Monday, December 22, 2014

The Walking Stick (1970)

          A tender love story that includes elements from the crime-thriller genre while remaining largely focused on subtle nuances of characterization, the British drama The Walking Stick was adapted from the novel of the same name by Winston Graham. Delicate beauty Samantha Eggar stars as Deborah Dainton, an insecure and uptight young professional woman who works as an assistant at a London auction house. Deborah uses a walking stick because one of her legs is slightly deformed after a childhood bout with polio. Still living with her parents, Deborah watches her gregarious sisters engage in romantic exploits, but feels resigned to a loveless existence. When she’s dragged to a party one evening, Deborah is approached by confident but self-deprecating artist Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings), who asks for a date and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, Deborah’s resistance weakens, and romance blooms. She moves into Leigh’s dingy flat, and he persuades her to walk without aid of the stick.
          Things take a disquieting turn, however, when Leigh reveals that he’s been asked by criminal acquaintances to get information from Deborah about the security at the auction house. Idle chatter soon becomes serious business, because Leigh says he’s determined to not only assist with but also participate in a planned robbery of the auction house. These circumstances force Deborah to investigate whether Leigh’s feelings are sincere, or whether he was using her all along.
          While the actual storyline of The Walking Stick is slight, elegant filmmaking and tender performances make the movie quite worthwhile. Eggar, who first gained international attention in The Collector (1965), fills her characterization of Deborah with interesting textures. At various times, Deborah is confrontational, meek, sensuous, and vulnerable. Similarly, Hemmings—best known for playing a philandering photographer in Blowup (1966)—gives equal attention to the fragile and tough aspects of his role. By the end of The Walking Stick, Leigh is revealed as a person whose psyche has sustained as much damage as Deborah’s, because his dreams of artistic glory are inhibited but the limitations of his talent.
          Director Eric Till and cinematographer Arthur Ibbertson shoot the movie beautifully, using imaginative angles during intimate scenes to suggest varying degrees of closeness and distance between characters; the way a key love scene is played almost entirely on Eggar’s face reflects the humanistic aesthetic that pervades the picture. Similarly, the filmmakers exploit exteriors well, capturing the ruggedness of life on a low-rent wharf while also celebrating the visual splendor of posh neighborhoods. Additionally, Stanley Myers’ evocative score energizes the supple rhythms of the acting, cinematography, and editing. The Walking Stick is a small movie in every scene, which means that some viewers might grow restless waiting for explosive plot developments. Yet for those willing to accept the film’s modest scope, a rewarding experience awaits.

The Walking Stick: GROOVY

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dynamite Chicken (1971)

Equal parts self-congratulatory and self-destructive, this noisy comedy/literature/music anthology was undoubtedly envisioned by its creators as a bracing attack on mainstream sensibilities. Luminaries including Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Richard Pryor, and Andy Warhol contributed sequences, with Pryor appearing onscreen the most frequently. In lieu of a proper overriding aesthetic, producer-director Ernest Pintoff merely assembles unrelated pieces into a sloppy collage. Long sequences of Dynamite Chicken comprise jump-cut montages of images, news headlines, performances, and photographs, accompanied by lofty allusions to censorship and freedom and rebellion—as well as leering shots of naked women. It says a lot about Dynamite Chicken that one of the participants is Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, one of history’s sleaziest pornographers; Goldstein’s inclusion proves that many important progressives of the ’60s and ’70s blurred the lines between fighting Establishment inhibitions and inflicting lowbrow tastes onto an unsuspecting public. Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine that Dynamite Chicken changed any minds during its original release—the piece is so abrasive that it simply represents true believers preaching to other true believers. After all, the film’s many laments about censorship ring hollow considering the presence of myriad full-frontal shots, since it’s not as if Dynamite Chicken was impacted by censorship. Anyway, Pryor delivers a few sharp lines, even though most of his material is skewed toward shock value (“I think the American flag would make a great douche bag cover”), and it’s interesting-ish to note contributions by future comedy notables Michael O’Donoghue and Fred Willard. Yet the non-appeal of Dynamite Chicken is summed up by a quick shot featuring a sound tech generating atonal feedback—this one’s all about sound and fury, signifying nothing. That is, unless a close-up of Lennon picking his toes is your idea of entertainment.

