanswerable question, of course, is whether Crown’s projects represented misguided attempts at real movies or whether the company sold its products in bulk, meaning that more minutes translated to more money. In any event, those who view multiple Crown endeavors from the ’70s suffer mightily. For instance, even though The Young Graduates is fairly restrained by Crown standards, seeing as how nudity and violence are kept to a minimum, there’s not much to command attention. Marketed as a satirical referendum on the sexual practices of ’70s teenagers, The Young Graduates is really the story of one dippy high school student, Mindy (Patricia Wymer), who seduces a young teacher named Jack (Steven Stewart). Since Jack is married, much of the film’s action concerns the couple’s efforts to keep their romance secret. This thread of the story is not interesting. Later, once Mindy discovers she might be pregnant, the impetuous lass skips town for an adventure with her best gal pal, Sandy (Marly Holiday). Alas, their would-be getaway turns into a nightmare, because the girls fall into the clutches of a biker gang/cult/drug ring/whatever. This thread of the story is not interesting, either. Other segments of The Young Graduates feature dancing, drag racing, pot smoking, skinny-dipping, and other ho-hum pastimes, so the whole movie suffers from a catastrophic lack of urgency. The acting is mostly quite stiff (future notables Bruno Kirby and Dennis Christopher do what they can with underwritten roles), the cinematography is relentlessly flat, and the music is punishingly ordinary. In sum, The Young Graduates is far too bland and forgettable to merit genuine contempt; one can merely note with a sigh the existence of the thing before moving on to more rewarding activities, like cleaning out lint traps or clipping fingernails.

The Young Graduates: LAME

Friday, April 18, 2014

Impulse (1974)

          The would-be horror movie Impulse, which concerns a psychopath who makes his living by swindling gullible women with shady investment opportunities, was doomed to become an exercise in camp the moment William Shatner was cast in the leading role. For example, the lead character’s signature gesture is placing his pinky on his lower lip, so whenever Shatner gets caught in a homicidal fury, he delivers florid dialogue while mimicking a baby with a binky. Suffice to say, the effect is more comedic than chilling. And so it goes throughout Impulse, because at nearly every turn, Shatner reduces his characterization to something infantile, even though he’s supposed to seem dangerous. In one special moment, Shatner strings up a victim by a noose, then dances around the victim and swats the dangling body like it’s a punching bag. Making matters worse, Shatner’s ridiculous costumes include the staggering ensemble of a striped wife-beater T-shirt accompanied by red bell-bottomed slacks and a wide belt. Wow.
          The story begins with a bizarre prologue, during which young Matt Stone watches a WWII veteran attempt to rape Matt’s mother. Setting the pattern for his life, Matt “impulsively” murders the man with the samurai sword the man brought back from Japan. (The prologue also introduces the pinky-in-the-mouth trope.) Afterward, the movie cuts to the present day, revealing that adult Matt (Shatner) is a smooth-talking swinger who uses women for money, then kills the women once they’ve outlived their usefulness. One day, Matt meets a little girl named Tina (Kim Nicholas) and gives her a ride home from school. During the ride, Matt runs over a dog. Yet when Tina shares this anecdote with her sexy single mom, Ann (Jennifer Bishop), Ann scolds Tina for lying. Meanwhile, Ann’s best friend, blowsy socialite Julia (Ruth Roman), meets Matt and decides to fix him up with Ann. You get the idea.
          A final thread of the story involves Matt’s criminal connection to Karate Pete—played by Harold Sakata, best known as “Odd Job” from the 007 flick Goldfinger (1964)—because ex-con Karate Pete demands a piece of Matt’s earnings as a kind of protection money. Although Bishop and Roman try valiantly to deliver legitimate performances, every scene with Shatner is so innately silly that Impulse is impossible to take seriously. Sakata’s acting is terrible in a different way, just plain old-fashioned incompetence, but he appears in only a few scenes. All in all, Impulse is quite shoddy, but thanks to its high quotient of unintended humor, it makes for a somewhat amusing 82 minutes.

