Saturday, April 25, 2015

UFO: Target Earth (1974)

Quite possibly the worst example of the speculative-fiction boom that paralleled mid-’70s fascination with all things otherworldly, UFO: Target Earth is a lifeless and nonsensical melodrama about a technician who investigates weird transmissions and eventually connects with some sort of alien presence that’s been hidden on Earth for hundreds of years. Since absolutely nothing of interest happens for the first hour of the movie, the only things about UFO: Target Earth worth mentioning occur during the “climax,” so read no further if you want this singularly underwhelming cinematic experience to remain unspoiled. In the wacky final sequences of UFO: Target Earth, our bland hero, Alan Grimes (played, zombie-like, by Nick Plakias), has a long psychic conversation with an alien that manifests as some sort of low-tech video waveform. The alien explains, in exhaustingly literal detail, that Alan is one of only four human beings ever to sufficiently “transcend” humanity that they can understand alien concepts. As a reward for his achievement of—well, whatever the hell it is that he’s achieved—Alan is asked to sacrifice himself and thereby give the alien (or aliens) the energy that he (or it or they) need in order to return to his (or its or their) home planet (or galaxy or whatever). It’s quite an accomplishment on the part of writer/producer/director Michael A. DeGaetano to fill the final stretch of UFO: Target Earth with explanatory dialogue and still leave the plot almost completely undecipherable. And it’s not as if the storyline is the only problem, because the acting, cinematography, dialogue, sets, and special effects are all substandard, as well. Incredibly, DeGaetano managed to raise money for two more features after this one, which should have been a career-killer.

UFO: Target Earth: SQUARE

Friday, April 24, 2015

King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (1970)

          Originally exhibited as a one-night-only theatrical event, this massive documentary about the civil-rights odyssey of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comprises chronologically ordered and expertly edited newsreel footage of key moments along King’s journey. As the title suggests, the picture begins in 1955, when King rose to national prominence by leading protests in Montgomery, Alabama, stemming from Rosa Parks’ bold defiance of a racist busing policy. King: A Filmed Record then depicts such iconic moments as King’s incarceration in Montgomery, where he wrote one of his most famous essays; his elegant responses to bombings and other violence committed by pro-segregation extremists; the March on Washington, including the historic “I Have a Dream” speech; King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize; the marches through Selma, Alabama, that forced the intervention of the U.S. government on behalf of civil-rights activists; and, finally, King’s funeral after his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
          Eschewing narration, the film mostly lets archival footage stand on its own, although the project’s producer, Ely Landau, enlisted a number of noteworthy Hollywood liberals to appear on camera and read encomiums about King and/or pointed literary excerpts related to the never-ending struggle for equality and freedom. Stars participating in the project include Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ben Gazzara, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Anthony Quinn, Clarence Williams III, and Joanne Woodward. (Most are onscreen for a minute or less.) Adding to the project’s Hollywood pedigree is the quiet participation of directors Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who presumably filmed the celebrity testimonials. King: A Filmed Record is a long movie, running three hours and featuring an intermission after the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the length works in the project’s favor. Beyond the historical value in compiling so many of King’s important achievements, the piece celebrates the incredible power of King’s oratory while never losing sight of context. The film’s editors often juxtapose shots of press conferences and speeches with harrowing footage of human-rights violations, as well as images that show pain tracking across the faces of everyday African-Americans who bear silent witness to pointless degradation.
          Hovering over the whole experience of King: A Filmed Record is the heartbreaking knowledge of how King’s life ended. Every scene of the great man calling for dignity is tinged with the awareness of looming danger. Yet as King himself said in a prophetic speech that was played during his funeral, the survival of the dream was more important than the survival of the man. A tribute to both, King: A Filmed Record remains just as necessary and relevant as ever. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature, King: A Filmed Record was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1999.

King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis: RIGHT ON

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Main Event (1979)

          Barbra Streisand returned from a three-year screen hiatus to executive-produce, star in, and perform the theme song of the boxing-themed romantic comedy The Main Event. She also hedged her bets by recruiting costar Ryan O’Neal, hoping to recapture the box-office success and onscreen chemistry they enjoyed with 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? Alas, despite slick production values and energetic performances by both leading actors, The Main Event suffers from a bloated running time and a weak storyline, to say nothing of the hideous perm and shrill characterization that Streisand inflicted upon herself. (Some blame must fall to fellow executive producer Jon Peters, the ex-hairdresser who was the diva’s boyfriend at the time, but nobody puts Babsy in a corner.) Except for those who find the notion of Streisand screeching and whining for two hours distasteful, The Main Event is watchable. However, it’s not the least bit memorable or unique.
          Streisand plays Hilary Kramer, a perfume-industry executive who falls on hard times when her business manager embezzles her fortune. Hilary’s last remaining asset is the employment contract for Eddie “Kid Natural” Scanlon (O’ Neal), a prizefighter of dubious credentials. Turns out Hilary’s business manager bought the contract as a tax scam, offering Eddie a lavish salary for not fighting. After informing Eddie that he can reimburse her or face criminal charges for his participation in the tax-evasion scheme, Hilary pushes Eddie back into the ring for a series of fights. All the while, the two strike romantic sparks, much to the chagrin of Eddie’s vulgar girlfriend, Donna (Patti D’Arbanville).
          There’s a lot wrong with the script, credited to sitcom pros Gail Parent and Andrew Smith. Beyond the flaccid nature of the banter, one-liners, and slapstick gags, the film lacks a proper villain—which it badly needs—and the arc of the main characters’ relationship is so trite that it’s boring to watch Eddie and Hilary transition from enemies to lovers. Making matters worse, insipid chauvinist-vs.-feminist rhetoric gets shoehorned into the old-fashioned story. Among other complications this creates, it’s tricky to reconcile the feminist material with endless ogling shots of Streisand’s rear end—one of which tellingly appears in tandem with Peters’ producing credit. O’Neal and Streisand both try valiantly to energize limp dialogue, and they look fantastic (notwithstanding that damn perm). Is that enough to merit slogging through The Main Event? That depends on viewers’ interest in the actors, since The Main Event offers little more than pure star power.

