Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Manipulator (1971)

          It’s hard to decide which image best encapsulates the weirdness of The Manipulator, a thriller with Mickey Rooney as a psychopathic movie professional holding a woman hostage in a warehouse and pretending she’s the star of a movie he’s directing. One contender is the long sequence of Rooney dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, complete with plumed hat and prosthetic nose, while he spews reams of faux-poetic dialogue. Another possibility is the shot of Rooney rocking back and forth in a chair, his eyes bulging in madness, as he screams the lyrics of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Yet perhaps the winner is the scene in which Rooney slathers his face with garish harlot makeup, sweeps his wispy hair into a Caesar style, and minces his way through a verbal affectation so stereotypical it would give Paul Lynde pause. Clearly imagined as a tour de force, The Manipulator instead comes across as a tour de farce.
          It’s not as if Rooney was incapable of good work in the later years of his career, even though his eccentricities often overshadowed the charm that made him one of America’s biggest stars during the 1930s and 1940s; one need only revisit his performance in, say, the TV movie Bill (1981). Yet it seems late-period Rooney needed strong directors to keep him under control, and he’s allowed to run wild in The Manipulator. To be clear, The Manipulator—sometimes known as B.J. Lang Presents—was never destined for greatness. It’s a claustrophobic and far-fetched lark with an inherently repetitive storyline, essentially a one-man show that doesn’t go anywhere.
         Nonetheless, actors live for these kinds of opportunities, since being the primary focus of an entire movie allows for rare levels of multidimensional characterization. Alas, that doesn’t happen here. Rooney’s character is loopy from beginning to end. Plus, to be blunt, playing crazy actually lowers the degree of difficulty for flamboyant performers—any random thing they do is permissible. The challenge in a role like this one is going deep and small, but Rooney does the opposite, despite fleeting moments that convey a peculiar sort of vulnerability.
          In any event, the story is laughably threadbare. We never see B.J. Lang (Rooney) kidnap Carlotta (Luana Anders), and we never learn how he came into possession of a warehouse filled with movie equipment. Myriad scenes comprise tight closeups of Rooney screaming at the camera. Similarly, many scenes feature Fellini-esque dream imagery—naked people dancing, grotesque partygoers participating in orgies, and so on. Unpleasant flourishes juice the images, whether visual (e.g., strobe lights) or aural (e.g., discordant electronic bleeps). Accordingly, the tone is all over the place. Much of The Manipulator is designed to horrify, but some scenes drift into broad comedy, like the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from bit of Rooney doing a Chaplinesque dance within sped-up camerawork. The sum effect is as perplexing as it is wearying. Anders’ nonexistent acting range doesn’t help, and neither does the disappointment of watching the fine actor Kennan Wynn enter and exit the film so briefly and so pointlessly.
          On some level, The Manipulator is fascinating simply because Rooney displays so many wild colors, and there’s a kernel of satirical edge to the premise, which echoes Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). Mostly, however, The Manipulator is 85 minutes of sadism and screaming and strangeness. 

The Manipulator: FREAKY

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Terminal Island (1973)

Squandering a kicky idea with bland execution, Terminal Island has the state of California dumping its convicted murderers onto a remote island to let the killers fend for themselves. (One imagines that John Carpenter must have encountered this movie before conceiving his own convicts-on-an-island opus, 1981’s Escape from New York.) As cowritten and directed by Stephanie Rothman, Terminal Island has moments of violent energy, but the characters are so underwritten and the general demeanor of the movie is so sleazy that it’s hard to care what happens. Among the many important things the picture lacks is a dynamic leading character, which means that secondary characters and villains command attention in a way that makes the story feel aimless and episodic. The movie begins with new convict Carmen (Ena Hartman) arriving on the prison island of San Bruno, 40 miles off the California coast. With male inmates vastly outnumbering females, the women are slaves ruled by cruel boss Bobby (Sean Kenney) and his right-hand man, Monk (Roger E. Mosley). After enduring physical and sexual abuse, Carmen and the women escape to join a rebel faction led by A.J. (Don Marshall). War for control over the island ensues. The plot works well enough in fits and starts, but Rothman stops the movie dead for leering topless scenes and nasty vignettes, such as the bit where a woman places honey on a man’s (offscreen) junk, then whacks a nearby tree to summon a swarm of bees. Ouch. Costar Phyllis Davis brings considerable sexual heat to the movie, and a young Tom Selleck gives a passable performance as a doctor convicted of murder on trumped-up charges. Given the potential of the premise, however, Terminal Island is nowhere near the drive-in delight it should be.

Terminal Island: LAME

Monday, August 22, 2016

1900 (1976)

