Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thank You!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a quick hello to recent contributors Jeffrey R., Paul M., Richard W., Tresha H., and William E. (As always, last names and geographical info have been withheld to spare these kindhearted folks from receiving troll solicitations.) Donations of any size are helpful to keeping Every ’70s Movie groovy, so thanks to these generous readers, and thanks in advance to any others who are able to help.

Grave of the Vampire (1972)

Enervated horror flick Grave of the Vampire has a solid premise and at least one memorably perverse scene, but the combination of lifeless dramaturgy and stiff acting renders the piece impotent. Here’s the premise. When two lovers sneak into a cemetery one evening, they happen upon the crypt of Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki), a rapist and murderer who rises from the dead because he’s actually an ancient vampire. (Never mind that he was electrocuted and buried, and never mind that his resurrection defies even the sketchy logic of monster movies.) Caleb rapes the woman, who subsequently gives birth to a child that she raises by nursing him with blood instead of milk. When the child reaches adulthood as James Eastman (William Smith), he tracks down Croft, who has assumed a new identity as a college professor specializing in vampirism. (Again, never mind.) James uses detective work and eventually a séance to confirm that Croft is the creature who violated his mother, then seeks vengeance. Excepting the clumsy mechanics of the storyline, the underlying notion is fun—a vampire begets a son, who then wants payback. As for that perverse scene, it involves James’ mother discovering his taste for plasma. She accidentally cuts her finger and drips blood onto her baby’s face. He laps up the stuff, so she slices open her breast and he suckles the wound. If only the rest of the picture had that much nerve. Pataki, usually cast in humorous or thuggish roles, is atrocious, employing a community-theater version of sophisticated diction and moving like he’s got a wooden board tied to his back. Smith, badly miscast, spends most of the picture sitting in chairs while seething, so his powerful physicality is mostly wasted. All in all, Grave of the Vampire plays like a bad episode of Dark Shadows.

Grave of the Vampire: LAME

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

She Came to the Valley (1979)

Made in roughly the same Texan locations where the historical events it depicts took place, She Came to the Valley dramatizes a mildly interesting episode from the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920. After a leg injury dashes their agricultural dreams in Oklahoma, Pat Westall (Dean Stockwell) and his wife, Willy Westall (Ronee Blakeley), relocate to the Rio Grande Valley on the advice of a mysterious friend, Bill Lester (Scott Glenn). This places the Westall family in the line of fire during battles between the American government and Mexican rebel Pancho Villa (Freddy Fender). Executed with more Hollywood panache, this material could have become something exciting and romantic, with the fearless Willy torn between her alcoholic husband and the valiant Bill, whom she discovers is a soldier in Villa’s army. Alas, cowriter, coproducer, and director Albert Band isn’t up to the task. Beyond merely looking awful, thanks to blotchy cinematography and nonexistent scene transitions, She Came to the Valley is hopelessly unfocused. Band and his collaborators seem unsure about what approach to take on the material, and they also seem unsure about which character occupies the center of the narrative. Willy seems the obvious choice, but for long stretches of screen time, she doesn’t do anything. Similarly, Bill disappears for extended periods, and when he’s onscreen, the character is mostly polite and soft-spoken. Not exactly the Bogart/Redford-type role this sort of material demands. The first hour of She Came to the Valley is borderline interminable, and even though the subsequent 30 minutes have some action because Villa leads a brazen nighttime raid, the excitement level remains depressingly low given how little viewers care about the characters. All the major performances are disappointing, too. Blakely and Glenn sleepwalk through their roles, Stockwell overacts, and Fender demonstrates why he was wise to focus on his music career.

She Came to the Valley: LAME

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass (1970)

          Among the many charismatic figures who achieved notoriety in the late ’60s and early ’70s by popularizing alternatives to mainstream belief systems, few courted controversy as actively as Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966 and spent the next two decades preaching dark gospel from his home base in San Francisco. An expert at cultivating media attention, he cheerfully showcased the most sensationalistic aspects of his style of worship—nude women, ritual sex, sadomasochism—while arguing that Church of Satan principles are more intrinsically honest than ideals promulgated by conventional Judeo-Christian faiths. This documentary, which reached theaters with an X-rating, features footage of LaVey officiating a black mass, interspersed with man-on-the-street comments from neighbors, remarks from representatives of other religions, and sit-down interviews with LaVey.
          As a record of a noteworthy personage, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is valuable, though the filmmakers took such a kid-gloves approach that the movie sometimes feels like a recruitment video. As an entertainment experience, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is nearly a dud. The ritual scenes are repetitive and ridiculous, while the interview scenes are dull and flat. To the filmmakers’ credit—and, by extension, to LaVey’s—the ritual scenes aren’t juiced with over-the-top elements, so don’t expect suggestions of human sacrifices or anything truly horrific. Yet this restraint creates a viewing challenge, because it’s boring to watch LaVey proselytize at exhaustive length with no one challenging his dubious assertions.
          The ritual scenes, of course, are the real draw. LaVey officiates in a silly-looking costume, wearing a dark cape and a skullcap adorned with horns. Various female church members take turns sitting spread-eagled atop an altar, nude but for the strategically positioned skull prop they use for modesty. Chalices and knives get passed around while LaVey recites gobbledygook and leads chants. Snakes are integrated into the service at one point, and the “highlight” involves a dude climbing into a coffin with a compliant woman for some ritual humping. It’s basically a softcore sideshow, with a guy in a skull mask playing organ for accompaniment.
          During the interview scenes, LaVey explains that his version of Satanism is based on indulgence rather than abstinence, providing an alternative to the fear of punishment that defines Judeo-Christian faiths. This argument goes only so far, because LaVey can’t resist using shock-value anecdotes to make his points. For instance, he describes a man who found joy by increasing his number of daily masturbation sessions, trading the Christian notion of self-denial for the Satanist tenet of self-pleasure. As for the S&M angle, the film features a long and uninteresting scene of a woman whipping a man’s fleshy posterior. Presumably one reason for LaVey’s participation in the project was to show people that Satanists are harmless, and the film certainly makes the one black mass captured on camera seem relatively innocent. No one’s slitting open goats and drinking blood here. Still, it’s hard to reconcile LaVey’s mellow rap about shedding inhibitions with the traditional connotations of Satanism. Accordingly, the lack of journalistic scrutiny makes Satanis: The Devil’s Mass as deep as a puff piece on the evening news.
          FYI, this picture is not to be confused with another title released in the same year, Witchcraft ’70. Made by an Italian company, Witchcraft ’70 is another X-rated survey of Satanism, complete with appearances by LaVey, but it appears that much of Witchcraft ’70 was staged. Satanis: The Devil’s Mass is goofy, but it feels like the real deal.

