Monday, November 24, 2014

Inside Out (1975)

          Produced and released theatrically in England, but originally shown in the U.S. only on television (where it bore the moniker Hitler’s Gold), this picture offers a textbook example on how not to make a heist thriller. The characters are ciphers, the storyline is ludicrous, and the tension is nonexistent. After a dreary first half, the movie picks up somewhat once the actual heist gets underway, and the presence of three familiar actors in the leading roles generates a certain amount of interest. Nonetheless, there’s a reason why this picture never found a significant audience. Lots of reasons, actually.
          After a ho-hom prologue set in Nazi Germany, the picture cuts to modern-day London, where Harry Morgan (Telly Savalas) is a businessman, a criminal, or both. He’s approached by Ernst Furben (James Mason), who served in the German Army during World War II and claims to know the location of gold that was hidden by the Nazis. There’s some lip service given to how the men know each other, but, like Harry’s occupation, the information is neither clear nor memorable. In any event, Harry then recruits American adventurer Sylvester Wells (Robert Culp) to join the party. Together, the men concoct an absurd scheme that involves liberating an aging SS officer from jail, constructing a mock-up of Adolf Hitler’s WWII office, and training a man to portray Hitler. The plan also includes a dangerous and illegal entry into East Germany, which should be a source of great suspense, but is not.
          Anemically written by Judd Bernard and Stephen Schneck, Inside Out makes very little sense. The conspirators all seem friendly and trusting with each other, the obstacles the protagonists encounter are surmounted with relative ease, and the outrageous resources the thieves need always seem to be readily available. In terms of drama, logic, and tone, the movie is a disaster, right down to the all-over-the-place musical score, which combines disco passages and orchestral cues into sonic chaos. Still, star power matters, so Culp, Mason, and Savalas ensure that Inside Out is more or less watchable. (Mostly less.) In particular, Savalas’ smug swagger periodically creates the false impression that Inside Out has a sense of purpose, or at least a distinctive attitude. Further, cinematographer John Coquillon lends Inside Out a professional look, and the filmmakers make ample use of interesting European locations.

Inside Out: FUNKY

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pursuit (1972)

          By the time this made-for-TV thriller aired in late 1972, the project’s writer-director, Michael Crichton, was already on his way to becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. Three of the doctor-turned-novelist’s books had been adapted to theatrical features, and Pursuit began his side career as a filmmaker—which subsequently peaked with the hits Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978) before losing momentum. Later, Crichton found his niche as one of the world’s best-selling authors, and, in the hands of other directors, some of his books became massive hits, notably Jurassic Park (1993). He even found time to write original movie scripts and to create the blockbuster TV series ER (1994-2009). Considering the whole of Crichton’s Hollywood career, Pursuit represents a humble early effort. It’s an adequate little potboiler that comes together nicely at the end, despite bargain-basement production values, but it’s unlikely that Pursuit would be remembered today if not for Crichton’s involvement.
          Based on a novel called Binary, which Crichton wrote under one of his many pseudonyms, Pursuit follows a government agent’s surveillance of a potential domestic terrorist. During the first half of the picture, intrepid Steven Graves (Ben Gazzara) tracks the movements of right-wing nutjob James Wright (E.G. Marshall) without knowing exactly what Wright plans to do. During the second half of the picture, once Graves discovers that Wright has built a complex biological weapon that he plans to detonate in downtown San Diego while the president is visiting the city, Graves and his colleagues use psychology, strategy, and tenacity to prevent Wright’s weapon from detonating.
          Throughout Crichton’s career, he was better at plotting than characterization, and his stories were often convoluted and far-fetched. All of those shortcomings manifest here. What carries the day, as per the norm, is the novelty and strength of Crichton’s concepts. In Pursuit, he dramatizes the ease with which a well-funded criminal seizes dangerous chemicals, and then meticulously illustrates the simple techniques by which those chemicals are transformed into a homemade WMD. So even if the people in the movie are familiar types—Graves is a brilliant hothead, Wright is a dignified psychotic—Crichton puts all the pieces in place for a fun ticking-clock finale. (Never one for subtlety, Crichton actually superimposes countdowns over many scenes.) And while the picture’s visuals are quite bland, the quality of acting is strong, with the leads abetted by supporting players including Martin Sheen, William Windom, and Joseph Wiseman. Just don’t probe the logic of the piece too closely.

