Monday, March 27, 2017

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978)

          Idiosyncratic French director Bertrand Blier reteamed with Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere, the stars of his controversial Going Places (1976), for Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, another peculiar film about twisted psychosexual dynamics. Although Get Out Your Handkerchiefs isn’t as overtly cruel as Going Places, which was infused with sexual violence, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs betrays just as troubling an attitude toward women. To be fair, the film is skillfully made from a technical perspective, with attributes including elegantly naturalistic photography, and Blier’s script has a few fleeting moments of near-perfect satire. Overall, however, the picture is bogus and odd, more a literary flight of fancy than an examination of recognizable human emotions. That being said, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is compelling precisely because of its strangeness—the movie travels to so many unconventional places that it’s impossible not become curious where it’s going next. As to what it all means, and whether the journey is worth taking—well, that’s a call best left to individual viewers, because those who embrace the picture as a cerebral meditation are likely to find Get Out Your Handkerchiefs more rewarding than those who want a flesh-and-blood story about actual human beings.
          The opening sequence sets the off-kilter mood. Sitting in a crowded restaurant, exasperated Raoul (Depardieu) says he wants to help his depressed wife, Solange (Carole Laure), get out of her funk by granting permission to take a lover. He then tries to recruit Stéphane (Dewaere), a diner at a neighboring table, for the aforementioned stud service. This leads to a bizarre comedy-of-errors argument because each character reacts unexpectedly to accusations and questions. The comic notion is that everyone in Get Out Your Handkerchief overshares—except for the mysterious and withholding Solange—so each conversation goes from zero to intimate in record time, resulting in a mixture of bewilderment and connectivity. From a writing perspective, Blier walks a high wire throughout the entire film, but because Get Out Your Handkerchiefs takes place outside normal reality, it’s hard to say whether he keeps his balance. The movie is never believable, but it’s also never boring. Eventually, Raoul, Solange, and Stéphane form an extended family of sorts, because Solange alternates between nights with Raoul and nights with Stéphane. Things get even weirder when Stéphane takes a summer job as a camp counselor, because Solange becomes involved with a third lover, 13-year-old camper Christian (Riton Liebman).
          Through it all, Solange remains an enigma. One of Blier’s central jokes seems to be that men are incapable of understanding women—which means that Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is either sly or stunningly sexist or both. Every so often, the movie “works” in a conventional sense, albeit with a nasty edge. In one scene, Raoul slaps Solange, causing her to cry, so Stéphane pulls a handkerchief from his pocket—but instead of drying Solange’s tears, he dabs sweat off Raoul’s forehead. It’s a vicious barb, men valuing their emotional lives while ignoring those of women, but it’s a direct hit nonetheless. Still, for everything that impresses about Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, there are a dozen troubling elements. The abuse. The objectification of Laure, who is frequently naked. The pedophilia of the Christian subplot. Given the film’s provocative aspects, it’s a wonder that Get Out Your Handkerchiefs found an audience, and it’s downright astonishing the picture won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1978.

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs: FUNKY

Sunday, March 26, 2017

McCloud (1970)

