Exactly seven and a half years after I started this project, today marks the conclusion of daily posting here at Every ’70s Movie—but that doesn’t mean the project is done. Regular readers should think of today as the beginning of a new phase. After all, the subject matter of this blog is finite: There were only so many American-produced feature films released on U.S. screens between January 1, 1970, and December 31, 1979, especially if one excludes hardcore porn. While my parameters also encompass key documentaries and foreign films, as well as a representative sample of made-for-TV movies, it was inevitable that I would hit a wall in terms of getting access to films for review purposes. As of this writing, I have pathways to seeing about a dozen more titles, and I’ll get to those over the course of the next month or so. I might also parachute back into the realm of TV movies and write up a few interesting titles that caught my attention while conducting research. And of course I welcome suggestions from readers about “new” titles—after seven and a half years of investigating this topic, nothing surprises me more than learning about some film that escaped my notice. Generally speaking, however, if a ’70s movie isn’t on this blog (notwithstanding the aforementioned in-progress reviews), it’s because the film isn’t readily available through home video or streaming or a reputable archive. Please contact me if you know of a legitimate video source for an obscure title. Anyway, that’s all for now, but I’ll be back next week to kick off the new phase—occasional reviews as movies become available. Until then, as always, keep on keepin’ on!
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Stating that Apple Pie isn’t the weirdest ’70s transmission from Manhattan’s artistic fringe might be accurate, but the remark downplays the film’s peculiarity. For while Apple Pie mostly lacks the psychosexual perversity one usually associates with grungy 16-millimeter experiments issuing from Alphabet City squats or SoHo lofts, the picture is strange enough to alienate most viewers. Yet after weaving its way through a number of bizarre situations, some of which have a John Waters-esque satirical edge and some of which are merely freeform expressions, writer-director Howard Goldberg’s movie resolves into an epic musical number, resulting in several of the most joyous minutes you’ll encounter in ’70s cinema. On a personal note, that represents what I’ve enjoyed most about this project: making unexpected discoveries through persistent archaeology.
Goldberg builds Apple Pie around Tony Azito, a Julliard-trained actor/dancer who found most of his success on the stage but also enjoyed a minor screen career in the ’80s and ’90s prior to his death at the age of 46 in 1995. Playing a number of characters, most prominently an eccentric rich kid who occasionally flits around town in a bat costume, Azito is in nearly every scene, and he’s an unlikely leading man. Gangly and very tall, with a gaunt face and a receding hairline, he’s the physical type most directors would cast as a background creep. Azito modulates his voice absurdly, like he’s either channeling psychosis or practicing different cartoon characters. He shimmies his body at random intervals, as if he’s having seizures or indulging sudden urges to boogie. Therefore one of Apple Pie’s most intriguing (or infuriating) aspects is that Goldberg lets Tony be Tony, no matter where the performer’s singular muse takes him.
If you’re wondering why the plot of the film hasn’t yet been described, it’s because only certain portions of Apple Pie have contiguous narrative. The first scenes involve a gangster of some sort meeting with cronies (one of whom is played by future David Letterman costar Calvert DeForrest). Then the picture shifts into its most heavily plotted sequence, during which Jacques (Azito) fakes his own kidnapping in order to rob his parents. (Playing Jacques’ father is NYC oddball Brother Theodore.) This material transitions into a performance-art/surrealism passage, during which Jacques (in his bat costume) meets a bunch of artists on a rooftop. One of them, played by future TV star Veronica Hamel, wears an outlandish costume and demonstrates her talent: causing her face to disappear. It’s all quite bewildering, especially because of Azito’s goofy dialogue (“I don’t cry when I’m watching porno—I’m into emotional S&M!”). Plus what’s a downtown freakshow without at least one scene of characters smearing each other with food? This stuff goes on and on and on, even though Apple Pie is only 80 minutes long, until Goldberg segues into his final sequence.
As bright as the rest of the film is dark, the final sequence is a dance number on a city street. Azito strolls onto the block, coaxes kids to start banging out a rhythm with found objects, and starts dancing. Then others join the fun—women exiting a restaurant, locals stepping out of their homes, even a wino climbing up from a pile of garbage. Once it reaches cruising altitude, the scene is a happy explosion, with some dancers on cars and fire escapes, all grooving to the same rhythm. Others have suggested this scene inspired a similar moment in Fame (1980), noting that Irene Cara, who starred in that picture, is one of the dancers in the finale of Apple Pie. Be that as it may, the dance jam is almost reason enough for those who dislike downtown artiness to explore Apple Pie. If nothing else, the dance jam is a great showcase for Azito, who later earned a Tony nomination for a 1980 revival of The Pirates of Penzance. The man could move.