         While much has been written about American auteurs of the ’70s derailing their careers with overly indulgent projects, the phenomenon was not exclusive to the United States. After notching a major international hit with the controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972), Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci created 1900, a five-hour epic tracking the course of Italian politics from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of World War II. The movie has all the heaviosity and scale it needs, and Bertolucci’s central contrivance—following an aristocrat and a peasant who were born in the same location on the same day—gives the sprawling narrative a pleasing shape. The film’s images are lustrous, with regular Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro applying his signature elegant compositions and painterly lighting, and the film’s music is vibrant, thanks to the contributions of storied composer Ennio Morricone. Beyond that, however, 1900 is frustrating.
          The presence of American, Canadian, and French stars in leading roles diminishes the authenticity of the piece; a subplot about a sociopath becoming a sadistic Axis agent leads to laughably excessive passages of gore and violence; and Bertolucci indulges his sensuous aspect to such an extreme that he comes off like a fetishist obsessed with, of all things, excrement and penises. The movie has too much of everything, eventually devolving into a lumbering procession of strange scenes expressing a trite political message about poor people having morals and rich people being assholes.
          The first stretch of the picture, essentially a lengthy prologue, introduces the grandfathers of the protagonists. Alfredo Berlinghieri the Elder (Burt Lancaster) is the benevolent padrone of an estate, and Leo Dalcò (Sterling Hayden) is a peasant in his employ. Both welcome grandsons on the same day in 1900. The children grow up to be close friends, despite one enjoying privilege and the other doing without. Later the boys become young men. Alfredo (Robert De Niro) has learned from both his humanistic grandfather and his scheming father, so he enjoys crossing class lines while also treasuring power and wealth. Olmo (Gérard Depardieu) is a political firebrand, resentful of the ruling class no matter what face it wears.
          As life pushes the childhood friends apart, they watch Italy split along similar lines, with aristocrats forming the backbone of the Fascist movement while laborers suffer. Personifying the rise of the Fascists is Atilla Mellanchini (Donald Sutherland), whom we first meet as an enforcer helping Alfredo’s father maintain discipline on the estate. Naturally, the movie has a love story, revolving around Alfredo’s relationship with the unhinged Ada Chiostri Polan (Dominique Sanda). After many twists and turns, the story transforms into a politicized morality play as vengeful workers reclaim power from the Fascists.
          Bertolucci and his collaborators present some meaningful insights about important historical events, so the film is strongest when it sticks to polemics. Matters of love, lust, and madness are handled less gracefully. The most extreme scenes involve Atilla performing grotesque acts of violence. Rather than shocking the viewer, these sequences render Atilla so inhuman as to be one-dimensional, which stacks the political deck unfairly. Bertolucci is just as undisciplined with bedroom scenes. It’s quite startling, for instance, to see an actress playing an epileptic hooker manually pleasuring De Niro and Depardieu in full view of the camera. Wouldn’t suggesting the action have communicated the same narrative information? Similarly, do viewers need to see the actors playing the younger versions of the leads examining each other’s genitals? And what’s with the scene of Lancaster stalking a young girl into a barn, asking her to milk a cow because it turns him on, rhapsodizing about life while squishing his feet up and down in pile of feces, and then forcing the poor girl to slide her hand into his pants?
          It’s tempting to believe there’s a clue about the source of the film’s excess during an elaborate wedding scene, because a character presents the gift of a white horse named “Cocaine.” After all, doing too much blow was the creative downfall of many a Hollywood director.
          Whatever the reason, Bertolucci lost control over 1900 as a literary statement fairly early in the movie’s running time. Perhaps no single moment captures the ugly bloat of 1900 better than the harshest Atilla scene. After Atillia rapes a young boy, Bertolucci shows Atilia killing the child, lest a potential witness to his crimes survive. Fair enough. But instead of simply shooting the child, Atilla picks up the boy by his feet, spins him around the room, and repeatedly smashes the boy’s head against a wall until it cracks open like a watermelon. In the twisted aesthetic of Bertolucci’s 19oo, too much is never enough.

1900: FUNKY

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)

          In this serviceable docudrama from Sunn Classic Pictures, the company behind myriad pseudoscience documentaries, a somewhat reasonable case is made that Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth was asked to participate in a conspiracy that originated in Washington D.C., but then took his own initiative to murder President Abraham Lincoln and thereafter became the perfect patsy for the very people who once tried to use him. The Lincoln Conspiracy even goes so far as to suggest that the man whom authorities claimed they shot dead following a manhunt was not Booth, and that witnesses were paid to give false testimony about Booth’s activities as a means of making the whole affair go away. As with most conspiracy theories, the problem is a lack of conclusive proof. Although various assertions are persuasive, viable counter-arguments abound.
          Comprising dramatic scenes and historical re-enactments, The Lincoln Conspiracy begins at the end of the tale, with the execution of Booth’s historically documented accomplices. Then, with the rich tones of Brad Crandall’s narration leading the way, the film flashes back to vignettes explaining how Booth and his Southern cronies made plans that ran parallel with the scheming of Northern politicians, who wanted Lincoln neutralized for their own reasons. Chief among those reasons was the fear of Southern politicians reclaiming their stature in the U.S. Congress. It all makes a certain kind of sense, and yet at the same time it all seems like malarkey, so The Lincoln Conspiracy fits the Sunn Classic brand of enjoyably irresponsible provocation.
          Bradford Dillman gives a pleasantly campy performance as Booth, while costar John Dehner lends cartoonish gravitas to the role of northern conspirator Col. Lafayette C. Baker. Playing Lincoln in a few inconsequential scenes is avuncular John Anderson. There’s a bit of derring-do every so often, such as a chase scene or a gunfight, but most of the picture comprises people talking in rooms. The filmmakers explain machinations and motivations well, so it’s easy to follow along—perhaps too easy, seeing as how much of the narrative is spoon-fed. Furthermore, it’s peculiar that the filmmakers avoided depicting key moments of the narrative, such as Booth’s infamous leap from Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre to the stage. In any event, The Lincoln Conspiracy is fun to watch, whether you consume it as sensationalist silliness or troubling agitprop, because the folks at Sunn Classic were experts at exploiting viewers’ fascination with the unknown. 