Impulse: FUNKY

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)

          During his heyday, writer-director Paul Mazursky was so good at constructing incisive scenes filled with humor, insight, and pathos that it was frustrating whenever he got mired in self-indulgence. For example, Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a fictionalized account of his own transition from the provincial Jewish community in Brooklyn where he grew up to the bohemian wonderland of 1950s Greenwich Village, should be impossibly precious. After all, Mazursky includes characters based on his parents, dramatizes formative sexual experiences, and even re-creates the texture of early acting lessons. Executed without discipline and taste, Next Stop, Greenwich Village could have been nothing but a filmed diary entry. Yet Mazursky (mostly) applies the same rigorous techniques he employed when telling the stories of wholly fictional characters, so the movie is brisk, funny, lively, and surprising—except when it isn’t. And that’s where the issue of self-indulgence becomes relevant.
          After starting very strong, Next Stop, Greenwich Village gets stuck in a groove about halfway through its running time, because Mazursky includes such needless scenes as the lead character’s dream/nightmare of what it would be like to have his overbearing mother invade one of his acting classes. Furthermore, the exploration of crises that are experienced by the lead character’s downtown friends feels a bit forced. Were this the work of a lesser filmmaker, these problems would have been catastrophic. Yet since Next Stop, Greenwich Village represents Mazursky at his prime, they’re only minor flaws. The movie is so good, in the mean, that even sizable detours can’t subtract from the value of the journey.
          In terms of texture, Mazursky strikes a terrific balance between deglamorizing and romanticizing the New York City of his younger days. Scenes of cavorting through the streets with like-minded friends and of sharing a bed with a beautiful young girlfriend make the best moments of protagonist Larry Lipinksy’s life seem like pure postadolescent bliss, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, grim encounters with disappointment and heartbreak, to say nothing of incessant clashes with the aforementioned smothering mom, play out as epic suffering—which is often how young people perceive their own travails. In sum, Mazursky seems to get things exactly right whenever the movie clicks. He also, as always, benefits from extraordinary performances. An actor himself, Mazursky regularly drew the best possible work from his casts, creating a loose performance space in which players can easily blend their idiosyncracises with the rhythms of the text.
          Playing the Mazursky surrogate, leading man Lenny Baker is terrific, all gangly awekwardness mixed with youthful arrogance. Ellen Greene is sly and sexy as his quick-witted girlfriend, and Shelley Winters finds a perfect vessel for her uniquely voracious screen persona. Durable supporting players including Lou Jacobi, Mike Kellin, and Joe Spinell lend ample Noo Yawk flavor, while future stars Antonio Fargas, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Vincent Schiavelli, and Christopher Walken appear in secondary roles of various sizes. And if the movie ultimately lacks a satisfying resolution—since it’s really just a snapshot of a transitional moment—that’s inconsequential given how much sensitive entertainment the experience of watching the movie provides.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warhead (1977)

          Offering a textbook illustration of the need to imbue even the simplest films with proper character development and dramatic tension, the military thriller Warhead squanders a colorful premise and a unique location simply because the storytelling is so enervated. The movie’s just barely passable, thanks to the presence of a few violent action scenes, but, man, does Warhead seem amateurish at times. Cowritten and produced by Buddy Ruskin, whose principal claim to fame is creating the Mod Squad franchise, the picture stars humorless David Janssen as an American nuclear-weapons expect. Here’s the laughably contrived setup. After an American plane suffers mechanical problems and accidentally drops an (unexploded) experimental nuclear weapon near the Israeli-Jordanian border, Tony Stevens (Janssen), gets sent on a solo parachute mission with orders to find and defuse the bomb. Meanwhile, Israeli soldier Liora (Karin Dor), survives a sneak attack on a school bus by PLO guerilla Malouf (David Semadar). She gets teamed with Israeli commando Ben-David (Christopher Stone) to return to the scene of the crime and kill Malouf. Yet in the time Liora’s away from Malouf’s stomping grounds, Malouf finds Tony and the nuclear bomb. A struggle for control of the warhead ensues.
          Shot in Israel, the picture takes an extreme approach to sociopolitical stereotyping. Every Israeli citizen is portrayed as a saint, every PLO soldier is depicted as a rapist and/or murderer, and Tony—the sole American principal character—is depicted as the stooge of a warmongering superpower insensitive to the suffering of the noble Israeli people. It says a lot that the only scene in the movie with any idiosyncratic flair is the bit when a shlubby Israeli soldier (Art Metrano) castigates a fellow commando for sitting on the nuclear bomb. The location shooting adds a bit of flavor to the piece, especially during two minor scenes filmed at the Wailing Wall, but director John O’Connor exhibits precious little visual imagination, capturing dialogue scenes in static frames and photographing action in a rudimentary way. (The less said about the weird optical-spin transition the filmmakers employ to depict a rape, the better.) As always, Janssen trudges through the movie like’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, which is to say he performs every scene with exactly the same degree of all-purpose intensity. Warhead is frequently very silly, with its ample clichés and platitudes, but at least it’s brisk and coherent.