          While not a direct continuation of the Clint Eastwood movie Coogan’s Bluff (1968), popular TV detective series McCloud was inspired by that film, hence Herman Miller’s credits as screenwriter of the Eastwood picture and creator of the TV series. Both projects employ the novel image of a cowboy cop transplanted to New York City, solving crimes with frontier toughness, old-fashioned common sense, and a warm charm that drives cosmopolitan women wild. Right from this first episode, which is sometimes known by the titles “Portrait of a Dead Girl” and “Who Killed Miss U.S.A.?,” star Dennis Weaver cuts a striking image, his tall frame swathed in a sheepskin coat and capped by a cowboy hat. Yet Marshal Sam McCloud of Taos, New Mexico, is not portrayed as a bumpkin. Quite to the contrary, he’s a tireless investigator whose courtly manners disguise an agile mind.
          The notion is that because he’s free of big-city hangups and pretentions, he sees things more clearly than his metropolitan counterparts, spotting holes in theories, logic problems in alibis, and omissions from crime reports. It’s worth nothing that he’s also smooth with the ladies, because one of this pilot film’s most enjoyable scenes is an exchange of erotic banter between Weaver and leading lady Diana Muldaur.
          Nonetheless, despite being cowritten by the reliable team of Richard Levinson and William Link, the first McCloud mystery isn’t especially memorable beyond the effective introduction of the protagonist. After capturing a fugitive in New Mexico, McCloud escorts his prisoner to New York, where the man is set to testify in a high-profile murder case. Criminals posing as cops kidnap the prisoner, compelling McCloud  to recapture the man and therefore restore his dignity as a lawman. This leads McCloud to explore the facts of the murder case, in which a Latino busboy stands accused of murdering a white beauty queen. Naturally, McCloud discovers problems with evidence incriminating the busboy and makes his way, slowly but surely, toward the identity of the real killer. Accompanying the marshal through his first New York adventure is Chris Coughlin (Muldaur), writer of a best-selling book about the case. At various times, McCloud encounters an activist priest, a jaded fashion model, a morally ambiguous lawyer, and other big-city types who provide stark contrast to the plain-talking protagonist.
          Even though the story underwhelms, the film is quite watchable. The acting is slick (watch forRaul Julia as the priest and Julie Newmar, of all people, as the model), while director Richard A. Colla gives everything an expensive look with blurry foreground objects and fluid camera moves. As for Weaver, he's in the zone from start to finish, channeling an aw-shucks Gary Cooper vibe without ever seeming artificial or cloying. Although McCloud never became a proper weekly series—like Columbo and McMillan and Wife, it aired as a series of telefilms—the franchise captured the public’s imagination, running from 1970 to 1977. Weaver reprised the role for 1989’s The Return of Sam McCloud.

McCloud: FUNKY

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sudden Death (1977)

          On some levels, Sudden Death is almost a parody of the tough-guy genre. Swaggering Robert Conrad stars as Duke Smith—yes, really—a former covert-ops guy now living out a casual retirement in the Philippines with his daughter and his girlfriend. When he gets roped into a case involving political intrigue, he steadily escalates from pummeling opponents to killing them, eventually leaving a huge trail of bodies in his wake. Through it all, he preens like a bodybuilder, showing off his taut physique in what can only be described as topless scenes, and he spews macho dialogue that might seem more at home in a blaxploitation flick. (Beyond unpersuasively barking the epithet “motherfucker,” he threatens a dude by saying, “Talk or I’m gonna spit in your face and kick you in the balls.”) Like some Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone movie from the ’80s, Sudden Death isn’t so much a narrative as an exercise in brand management, selling the idea that Conrad’s the baddest son of a bitch on the planet. With all due respect to his incredible athleticism (back in the day, Conrad was known for doing many of his own stunts), Conrad is a relatively small man, measuring just five feet and eight inches, so watching him strut around this way has the unavoidable air of overcompensation. The spectacle is weirdly fascinating to watch. So, too, is Sudden Death.
          Although the picture was made by the same folks responsible for many sketchy Filipino coproductions of the era, notably director Eddie Romero and costar/producer John Ashley, Sudden Death is markedly slicker than other flicks with similar origins. The camerawork is austere and confident, the dialogue is terse and periodically amusing (think Walter Hill Lite), and the methodical escalation of brutality provides a brisk pace. That said, Sudden Death suffers from a hopelessly trivial storyline about the machinations of an opportunistic corporation. The picture gets an energy boost during its second half, with the introduction of hired gun Dominic Aldo (Don Stroud). Since he’s a former acquaintance of Duke’s, Aldo is basically the same character without a conscience, so the film builds toward their duel at the end. The showdown a brief but vicious battle, concluding with a horrific demise. Sudden Death then goes even further down the nihilistic rabbit hole with one of the most pointlessly grim final scenes you’ll ever encounter in an action movie. So in a trash-cinema sort of way, Sudden Death hits hard and leaves a mark.

