Monday, October 16, 2017

Every ’70s Movie Seven Years Old!

It’s good-news/bad-news time. The good news it that, unlikely as it might have seemed when this project launched seven years ago, I’m close to my goal of reviewing every movie from the 1970s that I can track down (and that meets my criteria favoring American-made theatrical features). For those who dig numbers, I’ve identified approximately 2,700 titles that fit the criteria, of which more than 2,300 have been reviewed thus far. Best guess at this particular moment is that about 300 movies will escape my grasp, as a fair number of minor titles have disappeared from mainstream distribution. So, give or take any discoveries I might make in the intervening period, about 100 to 150 more movies will be reviewed, in addition to those already written up and awaiting publication. My guestimate of when the blog will cease regular publication is March of next year, though depending on what happens after that—I’m presently exploring the possibility of republication in book form—some erratic dribs and drabs might follow the cessation of daily posting. And that, of course, is the bad news—the end of this mad project is near. To that point, I’ll make one last entreaty for donations, because acquiring the final batch of movies will involve some expenditures, and I’d love to paint as complete a picture as possible of the cinema of the ’70s before closing up shop. Every little bit helps, no matter how modest the contribution. Anyway, that’s all for now except to say, as always, keep on keepin’ on!

Permission to Kill (1975)

          “You’re a very clever man,” the revolutionary says to the spy. “What a waste you’re an evil one.” That sharp dialogue indicates the provocative themes pulsing through Permission to Kill, a European/US coproduction released in America with the graceless title The Executioner. Elegant, meditative, and restrained, this picture won’t be for everyone’s taste, since it’s not purely the action/suspense piece one might expect. Yet neither is it purely cerebral in the vein of, say, some Graham Greene adaptation. Permission to Kill occupies an interesting middle ground, spicing its intricate plotting and thoughtful characterization with a dash of luridness. Defining the film’s icy tone are Dirk Bogarde’s soft-spoken performance in the leading role of a ruthless manipulator, and cinematographer Freddie Young’s classically beautiful compositions. Whereas many espionage thrillers of the ’70s opted for grittiness, Permission to Kill luxuriates in European elegance.
          Although the central premise is simple, the pathway the storytellers take toward presenting the premise is slightly obtuse, presumably by design—in the spy world, nothing is ever simple. Alan Curtis (Bogarde) works for a mysterious agency that wishes to prevent leftist Alexander Diakim (Bekim Fehmiu) from returning to his home country, where it is assumed he will foment a communist revolt against the totalitarian powers-that-be. Thus Alan recruits four civilians and one professional. Each of the four civilians has some connection to Alexander, either financial or personal, so Alan blackmails them into pressuring Alexander, who is presently exiled in Austria. The professional is a beautiful French assassin, Melissa (Nicole Calfan), hired as an insurance policy should the others fail to impede Alexander’s disruptive homecoming. Much of the film explores Alan’s fraught encounters with the people he’s using, all of whom regard him as a soulless monster. For instance, Katina (Ava Gardner), Alexander’s former lover, is appalled when Alan reveals his willingness to involve the child she had with Alexander, long since given up for adoption. Eventually, Alan’s cruelty inspires two of the pawns, British government functionary Charles (Timothy Dalton) and American journalist Scott (Frederic Forrest), to engineer a counter-conspiracy against their tormentor.
          While Permission to Kill has a ticking-clock aspect, it’s as much a character piece as a potboiler. Even Vanessa, about whom little is revealed beyond her lovely figure, comes across as complicated and dimensional. Writer Robin Estridge, who adapted the script from his own novel, revels in the duplicity and gamesmanship of spycraft, so when Alan coolly says, “The truth is what I make it,” the remark doesn’t seem like empty posturing. None of this is to suggest that Permission to Kill is flawless, since the performances are uneven (Forrest delivers clumsy work and Gardner’s breathy melodrama feels old-fashioned), and since some viewers may rightly grow impatient between bursts of action. For those who lock into its downbeat groove, however, Permission to Kill is smart and vicious, a palliative for the cartoonish superficiality of Bond flicks and their escapist ilk.