The Main Event: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Hospital (1971)

          Speaking as a cineaste, a devotee of ’70s film, and a screenwriter, I’m about to commit an act of heresy by admitting that I don’t dig The Hospital, which netted Paddy Chayefsky one of his three writing Oscars. While I understand the use of dark satire to skewer the foibles of the medical industry—and, on a larger scale, the foibles of bureaucracy and capitalism run amok—I’ve watched The Hospital twice at very different times in my life, and on both occasions I’ve found the movie to be cold, pretentious, and tiresome. Seeing as how Chayefsky’s writing was singled out for praise, it’s possible my reaction stems from a problem of execution. Arthur Hiller’s sloppy camerawork and undisciplined dramaturgy prevents a clear point of view from coalescing, so he seems lost as the story zooms back and forth between tonalities.
          Proving that giving an ambitious Chayevsky script a pleasing shape wasn’t impossible, Sidney Lumet made a masterpiece from Chayefsky’s next opus, Network (1976). Many of the outrageous narrative maneuvers that make Network so wonderful are present in The Hospital, but they don’t work nearly as well. The omniscient narration, the religious allegory, the spectacular monologues—whereas these elements feel germane to the coherent lunacy of Network, they contribute to making The Hospital feel scattershot. The Hospital is not without its virtues, of course, because George C. Scott’s leading performance is impassioned, and the movie’s dialogue vibrates with Chayefsky’s unique blend of indignation and intellectualism (even though all of the characters sound identical). Furthermore, the best jabs at the medical industry land with tremendous impact. Taken as a whole, however, The Hospital is contrived, episodic, long-winded, and underwhelming.
          The picture is set at a fictional Manhattan hospital, which is perpetually surrounded by protestors, some of whom also work at the facility. Chief of Medicine Dr. Herbert Bock (Scott) is a suicidal drunk reeling from a divorce, and therefore emotionally unprepared for a series of crises. One by one, doctors and nurses start dying as a result of absurd mix-ups—injections given to the wrong patients, sick people pushed aside and “forgotten to death,” and so on. Herbert’s life takes a turn when he meets Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), the daughter of an eccentric patient. A hippie involved with Native American mysticism, she tries to remove her father from the hospital, sparking many debates about the efficacy of Herbert’s management. Other subplots include the travails of one Dr. Welbeck (Richard Dysart), a snobbish surgeon who has incorporated himself in order to prioritize money over medicine. All of these things come together in wild ways. A serial killer stalks the hospital’s halls. Herbert confesses self-destructive thoughts to a shrink, nearly injects himself with lethal chemicals, and overcomes impotence by raping Barbara.
          In one of the film’s least pleasing developments, Barbara interprets Herbert’s sexual assault as an act of love. Suffice to say the film is not as sharp on women’s issues as it is on economics and medical ethics.
          While The Hospital is all over the place in terms of mood and themes, Scott is incredible, even if the script requires him to exclaim “Oh, my God!” a few too many times, and the supporting cast is filled with lively players. Beyond Dysart and Rigg, The Hospital features Roberts Blossom, Stockard Channing, Stephen Elliot, Katherine Hellmond, Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, and Robert Walden. Moreover, the movie has unquestionable literary quality, and it’s a meticulously researched examination of a worthy topic. Yet it’s also bewildering and strident and ugly. Still, what else could be expected from a self-proclaimed examination of “the whole wounded madness of our times”? Happily, Chayefsky found a perfect vessel for his op-ed rage in his next project.