Warhead: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kid Vengeance (1977)

          Go figure that B-movie tough guy Lee Van Cleef made not one but two cheap European Westerns costarring ’70s teen idol Leif Garrett. And while Garrett was merely a supporting player in God’s Gun (1976), he’s more or less the protagonist of Kid Vengeance—despite billing suggesting that either Van Cleef or blaxploitation badass Jim Brown plays the main character. Confusion about who’s more important to the storyline notwithstanding, Kid Vengeance is on the low end of passable, but at least that means it ‘s a hell of a lot better than the abysmal God’s Gun. Among other noteworthy differences, Kid Vengeance has a plot that makes sense. At the beginning the violent story, honest prospector Isaac (Brown) trades gold for cash, thereby catching the attention of thugs including McClain (Van Cleef), who leads a posse of savage men. After his first skirmish with would-be robbers, Isaac flees into the sun-baked wilderness and encounters the salt-of-the-earth Thurston clan, including Ma and Pa plus two kids. The kids are nubile Lisa (Glynis O’Connor) and wide-eyed Tom (Garrett). Once Isaac leaves them, the Thurstons get menaced by McClain’s gang; the thugs kill Pa, rape Ma, and kidnap Lisa for sale to slavers. Tom witnesses all of this and begins picking off the baddies with his bow and arrow. Eventually, Tom hooks up with Isaac, and the two join forces.
          The first half of the picture is sluggish, even with lots of bloodshed, partially because of lax storytelling and partially because Garrett’s an ineffectual screen presence as he lurks in high rock formations and watches bad things happen. Meanwhile, Brown is mostly kept offscreen for a good 40 minutes. On the brighter side, Van Cleef renders one of his signature phoned-in performances, but he plays evil so enjoyably that his lack of commitment doesn’t really matter. As for the other key players, O’Connor brings her customary sincerity and costar Matt Clark gives good varmint, as usual. (It’s a mystery why the producers bothered hiring John Marley, who plays McClain’s second-in-command, since his voice was replaced in dubbing to make him sound Mexican.) Kid Vengeance—which is also known by the titles Vendetta and Vengeance—isn’t the worst film of its kind, but no one will ever mistake it for a quality picture. And even though Kid Vengeance is occasionally described as a sequel to a previous Brown-Van Cleef flick, Take a Hard Ride (1975), the films are unrelated.

Kid Vengeance: FUNKY

Monday, April 14, 2014

Between the Lines (1977)

