Monday, June 26, 2017

Miss Melody Jones (1972)



By definition, the purpose of criticism involves identifying strengths and weaknesses in creative endeavors. Often that leads to positive results, with appraisers lavishing artists with compliments. Sometimes it goes the other way. And every so often, a critic lands in the unfortunate position of having to remark on something like Philomena Nowlin’s performance in the blaxploitation-themed showbiz saga Miss Melody Jones, also known as Ebony Dreams. Before we travel down that path, let’s set the scene. Shot on a meager budget and made with an equally meager amount of imagination, Miss Melody Jones tells the story of an upbeat young woman who makes a living as a stripper in a Los Angeles nightclub while trudging through one humiliating audition after another in search of stardom. She gets comfort and support from her gay roommate and, eventually, a warmhearted paramour with his own cinematic ambitions, but life is unkind to Miss Melody Jones. At her lowest, she takes an acting role as a gang-rape victim in a nudie flick. There’s nothing here viewers haven’t seen a zillion times before, except for the inimitable Philomena Nowlin. A shockingly inept actress, Nowlin screams nearly every line, and she does so in one of the most dissonant voices you will ever encounter. Imagine the sound of a cat that just inhaled helium. Even Fran Drescher would cringe. Yet for some reason, Nowlin was given one long monologue after another, so a good 15 percent of the movie comprises nothing but a bug-eyed, hand-flailing Nowlin screeching at top volume. Overall, Miss Melody Jones is innocuous, if a bit threadbare from a narrative perspective. But with regard to the film’s singular leading performance, spare yourself if you value your eardrums and your sanity.

Miss Melody Jones: LAME

Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Friends Need Killing (1976)



          Yet another story about a crazed Vietnam vet on a crime spree, My Friends Need Killing nearly works. The premise is intriguing and tragic, leading man Greg Mullavey’s performance is fairly credible, and writer-director Paul Leder came up with a offbeat ticking-clock device because the vet’s girlfriend shares her fears with a psychiatrist who determines that action must be taken to prevent bloodshed. Unfortunately, Leder’s direction is hopelessly inept, and the film’s production values are distractingly shoddy. What should have been a crackerjack thriller with a humanistic core—something on the order of a good Larry Cohen movie—instead becomes a dreary slog with too much gore and too little momentum. Worse, Leder slides into the exploitation-movie gutter with an unnecessary subplot during which the vet becomes a rapist. Since My Friends Need Killing probably isn’t exciting enough to stimulate the lizard-brain crowd, it’s unfortunate that Leder’s sleazy extremes alienate the thinking audience.
          After returning from Vietnam, Gene (Mullavey) suffers night terrors, alarming his wife, Laura (Meredith McRae). Turns out Gene believes that he and his comrades committed such heinous war crimes that all of them must die. He writes letters to his war buddies saying he’s going to visit them, and during each visit, Gene savagely murders one of his friends. Back home, Laura pieces together clues and talks to Gene’s shrink, so they eventually try to stop Gene’s bloody vengeance mission. Sometimes, Leder reveals what this movie might have been, as when Gene becomes conflicted about murdering a sensitive (read: gay) veteran. Other times, Leder follows the mindless thrill-kill path, devolving My Friends Need Killing into typical grindhouse junk. Still, the film has just enough compassion that it’s unwise to completely dismiss the endeavor. If nothing else, examining the way various filmmakers dealt with PTSD provides insights regarding attitudes toward veterans during a fraught time in American history.

My Friends Need Killing: FUNKY

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Newman’s Law (1974)



          Featuring George Peppard in the sort of maverick-cop role one normally associates with Clint Eastwood, Newman’s Law delivers an adequate dosage of mid-’70s crime-and-punishment melodrama, hitting all the usual notes of corruption, double-crosses, and rugged individualism. Working with a director and writer culled from the creative ranks of his short-lived TV show Banacek, Peppard renders typically bland work, though he’s quite believable when conveying the nastier aspects of his character. (Few actors channel icy cruelty quite as smoothly as Peppard did.) Newman’s Law benefits from extensive location photography and slick production values, so even though the picture comes across very much like an extended episode of a cop show, it’s a got a pleasing feature-film sheen. What it doesn’t have is a fresh or interesting story. Instead, writer Anthony Wilson churns through a familiar cycle in which our tough-guy hero, Detective Sergeant Vince Newman (Peppard), gets caught in a conspiracy wrought by crooked cops and nefarious drug dealers. Vince also wrestles with troubles in his private life, such as the rising costs of keeping his deteriorating father in a nursing home.
          Nonetheless, fans of ’70s cop cinema will have an easy time digesting this flick, which has just enough in the way of chases and fights and shootouts to satisfy undiscerning palates. What’s more, a couple of scenes are relatively vivid. In one, Peppard climbs atop a water tower and points a sniper rifle at a criminal’s hilltop mansion—themes of police driven to “righteous” illegality by the restrictions of the legal system are always inherently interesting. Another choice bit features Peppard questioning a stripper (played by nubile B-movie stalwart Pat Anderson) while she gives a private performance. Although forgettable and lurid on its own merits, the scene parallels a sexy vignette in the 1986 John Frankenheimer thriller 52 Pick-Up, which was penned by the great Elmore Leonard. Did Leonard see Newman’s Law and later mimic one of its scenes? In any event, Newman’s Law generates a sufficient degree of low-ebb excitement, in fits and starts, to get the no-nonsense job done. Plus, it’s got Abe Vigoda as a courtly gangster, so there’s that.