Pursuit: FUNKY

Saturday, November 22, 2014

End of the Road (1970)

          Film editor Aram Avakian made his solo directorial debut with this uncompromising phantasmagoria, which was slapped with an “X” rating during its original release. Telling the story of a young man who goes insane after receiving his master’s degree—thus tapping into the zeitgeist of youth-culture ambivalence toward American ideals in the Vietnam era—End of the Road features assaultive editing patterns, crass images, pummeling sound effects, and stylized performances. It’s a deliberately bizarre experience, derived from a 1958 novel by John Barth that fits somewhere on a continuum with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Unlike the movies adapted from those books, one of which is an admirable misfire and one of which is a stone classic, Avakian’s End of the Road doesn’t strike a nerve so much as it gets on one’s nerves. The picture is filled with dynamic visuals, impassioned performances, and offbeat themes, but the style of the piece is so aggressively ugly and weird that it’s a chore to watch.
          Plus, like most counterculture-era films, End of the Road is best defined in terms of what it shuns. The movie avoids conventional storytelling tropes and “traditional” American values at every turn, so it’s something of a position paper railing against the Establishment, delivered in the confrontational and fractured idiom of the generation that brought psychedelia into the mainstream. There’s a germ of something human buried inside the trippy flourishes, but good luck latching onto that simple core while enduring headache-inducing montages.
          Stacy Keach stars as Jacob Horner, who walks from his graduation ceremony to a nearby railway station, where he stands in a catatonic state for what appears to be several days before the arrival of a concerned psychiatrist, Doctor D (James Earl Jones). Combative and sarcastic, Doctor D drags Jacob to a facility called “The Farm,” where Doctor D lets lunatics play out their fantasies as a form of therapy. (One patient cross-dresses as a nun, one endures S&M abuse while crucified, and one rapes a chicken.) Doctor D leads Jacob through harsh therapy sessions complete with heavy audiovisual gimmicks and occasional physical punishment. Then he declares Jacob cured and ready for a job.
          Jacob bullshits his way into a gig teaching English at a university, soon befriending fellow teacher Joe Morgan (Harris Yulin) and Joe’s long-suffering wife, Rennie (Dorothy Tristan). Joe’s a weirdo who spends most of his time wearing a Boy Scout uniform, and he’s prone to slapping Rennie around. Jacob begins an affair with Rennie, and their loveplay includes a strange scene of spying on Joe while he thinks he’s alone—as Jacob and Rennie watch from a hiding place, Joe shoves a gun in his mouth and pantomimes suicide, then masturbates while reciting Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Jacob exhibits loopy behavior of his own, at one point parading around in a toga. Eventually, the story resolves with a painfully detailed abortion scene.
          Avakian, who also edited the picture, benefits from the participation of cinematographer Gordon Willis, who notched his first feature credit with this picture; Willis’ muscular images impose coherence onto the madness of the onscreen events. Avakian also makes ample use of Jones, Keach, and Yulin, all of whom provide frightening levels of intensity. Still, the big question remains: Is End of the Road anything more than a hearty fuck-you to normalcy? Further, even though time has not lessened the film’s ability to shock, has time erased the relevance of the narrative—or whatever it is that Avakian employs in place of a narrative? The answers to those questions are very much in the eyes of the beholder. Nonetheless, thanks to its mercilessly abrasive textures, End of the Road is bold and innovative filmmaking that’s deeply evocative of a certain time. While far from essential, it’s at the very least emblematic.

End of the Road: FREAKY

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nothing But the Night (1973)

          Marketed as a horror movie, presumably because of the involvement of Hammer Films veterans Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Nothing But the Night is really more of a whodunit with a supernatural angle. It’s also not particularly coherent or interesting, although the picture includes some atmospheric location photography during an extended chase scene that takes place in Scotland.
          The disjointed story begins with vignettes featuring violent deaths, culminating in the crash of a tour bus carrying dozens of children and adults. One of the survivors is young Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong), ward of a charitable trust that runs a home for girls from troubled families. Following the crash, Mary ends up in a hospital under the care of physicians including Sir Mark Ashley (Cushing), who, at the urging of a colleague, investigates Mary’s background. Concurrently, police detective Charles Bingham (Lee) examines whether the earlier deaths are connected to the crash. Charles believes that Mary might be capable of providing key information. Making the already-murky story unnecessarily convoluted is the presence of Mary’s biological mother, a deranged ex-prostitute named Anna Harb (Diana Dors). After being contacted by a representative from the hospital, Anna becomes obsessed with seeing Mary, who was taken away from her by authorities three years previous. Observing a fraught mother/daughter encounter causes Sir Mark to embrace the odd notion that Anna and Mary share some sort of psychic link, and that the psychic link relates to the mysterious deaths. Whatever.
          Following the plot of Nothing But the Night is an arduous and ultimately pointless endeavor, because the movie slowly spirals from an intricate conspiracy story to a trite race-against-time melodrama. That said, Nothing but the Night has strong production values, occasional thrills, and lively acting. Cushing is terrific, likely savoring the opportunity to play a normal human being instead of someone extreme, and Dors is a holy terror as Anna, all mile-high hair and whorish makeup. Lee is less impressive, his character’s inner machinations hidden too deeply behind a stiff-upper-lip fa├žade, and costar Georgia Brown, who plays a pushy journalist, is merely adequate. (Future Harry Potter star Michael Gambon shows up in a small role, as well.) The violent ending of Nothing But the Night—which vaguely resembles the climax of another 1973 British release, The Wicker Man—is something of a cheat, but at least the finale has energy, which is more than can be said for much of this middling effort.