Apple Pie: FREAKY
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Parallel to his music career, affable Tejano singer Trini Lopez dabbled in acting for movies and TV, notably appearing in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Apparently eager for a starring role, Lopez produced this low-budget comedy, which was shot entirely in Chile. He plays a naïve potter who lives in a small seaside village with his wife and their young son. One day, a boisterous American (Larry Hagman) arrives by boat in the local port and unloads precious cargo—a brand-new Mercedes. When the car malfunctions, Antonio keeps the wayward American company. When Hagman’s character grows impatient with life in a tiny town and makes other travel arrangements, he gives the inoperative car to Antonio. Most of the story dramatizes complications that the illusion of sudden wealth creates for a man who lives among desperately impoverished neighbors. So in essence, this is an old-fashioned fairy tale capped with a twist ending. Alas, many aspects of Antonio are questionable, from the thin story to amateurish supporting performances.
Characterizations are a special problem, because nearly everyone onscreen is one-dimensional, beginning with the blandly saint-like Antonio. Since the sole exception is Hagman’s character, it’s probable Hagman embellished his scenes—wearing a gaudy fringe jacket and decorating moments with comedic eye-rolls and face-plants, Hagman tears through the movie like a tornado. Yet this is Lopez’s show, and he’s not up to the task. Alternating between a confused grimace and a dopey smile, Antonio seems too childlike to function in the real world, and most of his decisions are foolish—not least the arbitrary choice to drop everything in order to entertain a stranger. That Antonio occasionally picks up a guitar to sing a bouncy song in that familiar Trini Lopez style merely adds to the clumsiness of the film. If Antonio is sophisticated enough to play and sing pop songs, then why . . . ? Pondering these sorts of things is likely beside the point. Antonio is a gentle homily designed for undemanding viewers, and as such it’s basically adequate.
Monday, April 9, 2018
There’s a tendency among cinemaniacs of a certain age to romanticize the so-called “Film School Mafia” of early ’70s, as if everyone in the Coppola/Lucas orbit was a genius. What, then, to make of husband-and-wife collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz? Most of their showiest jobs have been gifts from Lucas, and even though they helped script American Graffiti (1973), they also made Howard the Duck (1986). Projects that Huyck and Katz put together on their own are unimpressive, as evidenced by the youth comedy French Postcards, the first big-budget movie directed by Huyck. Despite featuring mildly erotic elements, French Postcards bucks the trend of late-’70s college pictures by opting for PG-rated laughs instead of hard-R raunch. Admirable as the film’s restraint might be, however, other aspects of French Postcards are frustrating or worse.
The setup is straightforward: Three American students spend a year in Paris and have romantic adventures. Generally speaking, the Huyck/Katz script transitions smoothly from one episode to the next, though one of the parallel storylines nearly dies for lack of oxygen (more on that in a minute). Joel (Miles Chapin) is a good student who needs a push to leave his dorm room and explore Paris, but he somehow gets laid on his first date with sexy retail clerk Toni (Valérie Quennessen). Wannabe songwriter Alex (David Marshall Grant) becomes infatuated with the exchange program’s alluring headmistress, Madame Catherine (Marie-France Pisier), who conveniently discovers that her husband is unfaithful. Meanwhile, Laura (Blanche Baker) spends lots of time investigating French historical sites (to the bizarre accompaniment of Raymond Chandler-ish voiceover) until she tumbles into a romantic-triangle situation. The Joel/Toni storyline gets at puritanical American attitudes, since he can’t handle her past promiscuity. The Alex/Catherine storyline is pure bedroom farce. And the Laura business is pointless until she meets the picture’s only memorable character, an obnoxious Persian lothario played by scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin. (The other future star in the cast is Debra Winger, wasted in a tiny supporting role.)
On a conceptual level, French Postcards is fine. Digging any deeper reveals serious problems. Not only do Huyck and Katz predicate their story on the stereotype that all French people are libertines, but the filmmakers can’t seem to decide whether they’re making a broad comedy or a gentle character study. Half the time it seems they’re going for Billy Wilder-esque hilarity and missing the mark. Elsewhere it seems they’re after faux-European ambiguity, somewhat in the Paul Mazursky tradition. Huyck and Katz fare better with that stuff, but too often they undercut nuanced moments with dumb jokes. Similarly, leering shots of Pisier in sexy outfits (or less) nudge the picture into bland male fantasy.