The Lincoln Conspiracy: FUNKY

Saturday, August 20, 2016

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (1979)

          While the prospect of a Marjoe Gortner vanity project may not sound enticing, seeing as how the preacher-turned-actor spent most of the ’70s appearing in rotten B-movies, Gortner’s participation as leading man and producer of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is deceptive. He’s all over the flick, playing a showy part and spewing crazed monologues, but he’s better here than usual, striving for and almost achieving charming-devil lyricism. More importantly, he shares the screen gracefully. Nonetheless, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is an odd movie. Adapted by Mark Medoff from his own award-winning play, it’s part character study, part social commentary, and part hostage-crisis thriller. The disparate elements clash with each other, sometimes creating narrative whiplash, and Englishman Peter Firth is wildly miscast in role patterned after the Marlon Brando/James Dean style of rural American greasers. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? ultimately rewards attention—thanks to an abundance of action, occasional shots of pathos, and some strong acting moments—but it’s neither credible nor satisfying.
          Most of the picture takes place at a tiny diner in New Mexico, where several characters converge on a fateful day. Angel (Stephanie Faracy) is the simple-minded waitress, and Stephen “Red” Ryder (Firth) is the angst-ridden night cook. Traveling through town are classical musician Clarisse Ethridge (Lee Grant) and her manager/husband, Richard (Hal Linden). And then there’s Vietnam vet-turned-drug dealer Teddy (Gortner) and his hippie-chick girlfriend, Cheryl (Candy Clark). Desperate for cash and drunk on exerting power over people simply because he has a gun, Teddy takes everyone in the diner hostage and forces them to do humiliating things (e.g., making out with each other, etc.). Drama stems from character revelations that occur under pressure, as well as the question of how much crap the hostages can endure before fighting back. Because the story is set in 1968, there’s also a trope of counterculture-vs.-Establishment friction, which never quite clicks.
          Particularly when the story veers into full-on action/suspense terrain, it’s difficult to parse what sort of a statement Madoff wants to make. In lieu of thematic clarity, viewers get spectacle, mostly in the form of Gortner holding forth. While he doesn’t embarrass himself, a dramatic powerhouse he is not, so the film’s wings carry it only so high. Of the supporting players, Faracy makes the strongest impression, hitting her notes just right, even though she spends most of her screen time with Firth, whose performance is distractingly false—he seems as if he’s reading each line for the first time and struggling to replicate American idioms. 

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?: FUNKY

Friday, August 19, 2016

Stanley (1972)

          A reptilian riff on the 1971 shocker Willard, which concerned a demented boy who commands an army of rats, Stanley concerns a demented adult who commands an army of snakes. Although the movie goes slack at regular intervals, resulting in an overlong running time, Stanley offers just enough in the way of creepy-crawly moments and outright gruesomeness to sustain casual interest. The picture also benefits from a weirdly compelling performance by leading man Chris Robinson, later a fixture on American soap operas. While his acting isn’t especially charismatic or skillful, he’s just competent enough to sell the illusion of being more comfortable around snakes than people, and that’s the most important thing the makers of Stanley needed to put their grim little story over. While some of the creature scenes underwhelm, like the bit during which a bad guy dives into a pool filled with snakes that look harmless, Stanley doesn’t want for money shots of rattlers clamping their jaws onto victims’ bodies.
          Set in rural Florida, the picture follows the exploits of Tim Ochopee (Robinson), a Vietnam vet who makes his living capturing rattlers and selling their venom to a local doctor. Tim treats the snakes like friends, especially his beloved Stanley, for whom Tim provides a mate. (The pitter-patter of little scales soon follows.) The villain of the piece is Thomkins (Alex Rocco), a local businessman whom, Tim suspects, had Tim’s father killed. Thomkins is a piece of work, groping his teenage daughter and threatening to turn every snake he encounters into a belt. Also in the mix is Sidney (Ray Baumel), the proprietor of a local strip club, and his wife, aging exotic dancer Gloria (Marcie Knight). They use snakes that Stanley provides in Gloria’s act. As the story progresses, Tim’s world falls apart. Sidney tells Gloria to start killing snakes during her act, and Thomkins orders a hit on Tim and his pets. Tim fights back against his various enemies, using his friends’ fangs as weapons. Despite lackadaisical pacing, the plot builds nicely, and the final moments are morbidly satisfying. One more thing: Good luck forgetting the scene where Tim serves a formal dinner to his scaly pals, because the entrée is mice under glass.

Stanley: FUNKY

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Run, Cougar, Run (1972)

          A live-action nature adventure from Walt Disney Productions that delivers exactly what the title promises, Run, Cougar, Run benefits from extensive photography of real animals in real locations. Moreover, like the best Disney pictures about the natural world, Run, Cougar, Run doesn’t shy away from brutal aspects of survival in the outdoors. Death informs nearly every scene, since the title character, a mountain lion roaming through the rugged landscapes of Utah’s Arches National Park, spends most of her time either killing prey to feed her three kittens or evading the deadly rifles of sportsmen who want her hide. Sure, there’s the usual cutesy stuff, such as a sequence of a kitten unwisely licking the hide of a toad that excretes a repellent fluid from its skin, and the affable narration, spoken by Ian Tyson, coats everything in a warm glow. Nonetheless, for viewers who adjust their expectations appropriately, Run, Cougar, Run provides an hour and a half of undemanding entertainment as well as a wholesome message about leaving wild animals alone. Lest this message get lost, the theme song is called “Let Her Alone.” (Performing the tune is Ian & Sylvia, the Canadian folk duo comprising Tyson and his first wife.)
          To keep things moving along, the filmmakers weave a proper story into the critter footage. Etio (Alfonso Arau) is a kindly Mexican sheepherder who tends his flock near the wilderness that mountain lions call home. He’s named a female lion “Seeta,” and whenever she comes near his herd, he picks up his guitar and sings. Instead of attacking the sheep, Seeta grooves on the music before departing. Into this idyllic situation comes Hugh (Stuart Whitman), a professional hunter. Paid by two weekend-warrior types to find easy targets, Hugh identifies Seeta and her mate as potential victims. Despite Etio’s protests, Hugh leads a hunt that ends with the death of Seeta’s mate, so the rest of the picture depicts her struggle to survive the hardships of single parenting and the perils of the hunters. Everything is handled quite gently, of course, and Arau’s easygoing character makes for a pleasant throughline—when he croons, it’s like watching a Latino Jim Croce perform, what with the bushy hair and thick moustache. Run, Cougar, Run is far-fetched, predictable, and tame, but aren’t those exactly the qualities one expects from Disney’s brand of family-friendly comfort food?