Nothing But the Night: FUNKY

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Infra-Man (1975)

          Something of a Saturday-matinee fever dream, this strange superhero saga was made by the prolific Hong Kong company Shaw Brothers, which found most of its success making martial-arts flicks. And, indeed, kung fu fights find their way into Infra-Man, even though the plot is about a cyborg battling demons and monsters sent by a mystical princess who emerges from her underground lair to conquer the surface world. Within the first five minutes of the movie proper (following the credits), a giant dragon falls from the sky onto a highway, blocking the path of a school bus, and then the dragon disappears, somehow causing a giant sinkhole that consumes the bus and sparks a fiery maelstrom that destroys a nearby city. The pace doesn’t stay quite that frenetic throughout Infra-Man, but the level of lunacy does.
          The first major human character introduced in the story is Professor De (Wang Hsieh), who runs a massive government science lab. As a means of telling the audience that the lab is futuristic, the professor arrives at work wearing street clothes and then changes into a sliver-lame lab coat festooned with military epaulets. Soon the humans discover that the culprit behind a series of monster attacks is Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu), who wears some sort of dominatrix outfit and a headdress designed to look like a dragon skull. From her subterranean HQ, where the attendants include lackeys garbed in skeleton costumes and assorted indeterminate critters who seem like they wandered over from a Sid & Marty Kroft soundstage, Princess Dragon Mom announces her intention to conquer Earth and/or destroy everyone using her monsters.
          To fight back, the professor enlists one of his subordinates, Lei Ma (Danny Lee), to undergo a high-tech transformation and become the cybernetic superhero Infra-Man. Lei can transform into Infra-Man at will, so whenever danger arises, he instantaneously summons a bright red costume with a bug-like helmet, thereby incarnating a drag-queen’s vision of a Power Ranger. (Accentuating the presumably unintended gay-chic nature of the character, one of Infra-Man’s superpowers involves “thunderball fists.”) Endless scenes of Infra-Man tussling with monsters ensue, and the filmmakers employ zero logic with regard to what levels of power and/or vulnerability each character possesses. Sometimes, Infra-Man simply engages in kung fu combat with human-sized monsters, and sometimes, both Infra-Man and his opponents magically expand to gigantic proportions.
          The creatures in the movie are as silly as the main character, including some sort of octopus monster, various robotic henchmen, and myriad mutants portrayed by actors wearing bargain-basement rubber suits. Further, Princess Dragon Mom seems more like a sexually frustrated S&M enthusiast than a super-villain, because she spends most of her time cracking whips and torturing people. Infra-Man borrows the worst possible tropes from Toho Studios’ Godzilla movies, so the professor delivers such insipid lines as, “Lieutenant, I’m going to need printouts on these monsters!” (Because, of course, detailed files are available on monsters previously unseen by man.) And yet the professor’s line can’t compare to some of Princess Dragon Mom’s dialogue (e.g., “She-Demon, I wish to speak to the mutants at once!”).
          All of this is made so much weirder, of course, by the horrible soundtrack of the movie’s English-language version, which features, in addition to the predictable out-of-sync dubbing, a motif of a monster laughing and scheming in a gravely voice reminiscent of Depression-era American gangster movies.

Infra-Man: FREAKY

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fillmore (1972)

          Along with Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, and Woodstock—all of which were released in 1970—this documentary represents a farewell of sorts to the counterculture dream of the ’60s as it manifested in peace-and-love music. Yet while Gimme Shelter is tragic, Let It Be is poignant, and Woodstock is idyllic, Fillmore has different energy. Two specific types of different energy, actually. Most of the movie is joyous, capturing the camaraderie and creativity of the San Francisco music scene. Yet the pure documentary bits of the movie are confrontational, because iconic rock-concert promoter Bill Graham—basically the star of the picture—comes off as something of a megalomaniacal bully. One can only imagine the frustrations of trying to talk business with rock stars whose minds are under the influence of drugs, ego, and success, but Graham’s combative style of foul language, guilt trips, peer pressure, and threats doesn’t exactly jibe with the Haight-Ashbury utopian dream.
          Fillmore documents the final week of shows at the Fillmore West, Graham’s iconic San Francisco concert hall. (The spinoff venue in New York City, Fillmore East, closed immediately prior to the mothership, but the festivities weren’t given feature-film treatment.) Graham called in favors from most of the big names on the San Francisco scene, so Fillmore includes performances from the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Santana, and others. Jefferson Airplane, who did not play the final week, is represented through archival footage depicting the growth of the flower-child counterculture in the Bay Area, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who did perform in the final week, is conspicuously absent.
          The picture is structured around clips of Graham, who is alternately portrayed as a blowhard with anger-management issues and as a devoted music fan soldiering through frustrating episodes. Performance scenes build from niche bands with big San Francisco followings (Cold Blood, Hot Tuna, Lamb) to mainstream stars (the Dead, Santana). Some of the music has not aged well, including the twee twinklings of husband-and-wife hippie act It’s A Beautiful Day, but the best stuff is amazing. The Dead grooves through funky versions of “Casey Jones” and the Chuck Berry classic “Johnny B. Goode,” while Cold Blood—fronted by fiery Lydia Pense—delivers a grinding blues-rock set. Paying off a running trope during which Graham battles with Santana’s management, Santana kills with the two instrumental numbers at the end of the movie, beautifully representing the unprecedented fusion of sounds that made the San Francisco scene so special.
          Perhaps inadvertently, Fillmore predicts where the rock-concert business was headed in the ’70s, with corporate hassles raining on the can’t-we-all-just-get-along parade. So even if the direction by Eli F. Blech and Richard T. Heffron isn’t all that imaginative—lest we forget, the type of split-screen shots and superimpositions utilized here were innovated by the makers of WoodstockFillmore deserves a place in the rock-doc pantheon.