Sudden Death: FUNKY

Friday, March 24, 2017

Murph the Surf (1975)

          Better known by its rerelease title Live a Little, Steal a Lot, this somewhat entertaining crime picture tells the real-life story of two surfers who made their living as jewel thieves in Miami, Florida, until getting caught following a brazen robbery they committed at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Competently directed by Marvin J. Chomsky and featuring strong location photography, the picture suffers from a muddled and shallow script. Jumps back and forth in time during the first hour of the story are confusing and unhelpful, while attempts to delve into characters during the remaining 40 minutes never quite bear fruit. Typical of the movie’s narrative problems is the ambivalence about which character occupies the center of the story. Although roguish and tempestuous Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy (Don Stroud) is the title character and the engine driving most of what happens, the real protagonist, if only by dint of having the most screen time, is his best friend and partner, Allan Kuhn (Robert Conrad). Yet neither character is put across with sufficient insight or nuance to grab the viewer’s imagination. Although they’re both amusing and handsome and mischievous, it’s hard to care when they start quarrelling with each other, and even harder to care whether they get caught.
          The first hour intercuts moments from the big New York job with vignettes of the days and weeks leading up to the crime. Jack and Allan live carefree lives in Miami, committing crimes and surfing and wooing pretty girls, all while managing to avoid capture by police. Some of this material is exciting, such as a boat chase through canals, and some of it is mundane. Complicating the criminals’ idyllic lifestyle is the arrival of lovely Ginny Eaton (Donna Mills), who becomes Jack’s girlfriend but catches Allan’s fancy. She’s a stewardess who eventually helps the boys smuggle loot out of New York City, and Allan’s desire to be with Ginny drives a wedge in his friendship with Jack.
          Beyond mediocre storytelling, the main problem plaguing this picture stems from the leading performances. Conrad does his usual routine of preening and scowling, while Stroud occasionally sacrifices his appealing naturalism on the altar of bug-eyed overacting. One man does too little and the other does too much. Mills is merely adequate, and there’s not enough time devoted to Burt Young’s cranky performance as an investigator. Murph the Surf basically works as a compendium of beefcake shots, daring escapades, and macho standoffs, with playful moments including the bit where the robbers play marbles with priceless gems. Nonetheless, the movie fades from memory almost immediately. Conrad and Stroud reteamed, albeit with much less shared screen time, for the nasty action thriller Sudden Death (1977).

Murph the Surf: FUNKY

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Warrior Within (1976)

          Released three years after the death of Bruce Lee, whose exciting films and charismatic TV appearances helped popularize Asian martial arts worldwide, this solid documentary articulates philosophical concepts of mind-body balance while also showcasing several ’70s martial-arts masters, including Lee’s friend and American counterpart Chuck Norris. Presented with a fair measure of elegance and style by director Burt Rashby and writer Karen Lase Golightly, the film mixes archival footage, clips from competitions, interviews, and stylized visual effects such as slow motion and solarization, all to the purpose of demonstrating that karate, kung fu, tai chi and other disciplines are more than combat techniques. Speaker after speaker explains that hardening the body and sharpening the reflexes is a means of improving the mind and spirit, even though the narration track and the bulk of the film’s final section accentuate the utility of martial arts for self-defense.
          As for that final section, it’s probably the weakest part of the picture even though it reflects the anxious era during which this doc was made. Watching the climactic scenes of The Warrior Within, one might take the impression that every resident of an American city in the mid-’70s was doomed to experience violent crime. From this same fearful well sprang a zillion vigilante movies.
          In any event, the picture begins by discussing Lee, then moves into explorations of various systems and weapons from countries throughout Asia. Dubious but impressive facts, such as the idea that a nunchaku strike carries 1,600 pounds of pressure, adorn compelling shots of masters demonstrating the use of sais, spears, swords, and, of course, bare hands and feet to deliver deadly blows. After establishing the toughness of the martial arts, the filmmakers shift into a discussion of belief systems, talking about the inner forces from which martial artists draw their strength, while also noting historical ironies. Regarding the four animal-inspired styles of kung fu, the narrator says, “They all began in the Shaolin Temple of China—the deadly product of pacifists.” Whereas many speakers swear allegiance to strict modalities, Norris shares his idea, extrapolated from Bruce Lee’s philosophy, of building a personal system with a little bit of everything, rules be damned.
          Some of the most impressive people in The Warrior Within are likely unfamiliar to laypersons, such as Moses Powell, a huge man so in control of his tai chi technique that he deflects attackers with deceptively simple rolling movements and, in one scene, balances his entire frame on his index finger. The picture’s argument for using martial arts to realize physical potential is persuasive, so if the filmmakers get carried away periodically—as with scenes portraying America’s cities as war zones—those excesses can be attributed to the enthusiasm of people with a message they’re burning to convey. Seen critically, The Warrior Within is an ad encouraging every viewer to visit a local dojo. Seem generously, it’s a slick and worthwhile exploration of a subject that captured the public imagination in the ’70s.