Permission to Kill: GROOVY

Sunday, October 15, 2017

1980 Week: The Black Marble

          After a great run in the ’70s, during which his books and scripts were adapted into several movies and a pair of TV series, cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh took a stab at romantic comedy with The Black Marble. Directed by Harold Becker, who helmed the Wambaugh-derived The Onion Field (1979), this picture applies the writer’s familiar absurdist prism to a depiction of cops and criminals. Specifically, the movie tracks an alcoholic detective’s inept efforts to rescue a kidnapped dog. Shot at various offbeat locations in Los Angeles, the movie has a fantastic widescreen look and a host of unusual characters, to say nothing of skillful comedic performances by stars Robert Foxworth, Paula Prentiss, and Harry Dean Stanton. However, the individual whose contributions prevent the movie from realizing its ambitious goals is Wambaugh. For all his quirky details and surprising twists, he can’t quite get a handle on the picture’s tone, and he frequently depicts people behaving in ways that are opposite to their established characterizations. The Black Marble is humane and strange, but it’s frustrating because it’s so badly in need of a heavy rewrite.
          Foxworth stars as Sgt. Alex Valnikov, a perpetually besotted veteran cop traumatized by a series of child murders he once investigated. Kicked off the LAPD’s homicide division and reassigned to the robbery squad in the Hollywood precinct, Valnikov gets partnered with high-strung Sgt. Natalie Zimmerman (Prentiss), who resents being made caretaker for a has-been. They’re assigned to help Madeline Whitfield (Barbara Babcock) recover her dog after a mystery man demands a huge ransom for the dog’s return. In separate scenes, the filmmakers explore the kidnapper’s pathetic life. He’s Philo Skinner (Stanton), a sleazy dog groomer overwhelmed by gambling debts. As the story progresses, Natalie discovers Valnikov’s endearing traits, even as Philo’s actions become more and more desperate. Giving away more would do a disservice to the picture.
          Foxworth, usually cast as a hunk, relishes his opportunity to play a fully textured character, and he has some moderately effective moments as well as a few comic highlights. Yet the script does not serve him well, especially when Valnikov suddenly transforms from a suicidal alcoholic to a wounded romantic. Similarly, Prentisss’ sharp comic timing helps mask bumpy shifts in her characterization. Stanton fares best, and the scene of him threatening to slice off the kidnapped dog’s ear is simultaneously grotesque and poignant.

The Black Marble: FUNKY

Saturday, October 14, 2017

1980 Week: The Man With Bogart’s Face

          Nostalgia for the golden era of film noir infused a number of movies in the ’70s and ’80s, from Roman Polanski’s provocative Chinatown (1974) to Carl Reiner’s silly Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and beyond. Yet perhaps the strangest tip of the cinematic fedora was The Man With Bogart’s Face, a lighthearted mystery flick starring Humphrey Bogart lookalike Robert Saachi. Ostensibly a comedy, the picture has an innately surreal quality not only because of Saachi’s eerie resemblance but also because of the bizarre way that writer/producer Andrew J. Fenaday addresses the resemblance within the storyline. The flick begins with Sam Marlowe (Saachi) in a doctor’s office, having bandages removed from his head. The idea is that Sam, or whatever his real name might be, is so nuts for Bogie that he had his features surgically altered. Sam also starts a private-eye business, drives around in a car from the 1940s, and wears a trenchcoat reminiscent of Bogart’s costume from the final scene of Casablanca (1942). People often ask what’s wrong with his face whenever Sam mimics Bogart’s signature tic of flexing his lips. And so on. But because Fenaday never provides any backstory for the leading character, The Man With Bogart’s Face dodges the big question of whether the title character is a raving lunatic.
          Vexing mysteries about the leading character aren’t the only issues plaguing this film, which is overlong but otherwise pleasant to watch thanks to an eventful storyline and the presence of familiar supporting actors. The biggest problem is the limp nature of the picture’s comedy. Sight gags and verbal jokes fall flat on a regular basis. That said, its possible to consume The Man With Bogart’s Face as a goofy mystery and overlook the weak attempts at hilarity. As one might expect from a genre homage, the plot is formulaic—several clients hire Sam for cases that turn out to be interconnected, and everyone’s after a priceless treasure. Sam’s pithy voiceover connects scenes of betrayal, seduction, suspense, and violence, all of which are played for lukewarm laughs. Providing the movie’s eye-candy quotient are Sybil Danning, Olivia Hussey, Michelle Phillips, and Misty Rowe. Lending various shades of villainy are Victor Buono, Herbert Lom, Franco Nero, George Raft, and Jay Robinson. As for Saachi, his mimicry is smooth enough to complete the weird illusion created by his dopplegänger appearance.