Satanis: The Devil’s Mass: FUNKY

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jud (1971)

          Released fairly early in the cycle of movies about Vietnam vets wrestling with PTSD upon returning to America, Jud deserves some credit for tackling serious issues at the very moment they were gaining sociopolitical relevance. Unfortunately, writer-director Gunther Collins has more passion for his subject matter than he does cinematic skill or psychological insight, so Jud echoes its protagonist’s angst-ridden journey by flailing about in search of meaning. The title character brawls, mopes, and wanders, pushing away nearly everyone who tries to form an emotional connection with him, and he endures flashbacks to horrific moments from overseas combat. Collins does an adequate job of conveying his leading character’s anguished metal state. Yet Collins fails to build an actual story around the character, so events in Jud just sort of happen, without any sense of a narrative shape. Worse, the climactic moment, which involves the death of a supporting character, is extrinsic to Jud’s journey, because the doomed character had major psychological problems well before he crossed Jud’s path. A more unified approach to this sort of material would have tethered the narrative’s ultimate tragedy to Jud’s PTSD, thereby conveying a theme about war claiming victims even after soldiers leave the battlefield, somewhat in the vein of the classic WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). With its barrage of directionless ennui and empty lyricism, Jud is a jumble.
          Set in Los Angeles, the picture begins with Jud Carney (Joseph Kaufmann) renting an apartment in a small building run by busybody landlord Fred Hornkel (Norman Burton). Two tenants glom onto Jud immediately—lonely single lady Shirley (Alix Wyeth) and self-loathing closeted homosexual Bill (Robert Deman). Jud shuns both of them, gravitating to pretty girls for company, first Sunny (Claudia Jennings), with whom Jud trysts on the beach, and later Kathy (Bonnie Bittner), with whom Jud attempts to build a real relationship. Sometimes, Jud seems like he has everything together, as when he expertly prevents a used-car salesman from swindling him, and sometimes, he’s a hair-trigger menace, as when he beats a guy whose girlfriend resembles the woman who dumped Jud while he was in Vietnam. Despite smothering the film with plaintive folk songs, Collins never gives the audience a clue as to what they’re supposed to make of everything that happens onscreen. At the time of its release, perhaps Jud said something fresh about how the experiences of Vietnam veterans differed from those of servicemen in previous wars. Seen today, it’s sincere but inadvertently shallow, a near miss at best. For cult-movie fans, the main point of interest is presumably Jennings’ participation, as Jud was the first movie credit for the short-lived Playboy model-turned-actress.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Missiles of October (1974)

          The Cuban Missile Crisis has been dissected and explored to a level of granular detail by dramatists and historians and politicians ever since those harrowing events of October 1962 concluded, since it’s very likely that was the closest the world has ever come to thermonuclear war. Yet as this excellent made-for-TV drama underscores, the lasting lesson is not just how easily men of hostile intent nearly drove two nations into globally destructive conflict, but how skillfully men of conscience defused the situation. Historically, much of the credit for ending the crisis rightfully goes to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for a crucial strategy suggestion he made late in the game, but The Missiles of October conveys that the world was saved by the collective efforts of RFK, President John F. Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, among many others. In today’s post-9/11 era of brinksmanship and escalation, the lessons in The Missiles of October are perhaps more important than ever.
          From an aesthetic perspective, The Missiles of October is highly unusual. Shot on videotape, it’s essentially a recording of a play, even though many cinematic flourishes are employed. (For instance, each act opens with a shot of a giant board bearing the show’s title and flags, with the camera zooming into the flag of the nation where the act’s first scene takes place.) Moreover, The Missiles of October is quite long, running two and a half hours even without commercials, so the storytelling is gradual, methodical, and specific. Viewers are taken all the way from the U.S. government’s first discovery that Russian missile bases are being assembled on the island nation of Cuba to the final resolution between the U.S., thrown into a defensive posture by the presence of missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and the U.S.S.R., desperate to save face even though surrender is the only sane option. A fantastic cast tells the story, with William Devane’s alternately contemplative and intense portrayal of JFK dominating. He’s matched almost perfectly with Martin Sheen, who plays RFK. Together, they sketch a believable family bond while also expressing the horrible stakes of the crisis in their pained faces.
          Whereas Devane and Sheen mimic the Kennedy brothers’ famous Boston accents, Howard Da Silva uses an unadorned American vocal style while playing Krushchev. In context, this choice works, because viewers aren’t distracted by dialect or subtitles while parsing the subtle moves that Krushchev made while maneuvering around Kremlin hawks to avoid disaster. Others familiar players in the cast are Ralph Bellamy, Dana Elcar, Michael Lerner, and Nehemiah Persoff, and character actor Thayer David provides occasional narration. Seen today, The Missiles of October might strike some viewers as aesthetically deficient, what with the grainy newsreel clips to illustrate military action and the use of minimalistic sets. Nonetheless, this film articulates the broad strokes of a key event in world history, as well as many of the most important nuances, with grace and power, eventually morphing from a docudrama to a taut thriller. The time one invests to watch The Missiles of October is rewarded handsomely.