One last thing: Someone on the filmmaking team gets points for the running joke of Gallic cover songs, because it’s fun decoding the French versions of “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
French Postcards: FUNKY
Sunday, April 8, 2018
Fans can argue about which project represents Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length directorial endeavor, since he made a lengthy amateur film in 1964 and helmed a pair of 90-minute TV episodes, including the first regular installment of Columbo, in 1971. Yet the excellent made-for-TV thriller Duel is generally considered his proper cinematic debut because it’s a stand-alone project distinguished by Spielberg’s trademark visual imagination. Three years later, Spielberg graduated to theatrical features with The Sugarland Express (1974), and then came Jaws (1975). Nestled within Spielberg’s filmography, however, are two mostly forgotten telefilms. They represent his sole output for the years between Duel and The Sugarland Express, steps along his path from promising newcomer to certified wunderkind.
The first of these pictures, Something Evil, is unimpressive. A story about demonic possession with a suspicious resemblance to The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s hit 1971 novel, the picture stars Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin as a New York City couple who impulsively move to a house in the country. Written without much subtlety or verve by Robert Clouse (who later found success as a director of action films), Something Evil hits nearly every cliché imaginable. The kooky neighbor warning about evil spirits as he performs weird rituals. The strange noises emanating from various places late at night. The inexplicable changes in people’s behavior. The equally inexplicable denial by rational people that something strange is happening. So while the setup is simple enough and the climax has a small supernatural kick, most of Something Evil is boring—not a word one generally associates with Spielberg.
Dennis isn’t especially interesting to watch, McGavin gets shoved offscreen for long stretches, and juvenile actor Johnny Whitaker (previously of the TV series Family Affair) is a generic Hollywood kid. There’s also not enough screen time for enjoyable supporting players Ralph Bellamy and Jeff Corey. Thus the only real novelty stems from searching for hints of Spielberg’s prodigious talent. A few scenes in Something Evil are shot well, with dramatic angles and moody lighting, but the whole thing feels so enervated and rushed that it’s hard to believe the same man made magic of out Duel the previous year. Maybe he was tired after rigging all those cool shots of tires and highways.
Something Evil: FUNKY
Saturday, April 7, 2018
Teen-sex comedy Sunset Cove has a serviceable premise, because it depicts horny adolescents from different cliques joining forces to protect a stretch of California coastline from avaricious developers. Yet learning that the film was directed by Al Adamson should give an indication of the many ways the picture squanders its potential. Although Sunset Cove is coherent by Adamson standards, inasmuch as the movie never gets lost in nonsensical subplots, everything is substandard. The acting is weak, the camerawork is rushed, the storytelling is sloppy, and the tone is all over the place. Many scenes aim for light comedy, as when kids jump into hang-gliders so they can buzz a splashy party thrown by the developers, but at one point Adamson stops the movie dead for an endless sex scene set inside a van, complete with repetitious shots of a buxom girl shoving her breasts into a dude’s face and rubbing her hand across the front of his shorts. For an interminable three minutes or so, Sunset Cove morphs from brainless comedy to sleazy softcore. Making bad movies worse was Adamson’s special gift. Notwithstanding a brief appearance by John Carradine as a retired judge, nobody familiar appears in the cast, and several of the one-dimensional characters have nicknames including “Bubbles,” “Chubby,” and “Moose.” As for the nominal protagonist, he’s ostensibly a straight-arrow nerd, as evidenced by his eyeglasses. His inexplicable transformation into a drunken streaker who propositions a girl after inadvertently seeing her naked is par for the course.