The Man With Bogart’s Face: FUNKY

Friday, October 13, 2017

1980 Week: Defiance

          The sad decline of Jan-Michael Vincent’s career was well underway when he made this humane but unremarkable urban-violence picture. Vincent does passable work as a dude who stumbles into a war between ghetto dwellers and the savage street gang terrorizing them, and Defiance boasts slick direction by John Flynn as well as appealing supporting turns by Danny Aiello, Art Carney, and Theresa Saldana. Yet the story is predictable, and the action quotient isn’t high enough to satisfy the target audience. Furthermore, because Vincent reportedly spent a fair amount of the production inebriated, Defiance captures the moment just before too many ho-hum movies and too much booze depleted his movie-star capital. A few years after making this picture, Vincent took a job playing second banana to a helicopter on the TV show Airwolf, and things got much, much worse from there.
          In any event, Vincent plays Tommy, a seaman who temporarily loses his work license, forcing him to linger in New York City. He takes a tenement apartment and befriends neighbors including Abe (Carney), Carmine (Aiello), and Marsha (Saldana). These folks live in fear of the Souls, a violent gang led by Angel (Rudy Ramos). The Souls prey upon Tommy’s friends, but he says it’s not his problem until the villains cross a line, triggering Tommy’s violent intervention.
          Rare is the movie that deserves criticism for offering too much character development, but the first hour of Defiance meanders through one pleasant getting-t0-know-you scene after another, so it takes forever to get to the action. Had the picture gone deeper, for instance rendering Angel as a multidimensional character, this intimate approach might have worked. Alas, Defiance exists somewhere between the superficiality of a good B-movie and the substance of a proper dramatic film. Nonetheless, it’s a skillfully made project that benefits from extensive location photography, and Vincent conveys winning vulnerability as well as formidable physicality. He’s more of a presence than a performer here, but he wasn’t so far gone that his gifts had completely left him.

Defiance: FUNKY

Thursday, October 12, 2017

1980 Week: Without Warning

Schlockmeister Greydon Clark strikes again with this dull alien-invasion picture, which was made so cheaply that only one alien is featured. The picture mostly comprises interminable scenes of teenagers running from danger, so Without Warning is more akin to the slasher movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s than to other space-monster movies of the same period. It’s worth nothing that cinematographer Dean Cundey also shot Halloween (1978), because Clark apes that picture’s style quite shamelessly with heavy shadows and long Steadicam shots. In the opening sequence, a hunter and his son get killed by flying discs that look like fried eggs with tentacles growing out of them, so viewers learn quickly not to expect much. Later, two young couples hop into a van and head for the woods, encountering the requisite creepy old people on the way there. Word to the wise: When the proprietor of a general store filled with taxidermy says don’t go in the woods, maybe don’t go in the woods. Anyway, the flying egg things kill two of the teenagers, forcing survivors Greg (Christopher T. Nelson) and Sandy (Tarah Nutter) to seek help from the aforementioned creepy old people. The gas-station guy (Jack Palance) offers assistance, but a crazed ex-soldier (Martin Landau) makes things worse by slipping into a Vietnam flashback. Landau and Palance enliven their scenes, but the most enjoyable bits of Without Warning are unintentionally funny, as when Greg and Sandy defeat a horrific outer-space monster that’s attacking their car—by knocking it off the car with their windshield wipers. Consider yourselves warned about Without Warning.

Without Warning: LAME

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

1980 Week: A Small Circle of Friends

          While it’s in some ways a well-intentioned film about the worthy subject of how participating in civil disobedience as college students during the late ’60s impacted the students’ later lives, A Small Circle of Friends is a textbook example of Hollywood bludgeoning complex ideas into simplistic scenarios. A Small Circle of Friends mostly concerns a contrived romantic triangle. Nick Baxter (Jameson Parker) is a conservative golden boy pursuing a medical degree, Leonardo DaVinci Rizzo (Brad Davis) is a trouble-making lefty student journalist, and Jessica Bloom (Karen Allen) is the sensitive artist caught between them.
          Ezra Sacks’ story is sufficiently eventful and specific to avoid seeming completely trite, but his basic premise is so obvious—a clash between activism and conformity—that the movie becomes laughably schematic. Here’s a scene about drugs! Here’s a campus riot! Here’s a triumphant moment of sticking it to the uptight college power structure! Oh, and because you knew this was coming, here’s the tastefully understated ménage-a-trios scene! Sacks’ screenplay seems more like a to-do list than a proper narrative. Most of the picture unfolds on the rarified grounds of Harvard and Radcliffe. Nick sympathizes with the antiwar movement, but mostly remains focused on his studies. Leonardo is a wild child determined to change the world one article at a time. He’s also a brazen prankster, so during his introductory scene, he feigns blindness as a way of cutting in line while registering for classes. The idea is that Nick becomes fascinated by Leonardo’s zest for life, while Leonardo secretly respects Nick’s diligence. As for Jessica, she dates Leonardo first, then switches to Nick, and complications ensue.
         Just as Sacks’ script tends toward superficiality, Rob Cohen’s direction is impatient, as if he’s afraid of lingering on human emotion. Not helping to alleviate this problem are the leading men. Davis has a spacey quality, so he seems crazed rather than eccentric, and Parker is hopelessly bland. Allen is uminous, though she’s asked to spend far too much time gazing in wonder at her costars. (Actors playing smaller roles include Shelley Long and Daniel Stern.) Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the picture is the score, composed by rock songwriter Jim Steinman, best known for writing Meat Loaf’s hits. To date, this is the only movie he’s scored, and his music is hilariously overwrought. Some of the melodies are familiar, as well, because tunes he wrote for this movie later became Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