Newman’s Law: FUNKY

Friday, June 23, 2017

You and Me (1974)



          Logic might suggest that any marquee-name actor who desires to direct a movie can aggregate the necessary resources for a slick production, but projects on the order of You and Me prove that’s not always true. Despite being at the apex of his Kung Fu fame, David Carradine scraped together only a meager budget for this gentle road movie about a biker bonding with a little boy. Presumably Carradine prioritized creative autonomy over production values, because You and Me nearly has the feel of a home movie. For instance, the picture features cameos by the director’s brothers, Keith and Robert Carradine, as well as an appearance by his then-girlfriend, Barbara Hershey (billed as “Barbara Seagull”). It also sounds as if she and Carradine sing the folksy theme song together. Yet while David Carradine may have had an enjoyable experience working with family and friends, the pleasure doesn’t fully transfer to the audience. You and Me is harmless, and the simple story radiates enough warmth to make the experience of watching the movie palatable, but the characters are one-dimensional at best, and nothing of consequence happens.
          In the opening scenes, Zeto (David Carradine) and two biker buddies harass the customers of a small roadside bar, leading to the death of a random dude. Zeto splits from his buddies, the better to evade capture, and happens upon young Jimmy (Chipper Chadbourne), the son of an irresponsible welfare mom. Jimmy talks his way into Zeto’s company, tagging along while Zeto hides at a small farm operated by Wynona (Bobbi Shaw). She hires Zeto as a handyman, but she also has eyes on a permanent romantic situation. Eventually, authorities investigating the murder at the bar discover clues pointing to Zeto’s whereabouts, so a small measure of dramatic tension enters the mix.
          Always an interesting actor, Carradine works his most appealing groove here, the philosophical wanderer. Yet the storytelling in You and Me is cryptic to a fault, so Carradine’s character seems more opaque than intriguing. Similarly, the relationship between the biker and the boy is hard to believe. Nonetheless, there are worse ways to idle away 90-ish minutes. Every so often, a familiar face comes along (beyond the aforementioned, Gary Busey appears in one scene), and a generalized sense of humanism and sincerity pervades the piece, even if the storytelling mechanics are clumsy.

You and Me: FUNKY

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Pony Express Rider (1976)



          Some genres have such satisfying textures that even mediocre examples of those genres can make for pleasant viewing. So it is with Westerns produced on respectable budgets. Like consuming a disposable episode of a cowboy-themed TV show, watching Pony Express Rider is an agreeably pointless exercise. Many of the familiar themes are here, such as honor and vengeance. The costumes, locations, and sets evoke the comfort-food milieu one associates with Hollywood oaters. And some the usual suspects populate the supporting cast: Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor. So even though the story is trite and unfocused, it’s possible to mindlessly groove on the polished look and somber mood of the piece. However, it should be said that the title is something of a misnomer, as the protagonist doesn’t actually join the Pony Express until halfway through the picture, and afterwards his involvement with the famous courier service is relatively inconsequential to the plot. If there’s a great story to be told about the bold men who carried mail through the dangerous frontiers of America’s Wild West, this is not that story. Instead, Pony Express Rider is a standard-issue revenge saga.
          At the beginning of the picture, Johnnie (Stewart Petersen) flirts with his best gal, Rose (Maureen McCormick), until her animalistic brother, Bovey (Buck Taylor), intervenes. He beats Johnnie, deeming him an unworthy suitor for his kin. Tensions rise further when Bovey’s father, Trevor (Henry Wilcoxon), accepts a post as governor of the Nevada Territory, leaving Bovey in charge of the family spread. Power-mad Bovey clashes with Johnnie’s father, Jed (Ken Curtis), leading to Jed’s death. Murkiness ensues. Jonnie sets out to avenge his dad by killing Bovey, though it’s never clear why that involves anything more than marching to Bovey’s house with a gun. Plus, once Johnnie hits the road for nebulous reasons, Bovey commences stalking Johnnie. Huh? At some point, Johnnie stumbles across a dead Pony Express Rider and takes responsibility for that man’s route, since he’s going in the same direction anyway. Again, huh? If you’re able to overlook the nonsensical plotting, it’s possible to enjoy the sleek camerawork, dusty riding scenes, and rote citations of Western-movie signifiers. Expecting anything more will lead to frustration.