Fillmore: GROOVY

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

          Something of a precursor to the experimental period during which Walt Disney Productions expanded its live-action mandate to include darker subject matter than usual (the era that generated films including 1979’s sci-fi epic The Black Hole), this adventure/fantasy saga almost completely eschews the cutesiness and slapstick normally associated with the Disney brand. It’s not a wholly successful endeavor, particularly since the secret culture revealed midway through the picture turns out be nothing more than a lost tribe of Vikings, but the movie boasts a fair amount of danger, as well as copious amounts of old-school special effects, which are similar to those featured in the studio’s enduring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
          Set in 1907, the picture opens in London, where wealthy aristocrat Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) hires visiting American archaeologist Professor Invarsson (David Hartman) for an expedition to the North Pole. It seems Sir Anthony’s estranged son, Donald (David Gwillim), disappeared while investigating reports of a mysterious island in the Arctic, rumored to be adjacent to a mythical bay where whales go to die. Sir Anthony also hires French aviator Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), who has built an propeller-driven airship, to provide the expedition’s transportation. Arriving in the Arctic after a few in-flight scares, Sir Anthony’s team discovers that Donald made contact with Vikings who live in a valley that’s heated by a nearby volcano. (Among other practitioners of fantasy fiction, Marvel Comics has employed the same contrivance, although Marvel’s “Savage Land” is in Antarctica.)
          The long stretch of running time comprising the adventurers’ clashes with the Vikings is fairly drab, with the Vikings portrayed as superstitious primitives determined to murder outsiders, so the movie loses a great deal of energy in the middle. Things pick up during the extended chase/escape sequence that comprises the movie’s final third, because the heroes slide down chutes inside ice floes, run from lava, and survive an attack by a pod of killer whales.
          The acting is as perfunctory as the characterizations (Hartman later quit performing and became a long-running Good Morning, America anchor), but the vintage FX create an almost surrealistic quality—particularly when matted moving objects are partially transparent—while the great composer Maurice Jarre keeps things lively with a robust score. It’s also enjoyable to see the wonderful Japanese character actor Mako contributing a typically zesty performance, although he’s mostly wasted in the stereotypical role of an easily frightened Eskimo who tags along for the journey to the secret island. Adding to the indignity, Mako ends up sharing several of his scenes with Sir Anthony’s pet dog.

The Island at the Top of the World: FUNKY

Monday, November 17, 2014

Up the Sandbox (1972)

          Part downbeat character piece, part fantastical Walter Mitty-style escapism, and part political propaganda, the Barbra Streisand vehicle Up the Sandbox teeters uncomfortably on the line separating comedy and drama. As a result, the film doesn’t work particularly well in either respect, with the humorous scenes often feeling too dark and the heavy scenes often feeling too flip. The movie contains many worthwhile insights about the changing roles of women in American society circa the Ms. Magazine feminism era, but none of the disparate pieces hang together well. Ultimately, the picture is little more than a footnote in Streisand’s epic career. Additionally, it is yet another frustrating entry in the wildly inconsistent filmography of director Irvin Kershner.
          Streisand stars as Margaret Reynolds, the young wife of handsome college professor Paul Reynolds (David Selby). Raised by an oppressive, status-obsessed mother, Margaret wants more out of life than simply keeping house for Paul and raising their two young children. Adding to Margaret’s frustration is her belief that Paul is sleeping with one of his colleagues in Columbia University’s history department. Margaret starts experiencing grandiose daydreams, imagining herself as a sort of truth-telling feminist superhero. In the strangest episode, Margaret attends a speaking engagement by Fidel Castro (Jacobo Morales), during which she verbally spars with the Cuban leader over the role of women in post-revolutionary Cuba. Castro then invites Margaret to his hotel room and reveals that he’s actually a woman. In the film’s other outlandish fantasy scene, Margaret imagines that she’s part of a terrorist group attempting to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Milder vignettes depict Margaret’s comparatively mundane fantasies, such as standing up to her domineering mother. Buried amid the meandering fantasy scenes is a slight story about Margaret wrestling with impending life changes, such as a possible third pregnancy and a proposed move to the suburbs.
          Streisand gives an ardent performance that conveys her passion for the political elements of the script, and every so often, screenwriter Paul Zindel (adapting a novel by Anne Richardson Rothe), lands a sharp line. At one point, for instance, the clueless Paul says to Margaret, “Maybe you’d be happy if you did more,” to which she replies, “You’ve got one job—I’ve got 97!” Alas, these moments are like islands of significance in a sea of nonsense. Had the fantasy scenes in Up the Sandbox been funnier and/or more purposeful, they might have helped the picture feel coherent and meaningful instead of scattershot and strident. On the plus side, the supporting performances are efficient, and peerless cinematographer Gordon Willis infuses every frame with visual elegance.