          Having worked in the alternative-newspaper business well past the historical period during which Village Voice-style periodicals enjoyed their highest degree of sociopolitical relevance, I naturally harbor some romanticism for the idea of scrappy young liberals covering culture and politics in way that cuts against the mainstream grain. Yet even with my predisposition, I found Joan Micklin Silver’s movie about this subject matter, Between the Lines, massively underwhelming. Despite credibility of authorship (screenwriter Fred Barron worked at weekly papers in Boston, where the film is set) and despite a strong cast (many of the film’s young actors later gained notoriety), Silver failed to generate any real excitement. One intrinsic problem is the use of an Altman-esque mosaic approach to storytelling, because Silver lacks the artistry and madness to needed to replicate the controlled chaos of Altman’s pictures.
          Another significant issue is the fact that most of the male characters are schmucks who treat women terribly. This accurately reflects the time period being depicted—the ’70s were lousy with studs who shrouded macho egotism behind sensitive-guy posturing—but it’s not much fun to watch dudes demean the ladies in their lives. And, of course, one should not discount the quandary that’s layered into the DNA of real-life alternative newsweeklies, which is the eternal risk of hipocracy. Music critics lambaste Establishment values while accepting free concert tickets; pretentious writers bemoan the inability of the public to recognize good work, while simultaneously angling to get publishing deals; and wide-eyed idealists advocate left-leaning social models even though they’re engaged in purely commercial enterprises.
          To its credit, Between the Line touches on all of these themes, but the film does so in such an inconsequential manner that it’s hard to develop any engagement while watching characters debate thorny topics. Worse, Silver proves unable to escalate onscreen events into full-on comedy—Between the Lines may generate a titter or two, but nary a guffaw emerges. In sum, the movie is easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy. As for the plot, it’s painfully predictable—a heroic band of scrappy journalists struggles to maintain integrity after a money-grubbing publisher buys the paper for which they work. Cue blunt conversations about the “death of the counterculture.”
          Still, the cast is really something. The male leads are Stephen Collins, Jeff Goldbum, and John Heard, and the leading ladies are Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, and Marilu Henner. Also present are Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, and Lane Smith. Silver gives each of these actors room to exercise his or her personal style, so Goldblum naturally dominates with his hyperkinetic intellectualism, and Heard grounds the endeavor by staking out the moral high ground (except when it comes to women).

Between the Lines: FUNKY

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Drowning Pool (1975)

          While not especially memorable, the 1966 private-eye flick Harper has its charms, mostly stemming from the synchronicity between star Paul Newman’s affable personality and the smartass vibe of William Goldman’s screenplay. (Newman and Goldman reteamed, to classic effect, on 1968’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Sadly, Goldman was not recruited to participate in The Drowning Pool, an unnecessary sequel to Harper released nearly 10 years after the original film. Cobbled together by screenwriters Walter Hill, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Tracy Keenan Wynn, The Drowning Pool is bland and turgid, moseying from grim murder vignettes to lighthearted dialogue scenes, with drab interludes of sleuthing in between. Inexplicably, the producers kept the title of a novel by Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer books provided the basis for the Lew Harper movies, but then ditched most of MacDonald’s storyline.
          The Drowning Pool’s Louisiana locations add a measure of novelty, and world-class cinematographer Gordon Willis photographs the film with more style than the material deserves, but it’s hard to stay engaged through all of the picture’s 109 minutes. As a result, The Drowning Pool disappears from memory even more quickly than Harper did—which, presumably, explains why Newman never played the character a third time. When the picture begins, easygoing detective Harper (Newman) travels to New Orleans at the behest of ex-lover Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is now part of high society by marriage, but is being blackmailed with evidence of infidelity. While tracking down the facts about Iris’ tormentor, Harper uncovers a conspiracy related to ownership of oil-rich land. Somewhat in the mode of old Humphrey Bogart movie, The Drowning Pool features mysterious informants, nefarious suspects, romantic intrigue, and various near-death encounters during which Our Intrepid Hero outsmarts potential killers. (The title refers to a sanitarium chamber that figures prominently in the picture’s death-defying climax.)
          It’s a shame the story of The Drowning Pool isn’t stronger, since the movie includes a handful of tasty performances. Melanie Griffith exudes precociousness as a teen temptress, Murray Hamilton delivers the requisite oiliness in the role of a crude developer, Richard Jaeckel wobbles nicely between cockiness and cravenness while incarnating a second-banana cop, and Gail Strickland has vivid moments playing a woman trapped by circumstance. Newman, of course, is Newman, effortlessly cool even when he’s got nothing to do. In short, everything about The Drowning Pool works except the core, so it’s possible to derive a measure of superficial enjoyment simply by grooving on the movie’s textures.