A Small Circle of Friends: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

1980 Week: Phobia

Often cited as the worst movie John Huston ever made, Phobia isn’t one of those failed pictures that viewers can enjoy ironically, marveling at logic bumps and technical errors. Instead, it’s excruciatingly boring. The concept for this would-be shocker is simple. When his patients start dying in horrible ways that are related to their phobias, police identify Dr. Peter Ross (Paul Michael Glaser) as a suspect, then discover he’s involved with a daring experiment in immersion therapy. Using images and sounds projected on theater-style equipment, as well as props and real-life situations, Dr. Ross forces patients to face their fears. As in, he makes a woman who’s afraid of being molested watch gang-rape scenes, he makes a dude who’s fearful of snakes handle a giant snake, and so on. Phobia is so lazy and stupid in its conception that it’s as if the filmmakers either forgot or simply neglected to create any mystery or suspense, because the truth of what’s happening is evident from the very first scenes. Every creative decision compounds the problem. Huston’s camerawork, often a hallmark of his skillful approach, fails the project completely, because he clearly elected to shoot the minimum amount of coverage for every scene, the better to wrap production days early and move on to more interesting activities. The picture cuts together, but there’s no life in the editing, suggesting there weren’t any options for generating vitality. And speaking of vitality, that’s exactly what Glaser, best known as the costar of TV’s Starsky & Hutch, lacks here. He’s so lethargic it seems like Huston never bothered to tell Glaser when the camera started running.

Phobia: LAME

Monday, October 9, 2017

1980 Week: Seems Like Old Times

          Rendered by a comedy dream team, Seems Like Old Times is an old-fashioned farce unburdened by narrative ambition or social significance. It’s a silly laugh machine with a serviceable love story at the center, showcasing the fizzy chemistry between Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, who previously scored with Foul Play (1978). Seems Like Old Times is also one of the most consistently amusing movies written by Neil Simon, which is saying something. Until it sputters during in its final scenes (an almost inevitable outcome given the spinning-plates storyline), Seems Like Old Times is a sugar rush of a movie.
          At the beginning of the story, underemployed Northern California writer Nick Gardenia (Chevy Chase) becomes a pawn in a bank robbery. (Proving spectacularly inept at criminality, Nick stares right into the lens of a security camera.) Following the heist, Nick determines that he must bring the robbers to justice in order to clear his name. Enter L.A. district attorney Ira Parks (Charles Grodin), who is married to Nick’s ex-wife, Glenda (Goldie Hawn). His eyes on the job of state attorney general, Ira resolves to make Nick’s potentially embarrassing situation go away as quietly as possible. Which means, naturally, that Nick turns up at Ira’s house, seeking Glenda’s help. She’s an easy touch, since she works as a public defender and believes that all of her clients genuinely wish to rehabilitate themselves. You can see where this is headed: Glenda helps Nick without telling Ira, Nick exploits the situation to woo Glenda, and chaos explodes thanks to endless farcical misunderstandings.
          Beyond his usual gift for rat-a-tat jokes, Simon brings tremendous craftsmanship to plot construction, developing long-lead setups and wry running jokes as well as rendering droll supporting characters. (T.K. Carter is a riot as Glenda’s butler, a dubiously reformed ex-hoodlum.) As for the Chase/Hawn scenes, they never disappoint. He’s a charming rascal, she’s a ditzy altruist, and the sexual charge between them sizzles. Grodin, as always, stoops to conquer, beautifully underplaying the role of an exasperate schmuck. Meanwhile, director Jay Sandrich, one of the most celebrated sitcom helmers in history—his credits stretch from Make Room For Daddy in 1963 to Two and a Half Men 40 years later—does a remarkable job orchestrating this intricate brew of action and patter and tomfoolery, so it’s a wonder this was the only theatrical feature he ever made. Also bewildering is the fact that Chase and Hawn never reteamed, because Seems Like Old Times did about the same brisk business that Foul Play did.