The Hospital: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Night Call Nurses (1972)

          Roger Corman’s New World Pictures continued its drab cycle of sexy-nurse movies with this third installment, another ensemble drama about the interconnected misadventures of pretty young RNs. George Armitage, who wrote and directed the previous film in the series, Private Duty Nurses (1971), penned the screenplay for this installment, and fellow New World worker bee Jonathan Kaplan made his directorial debut on the project. Somewhat redeemed by flashes of whimsical humor—as well as satirical looks at group therapy and the growth of the pharmaceutical industry—the movie is tolerable but hardly compelling. Despite the title, the nurses actually work with psychiatric patients; perhaps Corman and co. felt Psych Ward Nurses wouldn’t have quite the same box-office allure. Anyway, our heroines are Barbara (Patty Byrne), a troubled young brunette wrestling with a stalker and with a lascivious therapist; Janis (Alana Hamilton), a perky blonde who becomes involved with a trucker after he’s hospitalized during a bad acid trip; and Sandra (Mittie Lawrence), an idealsitic African-American persuaded by her activist boyfriend to help spring a black-power militant leader from the heavily guarded room where he’s receiving medical care.
          As with all of the sexy-nurse movies, Night Call Nurses is padded with empty spectacle. In addition to a dull skydiving sequence, there’s an endless scene of young women stripping during a group-therapy session, ostensibly to throw off their inhibitions. Amid the repetitive nonsense, however, are some enjoyable moments. Once in a while, for instance, Armitage inserts some of his signature offbeat humor. Kyle (Richard Young), the wigged-out trucker, courts Janis by pointing to the name tag on her uniform. “Janis—is that your name or the name of your left tittie?” Giggling, she replies, “That’s my name—the name of my left tittie’s Irene.” Sophisticated? Hardly. Droll by comparison with the rest of the movie? Sure. There’s also a somewhat amusing scene in which a sleazy drug salesman tries to peddle unnecessary medication, only to be stymied by a nurse who brings up the pesky issue of medical ethics. The movie takes an abrupt left turn into pure Corman territory toward the end, climaxing with an escape, a car chase, and a bloody shootout. One suspects the people at New World realized the novelty of nurses providing carnal TLC wasn’t enough to sustain interest across multiple movies, hence the choice to throw in random exploitation elements, whether they fit or not.

Night Call Nurses: FUNKY

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Walk in the Spring Rain (1970)

          Notwithstanding Anthony Quinn’s inexplicable casting as a Tennessee native and the unexplained presence of Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish accent, A Walk in the Spring Rain is a passable romantic melodrama. Both actors are strong enough to surmount their miscasting, and the combination of a relatively brisk storyline with resplendent location photography keeps the picture palatable. That said, deep problems permeate A Walk in the Spring Rain. For the first hour or so, the picture is almost completely bereft of dramatic conflict, meaning that the weight of the film falls on entirely on Bergman’s shoulders as she depicts the anguish of a woman torn between her fuddy-duddy husband and a charming stranger. Concurrently, Elmer Bernstein’s score is so chaotic that it ruins the efficacy of many scenes. During stable moments, Bernstein provides straightforward emotional string accents. Yet he also punctuates scenes with virile horn signatures better suited to an action movie, and he periodically employs strange juxtapositions of, say, organ chirps and unidentifiable honking noises. Had the film’s narrative been stronger, these musical excesses wouldn’t have been so noticeable, but sizable stretches of the picture comprise aimless montages and/or silly vignettes of (wait for it) Bergman drinking moonshine and/or imitating the bleating vocalizations of goats.
          The very thin basic story is as follows—when college professor Roger Meredith (Fritz Weaver) and his wife, Libby (Bergman), temporarily relocate from New York to Tennessee so Roger can write a textbook, Libby falls for rugged and upbeat handyman Will (Quinn), even though he’s married to the mousy Ann (Virginia Gregg). Predictable complications ensue, but not with enough frequency or impact. Among the underdeveloped tropes is the relationship between Libby and her daughter, Ellen (Katherine Crawford), who perceives Libby as nothing but a readily available babysitter for Ellen’s young son. Although there’s a smidgen of proto-feminist ideology buried inside A Walk in the Spring Rain, the movie is really about the novelty of middle-aged people experiencing romantic passion. Bergman finds abundant pathos and truth in the material, whereas Quinn toggles between cutesy shtick and overwrought melodrama. Writer-producer Stirling Silliphant, whose massive output for film and television includes as much hackery as it does serious endeavors, adapted the movie from a book by Rachel Maddux, and it’s hard to tell whether he envisioned a grown-up drama or a treacly soap. At various times, A Walk in the Spring Rain is both.