Sunset Cove: LAME
Friday, April 6, 2018
The polite way to characterize low-budget family film Starbird and Sweet William is to say that it’s a harmless story about a young Native American learning to bond with nature. Yet that description cuts Starbird and Sweet William too much slack. Not only is the movie cloying and dull, but the leading actor is Latino, so the film’s portrayal of race is about as authentic as the notion of a man forming a surrogate family with a bear, a crow, and a raccoon. Everything about Starbird and Sweet William is fake, right down to the ridiculous ending during which a brand-new character appears just in time to rescue the protagonist from mortal danger. At the beginning of the film, Starbird (A. Martinez), whose tribal affiliation is never specified, leaves his reservation and takes a job as an airplane mechanic. One day, he steals a small plane for a joyride, then crashes in the Southwestern wilderness. Despite a broken arm and a shortage of supplies, Starbird survives long enough to bond with the aforementioned critters; the “Sweet William” of the title is an orphaned bear cub with whom Starbird frolics in syrupy musical montages. For most of its running time, the film has virtually no plot, instead presenting an outdoor travelogue buttressed by folksy narration courtesy of Rex Allen. (Sample: “Seeing the baby foxes and the deer, Starbird had a warm feeling of kinship with his brothers, the animals—something he’d never really felt before.”) When the filmmakers finally introduce conflict through the arrival of hunters late in the second act, it’s abrupt, clumsy, and woefully insufficient for sparking dramatic interest.
Starbird and Sweet William: LAME
Thursday, April 5, 2018
Figuring out why the intelligent comedy Once in Paris . . . failed to score at the box office doesn’t take much work. After alienating fans by leaving the hit sitcom M*A*S*H in 1975 and then floundering through inconsequential TV projects, Wayne Rogers didn’t bring much goodwill to his first big-screen starring role. Leading lady Gayle Hunnicut wasn’t a major draw, either. And the folks tasked with selling the picture faced a daunting challenge: Despite containing a storyline about a sexual affair, Once in Paris . . . is primarily a bromance pairing Rogers with Gallic charmer Jack Lenoir. All in all, it’s amazing the picture got made. Nonetheless, those willing to accept the film on its own terms might enjoy what they discover.
Michael Moore (Rogers) is an American screenwriter summoned to Paris for a rewrite job. He’s met at the airport by chauffeur Jean-Paul (Lenoir), who personifies joie de vivre. To Jean-Paul, every traffic jam is an adventure, every beautiful woman is a miracle, and every new day is an opportunity for drinking and gambling and laughter. First Michael keeps Jean-Paul at arm’s length, opting to focus on work. But once it becomes clear the rewrite won’t take much effort, Michael accepts Jean-Paul’s invitation to see the real Paris: playing petanque in parks with old men, placing wagers at a horse track, visiting the restaurant that Jean-Paul’s mistress owns, and so on. Eventually, Michael’s new friendship creates problems. When the lonely screenwriter becomes preoccupied with Susan (Hunnicut), an aristocratic beauty staying in the same hotel, Michael heeds Jean-Paul’s advice to pursue a tryst, even though Michael has a wife and children back in Los Angeles. And so it goes from there.
Flaws plague this film. Michael is condescending, fragile, reckless, and self-involved, with retrograde attitudes toward women. Moreover, Susan is portrayed as a vapid slut despite Gilroy’s weak attempts at rounding out her characterization. By current cultural standards, Once in Paris . . . is offensive. Viewed through the prism of its time, however, the movie has personality and soulfulness, even if one suspects that Gilroy would have preferred Jack Lemmon in the lead rather than the bland Rogers. Finally, it’s worth noting that Gilroy notched a WGA Award nomination for his script, because his peers likely reacted to the film’s strongest element: the delightful rendering of Jean-Paul as an amiable rake whom a straightlaced family man might dream of someday befriending.
Once in Paris . . . : FUNKY
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Sloppily constructed family film Paco ostensibly tells the story of a little Colombian boy (Panchito Gómez) who travels from the country to the crowded streets of Bogotá in search of his wayward uncle. Yet the most interesting material is a subplot revealing the uncle’s vocation—he’s a Fagin-like mastermind controlling a network of street urchins who steal to pay off loans that he offers at usurious interest rates. As played by the elegant José Ferrer, this character is infinitely livelier than a generically heartbroken little boy on walkabout. Yet relegating the most colorful person onscreen to secondary status isn’t the only storytelling error made by the creators of Paco. In the film’s most peculiar sequence, Pernell Roberts shows up to play a flamboyant gangster. How flamboyant? Roberts’ big scene literally takes place on a theater stage, with the actor flitting about in a cape while issuing dialogue like thunder and decorating lines with dramatic hand gestures. It’s a mystery how Roberts’ showboating relates to the rest of the picture, because by that point the wheels have gone completely off the bus. After all, we haven’t even mentioned the silly stuff at the beginning of the picture involving a priest (Allen Garfield) whose signature move is belching and then turning his eyes skyward so he can apologize to God. There’s also a heist sequence with intense music befitting a Mission: Impossible episode. And the donkey featured prominently on the film’s poster? Gone by about 15 minutes into the movie. Rarely have so many disparate parts added up to so little.