Run, Cougar, Run: FUNKY

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bad Ronald (1974)

         Despite the absurdity of its premise, the made-for-TV thriller Bad Ronald is enjoyably creepy. According to the kooky logic of the film’s plot, it’s possible for a family to purchase and move into a house without noticing that someone’s living in a hidden alcove—because, apparently, the unseen squatter generates neither sounds nor smells that arouse suspicion. Whatever. The name of the game here is cheap thrills. In that regard, Bad Ronald achieves its goals well enough. Young Scott Jacoby, who built a minor career in features and TV projects from the late ’60s to the early ’90s, is suitably otherworldly as the title character, a mama’s boy in the Norman Bates tradition, and versatile director Buzz Kulik infuses ridiculous scenes with as much emotional reality as he can conjure. The actors comprising the solid supporting cast, including Dabney Coleman, Lisa Eilbacher, Kim Hunter, and Pippa Scott, hit their respective notes adequately, and, in a counter-intuitive way, the sheer improbability of the project works in its favor. Bad Ronald is so far-fetched that after the viewer gets over the weirdness of early scenes, a generalized acceptance for bullshit settles in, allowing the viewer to go along for the ride.
         At the beginning of the picture, middle-aged Elaine Wilby (Hunter) lives alone with her bizarre teenaged son, Ronald (Jacoby). He accidentally kills someone and runs home to Mom for help. She supervises the conversion of a pantry into a hiding place, and then she stocks it with supplies. This ruse works for a while, even though cops sniff around the house, suspecting Ronald of committing the murder. Then Elaine dies, so her house goes on the market. Enter the Wood family. They move in totally unaware of Ronald’s presence, even though he sneaks out from his hiding place at night, eventually fixating on the Wood family’s eldest daughter, Ellen (Eilbacher). And so it goes from there. To their credit, everyone in the cast plays this outlandish material straight, and several scenes tap into the universal fears of home invasion and voyeurism. Additionally, the trope of Ronald building a fantasy world through drawings he makes on the walls of his tiny room serve as a metaphor representing his delusional state.

Bad Ronald: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)

          The individual born George William Jorgensen Jr. achieved international notoriety in 1951, when headlines revealed surgery had transformed George into Christine Jorgensen. Yet while Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) echoes Jorgensen’s circumstances, it took almost 20 years for Hollywood to tackle the tale properly. Seen today, The Christine Jorgensen story is almost impossibly square, with contrived story elements and hokey narrative flourishes. The movie is respectful inasmuch as Christine is the brave heroine, but questionable otherwise. Still, even a somewhat serious exploration of the trans experience was groundbreaking for a major-studio release in 1970.
          The movie’s early scenes concern 7-year-old George in 1933, and director Irving Rapper stacks on the signifiers. George is fascinated with dolls. He doesn’t like football because it’s “too rough.” He puts on his sister’s clothes and uses his mother’s makeup. All the while, Dear Old Dad tries to get George to man up, while Long-Suffering Mom wonders how George will ever be happy. Especially with simplistic narration by the post-surgical Christine leading the way, the childhood scenes are schematic in the extreme. Things take a turn for the histrionic once the film introduces grown-up George (played by newcomer John Hansen). During his time in the Army, he’s pilloried for being effeminate, and a hooker taunts him when he refuses her advances. Becoming a fashion photographer, George suffers further abuse, and he violently repels a rape attempt by a male boss. Eventually, George learns of a doctor in Copenhagen who can help.
          Preceding the surgery scene is a blunt vignette of the doctor explaining what will happen, complete with charts, and a comically overwrought dream sequence that, the voiceover explains, illustrates how George must die so someone new can be born. Once Christine emerges, she’s so ultra-feminine that she frets about everything and gets embroiled in a Douglas Sirk-style love story. (This romance, between Christine and the journalist tasked with writing her love story, never happened in real life.) Pushing everything along is a ridiculous musical score that would have worked better for a 1940s horror movie, because in The Christine Jorgensen Story, emotions run the gamut from the operatic to the even more operatic.
          Hansen’s cornball performance sets the tone. In the pre-surgery scenes, he’s an emotional wreck whenever he isn’t a mincing shutterbug, and in the post-surgery scenes, he’s an emotional wreck whenever he isn’t a world-weary recluse. The movie accurately identifies a random distribution of hormones as the reason for Christine’s challenges, so The Christine Jorgensen Story gets points for correctly stating that nothing was ever wrong with Christine. Nonetheless, The Christine Jorgensen Story shares problems with the more recent The Danish Girl (2015). Like that film, The Christine Jorgensen Story treats its protagonist as some delicate flower too good for the world around her.