The Warrior Within: GROOVY

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Supersoul Brother (1978)

The best joke related to this rotten blaxploitation comedy is its alternate title, The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger, an edgy riff on The Six Million Dollar Man satirizing how black lives are valued in American society as compared to white lives. Had the filmmakers actually created a spoof about a bargain-basement bionic man, as some advertising materials suggest, Supersoul Brother could have been funny and provocative. Unfortunately, it’s just crude and stupid. Two criminals approach a scientist named “Dr. Dippy,” played incompetently by little person Peter Conrad, and pay him $6,000 to create a serum that grants invulnerability and super-strength. The catch is that the recipient of these powers will die a week after the serum is administered. The criminals grab a wino off the street, then provide him with a swank new pad and a maid who performs sexual services, promising financial rewards in exchange for receiving an injection of the doctor’s serum. (They don’t tell him about the whole impending-death thing.) The wino becomes super-powered and helps the crooks pull off a heist, but when the mad doctor’s pretty assistant tells him the truth, the wino rebels. All of this unfolds in some of the least attractive frames ever committed to celluloid. Director Rene Martinez Jr.’s camerawork is roughly equivalent to that found in amateur porn, all artless compositions and choppy edits and garish lighting. This presentation problem is exacerbated by dopey scatological dialogue and mindless sex jokes. (The insertion of a rectal thermometer is presented as a comic highlight.) Naturally, all of the performances are atrocious, though leading man “Wildman” Steve Gallon, a regional nightclub performer who appeared in a handful of terrible movies, has something that vaguely resembles swagger.

Supersoul Brother: LAME

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Night God Screamed (1971)

          If you’re able to accept that The Night God Screamed is essentially two different exploitation movies fused together by the presence of a shared protagonist, then you’ll be able to enjoy the picture for its sensationalistic pleasures. The first and far more interesting half of the flick concerns a Manson-eseque cult leader who presents himself to followers as a religious messiah, then leads his acolytes through criminal acts including murder. The second half concerns a babysitter and a houseful of teenagers getting terrorized by mysterious assailants. Holding the pieces together, more or less, is the character of Fanny Pierce (Jeanne Crain). In the first half, she’s the wife of a man who gets killed by the cultists, so her eyewitness testimony helps put the bogus messiah behind bars. In the second half, she’s the babysitter. Ostensibly, the connection is that the assailants in the siege portion of the picture may or may not be followers of the imprisoned cult leader, bedeviling Fanny for purposes of revenge. Both halves of the movie are basically adequate for their respective purposes, but the shift in style and tone from one to the other is jarring.
          The movie starts with a whopper of a scene, when cult leader Billy Joe Harlan (Michael Sugish) preaches to his flock during an outdoor baptism ceremony. “The heat won’t leave us alone,” he proclaims while addressing remarks to God up in the sky. “They want to bust us for being hooked on you!” Then Billy Joe compels an underling to drown a traitorous follower, “re-baptizing” her in the cult’s faith. Things stay just as kicky for the next 40 minutes or so. Billy Joe targets a traveling evangelist, Willis Pierce (Alex Nicol), who has a giant decorative cross that catches the cult leader’s fancy. Soon enough, Billy Joe compels his followers to ritualistically murder the evangelist. Later, after Billy Joe’s trial, Fanny accepts work babysitting some willful high-school kids, and the aforementioned siege begins. Top-billed star Crain, whose heyday was in the ’40s and ’50s, delivers a spaced-out performance that’s either effectively meek or weirdly dispassionate, while Sugish summons the requisite intensity for his role. Otherwise, the movie is routine in all aspects of its execution, so interest stems from the gonzo storytelling of the first half and the highly questionable twist endings—there are two of them—in the second half.