The Missiles of October: GROOVY

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Red Alert (1977)

          Two years before the big-budget theatrical feature The China Syndrome dramatized the dangers of nuclear power plants, the excellent made-for-TV thriller Red Alert offered an even more sensationalized take on the subject. Based on a novel by Harold King and written for the screen by Sandor Stern, the picture takes place at a facility in Minnesota. An unexplained leak in the reactor’s coolant tank triggers alerts at “Proteus Central” in Colorado, the command center where bigwig Henry Stone (Ralph Waite) uses a massive computer system to monitor the nation’s nuclear plants. Distrusting reports from his subordinates at the Minnesota facility, Stone sends two security officers, Frank Brolen (William Devane) and Carl Wyche (Michael Brandon), to investigate. They learn that a crazed employee has placed small explosives throughout the Minnesota facility with the goal of triggering a fatal chain reaction. The suspense of the picture stems from efforts to locate and defuse all of the bombs, and also to identify the saboteur’s motive in case he’s part of a larger conspiracy. Complicating matters are the effects of the first explosion at the facility: The saboteur is among 14 workers trapped, and presumed dead, inside the plant’s highly contaminated containment facility, so he’s unavailable for interrogation. Adding another layer to the storyline is Carl’s concern for his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and their children, who live near the facility that’s on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown.
          Although the plotting of Red Alert is a bit contrived, relying on the sort of mad-bomber device one normally expects to encounter in an Airport movie, the dramatic and technical execution of the piece is terrific. Not only did the producers obtain impressive locations and utilize a sufficient degree of technical jargon to make the piece seem credible, but director William Hale’s imaginative camerawork accentuates claustrophobia and juices tension. He’s forever using objects in the foreground to frame faces, underscoring how the film’s characters are caught in a horrible situation. Hale also shoots action well, his camera movements designed with mathematical precision. One can feel the influence of Sidney Lumet, since the storytelling in Red Alert recalls the way Lumet put his not-entirely-dissimilar Fail-Safe (1964) across. The acting is fairly strong, too. Devane is equal parts macho and world-weary as a man tainted by tragedy, Brandon counters him with earnest sensitivity, and Waite plays heavily against type, suppressing his Waltons warmth to incarnate a dangerously cold-blooded autocrat. So even though Red Alert is mostly a well-made potboiler, the actors and filmmakers conjure enough believability to give the piece some teeth as a cautionary tale.

Red Alert: GROOVY

Friday, October 14, 2016

Every ’70s Movie Is Six Years Old!

As noted in my last message to readers, on the occasion of notching over 2.5 million page views in September, we’re not quite in the home stretch of Every ’70s Movie, but we’re getting there. Today marks six years of continuous publication, with a new review every day—I feel like my office should have a sign that reads “2,150 days without an accident”—so over 2,000 theatrical movies have been reviewed, plus a selection of TV movies from the ’70s and theatrical releases from 1980, the unofficial end of the decade’s cinematic output. This has been a wild journey so far, and I look forward to making additional interesting discoveries as I push toward seeing as many films as possible from my (hopefully) comprehensive list of movies released between Jan. 1, 1970, and Dec. 31, 1979. I have no illusions of finding absolutely everything, as some titles are genuinely lost, but if a flick is commercially available, streaming online, or obtainable through a reasonably accessible archive, it’s on my agenda. Which is where you, my dear readers, can help. The donations link on the home page is your means of supporting this grand (okay, mad) enterprise, because while creating Every ’70s Movie has always incurred minor expenses, costs are increasing as titles become more obscure. Every little bit helps make this project happen. Thanks, as always, to readers who have shown their support in the past, since even a $10 donation directly translates to new content. If you enjoy reading this blog on a regular basis, please consider lending a hand. I can’t make like PBS and offer a tote bag in return, but I can offer you my gratitude and my friendly advice to keep on keepin’ on!

Abduction (1975)