Seems Like Old Times: GROOVY

Sunday, October 8, 2017

1980 Week: Night of the Juggler

          The harshness of life in ’70s New York City inspired countless film and TV projects—after all, what better setting for pulp-fiction stories than a gritty metropolis filled with corrupt cops, frustrated citizens, petty criminals, and violent street gangs? Consider Night of the Juggler, an otherwise forgettable thriller starring James Brolin and Cliff Gorman. Out of context, it’s a silly action/suspense flick about a lunatic who accidentally kidnaps an ex-cop’s daughter in a failed extortion scheme. In context, the picture speaks to the same paranoia that gave rise to Death Wish (1974), The Warriors (1979), and so many other projects. Brolin stars as Sean Boyd, a divorced Californian now working as a truck driver to help support his daughter, Kathy (Abby Bluestone), who lives with her mother. One day, unhinged Gus Soltic (Gorman) snatches Kathy from a park, mistaking her for the daughter of a corporate tycoon. Sean witnesses the crime and nearly rescues his daughter, but Gus gets away and plunges Sean into an ordeal. Sean also clashes with authorities including Sgt. Otis Barnes (Dan Hedaya).
          As directed by the prolific and versatile Robert Butler, who spent most of his career in TV, Night of the Juggler moves along at a terrific pace, with Brolin’s character almost constantly in motion, whether he’s battling an opponent, hassling someone with information, or fleeing those who seek to impede his search. The movie ventures into many of New York’s dodgiest areas, from the sex palaces of pre-Giuliani Times Square to the ravaged war zone of the Bronx, so Night of the Juggler has atmosphere to spare. (As for the iffy title, Gorman’s character delivers this dialogue: “I’m gonna juggle the books my way and it’s gonna balance out for me!”). This is almost laughably shallow material, and more than a few ugly stereotypes find their way into the mix, as when Sean calls a Latino gang “a mean bunch of chili peppers.” Still, Night of the Juggler offers minor pleasures. Brolin gives one of his stronger performances, Gorman infuses his creepy character with a pathetic quality, and some of the supporting turns are juicy—beyond the always-entertaining Hedaya, watch for Godfather guy Richard Castellano as a cop and Mandy Patinkin as a Puerto Rican (!) cab driver.

Night of the Juggler: FUNKY

Saturday, October 7, 2017

1980 Week: Home Movies

Brian De Palma took a break from his successful career as a Hollywood director to teach filmmaking at Sarah Lawrence College, where he’d done graduate work in theater, and this project resulted from student exercises. Despite the involvement of marquee names including Kirk Douglas, who has a small recurring role, the smart move would have been to let Home Movies linger in the relative obscurity of academia, because it’s an embarrassment. Not only is Home Movies amateurish and silly, but it’s suffused with crass elements including scenes during which the white leading character wears blackface as a disguise. Credited to seven writers, including De Palma, the narrative follows Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon), a young man who takes a filmmaking course from “The Maestro” (Douglas). Egomaniacal and overbearing, “The Maestro” encourages Denis to use his eccentric family as fodder for a class project, so Denis tracks his philandering father (Vincent Gardenia) and his older brother, James (Gerrit Graham), an insufferable college professor who pummels his fiancée, Kristina (Nancy Allen), with absurd rules about abstinence, diet, and exercise. Somehow this resolves into Denis surreptitiously filming people having sex. The story is coherent, but the events are pointless and random and tacky. James throwing food at Kristina because she broke a rule. Denis rescuing a lingerie-clad Kristina from a rapist. “The Maestro” climbing a tree to shame Denis for doing exactly what “The Maestro” asked, filming real life. Wasted are Allen’s girl-next-door charm, Gardenia’s impeccable comic timing, and Graham’s intense weirdness. Plus, seeing as how De Palma extrapolated many story elements from his own life experiences, the odor of self-indulgence permeates.