The Christine Jorgensen Story: FUNKY

Monday, August 15, 2016

Alex & the Gypsy (1976)

          Eccentric, literary, and unpredictable, Alex & the Gypsy has all the makings of a minor classic from the New Hollywood era. The filmmaking is naturalistic but slick, the performances are vivid, and the romantic storyline crosses cultural boundaries by putting a caustic everyman together with a reckless young woman from the fringes of society. The dialogue sparks at regular intervals, and the love scenes are bracing without being explicit, because where else can one encounter Jack Lemmon acting peeved because Geneviève Bujold isn’t sufficiently responsive to his labors during oral sex? For that matter, where else can one encounter a young James Woods dressed like a modern-day Bob Cratchit because his employer enjoys irony? Alex & the Gypsy has attitude and style and wit for days. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a credible story or even consistent characterizations. The picture tries a lot of admirable things but fails at many of them.
          Alex Main (Lemmon) is a low-rent bail bondsman in Los Angeles, and his only employee is accountant/gofer Crainpool (Woods). Alex learns that Maritza (Bujold) has been arrested for attempted murder. As we learn in flashbacks that are awkwardly interspersed throughout the movie, Alex and Maritza used to live together. He met her under ridiculous circumstances, fell under her exotic spell, and suffered a broken heart when she skipped out on him. Now he’s reluctant to provide bail services, even though he still carries a torch. Sap that he is, he bails her out. The story of the movie comprises Alex’s seriocomic attempts to keep Maritza captive until her hearing, plus his efforts to gather evidence that might clear her.
          As directed by John Korty, a skillful maker of documentaries and TV movies whose theatrical features are usually disappointments, Alex & the Gypsy has great moments. A typically colorful scene involves Maritza reading palms at a Greek picnic, or Alex lulling himself to sleep with blinking traffic lights be bought at a police auction because they remind him of fireflies. Lemmon is wonderfully cranky here, balancing a hot temper with vulnerability, and Woods makes a terrific foil. Bujold, like her character, is the wild card. Obviously miscast (she’s French-Canadian), the unique actress renders a tough sort of sensuality, striving valiantly to make sense of a poorly conceived role.
           Yet it’s the script that undermines the best efforts of everyone involved. Behavior and motivations make little sense, and the structural game of jumping between flashbacks and the present creates confusion without delivering compensatory benefits. Still, this is a strange little movie for a major star and a major studio to have made, so even if it’s not a proper New Hollywood artifact, it’s an example of the New Hollywood’s influence. Mainstream movies soon left this sort of adventurousness behind.

Alex & the Gypsy: FUNKY

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Zodiac Killer (1971)

          Thrown together quickly as a means of exploiting public interest in the gruesome exploits of a real-life serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco area during the late ’60s and early ’70s, this low-budget flick puts forth a wholly fabricated theory of the murderer’s identity, even telling much of the story from his perspective. According to this movie, the man known as “Zodiac” is actually Jerry, a postman with psychological problems. He feels greater connections to his pets than he does to people; he worships at a shrine where he communicates with his “followers,” who are really just voices in his head; and he treats murder like a hobby. Some of this material works, but the acting, production values, and storytelling are all lackluster. (Leading man Hal Reed has some okay moments blending boy-next-door charm with sadistic menace, but his characterization is cartoonish overall.) Notwithstanding the circumstances of certain crimes, the main thing the filmmakers took from the M.O. of the real Zodiac is vanity, since the real Zodiac loved taking credit for his crimes. The movie Zodiac gets off on dropping clues about his identity, exults in stumping cops, and rages whenever someone else gets publicity for his murders.
          In the picture’s best scene, Jerry chats with a bartender who obnoxiously proclaims that he’d know a killer if he saw one, even as Jerry draws the famous Zodiac symbol in salt on the bar. After Jerry leaves, the bartender wipes away the symbol without noticing. Alas, more typical of The Zodiac Killer are long scenes concerning Jerry’s neighbor, a horny trucker who pretends to be an executive so he can score with chicks. Had the makers of The Zodiac Killer taken a docudrama approach and simply put known events onscreen, this picture might have been an interesting curio. Instead, they opted for ridiculous scenes like the finale, during which Jerry pushes an aging invalid’s hospital bed down a steep hill, cackling as the fellow tumbles to his death. In some ways, this is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill gorefest—but the glimmers of reality that permeate the movie by dint of the subject matter make The Zodiac Killer moderately interesting.

The Zodiac Killer: FUNKY

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Death Drug (1978)

Contrived, pedantic, and uptight, Death Drug is such a squaresville morality tale about the dangers of controlled substances that it’s almost a cousin to the infamous Reefer Madness (1936). In Death Drug, a promising young musician with a loving wife and a steady day job spirals downward while becoming addicted to angel dust, so the story moves inexorably toward a heavy-handed finale. According to the folks who made Death Drug, all it takes is one puff of dope to turn an otherwise responsible citizen into a self-destructive maniac. Not helping matters is the presence of leading man Philip Michael Thomas. Later to achieve fame as the costar of the seminal ’80s TV series Miami Vice, Thomas has the unfortunate affliction of being a weak actor who somehow believes he’s a genius. His swagger is so out of step with his unconvincing performance that he’s absurd to watch, especially when he mimics the wigged-out state of a user experiencing traumatic hallucinations. The film itself is just as ridiculously blunt, depicting said hallucinations literally, as in crocodiles and rats and such appearing from nowhere. As for the plot, a sentence will suffice. Jesse (Thomas) works as a plumber while pursuing his career as a musician, but when he gets introduced to dope with the promise that it will stimulate his creativity, he loses his job and alienates his long-suffering wife, Carolyn (Vernee Watson-Johnson). He also performs in a disco with the Gap Band, so there’s that. More interesting than Death Drug itself is the film’s weird home-video incarnation. Released to capitalize on Thomas’ fleeting Miami Vice fame, the home-video version has a pretentious introduction from Thomas, some revamped editing, and, jammed right into the middle of the movie, the entire music video for Thomas’ awful 1985 single “Just the Way I Planned It.” That bit is almost as cringeworthy as Thomas’ big dramatic scene in Death Drug, when he confronts his estranged father with a barrage of screaming and tears.