The Night God Screamed: FUNKY

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mr. No Legs (1979)

          Warped drive-in flicks on the order of Mr. No Legs demand two different types of reviews, one for rational viewers and one for seekers of the bizarre. The rational take on Mr. No Legs characterizes the picture as an atrocious action/thriller saga marred by bad acting, cheap production values, dumb scripting, and the wholly distasteful presentation of a double amputee as a sideshow freak. In other words, steer clear if you want your sanity to remain intact. However, if your bag is cinematic strangeness, then cook up some popcorn and grab your controlled substance of choice, because it’s party time. Everything about Mr. No Legs stimulates trash-cinema pleasure centers to the point of ecstasy. The plot is straight out of a dimwitted crime novel, with nearly every narrative event predicated on the complete stupidity of characters. The filmmaking operates at roughly the level of a vintage driver’s-ed movie, so everything’s basically in focus and in frame, but you can virtually hear the director calling for every stilted entrance and exit. And then there’s the whole business of the title character.
          In his one and only movie role, Ted Vollrath plays a mob enforcer who scoots around in a tricked-out wheelchair that has a double-barreled shotgun hidden inside each of the armrests, plus Japanese throwing stars affixed to the wheels. Whenever his weapons fail, he leaps from the chair to wallop opponents with karate. Yes, karate. In real life, Vollrath attained a black belt despite being legless. The jaw-dropping highlight of Mr. No Legs is an epic slow-motion scene during which Vollrath raises himself up by his arms and pummels a dude with his stumps, then hops onto the ground and squares off against the guy, Bruce Lee-style, though his arms barely reach the man’s belt. Vollrath’s athleticism is impressive, but if you aim your retinas at Mr. No Legs, you will inevitably find yourself asking what the hell you’re watching. The centerpiece of the picture is a bar brawl involving a catfight, a giddy little person, and a transvestite hooker. Oh, and that particular scene is a setup for yet another fight, during which a cop squares off against a hoodlum wielding a broadsword. A broadsword, mind you, that the hoodlum carries outside the bar and uses to attack the policeman’s Stingray. That’s the world of Mr. No Legs, where not even sportscars are safe from cruel and unusual punishment.
          Oddly, this deranged picture was made by people normally associated with wholesome entertainment: Director Ricou Browning and writer Jack Cowden cocreated the 1960s TV series Flipper, and Browning’s most iconic credit stems from his stunt performance as the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Insert your own jokes about how too much time spent underwater pickled Browning’s brain. Anyway, back to Mr. No LegsAmong the familiar actors wandering through this fever dream of a movie are John Agar, Lloyd Bochner, Richard Jaeckel, and Rance Howard (father to Clint and Ron). Each embarrasses himself at some point by delivering an idiotic line or rendering a nonsensical reaction shot. But wait, there’s more! At one point, the movie’s nominal hero, a detective named Andy—played by the perfectly named Ron Slinker, a doughy Rob Reiner lookalike—retires to his girlfriend’s place, which looks like Hugh Hefner’s crash pad. The bedroom features silk bedding that’s laid on the floor amid matching white-fur carpeting and comforters, complemented by furniture and wall decorations more suitable for a European castle. There’s a plot, too, but surely by now it’s clear that couldn’t matter less. Mr. No Legs. Come for the crass exploitation, stay for the bewildering madness.