Dynamite Chicken: SQUARE

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Night Watch (1973)

          Old-fashioned save for a gory finale, this adequate little thriller is hampered by leading lady Elizabeth Taylor’s overwrought performance—even though, by the outrageous standards of her usual style, she’s comparatively restrained in this picture. The problem, of course, is that Taylor rarely portrayed recognizable human beings, instead incarnating dream girls and harpies and vamps. Since the storyline of Night Watch is predicated on Taylor’s ability to believably convey the way her character teeters on the edge between madness and sanity, Taylor’s shortcomings nearly scuttle the whole endeavor. Thankfully, director Brian G. Hutton and his collaborators present the story with confident pacing and photography, while composer John Cameron provides an eerie score laden with theremin flourishes straight out of some vintage ’50s shocker.
          Set in England (where the film was produced), Night Watch concerns Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), a troubled woman struggling through a shaky second marriage. Her first husband died under traumatic circumstances, and now Ellen is wed to John (Laurence Harvey), who may or may not be trysting with Ellen’s best friend, Sarah Cooke (Billie Whitelaw). Already considered unhinged by everyone she knows, Ellen raises further worries about her mental state when she claims to have seen a murder committed in the house next door. This leads to all sorts of friction with Ellen’s neighbors and with the local police, who dig up gardens and search vacant houses while looking for clues that never materialize. Eventually, the story becomes a battle of wills between Ellen and John, because once John suggests that Ellen spend time in a sanitarium, she must prove her sanity in order to save her own freedom. Naturally, there’s a big twist toward the end of the picture.
          Most everything about Night Watch is executed at a fairly high level, from the general ambiance to the supporting performances, so Taylor’s acting is the only major weak spot. Furthermore, flashbacks to the time when Ellen’s first husband died are effectively gruesome, long scenes of characters probing mysterious hallways contain a measure of suspense, and the violent finale is exciting. As such, it’s wrong to categorize Night Watch as camp, since the leading lady’s flamboyance is the sole cartoonish element. Nonetheless, how much enjoyment each viewer can derive from Night Watch depends in large part upon each viewer’s Taylor tolerance.

Night Watch: FUNKY

Friday, December 19, 2014

Flap (1970)

It’s hard to imagine how or why the venerable British director Carol Reed became involved with this tone-deaf project, which on the one hand espouses a progressive political platform regarding the mistreatment of Native Americans, but on the other hand insults the very people it’s about by casting most of the principal roles with non-Indians. Reed was a versatile talent whose filmography spans the film-noir classic The Third Man (1949) to the Oscar-winning Dickensian musical Oliver! (1968), so it’s a gross understatement to say this picture exists outside his comfort zone. Similarly, the three main actors (Anthony Quinn, Tony Bill, and Claude Akins) are wildly, even offensively, miscast. The serviceable story concerns modern-day reservation Indians living in the American southwest and protesting the endless encroachment of the U.S. government onto tribal lands. Quinn stars as Flapping Eagle (“Flap” for short), de facto leader of a group of drunken misfits that also includes Eleven Snowflake (Bill) and Lobo Jackson (Akins). After being hassled by a local sheriff, the latest in a long series of racially charged incidents, Flap gets pissed (in both the American and British senses of the word) and starts a fight with construction workers that climaxes with an industrial vehicle getting driven off a cliff. Whereas Flap’s peers are inclined to take the heat for the demolished vehicle, even straining tribal funds to pay for damages, Flap transforms the event into the first spark of a revolution. He leads his borderline-inept accomplices through a series of crimes including the theft of an entire train. Had the picture stuck to the main storyline of Flap’s political activism, it might have been tolerable, even with the ridiculous casting. Alas, the filmmakers fumble with a subplot about Flap’s romance with a blowsy prostitute (Shelley Winters); the screechiness of the Quinn-Winters scenes, some of which include goofy hallucinations, is painful to endure. Adding to the film’s dissonance is a grating score by Marvin Hamlisch, which tries to be comical and folksy but also integrates pointless electronic beeps and whoops. Worst of all, the makers of Flap strive for a Big Statement with the tragic finale, thereby adding undeserved grandiosity to the list of the picture’s unseemly attributes.

Flap: LAME

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

          John Willard’s 1922 play The Cat and the Canary, which blends comedic and horrific elements while telling the story of would-be heirs trying to survive an evening in a spooky house, has enjoyed a long cinematic afterlife. The first screen adaptation was a 1929 silent picture, and two additional versions were filmed in between the silent movie and a successful 1939 remake starring Bob Hope. (The 1939 movie did so well that costars Hope and Paulette Godard reteamed for another funny/scary romp, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, which, incidentally, was among the inspirations for the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters.) By the time this 1978 version of the story was produced, social mores had changed considerably. As helmed by Radley Metzger—who spent most of the ’70s directing hardcore porn flicks—the 1978 Cat and the Canary is rougher than its predecessors, and, not coincidentally, a lot less charming.
          Whereas the Hope Cat and the Canary blends gentle suspense with lighthearted laughs, the 1978 Cat and the Canary tries to spruce up old material by adding gore, sex, and torture. Yet the underlying material is so fundamentally old-fashioned that it doesn’t gel with Hammer Films-style extremes. Instead of seeming bold and shocking, the 1978 Cat and the Canary comes across as desperate, disjointed, and even a bit vulgar. The movie is watchable, thanks to the fun storyline and a parade of familiar actors, but it does not improve upon its predecessors.
          Set in a grand English mansion, the story concerns a group of relatives who gather for the reading of a will. The deceased party is a rich eccentric named Cyrus West (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who attaches weird conditions to his bequests. After naming a sole beneficiary, the will states that if the beneficiary is ruled insane within 30 days, the fortune will pass to a successor. These conditions, naturally, prompt everyone but the initial beneficiary to attempt mischief. Adding to the macabre mix is a visit from a psychiatrist who says that a maniac recently escaped from a nearby mental hospital.
          When this storyline works, as in the Hope classic, the narrative is a ghoulish lark. In the hands of Metzger and his collaborators, the narrative is artificial and stilted. Worse, nearly all the humor is drained from the material by flat performances; only Hyde-White and pithy costar Wendy Hiller lock into the right jovial groove. Leading lady Carol Lynley is amateurish, leading man Michael Callan is forgettable, and costars Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey are merely ornamental. The X factor is Edward Fox, who camps it up after a plot twist reveals a new side of his character. Speaking of camp, this version of The Cat and the Canary has overt gay content (including a pair of lesbian characters), which adds a certain novelty.

