Saturday, October 1, 2016

Three Tough Guys (1974)



          Partly a blaxploitation thriller but mostly a failed attempt to give European star Lino Ventura some international crossover appeal, Three Tough Guys—sometimes known as Tough Guys—contains about two-thirds of a moderately entertaining movie. The first stretch of the picture, setting up a convoluted plot involving various parties connected to stolen loot, is murky and tedious, too many disconnected events and not enough character development. Things pick up during the second stretch, when an ex-cop allies with a rough-and-tumble priest to search for clues. And then, in a case of too little too late, things finally resolve into proper thriller mode during the last stretch, when the ex-cop and the priest square off against a swaggering criminal.
         Typical of the movie’s shortcomings is the number of scenes without musical scoring, because the producers hired Isaac Hayes as both composer and costar, then failed to fully utilize his talents for manufacturing industrial-strength funk. It says a lot about Three Tough Guys that the most enjoyable sequence is a nothing vignette of a car driving across town, simply because that’s when Hayes gets to unleash a thumping R&B theme without any interruptions. Oh, and don’t get your hopes up for attitudinal scenes of costar Fred Williamson sharing the screen with Hayes, since Williamson is barely in the picture for the first hour. Despite the misleading poster, this is a Lino Ventura vehicle featuring Hayes and, to a much lesser degree, Williamson. Ventura’s fine, even with his halting English, but the material isn’t good enough to properly showcase his affability.
          Set in Chicago, the picture revolves around the theft of $1 million, the murder of an insurance investigator, and various other narrative threads that fail to generate much interest. For reasons that are never particularly clear, Father Charlie (Ventura), an ex-con and ex-prizefighter, defies his monsignor’s directives by investigating the theft/murder/whatever. Over the course of several days, he sees a mysterious black dude watching him, and then the dude, Lee (Hayes), asserts himself just in time to rescue Father Charlie from certain death. They bond, again for reasons that are never particularly clear, though it’s amusing to watch Lee iron the priest’s pants and cook him eggs by using the still-hot iron as a griddle. So domestic! Caught in the middle of the intrigue is Fay (Paula Kelly), a gangland moll connected to slick crook Joe Snake (Williamson). Blah, blah, blah. Three Tough Guys has some colorful fights, the filmmakers use Chicago locations well, and Hayes and Ventura both exude the same sort of casual cool. There’s some vibe here. But will you remember a single thing about Three Tough Guys after it’s over? Not likely.

Three Tough Guys: FUNKY

Friday, September 30, 2016

2.5 Million Page Views!


It’s always a pleasure to break from the routine of everyday posts with a special update about good news, so I’m happy to report that Every ’70s Movie has reached yet another readership milestone that far exceeds any expectations I might have had when I began this project in October 2010. As of this week, the blog has accrued over 2.5 million views. Thank you! Given the occasion, and the fact that the end of this massive project is in sight, please forgive one of my periodic requests for assistance. As always, donations are more than welcome, because we’re well into the phase of this project that involves expenses for tracking down obscure films. (If you’re able to contribute, please use the PayPal button on the homepage.) While I harbor no illusions of finding every single picture that meets my criteria, as some times are legitimately lost, my plan is to get as close to saturation coverage as possible. To that end, I’m happy to report a behind-the-scenes milestone as well, since I recently crossed the 2,000 mark in my tally of feature films reviewed for the blog. (In actuality, hundreds more have been reviewed, counting TV movies, 1980 releases, and some titles that were written up before I refined the criteria—you’ve got to crack a few eggs, etc.) My best guess is that Every ’70s Movie will end sometime in early 2018, though the final post could arrive sooner if I hit a wall in terms of finding obscure releases. That’s where your assistance, dear readers, is so important. The more resources I have, the closer I can get to making the title of this blog a declaration of fact rather than a metaphor. Meantime, thanks as always for your loyal readership, don’t be shy about comments and suggestions, and keep on keepin’ on! 

Promise at Dawn (1970)



Clearly imagined as a tribute to a colorful sort of woman whose zest for life is eclipsed only by her steadfast belief in her son, Promise at Dawn instead plays out as a disjointed hybrid, part character study, part melodrama, part nostalgia piece. Worse, the key character of the woman comes across not as formidable and idiosyncratic but as delusional and obnoxious. Watching Greek screen icon Melina Mercouri overact for 99 minutes is torturous, and enduring the anything-goes directorial flourishes rendered by her real-life husband, Jules Dassin, makes Promise at Dawn even less palatable. One gets the sense that Dassin and Mercouri found this story charming or even magical, but it is neither. Based on a semiautobiographical novel by Romain Gary, the film covers many years before, during, and after World War II. Polish actress Nina Kacewa, played by Mercouri, has an illegitimate child with fellow thespian Ivan Mosjukine, who is played by Dassin. For various reasons, some political and some related to Nina’s erratic nature, Nina takes her young son from Poland to France, living an nomadic lifestyle while pummeling her boy with peculiar life lessons. “If someone insults your mom,” she says at one point, “they must bring you home on a stretcher.” Nina pushes him to excel at random activities, such as dancing and ping-pong, giving a kid a complex about being destined for greatness. At her most demented, Nina decides that Romain (played as an adult by Assi Dayan) must kill Hitler. Promise at Dawn is lavishly produced and pictorially impressive, but it’s a mess in terms of tone, with heavy political discourse in one scene and idiotic comic business in the next. How the conversations about incest and rape fit into the mix is anyone’s guess. As for the acting, Dayan gives a forgettable performance and Mercouri gives one you’ll wish you could forget.