The Drowning Pool: FUNKY

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How Awful About Allan (1970)

          Ten years after the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), actor Anthony Perkins was still trying to avoid typecasting—even though he occasionally backslid to the realm of psychological horror. In this competent but underdeveloped made-for-TV thriller, Perkins plays a man who returns home after spending eight months in an asylum. Prior to his institutionalization, Allan (Perkins) started a fire that killed his parents and permanently scarred his sister, Katherine (Julie Harris). The trauma also left Allan partially blind, though doctors insist his condition is psychosomatic. Written by Henry Farrell, who adapted his novel of the same name, How Awful About Allan feels a bit like a play, since nearly the whole thing takes place in the large house Allan shares with his sister. Allan, who may or may not have fully recovered his mental health, keeps “seeing” a mystery figure roaming around the house, although Katherine insists she and Allan are alone. Meanwhile, Allan tries to recover normalcy by interacting with doctors and with a family friend, Olive (Joan Hackett). The central question, therefore, is whether Allan has discovered the activities of a home invader with malicious intent, or whether Allan has simply gone crazy.
          Director Curtis Harrington, who helmed a fair number of spooky projects during a long career that included everything from documentary work to episodic television, does what he can to jack up the mood and style of How Awful About Allan, but his hands are tied by the internal nature of Farrell’s story. Since the real drama takes place inside Allan’s head, very little action occurs, so the movie includes many repetitive scenes of Perkins walking around the house and calling out to people who don’t answer. Quick flashbacks to the traumatic fire and a mildly violent finale add some oomph, though for many viewers this will represent a case of too little, too late. Still, Perkins is interesting to watch in nearly any circumstance, with his intense expressions and lanky physique cutting a memorable figure—especially when he zeroes in on his Norman Bates sweet spot. It’s also worth noting that How Awful About Allan was produced by small-screen schlockmeister Aaron Spelling, whose other horror-themed projects for television were, generally speaking, less subtle than this one. So, even if How Awful About Allan is fairly limp by normal standards, it’s the equivalent of a prestige project by Spelling standards.

How Awful About Allan: FUNKY

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

Conceived as a comedy-horror hybrid—but not actually successful at delivering laughs or scares—this tongue-in-cheek flick imagines what would happen if a member of a dysfunctional presidential administration contracted a case of lycanthropy. Rest assured, any genuine comedic potential in this random notion was missed by writer-director Milton Moses Ginsburg. Instead, Ginsburg fills the movie with bland scenes of a nebbish freaking out because he’s turning into a wolf during full moons, as well as lifeless vignettes depicting the activities of a dopey president and his inept staffers. The whole piece looks cheap and grimy, especially in the awful public-domain prints that are prevalent in the marketplace, because Ginsburg opts for a super-dark lighting style in many scenes, and because his production values reflect a budget of about $1.50. Add in the ineptitude of Ginsburg’s approach to dialogue, dramatic construction, and shot design, and the stage is set for tedium. The Werewolf of Washington isn’t completely unwatchable, thanks to a few moments of campy goofiness, but it’s bad enough to challenge the attention spans of all but the hardiest viewers. Dean Stockwell, whose gigantic eyebrows give him a somewhat lupine quality even in normal circumstances, stars as Jack Whittier, a reporter who’s sleeping with the president’s daughter. While vacationing in Europe, Jack is bitten by a werewolf. Upon his return to the U.S., he’s given a choice position as Deputy Press Secretary. High jinks, including scenes of Jack trying to persuade White House officials that she should be taken off the job because he’s killing people at night, ensue. It’s all quite dull and stupid. Still, there are glimmers of something akin to amusement. Ginsburg’s best attempt at a joke is a runner about people confusing the words “Pentagon” and “pentagram,” while Stockwell spends his transformation scenes pulling faces that suggest Jerry Lewis in the midst of a seizure. Oh, and the werewolf makeup that Stockwell wears is more The Shaggy D.A. than The Wolf Man. In other words, this dog’s got distemper.

The Werewolf of Washington: LAME

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Boys in the Band (1970)