Pony Express Rider: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another Son of Sam (1977)



Like most unspeakably bad exploitation movies with elements of sex and violence, Another Son of Sam has its defenders among the psychotronic set, some of whom wax poetic about the movie’s spellbinding incompetence. If that’s your cinematic intoxicant of choice, imbibe freely and Another Son of Sam will likely take you where you want to go. However, if you hope for something more closely resembling a coherent and purposeful viewing experience, this one’s not for you. The sole directorial effort by one Dave A. Adams—who also served as the picture’s writer, producer, casting director, stunt coordinator, and editor—this grungy, zero-budget regional production tells the dull story of an escaped lunatic and the policeman who is determined to recapture him. In referencing David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam” serial killer, the title of this flick is a shameless come-on suggesting that innocents will get slaughtered in capricious ways. That more or less happens, but because Another Son of Sam is rated PG, it’s not as if the shock value hits high levels. The closest Adams gets to real tension is when he lingers on grimy POV shots, but even that device is underserved because Adams’ cutting is so bewilderingly choppy. Scenes start and stop with no discernible reason, post-production audio emerges from mysterious sources in discombobulating ways, and trainwreck performances by nearly the entire cast add to a generalized air of people stumbling around aimlessly while the camera rolls for arbitrarily chosen periods of time.

Another Son of Sam: SQUARE

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Nashville Sound (1970)



          Filmed in 1969 to capture an all-star anniversary concert at the Grand Ole Opry, the storied “mother church” of country music, this serviceable documentary balances behind-the-scenes insights about the careers of wannabe stars with polished vignettes featuring established artists. Most of the picture comprises blandly shot footage of performances on the Opry stage, and there’s value in seeing vintage clips of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, and Dolly Parton, among many others. Yet one is challenged to identify much difference between this content and, say, appearances by these folks on TV shows from the same era. About the only thing elevating the Opry scenes is the interstitial material, with performers including Bill Anderson crowding around microphones to read crass commercials. A general sense emerges of an Opry broadcast not as a pristine showcase for musical excellence but rather a commodity like any other type of mainstream entertainment. Therefore, the most interesting elements of The Nashville Sound are the moments showing B-listers trudging through humiliating spotlight gigs (as when Jeannie C. Reilly performs a new tune for a handful of listeners at a party thrown by a label executive), plus the recurring trope illustrating the arrival on the Nashville scene of new singer-songwriter Herbie Howell. 
          Among the star performers, Charley Pride stands out with his keening sustained notes during “Kaw-Liga,” Parton charms with her unvarnished performance of “Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and Cash renders a typically rousing version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” An in-studio jam session featuring a young Charlie Daniels, among other slick players, generates the most heat, musically speaking, whereas blander performances (such as Reilly’s turn on the Opry stage with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”) quickly fade from memory. Some of the sequences of pure reportage, such as a golf tournament featuring Glen Campbell, come and go so quickly as to be meaningless—and, to be frank, the material that gets the most attention, Howell’s story, is merely okay. Although earnest, Howell is not particularly interesting as a musician or as a presence, so it’s hard to get excited about his quest for stardom. Nonetheless, the project as a whole provides an interesting snapshot of a particular industry at a particular time, in some ways very different from and in other ways very similar to the modern country-music scene.

