Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Young Graduates (1971)

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

The Young Graduates: LAME

Friday, April 18, 2014

Impulse (1974)

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

Impulse: FUNKY

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)

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

Next Stop, Greenwich Village: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warhead (1977)

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

Warhead: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kid Vengeance (1977)

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

Kid Vengeance: FUNKY

Monday, April 14, 2014

Between the Lines (1977)

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

Between the Lines: FUNKY

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Drowning Pool (1975)

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

The Drowning Pool: FUNKY

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How Awful About Allan (1970)

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

How Awful About Allan: FUNKY

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

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

The Werewolf of Washington: LAME

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Boys in the Band (1970)

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

The Boys in the Band: GROOVY

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)

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

The Lickerish Quartet: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

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

The Driver’s Seat: LAME

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

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

Fiddler on the Roof: RIGHT ON

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Visitor (1979)

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

The Visitor: FREAKY

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ritz (1976)

          Whether he was overseeing the exploits of the Beatles, Superman, or the Three Musketeers, director Richard Lester always demonstrated a special gift for complicated farce. That’s why he was an excellent choice to make a film of Terrence McNally’s madcap play The Ritz, about a heterosexual guy who avoids a hit man by hiding out in a New York City bathhouse. The question, of course, is whether the material merited a director of Lester’s talents. For some viewers, the answer might be yes. As a film, The Ritz is executed beautifully, with exuberant performances and vivacious staging. Many of the running gags are amusing, and certain sequences have a Marx Brothers-esque quality of fast-paced silliness.
          Plus, even though myriad stereotypes are presented, The Ritz offers one of the warmest portrayals of gay life in any mainstream ’70s movie—amid the horny predators and screaming queens are everyday people just looking for a good time. Obviously, one could question the choice of putting so many straight characters at the center of this story, since gays are largely relegated to supporting roles, but seeing as how homosexuals were still being portrayed as murderous deviants in Hollywood films at the time The Ritz was released, that’s nitpicking. Therefore, the truly relevant question is whether The Ritz works as pure entertainment. It does, but only periodically.
          After a quick prologue at a funeral, the story proper begins when portly businessman Gaetano Procio (Jack Weston) rents a room at the Ritz to avoid gunsels hired by his brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller). Clumsy and provincial, Gaetano manages to catch the eye of Chris (F. Murray Abraham), a would-be swinger; Claude (Paul B. Price), a fat fetishist; and Googie (Rita Moreno), a showgirl who is performing at the bathhouse. Each of these eccentric characters wants Gaetano for different reason. (Naturally, some of the reasons are based on misunderstandings.) Also thrown into the mix are a private detective, Michael (Treat Williams), and, eventually, crazy Carmine himself. To get a sense of the movie’s vibe, picture lots of running in and out of rooms, plenty of pretending, and voluminous amounts of screaming. Driving the humor is old-fashioned gay panic, because Gaetano spends most of the movie terrified he’ll be sodomized.
          Usually cast as a comic foil, Weston doesn’t bring much heat as a leading player, and he’s prone to silly mugging. Happily, the supporting cast is strong. Abraham, Price, and Williams attack their parts with gusto, while Moreno and Stiller frequently approach comic brilliance. When it’s really cooking, The Ritz employs not only the whole cast but also the whole eye-popping location of the bathhouse interior—for instance, the crazy finale involves cross-dressing, a floor show, gunplay, and a swimming pool.