Promise at Dawn: LAME

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) & The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) & Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)



          Around the same time that Alfred Hitchcock’s career began to wane, potential successors for his “Master of Suspense” title emerged in Hollywood and abroad. In America, director Brian De Palma laced several films with overt homages to Hitchcock. Overseas, Italian director Dario Argento won a fleeting sort of international fame with his first three pictures, all of which have unmistakably Hitchcockian elements.
          Argento’s debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, benefits not only from the self-assurance of a youthful talent eager to strut his stuff but also from extraordinary collaborators. Having proven himself as a screenwriter on pictures including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Argento secured the services of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Their unnerving music and stately photography elevate the contrivances of the script Argento adapted from a 1949 novel by Fredrick Brown. The film opens with a bravura visual flourish—while living in Rome, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) happens upon an attack inside an all-white art gallery, so he watches from behind the gallery’s glass façade as a beautiful woman struggles to survive a stabbing. Luckily, he’s able to call for help. Afterward, police detective Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) confiscates Dalmas’ passport and forces the writer to remain in Italy until the investigation concludes. Dalmas then starts an investigation of his own, even as the killer attacks others who get too close to the truth.
          Despite myriad lapses in credibility and logic, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage moves along fairly well. Unfortunately, so many scenes feature the brutalization of women that Argento left himself vulnerable to charges of misogyny, just as De Palma did with his Hitchcockian shockers. That said, most of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is vivid. Expertly staged jump scares complement unpleasant scenes including a horrific razor-blade attack.  Salerno’s world-weary portrayal, while clichéd, is fun to watch, though Musante is far less impressive. In his defense, he’s burdened with some wretched dialogue (“What’s happening to me? This damn thing’s becoming an obsession!”). All in all, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an impressive first effort, its rough edges attributable to inexperience and its highlights indicative of promise.
          Argento’s follow-up, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, is made with just as much confidence but slightly less panache. Morricone returns, but the movie suffers for Storaro’s absence, because the imagery in Argento’s second film is pedestrian instead of painterly. Also miring The Cat o’ Nine Tails in mediocrity are distasteful themes of child endangerment, homophobia, and incest. Once again, Argento uses the device of a witness who becomes an amateur sleuth. This time, blind typesetter Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) overhears a suspicious conversation and then makes a connection when he learns about a murder that happened near where the conversation took place. Franco enlists the help of newspaperman Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), and they search for the killer’s identity. Things get convoluted fast, because the plot involves, among other things, cutting-edge genetic research and the use of a whip as a metaphor. Still, the plotting of The Cat o’ Nine Tails is no more ridiculous than that of the typical Hitchcock picture, except perhaps for the sheer number of McGuffins pulling the story down blind alleys.
          Logic is even more of a problem in Argento’s sophomore effort than it was in his debut, since the police in The Cat o’ Nine Tails seem both ineffective and weirdly tolerant of amateur detectives. Like Musante in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Franciscus cuts a handsome figure but offers little else to the proceedings, though Malden’s avuncular charm makes all of his scenes watchable. Argento’s apparent desire to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock gets a bit tiresome, as during a long scene involving poisoned milk, but Morricone saves the day with his offbeat score, all eerie wails and spidery syncopation. Furthermore, Argento comes through with a fun chase at the end as well as a colorful final death. So even though The Cat o’ Nine Tails doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s the most entertaining installment of Argento’s so-called “Animal Trilogy.”
          Four Flies on Grey Velvet lacks the elegance of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the pulpy energy of The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Worse, Four Flies on Grey Velvet tacks in a grotesque direction by fetishizing violence with close-ups of foreign objects penetrating skin. It’s as if Argento, upon reaching maturity as a storyteller, suddenly forgot the lessons about understatement he’d learned from Hitchcock’s work. Anyway, Four Flies on Grey Velvet gets underway when rock-music drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) confronts a man he perceives as a stalker, then accidentally kills the man while another person photographs the incident. Blackmail ensues, so Roberto half-heartedly investigates with the assistance of artist friends and a PI. Meanwhile, Roberto navigates romances with two women. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is one of those befuddling thrillers in which the protagonist seems fearful of mortal danger in one scene, then seems untroubled in the next. Further muddying the viewing experience are brief attempts at comedy, such as a scene featuring Italian-cinema funnyman Bud Spencer. It’s hard to reconcile the lighthearted stuff with scenes of slow-motion mutilation, especially since the plot deteriorates into endless explanations of far-fetched motives sprinkled with cut-rate psychobabble.
          After making Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Argento took a break from the rough stuff and made an outright comedy, which flopped. Thereafter, he doubled down on gore and weirdness with Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977). Exit the would-be Master of Suspense, enter the Master of Horror. While none of Argento’s early thrillers remotely approaches the quality of Hitchcock’s best work, all three are creepy and imaginative, with moments that would have made the master proud.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: GROOVY
The Cat o’ Nine Tails: GROOVY
Four Flies on Grey Velvet: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Patrick (1978)