          Released a year after Patty Heart’s kidnapping made headlines, harsh thriller Abduction bears more than a few suspicious similarities to Hearst’s situation, even though the filmmakers use a disclaimer at the top of the picture to call the parallels coincidental, seeing as how Abduction was based upon a novel published in 1973. In the filmmakers’ meager defense, their storyline doesn’t include a bank robbery, and it plays out differently than Hearst’s real-life circumstances. However, the movie does concern an heiress named Patricia being taken by a group of political radicals and then drawn into their hive mind through psychosexual conditioning. Despite claims to the contrary, Abduction was made and marketed as a lurid riff on Hearst. The kicker: Abduction is a fairly solid movie, with an eerily restrained aesthetic, methodical storytelling, and satisfactory performances. Some may find the picture slow, an unavoidable problem for stories depicting extended periods of captivity, but viewers able to look past the picture’s exploitive nature will find something creepy and unsettling.
          Rather than being the daughter of a newspaper publisher, Patricia Prescott (Judith-Marie Bergan) is the offspring of a rich developer. She’s violently abducted by radicals under the command of Frank (Gregory Rosackis), an impassioned black radical determined to undermine the ruling class. In a hideout, Frank has a colleague videotape him raping Patricia. Then he sends the tape to her father (Leif Erickson), demanding that Mr. Prescott demolish a luxury building that, Frank says, represents capitalist oppression. As the film progresses, Mr. Prescott weighs the consequences of giving in to demands while Frank plays mind games with Patricia, eventually bringing her around to his way of thinking. Or so it seems. Director Joseph Zito and his collaborators do a passable job of tracking Patricia’s mental state, creating empathy for her predicament as well as ambiguity about whether she’s truly “converted” or whether she’s patronizing her captors.
          Particularly because the pacing is meditative, with extended camera takes and long periods that are bereft of scoring, a suitably oppressive mood takes hold, all the way to the intense ending. As an example of what the film does well, consider the recurring image of Mr. Prescott, sitting alone in his home office, staring at hostage videos of his daughter’s sexual violations, the harrowing frames seen in flickering reflections on his eyeglasses. Yikes. Sex, however, also contributes to Abduction’s biggest problem. Zito lingers so long on carnal scenes that Abduction has a leering quality, even though Zito emphasizes the horror, rather than the titillation, of such sequences. As one of Frank’s colleagues says to Patricia with chilling amiability: “It’s not you I want to hurt—I hope you remember that.”

Abduction: FUNKY

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Gang Wars (1976)

The best thing about this wretched hybrid of crime, horror, and martial arts is the name of the leading actor, because it’s hard to top “Warhawk Tanzania.” Incompetently cowritten (with four other people!) and directed by Barry Rosen, the flick opens in China circa 200 B.C., with fanatics performing a deadly ritual near a deep pit. Cut to the present, where Luke (Tanzania) is a martial-arts master in New York City. His student, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), gets into a hassle with Chinese gangsters in Manhattan before traveling, with Luke, to Hong Kong for advanced kung-fu training. Rodan stumbles onto the pit from the ritual and accidentally releases a demon, which follows him and Luke back to New York and sets up housekeeping in the city’s subway system. If you’re already confused, join the club. The demon starts murdering folks in the subway, which causes police to suspect gangsters are responsible and eventually leads detectives to Luke and Rodan. None of this makes any more sense onscreen than it does on paper, and Gang Wars—also known as Devil’s Express, hence the above poster—has production values commensurate to its storytelling. Scenes smash together without transitions, repetitive funk grooves make fight sequences feel tedious, and the filmmakers periodically replace production sound with voiceover, which merely adds to the overall awkwardness. The demon bits are ridiculous, culminating with Tanzania kung-fu fighting some dude in a rubber suit, and the highlight—as far as horror goes—is a vignette of a fellow ripping off his own skin while the demon possessing him breaks free. Too infrequently, glimmers of droll weirdness poke through the sludge. NYC freakazoid Brother Theodore plays a priest in one scene, and, in the most enjoyable moment, a crazed bag lady (Sarah Nyrick) harangues strangers on the subway before she’s attacked by the demon. You may find yourself wishing the movie was about the bag lady.

Gang Wars: LAME

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Triple Echo (1972)

          Adapted from a short story by H.E. Bates, offbeat WWII drama The Triple Echo would be easier to swallow had it been extrapolated from real events, because the central premise is as far-fetched as the relationships that drive the storyline. Set in the English countryside, the picture concerns Alice (Glenda Jackson), the lonely wife of a soldier being held prisoner overseas by the Japanese. One day, a young solider named Barton (Brian Deacon) wanders onto her remote farm, so she offers him food and lodging. He’s a deserter. Over the course of several weeks together, they fall in love, but Alice worries that neighbors might discover Barton’s presence and shatter their romantic idyll. She contrives the peculiar idea of disguising Barton as her sister, “Jill,” by way of cross-dressing. This works until yet another soldier wanders onto the farm. Arriving astride a tank, he’s a bearish sergeant played by Oliver Reed. (The character never gets a proper name.) Improbably, the sergeant becomes obsessed with “Jill,” and even more improbably, “Jill” accepts an invitation to a military party even though it’s plain the sergeant expects more from “her” than a dance. All spongy narrative contrivances and inorganic motivations, he story wends its way toward a strange type of romantic tragedy, with the gloomy pastures of the hilly countryside serving as some sort of visual metaphor representing loneliness.
          As directed by Michael Apted, whose work is always competent, The Triple Echo moves along as well as it can, given the episodic and incredible storyline. One feels the strain of screenwriter Robin Chapman stretching Bates’ vignette to feature length, and what might have seemed believable on the page is less so onscreen. Jackson attacks behavior and dialogue with her usual consummate skill, but she’s far too chilly to provide the level of emotion necessary for putting the illusion of The Triple Echo across. Likewise, Deacon is a cipher at best and a simpering twit at worst, because his performance gets more and more unsteady as the stakes of the narrative rise. Reed, as was sometimes his wont, barrels through the picture with more energy than nuance, so while he’s credible as an overbearing monster, he steamrolls past the central problem of making viewers believe the sergeant can’t see that “Jill” is a man. Other shortcomings include pedestrian camerawork and some truly atrocious music during upbeat passages—overwrought and twee was not the way to go for scoring what is essentially a tragic chamber piece.