Death Drug: LAME

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Iceman Cometh (1973)

         Whereas most of the esoteric movies released under the American Film Theatre banner in the early ‘70s were adaptations of then-contemporary plays, this sprawling production puts a 1946 Eugene O’Neill drama onscreen. In some ways, this is a monumental film, because veteran director John Frankenheimer steers an excellent cast comprising several significant Hollywood players. Moreover, while the sets are simple, Frankenheimer shoots scenes as if he’s making a big-budget feature, cleverly employing deep-focus camerawork and shadowy lighting to provide dimensionality and nuance. Excepting the way an unusually long running time makes viewers hyper-conscious that all the action takes place in one location, The Iceman Cometh bears none of the usual signs marking a pennywise stage-to-screen adaptation. However, that running time must dominate any discussion of the picture, since The Iceman Cometh is four hours long, with two intermissions providing respites along the way.
           Amazingly, even this sprawling duration doesn’t include all of O’Neill’s original text, which raises the question of why Frankenheimer and his collaborators didn’t cut even deeper. It’s easy to envision a more condensed version of this same project having even more impact, what with its abundance of fine acting and the innate value of O’Neill’s poetic monologues and tragic themes.
          Set in a New York City bar circa 1912, the story revolves around a gaggle of lost souls who drink themselves into oblivion rather than facing the hopelessness of their everyday lives. On one particular day, the barflies await the arrival of traveling salesman Hickey (Marvin), a bon vivant who enlivens the place with annual visits. Before his entrance, the story introduces several sad characters. Most prominent is Larry (Robert Ryan), an aging political radical now resigned to the inevitable approach of death. Despite his unkempt hair and scraggly whiskers, he comes across as the unsentimental intellectual of the group. Others making their presence known include the bar’s proprietor, Harry (Fredric March), who speaks with a thick Irish brogue; Rocky (Tom Pedi), the rotund bartender who moonlights as a pimp; and Don (Jeff Bridges), a young man whose activist mother was recently thrown in jail, leading him to seek aid from her onetime colleague Larry. By the time Hickey arrives, it’s clear that everyone is mired in some horrific personal crisis. They need the solace of their let-the-good-times-roll friend.
          No such luck.
          Things seem off the minute Hickey walks through the door, and he soon reveals that his wife died. What’s more, he’s adopted a callous new philosophy. In monologue after monologue, Hickey explains that his friends’ “pipe dreams” are merely distractions from the grim reality of life, and should be abandoned. In essence, he’s traded optimism for nihilism and become an evangelist for his new belief system. Revelations ensue, leading to a new tragedy and then, inevitably, to Larry’s painful epiphanies—as the deepest thinker in the group, his reaction to Hickey’s depressing spectacle speaks for the anguish buried inside the hearts of everyone at the bar.
          Setting aside questions of the literary worth—critics and scholars have spent decades debating where The Iceman Cometh belongs in its author’s canon—the film abounds with meritorious elements. Drawing on his experience staging dramas for live television, Frankenheimer uses his camera masterfully, sometimes juxtaposing two characters in tight frames and sometimes defining group dynamics with meticulous tableaux. He also  moves the camera well, especially when he underscores key moments with subtle push-ins.
          The acting is just as skillful. Some performers, including Bridges and March, essay supporting roles with intensity and specificity, providing just the right colors to fill out the painting. Marvin, whom one might expect to be the standout given his flamboyant role and top billing, is good but perhaps not great, playing scenes with exquisite dexterity even though he never quite achieves the desired level of revelation and vulnerability. So it’s Ryan, surprisingly, who provides the soul of the piece. Once maligned as a wooden he-man, he revealed interesting dimensions in his later work, often imbuing villainous roles with cruelty and cynicism. Here, he’s a broken man desperately seeking reasons to put himself back together, then despairing when he can’t find any.

The Iceman Cometh: GROOVY

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

          It’s a rare privilege to discuss existential considerations in the context of an action movie, but that’s exactly why the Hong Kong production The 36th Chamber of Shaolin won a place in the pantheon of martial-arts cinema. The picture has some exciting passages of violent action, and the basic plot takes the familiar shape of a revenge saga, but the storyline also explores notions of dignity and harmony and transcendence. Viewers accustomed to Hollywood’s treatment of martial arts, which often reduce ancient tradition to cutesy “wax on, wax off” slogans, will find something new here. It’s no accident that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has a significant cult following that even stretches into the world of hiphop—members of the iconic rap act Wu-Tang Clan, including Quentin Tarantino collaborator RZA, have cited this movie as a touchstone.
          Set in feudal China, the story follows a young man named Liu Yude (Liu Chia-Hui). He’s a student at a martial-arts academy run by a teacher who agitates against the oppressive Manchu government. When government operatives including a corrupt enforcer invade the school, murdering the teacher and several students, Liu escapes but vows revenge. Determined to increase his martial-arts skills, he makes a harrowing journey to the remote Shaolin temple, where monks are rumored to have perfected almost superhuman fighting abilities. Demonstrating humility and perseverance, Liu eventually wins entry to the Temple and is renamed San Te. (There really was a Shaolin monk named San Te, and the movie’s storyline, though wildly fictionalized, was inspired by his life.)
          The moment Liu becomes San is also the moment when The 36th Chamber of Shaolin becomes truly interesting. Fitting the Buddhist principles of patience and serenity, the movie shifts gears from a violent adventure tale to a methodical exploration of personal growth through grueling physical training. Even the simple task of walking from living quarters to the temple’s dining hall is a pivotal test, because the monks install a moat between the two locations and fill it with tethered logs, so acolytes must learn to center themselves in order to glide over the obstacles. San proves his mettle by discovering a new way of moving across the logs, inspiring his teachers and fellow students alike. Then San begins his journey through the 35 chambers of the temple, each of which indoctrinates students in a different martial-arts skill. Some of the chamber sequences are mesmerizing, because the training combines elements of combat, dance, resistance, and other physical disciplines, sharpening everything from eye/hand coordination to mental focus to muscle tissue. Once San completes the 35th chamber and receives an invitation to teach at the temple, he has spent years transforming himself from a headstrong youth to an impressive adult.
          What keeps these sequences from seeming episodic is the revenge angle. Through each challenge and trial, we know the protagonist is focused on a singular goal. Hence the 36th chamber of the title, a proposed expansion of the temple’s influence by teaching Shaolin martial arts to outsiders—and hence the film’s exciting final act, San’s adventure outside the temple. Elevated by Chen Yung-Yu’s rousing score and expertly filmed by director Liu Chia-Liang, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is an action film that periodically approaches the level of poetry, even though it has one foot planted in spirituality and the other in violence. The picture was followed by two sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber (1980) and Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985), though neither is as highly regarded as the original.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: GROOVY