The Nashville Sound: FUNKY

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974)



The notion of a mother training her daughters in the arts of seduction and thievery is enjoyably kinky, so the low-budget thriller Mama’s Dirty Girls should have a scandalous quality. Unfortunately, because the storyline is so one-dimensional and predictable, the filmmakers never fully exploit the potential of their seedy premise. Moreover, because so much screen time gets chewed up on ogling nude scenes, Mama’s Dirty Girls devolves from its very first scenes into yet another drive-in flick pandering to low appetites. While this isn’t a completely brainless picture, it’s nowhere near smart enough to merit serious consideration. Gloria Grahame, a long way from her best work, stars as Mama Love—yep, that’s her character name—the mother of three sexy young-adult daughters. Mama’s favorite scheme involves roping a wealthy man into marriage, then tasking one of her kids, usually Becky (Candice Rialson), with teasing the man into such a sexual frenzy that he attempts rape. This gives Mama the pretext to kill the man and seize his property. Never mind how records of this sort of thing tend to follow a person from one municipality to another, and never mind that the first time we see Mama off a husband, she and two of her daughters slash the guy to death with straight razors. Hard to tell the cops a three-on-one slaughter was self-defense. Anyway, the filmmakers miss the obvious plot opportunity of having one of Mama’s daughters rebel against family tradition, so the plot is quite dull, with Mama beguiling a new man while daughters attempt separate gold-digging enterprises. As you might expect, the characterizations are weak and the dialogue is stiff, though some of the acting is okay. Seasoned pro Grahame and promising ingénue Rialson nearly make the movie palatable. Nearly.

Mama’s Dirty Girls: LAME

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Scandalous John (1971)



          Man, it’s hard to get a bead on this one. A modernized (unofficial) adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote, this comedy-drama hybrid ostensibly tells the story of a proud old rancher succumbing to dementia, which prompts him to rail against imagined enemies and shoot guns at strangers. In his mind, he’s a Wild West hero fending off varmints, but in reality, he’s a deranged coot getting by on handouts from his granddaughter, a professor at a small college. Notwithstanding the granddaughter’s occasional visits, the protagonist’s only companion is a Mexican laborer who crossed the U.S. border illegally to seek employment. A local developer wants to push the rancher off his dilapidated spread, so the protagonist battles forces he cannot possibly defeat. Were the comedic elements extracted, the storyline would seem frightening or sad. Indeed, the vibe of Scandalous John wobbles between melancholy and whimsical, with some scenes played for laughs while others strive for pathos as the picture drags its way through a bloated 113-minute running time.
          Yet the strangest thing about Scandalous John is that it’s a G-rated family film from Walt Disney Productions. Prior to the company’s experiments with grown-up fare in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this might well have been the bleakest live-action feature the company had ever released. Brian Keith, his features buried beneath bushy facial hair and one eye perpetually squinted shut, stars as John McCanless, who fancies himself a gunslinger protecting his land from Apaches and thieves. He lumbers about his dusty house, hollering and ranting and singing, even as his granddaughter, Amanda (Michele Carey), tries to keep John from injuring himself. She hires Paco (Alfonso Arau) as a caretaker, and John soon embraces the fantasy that Paco is a bold comrade-in-arms. Facing various past-due notices, John endeavors to drive his herd to town for a cattle sale, though his herd comprises only one ragged-looking steer. Meanwhile, Jimmy Whitaker (Rick Lenz), son of the developer who wants John’s land, tries to help John as a means of wooing Amanda.
          Scandalous John includes several colorful episodes, such as a silly bit of John and Paco riding their mounts into a store and an action-filled climax, but much of the picture comprises leisurely scenes of Keith delivering florid monologues in garbled frontier-speak. (More than a few lines are indecipherable.) Keith is such a charismatic and forceful actor that watching him hold forth should be fascinating, but Scandalous John becomes tedious thanks to redundancy. Instead of one or two choice moments to set the tone, the movie offers perhaps a dozen long-winded soliloquies. Wistful scoring by Rod McKeun adds to the general sense of preciousness. It’s tempting to give Disney points for trying something this dark, but because the studio undercut the artistic qualities of this piece with dodgy elements including the stereotypical characterization of Paco, Scandalous John is, at best, an offbeat misfire.

Scandalous John: FUNKY

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Black Connection (1974)



Formless blaxploitation junk featuring three members of music group the Checkmates Ltd. in acting roles—naturally, they provide the soundtrack—The Black Connection is also known by a more provocative title, Run, Nigger, Run. The alternative moniker gives a better sense of the storyline, or at least the confusing blur of narrative events that passes for a storyline. After a whole bunch of aimless scenes featuring secondary characters, the piece resolves into a melodrama concerning African-American crook Miles Carter (Bobby Stevens), who’s having some sort of trouble with white gangsters. Best guess is he’s a pusher and they’re his suppliers, but now he wants a bigger piece of the action, or else he’s running a scheme on the gangsters and they get wise. Whatever. The Black Connection is so thoroughly terrible that parsing the details isn’t worth the effort. The acting is atrocious, the filmmaking is inept, and the storytelling is rotten. Only the funk tunes on the soundtrack are passable, though your guess is as good as mine why the film contains a ballad with the lyric, “Would you like to buy my pretty balloon?” In any event, devoted blaxploitation junkies might be able to find a few amusing moments amid the meandering nonsense. There’s some fighting, some sex, and some tough talk. The best zinger is spoken by young woman when characterizing an adversary’s shortcomings: “The trouble with her is she don’t know a lady when she sees one—and I’m a motherfuckin’ lady!” Clearly.