The Triple Echo: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fox and His Friends (1975)

          Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends offers the sad parable of a simple man who realizes his dreams, only to suffer unexpected consequences. The director plays the starring role, and he occupies an effective performance space blending unaffected looseness with subtle strains of pathos. As the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into a humiliating abyss, with those around him forever preying on his naïveté, we, the viewers, aren’t asked to weep for the character but rather to empathize. This distinction is key, for while Fox and His Friends follows a somewhat conventional narrative path, Fassbinder strives for docudrama realism instead of manipulative melodrama. One could argue the film suffers for this choice, since the ending could have had greater impact, but one could also argue that restraint is what makes the familiar storyline palatable. That is, for viewers who aren’t put off by the story’s gay themes and copious amounts of male full-frontal nudity.
          In modern Germany, Fox (Fassbinder) works as a sideshow attraction in a carnival run by his boyfriend. When the boyfriend is arrested, Fox casts about for his next situation. First he seeks shelter with his alcoholic sister, and then he turns prostitute for men prowling public bathrooms. Optimistic to an almost delusional degree, Fox buys a lottery ticket one day, certain he’ll win. He does, scoring a prize of 500,000 deutsche marks. Most of the film explores how acquaintances react to Fox’s newfound wealth, and because many people behave in predatory ways, a maudlin theme emerges. Fox represents those who believe financial windfalls can fix every problem, but never take the time to learn how money works. Fox’s fortune begins to slip from his hands virtually the moment he takes possession. Also woven into Fassbiner’s depressing story are issues of class. Fox’s first rich patron, Max (Karlheinz Böhm), treats Fox as a sexual plaything barely worth contempt until Fox becomes rich. The protagonist’s second patron, Eugen (Peter Chatel), behaves even more callously, convincing Fox to make a huge business investment. Desperate to find a place among the sophisticated set, Fox plays along until he realizes he’s being used, but by that point, his self-image has suffered irreparable harm.
          In the merciless way of his best stories, Fassbiner takes Fox’s decline to a logical conclusion, so viewers shouldn’t look for the glimmers of hope a Hollywood version of similar material would surely provide. The aforementioned homoerotic content provides more than titillation, because the othering of gays in West German society circa the mid-’70s is an important component of the storytelling. Fox discovers how those above his social station mask themselves in the name of assimilation, and he also discovers what happens when straight society sees through those masks. Additionally, a sequence set in Morocco reinforces the trope of sex workers desperate to escape, or at least survive, poverty by any means possible.

Fox and His Friends: GROOVY

Monday, October 10, 2016

Skateboard (1978)

Cheap-looking, derivative, and superficial, Skateboard borrows myriad elements from The Bad News Bears (1976), but fails to mimic that picture’s nuanced characterizations. Instead, Skateboard tells a drab seriocomic story about a shady talent representative exploiting talented teenagers. And because cowriter/director George Gage uses lengthy scenes of kids performing skateboard tricks to pad the movie’s running time, he’s in the exploitation business, too—he seems to believe that fans of skateboarding should be satisfied with any old movie containing ramp rides and walking-the-dog routines. The cast mostly comprises unskilled juvenile actors, abrasive character actor Allen Garfield plays the leading role. He’s a poor substitute for Bad News Bears star Walter Matthau. Whereas Matthau leavened his cantankerous characterization with glimmers of empathy, Garfield spends so much time hurling invective at his costars that he’s unpleasant to watch. And at the risk of body-shaming, he looks like a predator when he’s surrounded by gleaming California kids, seeing as how he’s a pasty blob of a man with a horrific combover. The gist of the piece is that low-rent agent Manny Bloom (Garfield) owes money to a crook, so when he spots kids skateboarding in his neighborhood, he abruptly forms a team called the Los Angeles Wheels. Predictable complications ensue. Star athlete Jason (Richard Van der Wyk) rebels, an injury sidelines another player, and Manny has trouble keeping the kids under control while traveling. Eventually, he hires an attractive nurse, Millicent (Kathleen Lloyd), resulting in a dubious romantic subplot. Underscoring the tedium is lots of shrill pop/rock music, with several songs shrieked by future Jefferson Starship vocalist Mickey Thomas.

Skateboard: LAME

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)

          Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, stately drama The Garden of the Finzi-Continis explores tensions among wealthy Italian Jews during the run-up to World War II, when Benito Mussolini escalated an ethnic-cleansing campaign in lockstep with the anti-Semitic purge wrought by the Nazis in Germany. Adapted from a novel by Giorgio Bassani and directed with rarified style by Vittorio De Sica, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a melodrama with a social purpose, so every scene of interpersonal friction and romantic strife is shot through with foreshadowing. Some characters see where things are headed while others play ostrich, so viewers get a close view at what happens when citizens rebel against totalitarianism and what happens when citizens spend too long ignoring the storm clouds gathering overhead. Many, many films explore similar terrain, and some—notably Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972)—inject the American perspective for a broader geopolitical view. Perhaps because of its narrow focus on the moneyed class, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis lacks gut-punch impact. Nonetheless, the question of how societies allow demagogues to gain power is one of timeless importance, and De Sica dramatizes issues with intelligence and precision.
          At the beginning of the story, young adults from throughout the city of Ferrara meet in the sprawling private estate of the Finzi-Contini family for leisurely games of tennis. (Among the story’s central metaphors is the notion of a walled-in compound as a island of tolerance in a sea of hateful madness; it’s the familiar binary argument of involvement versus isolation.) Though he inhabits a slightly lower social station, Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) is in love with Micòl (Dominique Sanda), eldest daughter of the Finzi-Contini family and also his friend since childhood. Yet she’s drawn the handsome and politically expedient Malnate (Fabio Testi), and the situation is complicated by Micòl’s concern for her frail brother, Alberto (Helmut Berger), another childhood friend of Giorgio’s. Adding more layers to the narrative are scenes set in Giorgio’s home, since his father (Romolo Valli) champions Mussolini. In fact, the father joins the Fascist Party, somehow believing he can stop the spread of anti-Semitism from within the political machine.
         Those with a strong grasp of world history will get more from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis than others, since the movie’s philosophical debates occur on an elevated plane. Similarly, the narrative’s symbolism is intricate and subtle, so those looking to be lead by the hand toward one viewpoint or another will be lost. The broad strokes are plainly evident, but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis explores incremental differences between people who share many common values, rather than outright conflict between oceans-apart enemies. Undoubtedly, that’s why the picture enjoys its enviable reputation. By surgically extracting a sample of diseased tissue, De Sica and his collaborators explore something even more troubling than the rise of tyrants—the ease with which tyrants can seize control while those with the most cultural and economic influence are distracted by petty strife. 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: GROOVY