Home Movies: LAME

Friday, October 6, 2017

1980 Week: Fatso

          Throughout the ’80s, Mel Brooks enjoyed a thriving side career as the head of Brooksfilms, which produced The Elephant Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982), and The Fly (1986). Not every Brooksfilms release clicked, but it was a good run. Among the lesser Brooksfilms offerings was this well-meaning dramedy, the sole feature film written and directed by Brooks’ second wife, actress Anne Bancroft. (The two were married from 1964 to her death in 2005.) Starring occasional Brooks collaborator Dom DeLuise, the picture concerns exactly what the title suggests: a man struggling with his weight. The comedy aspect stems from scenes of indulgence, with the title character and his overweight friends gorging themselves in ridiculous ways, and the dramatic aspect stems from the title character’s efforts to surmount the self-loathing that stifles his ability to make better choices. In its best moments, the picture shares some qualities with the classic character study Marty (1955), another tale of a pudgy New Yorker struggling to believe that he deserves romantic affection. What’s more, Fatso is utterly sincere, regarding its troubled protagonist with empathy instead of judgment, and DeLuise plays the role for pathos rather than cheap laughs.
          The bad news is that Bancroft lacks nuance and skill, no surprise given that she’d only directed one short film prior to this project. For instance, its overly convenient that Dominick (DeLuise) happens upon the lovely Lydia (Candice Azzara), who overlooks his girth—and the health risks accompanying obesity—because her late father was also heavy. Bancroft’s storytelling comes dangerously close to “I’m okay, you’re okay” platitudes, as if accepting oneself is a reasonable compromise for sustaining unhealthy behavior patterns. It doesn’t help that Fatso largely comprises scenes of people screaming at each other. Bancroft appears as Dominick’s overbearing sister, and her scenes with DeLuise are highly abrasive. So, too, are vignettes with Dominick’s support group, the “Chubby Checkers,” whom Bancroft portrays as repressed maniacs forever on the verge of gluttonous meltdowns. (Though the movie doesn’t judge Dominick, it seems to blithely malign fat people in general.) As a narrative, the picture sorta-kinda works, and DeLuise plays sad scenes effectively. But as a piece of filmmaking, this is highly amateurish stuff.

Fatso: FUNKY

Thursday, October 5, 2017

1980 Week: In God We Tru$t

          Improving somewhat over his weak directorial debut, The Last Remake of Beau Gueste (1977), actor Marty Feldman does an okay job as a storyteller with this satire of for-profit religion, which he cowrote with Chris Allen. Naturally, Feldman also plays the leading role, employing the same comic dexterity that made him a star in his native England before American audiences embraced his performance as Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). Featuring supporting turns by Peter Boyle, Andy Kaufman, and Louise Lasser—plus an extended cameo by Richard Pryor—In God We Tru$t never wants for skillful comedians. It also presents appealing themes of piety over profit and intimacy over repression. But In God We Tru$t disappoints more often than it connects. The characterizations are contrived, the satire is shallow, and most of the jokes misfire, especially the borderline distasteful sex gags. Slick work by the aforementioned big names compensates mightily, as do polished production values, so In God We Tru$t is basically watchable. Yet that’s about as far as one can go in terms of praise.
        The picture starts at a financially troubled monastery, where Brother Ambrose (Feldman) gets assigned to raise money. He sets his sights on televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird (Kaufman), but the super-wealthy preacher refuses to see the penniless monk. Ambrose then meets a prostitute named Mary (wink-wink) and an insane con-man preacher named Dr. Sebastian Melmoth, who drives a school bus converted into a traveling church, complete with a shingled roof and a steeple. Those roles are played by Lasser and Feldman’s Young Frankenstein costar Boyle, respectively. Most of this movie’s screen time gets chewed up by scenes of Mary giving Ambrose a sexual education and by scenes of Thunderbird, who sports an absurdly gigantic pompadour, fleecing his flock whenever he’s not consulting with a computer program called G.O.D. (voiced and eventually played onscreen by Pryor).
          Typical jokes include a punny monastery sign (“Keep Thy Trappist Shut”) and the bluntly satirical name of a house of worship (“The Worldwide Church of Psychic Self-Humiliation”). Sex gags feature Feldman taking cold showers until Mary sleeps with him, at which point the “Hallelujah” chorus fills the soundtrack. The picture also has slapstick chase scenes and a vignette of Feldman screaming a lustful confession to a deaf priest while the whole congregation listens intently. Alas, no matter how sincerely Feldman wanted to skewer Christians foibles, Monty Python’s outrageous Life of Brian (1979) was a hard act to follow. That said, it’s a shame this mediocre effort was Feldman’s final major project. He died in 1982, leaving behind only supporting roles in the ghastly Jerry Lewis flop Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) and the mediocre UK comedy Yellowbeard (1983).