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tower of Evil (1972)

          Alternately titled Horror on Snape Island, this lurid UK/US coproduction has a little bit of everything, at least as far as sensationalistic elements go. There’s an abundance of sex and violence, and the story involves ancient artifacts, knife-wielding murderers, provincial weirdos, psychotherapy, a religious cult, romantic melodrama, and normal people driven to psychotic extremes. Given the jam-packed narrative, events unfurl at such a rapid pace that one scene comprises nothing but shots of people plunging knives into victims intercut with shots of a woman screaming. Tower of Evil may not be the most coherent or logical picture, but it has lots of flash.
          The film starts frantically. Fishermen arrive at a remote island, walk onto the rocky shore, and discover the nude, dismembered bodies of several young people. Then a beautiful girl named Penelope (Candace Glendenning), who, naturally, is also naked, rushes at them with a knife and kills one of the fishermen. Thereafter, she’s thrown in a psych ward and treated while police and shrinks try to determine whether she was responsible for killing the other folks on the island. The film depicts Penelope’s prior experiences in flashback, while simultaneously dramatizing the exploits of a second group of pretty young people on the same island. They’re after archeological treasures, and much excitement ensues from the unearthing of a Phoenecian spear. Crusty sailors native to the area surrounding the island are involved, as well. In a word, scattershot.
          Narrative chaos notwithstanding, Tower of Evil is a slick piece of work. The images are colorful and polished, the acting is decent, and the ladies are sexy, particularly starlet Anna Palk. Because Tower of Evil is supposed to be a horror flick, however, it must be said that the movie isn’t particularly scary. Worse, the way everything comes together at the end is ridiculous and unsatisfying, though expecting more from this shameless picture would have been unrealistic. Lest we forget, Tower of Evil aims so low that one transition involves cutting from Penelope leaning her head out of frame so she can fellate her boyfriend to a shot of her screaming in the psych ward.
          That’s Tower of Evil in a nutshell: If all else fails, let the screaming start.

Tower of Evil: FUNKY

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Maidstone (1970)

          During his lifetime, it often seemed as if no one was as invested in burnishing Norman Mailer’s literary-lion reputation than Mailer himself. In between crafting major books and taking bold political stands, he played the provocateur with public appearances distinguished by obnoxious self-aggrandizement and sometimes shockingly offensive repudiations of others. The notion seemed to be that it was Norman’s world, and the rest of us were lucky to play supporting roles. And that’s roughly the context for Maidstone, the last in a trio of grungy independent movies that Mailer wrote and directed from 1968 to 1970. (Nearly two decades later, he made the more conventional Tough Guys Don’t Dance, one of 1987’s biggest flops.) Maidstone is a textbook example of creative indulgence, a home movie with famous participants and lofty ambitions. In its ramshackle way, the picture tells the story of Norman T. Kingsley, a controversial filmmaker who runs for U.S. president even as he casts his latest opus. Much of the picture comprises clashes between Norman (played by Mailer himself) and his tempestuous brother, Raoul (Rip Torn). Their conflict climaxes in a brawl that was reportedly improvised, with the real-life Torn smacking his frenemy’s head with a hammer and drawing blood. With all due respect, one can’t blame him for lashing out, because Mailer’s self-important bloviating is as tiresome as his shapeless filmmaking.
          Shot entirely at a posh country estate in the Northeast, the movie comprises scenes of Mailer/Kingsley boasting that he’s about to reinvent cinema (his new project is “an attack on the nature of reality”), coupled with scenes of Mailer/Kingsley cataloguing the nation’s political ills. Somehow important to expressing these themes are myriad shots of topless women, plus dull vignettes of young ladies making out with Mailer and/or Torn. In one scene, Mailer/Kingsley uses clichéd “jive” talk while communicating with a black actress; in another, several characters wander across a field while the soundtrack comprises nothing but a woman moaning in sexual pleasure. True students of Mailer’s work might find resonant tropes here, and Maidstone unquestionably captures something about the experimental artistry of its historical moment. Nonetheless, while Mailer likely thought himself the most interesting man in the world, Maidstone proves he was not.