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Class of Miss MacMichael (1978)

          Offering a seriocomic look at troubles plaguing a British school for maladjusted students, The Class of Miss MacMichael touches on issues to which viewers anywhere can relate, such as the challenges of working for autocrats and the difficulty of inserting individualism into inflexible institutions. Glenda Jackson, all fire and idealism, plays Conor MacMichael, one of the school’s teachers. She’s a caring educator who embraces the radical idea that treating young people with respect might compel them to work hard, so her natural enemy is Terence Sutton (Oliver Reed), the school’s unfeeling headmaster. He views students as little more than discipline problems, so he uses intimidation and punishment to quell rebelliousness. There’s never much doubt where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie, and Reed plays his role in such a flamboyant style that the headmaster is too cartoonish to take seriously. Given this imbalance, The Class of Miss MacMichael doesn’t offer many real insights or surprises. It’s a position paper with a few jokes and some melodrama. That said, Jackson, as always, is a commanding screen presence, so she imbues the movie with humor, ferocity, and passion.
         As for the plot, don’t expect much, since The Class of Miss MacMichael has an episodic structure. Conor bonds with her students, counseling a promiscuous girl about sex and trying to keep a mentally challenged boy out of trouble, even as the headmaster imposes strict rules and threatens Conor’s job security. Meanwhile, Conor blends her personal and professional lives by involving her American boyfriend, Martin (Michael Murphy), in activities with her students. Among Conor’s few allies at work is Una (Rosalind Cash), an American teacher with a knack for managing the mentally challenged boy’s periodic meltdowns. Although The Class of Miss MacMichael feels longer than its 94 minutes thanks to the lack of a compelling overarching storyline, most of the film’s vignettes are interesting. Scenes with Jackson overseeing controlled chaos feel credible, and Murphy’s affability adds a pleasant color whenever he’s onscreen. Reed, however, seems as if he’s in a different movie, though he shares blame for his over-the-top performance with director Silvio Narizzano, who should have recognized that Reed’s campy style clashes with the straightforward work of the other actors. In one scene, for instance, Reed’s character literally knocks the heads of two students together.

The Class of Miss MacMichael: FUNKY

Friday, October 7, 2016

Going Places (1974)

          In some ways, the loathsome protagonists in French director Bertrand Blier’s gonzo dramedy Going Places are cousins to the madman played by Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Like McDowell’s character Alex, the hedonists in Going Places move through the world on pure instinct, stealing anything they want, destroying property when the mood strikes them, and using women as unfeeling receptacles for their hateful lusts. Yet while Alex occupies a world of consequences, the buddies in Going Places roam free, so it’s difficult to understand what sort of statement Blier, who adapted the movie from his own novel, wanted to make. Similarly, it’s tough to accept the notion that Going Places elevated Gérard Depardieu to star status. He’s extraordinarily loose and naturalistic in Going Places, so it’s not as if the film fails to showcase his talents. The question is why audiences responded to such a deeply unsympathetic character. De gustibus non est disputandum.
          Jean-Claude (Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere) travel through France looking for adventures, sex, and thrills, usually making their way from one place to the next by robbing pedestrians or stealing unattended vehicles. One night, while burglarizing a shop that belongs to a pimp, they kidnap a prostitute named Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou). During the crime, Pierrot gets shot in the testicle, though he later rallies his energy to rape Marie-Ange. Afterward, he complains that she’s sexually unresponsive. Inexplicably, she finds the abuse endearing, so before the boys release her, she obliges their request to “touch her ass hairs” for luck. And this is only the first half-hour of the picture, which gets more depraved with each passing moment. In one scene, the degenerates pay a sexy young mother to let them suck her breasts for milk, and in another, Jean-Claude rapes Pierrot because, they, that’s what friends are for. Following a strange and tragic episode with a recently paroled criminal, played by the great Jeanne Moreau in an affront to her cinematic dignity, the boys reconnect with Marie-Ange, since they want to provide her as a sexual plaything for a young man of their acquaintance. Oh, and at some point the lads kindly deflower a virgin, played by Isabelle Huppert in an early role, and, naturally, she thanks them for the courtesy.
          In nearly any other movie, characters behaving this way would be portrayed as sociopaths, but given the lightness of touch he applies to his storytelling, Blier seems determined to portray his vile protagonists as playful anarchists. While it’s dangerous to view Going Places through the narrow prism of conventional American morality, whatever that phrase means, the sheer amount of damage inflicted by the men in Going Places is shocking, so the movie begs for contexualization.
          Setting aside larger questions, the film has virtues that surpass its bizarre narrative. Some of the performances are lively, while others, including Moreau’s, are intriguingly stylized. Peppy jazz-guitar musical interludes by Stéphane Grappelli add bounce, particularly when coupled with Blier’s technique of using scene transitions to create visual punchlines. Furthermore, cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s lovingly crafted images exude warmth. It’s possible there’s a provocative satire buried somewhere inside Going Places, and the film unquestionably skewers the cosmic joke known as the male animal. (The original French title translates to The Testicles.) Yet even though Going Places is weirdly compelling thanks to jaunty pacing and provocative events, it’s nauseating to watch two hours of men cheerfully abusing women. Make what you will of the fact that Depardieu, notorious in real life for boorish behavior, later made seven more movies with Blier.