          An above-average shocker from Down Under, Patrick employs the creepy premise of a seemingly comatose character using supernatural means to terrorize those around him. Specifically, Patrick (Robert Thompson) has been a resident in a special hospital for several years, ever since he murdered his mother and his lover. Patrick’s cynical caretaker, Doctor Roget (Robert Helpmann), refers to the inert patient as “160 pounds of limp meat hanging off a comatose brain,” but sensitive nurse Kathy Jacquard (Susan Penhaligon) treats Patrick with compassion and respect. This being a horror movie, things don’t go well for her. Yet the plot, which also includes some romantic-triangle stuff involving Kathy’s estranged husband and her new would-be boyfriend, is of secondary importance, even though Everett De Roche’s script is logical, suspenseful, and tight. What makes Patrick exciting to watch is the way Aussie director Richard Franklin, who cut his teeth on episodic TV and raunchy comedy features, builds a sense of realism around fantastical events.
          Franklin and his collaborators get things started with a good jolt, then take their time developing characters, locations, and mood before unleashing the heavy pyrotechnics. The filmmakers also lace the picture with unsettling details, all of which feel germane to the world they’ve created. A good example is the central location of the hospital where Patrick resides. Instead of using the predictable visuals of an antiseptic, institutional building, the filmmakers set the action inside a large Victorian house, complete with soaring gables and a wraparound porch. Juxtaposed against the welcoming décor of the building is the cold behavior of the doctor and his head nurse. This combination of seemingly disparate elements creates both specificity and the necessary quality of uneasiness—something feels fundamentally off even before violent things happen. Similarly, the psychic-phenomena stuff starts slowly and builds steadily, giving the viewer time to accept wild notions of telekinesis and the like. It also helps that Franklin and his collaborators spice the movie with grounded gross-out moments, such as the fate of an unfortunate frog used in a scientific demonstration.
          Helpmann is the obvious standout among the cast, giving an urbane quality to the role of a healer hiding horrible tendencies, and Penhaligon acquits herself well as a damsel in distress. Still, much credit is due to Thompson, whose intense gaze makes the title character memorable even though he’s motionless and speechless. An unauthorized sequel, the Italian production Patrick Still Lives, was released in 1980, and a remake, again produced in Australia and again titled Patrick, hit theaters in 2013.

Patrick: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Drums, No Bugles (1972)



          Given his lifelong commitment to humane causes, it’s no surprise Martin Sheen agreed to star in this sincere melodrama about a conscientious objector during the Civil War. As a personal and political statement, the film is highly commendable. As an entertainment experience, not so much. The only actor onscreen for most of the 90-minute movie, Sheen spends most of his screen time foraging for food and shelter in the wilderness. Weirdly, the filmmakers elected not to create a narration track, which would have illuminated the protagonist’s inner life and utilized Sheen’s glorious speaking voice. Bereft of this obvious element, No Drums, No Bugles is a slog, though an argument could be made that the minimalistic storytelling suits the narrative, which was extrapolated from lore that has survived through generations in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Written and directed without Clyde Ware, the movie starts awkwardly, because when we meet him, Ashby Gatrell (Sheen) is already on the run. One gets the vague impression that the opening scene is supposed to represent Asbhy’s first, horrifying experience of combat, with fellow Southerners laid to waste while cruel Northerners pick the bodies clean for loot, but Ware doesn’t sufficiently orient viewers.
          Thereafter, the movie transitions to repetitive scenes of Ashby making a primitive life for himself. He builds a torch to scare a bear out of the cave that Ashby claims for his home, he picks up scraps left behind by hunters, and he often hides by roadsides so he can parse people’s conversations for clues about the status of the war. In what should be the movie’s emotional high point, Ashby sneaks into his own home to visit his sleeping wife and children, not daring to wake them lest they share the dangerous secret of his whereabouts. No Drums, No Bugles is redeemed by its clear thematic focus, and Ware strives for lyricism by using twee folk songs to bridge sequences together. Yet No Drums, No Bugles is ultimately a better idea for a movie than it is an actual movie, because even though Sheen’s performance is infused with honesty and passion, Ware’s storytelling is dull and flat.

No Drums, No Bugles: FUNKY

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Night of the Strangler (1972)



Employment options for ex-Monkees being what they were, it’s understandable that Micky Dolenz had to venture outside the mainstream to find onscreen work. Shot on a meager budget and telling a far-fetched story about a string of murders, The Night of the Strangler is comprehensively underwhelming. For instance, Dolenz’ leading performance is way too cutesy and upbeat to sustain the ominous mood this sort of material requires. Set in New Orleans, The Night of the Strangler depicts a family beset by tragedy. Easygoing youth Vance (Dolenz) rebels against the dictatorial manner of his older brother, wealthy lawyer Dan (James Ralston), especially when their sister, Denise (Susan McCullough), announces she’s pregnant with a black man’s child. Unapologetically racist Dan cuts her off from family money, and she kills herself. Meanwhile, Vance prepares to wed his girlfriend, so he listens to counsel from his clergyman friend Jesse (Chuck Patterson), who suggests Vance mend family ties. That’s easier said than done once local police discover clues suggesting Denise was murdered. Amateurish in terms of acting, directing, production values, and writing, The Night of the Strangler wobbles between melodrama and horror, with clashing performance styles exacerbating narrative dissonance. Ralston goes way over the top as the film’s main villain, while Ed Brown and Harold Sylvester veer into light comedy playing world-weary cops. Even the title is a misnomer, since only one of the film’s myriad kill scenes involves strangulation. Similarly, the picture’s alternate title—Is the Father Black Enough?—overplays the race-relations angle, since the film is a potboiler rather than a polemic.