          At the time of its release, The Boys in the Band was groundbreaking for the simple reason of containing only gay and/or bisexual characters—so it’s no surprise the movie has been praised and vilified in equal measure. This ability to generate controversy is a credit to Matt Crowley, the writer-producer of the movie and the author of the play upon which it is based. In crafting a tense ensemble drama with nine characters representing various archetypes of gay American males, Crowley essentially wrote a referendum on being homosexual at the end of the ’60s, exploring camp, denial, gamesmanship, lust, promiscuousness, regret, self-loathing, and other hot-button issues. The Boys in the Band is emotional and humane, but it’s also deliberately provocative. Further complicating the discourse around the movie is the fact that The Boys in the Band was directed by a straight man, William Friedkin. All of this behind-the-scenes tsuris suits the material, since The Boys in the Band is—in its own vernacular—a story about queens at war.
          The entire picture takes place in the Greenwich Village apartment of Michael (Kenneth Nelson), a self-confident professional who’s throwing a birthday party for his old friend Harold (Leonard Frey), to which all of their buddies are invited. Among the guests are mincing Emory (Cliff Gorman) and stoic Hank (Laurence Luckinbill); their wildly different styles of self-presentation are pivotal to the story. The evening’s X factor is Michael’s old school friend, Alan (Peter White), who shows up in New York the night of the party and insists on seeing Michael. Interpersonal fireworks explode the minute Alan arrives, especially when Michael becomes a mean drunk and Harold reveals himself as a vengeful monster.
          Most of the drama revolves around the question of how gay men live in a homophobic world. Emory flaunts his identity in order to hide insecurity; Hank lives a double life, splitting his time between a boyfriend and a wife; Michael exists openly but hates himself; and Harold uses booze and sex to obscure reality (“I’m a 32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy,” he moans at one point). Crowley strikes an effective balance between leaving these anguished characters adrift and providing narrative closure, so the theme of people living under cultural siege comes through strongly. At its best, the film is harrowing, though it’s a good 20 minutes too long.
          Friedkin uses intricate editing and meticulous pacing to accentuate the performance rhythms of the strong cast, which was directly transposed from Broadway. Frey gets all the best lines, entering the story late and delivering grade-A bitchery from behind tinted glasses. He’s ferocious. Nelson plays a huge range of moods well, even when he’s forced to articulate the story’s themes in overly explanatory dialogue. Gorman, meanwhile, delivers the movie’s lightning-rod performance, straddling the line between camp and caricature.
          The Boys in the Band is a fascinating document of an era that’s long gone in some parts of the US—even as the same fear and prejudice that inspired Crowley’s story remain in force elsewhere. FYI, the behind-the-scenes drama of this project was explored in a feature-length documentary, Making the Boys (2011), which features remarks from Crowley and Friedkin, among others.

The Boys in the Band: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)

          New York City-bred director Radley Metzger made several arty softcore pictures, culminating with this one, before diving headlong into hardcore. Yet he wasn’t merely a money-shot hack, because Metzger later helmed the PG-rated thriller The Cat and the Canary (1978). Thus, The Lickerish Quartet merits a small measure of attention as a key transitional project in Metzger’s career. Although it’s ultimately a skin flick, with the supple curves of leading lady Silvana Venturelli providing the main focus, The Lickerish Quartet is almost a real movie (albeit a laughably pretentious one). Set in Italy, the picture—which Metzger contrived with Michael DeForrest, who wrote the script—imagines a sexcapade among the jet set. When the film begins, a middle-aged man and woman (Frank Wolff and Erika Remberg) watch a porno movie alongside their adult son, and the father provides cynical color commentary during the screening. Later, the trio ventures to a carnival, where stunt performers ride motorcycles sideways in a “Wall of Death” attraction. When the performers remove their helmets, the trio realizes that one of the drivers is a woman they saw in the porno movie. Excited, they invite the woman home for an evening of chitchat, mind games, and, of course, sex.
          Metzger borrows myriad visual tricks from the European cinema of the ’50s and ’60s, jostling the viewer’s sense of reality with hidden cuts, shifts from black-and-white to color, and trick shots. Meanwhile, he and DeForrest give their characters stilted dialogue that sounds vaguely sophisticated but doesn’t actually mean anything: “Like most collectors,” the patriarch says at one point, “I’m afraid private ownership has rather got the upper hand.” And yet, somehow, the narrative is mildly intriguing—thanks to the presence of psychosexual tension—until characters start screwing. Then Metzger loses all discipline, devoting his energy solely to inventing cool angles from which to ogle Venturelli’s body as she writhes through sessions with all three other characters. During the most visually interesting of these tediously long sex scenes, Metzger channels Russ Meyer’s gonzo style, because Wolff and Venturelli make out in a library that’s decorated with blow-ups of dictionary entries. So, as Woff thrusts, Metzger flash-cuts to closeups of words including “organ,” “phallus,” and “sex.” The effect is as subtle as a heart attack, but at least it’s an attempt at style.
          Notwithstanding its X-rating, The Lickerish Quartet isn’t explicit, so viewers curious about vintage erotica but uninterested in actual porn may find the movie interesting. Plus, The Lickerish Quartet provides a (very) minor link in the chain connecting classic European art cinema to the bold experiments of American ’70s directors.