A Walk in the Spring Rain: FUNKY

Sunday, April 19, 2015

1980 Week: Saturn 3

          One of the strangest projects to emerge from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, this British production featuring American leading actors is part adventure saga, part horror show, part love story, and part mystery thriller. It also features one of the most unlikely combinations of stars in movie history: Aging he-man Kirk Douglas shares the screen with sun-kissed TV beauty Farrah Fawcett and New York-trained Method actor Harvey Keitel. That is, unless one counts the hulking robot who features prominently in the story as a costar. Set in the future, the picture begins when a mystery man kills a fellow space pilot in order to commander a shuttle delivering supplies to a scientific outpost on one of Saturn’s moons. The sole occupants of the outpost are Adam (Douglas), who is tasked with growing crops because Earth can no longer manufacture sufficient food, and Adam’s assistant/lover, Alex (Fawcett). Her origins are never made clear, though the implication is that she was provided to Adam as a sexual plaything. When the mystery man arrives, he reveals himself as Benson (Keitel), and says that his mission is to build a robot that can increase productivity at Saturn 3 (the name of the outpost).
          Adam and Alex are rattled by the change to their status quo, since they dig their quiet life—and who can blame them, since they seem to spend more time changing costumes and having sex than they do conducting experiments. Eventually, Adam and Alex realize that Benson is a psycho. Their first clue is when Benson jabs a metallic probe into a slot that he’s installed in the back of his neck, and uses it to psychically control the robot. Benson causes even more trouble when he announces his desire to sleep with Alex. Before long, things devolve into full-on violence once the robot gains a degree of autonomy, so Adam and Alex have to deal with two predators at once.
          Unlikely as it may seem, Saturn 3 was directed by Stanley Donen of Singin’ in the Rain fame, and to say that he’s got no feel for horror and/or sci-fi is to make a great understatement. Although certain individual scenes are handled well enough, including the introduction of Benson’s psychic link with the robot and a lengthy chase sequence, Donen fails to generate credibility or tension. Things in Saturn 3 just sort of happen, and Donen seems far more concerned with showing off the film’s elaborate production design than with telling a proper story. (Incredibly, the script was penned by acclaimed British novelist Martin Amis.) It doesn’t help that the acting is awful or that impatient editing rushes the story along at a distractingly frenetic pace.
          Douglas was well into the self-parody phase of his career, Fawcett seems as if she was lobotomized before filming, and Keitel—whose voice was replaced with that of another actor during postproduction—gives a more robotic performance than the actual robot. Nonetheless, fans of vintage sci-fi will find many things to enjoy, thanks to the colorful visuals and the surprising incidents of extreme violence. Plus, seeing as how the story ultimately becomes completely nonsensical, it’s possible to watch Saturn 3 as an accidental comedy. (There’s a reason why the picture earned three Razzie Award nominations.) Oh, and for those who fall under Saturn 3’s weird spell—or for those who simply crave another chance to ogle the lovely Ms. Fawcett—it’s worth surfing the Web for an infamous deleted scene featuring Douglas and Fawcett simulating a sexy drug trip, because Douglas’ goofy acting is as stunning as Fawcett’s slutty costume.

Saturn 3: FUNKY

Saturday, April 18, 2015

1980 Week: Friday the 13th

          Despite its ample cinematic merits, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had an insidious influence on the film industry, because the film’s easily replicated narrative formula—combined with Halloween’s massive commercial success—inspired countless imitators. Of those subsequent films, Friday the 13th is the most significant for one simple reason: It proved that deficiencies in imagination and quality were not impediments for repeating Halloween’s box-office performance. After all, similar 1980 releases including He Knows You’re Alone, Prom Night, and Terror Train all made money, but none of them inspired deathless franchises, perhaps because none stole so shamelessly from Halloween. Twelve movies, one TV series, and innumerable ancillary products later, the Friday the 13th series and its signature monster, hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, are still going strong. All that being said, the original Friday the 13th, produced and directed by the singularly unimpressive Sean S. Cunningham, is a dimwitted, gruesome, puritanical, repetitive, trite schlockfest.
          Copping the basic shape of Halloween—without matching that film’s unique power, style, and themes—Friday the 13th follows the slasher-film playbook of a psycho systematically killing horny teenagers until a final showdown occurs between the killer and the inevitable lone survivor. What makes Friday the 13th so uninteresting is that the film contains nothing but the slasher-film playbook. This is paint-by-numbers horror cinema. Literally the only distinctive element of the picture is Henry Manfredini’s score, which steals bits from the work of Bernard Hermann and John Williams but also adds signature vocalizations (“ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma”).
          The plot, such as it is, begins with a brief prologue set in 1958. Two young counselors at Camp Crystal Lake leave a party to have sex. Then an unseen individual kills them. Two decades later, several young people converge on Camp Crystal Lake, which is set to reopen for the first time since the tragedy. The same unseen individual kills these newcomers, usually while they’re in the midst of having sex, until the murderer’s identity is revealed. (Spoiler alert!) Although Jason Voorhees emerged as the main antagonist in the series during Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), he’s not the main culprit here, meaning no hockey mask—that prop didn’t show up until the godwaful Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982). On a technical level, Friday the 13th is passable, with competent cinematography and some half-decent acting. (Watch for a young Kevin Bacon as one of the horny victims.) More than anything, however, Friday the 13th is just plain dumb, the film’s brainless rhythms offering hints of just how stupid later entries in the franchise would become.