The Night of the Strangler: LAME

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 (1973)



          An adequate character study that owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Paddy Chayefsky-penned classic Marty (1955), this quiet little picture follows a sad-sack New Yorker who tries to expand his universe beyond childhood friends and the family business. Cowriter, producer, and director Joseph Jacoby has a good touch with actors, getting naturalistic work from his entire cast, and Jacoby captures the way that working-class folks from the outer boroughs sometimes develop romantic illusions about Manhattan and its denizens. Also working in the movie’s factor is Jacoby’s take on sophisticated urbanites taking Brooklyn natives for rubes. In some ways, Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 is a conventional coming-of-age flick, even though arrested development means the protagonist doesn’t face his developmental crisis until well after the conclusion of adolescence. In other ways, the picture is a simple exploration of how divisions of class, education, and ethnicity lead to prejudice. The film is very much a minor work, and it suffers for weak elements including a dopey musical score, but there’s something humane and real about what Jacoby has to say.
          George Trapani (John Lefkowitz) works for his father’s small printing company, but he’s bored with rituals like cruising with his friends while trying to score with local girls. One day, George meets a theatrical producer named Mark Lossier (Frank Quinn), who invites George to an audition because he thinks he can squeeze George for an investment. During the degrading audition, Mark compels desperate women to perform a scene topless in front of salivating would-be investors. Willowy actress Jackie (Linda De Coff) impresses George by politely refusing to strip, so when he encounters her later, he asks her out. They date for a while, but then George realizes she’s slumming with him, leading George to question whether he’ll ever truly escape the confining identity he inherited at birth.
         While nothing in Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30 is surprising, Jacoby seems more concerned with generating empathy for George, as well as for characters including Jackie and Mark. George discovers that even though their worlds are larger than his, they have their own problems. As portrayed by Lefkowitz with a bowl cut and a hangdog face, George is a moderately appealing protagonist. He’s admirable when he tries, and he’s pathetic when he tries too hard. Still, the movie never feels judgmental, especially because Jacoby shows George being repeatedly humiliated by his father. The mostly unknown actors comprising the supporting cast lend additional layers of credibility, and a young Danny DeVito fits right into the mix as one of George’s pals.

Hurry Up or I’ll Be 30: FUNKY

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Conversation Piece (1974)



          Born into nobility, the Italian director Luchino Visconti had a unique perspective on the foibles of the upper class, and Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, is in some ways a referendum on wealth. The protagonist uses his affluence to separate himself from the rest of the world, transforming his historic villa into a private museum filled with expensive artwork. The vulgar family that barges into his home and demands permission to rent an upstairs apartment is pure Eurotrash, transforming the whole world into the backdrop for their petty psychodramas. Caught between these exemplars is a handsome young hustler who has the aesthetic sophistication of the protagonist and the low morals of the vulgarians. Not every filmmaker has the curiosity or integrity to dissect his own social class and then present his findings to the world, no matter how unflattering, so it’s to Visconti’s credit that Conversation Piece paints a grim picture. Whether the movie also works as entertainment or even as a logical narrative is another matter, because much of the plot is predicated upon far-fetched behavior.
          The Professor (Burt Lancaster) contentedly occupies his Roman villa until the overbearing Marquise Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) shows up one day and demands a visit to the Professor’s spare apartment. Despite his repeated declarations that the rooms are not available for rent, she wears him down and leases the space for her daughter, Lietta (Claudia Marsani). Thereafter, Lietta begins elaborate remodeling without the Professor’s permission, leading to friction, and the Professor becomes involved in the life of Konrad Hubel (Helmut Berger), the Marquis’ lover. Eventually, Konrad uses the apartment as a crash pad following a beating, so the Professor becomes Helmut’s unlikely caretaker.
          Conversation Piece can be taken at face value as a human drama, and it can be interpreted as social or even political allegory. As with so many leftist European filmmakers who lived through World War II, Visconti often used his work to ponder the big questions of how and why society allows toxic influences to take root, and to celebrate individuals who reject isolation for involvement. Named for a type of artwork the Professor collects, Conversation Piece is perhaps most effective as exactly that—something to discuss after it’s over—since watching the picture is a bit tiresome. The movie looks beautiful, with elegant camerawork capturing meticulous sets and costumes, but much of the onscreen behavior is unpleasantly histrionic. And while Lancaster’s character is a beacon of decorum and sanity, his performance is mannered and theatrical to a fault. Like the movie around him, Lancaster suffers for an abundance of artifice, polemics, and stylization.

Conversation Piece: FUNKY

Friday, September 23, 2016

Deafula (1975)



The low-budget horror flick Deafula is about exactly what the title suggests, and every line of dialogue is delivered by way of American Sign Language. The noble goal of providing entertainment for an underserved population notwithstanding, Deafula is an embarrassment. Peter Wolf, the picture’s writer, director, and star, evinces little talent in any of his craft areas, so the movie is amateurish, boring, and discombobulated. The gist of the piece is that Steve Adams (Wolf), a seminary student with pillowy blond hair and a fondness for turtlenecks, occasionally transforms into bloodsucker named Deafula. This often happens during the daytime, which is odd, and during the transformations, Steve’s hair changes color, he grows a gigantic prosthetic nose, and his clothes morph into a tuxedo with a cape. What’s the sign for “WTF”? According to the backstory that’s doled out in awkward flashbacks, Steve’s mom consorted with Count Dracula, but Steve grew up believing that he had a strange blood disease requiring regular transfusions instead of vampirism. While detectives investigate Deafula’s killings, Steve searches for answers about his identity, hence the flashbacks. It’s all very jumbled and silly, culminating in a ridiculous scene of Deafula chatting with Count Dracula in a cave. Peculiar stylistic choices regarding sound exacerbate Deafula’s other problems. Although voice actors provide real-time translations for the ASL dialogue, music only appears intermittently, and long stretches of the film are silent. It is an understatement to say that Wolf’s images do not command attention without aural assistance. Once in a while, Deafula is so misguided as to become compellingly awful. In one scene, Steve sits with a buddy in a bar and orders peanuts from the waitress. Later in the same scene, Steve says, “A moment ago, I ordered peanuts.” Again, WTF? In any language, Deafula is ridiculous.