The Cat and the Canary: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Priest’s Wife (1970)

          A dreary dramedy about a woman who tries to persuade a priest to leave the church so they can marry, The Priest’s Wife is undoubtedly more palatable in its original, Italian-language version. As released in the U.S., it’s dubbed into English, but it appears that producer Carlo Ponti—husband of leading lady Sophia Loren—had the actors mouth English-language takes to ensure a useable international cut. This has the effect of making The Priest’s Wife slicker than the average Italian film repackaged for stateside consumption, but glossy presentation can’t compensate for substandard narrative content. Among other problems, The Priest’s Wife moves with such leaden pacing and unearned gravitas that it’s as if the filmmakers thought they were the first people to depict a man of the cloth experiencing forbidden love. Worse, the movie never really goes anywhere, because nearly all of the screen time is consumed with repetitive scenes of the priest negotiating with his superiors while Loren’s character entreats him to pick up the pace. So, even though The Priest’s Wife is basically humane and sincere, it’s so thin as to barely exist.
          The movie starts off fairly well, with Valeria (Loren) instigating a car chase with her no-good boyfriend, whom she has just discovered is married to another woman. Valeria runs the guy off the road, bashes his car to bits, and then beats him about the head and body for good measure. After this effective introduction to a strong woman who won’t let a man rule her life, however, the movie does an about-face by showing Valeria contemplating suicide. She calls a suicide-prevention hotline and speaks with Don Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who offers life-affirming counsel. Ignoring his words, Valeria overdoes on pills but fails to kill herself. Upon recovery from her near-death experience, Valeria reaches out to Don Mario because she was infatuated by his voice on the phone—only to discover he’s a priest and therefore unavailable.
          None of this quite works. Valeria seems like she has multiple personalities because she’s a different woman in every scene, Don Mario’s interest in Valeria seems only to manifest once he realizes she’s voluptuous, and it’s unclear why Valeria was so impressed by someone who failed to do the one thing she asked of him. Beyond the logic problems, the picture gets stuck in a groove for most of its running time—The Priest’s Wife features a long series of bland courtship scenes, which are filled with play-acting (Don Mario tells people that Valeria is his sister) and slapstick. Yawn. That said, The Priest’s Wife has fine production values, and the Loren-Mastroianni duo is beloved by many. (The actors made nearly a dozen films together.) Beside fans of the stars, however, it’s tough to envision anyone succumbing to this movie’s meager charms.

The Priest’s Wife: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blood Sabbath (1972)

Yet another schlocky ’70s horror picture that attempts to blend hippies with Satanism, Blood Sabbath hits the crap-cinema trifecta: amateurish, boring, incoherent. Anthony Geary, later to find his pop-culture niche as long-running character Luke Spencer on the ABC soap General Hospital, stars as David, a confused Vietnam vet who wanders aimlessly through a forest until he’s nearly raped by a quartet of hippie chicks. Later, David meets the quasi-supernatural Yyalah (Susan Damante). She’s an earth spirit or wood nymph or something. David and Yyalah dig each other but can’t have sex, Yyalah says, because her kind dies upon mating with beings with souls. Naturally, this revelation prompts David to seek advice on how to discard his soul. He speaks to a priest who responds to David’s request with a temper tantrum, and then David chats up a witch whose coven conveniently knows how to perform soul-removal ceremonies. Seriously, this is the plot. Very little of what happens in Blood Sabbath makes sense, and the acting is abysmal. Compounding matters is the cheap costuming and hairstyling, which looks like it was done by technicians from a high-school drama club. The cinematography is competent, but that doesn’t count for much since the action occurring inside the pleasantly composed frames is disjoined and silly. For instance, the movie features countless scenes of topless and/or fully nude coven members dancing in the woods; one suspects the producers got a bulk discount by hiring the entire staff of a low-rent strip club. About the only mildly entertaining thing in the movie is the opening credit that promises an appearance by “Dyanne Thorne as Alotta, Queen of Witches.” Rest assured, however, that tame and fleeting scenes including the future star of the porn-ish Isla series are not reason enough to endure this misbegotten flick.