Friday the 13th: LAME

Friday, April 17, 2015

1980 Week: Nine to Five

          Throughout the late ’70s, Jane Fonda performed a remarkable feat of synthesizing her acting and her activism, serving as producer (sometimes uncredited) for the Vietnam-vet drama Coming Home (1978), the nuclear-meltdown thriller The China Syndrome (1979), and this comedy, which brought to light the gender inequity plaguing American workplaces. At first glance, Nine to Five might seem lightweight compared to its predecessors in Fonda’s producing oeuvre, but treating the theme with humor proved a savvy move because it attracted a wide audience. The picture earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office at a time when that was still a rare achievement, and now Nine to Five is considered something of a modern classic. The picture even inspired a TV series, which ran sporadically from 1982 to 1988, as well as a 2009 Broadway musical.
          Cowritten and directed by Colin Higgins, who embellished a previous script by Patricia Resnick, the picture takes place in a midlevel department of fictional firm Consolidated Companies. The department’s boss is Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), whom female employees rightly characterize as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Throughout the picture’s first act, Hart earns the enmity of protagonists Judy Bernly (Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton). Franklin berates new employee Judy for incompetence, showing no sympathy for the fact that her post at Consolidated is the recent divorcée’s first job. He steals work product from Violet and blocks her well-deserved promotion. And he sexually harasses the buxom Doralee, bolstering his macho reputation by fomenting bogus rumors that they’re sleeping together. One evening, the women drown their sorrows and share revenge fantasies, which Higgins stages as elaborate dream sequences. Then a farcical showdown occurs during which Violent (mistakenly) believes that she’s poisoned Franklin.
          A few plot twists later, the women find themselves holding Franklin hostage in his own home while trying to gather evidence that will entrap him and therefore free the women from suspicion.
          As he demonstrated with ’70s hits Foul Play and Silver Streak, Higgins had a unique gift for orchestrating comedies with Swiss-watch storylines. Nine to Five is far-fetched and silly, but everything in the plot is worked out neatly. Ultimately, however, the narrative is merely a vessel for the theme: Nine to Five is a fairy tale for female professionals. Fonda, drifting back to the sort of light comedy she did in many of her earliest films, uses her performance to tell a story about self-actualization, letting her costars take the showier roles. Parton nearly steals the picture with her down-home charm, Tomlin grounds the film with a deadpan approach to jokes, and Coleman makes a great cartoonish villain. Despite its sociopolitical heft Nine to Five is consistently gentle and undemanding. Like the theme song that Parton wrote and recorded during production, which subsequently became a No. 1 pop hit, Nine to Five is a sugar-coated rallying cry.

Nine to Five: GROOVY

Thursday, April 16, 2015

1980 Week: Hopscotch

          So dry that it’s barely a comedy, and yet so irreverent that it’s most definitely not a drama, the winning Hopscotch offers a wry depiction of Cold War-era spycraft. In fact, the most delightful aspect of the movie is the way it treats international espionage as a big business rife with the same sort of bureaucratic inefficiency, professional jealousy, and small-minded vendettas that plague every other industry. Walter Matthau, showcasing the loveable-scamp aspect of his screen persona instead of the rumpled-grouch aspect, plays Miles Kendig, a CIA operative whom we meet on the job in Europe. An old pro who sees all the angles and casually makes deals with his KGB counterpart, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Kendig has become a relic from the era of gentleman spies. Returning to Washington, he’s belittled and demoted by his crude but politically connected superior, Myerson (Ned Beatty). The idea of taking a desk job doesn’t work for Kendig, however, so he discreetly shreds his personnel file, slips out of CIA headquarters, and returns to Europe so he can be with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson), and plot his playful revenge against Myerson.
          Kendig starts writing a tell-all book about his life as a secret agent, sending copies of early chapters to prominent figures in the global intelligence community. As intended, the book makes Kendig a wanted man, so he commences a merry chase around the globe with the goal of humiliating Myerson as utterly as possible. Employing arcane knowledge, fake passports, and old spy-community contacts, Kendig “hops” back and forth between various locations in America and Europe, leaving clues that mock Myerson and other agents for their inability to catch up with a seasoned veteran. Meanwhile, Kendig keeps sending chapters of the book, with new secrets revealed on each page and the threat of the explosive final chapter lingering over everyone involved.
          Deftly written by Bryan Forbes and Bryan Garfield (based on a novel by Garfield), Hopscotch is the sort of lighthearted romp that’s designed to generate perpetual amusement, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarity, so viewers expecting slapstick or verbal fireworks will be disappointed. Similarly, anyone hoping for a replay of the bickering-lovers sparks that Jackson and Matthau struck in House Calls (1978) is due for a letdown, since the actors play characters who are cheerfully conjoined from the beginning of the story to the end. Yet within these diminished expectations, Hopscotch provides a thoroughly pleasurable viewing experience. Director Ronald Neame shoots locations beautifully, the story provides innumerable twists stemming from Kendig’s incredible resourcefulness, and the acting is terrific. Beatty strikes the right balance between buffoonery and competence, Jackson comes across as clever and worldly, Lom is appealingly urbane, Matthau is appropriately rascally, and costar Sam Waterston (as Kendig’s protégé/pursuer) lends a charming quality of conflicted compassion.