Deafula: LAME

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Alambrista! (1977)



          In a perfect world, we all would view others with the same degree of compassion and curiosity as filmmaker Robert M. Young, who transitioned from a career in socially conscious documentaries to a new life helming socially conscious fiction films. While not the most polished of storytellers, Young imbues his best films with a deep passion for underrepresented populations. Perhaps no project demonstrates these traits better than Young’s second dramatic feature, Alambrista!, the title of which translates to The Illegal. Using a docudrama approach to stretch the possibilities of a limited budget, the picture tracks the experiences of a young man who leaves his wife and child in Mexico to seek better-paying work as an undocumented laborer in America. By turns touching and tragic, Alambrista! puts a human face on a hot-button political issue, conveying insights that are as relevant today, if not more so, as they were in the late ’70s.
          Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), who speaks only Spanish, struggles to support his family with farm work in rural Mexico, and he dreams of making big money in the U.S. Coloring his viewpoint is ambivalence about his father, who made an illegal border crossing years ago and never returned. Roberto joins a several workers who slip through a fence in the desert, and he picks produce with them until INS officers arrest most of Roberto’s peers. He escapes, but his U.S. employers withhold his pay, leaving him stranded. Eventually, Roberto finds friends in America. Joe (Trinidad Silva) is a high-spirited illegal who speaks serviceable English, but their time together is cut short by a horrific accident. Later, Roberto meets Sharon (Linda Gillen), the waitress in a greasy-spoon diner. Young’s filmmaking excels during the Sharon sequences, because he gives Sharon incredible dimensionality without benefit of proper dialogue scenes between her and Roberto; we discover her lonely life as a single mother who goes to Evangelical services, and we explore her passionate and playful aspects until, once more, circumstances sever Roberto from a friend. Eventually, Roberto finds himself caught in a terrible cycle, because even though his first trip ends with financial disappointment and deportation, he feels compelled to return to the U.S., as if making another attempt will bring him closer to the illegal’s version of the American dream.
         While much of Alambrista! is harrowing, from the rigors of field work to the terror of riding on the undercarriage of a freight train, Young never sensationalizes the material. Instead, we see the cost of this lifestyle sketched on a simple man’s face in a way that’s neither condescending nor reductive. Yes, there’s a certain nobility-of-the-downtrodden flavor to Alambrista! that makes some stretches feel like homework. But because Young approaches his important subject matter with clarity and respect, while still adding entertainment elements by including musical passages and guest appearances by Hollywood actors (Ned Beatty, Jerry Hardin, Julius Harris), he ensures that watching Alamabrista! is rewarding on many levels. As a side note, Edward James Olmos’ bit part in this film began his long association with Young, who later directed Olmos in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) and many other projects for film and television.

Alambrista!: GROOVY

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Killer Inside Me (1976)



          One of several deeply flawed ’70s films containing an Oscar-worthy performance by Stacy Keach, The Killer Inside Me is the first of two movies, thus far, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel of the same name. (A 2010 version starring Casey Affleck received a more favorable critical response.) The material is strange, tracking the adventures of a small-town cop who secretly harbors homicidal tendencies, so the storyline asks viewers to take an unusual ride from wholesome Americana to deviant ultraviolence. Getting the tone of this one right would have challenged even the subtlest of filmmakers, a group to which rough-and-tumble action guy Burt Kennedy most certainly does not belong. Accordingly, the 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me is a mess from a tonal perspective, because it’s unclear whether the movie is a straight drama, a thriller disguised as a lighthearted character piece, a satire of American values, or some combination of all of those things.
          Keach finds a peculiar sort of true north, both in his onscreen performance and in his wry narration track, so his characterization tells a fatalistic but darkly funny story about a guy trying to make murder a part of his everyday life. Alas, the movie around Keach isn’t nearly as surefooted, even though some of the supporting performances are tasty and even though cinematographer William A. Fraker shrouds the film in evocative shadows. Those excited about exploring weird pockets of Hollywood cinema will be more inclined to cut The Killer Inside Me slack than those looking for straightforward escapism.
          Set in a small Montana town, the story follows Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Keach) through a colorful period in his life. To the casual eye, he seems like Mr. Nice Guy, because he romances a local schoolteacher, evinces great skill at de-escalating conflicts, and gets along with people on every rung of the social ladder. Secretly, however, Lou begins an affair with a local floozy, thereby entering into a triangle with his buddy Elmer (Don Stroud), son of rich landowner Chester (Kennan Wynn). All the while, viewers glimpse Lou’s demons thanks to flashes from childhood trauma, so when Lou freaks out and kills two people, we have an inkling why.
          The first half of the picture is all setup, and the second half is all repercussions. Throughout, the filmmakers provide colorful details and grim humor. In one entertaining scene, Lou welcomes a con artist (John Carradine) into his home and proceeds to scare the bejesus out of the guy, seemingly just for sport. In another vivid bit, Lou’s boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (John Dehner), employs unique vernacular to lament his poor marksmanship: “I can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo.” Although the movie never coheres, The Killer Inside Me is interesting and odd from moment to moment. Beyond Keach’s beautifully deranged performance, the picture boasts strong work from Carradine, Stroud, Wynn, Tisha Steriling (as the schoolteacher), and—reuniting Keach with a costar from John Huston’s Fat City (1972)—Susan Tyrell (as the floozy).