In God We Tru$t: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

1980 Week: The Awakening

Lavishly produced Egyptian-themed shocker The Awakening starts out well enough, with atmospheric scenes of a studly scientist named Matthew (Charlton Heston) tempting fate by exploring the tomb of an ancient Egyptian queen. Rocks slide, traps are sprung, and victims accumulate as the movie sets up the premise that centuries-dead “Kara” makes a magical connection with the child Matthew’s wife delivers while he’s tampering with Kara’s resting place. Throughout this very long prologue, The Awakening effectively blends old-school mummy mythology with modern evil-kid tropes along the lines of The Omen (1976). Then the picture cuts ahead 18 years. Matthew’s daughter, Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist), has become a young woman. Meanwhile, Matthew, long divorced from Margaret’s mother, has become obsessed with his greatest achievement, the discovery of the tomb. And then the story goes completely haywire, charting a downward spiral into nonsense as Kara’s spirit tries to possess Margaret’s body. Despite being adapted from a story by the venerable Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame, The Awakening is clunky and dull and episodic and ridiculous, so the moodiness the filmmakers generated during the opening scenes dissipates by the time the picture reaches its laughably over-the-top climax. Making matters worse, Heston is quite terrible here, overdoing everything except his pathetic attempt at an English accent. So even though The Awakening is a highly polished piece of work from a technical perspective, abysmal storytelling utterly neutralizes audience goodwill.

The Awakening: LAME

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

1980 Week: Midnight Madness

          Much has been written about Walt Disney Pictures’ efforts to stretch beyond family-friendly fare during the late ’70s and early ’80s, issuing such projects as The Black Hole (1979) and Dragonslayer (1981). Yet perhaps more than grim fantasy films, the frenetic ensemble comedy Midnight Madness epitomizes this awkward transitional period. Borrowing tropes from the raunchy campus comedy Animal House (1978), Disney’s Midnight Madness includes a sight gag about a frat boy diving into a vat of beer, a scene in which characters must decipher a puzzle clue about melons by staring at a woman’s gigantic breasts, and another scene in which characters illicitly aim a telescope at a sexy girl’s window. Eventually, trying to satisfy coarsening audience tastes while preserving the valuable Disney brand led the company to introduce a second distribution arm, Touchstone Pictures. Midnight Madness represents a noteworthy step along that path.
          As for the movie itself, it’s a silly action/comedy hybrid in the mode of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), except for the collegiate set. A game designer challenges five teams to race through Los Angeles from midnight to dawn, tracking cryptic clues to see which team can arrive at the final destination first. Accidents, betrayals, cheating, greed, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings ensue.As for the major characters, protagonist Adam (David Naughton) is a likeable freshman counselor afraid to make the first move with Laura (Debra Clinger) and oblivious to the insecurities of his younger brother, Scott (Michael J. Fox). 
          It’s all quite pointless, so the narrative is merely a flimsy excuse for fast-moving vignettes of one-dimensional characters engaging in colorful antics. For instance, Harold (Stephen Furst) is a fat rich kid who constantly stuffs his face and uses a super-computer instead of his mind to solve clues. Similarly, Eddie Deezen plays yet another socially maladjusted weirdo. And while the picture has glimmers of wit, seeing as how game designer Leon (Alan Solomon) creates clever jumbles that teams (and viewers) must decipher, Midnight Madness is a bit of a slog, especially since it runs a full two hours. Still, the picture is executed well enough, and the actors give enthusiastic performances. What’s more, the filmmakers throw in a few complications to keep things from moving in a straight line.

Midnight Madness: FUNKY

Monday, October 2, 2017

1980 Week: Kagemusha

          Thematically fascinating and visually glorious, this Akira Kurosawa epic about political intrigue in feudal Japan has several passages that are intoxicating. Moreover, the story delivers timeless themes by way of characters that feel mythic, which has the effect of making the film seem like a slick retelling of a fable that’s been handed down through generations. Yet Kagemusha is not perfect. Parts of the movie are maddeningly sluggish, and the lead character’s personality is presented so cryptically that it’s hard to buy into some of the choices he makes. For viewers who accept that Kagemusha operates on a largely metaphorical level, however, the picture is a feast for the mind and senses.
          Exploring profound topics of honesty, identity, and loyalty, the film tracks one man’s unlikely ascent from dishonor to a peculiar kind of heroism. Set in the 16th century, the story begins by introducing Lord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), leader of the powerful Takeda clan. Shingen’s pragmatic brother, Nobukado (Tsutomo Yamazaki), presents a thief (also played by Nakadai) whom he recently saved from execution, noting the thief’s resemblance to Shingen. Despite the thief’s obvious low character, Shingen agrees to use the thief as a kagemusha, or decoy, should the need arise. Soon afterward, Shingen suffers a mortal wound while visiting a combat zone, and before he dies, he demands that his family hide the news about his death for three years, giving the clan time to consolidate power and groom a successor. The thief assumes the role of Lord Shingen, but not without difficulty. Beyond the expected problems of failing to convince the people who knew Lord Shingen best, there’s the issue of enemy spies who saw part of the ritual during which Lord Shingen’s body was put to rest. Eventually, the thief enjoys both failure and triumph while portraying the deceased warlord, and the dramatic question becomes whether the clan can survive without the strength and wisdom of the real Shingen.
          While there’s nothing new about the doppelgänger plot device, Kurosawa pursues goals much loftier than the simple rendering of a premise. For instance, the film approaches spirituality with its depiction of the thief internalizing the reverence he sees directed toward Shingen even after the warlord’s death; living up to the role becomes a form of personal transcendence. Similarly, Kurosawa presents battlefield scenes as cinematic poetry—armies wearing color-coded flags, lines of horsemen silhouetted against blood-red skies, combat zones strewn with corpses. Throughout the movie, Kurosawa provides a master class in composition, whether he’s using symmetrical rows of people or more ephemeral elements, such as mist and smoke, to construct indelible images.
          The director also employs visions of pomp and ritual to ground his film in its historical period. One striking vignette involves laborers using brooms to erase hoof prints in a courtyard so a warlord’s dramatic entrance occurs on unmolested soil. All of this is set to a regal orchestral score, which lends Shakespearan grandeur. If there’s a significant complaint to be lodged against Kagenmusha, it’s that the film represents the stately side of Kurosawa’s artistry rather than the kinetic side. The dynamic filmmaker of the ’50s and ’60s emerges periodically during action scenes, but Kurosawa relies quite heavily on static frames, which—along with lengthy dramatic pauses—contribute to overly reverential pacing.