Blood Sabbath: SQUARE

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last of Sheila (1973)

          An oddity with a highbrow pedigree, this mystery/thriller boasts an eclectic cast of prominent actors and a labyrinthine plot that’s designed to be catnip for fans of games, puzzles, and riddles. Yet the most unique aspect of the film resides behind the camera: The Last of Sheila was written by actor Anthony Perkins and composer Stephen Sondheim, representing the only feature-film writing credit for either man. Apparently the two were longtime friends who entertained their showbiz pals by arranging flamboyant scavenger hunts, so The Last of Sheila plays out like a hybrid of an Agatha Christie whodunit and a treasure hunt. Describing all the intricacies of the storyline would spoil the fun, but the broad strokes are as follows.
          Movie producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites several Hollywood friends to his yacht, which is named after his late wife, Sheila, who died under mysterious circumstances. Each of the friends wants something from Clinton, so he manipulates their greed for sporting purposes. The friends include Alice (Raquel Welch), a movie star whose relationship with her manager/husband, Anthony (Ian McShane), is rocky; Christine (Dyan Cannon), an ambitious talent agent; Philip (James Mason), a director whose career has lost momentum; and Tom (Richard Benjamin), a desperate screenwriter whose wife, Lee (Joan Hackett), hides a terrible secret. Employing his immense wealth, Clinton stages elaborate treasure hunts in each port of call, and he issues provocative clues related to his guests’ peccadillos.
         Superficially, this is a jet-set caper movie, so director Herbert Ross provides plenty of eye candy thanks to exotic European locations (as well as copious shots of Cannon and Welch in bikinis). On a deeper level—well, as deep as this deliberately vapid movie goes, anyway—The Last of Sheila explores that trusty old theme of the avarice that drives Hollywood. Everyone in the movie is out to screw everyone else, whether professionally, psychologically, or sexually. Some of the actors capture the bitchy spirit of the piece better than others. The standout is Cannon, playing a role inspired by legendary talent agent Sue Mengers (also the inspiration for 2013 Broadway show I’ll Eat You Last, starring Bette Midler). Whether she’s fretting about her weight, maneuvering for an optimal negotiating position, or sizing up potential sex partners, Cannon perfectly captures the omnivorous nature of Tinseltown players. Benjamin, Coburn, and Mason lend interesting colors, Hackett and McShane provide solid support, and Welch does a better job of keeping up with her costars than might be expected.
          Filled with betrayals and lies and schemes—as well as the occasional murder—The Last of Sheila is a bit windy at 120 minutes, and some viewers might find the final revelations too Byzantine. Nonetheless, if there’s such a thing as thinking-person’s trash, then The Last of Sheila is a prime example.

The Last of Sheila: GROOVY

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Groove Tube (1974)

Noteworthy for its tangential relation to the origin story of Saturday Night Live, this cheaply made and deliberately vulgar comedy anthology contains two future stars (Richard Belzer and Chevy Chase), lots of outré drug- and sex-themed humor, and plentiful failed joke attempts. That said, until the movie hits a lull during the longest sequence (a spoof of cop shows called Dealers, depicting street crime from the pushers’ perspective), The Groove Tube moves along at a brisk pace and overflows with counterculture irreverence. However, the best material hasn’t aged well, and the worst material probably didn’t generate much excitement during the picture’s original release. Glimmers of playfulness appear once in a while (especially when (The Groove Tube forgoes shock value), but it’s hard to soldier through the whole 75-minute flick. Produced, directed, and cowritten by Ken Shapiro, The Groove Tube comprises unrelated sketches, including several fake commercials and fake newscasts. One of the best bits is “The Koko Show,” about a TV clown who tells his young viewers to shoo their parents from the room for “Make-Believe Time,” then lights a cigarette and sits down to fulfill viewer requests by reading excerpts from pornographic books. Similarly, “Wild World of Sports” features announcers providing color commentary over a stag film: “The West Germans have chosen the Hamilton insertion . . . there’s a trust, a double-thrust, a rotary combination!” And the silly sequence of Chase singing “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” while an accompanist slaps Chase’s head to create a rhythm track is subversive without being sleazy. Alas, way too much of The Groove Tube comprises crass stupidity. The newscast about a Vietnam-style conflict that features the names “Long Hwang” and “Phuc Hu.” The gross-out commercial for a fecal-looking product called Brown 25 from the Uranus Corporation. The PSA with the real penis trussed up to appear as if it’s speaking. Yet the lack of restraint is ultimately less bothersome than the lack of inspiration—this type of stuff was done better subsequently, in Kentucky Fried Movie, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and myriad other places.