Maidstone: LAME

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Different Story (1978)

This highly problematic rom-com offers a textbook example of how iffy politics can derail a movie that shouldn’t have been political in the first place. The story of a gay man and a lesbian becoming a straight couple, A Different Story has the unintended effect of marginalizing homosexuality as a phase some young people pass through on the way to adulthood. To describe that implication as repulsive is to make a gross understatement. Yet nothing about A Different Story feels didactic or mean-spirited, so one fears the filmmakers were simply ignorant of the statement they were making. In some ways, that’s worse than deliberately belittling an entire class of people. Anyway, it’s not as if there’s a great movie buried inside A Different Story, and that all one need do is detach from political correctness long enough to enjoy the story. Even setting aside its treatment of human sexuality, A Different Story is mediocre at best. The characterizations are clichéd and superficial; the storytelling is choppy, with some scenes drifting off into nothing; and the plot is as hackneyed as bad episode of a sitcom. After kept boy Albert (Perry King) gets dumped by his wealthy lover, his casual friend Stella (Meg Foster) says he can crash on her couch. He cooks fancy meals and tidies the place, so she extends her hospitality. Discovering that Albert has immigration issues (he’s a Belgian national), Stella suggests a green-card marriage. They wed. Later, they sleep together, thinking it a one-time event until Stella learns she’s pregnant. She dumps her on-again/off-again girlfriend, and then Albert and Stella fall into the bickering rhythms of a generic movie marriage. He spends too much time at the office! She’s stuck at home all day with the baby! Yawn. Foster and King render professional but undistinguished work, while director Paul Aaron orchestrates the whole middling affair in similarly bland fashion. It’s all so enervated and false that the only quirky thing in the picture is a sidecar motorcycle.

A Different Story: LAME

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Swept Away (1974)

          On a surface level, Swept Away (or, as the longer formal title goes, Swept Away . . . by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August) is likely the most accessible film that politically charged Italian director Lina Wertmüller ever made. The plot is simple, and the polemics are easy to unpack because most of the film comprises arguments between the same two characters, one of whom represents capitalism and the other communism. Yet in some ways, Swept Away is as challenging and problematic as Wertmüller’s other work. The movie is way too long, with lots of screen time chewed up by repetitive screaming matches, and the gender politics are a hot mess. At one point, the male protagonist exclaims, “Bitch, you’re more beautiful when I hit you.” Even worse, a man successfully woos the female antagonist by raping her. Let it never be said that male filmmakers have a monopoly on demeaning iconography.
          Set in and around a rocky island in the Mediterranean, the story begins with a small yacht cruising through perfect waters for a relaxing getaway. The trip was commissioned by Pavone (Riccardo Salvino), whose wife, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), is a narcissistic harpy. Lean and tan, with a shapely figure and bleach-blonde hair, she’s glamorous but insufferable, perpetually complaining about the servants on the yacht. Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) receives most of her invective. A proud communist, he perceives Raffaella as the epitome of ugly elitism. One day, she rises late and demands that Gennarino take her to a swimming cove in a small dinghy. Predictably, they’re separated from the yacht, tossed about by a storm, and stranded on an island. Circumstances allow Gennarino to change his social status by demanding that Raffaella serve him. Her screechy resistance hardens his resolve, illustrating how repression foments rebellion, until he becomes as great a monster as his companion. He beats Raffaella, taunts her diminished position, and finally rapes her.
          All of this is as unpleasant to watch as it sounds, even though the cinematography is quite beautiful, as are the locations. Also keeping Swept Away basically tolerable are flashes of humor. Yet Swept Away is far too cruel to click as a battle-of-the-sexes farce. After all, both major characters are horrible people. This makes it nearly impossible to care what happens to them, thereby sapping energy from Wertmüller’s twisted attempt at a love story. Swept Away is interesting from a political perspective, not so much from a human perspective. Nonetheless, frequent Wertmüller leading man Giannini sells his outlandish role with charisma and intensity. Nearly three decades later, pop singer and occasional actress Madonna remade this movie with her then-husband, director Guy Ritchie. Even with Giannini’s son, Adriano, assuming his father’s old role, Swept Away (2002) bombed.

Swept Away: FUNKY

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Trapped (1973)

          Generic but mildly enjoyable, this made-for-TV thriller explores the threadbare premise of a man getting stuck inside a department store and battling vicious Dobermans that a security company unleashes inside the store overnight. A few scenes comprise vapid melodrama about the man’s relationship with his young daughter and his embittered ex-wife, but most of the screen time features star James Brolin either running from dogs, using makeshift weapons to push the animals away, or extricating himself from close encounters. Here’s the setup, such as it is. Chuck (Brolin) meets his ex, Elaine (Susan Clark), and their preteen daughter, Carrie (Tammy Harrington), in a department store so Chuck can purchase Carrie a going-away gift, because Elaine and her new husband, David Moore (Earl Holliman), are about to move overseas. They’re taking Carrie with them, much to Chuck’s chagrin. Old resentments spark an argument, with Carrie caught in the middle, and the fight ends with a promise to reconvene at the airport for a more civil goodbye. Chuck lingers at the store to await the delivery of an out-of-stock toy, but he gets mugged in the men’s room, so he’s unconscious at closing time. While he’s out, dogs are set loose.
          Thereafter, the movie cuts between canine-suspense sequences and vignettes of Carrie moping about her missing dad. Nice guy David insists on tracking Chuck down, lest Carrie blame him for her father’s absence. Decent movies have arisen from material this simplistic, but Trapped (sometimes known as Doberman Patrol) still manages to underwhelm. The script is hackneyed and the acting is serviceable. Brolin, for instance, evidences his usual shortcomings. In conversational scenes, he’s enjoyably charming and macho, but whenever he tries for a big emotional display, his facial expressions turn cartoonish. Holliman is characteristically vapid, while Clark’s likable grit isn’t enough to significantly move the quality-control needle. As for the dog action, it’s okay. Seeing big animals perform simple stunts lacks novelty, and the money-shot scenes—Brolin fending Dobermans off with a handmade torch, a nasty-looking dog climbing along a thin railing to chase Brolin, and so on—pale in comparison to similar moments in bigger-budgeted productions.

Trapped: FUNKY