The Black Connection: LAME

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Worm Eaters (1977)



From a cinema-studies perspective, jack-of-all-trades filmmakers are inherently interesting, since there’s something pure about artists who write, direct, and act in their own stories. That is, unless the stories are idiotic crap along the lines of The Worm Eaters, a cheaply produced comedy/horror hybrid featuring characters who do exactly what the title suggests, albeit not voluntarily. The flick’s protagonist is Herman Umgar (played by director Herb Robins), a middle-aged backwoods dullard who inherits lakeside property. The local mayor and his nefarious cronies conspire to steal the land from Herman, incorrectly assuming that Herman lacks both a paper deed to prove his ownership and the will to fight for his property. After some getting-to-know-you scenes during which we learn that Herman’s best friends are his pet worms, who are radioactive or supernatural or whatever, the movie gets down to business. Herman slips worms into food that enemies eat, and thereafter the victims become were-worms. Before long, Herman has a basement full of people stuck in mid-transformation. To achieve this effect, Robins has actors tuck their abdomens and legs into slimy sheathes, then wriggle on the floor while covered in goo. Accentuating these unpleasant images are the weird textures of bargain-basement electronic music. Meanwhile, the picture’s “humor” ranges from the scatological (lots of belching, an onscreen nasal discharge) to the stereotypical (Robins speaks in a bizarre quasi-Cajun accent). It’s all quite wretched to behold, and if there’s a seed of a viable satirical idea buried in here somewhere, it never took root. The Worm Eaters is to be avoided at all costs, unless you desperately need to see closeup shots of worms wriggling in the mouths of actors committed to helping Robins realize his dopey vision.

The Worm Eaters: SQUARE

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Teenage Graffiti (1977)



          Never mind the title, a deceptive and tacky attempt at linking this picture with a certain nostalgic hit directed by George Lucas. Originally titled Country Dreamin’, then given a more commercial moniker before reaching theaters, this low-budget melodrama concerns the wanderlust that a young man raised on a farm experiences after graduating from high school. Over the course of a lazy summer, Josh (Michael Driscoll) has fun with his buddies at the local swimming hole, dodges his girlfriend’s requests for commitment, faces temptation upon becoming friendly with a lonely housewife, and wrestles with questions about his future. Additional story material stems from conflicts between Josh and two foster brothers, because even though they’re the rightful heirs to the farm where they all live, Dad is partial to Josh. It’s not quite fair to say that Teenage Graffiti is a situation in search of a story, seeing as how Josh goes all the way from graduating to making a final decision about his next move, but the storytelling is leisurely at best. It’s also worth nothing that Teenage Graffiti is not in any substantial way a comedy, despite being classified that way in many authoritative sources.
          The vibe of the picture is set by an early scene, during which a friend of Josh’s drives onto the farm in a bitchin’ convertible covered in paintings of clouds and rainbows. As the friend wheels the car around the property, Josh playfully chases after the vehicle, asking where it came from and requesting a ride. Turns out it’s a graduation gift for Josh from his folks. The way that cowriter/director Christopher G. Casler takes his time getting to the point of the scene speaks volumes. Nonetheless, the movie conveys some sense of what it’s like to be at the stage of life when time seems like an endless resource. Characters get into mischief, experiment with sex, and succumb to long-simmering impulses. Eventually, circumstances force a reckoning that defines the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
          None of this should suggest that Teenage Graffiti is a substantial picture, because it most surely is not. Rather, the movie expresses a common human experience in an unvarnished way. Peripherally, it also captures a cultural moment with the supporting character of a beardy young philosopher who spends his days meditating nude in a remote cabin. Given that Teenage Graffiti was released in 1977, a decade after the Summer of Love, the presence of this character says something about how the hippy ethos took a while to reach rural communities.