The Groove Tube: LAME

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hitch-Hike (1977)

          The beautiful French actress Corinne Cléry endured an unusual amount of onscreen punishment in her early roles. Throughout the softcore epic The Story of O (1975), she’s beaten, psychologically tormented, and used as a sexual plaything. And throughout the lurid Italian road movie Hitch-Hike, she suffers much of the same treatment. Although the latter picture has strong cinematic merits, including a deep wellspring of plot twists and a wickedly fast pace, it’s difficult not to view Hitch-Hike through the prism of Cléry’s characterization. Hitch-Hike is a twisted sort of male fantasy, so the presence of a comely woman who gets off on being abused feeds into the picture’s overall themes of masculine energy run amok. Partisans of the picture, including the actors, perceive Hitch-Hike as a serious examination of troubling concepts, and that interpretation has some validity. Yet at the same time, the movie is shamelessly exploitive and sensationalistic. Unlike other ’70s movies that mixed notions of gender and violence in provocative ways, however, Hitch-Hike doesn’t shield itself against criticism through the use of believable characters and immaculate plotting. After all, Cléry’s character ignores several opportunities to escape captivity, and the main villain ludicrously survives many near-death encounters. In other words, Hitch-Hike is a thrill ride first, and a movie of ideas second. The difference matters.
          Shot in Italy but designed to look like it was photographed in the California/Nevada desert, Hitch-Hike begins by introducing Walter Mancini (Franco Nero) and his wife, Eve (Cléry), two vacationing Europeans. Walter, a journalist of dubious credibility, is a self-loathing drunk who physically, sexually, and verbally abuses Eve. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, since Eve’s father is Watler’s boss, but they’re bonded by a vivacious sex life. One afternoon, the couple picks up a hitchhiker, Adam Konitz (David Hess), who turns out to be an escaped bank robber. Before long, Adam makes sport of tying up Walter and then raping Eve in front of her helpless husband—even though, per the deviant spirit of the movie, Eve enjoys being raped as much as she enjoys her usual rough sex with Walter. Violent plot twists pile atop each other as the movie speeds toward a nihilistic climax.
          Cowritten and directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, from a novel by Peter Kane, Hitch-Hike has energy to burn. The cinematography by Franco Di Giacomo and Giuseppe Ruzzolini is vibrant, the editing by Antonio Siciliano is almost savagely fast at times, and the music by Italian-cinema mainstay Ennio Morricone is suitably bizarre. (Even the dubbing, de rigeur for Italian movies of the period, is better than usual, so lip movements and voices match fairly well.) Htich-Hike is executed with above-average skill on every level except perhaps the most important ones. The story prioritizes excitement over logic and taste, Cléry and Nero give enthusiastic but unpersusive performances, and Campanile plays a tricky game of simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the male animal; after all, Campanile’s camera spends as much time lingering on the contours of Cléry’s nude body as do the eyes of the predators who bedevil her character. There’s a conversation piece buried in this gruesome movie, but the conversation it invites is not a pleasant one.

Hitch-Hike: FUNKY

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Baby Maker (1970)

          James Bridges, the eclectic but sensitive filmmaker whose cinematic career peaked with The China Syndrome (1979), marked his directorial debut with this intimate drama about a hippie chick who becomes a surrogate mother for an affluent but childless couple. Even within the confines of its small story, the picture is a bit too ambitious for its own good, trying to situate the lead character within the zeitgeist of the ’60s/’70s counterculture. Nonetheless, nuanced performances and sincere curiosity about the emotional lives of the characters make the movie worthwhile. Plus, since a huge aspect of the counterculture involved people discarding old inhibitions about sexuality, the notion of a freespirited young woman exploring various dimensions of her reproductive identity represents a fresh approach to familiar subject matter. More specifically, The Baby Maker exists a world away from the myriad ’60s/’70s pictures about May-December romances between hippies and straights (Breezy, Petulia, etc.); this picture is tender instead of tawdry.
          Barbara Hershey stars as Tish, an upbeat flower-child type who lives with her stoner boyfriend, Tad (Scott Glenn). He makes handcrafted leather goods, but he’s prone to losing time on drugs and parties. Through a broker, Tish arranges to carry a child for Jay (Sam Groom) and Suzanne (Collin Wilcox-Horne). They’re a loving couple, but Suzanne is infertile. Some of the best scenes in The Baby Maker are the early ones, which have the feel of a procedural: the first meeting and initial negotiation, the dinnertime conversation during which Jay and Suzanne learn about Tish’s background, the laying out of concerns and expectations. (It’s worth noting that Bridges handles the actual conception scene with restraint.) Adding a layer of unspoken tension to these early scenes is the possibility of Tish falling in love with the unborn child and reneging on her promises. Another effective trope involves Tish’s steadily deteriorating home life with Tad. At first, he accepts her choice and even indulges himself with some of the money that she’s paid in advance. But later, jealousy and old-fashioned notions of gender roles make Tad bitter—a believable repercussion for men in Tad’s unique situation.
          Not everything works in the picture, with a jarring protest sequence and a too-long psychedelic lightshow scene contributing to the movie’s sluggish pacing. However, the pluses easily outweigh the minuses. Hershey has many luminous moments, conveying a sense of innocence tinged with sadness, and the supporting cast is excellent. (Glenn reteamed with Bridges years later to play a villain in the director’s 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.) More than anything, The Baby Maker strikes an effective balance between capturing the sociopolitical vibe of a historical moment and telling a specific story about individuals.