Up the Sandbox: FUNKY

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Medusa (1973)

Good luck deciphering the plot of Medusa, a jumbled mystery/thriller shot in Greece with two American leading actors accompanied by a European supporting cast. Perpetually tanned pretty boy George Hamilton, who also produced this disaster, stars as Jeffrey, some sort of debauched jet-set type who flits around Europe looking for a good time. The picture opens with a scene of Jeffrey dying on a boat and then, in voiceover, promising the audience an explanation for his demise. The rest of the picture is an extended flashback, but clarity surrounding Jeffrey’s circumstances—or, for that matter, his characterization—never emerges. Instead, Medusa grinds through one seemingly unrelated vignette after another. In one scene, Jeffrey crashes a party while dressed in an Elvis-style white jumpsuit, then jumps onto a table and sings until he’s dragged away. In another scene, he reacts with horror upon discovering that his gangster acquaintance, the sadistic Angelo (Cameron Mitchell), has murdered someone. And yet in the scene following that one, Jeffrey himself commits murder, since it appears that he’s either a serial killer or the accomplice of a serial killer. (The last thing this dunderheaded flick needed to do was play perceptual games.) Worst of all, Jeffrey chews up long periods of screen time by spewing bargain-basement philosophy, suggesting that, on some level, Hamilton envisioned Medusa as a character study of a playboy in decline. Whatever the intentions, the culprits behind this absolute mess of a movie (including director Gordon Hessler and screenwriter Christopher Wicking) can’t lock into a coherent storyline or a consistent tone for more than a few minutes at a time. After all, the same movie containing the frivolous scene of Jeffrey crashing the party also features an extended sequence of Angelo torturing some poor guy to death by pumping his stomach full of water until the guy drowns.

Medusa: SQUARE

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hot Summer Week (1972)

          Also known as Girls on the Road, this muddled thriller involves hippie spirituality, horny teenaged girls, a lecherous guru, a PTSD-addled Vietnam vet, and young love that culminates in tragedy. Not only do the elements clash with each other so badly that Hot Summer Week is confusing and disjointed to watch, but each individual element is handled poorly. Despite possessing a certain measure of traffic-accident allure, this is misguided low-budget filmmaking on every level. The story, such as it is, starts when spoiled white girls Debbie (Kathleen Cody) and Karen (Dianne Hull) hit the road for a week’s vacation at a beach house. Right from the beginning, director Thomas J. Schmidt tries to portray the girls as carefree and spunky, but he actually reveals them to be inconsiderate, reckless, and stupid. They drive like maniacs because they’re distracted by activities like tossing bras into traffic, they treat hitchhikers terribly (stealing a guitar from a musician, shunning two would-be passengers for the crime of being flamboyantly gay), and they talk about nothing but their desire to get laid during their vacation. On the way to the beach house, the girls pick up hitchhiker Will (Michael Ontkean), who was recently discharged from an Army hospital after treatment for psychological problems.
          Despite the fact that Will’s twitchy and the fact that he carries a gun in his duffel bag, all Debbie can see is that he’s handsome. Turns out Will is an on-again/off-again resident at a progressive institute run by John (Ralph Waite), a touchy-feely therapist who helps his charges explore love. Karen digs the can’t-we-all-get-along vibe at the institute, but Debbie just wants to make out with Will—up to a point, since she’s all talk. The middle of Hot Summer Week is a mess of heavy-petting scenes, mind-expanding “experiences” at the institute, and silly PTSD flashbacks. (All of Will’s imaginary scenes are processed with a blue tint and a wobbly optical effect, while his war flashbacks seem to comprise stock footage from D-Day.) In the end, Hot Summer Week tries to be a little bit of everything, without committing sufficiently to any one genre—there’s not enough sex for the movie to qualify as an exploitation picture, the spiritual stuff is cartoonish and superficial, and the final sequence transforms Hot Summer Week into a full-on horror movie, complete with an axe-wielding psycho. Just as Debbie and Karen should have driven right by Will, the wise viewer should give Hot Summer Week a pass.