The Killer Inside Me: FUNKY

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Moonshine County Express (1977)



          Since the ’70s were rotten with drive-in flicks about rednecks hauling white lightning through the woods with cops hot on their tails, there wasn’t much left to say about the subject by the time Moonshine County Express was made. That said, the textures of this low-rent genre were so firmly established that delivering a straight recitation shouldn’t have been too difficult—especially since Moonshine County Express was issued by trash-cinema titan Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. All of which goes to explain why Moonshine County Express is vexing. The movie has the usual barrage of zippy nonsense, so it’s never boring, per se, but the storyline is so sloppy that it’s hard to tell which of the two main characters is the protagonist. After all, John Saxon gets top billing for playing a racecar driver who moonlights running ’shine, but the narrative actually hinges on the character played by Susan Howard.
          After thugs kill an aging moonshiner, his three daughters learn that he left them a secret stash of valuable Prohibition-era whiskey, so the oldest daughter, Dot Hammer (Howard), begins selling the hooch to her dad’s old customers. This gets the attention of Jack Starkey (William Conrad), the kingpin of the area’s illegal-liquor business, since he’s the one who killed the father in the first place as a means of eliminating competition. Giving the story its small measure of complexity is J.B. Johnson (Saxon), who drives for Starkey until switching sides to help the imperiled Hammer sisters. There’s also a sheriff involved, but suffice to say nothing truly surprising happens.
          Still (no pun intended), it’s possible to groove on the film’s pulpy elements. Playing the Hammer sisters, Howard, Claudia Jennings, and former Brady Bunch star Maureen McCormick add eye candy, though all of them manage to keep their clothes since this PG-rated film is tame compared to other moonshine flicks. Saxon gives an unusually casual performance, and Conrad has a blast playing a cartoony villain. (Not every movie features the enormous Cannon star in a sex-fantasy scene featuring fishing tackle.) Furthermore, Dub Taylor plays a supporting role without his frontal dentures; the rootsy soundtrack features banjos and spoons and the like; and in one party scene, a bar band renders these peculiar lyrics: “Grandma’s got syphilis, Grandpa’s deranged, and all the children had their sexes changed.”

Moonshine County Express: FUNKY

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973)



          But for a few turns of fate, Steven Spielberg could have made his feature directorial debut with this drama about a former WWI pilot barnstorming across America with his young son. Spielberg wrote the story with an eye toward directing, but he was replaced, with Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson becoming the project’s driving force. Whatever charms the original story possessed must have been lost in translation, because the final film is such a misfire that the director, producers, and screenwriters all used pseudonyms in the credits. Can’t blame them. The central relationship, between the flyer and his son, is hopelessly underdeveloped. The main subplot, about a romance between the flyer and a woman he meets during his travels, is nonsensical. And the main character, the flyer, behaves so inconsistently that it’s as if he becomes a new person in every scene. The film’s choppy rhythms suggest that some overzealous tinkering occurred during post-production, but because many individual scenes is murky, it’s unlikely anyone could have made a worthwhile movie from the footage that director John Erman (credited as Bill Sampson) collected. About the only praiseworthy elements of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies are the aerial scenes, the cinematography, and the detailed re-creations of 1920s America.
           The story begins awkwardly, with “Ace” Eli Walford (Robertson) crashing a plane and killing his passenger, who also happens to be his wife. After a brief funeral sequence, Eli starts building a new plane and telling folks that he wants to become a barnstormer and take his young son, Rodger (Eric Shea), with him. The obvious fact that Eli is s dangerous maniac never even gets lip service. One day, tired of Eli’s procrastinating, Rodger burns the family house to the ground, so Eli just smiles and starts up the plane, beginning their adventure. And so it goes from there. Eli cheats and lies to potential clients, sleeps with every available woman, and disappoints his kid on a regular basis. Improbably, the story expands to include Shelby (Pamela Franklin), a stalker who chases Eli from one town to the next until she finally seduces him. None of this stuff makes sense, though the picture sure looks swell. As for the project’s star, Robertson is terrible, playing a cocksure daredevil in one scene, a cowardly swindler in the next, and a vulgar cad at other times. His performance is as discombobulated as the movie itself.

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies: FUNKY

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Candy Tangerine Man (1975)



          The kitschy appeal of this low-budget flick about pimps and gangsters in mid-’70s Los Angeles can be summarized by a line of dialogue from a supporting character: “I can’t sell you no chick, man—that just ain’t croquet! Shee-it!” That torrent of jive encapsulates the film’s questionable portrayal of African-American culture, its casual objectification of women, and its queasy way of finding humor in the gutter of human exploitation. Essentially a low-rent rehash of the cult-favorite pimp movie The Mack (1973), producer-director Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man is unrelentingly derivative, silly, and tacky, but it has a certain so-bad-it’s-good magnetism. After all, it’s hard to truly hate a thriller in which the hero’s classic 1930s car is tricked out with hidden machine-gun turrets.
          The picture opens with scenes showing how “Baron” (John Daniels) runs his empire on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. He intimidates his girls into meeting their quota of tricks per night, he easily defeats thugs who try to rip him off, and he repels gangsters seeking to muscle in on his territory. All the while, he wears natty suits, leather gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat, kicking ass (and peddling ass) in high style. Yet every so often, “Baron” retreats to the suburbs and becomes Ron Lewis, whose wife and kids think a job as a traveling salesman is what keeps him away from home so much. This revelation doesn’t exactly meet the minimum standard for imbuing a character with dimensionality, but at least it’s something. Most of the picture comprises the protagonist’s battles with other pimps and gangsters, as well as the cops who want to bust him, and eventually his long list of enemies expands to include a traitorous hooker. In throwing so many adversaries at the protagonist, however, the filmmakers dilute narrative focus, so The Candy Tangerine Man becomes a blur of “Baron” fighting this enemy and that enemy even as he tries, often in vain, to keep his girls safe. (In the picture’s most gruesome scene, a crook uses a knife to cut the breasts off a hooker.)
          The acting is generally rotten, the cinematography is unattractive, the editing is jumpy, and the production values betray the project’s meager resources. Nonetheless, sleazy energy infuses The Candy Tangerine Man, as when some poor slob gets his hand shoved into a kitchen-sink garbage disposal. (The same gag was employed, much more memorably, in the 1977 William Devane thriller Rolling Thunder.) It’s also worth noting that the picture has persuasive atmosphere thanks to extensive location photography, and, according to the opening credits, supporting performances by “the actual ‘hookers’ and ‘blades’ of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.”