Tuesday, April 3, 2018
It’s astonishing how often inept ’70s filmmakers botched simple ideas for drive-in flicks—after all, conjuring a passable exploitation flick shouldn’t involve more than matching a lurid concept with a trite plot, then filming lots of gratuitous sex and violence. Try explaining that to David L. Hewitt, the culprit behind The Girls from Thunder Strip. The picture ostensibly pits a trio of sexy moonshiners against a gang of greasy bikers, so the juxtaposition of rural and urban sensibilities should have resulted in something eventful and trashy. Emphasis on should have. Among myriad other problems, Hewitt fails to identify a proper leading character, so the picture jumps from one underdeveloped character to the next seemingly at random. Worse, Hewitt and his collaborators integrate a third set of characters, redneck dudes who sorta-kinda align with the moonshiners, so the basic conflict between two distinct factions gets muddied. The list of flaws goes on. Although Gary Graver’s cinematography is frequently imaginative, the acting is generally as bad as the storytelling, and The Girls from Thunder Strip lacks conviction as sexploitation. In what should be the movie’s tawdriest scene, a buxom moonshiner bathes herself in a pond while wearing lingerie. Is she cleaning herself or doing laundry? Another sure sign the film lacks direction? The most entertaining scenes are comic-relief bits in which famed DJ/actor Casey Kasem, who plays a dopey federal agent, bickers with B-movie actor/director Jack Starrett, who plays a grumpy sheriff.
The Girls from Thunder Strip: LAME
Monday, April 2, 2018
Respectable but hard to access emotionally, Joe Hill is a straightforward biopic about the iconic activist/songwriter who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. in 1902 and was executed in 1915 on murder chargers that some consider highly questionable. Circa 1971, Hill’s name would have been familiar to the hippie crowd because folksinger Joan Baez performed the tribute song “Joe Hill” at Woodstock, and her rendering was included in the 1970 documentary about that event. (A studio version of Baez’s interpretation appears in this film.) By any measure, the real Joe Hill led a life worth examining. The wannabe composer endured poverty in New York City’s immigrant slums before becoming a hobo. After developing sensitivity to the oppression of the underclass, he began using his talent to rally workers through politically charged songs. Eventually, Hill become synonymous with the International Workers of the World, though his activism led to beatings and incarcerations.
The movie depicts Hill’s adventures in a linear fashion, with Swedish actor Thommy Berggren bringing an amiably steely quality to the title role. Some early scenes work quite well, as when Hill bonds with a larcenous street urchin. Yet Swedish writer-director Bo Widerberg never pulls the viewer fully into Hill’s mind, so many of the character’s actions seem arbitrary. As a result, the movie doesn’t flow as well as it should. Joe Hill feels like a collection of mildly interesting episodes instead of a propulsive narrative, which is a shame. Sequences of Hill clashing with violent authorities are pungent, and whenever Widerberg allows humor to enter the mix, Joe Hill sparks to life. In one scene, for instance, Hill dines at a posh restaurant, ordering seemingly everything on the menu, then concludes the meal by rolling up his sleeves and asking for directions to the kitchen, implying his intention to pay his bill by washing dishes.
And it’s not as if Widerberg fails to get the serious stuff right, because the final stretch of the picture, dramatizing Hill’s time in prison, is affecting. Less impressive is the preceding sequence, during which Hill acts as his own attorney while on trial for murder, as happened in real life; in Widerberg’s telling, Hill improbably comes across as a master litigator who only loses because the deck is stacked against him. Portraying a noble historical figure as a superhero surrounded by conspirators is rarely the right way to demonstrate artistic credibility. And while it’s not entirely fair to malign Joe Hill as a one-dimensional hagiography, the movie invites such criticism by leaving way too many gaps in terms of character development.