Going Places: FREAKY

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Labor of Love (1976)

          Analyzing the documentary A Labor of Love is a tricky business. Brief but focused and interesting, it’s a movie about movies, tracking production of a low-budget indie called The Last Affair that was made in Chicago, and the documentarians capture elements of artistic obstacles, cast misbehavior, financial pressure, sudden production problems, and the tedium of creating films one camera angle at a time. None of that, however, suggests the film’s main hook and the reason why it’s so complicated to discuss. Prior to principal photography on The Last Affair, backers told director Henri Charr to include hardcore sex scenes or else kiss his budget goodbye—so by the time documentarians Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman began filming life on the set of The Last Affair, they had become journalists tracking the creation of pornography.
          This turn of events created two problems, both intermingled with aesthetic and social considerations. Firstly, because A Labor of Love concerns a “real” movie that morphed into porn, A Labor of Love isn’t truly a documentary about the “porn chic” movement that thrived during the early ’70s. There’s a big difference between this film’s squirm-inducing scenes of uninhibited men and women screwing on camera and, say, fly-on-the-wall coverage of professional adult-film stars grinding away on a soundstage in Southern California. A Labor of Love illustrates the surreal working conditions of porn sets without saying anything about the porn industry. Secondly, the documentarians cross enough lines of decorum and good taste to become pornographers themselves. During its theatrical release, A Labor of Love carried an X-rating because it features countless closeups of female genitalia, as well as male-gaze favorites including female masturbation and attractive women receiving oral sex. Yet there’s barely more than a fleeting glimpse of male frontal nudity, suggesting the documentarians felt the true value of their work wasn’t satisfying intellectual curiosity, but rather inspiring hard-ons.
          The most frustrating thing about A Labor of Love is that it’s made well. The on-set footage is steady and vivid, no easy feat given all the chaos and varying lighting patterns of an active film set, and the sit-down interviews are revelatory, with Charr discussing his anguish about the porn requirements and actresses sharing regret after filming exploitive scenes. Parsing the respectable documentary buried inside the skin show, the best moments involve a hopped-up stud failing to rouse—necessitating the use of a stand-in—and the use of liquid soap to create a skeevy cinematic illusion. Although A Labor of Love lacks all sorts of important context, including postmortem interviews exploring what happened with The Last Affair, it conveys some truth, as when a crew member remarks that filming coitus is like making an industrial film, all numbing repetition. Heavy on the labor, light on the love.

A Labor of Love: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Inheritance (1976)

          Despite Anthony Quinn’s top billing, this trashy melodrama is a vehicle for glamorous French actress Dominique Sanda, who plays a money-hungry vixen sleeping her way through a dysfunctional family while trying to seize control of a fortune. Produced in Italy and shown on American screens with some iffy dubbing transforming supporting players into English-language speakers, the picture evokes novelist Harold Robbins style of sexualized upper-class intrigue, although it’s a period piece instead of a modern story. Together with gauzy cinematography, extensive location photography, and relatively ornate production design, the vintage setting gives the piece a deceptive quality-cinema veneer. For while the characters are credible, the narrative is logical, and the themes are serious, the movie slides into the gutter at regular intervals. Director Mauro Bolognini spends almost as much time pointing his camera at Sanda’s naked body as he does recording her actual performance, and the way her character uses sex ensures that most of the movie feels lurid. Sure, Robbins often took similar material to even sleazier places, but it’s really just a matter of degrees.
          Set in the late 19th century, the film begins abruptly, with cruel patriarch Gregorio (Quinn) announcing that he’s dissolving the family business, a huge commercial bakery, and giving his three adult children their inheritances while he’s still alive. Long-suffering elder son Pippo (Gigi Proietti) gets a pittance, handsome Mario (Fabio Testi) receives only repayment of his massive gambling debts, and daughter Teta (Adriana Asti) gets nothing because Gregorio dislikes the man she married. Set adrift, Pippo starts a hardware business and marries the beautiful Irene (Sanda), who seems like a saint at first blush, given how she mediates various squabbles between the siblings. Alas, Pippo discovers her true character once he realizes that Irene is sleeping with Mario. Later, she makes her way into Gregorio’s bed, though it’s never clear whether that was her plan all along or whether she simply pursued an opportunity once it became visible. Although it’s made skillfully, The Inheritance is forgettable. Among other problems, it’s impossible to root for any of the characters, who run the gamut from avaricious to entitled. Moreover, while Sanda possesses a certain kind of regal allure, she’s too much of an ice queen to generate empathy. Go figure that she won the Best Actress prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival for her work in The Inheritance