The Candy Tangerine Man: FUNKY

Saturday, September 17, 2016

There’s Always Vanilla (1971)



          Horror-cinema icon George A. Romero’s first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a huge hit proportionate to its miniscule budget, but Romero didn’t take the obvious path of following up with another shocker. Instead, he made a romantic comedy infused with hip counterculture attitude, resulting in the muddled curiosity known as There’s Always Vanilla. Romero was the film’s director, cinematographer, and editor, so his gifts and shortcomings as a storyteller and technician are on full display, though viewers must dig deep to find traces of Romero’s signature themes, since he didn’t originate or write the material. In fact, the only distinctly “Romero” scene is a jarring late-movie sequence with horror-movie affectations. Suffice to say, this bit clashes badly with the rest of the film, and the presence of this discordant note accurately reflects how unfocused There’s Always Vanilla feels from start to finish.
          Set, naturally, in Romero’s longtime home base of Pittsburgh, There’s Always Vanilla concerns twentysomething slacker Chris Bradley (Raymond Lane), who speaks directly to the camera in documentary-style interludes that add little to the experience. Viewers learn that he’s a Vietnam vet disenchanted with Establishment values, that his father runs a successful manufacturing business, and that he knows more about what he doesn’t want to do with his life than what he actually wants to do with his life. Telling stories about passive characters is always difficult, and the team behind this movie didn’t meet the challenge well. Although the main thrust of the picture involves Chris’ romance with model/actress Lynn (Judith Ridley), much of the screen time, inevitably, concerns Chris talking about doing things instead of actually doing them. Whenever he stops philosophizing long enough to take action, he’s either a clown or a self-indulgent jerk. For instance, he talks his way into an ad-agency job, then walks out the minute he’s asked to generate work product.
          Among the film’s myriad narrative problems is indecision. It’s never clear if There’s Always Vanilla is an opposites-attract romance involving a guy with counterculture values and a woman with more conservative ideals, or if it’s a larger statement about the way society bludgeons iconoclasts. Sometimes, the picture is about all of those things, and sometimes it’s about entirely different things, because the script—credited to Rudy Ricci—meanders aimlessly. And then there’s the scene in which Romero falls back on his reliable horror-movie tricks. When Lynn goes to an abortionist, Romero shifts to angular, shadowy camerawork and uses aggressively paced editing to create a disquieting rhythm. It’s a potent scene, but it belongs in another picture. There’s Always Vanilla has some interesting moments, the acting is fairly naturalistic, and every so often, Romero channels his wry sense of humor effectively. Yet this one’s a footnote at best, not only to Romero’s filmography but also to the litany of movies about disaffected ’70s youth.

There’s Always Vanilla: FUNKY

Friday, September 16, 2016

J.C. (1972)



          If you’ve ever felt something was missing from your life because you’ve never seen a biker movie with religious themes, then J.C. is the answer to your prayers. That is, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that beyond its periodic blending of Christian imagery and rebel-cinema iconography, J.C. (sometimes known as The Iron Horsmen) is an inept vanity piece by writer, producer, director, and star William F. McGaha, whose obscurity is entirely deserved. McGaha’s only qualifications for playing a hog-riding messiah appear to be a shaggy beard and some with-it lingo, since he lacks charisma, formidable physicality, and rhetorical style. One gets the sense that if he hadn’t put this picture together, he’d be one of the interchangeable slobs in the background instead of the main focus. Reflecting its auteur’s shortcomings, J.C. is derivative, jumbled, and sluggish. That said, the notion of a savior on a Harley is so peculiar that it’s fascinating to watch J.C. partially to see if it fulfills the promise of the premise, and partially to marvel at the myriad ways McGaha bungles the storytelling. Plus, it’s not as if J.C. totally lacks the pleasing tropes of the biker-movie genre, although these tropes are delivered clumsily and in small doses.
          The picture opens in a city, where hirsute J.C. Masters (McGaha) gets into various hassles because of, you know, society. For instance, he quits a job on a construction crew after the supervisor has the temerity to critique J.C. for smoking dope at the job site instead of working. Also tormenting J.C. are occasional visions of a “giant winking eye” that he perceives as the voice of God. Eventually, J.C. announces to the members of his gang that he’s had a holy vision and wants to spread messages of peace and love. His people dig the idea and agree to accompany J.C. on his journey. However, the journey somehow morphs into a casual trip to J.C.’s hometown in backwoods Alabama, where J.C. reunites with his sister, Miriam (Joanna Moore). The bikers hang out at Miriam’s farm for several days, but the presence among their number of a black man irks the redneck locals. Enter racist Sheriff Grady Caldwell (Slim Pickens) and his vicious deputy, Dan Martin (Burr DeBenning), who vow to run the bikers out of town.
          By now, of course, the plot has devolved into nonsense, since it’s unclear why someone out to spread peace would beeline to the most intolerant place he knows and deliberately antagonize people who already hate him because of youthful transgressions. What’s more, the bikers’ version of “spreading peace” involves trying to rape Miriam, getting into fights with townies, and threatening to tear up the town if the Man gives them any shit. Very late in the picture, McGaha provides a threadbare explanation for the religious stuff, revealing that J.C.’s father was an evangelist who trained his young son as an apprentice, thereby making a mess of the boy’s mind. Or something along those lines.
          J.C. is discombobulated right from the beginning, and it’s also weirdly casual because McGaha’s performance is easygoing to a fault. Still, there are minor compensatory values. In one scene, J.C. introduces the folks on his crew, and their names include Beaver Bud, Beverly Bellbottoms, Dick the Disciple, Happy Von Wheelie, Mr. Clean, and Shirley the Saint. Later, J.C. opines to his sister about how silly it is for adults to use made-up names, justifying the behavior under the general rubric of being “free,” whatever that means. Your guess is as good as mine whether McGaha meant to celebrate or satirize counterculture behavior, but the most interesting moments in J.C. capture . . . something.