Hopscotch: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

1980 Week: Coal Miner’s Daughter

          Late in Coal Miner’s Daughter, the acclaimed biopic of country-music legend Loretta Lynn, there’s a telling remark about fame: “Gettin’ here is one thing, and bein’ here’s another.” That the line is spoken not by Lynn, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Sissy Spacek, but rather by her husband, Mooney, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, speaks volumes. In this particular story, the rise from dirt-poor roots to extraordinary success is hardest on Mooney, because once his wife’s career takes flight—thanks to years of hard work by both members of the couple—Mooney becomes superfluous in ways he never expected. This insightful take on the rags-to-riches formula that’s usually employed for biopics about music stars is just one of several commendable aspects of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Even though the film is quite ordinary in many ways, from the unavoidably predictable storyline to the way the title character is all but sanctified, delicate nuances of character and regional identity give Coal Miner’s Daughter an appealing sense of authenticity.
          Opening in rural Kentucky circa the late 1940s, the picture introduces Loretta as the dutiful 15-year-old daughter of Ted Webb (played by real-life rock singer Levon Helm), a hardworking coal miner and father of eight kids. Life in the tiny mountain village of Butcher Hollow is hard, so when fast-talking World War II veteran Oliver “Mooney” Lynn woos Loretta with dancing and romance, she’s quickly swept off her feet. Marriage and pregnancy follow. Eventually, Mooney relocates his growing family to the city so he can find work, and he encourages Loretta to develop her singing talents by performing at honky-tonks. Though she misses her people in Butcher Hollow, Loretta realizes she’s got a gift for entertaining audiences, and things start falling into place. Mooney finances a recording session that produces a hit single, Loretta gets invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and reigning country-music queen Patsy Cline (Beverly D’Angelo) becomes Loretta’s best friend, mentor, and touring partner. Despite exhaustion, marital tensions, and tragedies, Lynn soldiers on to become a chart-topping superstar.
          As written by Tom Rickman (from Lynn’s best-selling autobiography) and directed by Michael Apted, a versatile Brit who has spent his career toggling between documentaries and fiction films, Coal Miner’s Daughter feels heartfelt from start to finish. The scenes in Kentucky are especially good, with beautifully constructed accents and costumes and sets used to convey you-are-there verisimilitude. Although material depicting life on the road is pedestrian, the combination of D’Angelo’s sass and Spacek’s fortitude amply demonstrates the indignities and sacrifices that women had to make for music careers in the ’50s. Jones also delivers one of his liveliest performances, mostly suppressing his natural surliness in favor of good-ol’-boy warmth. Underscoring all of this, of course, is the fact that Lynn’s early life really did unfold like a country song—she’s the real deal, and the same can be said of this film about her amazing journey.

Coal Miner’s Daughter: GROOVY

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1980 Week: Breaker Morant

          Beautifully filmed, expertly acted, meticulously directed, and thoughtfully written, Breaker Morant is not only one of the best Australian films ever made, but also one of the finest dramas of its era. Presenting a complex story about courage, cowardice, politics, violence, and war, the picture dramatizes an infamous real-life incident that took place during the early 20th century in what later became South Africa. Amid the storms of the Second Boer War, fought between forces of the British Empire and those resisting British rule, three officers in an Australian regiment serving the UK were accused of killing unarmed combatants, including a German priest, as reprisal for the murder of their commanding officer. Partisans of the accused characterized the legal action that was brought against the Australians as craven political expediency, a maneuver designed by the British to appease German interests and facilitate a peace settlement. Despite strong evidence proving that the Australians were following orders, the officers were executed, and many people perceived the event as a classic miscarriage of justice.
          Cowritten and directed by Bruce Beresford, using Kenneth J. Ross’ play Breaker Morant as a foundation, this elegantly constructed film follows the trial of the Australians and includes flashbacks to key events on the battlefield. A picture emerges of a conflict in which the rules of engagement were murky at best. The leader of the Australians is the sophisticated Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), a horseman and poet who was born in England and therefore understands the duplicities of the British aristocracy better than his Australian-born comrades. In fact, Morant realizes his fate is sealed the minute he meets the attorney assigned to represent the Australians, an inexperienced Aussie named Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson). The lawyer is given only a day to prepare, and all of his motions to buy time are overruled. Yet as the absurdly one-sided military trial commences, Thomas proves more formidable than either the defendants or the jurists expected, sparking hope among the Australians that truth may out. In sad and tragic ways, it does—with little effect on the foregone conclusion.
           Through evidence and testimony, Thomas demonstrates that a no-prisoners policy was in place before the death of the Australians’ commanding officer, thereby demolishing the prosecution’s argument that Morant and the others acted savagely. “The tragedy of war,” Thomas opines, “is that these horrors are committed by normal men, in abnormal circumstances.”
          Beresford shows exquisite restraint in every aspect of filmmaking. The performances are almost perfectly modulated, with anger breaking through decorum at just the right moments, and the camera angles and lighting that Beresford contrives with cinematographer Donald McAlpine heighten tension while also infusing scenes with the immersive texture of remote locales. Woodward is extraordinary in the title role, blending cynicism and romanticism to incarnate a unique individual. Bryan Brown, in his breakout performance, lends roguish charm while playing one of Morant’s co-defendants. And Australian-cinema stalwart Thompson does some of the best work of his career. Best of all, the movie can be watched in close detail by viewers curious about the internecine historical details, and it can also be absorbed viscerally as the story of ordinary men thrown into battle against forces beyond their ken.
          Either way, it’s a masterpiece of dramatic storytelling.