Kagemusha: GROOVY

Sunday, October 1, 2017

City on Fire (1979)

A drab disaster flick featuring phoned-in performances by faded Hollywood stars, the Canada/U.S. coproduction City on Fire never quite delivers on its title, offering instead a few explosions at a refinery and an extended sequence during which flames threaten the occupants of a crowded hospital. Vignettes depicting the impact of an allegedly citywide fire are anemic at best. Furthermore, the underlying premise is quite sketchy. After getting passed over for a promotion, disturbed refinery worker Herman (Jonathan Welsh) rushes around the facility, releasing fuel into the adjoining city’s water supply so that when sewer workers using a welding torch accidentally ignite the fuel, flames emerge throughout the city. Because, of course, disgruntled former employees are generally allowed free reign at high-security facilities. Oh, well. The nominal hero of the piece is he-man physician Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman). Other characters include an alcoholic newscaster (Ava Gardner), a stoic fire chief (Henry Fonda), an opportunistic mayor (Leslie Nielsen), and a worldly nurse (Shelley Winters). As for the female lead, she’s heiress Diane (Susan Clark), who shares romantic history with Frank and happens to be at the hospital during the crisis. City on Fire is so predictable and sluggish that it’s quite boring to watch, though a few absurd moments amuse. In one scene, Diane scoops vomit from a patient’s mouth while trying to deliver mouth-t0-mouth resuscitation. In another, Frank walks down a row of burn victims, touching each one but never performing medical services or issuing commands to subordinates. City on Fire eventually features a decent fire walk by a brave stunt performer, but that’s hardly reason enough to tolerate 106 minutes of stupidity and tedium.

City on Fire: LAME

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Deadbeat (1977)

Executed with more precision, Deadbeat could and should have come across as a youth-culture spin on Death Wish (1974), the quintessential urban-vigilante story about a man slaughtering criminals after loved ones were victimized. Alas, Deadbeat, also known as Avenged and Tomcats, can’t quite decide which path to travel, so the movie’s nearly halfway over before the main character begins his rampage. Moreover, the filmmakers linger on topless shots and stew in crude dialogue about sex, so there’s a vaguely pornographic quality to the picture. Add in the usual problems of vigilante pictures (namely the glorification of violence), and Deadbeat becomes a thoroughly distasteful experience, but not in a provocative way. Things get off to a sleazy start when four young thugs break into a remote diner, then rape and kill the only occupant, a pretty young waitress. Eventually, cops connect the thugs with the crime and arrest them. Later, the victim’s brother, Cullen (Chris Mulkey), watches in impotent horror as a legal SNAFU allows the thugs to escape punishment. This provokes Cullen to begin murdering the thugs one by one. Meanwhile, the local police chief, who happens to be the father of both Cullen and the dead girl, tracks the murders, soon realizing who must be responsible. The better version of this movie would have imbued Cullen with virtues unique to his age, putting generational ideas about law and order into conflict, but Cullen is such an old-fashioned character he could just as easily be in his 50s as his 20s. Therefore the slow-moving Deadbeat offers nothing but a weak recitation of grindhouse tropes.

Deadbeat: LAME