The Baby Maker: GROOVY

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Losers (1970)

Also known as Nam’s Angels, this bizarre biker flick imagines what might happen if an American motorcycle gang was hired by the U.S. government to conduct a covert operation in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Apparently inspired by a real-life suggestion presented to President Lyndon Johnson by the Hell’s Angels, the movie features a paper-thin story, tedious storytelling, and underwhelming action scenes. Director Jack Starrett and his collaborators also fail to justify the movie’s outlandish premise, since the bikers in the picture don’t do anything that couldn’t have been done more effectively by trained soldiers. In fact, the members of the “Devil’s Advocates” (the name of the onscreen gang) approach their mission incompetently. Tasked with rescuing some VIP who’s trapped behind enemy lines, the Devil’s Advocates spend inordinate amounts of time brawling, drinking, fixing their bikes, and screwing prostitutes. It’s difficult to generate enthusiasm for a men-on-a-mission movie that lacks urgency, and, indeed, The Losers is so leisurely that the whole picture stops dead for several minutes while Starrett’s camera ogles a topless dancer. Yawn. Biker-cinema icon William Smith brings his usual macho swagger to the party, though his animalistic appeal isn’t nearly enough to make The Losers interesting—even when he periodically spews a nugget of tasty dialogue (“You hired scooter trash for this job, that’s what you got”). Instead of using Smith or fellow B-movie vet Adam Roarke properly, Starrett burns film chronicling the unfunny antics of Houston Savage, who plays the violent slob of a biker named “Dirty Denny.” Apparently, the spectacle of Dirty Denny beating up his friends, indulging himself with whores, and staggering as people crack beer bottles over his head was envisioned as entertainment. It’s not.

The Losers: LAME

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jimi Hendrix (1973)

          “I knew Jimi could take more of anything than we could,” remarks Jimi Hendrix’s onetime girlfriend, Fayne Pridgon, “because he was already abnormal, so whatever he took just brought him back around to normal.” Making light of the legendary guitarist’s tolerance for controlled substances might seem crass given that drug abuse contributed to his demise, but unguarded remarks like this one make Jimi Hendrix consistently interesting. Released just three years after Hendrix’s death, and more importantly made at a time before corporations and spin doctors trapped rock music within a cocoon of political correctness and revisionism, this ramshackle documentary conveys not only key points of its subject’s unique life experience, but also the prevailing attitudes of an important era. Instead of deifying or vilifying Hendrix, the movie simply collects observations from those who knew, loved, and respected him, putting across the picture of a gifted individual whose gradual separation from reality led, almost inevitably, to tragedy.
          Although most of the screen time in Jimi Hendrix comprises archival footage of performances (including clips from the acclaimed documentaries Monterey Pop and Woodstock), filmmakers Joe Boyd, John Head, and Gary Weis integrate freshly filmed interviews with family members, friends, and musicians. Pridgon provides most of the tastiest quotes, since she seems utterly unconcerned with how she’s perceived. Conversely, some comments (notably the remarks made by eccentric rock-music icon Little Richard) fall into the trap of self-aggrandizement. Nonetheless, most of the film’s speakers are insightful and ruminative. Guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend recall their early encounters with Hendrix, who was accused of borrowing from Clapton’s and Townshend’s styles, and they both express their boundless admiration for Hendrix’s talent while acknowledging the ways that fame creates expectations that are impossible (and unwise) to fulfill. Similarly, Lou Reed intelligently describes the post-Woodstock period during which Hendrix tried to veer away from the onstage antics that made him famous in order to get listeners to focus solely on his music.
          Eventually, a complex portrait emerges of a man who was obsessed with his art, prone to self-destructive choices, and susceptible to poor counsel. (Chances are subsequent biographers have corrected certain understandings about Hendrix, so this movie should be considered more impressionistic than definitive.) Throughout Jimi Hendrix, the filmmakers return again and again to vignettes of the guitarist performing, from the familiar (reinterpreting “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock) to the unfamiliar (a solo acoustic performance in a dreamlike, all-white studio space). Beyond simply entertaining viewers, these scenes reinforce why Hendrix merits such close investigation. If he was indeed “abnormal,” to use Pridgon’s word, it was at least in part because Hendrix heard aural textures and sonic possibilities that were inaudible to others.