Breaker Morant: RIGHT ON

Monday, April 13, 2015

1980 Week: Flash Gordon

          For many geeks of a certain age, Flash Gordon conjures warm memories of seeing the film in theaters, listening endlessly to the soundtrack LP featuring original songs by Queen, and revisiting the picture during its regular airings on cable. Over the years, the movie has generated not only a large cult following but also plentiful ancillary material—action figures, DVD reissues, a loving tribute nestled inside the comedy blockbuster Ted (2012), directed by Flash Gordon superfan Seth McFarlane. That’s quite an afterlife for a flick that producer Dino Di Laurentiis extrapolated from on old Saturday-matinee serial in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars (1977). Even though Di Laurentiis spent lavishly on costumes, sets, and special effects, Flash Gordon originally seemed destined for oblivion after its lukewarm box-office reception. Many critics and fans embraced the picture as a kitschy delight, but others merely rolled their eyes at the silliness of the enterprise.
          After all, it’s hard to take a movie seriously when it includes corny dialogue, one-dimensional characterizations, and a terrible leading performance by former Playgirl model Sam J. Jones. But then again, that’s the weird fun of Flash Gordon—the movie embraces its own goofiness, in essence presenting an outer-space adventure while simultaneously satirizing outer-space adventures.
          Flash Gordon’s plot recycles narrative elements from the original serials, so the story begins when outer-space tyrant Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) rains catastrophic ruin onto Earth for sport. Through convoluted circumstances, eccentric scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) kidnaps New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Jones) and stewardess Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) for a trip to space, because Hans plans to confront Earth’s tormentor. Upon reaching the planet Mongo, which comprises several distinct realms (each with its own climate), Flash pisses off Ming but wins the favor of Ming’s slutty daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti). She frees Flash from Ming’s prison even as Ming prepares to marry Dale, with whom he’s become smitten. After several death-defying adventures, Flash rallies several “princes of Mongo,” including the Robin Hood-like Barin (Timothy Dalton), for a revolution against Ming’s oppressive rule.
          The filmmakers’ tongue-in-cheek approach doesn’t always work, but Flash Gordon has a vibe uniquely its own. The juxtaposition of ’30s-style production design with ’70s-style arena rock is bizarre, the clash between bombastic supporting performance by classical actors and inept work by Anderson and Jones is jarring, and the presence of the great Von Sydow lends something like credibility to certain scenes. Plus, to give credit where it’s due, some of the movie’s ridiculous action scenes are genuinely exciting, such as a mano-a-mano duel that takes place on a giant revolving disk filled with spikes and an epic air battle involving flying “bird men,” souped-up “rocket cycles,” and phallic-looking spaceships. Best of all, perhaps, is the movie’s opulent color scheme, since Di Laurentiis went to the same pop-art well from which he drew the look of Barbarella (1968).
          Ace screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who earned nerd-culture immortality by writing the pilot for the 1966 Batman TV series and thus creating she show’s campy style, brings a playful sensibility to his script for Flash Gordon. The plotting is deliberately adolescent, with heavy play given to the boy-friendly themes of heroism and lust. Semple also jams the script full of jokes, some cringe-worthy and some sly. Meanwhile, director Mike Hodges—a hell of a long way from the gritty noir of Get Carter (1971)—mostly tries to mimic the way George Lucas mimicked serials while shooting Star Wars.

Flash Gordon: FUNKY

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Revengers (1972)

          A passable Western with a few meritorious elements, including a lively supporting performance by Ernest Borgnine and a zippy musical score by Pino Colvi that borrows textures from the work of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, The Revengers represents a milquetoast response to the cinema of Sam Peckinpah. Whereas Peckinpah’s Westerns upended the genre by accentuating gritty realism and moral ambiguity, The Revengers has the feel and look of an old-school cowboy movie, even though the broad strokes of the story are quite grim. Had the filmmakers taken their endeavor to its logical conclusion by emulating Peckinpah’s gutsy style instead of simply copping a few of his narrative tropes, The Revengers could have been something special. As is, the movie provides about 90 minutes of so-so entertainment during the course of a bloated 106-minute running time.
          William Holden, giving a phoned-in but still authoritative performance, plays John Benedict, a former Union solider now living quietly on a Colorado ranch with his family. A band of rogue Indians led by a white man raids the ranch one day while John is away hunting, so he returns to find his family slaughtered and his livestock stolen. John ventures into he wilderness in order to find and kill the guilty parties, eventually tracking them across the border to a hideout in Mexico. Realizing he needs extra guns, John manipulates the warden of a Mexican prison into loaning the services of several convicts, among them Americans Job (Woody Strode), a runaway slave, and Hoop (Borgnine), a fast-talking varmint. Adventures and betrayals ensue.
          The Revengers moves along at a good clip, except for a dreary interlude during which John spends time with frontier woman Elizabeth (Susan Hayward), and even though there aren’t many full-out action scenes, the bits of John and his outlaw gang living on the trail have color. Borgnine easily steals the picture by playing a two-faced creep prone to vulgar aphorisms (“That one-eyed rooster got away cleaner than a fart in a high wind!”). And while Holden’s gritted-teeth intensity suits the material well, his boredom during much of the picture is evident. Worse, director Daniel Mann’s periodic attempts at comic relief are punctuated with cringe-inducing musical stings, a sure sign the filmmakers lacked confidence in their own work. Fans of south-of-the-border Westerns should find The Revengers sufficiently distracting, though anyone expecting a proper follow-up to the previous Borgnine/Holden oater will be disappointed—instead of The Wild Bunch (1969), this is more like The Mild Bunch.