Hot Summer Week: LAME

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

          The prolific but short-lived German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder enjoys such an enviable reputation that nearly all of his films are considered milestones of international cinema. To some degree, Fassbinder’s demigod status is justified because he consistently explored nature themes in an idiosyncratic but intelligent manner. Nonetheless, not all films are created equal, so some of Fassbinder’s projects invite more divisive reactions than others. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which the director adapted from his play of the same name, is a good example. Admirers characterize the project as a probing investigation of the female psyche because the story depicts the complex relationships that the title character has with other women.
          Yet The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is, by any estimation, a challenging viewing experience. Intentionally artificial and stylized, the movie takes place entirely on one set, with actors delivering their lines in monotones while barely ever moving. As photographed by Michael Ballhaus, who later became Martin Scorsese’s go-to cinematographer for an important period in the ’80s and ’90s (Goodfellas, etc.), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant possesses inarguable pictorial beauty, but watching the picture is a bit like regarding a series of still images. As such, Fassbinder’s refusal to exploit the full cinematic possibilities of his own narrative can be interpreted as either remarkably disciplined or remarkably perverse.
          The title character is a fashion designer who became a lesbian following the dissipation of her marriage to a man. At first, her only companion is an ever-present assistant, whom Petra treats like a slave. But then a friend arrives—provoking a long conversation about the arc of Petra’s marriage—and then Petra meets a beautiful young woman whom she decides to mold into a fashion model. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is simultaneously about Petra’s manipulation of the women around her (with many relationships involving aspects of sadomasochism) and about Petra’s articulation of her grim worldview. Fassbinder’s script is full of grandiose declarations: “If you understand someone, there’s no need for pity”; “If there were no compulsion, I’d be totally lost at times”; “I’ve always been suspicious of hard women.” At one point, a character even articulates her “constant fear of existence.”
          Meanwhile, Fassbinder juxtaposes the ugliness of his words with the beauty of his images—during the film’s most opulent passage, leading ladies Margit Carstensen (as Petra) and Hanna Schygulla (as the would-be model) wear ornately skimpy costumes reminiscent of Theda Bara’s provocative outfits in the silent-cinema classic Cleopatra (1917). Some viewers will feel more inclined than others to parse all of this philosophizing and symbolism for deeper meanings, and, indeed, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has enjoyed a long life, as evidenced by an opera adaption that premiered in 2005. So, even though the picture’s entertainment value is dubious, what can’t be denied is the peculiar integrity of the piece. This is about as anti-commercial as movie storytelling gets.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: FUNKY

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fingers (1978)

          The first movie directed by James Toback, a ferocious chronicler of the male animal in extremis, Fingers can be viewed as a blueblood’s response to the cinema of Martin Scorsese. Whereas Scorsese made his name by dramatizing the lives of small-time hoods prowling the streets of New York, Toback announced his presence by depicting intersections between New York street crime and the city’s supposedly civilized intelligentsia. In his script for The Gambler (1974), which was directed by Karel Reisz, Toback presented the semiautobiographical character of a college professor who spends his private hours feeding his gambling addiction no matter how dangerous his circumstances become. In Fingers, Toback introduces a character following the opposite trajectory, thereby approaching the same themes from a different perspective.
          Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli (Harvey Keitel) is the son of aging loan shark Ben Angelleli (Michael V. Gazzo), but Jimmy wants more from life than threatening people for repayment. A self-taught pianist, he has visions of performing on the Carnegie Hall stage, and he may or may not have sufficient talent to realize his dream. As with all of the troubled men in Toback’s movies, however, Jimmy is his own worst enemy. Not only does he allow feelings of guilt and obligation to pull him deeper into his father’s violent world, but Jimmy is a sexual daredevil who can’t resist the thrill of the chase. Everything in Jimmy’s twisted psyche conspires to shift his focus away from his dreams. Even before the grim machinations of the plot take hold, this is grim material on every level—meaning that Fingers exists in the creative sweet spot for both Toback and leading man Keitel.
          Toback has a special gift for showing how testosterone drives men to madness, and he’s also a master at creating fully rounded leading characters—by accumulating detail and drawing subtle connections, Toback creates a space in which strange behaviors feel like eccentricities instead of literary contrivances. Jimmy blows through his world like a whirlwind, all fidgety energy and pretentious scarves, and he nearly always carries a portable radio issuing vintage pop tunes along the lines of “Mockingbird” and “One Fine Day”; the juxtaposition of these sweet melodies with the savage nature of Jimmy’s actions is strangely appropriate.
          Toback also plays an interesting game by having Jimmy alternate between gutter vulgarity and outrageously lofty dialogue, because it’s clear that Jimmy receives messages on frequencies inaudible to others. Consider this jaw-dropping pickup line, which Jimmy uses on artist/prostitute Carol (Tisa Farrow): “Don’t you understand? I’m going to bring you into your dreams of yourself. All you have to do is believe in me.” Showing his street side, Jimmy takes a wholly different tack when trying to make time with gang moll Julie (Tanya Roberts), cooing that he can sense her nether regions are like “silk.”
          Fingers goes to many, many strange places—for instance, the subplot about Jimmy’s encounters with Carol’s brutal pimp, Dreems (Jim Brown)—even though the movie eventually drifts down to earth for a violent finale that borrows from the Scorsese playbook. Keitel gives one of his most crucial performances, employing so much intensity while channeling the soul of the peculiar man he portrays that Jimmy seems alternately magnetic, pathetic, and terrifying. While very much an acquired taste thanks to its bone-deep darkness, its fascination with sleaze, and its primitive portrayal of women, Fingers ranks among the most unique American directorial debuts of the ’70s.