Joe Hill: FUNKY
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Some practitioners of the horror genre argue that logic has no place in spooky stories. Fair enough. After all, one would never argue that the events of, say, The Shining (1980) could take place in reality. Still, there are limits. In the offbeat blaxploitation horror picture Lord Shango, murders happen in plain view of witnesses but authorities never seem to get involved. And that’s just one affront to common sense. Lord Shango is moderately interesting because of the way it forefronts a clash between two belief systems, but the movie is a frustrating mess. In the wild opening sequence, young man Femi (Bill Overton) rushes to rescue his girlfriend, Billie (Avis McCarther), from baptism by a group of overzealous Christians. They respond by drowning him in full view of an entire congregation. This enrages Billie’s mother, Jenny (Marlene Clark), who turns to a local voodoo cult for help exacting revenge. Enter Jabo (Lawrence Cook), a ne’er-do-well who may or may not have mystical powers. He compels Jenny to make sacrifices to “Lord Shango” in order to reincarnate Femi. And if you’re wondering how all this stuff meshes into a coherent storyline, don’t bother, because it doesn’t.
Lord Shango unspools as a random assortment of moments, some of which are creepy and some of which are merely confounding. In the picture’s best scene, Jabo strolls onto the dancefloor of a nightclub and shimmies toward a pregnant Billie, who’s grooving to one of the movie’s hot Afro-fusion beats. Jabo moves closer and closer to Billie until her movements slow down to match his, and he stares into her eyes, triggering some sort of hypnosis/possession/trance state. Afterward, Jabo frets that he failed to achieve a supernatural task: “It’s always a struggle when a restless soul tries to enter a body not yet born.” Built solely on acting and mood and music, this scene has all the clarity and weirdness Lord Shango seeks elsewhere but usually fails to find. Incidentally, many of the same problems plague the 1973 blaxploitation vampire picture Ganja & Hess, which also stars Marlene Clark.
Lord Shango: FUNKY
Saturday, March 31, 2018
More of a generalized expression of counterculture angst than a properly formed story, Parades takes several different approaches to its antiwar theme. In fact, the picture divides somewhat neatly into four episodes, but not by design—at regular intervals, the filmmakers seem to forget what story they’re telling and latch onto the next shiny object that enters view. First the movie is about a young deserter whose parents narc on him to the government. Then the picture explores the deserter’s experiences in a military prison, where a brutal sergeant subjects him to physical and psychological torture. Next, after a tragedy that most viewers can see coming way before it happens, the movie shifts into ensemble mode as prisoners process terrible events. Finally the movie resolves into a far-fetched melodrama, with a civilian protest outside the prison inspiring nonviolent activism behind bars, which in turn causes yet more bloodshed.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of the same basic narrative achieving the desired effect, but getting there would have required more discipline than the makers of Parades could muster. Yet it’s wrong to dismiss Parades as a complete misfire. The film’s politics are consistent, and some of the young actors playing convicts attack their roles with vigor. One gets a sense of the folks behind this picture committing wholeheartedly to what they perceived as an important statement, and, to be fair, this endeavor was not completely without risk. Even though the youth audience circa 1972 was heavily behind the protest movement, many in the Establishment viewed those questioning the war as traitors. For those looking to make a splash in movies, there were less controversial subjects to explore.
In any event, Parades has a few points of interest beyond its plot. Future TV stars David Doyle and Erik Estrada play small roles, and Barry Manilow did the theme song. (Yes, you read that right.) Incidentally, it appears that director Robert J. Siegel did major surgery on the picture after its original release, because reports indicate that the presently available version, released in 1980 as The Line, contains extensive new footage. Given how discombobulated the 1980 version is, however, it’s probably for the best that the original cut has faded from view.
Friday, March 30, 2018
Although it’s unwise to make blanket statements about an entire genre, some observations of this type carry more weight than others. For example, few would challenge the assertion that a disheartening number of movies about mentally challenged characters are shamelessly manipulative. But here’s where nuance enters the discussion: What’s the difference between good audience manipulation and bad audience manipulation? I would argue that Forrest Gump (1994), which hides cheap sentimentality behind pretentions to historical and literary significance, is less honest than something like Nunzio, which is more typical of the genre. Put bluntly, Nunzio is heart-tugging crap, but it never tries to be anything other than heart-tugging crap.
David Proval, who began his long film/TV career with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and later played a recurring role on The Sopranos, stars as Nunzio, who has the mind of a child even though he’s in his early 30s. Nunzio lives in Brooklyn with his mother and earns money as a delivery boy for the local corner market. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Nunzio, so the nice folks wave when he rolls by on his bicycle, and the cruel ones make fun of the way he sometimes puts on a cape while pretending to be Superman. Nunzio’s brother, James (played by James Andronica, who also wrote the script), alternately browbeats and protects his frustrating sibling, although James is ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The main storyline involves Nunzio pining for a pretty girl who works at a bakery, enduring an inappropriate sexual experience, and eventually stumbling across an opportunity to become a real-life superhero.