Jimi Hendrix: GROOVY

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Scream and Scream Again (1970)

          How badly do the makers of Scream and Scream Again contort themselves while trying to generate pulpy thrills? Consider this line, spoken by policeman Detective Sergeant Believer (Alfred Marks): “Well, either this is coincidence—some kinky freak burglary turned tragic—or we’ve got more than one supernormal maniac on our hands.” Like that cumbersome dialogue, Scream and Scream Again contains too many elements for its own good. Although the picture features iconic horror stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price, it’s not a straight horror film. Rather, it’s more of a Twilight Zone-style head trip involving experimental surgery, a fictional Eastern European nation run by a Third Reich-esque government, quasi-invulnerable killers, and, to make sure Price has something to do, a mad scientist. There’s also a musical number.
          Made in Britain, with Price the only American star in the cast, the picture is confusing and jumbled. For the first 30 minutes or so, director Gordon Hessler bounces around between espionage-type scenes involving mysterious characters played by Lee and Marshall Jones, investigative bits featuring Marks and Price, and nightclub scenes during which arrogant young stud Keith (Michael Gothard) picks up ladies. Somewhere in the bewildering mix is Cushing’s brief appearance, which includes little more than one scene. Then, in the middle of the movie—once audiences and authorities have figured out that Keith is a serial killer—Scream and Scream Again stops dead for an interminable chase scene while cops pursue Keith through city streets, country roads, a quarry, and finally a secret laboratory. After the epic chase scene, the movie shifts into biological-horror mode, with lots of gruesome scenes during which unethical doctors and nurses steal body parts from victims. And finally, Scream and Scream Again reaches a long operating-theater scene dominated by Price’s character delivering a trite monologue about his grand scheme for genetic engineering.
          The overarching story of Scream and Scream Again, which was based on a novel by Peter Saxon, makes sense in a comic-book sort of way, but the Grand Guignol Lite conclusion raises as many questions as it answers. It’s hard to imagine whom this movie might satisfy, since horror fans will be disappointed that Cushing appears briefly, Lee plays a non-monstrous role, and Price delivers a terrible performance owing to the script’s overripe treatment of his character. Similarly, fans of conspiracy and/or sci-fi movies will probably find the chase scene painfully boring and the horror aspects silly. On the plus side, the title song—yes, there’s a title song—is actually a pretty happening ’60s blues-rock number, performed onscreen by the real-life Welsh band Amen Corner.

Scream and Scream Again: FUNKY

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bloodbrothers (1978)

          At his best, director Robert Mulligan was a uniquely gifted observer of subtle human behavior—witness To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Summer of ’42 (1971), and The Man in the Moon (1991). To his great credit, Mulligan often ventured outside his comfort zone of gentle character drama, even though the results of his artistic walkabouts were inconsistent. As a case in point, Mulligan was not the right person to direct this adaptation of Richard Price’s novel about a family of volatile Italian-Americans, because Mulligan proved incapable of restraining certain actors from venturing into overwrought caricature. Plus, since Bloodbrothers was released at a time when Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were exploding Italian-American stereotypes, the movie feels pointlessly regressive. To be clear, it’s an entertaining picture with many heartfelt moments, and not all of the performances are shrill. Nonetheless, it’s an aberration from the era of The Godfather (1972) and Mean Streets (1973).
          Set in the Bronx, the movie follows the adventures of Thomas “Stony” De Coco (Richard Gere), a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life even though his hotheaded father, Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco), expects Stony to work alongside Tommy and Tommy’s brother, Louis “Chubby” De Coco (Paul Sorvino), in construction. Whereas Chubby and Tommy are animalistic he-men who spend their time chasing women and getting into fights, Stony is a sensitive sort who wants to work with children. His nurturing instinct manifests in protective behavior toward his little brother, Albert (Michael Hershewe), because the X factor in the De Coco family is Tommy’s wife, Marie De Coco (Leila Goldoni). Worn out from years of Tommy’s infidelity and physical/verbal abuse, Marie has become an abuser herself, so she’s traumatized Albert into developing anorexia. Meanwhile, Stony finds something like romance with women including Annette (Marilu Henner), a barmaid known as the “town pump” because of her promiscuity.
          There’s a lot of story in Bloodbrothers, all of it pitched to a histrionic level, even though modulation and restraint would have been required to find the universal truths in the material. Mulligan films scenes well, but he lets actors run wild. Gere, Henner, and costar Kenneth McMillan (as a local bar owner) deliver nuanced performances, and Sorvino’s over-the-top work would have been more effective had he been the only outsized actor. Alas, Lo Biano’s genuinely terrible performance throws the whole enterprise off-kilter. Playing a cartoonish version of a macho asshole, Lo Biano toggles between screaming, pleading, and whimpering. Worse, his ridiculous energy level causes other actors to amplify their work just to ensure they’re not overwhelmed. By the time the story resolves into a coming-of-age narrative about Stony breaking from his family’s toxic influence, the potential for genuine emotion has been bludgeoned away.