J.C.: FREAKY

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)



          This Brazilian fantasy/romance did well on the American arthouse circuit, giving director Bruno Baretto and leading lady Sônia Braga significant international exposure, and for decades afterward, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands reigned as the most successful film in Brazilian box-office history. The movie even got an American remake, although Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)—with Jeff Bridges, James Caan, and Sally Field—took considerable liberties with the storyline. Watching Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands today, it’s hard to guess why folks got so excited about the picture during its original release. American audiences might have been titillated by sexual content, and Brazilian viewers might have connected with the hints of magical realism, a storytelling style that’s always fared better in Central and South America than in the United States. Or maybe everyone just grooved on the risqué premise, because thanks to a supernatural contrivance, the title character has a threesome of sorts. In any event, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is an awkward piece of work, though of course it’s possible something was lost in translation.
          Set in Rio during the 1940s, the picture begins with bon vivant Vadinho (José Wilker) dying suddenly in the midst of a street party. His wife, Dona (Braga), surprises friends and relatives by grieving his loss, seeing as how they all knew Vadinho was irresponsible and unfaithful. The movie then kicks into an excessively long flashback telling the story of the couple’s marriage. Vadinho was a cad, no question, but he helped Dona evolve from a repressed prude to a fully realized sexual being, so her love for his carnal gifts trumped her resentment over being mistreated. Cutting back to the present, the film explores Dona’s impending second marriage to a boring pharmacist, Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça). Just as Dona resigns herself to a quiet life, Vadinho returns as a ghost, and somehow Dona is able to interact with him physically. Hence the title—a supernatural phenomenon allows Dona to enjoy the stability of her second marriage as well as the sexual thrills of her first.
          Setting aside some dodgy gender politics, the big problem with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is that the premise doesn’t manifest until the final act of the film. As such, viewers are left perplexed as to whether Vadinho’s return is “real” or simply a byproduct of Dona’s grief. (The American remake fixed this problem by moving the dead husband’s return much earlier the film.) Another narrative speed bump: Vadinho is such a horrible human being than it’s no fun watching him treat Dona like garbage everywhere except in bed. Nonetheless, Baretto presents the story energetically, and the actors all give highly committed performances, with Braga the standout. While her sexiness commands attention, the depth of her characterization is of greater importance, since she’s believable at every stage of Dona’s strange journey. 

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands: FUNKY

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The UFO Incident (1975)



          Bolstered by the presence of fine actors in the leading roles, The UFO Incident is a peculiar take on a real historical incident. In the early 1960s, New Hampshire residents Barney and Betsy Hill claimed they’d been abducted by aliens, taken aboard a flying saucer for medical examinations, and brainwashed to forget what happened. Memories of the event haunted the couple’s dreams, so they submitted to hypnosis and provided details while a psychiatrist probed their unconscious minds. Reports of the Hills’ alleged abduction earned widespread attention, but because the Hills were unable to provide evidence, some people dismissed the story as a delusion or a hoax while others believed the incident really occurred. This made-for-TV movie tries to service the believers and the doubters simultaneously, and the wishy-washy approach doesn’t quite work.
          Scenes of the Hills experiencing traumatic flashbacks and/or providing testimony are played straight, whereas scenes with re-creations of alien contact have the eerie quality of a horror movie. It’s understandable why the producers included money shots of actors dressed like weird-looking aliens, because a purely journalistic presentation of this material would have been talky and underwhelming. Still, The UFO Incident is basically two very different movies squeezed into one package, with the grounded stuff coming across better than the fanciful vignettes.
          James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons play the Hills, a middle-class interracial couple. They bicker and bond like normal married people, and the filmmakers take pains to present the Hills as rational and thoughtful individuals, the better to lend credence to their reports of an extraordinary experience. Barnard Hughes plays the doctor who questions them under hypnosis. The overarching story of takes place in the “present,” with the Hills acceding to hypnosis only because their collective memories are so disturbingly synchronized—they dream the same impossible dreams. Dramatizations of the UFO event appear in suspenseful flashbacks.
          Executive producer/director Richard A. Colla and his collaborators drill down fairly deep into the Hills’ personalities, especially considering the film’s brief running time, so we learn about Barney’s fear of losing control and Betty’s fear of the unknown. Parsons shines in conversational scenes, conveying a woman of compassion and moral strength, while Jones excels in hypnosis scenes, sometimes breaking down from the strain of recalling otherworldly violation. The FX scenes are the least effective, not only because the actors and filmmakers seem less invested in those sequences but also because the alien costumes and spaceship look cheap. Perhaps The UFO Incident is best described as respectful, since the filmmakers avoid many opportunities to sensationalize the material; at its best, the picture is a matter-of-fact recitation enlivened by humane performances.

The UFO Incident: FUNKY