Fingers: GROOVY

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Z.P.G. (1972)

          Very much a product of the same anxious zeitgeist that generated Silent Running and Soylent Green (both released in 1972), as well as other cautionary tales with environmental themes, this downbeat and sl0w-moving sci-fi saga concerns a dystopian future in which man has so completely overrun the earth that the planet’s governments establish a 30-year ban on childbirth. Concurrently, pollution has become so horrific that entire cities are shrouded 24/7 with suffocating smog, and it’s become impossible to grow organic materials, so neither animals nor plants exist. The story’s protagonists, Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin) and her husband Russ (Oliver Reed), work in a museum, where they perform re-creations of domestic scenes from the 20th century inside living dioramas. While some couples in this ugly future society have purchased the only legal substitutes for children—lifelike robot babies—the McNeils want more, even though the penalty for childbirth is death. At Carol’s desperate urging, Russ agrees to start a family. Once Carol becomes pregnant, Russ fabricates a marital separation as a cover story before hiding Carol in an underground bunker until she delivers her baby.
          The plot twists that follow, depicting the McNeils’ efforts to hide their secret from curious neighbors and prying government operatives, are fairly clever even though a lot of what happens in Z.P.G. (abbreviated from the government policy of Zero Population Growth) is logically dubious. Made in the UK and written by Frank De Felitta and Max Ehrlich (who also wrote the strange 1974 George C. Scott drama The Savage Is Loose), Z.P.G. features imaginative gadgets (such as the clear masks that citizens must wear while walking around smog-choked streets) and unnerving manifestations of totalitarianism (notably a high-tech torture chamber that feels like a precursor for a similar chamber in the 1976 sci-fi classic Logan’s Run). Unfortunately, neither the dramaturgy nor the performances rise to the level of the concepts. Chaplin’s acting is fidgety but icy, and Reed plays so many of his scenes with a stone face that he barely seems present, much less emotionally involved. Combined with long stretches of repetitive scenes, the inert acting makes the first hour of Z.P.G. very slow going. And while things pick up somewhat in the second half, when characters played by Diane Cliento and Don Gordon emerge as unlikely villains, the movie runs off the rails again during the ludicrous climax.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Little Romance (1979)

          It’s not hard to understand why the whimsically titled A Little Romance has earned a devoted following over the years—depicting the adventures of two lovestruck teenagers cavorting across Europe, the picture treats young people with respect, whereas most Hollywood movies about teenagers tend to infantilize the experience of adolescence. Moreover, the film reflects wish fulfillment on many levels, from the concept of discovering one’s soulmate early in life to the notion that children can have international escapades without being preyed upon by strangers. Plus, of course, there’s the highly appealing vibe of the picture, which emanates from Pierre-William Glenn’s silky photography and Georges Delerue’s Oscar-winning score. When the movie clicks, it’s charming. Alas, A Little Romance suffers several fundamental flaws—among other things, the story is bloated, meandering, and unbelievable.
          The picture opens in Paris, where 13-year-old Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) lives a peculiar existence. His father is a sleazy cab driver who rarely provides traditional parental guidance, so Daniel finds solace at the movies. Therefore, when he stumbles across a Hollywood film shoot while on a class field trip, Daniel sneaks onto the set to watch the action. He’s beguiled by the presence of veteran actor Broderick Crawford (who plays himself in A Little Romance), but then his head is turned when he meets 13-year-old American Lauren (Diane Lane). She’s the daughter of a crew member, but she’d rather read books than watch a film being made. Impressing each other with precocious patter, Daniel and Lauren arrange to meet again, and before long the pair befriends Julius (Laurence Olivier), an aging man of mystery. As the contrived and convoluted plot unfolds, Daniel and Lauren run away from Paris with Julius as their escort, because Daniel and Lauren become infatuated with the idea of kissing under a famous bridge in Venice. According to Julius, a romantic myth says that lovers who perform this ritual will be together forever. A Little Romance also contains a sizable subplot about Lauren’s mother (Sally Kellerman), who is married, having an affair with the director of the film-within-the-film that’s shooting in Paris.
          Cowritten and directed by the great George Roy Hill (who makes wink-wink references to his past by including clips from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting), this picture has precious little to do with human reality. Daniel and Lauren debate philosophy with the sophistication of college professors, the Julius character is the sort of gentleman con artist who exists only in fanciful fiction, and the thematic heart of the movie—innocent children teach world-weary adults lessons about love—is optimistic but trite. Viewed simply as straightforward narrative, this movie is annoying, overlong, and twee. Viewed as a fable, however, A Little Romance is filled with lovely textures and warm sentiments. Delerue’s gentle guitar melodies create a comforting mood, and the young leading actors give appropriately guileless performances. (This was Lane’s first movie.) So, even if Crawford’s presence is inconsequential, even if Kellerman does her usual haughty number, and even if Olivier delivers one of his campier late-career performances, A Little Romance still manages to beguile—albeit only intermittently.