Bloodbrothers: FUNKY

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ciao! Manhattan (1972)

          Almost completely uninteresting on its own merits, Ciao! Manhattan enjoys a certain cultish status as an artifact of Andy Warhol’s heyday and as a celebration of Edie Sedgwick, arguably the most glamorous individual elevated to stardom by Warhol. A beautiful but troubled model-turned-actress, Sedgwick plays a character based upon herself in Ciao! Manhattan, which is often inaccurately described as a documentary. The picture is wholly fictional, although the use of vintage footage from Sedgwick’s New York period blurs lines. Ciao! Manhattan began production in 1967, near the apex of Sedgwick’s fame. Remnants from the original black-and-white version appear in the final film as flashbacks. Drug-related disorganization behind and in front of the camera derailed the initial shoot, but the filmmakers got a fresh start in 1970, by which time Sedgwick had ended her association with Warhol and adopted a new look. It’s startling to see the difference between the gaunt ’60s Sedgwick with the iconic pixie haircut and the more filled-out Sedgwick who appears in the 1970 color scenes, especially since Sedgwick plays most of the color scenes topless. (One character notes that the woman Sedgwick plays is “really proud of her tits,” and the observation seems true of Sedgwick herself.)
          As for the movie’s narrative, Ciao! Manhattan presents more of a situation than a story. Years after her reign as an underground actress/model in New York, Susan (Sedgwick) now lives in the empty swimming pool of a decaying California mansion, with an aunt and two male caretakers attending to her needs. The pool is covered with a tent and tricked-out like a weird palace, complete with giant photographic blow-ups featuring Susan/Sedgwick in her prime. Susan tells stories of past triumphs, thus triggering sloppily edited flashbacks, and she endures the attentions of a Texan idiot named Butch (Wesley Hayes) in between visits to the Dr. Feelgood who keeps her supplied with drugs. Nothing actually happens, and, despite her beauty, Sedgwick is not interesting to watch. Therefore, Ciao! Manhattan inadvertently presages the current reality-TV era, because it’s about a formerly famous woman lamenting the rigors of fame while struggling to become famous again. It’s not Keeping Up with the Kardashians featuring a guest appearance by heroin, but it’s close. Levity aside, Ciao! Manhattan has tragic significance, because Sedgwick died of an overdose during post-production. Seen in that context, the movie is a shapeless but sad homage to a wasted life.

Ciao! Manhattan: LAME

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Black Samson (1974)

          Excitement is in short supply throughout Black Samson, a blaxploitation action/drama that fails to impress in the areas of characterization, originality, and suspense. That said, the sleaze factor is relatively low, and the basic theme is positive: An African-American community rallies around a noble small-business owner while he battles white criminals seeking to exploit the community. Black Samson is unlikely to make a strong impression on anyone, but at least it’s not dehumanizing. Physically formidable Rockne Tarkington stars as Samson, the Afrocentric owner of an inner-city nightclub. Perpetually wearing colorful dashikis and carrying an ornate tribal staff (which doubles as a club during fight scenes), Samson even keeps a pet lion on the bar of his nightclub. When Samson ejects a white customer for getting too friendly with one of the venue’s topless dancers, Samson ignites a grudge match with gangster Johnny Nappa (William Smith). Johnny wants to use violence in order to take over criminal enterprises in black neighborhoods, but Johnny’s dad, Mafia boss Joseph Nappa (Titos Vandis), is a gentleman criminal who detests unnecessary bloodshed. Other prominent characters include Samson’s girlfriend, Tina (Connie Strickland), who encourages Samson to give up his business rather than tussle with the Mob, and Johnny’s girlfriend, Leslie (Carol Speed), who spies on Samson while working as a dancer in his club.
          Everything in Black Samson is familiar and mundane, with the story unfolding at a too-leisurely pace. Worse, the great New Orleans composer Alan Toussaint misses the mark with his low-ebb jazz/R&B score, because while Toussaint generates a few tasty grooves, he can’t quite conjure the driving funk that gives the best blaxploitation flicks their irresistible tempo. Still, leading man Tarkington is believable whenever he’s roughing up bad guys, and leading lady Strickland has a few terrific moments, especially when entreating her man to avoid danger. Concurrently, B-movie institution Smith has fun playing one of his signature sadistic villains, although he’s hamstrung by an anemic characterization that lacks even one full dimension. The only novel element of the picture emerges during the final scene, when Samson’s neighbors attack gangsters by flinging household junk off rooftops. To cowriter-producer Daniel B. Cady’s credit, it’s hard to think of another movie in which a refrigerator is used as a murder weapon.

Black Samson: FUNKY