The Revengers: FUNKY

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Schlock (1973)

          Filmmaker John Landis’ twin preoccupations of campy horror tropes and rebellious juvenile humor permeate his first feature, Schlock, which he made when he was only 21. A one-joke spoof that sputters well before its brief 80-minute running time has elapsed, Schlock is nonetheless endearing—it’s a love letter to the movies from a lifelong fan, and it never takes itself seriously. Although the story is really just a makeshift framework on which Landis hangs innumerable one-liners and sight gags, Schlock tells the “story” of the Schlockthropus, a missing-link monster that emerges from centuries of hibernation and goes on a rampage until falling in love with a teenage girl. Landis, who wrote and directed the picture in addition to playing the title role from inside an ape suit created by future movie-makeup legend Rick Baker, borrows from Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), and about a zillion other shock-cinema favorites, even including footage from The Blob (1958) at one point. Parts of the movie are presented mockumentary-style, with reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Allison) speaking directly to the camera and/or interviewing experts and victims. Other sequences are presented as straightforward narrative, though Landis (in his capacity as an actor) occasionally breaks the illusion by mugging for the camera.
          Schlock is completely silly, but Landis’ deadpan approach to sophomoric humor was already fully formed at this early stage of his career. Clues at murder sites are banana peels. Looney Tunes-style gags occur regularly, such as the bit during which a cigarette lighter that won’t ignite for the longest time suddenly produces a huge jet of flame. Stock characters lampoon stock lines—for instance, a professor proclaims, “I believe we’re on the brink of the greatest scientific breakthrough in the last eight or nine weeks.” Sometimes, this stuff works in a groan-inducing sort of way, and sometimes it doesn’t. The scene of the Schlockthropus participating in a Bronx-cheer contest with a little kid goes on too long, but the bit when the Schlcoktropus uses a throw pillow as a weapon is casually amusing. Throughout the picture, Landis’ camerawork is clean and confident. Editor George Folsey Jr., who subsequently cut most of Landis’ hit comedies, energizes the director’s footage with his customary zippy pacing, thereby ensuring that Schlock has momentum even when it isn’t going anywhere.

Schlock: FUNKY

Friday, April 10, 2015

Punishment Park (1971)

          Offering an outsiders’ view on the sociopolitical problems causing friction in America during the counterculture era, this film by British experimentalist Peter Watkins mashes together references to the antiwar movement, the trial of the Chicago 7, and widespread paranoia about the growth of a police state, among other hot topics. Holding everything together is a pair of bold contrivances. On a narrative level, writer-director Watkins invents the notion of American concentration camps for rebellious youth. And on a stylistic level, as he did in many other films, Watkins uses a documentary aesthetic even though the events depicted onscreen are wholly fictional. Punishment Park is ultimately a bit too obvious and scruffy to generate much excitement—this is sledgehammer satire delivered by way of undisciplined improvisation from nonactors. Nonetheless, Punishment Park is very much a product of its time, meaning that it possesses more historical interest than it does dramatic interest.
          Set in the California desert, the movie imagines a place where members of the Establishment put “seditious” young people on trial for political activism. Those found guilty are given a choice between long prison terms and entrance to something called Punishment Park. The park comprises 50 miles of brutal desert terrain, and the participants are told that if they can successfully traverse the distance without being given food or water, they will be released. Throughout the movie, Watkins intercuts the trial of a new set of antiwar protestors with the ordeal of the previous set, now struggling for survival in Punishment Park. Borrowing a trope from the nihilistic sci-fi movies of the same era, Watkins soon reveals the dark secret of Punishment Park: National Guardsmen patrol the terrain, contriving excuses to murder the participants. In other words, Punishment Park is a death sentence. Had Watkins made the movie in a straightforward dramatic fashion, with proper characterizations and real actors, Punishment Park could have become one of the definitive pieces in the youth-culture canon. As is, the movie suffers from the awkwardness and stridency of a student film. It also recalls the shambolic agitprop of Medium Cool (1969), only without that seminal film’s close tethers to reality.
          At its worst, Punishment Park simply mimics important historical moments—when a black activist in Punishment Park gets bound and gagged in a courtroom, it’s a tacky nod to a real-life incident involving black-power activist Bobby Seale. At its best, the movie allows the spirited young people playing activists to speak their truth through the prism of the movie’s story. For example, the “goal” of participants in Punishment Park is to reach an American flag at the end of the terrain, symbolizing their return to proper U.S. society. But, as one participant crows, “I wouldn’t walk around the goddamned fucking corner for the American flag, let alone the desert.” Watkins captured something here, though he didn’t capture it with quite enough artistry.

Punishment Park: FUNKY