A Little Romance: FUNKY

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Million Dollar Duck (1971)

          Based on a story by Ted Key, who created the characters Hazel and Mr. Peabody and Sherman, this amiable live-action picture from Walt Disney Productions offers a modern spin on the old Aesop fable about the goose that laid the golden egg. Adhering to the Disney trope of building stories around bumbling professors, The Million Dollar Duck stars Dean Jones as Albert Dooley, a kindly young professor with financial troubles. One day at his lab, a duck that hasn’t proved useful as a research animal wanders out of its cage and into a neighboring lab, where the fowl gets irradiated. Albert takes the duck home, only to discover that the duck now lays eggs made of pure gold. This development delights Albert’s scatterbrained wife, Katie (Sandy Duncan), even though the couple’s son, Jimmy (Lee Montgomery), simply enjoys having a pet. (He names the duck Charley.) Seeing a way out of his fiscal woes, Albert conspires with his buddy, a lawyer named Fred Hines (Tony Roberts), to sell the eggs and make a fortune. Meanwhile, Albert’s next-door neighbor, U.S. Treasury employee Finley Hooper (Joe Flynn), suspects Albert is up to something. Farcical intrigue ensues.
          All of this stuff is completely silly, of course, and The Million Dollar Duck is filled with tomfoolery along the lines of adults sitting on all fours and barking like dogs to make Charley do his trick, since the duck has a phobia about canines. Per the Disney formula, the picture also features a very long climactic chase filled with questionable special effects. (Picture Jones riding the cherry picker attached to a truck, then squealing every time the truck nears an overpass.) Nonetheless, the filmmakers keep things simple in terms of narrative elements, so instead of trying to anthropomorphize the titular critter, The Million Dollar Duck merely depicts what happens when Albert, Fred, and Katie get greedy. Chances are you can guess whether the major characters learn to accept wholesome values by the end of the story. Flynn and Jones provide their usual competent work, while aggressively wholesome costar Duncan, appearing in one of her first movies, makes the most of a trope about her character spewing malapropisms along the lines of “You don’t have to yell at me—I have 20/20 hearing.” Plus, it’s hard to get too stern about a flick that features crusty supporting player James Gregory speaking this unlikely dialogue: “Yes, there does seem to be a certain degree of duck involvement here.”

The Million Dollar Duck: FUNKY

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hot Potato (1976)

Featuring a noxious mixture of cartoonish action scenes and unfunny comedy bits, this martial-arts adventure has strong connections to Black Belt Jones (1974), but it’s not precisely a sequel. Whereas the previous film is a straight-up blaxploitation drama that happens to feature karate, Hot Potato aspires to a frothy level of action-adventure farce. Real-life martial artist Jim Kelly, who played the title character in Black Belt Jones, stars in Hot Potato as a man simply named “Jones,” and no references are made to events in the previous film. (One suspects that producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub, who were involved with both films, might have been contractually prohibited from calling their follow-up film Black Belt Jones 2.) Set in a fictional Asian country, Hot Potato concerns a criminal kingpin named Carter Rangoon (Sam Hiona). Carter’s thugs kidnap June Dunbar (Judith Brown), the daughter of a U.S. senator, so the senator enlists secret agent Jones (Kelly) to attempt a rescue. Together with goofy accomplices Johnny Chicago (Geoffrey Benney) and Rhino (George Memmoli), Jones grabs June from Carter’s clutches—or so he thinks. Turns out Carter replaced June with a lookalike named Leslie (also played by Brown), so most of the movie comprises a long jungle trek during which Jones and his buddies cavort with female companions while villains stalk them. Hot Potato is filled with annoying sound effects, the sorts of pops and whistles normally associated with Keystone Kops-style comedies, and the action scenes are deflated by weak attempts at humor—a remote-controlled toy car that hides a bomb, an uncooperative elephant named Butch, and so on. Additionally, the filmmakers periodically forget that Hot Potato is lighthearted fare and try to generate actual thrills. (Example: a painfully dumb sequence of characters mired in quicksand.) Kelly is as uninteresting here as he is in his other pictures, even though his athleticism is impressive, and the whole movie feels like a brainless knock-off of 1973’s Enter the Dragon. FYI, the confusion over whether Hot Potato is a real sequel to Black Belt Jones is compounded by the existence of a totally unrelated Jim Kelly movie called The Tattoo Connection (1978), which is sometimes deceptively marketed as Black Belt Jones 2.

Hot Potato: LAME