Teenage Graffiti: FUNKY

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

All Screwed Up (1974)



          Another frenetic and noisy movie from Italian director Lina Wertmüller, whose films usually blend radical politics and social satire in challenging ways, All Screwed Up suffers for either a deficiency or an overabundance of plot, depending on how you view these things. Instead of a clear linear storyline with momentum, the picture contains a number of interconnected episodes, with a large group of characters gradually converging to form a community. It’s never difficult to track what’s happening, but it is difficult to understand why X event is shown as opposed to Y event. One gets the sense of Wertmüller barreling through her subject matter, stopping every time something catches her attention, and then barreling forward again once she’s lost interest. And yet at the same time, there’s a vague sense of an overall narrative plan, leading up to the politically charged statement of the final scenes. Plus, because a character remarks that life is “all screwed up” at one point—while lamenting the seemingly pointless cycle of working for a living—it’s tempting to define the movie as a simple criticism of bourgeoisie ideals. Chances are Wertmüller was after something more complicated than that.
          In any event, the film begins when two country bumpkins, Gino (Luiigi Diberti) and Carloetto (Nino Bergamini), arrive in the big city of Milan to start a new life. They soon encounter Adelina (Sara Rapisarda), a hysterical young woman also newly arrived and looking for her cousin. So begins the process of the bumpkins building a surrogate family. Much is made of the leading characters’ naïveté, so, for instance, a friendly hustler talks them into buying a stolen bike. Later, as the bumpkins crash and burn at various demeaning jobs, one of them tries his hand at robbery by assisting a crook during a break-in. (This occasions one of the movie’s funniest moments, because the bumpkin gets nervous about upsetting objects in the immaculate home they’re robbing: “It’s a pity to make such a mess—these people are so neat!”) Lots of other stuff happens, too. A friend of the bumpkins freaks out because his wife keeps having kids, including quintuplets, and yet the friend has a meltdown when his wife tries to refuse sex.
          Speaking of sex, Carletto becomes involved with Adelina, then resents that she won’t sleep with him for religious reasons, so he takes a friend’s advice and rapes her. (“Now you’ll be a little quieter,” he says afterward.) All Screwed Up gets uglier as it goes along, with Wertmüller’s twisted gender politics resulting in a barrage of mixed messages. And if you can tell me what the scene of a gangster demanding that an enemy’s car get “encased in moldy shit” has to do with anything, then you made a whole lot more sense of All Screwed Up than I did. The picture addresses many relevant themes, including aspiration and class and gender and greed and marriage and working conditions, but for me, the experience of watching the picture was so disjointed and unpleasant that I lost the will to search for deeper meanings—even though I’m confident they’re hidden somewhere.

All Screwed Up: FUNKY

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tubby the Tuba (1975)



Based on source material held in some esteem (more on that later), Tubby the Tuba is among the lesser animated features released during the ’70s, so even though the story is a harmless morality tale extolling worthy virtues, the experience of watching the picture is quite tedious. Dick Van Dyke provides the voice for the title character, an overweight brass instrument depressed that all he does is provide repetitive “oompah-oompah” rhythms. One day, he breaks from his orchestra in search of a melody to play. Yet Tubby gets sidetracked when he takes a job at a circus, delivering pails of water to thirsty elephants. One of the pachyderms, Mrs. Elephant (Pearl Bailey), asks for a demonstration of Tubby’s musical skills and rejoices in what she hears. (“That oompah turns me on!”) This leads to Tubby becoming a star attraction at the circus, which in turn causes Tubby to become an insufferable diva. Will our hero regain his humility? Will he find a melody to play? As Tubby the Tuba follows the blandest possible children’s-entertainment patterns, the answers to these questions should be painfully obvious. Tubby’s story originated as a narrated classical-music piece in the 1940s, and it was first animated, via stop-motion, for an Oscar-nominated 1947 short film. The expansion of the piece to feature length did not serve poor Tubby well. Even with Van Dyke valiantly striving to inject his characterization with pathos, the narrative is enervated and predictable and stupid, with the material added to flesh out the running time coming across as pure filler. By the time Tubby meets an underappreciated singing frog, the filmmakers seem absolutely desperate to compensate for the limitations of their one-dimensional leading character. Putting this sort of thing over requires magic, but Tubby the Tuba is never more than mundane. One might even say it’s oompathetic.