The Ritz: FUNKY

Friday, April 4, 2014

Macho Callahan (1970)

This grim and misguided Western stars the perpetually cranky David Janssen as Macho Callahan, a reluctant Civil War soldier who escapes from a horrific Confederate prison, then seeks revenge on the man who tricked Macho into joining the Army. (Don’t ask why a character who wants to avoid the conflict of war would seek the conflict of a vengeance mission.) This peculiar story gets even more contrived when Macho pointlessly shoots a Confederate officer during a minor dispute, provoking the officer’s widow to put a price on Macho’s head. Later, Macho abducts, beats, and rapes the widow—which inexplicably leads her to fall in love with Macho. Rest assured, none of this makes any more sense while it unfolds onscreen than it does in synopsis form. From the standpoint of character logic, Macho Callahan is incomprehensible, and from the standpoint of gender politics, it’s reprehensible. As a result of these problems, the protagonist is revealed as a sadistic thug undeserving of viewers’ attention. Janssen, best known for his work on the tense ’60s series The Fugitive, spends so much time scowling that he seems constipated instead of anguished. Leading lady Jean Seberg can’t seem to decide whether she’s incarnating a tough military bride or a weak-willed victim. And the question of whether these two stars spark any chemistry is moot, since the dynamic between their characters is grotesque and unbelievable. Meanwhile, the actors who deliver vivid supporting performances—David Carradine (as the officer whom Macho shoots), Matt Clark (as a sadistic prison guard), and Lee J. Cobb (as Macho’s arch enemy)—all disappear too quickly from the story. So, aside from some intense action scenes (particularly the disgusting opening sequence in the Confederate prison, which cinematographer Gerry Fisher shoots evocatively), there’s little of note in Macho Callahan, unless an overabundance of brutality qualifies as noteworthy.

Macho Callahan: LAME

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Gun and the Pulpit (1974)

          Normally, the presence of actor Marjoe Gortner in a ’70s movie guarantees a bad time, because in his prime Gortner offered a toxic combination of smugness and vapidity. Accordingly, one reason why it’s so fascinating to watch the documentary Marjoe (1972), which explores the actor’s pre-Hollywood career as a flamboyant evangelist, is the opportunity to learn how the man gained such an oversized ego. Given this context, it’s tempting to surmise that Gortner is watchable in this made-for-TV Western because it represented his first opportunity to play a leading role. Whereas in subsequent projects he struts across the screen with the arrogance of a Hollywood veteran, in The Gun and the Pulpit Gortner puts forth the kind of unassuming effort one might expect from an eager newcomer. And even though he’s still quite weak as an actor, the underlying material is solid enough to survive an iffy leading performance. In fact, it’s easy to imagine how this piece might have been elevated by the presence of, say, James Garner, since The Gun and the Pulpit echoes the wiseass vibe of Garner’s old Maverick series. Even without a grade-A star, The Gun and the Pulpit goes down smoothly. The plot is brisk and pithy, there’s a pleasing mixture of drama and jokes, and the supporting cast is filled with reliable professionals. Plus, since it’s only 74 minutes long, The Gun and the Pulpit never has time to wear out its welcome.
          Gortner stars as Ernie Parsons, a silver-tongued crook who escapes a lynch mob and stumbles across a dead preacher. Helping himself to the man’s clothes and letters of introduction, Ernie rides into the small town where the preacher was expected, only to discover that the place is held under the thumb of tycoon Mr. Ross (David Huddleston). Yet Ernie couldn’t care less about danger, because he falls into lust with Sally Underwood (Pamela Sue Martin), the 18-year-old daughter of a citizen whom Mr. Ross’ thugs shot in the back. Quickly earning the respect of the locals by winning a shootout with two of Mr. Ross’ men—Ernie explains that he’s picked up his six-shooter skills during a lifetime of preaching in frontier towns—Ernie becomes the town’s new favorite son, though a showdown with Mr. Ross becomes inevitable. The setup works well, especially since screenwriter William Bowers (working from a novel by Jack Ehrlich) has a deft touch with one-liners. Additionally, director Daniel Petrie does a good job of weaving together different performance styles into an overall lighthearted tone. Supporting players include stalwarts Jeff Corey, Geoffrey Lewis, Estelle Parsons, and Slim Pickens. Meanwhile, Huddleston provides his signature urbane villainy, and Martin lends considerable sex appeal. All in all, The Gun and the Pulpit is a hearty helping of hokum.

The Gun and the Pulpit: FUNKY