Some elements of the storyline are laughably obvious, but others are downright peculiar, especially the sexual stuff. In its graceless way, the movie tries to ask big questions about society’s responsibility for unfortunate citizens, about the role of community in defining people’s characters, and about the place that true innocence has in the crass modern world. Yet the high-minded notions drifting through Nunzio’s bloodstream aren’t essential to the experience of watching the picture. Like so many other films about the mentally challenged, Nunzio is a feature-length pity party.
Even though Andronica probably thought he was writing something along the same lines as Marty (1955) or Rocky (1976), beautiful stories about simple guys learning to love themselves, he actually rendered old-fashioned schmaltz, contriving one situation after another to contrast Nunzio’s sweetness with the coarseness of other people. Is that a theme worth expressing? Sure, why not. Was this the most effective way of expressing that theme? Doubtful. Still, Nunzio moves along briskly, overflows with local color thanks to location shooting, and features competent performances by costars Tovah Feldshuh, Teresa Saldana, and a woefully underused Joe Spinell. As for Proval, he notches sincere moments whenever he’s not overdoing things with creepy intensity.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Telling the grim story of two truckers who travel across America with a tough hooker as their passenger, Road Movie epitomizes the New Hollywood aesthetic, even though its level of notoriety is infinitesimal compared to that of similar films by, say, Monte Hellman and Bob Rafelson. As cowritten and directed by the adventurous Joseph Strick, Road Movie is a dark meditation on the circumstances of unfortunate people whose pursuit of independence leads nowhere. There’s a reason the blunt title works—for the characters in Road Movie, life is all about leaving the pain of yesterday behind while chasing the possibilities of tomorrow.
Road Movie opens by introducing Janice (Regina Baff), a jaded young woman new to the skin trade. Older hookers laugh as she hustles drivers at a truckstop, and she pathetically drops her price in half just to turn a trick. Janice quickly discovers the danger of working the trucker circuit: Since drivers feel invulnerable inside their rigs, many of them abuse Janice as she moves from town to town, one rough ride at a time. Enter Gil (Robert Drivas) and Hank (Barry Bostwick), two young partners trying to make a go of their independent trucking operation. They hire Janice, and then Gil—a cocksure bastard who rants about not wanting to pay union dues, because why should he pay to support other people’s healthcare—slaps Janice around for a thrill while screwing her. Hank has a gentler way about him, but Janice rightly calls him on his choice to align himself with a son of a bitch.
As Road Movie trundles along, the three have experiences that can’t rightly be called adventures—more like travails. Janice punishes Gil by yanking the power cord on the refrigerator car the boys are hauling, ruining an entire load of meat. And when the guys get into a brawl with other truckers, Janice comes to the rescue by whipping out a straight razor and slashing the guys’ attackers. Gradually, we learn what pushed Janice onto the road, and what compelled Gil and Hank to start their own business. One of the film’s tricky implications is that Janice, the character who endures the most self-inflicted humiliation, might be the only one who sees the world clearly—until she goes completely insane, that is.
It’s hard to say whether Road Movie “works” in any conventional sense, because it seems Strick was after something more than a morality tale, although Road Movie has that sort of a narrative shape. The picture achieves its greatest impact by presenting specific characters in specific situations as a means of asking difficult questions. What is ambition? What is freedom? What is human connection? Is the portrayal of Janice feminist or misogynistic? Are Gil and Hank antiheroes or merely facets of the same prism as Janice? Is the horrific finale literal or figurative? To some degree, the answers to these questions don’t matter, because sparking the viewer’s imagination is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Aiding Strick greatly in his peculiar endeavor are the leading performers, each of whom commits to an unsympathetic character. Yet it’s Strick’s seemingly endless directorial curiosity that drives this piece: Frame after frame of Road Movie juxtaposes vignettes about three sad people with disheartening POV shots looking out truck windows at ugly commercialization littering Middle America’s thoroughfares.
Road Movie: GROOVY
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) was one of those generation-defining hits that inspired countless homages, so it’s tempting to dismiss all of them as faint echoes of the original. Yet doing so would overlook respectable efforts including The Windsplitter, which borrows iconography and themes from Easy Rider without directly copying that film. And while in many ways The Windsplitter is clumsy and obvious compared to Hopper’s picture, it’s not as if Easy Rider is the most articulate and refined piece of popular entertainment ever created. In fact, The Windsplitter expresses certain notions even more effectively than Easy Rider does. The key difference between the pictures is that the hog-riding rebels of Hopper’s movie live and breathe the hippie ethos, whereas the main character of The Windsplitter is merely mistaken for someone who does that.