Tubby the Tuba: LAME

Monday, June 12, 2017

Rivals (1972)



          Christine and Jamie have some issues. She’s an attractive divorcée open to embarking on a new romantic adventure. He’s her imaginative and precocious 10-year-old son, prone to sarcasm and startling sexual references. When Christine meets Peter, a motor-mouthed eccentric who wants to marry her, she worries so much about whether he’ll have chemistry with Jamie that she prevents the two males in her life from meeting for an extended period. Good call. Once Jamie realizes how important Peter has become to his mother, he decides to take action. How far he goes to prevent Peter from becoming part of the family defines the weird storyline of Rivals. Written and directed by Indian-born filmmaker Krishna Shah, Rivals is a deeply strange movie that bounces between domestic drama, psychological darkness, romantic whimsy, and shocking extremes. In one scene, Jamie persuades his 16-year-old babysitter to practice carnal maneuvers that he learned by watching through a keyhole as Peter and his mother had rough sex; this leads to the startling image of the babysitter nearly raping her underage friend while his Super-8 camera records every illicit bump and grind.
           Yet Rivals also contains almost laughably innocent scenes, such as romantic montages featuring Christine and Peter gallivanting around New York City to the accompaniment of fruity pop songs. Very little in Rivals echoes recognizable human reality, but as a moderately demented flight of fancy, it’s an interesting viewing experience.
           At the beginning of the picture, Christine (Joan Hackett) and Jamie (Scott Jacoby) both seem fairly normal, if a bit high-strung and overeducated—Shah’s exaggerated version of neurotic New Yorkers. Then Peter (Robert Klein) comes along. He’s one of those only-in-the-movies weirdos, the type who spews poetic bullshit while driving a tour van around Manhattan. (Signature moment: He leaves a busload of tourists trapped in the stifling van while he courts Christine, then talks his way out of trouble by dazzling cops with a lie about intentionally quarantining the tourists.) As the relationship between Christine and Peter advances, they both reveal unsavory extremes—she’s maddeningly fickle, and he date-rapes her after she withholds sex.
          Eventually, Peter decides that Christine is just as hung up on her kid as the kid is with Christine: “The way to your heart is through your nipples!” (Separately, she tells a friend that giving birth to Jamie felt like an orgasm.) Meanwhile, Jamie’s a ticking time bomb, psychologically speaking, at one point hallucinating a hippy-dippy orgy in which Christine and Peter are participants. The preposterous climax takes things even deeper into the heart of psychosexual darkness, though it’s anybody’s guess whether Shah’s sorta-arty, sorta-pulpy storytelling serves a larger theme. If nothing else, Rivals is notable as the first of several films in which Jacoby poignantly depicts youthful insanity. Others include Baxter! (1973) and the made-for-TV Bad Ronald (1974).

Rivals: FUNKY

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Blade (1973)



          One of those terrible movies that’s redeemed by a few peripheral elements, Blade is a schlocky New York City thriller about an aging detective assigned to investigate the murder of a high-profile politician’s daughter. The plot is less than nothing, all grimy clichés, and co-writer/director Ernest Pintoff’s storytelling is rotten, since the script bounces around wildly between subplots, often without real transitions, while the dialogue runs the gamut from bluntly expositional to hackneyed. (Nearly all the good lines sound improvised.) What redeems the film, more or less, is a cavalcade of interesting players. John Marley, the craggy character actor who received a career boost by sharing an unforgettable scene with a horse’s head in The Godfather (1971), plays the leading role, so it’s novel to watch him carry a picture, or at least try to. He delivers lines well, all suave crankiness, and his mane of silver hair is a wonder to behold, but he’s hardly the most intimidating figure, a tiny little man wearing sharp suits and dainty neck scarves. The cast also features Keene Curtis, William Prince, Joe Santos, and John Schuck, plus a trio of one-scene wonders appearing early in their careers: Morgan Freeman, Steve Landesberg, Rue McClanahan. There’s even room for Ted Lange, later to become the bartender on The Love Boat. Simply for the pleasure of seeing so many proficient people work, Blade is—well, “fascinating” is pushing it, so let’s just say enjoyable.
          Also helping the picture achieve baseline watchability is a robust score by Jack Cacavas. Sort of. For whatever reason, he composed only three or four music cues, primarily the suspenseful string-driven piece that functions as the main theme, so the film repurposes the same cues over and over again. This creates a weird effect, as does sloppy picture editing. One final attribute worth mentioning is the extensive location photography; while none would ever choose Blade over the average Sidney Lumet movie of the same era for tasting the local flavor of ’70s Manhattan, a sense of place is always welcome. And if nothing else, Blade has a priceless throwaway scene. Landesberg plays a porno director who bombards a clueless actress with copious details about character and motivation, then blithely asks, “Do you understand what I’m saying so far?” Sensing her bewilderment, he inquires further: “You went to Vassar? Radcliffe?” Likely wasted on the audience for which Blade was intended, that’s about as dry a bitchy remark as you’ll ever encounter in a movie.