The Inheritance: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

          This low-rent Floridian exploitation flick presents an offbeat pastiche of crime, gore, melodrama, and same-sex relational dynamics. Yet Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things isn’t quite as weird a viewing experience as you might imagine. Instead, it’s alternately droll and tedious and unpleasant. Scenes of two male criminals bickering at each other like an old married couple approach camp, even though the conflict between a repressed psychopath and a slovenly thug is quite grim; drab sequences of cops searching for clues chew up screen time without adding much; and bloody murder vignettes, often tweaked with solarization effects, repulse in typical grindhouse fashion. Cheap production values, some shoddy performances, and ugly cinematography add to the generalized sleaziness of the piece. While Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things tells the creepy story of a dysfunctional relationship triggering a string of murders, it’s exaggerating to say there’s a real movie in here somewhere. Nonetheless, the filmmakers exhibit a small measure of curiosity and imagination, even if they lack skill.
          Paul (Abe Zwick) and Stanley (Wayne Crawford) killed someone up north and fled to Florida, where Paul put on women’s clothes and assumed the identity of Stanley’s “Aunt Martha.” The idea is to create the illusion of a quiet suburban existence until they can slip back into society as themselves, but problems emerge. A pesky neighbor tries to make friends with the reclusive Martha, and Stanley is too undisciplined to maintain the ruse. He refuses to cut his hair or ditch his counterculture wardrobe, he slips out of the house on a regular basis to chase local chicks, and he treats Paul/Martha like a nagging spouse. Stanley’s sex life is of particular interest, since the filmmakers make a point of showing his inability to go all the way with compliant lovelies, and they also show him in bed with Paul/Martha. Therefore, the dreadful things of the title come across as manifestations of Paul’s jealous rage. Things get extreme during the climax, which involves a C-section, sadomasochism, and a van covered with pastel-colored peace signs.
          Is Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things yet another wrongheaded movie presenting the stereotype of gays as deviants? Yes and no. Somehow, the picture is simultaneously a misguided attempt at telling a serious story, an unfunny pass at comic material, a transgressive spin on familiar B-movie tropes, and a vulgar blast of sex and violence. As such, it’s uncommon without actually being special.

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things: FUNKY

Monday, October 3, 2016

Savages (1974)

          Months after playing a howling-mad psycho in the telefilm Pray for the Wildcats, Andy Griffith took more subdued approach to playing a killer in another telefilm, Savages. Slight but unnerving, Savages was based upon a novel by Robb White, and it tells the threadbare story of a hunter who accidentally kills an innocent man, then tries to frame his guide for the crime. Since the story lacks the element of mystery—viewers never doubt whether Griffith’s character was responsible—the vibe is more pressure cooker than whodunit, so the material might have worked better as, say, a one-hour episode of Night Gallery. Even though Savages runs just 74 minutes, it feels padded, especially during the long, long sequences of the guide struggling to survive in the desert while the hunter plays cat-and-mouse games. Extending the story to full telefilm length also exposes some iffy narrative mechanics to scrutiny. The trick for telling stories about villains toying with victims involves providing a persuasive explanation for why the villain doesn’t simply kill his or her adversary, and Savages never does that. As a result, Savages is merely disposable escapism.
          Griffith plays Horton Madec, a big-city lawyer with a bum leg. After using is influence to get a license for killing a big-horn sheep, he travels to the California desert only to find that the guide he originally hired is unavailable. Lucky for Horton, Ben Campbell (Sam Bottoms) has time on his hands. A young animal enthusiast who strikes locals as eccentric because of his fixation on vultures and other desert critters, he knows the land but doesn’t groove on killing protected animals, no matter the circumstances. Yet Horton twists his arm with cash, so off they go. The minute Horton spots a ram on a hilltop, he gets carried away and fires blindly, hitting and killing an old hermit. When Ben refuses to help cover up the death, Horton forces Ben to flee at gunpoint, the idea being that Ben will die of exposure before reaching civilization, allowing Horton to spin a yarn about Ben committing the murder and going crazy afterward. As directed by the experienced Lee H. Katzin, Savages is workmanlike at best, with some sequences suffering for lack of narrative excitement and visual creativity. However, the picture starts well and ends well, its third act effectively complicating the storyline. Better still, Bottoms complements Griffith’s restrained villainy with sweet vulnerability, so watching Savages conjures images of Sheriff Andy Taylor torturing Opie. Sometimes, casting against type works wonders.

Savages: FUNKY

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Twist (1976)

Recalling the production of this obscure European sex comedy in his memoirs, Bruce Dern admits “I didn’t really get what the movie was getting at until about two-thirds of the way through.” In fact, most of the chapter Dern devotes to The Twist concerns meals, Parisian weather, director Claude Chabrol’s preoccupation with complicated camera movements, and a weird episode with Ann-Margret and her husband at a nightclub. Watching The Twist, you’ll quickly understand why the circumstances of the picture are more interesting than the picture itself. A dull would-be farce about rotten people cheating on each other, the movie concerns an American writer (Dern), his French wife (played by Chabrol’s real-life spouse, Stéphane Audran), and their various extramarital entanglements. Ann-Margret plays the writer’s mistress. The wife fantasizes about killing the mistress, and the husband has a fever dream about all the women in his life—including his hot stepdaughter—molesting him before the wife shows up to cut off his manhood with a pair of scissors. (Not exactly Mr. Subtlety, Chabrol juices this sequence with a closeup of a fake penis becoming engorged, lest the audience somehow misread the wife’s intentions when she shows up with the scissors.) The Twist is not wholly negligible, because Dern plays his role with intensity (perhaps too much so); the production values are slick; and there’s a lot of fodder for the male gaze, with Sybil Danning as a flirty secretary and Sydne Rome as the stepdaughter. Additionally, scenes depicting the marital dynamic between the main characters exude believable hostility, with the husband coming across as a self-involved prick while the wife comes across as a shrew desperate to be tamed. (Wait, you’re surprised that a sex farce from a French director born in 1930 has gender politics from the Stone Age?) Nonetheless, beyond those eager to see everything Chabrol or Dern ever made, it’s hard to imagine many viewers finding the stamina to endure all 107 minutes of The Twist.

The Twist: LAME