Set in small-town Texas, The Windsplitter explores what happens when hometown boy Bobby Joe (Jim McMullen) returns after a 10-year absence. During that time, he’s become a Hollywood movie star using his proper name, Robert Brandon. Town officials invited Bobby Joe home for a celebration in his honor, expecting the same clean-cut kid they knew a decade ago. Instead they get a longhair with a fringe jacket and wraparound shades who zooms into town atop a powerful motorcycle. Town officials, particularly the local Reverend (Paul Lambert) are aghast, but local kids embrace Bobby Joe like he’s an ambassador from a foreign country. Writer-director J.D. Fiegelson, who later had a middling career in television, takes a meticulous approach to dramatizing conflict. Bobby Joe’s father (Jim Siedow) views everything about his son’s new lifestyle with contempt, even revealing that he didn’t see Bobby Joe’s hit movie. Bobby Joe tries to pick up where he left off with Jenny (Joyce Taylor), but she’s the daughter of the Reverend, who fears that Bobby Joe’s influence will lead the town’s youth to ruination. Bobby Joe also reconnects with boyhood friend R.T. (Richard Everett), but the town’s other blue-collar types offer a much different welcome—threats leading to real violence. Everything moves steadily toward a public assembly where Bobby Joe is scheduled to crown the high school’s homecoming queen.
In its broad strokes, The Windsplitter is contrived and predictable, pitting a with-it seeker against close-minded dolts. But in its specifics, the movie reveals depth and sensitivity. The Reverend isn’t just a fire-and-brimstone hatemonger. Jenny isn’t just a small-town girl beguiled by the promise of the outside world. R.T. isn’t just a simpleton grease monkey. And Bobby Joe, who eschews drugs and meaningless sex, doesn’t match the image formed in the minds of those who judge him. To be clear, Fiegelson’s storytelling is not sophisticated. Some of his dialogue thuds, and his most villainous characters are one-dimensional. But because The Windsplitter explores an interesting culture clash from a thoughtful angle, the movie’s grim finale feels organic rather than preconceived.
The Windsplitter: GROOVY
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
At one point in The Hard Road, which blends educational-film elements into a narrative framework, narrator Dr. Byron Clark poses a rhetorical question about a young man imprisoned for drug charges: “Will he be cured for good, or will he again seek the dreams and fantasies that are pushed out of a hypodermic needle?” On first blush, this sounds a bit like the uptight moralizing of Reefer Madness (1936), but on closer inspection, the language is actually somewhat restrained. And that, in microcosm, is the experience of watching The Hard Road. Structurally, the picture is an old-fashioned cautionary tale, explaining how a teenage girl’s pregnancy leads her into a lifestyle of moral rot. Yet in the particulars, The Hard Road has something that might almost be called nuance.
Director Gary Graver, who also shot the picture, employs imaginative camera angles for drug-trip sequences, seemingly trying to capture both the appeal and the danger of hallucinogens. Similarly, the script portrays the protagonist’s parents as status-obsessed alcoholics, so it’s not as if the movie lays the blame for youth-culture excesses squarely on kids. The Hard Road isn’t a hip movie by any measure, but it’s not precisely square, either. After pretty suburban 17-year-old Pamela (Connie Nelson) gives up her baby for adoption, Pamela’s parents hope she’ll change her wanton ways. Dad gets Pamela a job as the receptionist for a talent booker, and a rock star she meets at work takes her to bed. Pamela also befriends a girl who turns tricks to pay for her boyfriend’s dope habit. Eventually Pamela gets pregnant again, breaking with her parents and finding herself adrift, with only unreliable crooks and drug addicts for support.
Despite amateurish acting and that problematic narration by Dr. Clark, The Hard Road moves along fairly smoothly for most of its running time. Yet every so often, the picture stops dead for a bit of visual lecturing, as when animation and photos are used to track the spread of VD through the body. Therefore it’s awfully hard to guess the intended audience for this film. The picture is too scolding for the exploitation-flick crowd, and too lurid for family viewing. So is The Hard Road sincere or is it sleazy? Considering how much porn Graver has directed over the years, the needle tips uncomfortably toward “sleazy,” but still . . .
The Hard Road: FUNKY