The Lickerish Quartet: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

          This oddball Italian production stars Elizabeth Taylor as a demented woman searching Europe for the right man to murder her during sex. Yes, La Liz zooms way past the extremes of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), playing one of the most unhinged characters of her long career. Alas, the underlying material is so artificial that Taylor can’t fully exploit her powerful commitment to investigating dark corners of the human psyche; instead of incarnating a believably sick person, she ends up presenting a caricature of sociopathic behavior. For instance, at one point Taylor berates a store clerk in the following nonsensical fashion: “Who asked you for a stain-resistant dress? Don’t just stand there looking like a chicken with one eye! Help me!” Later, she sholds a would-be suitor who claims he needs to ejaculate daily as part of his macrobiotic diet. (Yes, you read that right.) Taylor’s reply: “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm! I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures!” While there’s always camp value in watching Taylor ride the train to Freakytown, The Driver’s Seat is so humorless, repetitive, and sluggish that watching the movie is a chore.
          Based on a novel by Muriel Spark, the picture tracks the adventures of Lise (Taylor), a European woman who embarks on a meandering quest that takes her through several cities and several lovers. Lise is full of contradictions—even though she periodically indicates that she’s on an urgent mission, she also makes time for shopping excursions. Similarly, Lise courts various men, only to repel their physical advances once she determines they’re not right for her purposes. Lise is a mess, but not a credible or interesting mess. Periodically, the filmmakers cut from Lise to interrogation scenes featuring one of her former suitors. This element doesn’t work, either, partially because the temporal relationship between the two narrative threads is murky, and partially because the man being interrogated seems as bizarre as Lise. Since the filmmakers forgot to provide pockets of normalcy amid the pain-freak stuff, there’s nothing for rational viewers to grasp. Adding to the weirdness is the presence of NYC art icon Andy Warhol in a supporting role, though his speaking voice was jarringly replaced with that of an Englishman. So, even though Taylor devours her role—and even though cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives nearly every scene some level of visual dynamism—The Driver’s Seat ultimately becomes a heap of gruesome nonsense.

The Driver’s Seat: LAME

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

          Perhaps because I got to the Fiddler on the Roof party late, seeing the movie decades after its original release, and perhaps because my tolerance for musicals is low, no matter how meritorious the execution and/or subject matter, I’ve never fallen under the spell of this particular picture. Nonetheless, I’m keenly aware of how deep a place both the film and the original stage musical of Fiddler on the Roof hold in the hearts of millions of fans. Therefore, please consider these remarks to be, at best, the musings of a casual viewer rather than the insights of someone who knows this particular beloved classic well. That said, in order to underscore the film’s significance, it’s helpful to begin by listing some of the ways in which Fiddler on the Roof is unique. Not only does the movie tell one of the most unapologetically Jewish stories in Hollywood history, but it’s also a three-hour epic about politics and poor people—meaning that Fiddler on the Roof comprises several elements that conventional wisdom deems box-office poison. Nonetheless, the movie is so beautiful on so many levels, from acting to cinematography to music to underlying narrative themes, that the spirit of the piece wins the day.
          Adapted by producer-director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Joseph Stein from a 1954 musical, which was based upon the 1894 Sholen Aleichem novel Tevye and His Daughters (originally published in Yiddish), the movie takes place in early 20th-century Russia, just prior to the Soviet revolution. Tevye (Topol) is the patriarch of a poor family in the town of Anatevka, which is divided into poor and wealthy neighborhoods. Since Tevye provides the audience’s window into the film’s story and themes, he begins the experience by singing “Tradition,” which explains the importance within his culture of adhering to old ways, and by commencing the first of his many conversations with an unseen God. Tevye is endearing right from his first entrance, for while he’s in many ways tethered to an obsolete past, his ability to weigh options (catchphrase: “On the other hand . . .”) reveals a complexity of morality and thought that precludes simple interpretations of his character. The same is true of the movie itself—by encompassing everything from marriage rituals to pogroms (which in modern parlance would be referred to as ethnic-cleansing raids), Fiddler on the Roof dramatizes the historical precariousness of Jewish life with a rich combination of anguish, levity, and wisdom.
          While Teyve faces such challenges as reconciling his family’s need for improved social position with his daughter’s desire to marry for love, he wrestles with issues that straddle the personal, the philosophical, and the political. Thus, any attempt to marginalize Fiddler on the Roof as “merely a musical” is foolhardy, even though the movie bursts with the alternately joyous and melancholy strains of familiar tunes including “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “To Life.” Jewison and his expert collaborators, including cinematographer Oswald Morris, treat Fiddler on the Roof as a proper epic, shooting locations for beauty and realism, and the actors were chosen for authenticity instead of notoriety. For instance, leading man Topol was hired instead of the boisterous Zero Mostel, who originated the Teyve role on Broadway and was, at the time of this film’s release, enjoying a big-screen comeback following the success of The Producers (1968). The casting was key to giving the film aesthetic integrity, not only because Topol is so humane but also because Mostel was almost pathologically averse to subtlety.