Blade: FUNKY

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Corpse Grinders (1971)



Covering satirical terrain so familiar as to be trite, The Corpse Grinders compounds its lack of originality with rotten acting, direction, production values, writing, and pretty much everything else. There’s a reason Ted V. Mikels shows up on lists of the worst directors ever, because while it’s true his pictures are odd, he occupies a queasy nether region between eccentricity and incompetence. His characters and themes are peculiar, but not genuinely perverse, and his filmmaking is generically poor. Anyway, the central joke in The Corpse Grinders, which aspires to be a comedy/horror hybrid, involves the transformation of dead bodies into cat food. Creepy grave robber Caleb (Warren Bell) steals cadavers and sells them to the proprietor of a pet-food company, who then runs the bodies through a meat grinder and packages the resulting bloody pulp. Consuming the meat drives cats mad, so they attack their owners. Although it’s not impossible to imagine some version of this premise being wickedly entertaining, getting there would require the comedic skill of, say, John Waters—or at least Roger Corman, whose contributions to the repurposed-corpse genre include the classic A Bucket of Blood (1959). Suffice to say Mikels is not on the level of those luminaries. To his credit, The Corpse Grinders has some kicky flourishes. Caleb’s demented wife spoon-feeds soup to a doll, the proprietor uses ASL to communicate with his one-legged cleaning lady, and so on. Yet these flourishes are not enough to compensate for this very dull picture’s shortcomings, especially since the tinny score sounds as if it was lifted from some old-timey shocker. Inexplicably, Mikels returned to the material by making The Corpse Grinders 2 in 2000 and The Corpse Grinders 3 in 2012. One assumes that Mikels’ death in 2016 ended the cycle.

The Corpse Grinders: LAME

Friday, June 9, 2017

Malcolm X (1972)



          By translating The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a visual document, filmmaker Arnold Perl performed a useful historical service, condensing and contextualizing the turbulent life that transformed troubled orphan Malcolm Little into black-power activist Malcolm X and religious messenger el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Within a tight 91-minute running time, Perl covers many of the important periods in his subject’s life, tracking Malcolm through a rough childhood and adolescence marked by abandonment and crime; a long period serving as an articulate emissary for controversial Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad; an incendiary stretch preaching racial revolution and vilifying the “white devil”; and finally the crucially important final period when, after making a pilgrimage to Mecca, he sought to reconcile his supercharged political rhetoric with the peaceful teachings of his religion.
          Framing the whole story, of course, is the grim reality that Malcolm was assassinated, so instead of being a hagiographic tribute to a mythic figure, Malcolm X represents a passionate delivery of the man’s message. Perl’s portrayal embraces all of the changes and contradictions that made Malcolm intriguing, and this portrayal underscores that Malcolm possessed one of the most agile minds in the history of American political life.
          The film opens on a somewhat heavy-handed note, with Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” (the lyrics of which describe the aftermath of a lynching) playing over a black screen. The opening salvo continues with Malcolm’s famous “by any means necessary” remark, as well as an epithet-filled spoken-word piece by the Last Poets that, prophetically, sounds a lot like rap. Once Perl gets into proper storytelling, he juxtaposes short excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as recited in voiceover by James Earl Jones) with a voluminous amount of archival footage. Sometimes, Perl illustrates points with newsreel shots of, say, civil unrest, but mostly he puts Malcolm onscreen.
          Appearing in public and on TV, Malcolm communicates with supreme eloquence and power, whether he’s expressing deference to Elijah Muhammed, disdain for whites, or a sophisticated synthesis of his past belief systems. As in real life, the Malcolm at the end of the story is the truly dangerous man, not because of his ability to drive people apart—anyone can do that—but because of his ability to bring people together. While stopping short of lodging a formal accusation, the film advances the prevailing theory that the Nation of Islam was responsible for Malcolm’s death. The notion that a black revolutionary might have died at black hands reaffirms the eternal truth that anyone with real power to alter the status quo exercises that power at his or her own peril.
          Prior to the release of Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X (1992), this documentary likely represented the fairest and fullest screen portrayal of its subject, and the existence of Lee’s movie has done nothing to diminish the documentary’s significance. Indeed, Warner Bros. (which released both projects) has on occasion packaged the movies together for home-video consumption. The films complement each other well, with Lee’s picture offering a personal view of a heroic figure and Perl’s documentary letting Malcolm speak his own truth. Accolades received by the 1972 Malcolm X during its original run include an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Malcolm X: GROOVY