Fiddler on the Roof: RIGHT ON

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Visitor (1979)

          There are so many mind-meltingly weird elements in the sci-fi/horror epic The Visitor that it’s difficult to do the film justice with a brief description. Put simply, the movie is a vague rip-off of The Omen, concerning the efforts of a heroic character to prevent a malevolent child from unleashing something terrible. Accordingly, The Visitor has the requisite scenes of a wholesome-looking young girl using her supernatural powers—or simply her bare hands—to inflict violence. And while the true strangeness of The Visitor stems from the chaotic storytelling, maniacal style, and WTF plot complications, even the central premise gets tarted up in a way that ensures audience bewilderment.
          Because, you see, it’s not just that little Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is some sort of devil child who must be killed in order to protect the universe. No, the problem is that Katy’s innocent mother, pretty Atlanta divorcée Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), has a womb that breeds superkids, so conspirators led by mysterious surgeon Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer) have positioned Barbara’s boyfriend, Raymond (Lance Henriksen), to push Barbara into marriage and a second pregnancy so she can breed a son, because together with Katy, the son will comprise the demonic equivalent of the Wonder Twins. Got all that? Good, since there’s more!
          Stalking Barbara and Katy is grandfatherly space alien Jerzy Colsowicz (John Huston), who leads a band of bald alien musclemen who spend most of their time doing the equivalent of interpretive dance while standing behind scrims atop an Atlanta rooftop. Interstellar performance-art alert! Jerzy chases Barbara and Katy around downtown Atlanta, even though Katy tries to use her telekinetic abilities to kill him, and Jerzy spends one evening in the Collins home by announcing he’s the babysitter sent by an employment agency because the regular girl is sick. After all, don’t most of us welcome 70-year-old men into our homes to watch over our prepubescent daughters while we’re away? Oh, and we still haven’t mentioned the never-seen aunt who gives Katy a loaded pistol for her birthday, or that Katy accidentally shoots and paralyzes her mother. And then there’s crazed nanny Jane (Shelley Winters), who slaps Katy around because she knows that Katy is evil. Is it even worth noting that the plot also includes an intrepid police detective (Glenn Ford) and a silent longhair who may or may not be Jesus (Franco Nero)?
          The Visitor is gonzo right from the opening scene, a trippy special-effects vignette showing Huston in some otherworldly environment with oddly colored liquid skies. Among the film’s myriad bizarre episodes are the following: Katy uses her telekinesis to sway an NBA game by causing a basketball to explode; Jerzy has some sort of orgasmic interaction with a radioactive space cloud full of birds; a scene of spinal surgery gets intercut with a gymnastics routine; and famed movie director Sam Peckinpah shows up for one scene, in silhouette, to play a medical doctor. Accentuating all of this bizarre content is disjointed editing that makes everything seem hallucinatory, and lots of operatic disco music. You’ve been warned.

The Visitor: FREAKY