Mr. No Legs: FREAKY

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mr. Horn (1979)

          A year before Steve McQueen’s biographical Western movie Tom Horn was released to theaters, an even more detailed recounting of the same historical figure’s life story premiered on television. Sprawling over three very long hours, Mr. Horn has a colorful backstory. Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman penned a script with an eye toward casting frequent collaborator Robert Redford in the leading role of a cowboy who captured Geronimo and enjoyed a celebrated career as a Pinkerton, only to be framed for murder by ranchers who hired him as a bounty hunter. Together with the right director, Goldman and Redford could easily have transformed this material into something complicated and mythic. Alas, Redford left the project, as did proposed director Sydney Pollack, so Goldman’s script became an orphan even as McQueen’s competing project gained steam. Hence the downgrade to the small screen, with David Carradine assuming the title role.
          Seeing as how the broadcast version of Mr. Horn is essentially two movies—a 90-minute saga depicting the hunt for Geronimo and a 90-minute saga depicting the intrigue with the ranchers—it’s hard to imagine how the project would have worked as a feature. Yet the episodic storytelling is far from the only problem here. Put bluntly, Goldman never gets a bead on the main character, who is depicted through interesting events rather than properly revelatory scenes. Nearly every major supporting character is defined more clearly than Tom Horn. And while it’s easy to imagine Redford imbuing the character’s ambiguities with more nuance than Carradine can muster, the protagonist is very close to being a cipher. That’s a monumental problem for a three-hour character study.
          It doesn’t help that Jack Starrett’s direction is routine at best, or that the supporting cast comprises second-rate players. Richard Widmark contributes the movie’s best work as Horn’s crusty/funny mentor, though one can only dream of what, say, Jimmy Stewart could have done with the role. As for leading lady Karen Black, saying she’s forgettable requires acknowledging that her role is hopelessly muddled—the picture’s love story simply doesn’t work. However, none of these remarks should create the impression that Mr. Horn is an abject failure. More accurately, it’s like the rough draft of something better. The bones of a classic yarn are visible, but the Geronimo portion feels aimless, and the rancher portion, which has more clarity but suffers from bad jumps in continuity and logic, feels like a completely separate movie. Nonetheless, patient viewers will discover small rewards in Mr. Horn, such as the protagonist’s remark about why bogus aspects of his reputation are useful: “The more they think I’ve done,” he says, “the less I have to do.”

Mr. Horn: FUNKY

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fools (1970)

          “Is there anything left but winning and losing in the world?” That question, posed by a fading actor to his decades-younger lover, epitomizes everything that’s interesting and ridiculous about Fools, a romantic melodrama starring the unlikely duo of Jason Robards and Katharine Ross. At first blush, the question sounds like a deep existential inquiry. On closer inspection, it’s pretentious. Both impressions are true, and both fit the movie as a whole. One of myriad late ’60s/early ’70s movies about older men discovering new ways of thinking by engaging in sexual affairs with young women, Fools strives to make a Grand Statement about the follies of human existence, only to tumble into a quagmire of clichés, half-developed notions, and easy contrivances. Yet Fools is strangely watchable, largely because of Robards’ innate charisma and Ross’ mesmerizing beauty. A charitable reading would say the casting alone saves the movie, because Robards incarnates the idea of a romantic poet gone to seed, while Ross represents the promise of youth. That reading, however, overlooks the movie’s dubious specifics.
          Set in San Francisco, Fools opens with Matthew South (Robards) hanging out in a park and behaving eccentrically. He somehow catches the attention of Anais Appleton (Ross), resulting in one of the least credible meet-cutes in movie history. The two embark on a long walkabout through San Francisco, with Matthew issuing fashionably anti-Establishment attitudes, as when he screams at passing cars: “This whole world is infested with machines!” Soon the couple find themselves in a quiet forest, where the following dialogue exchange ensues. Anais: “You’re still a child, Matthew.” Matthew: “Am I?” She replies with a meaningful look, and they kiss, sparking one of many airy montages set to twee folk music. The dialogue becomes even more absurd once the story introduces Anais’ husband, uptight lawyer David Appleton (Scott Hylands), who pays private investigators to follow her. At one point, David says to Anais, “You’re a woman.” She replies, “You’re a man—what does that mean?” Oy.
          Another layer of affectation stems from Matthew’s work, because he’s a Karloff-style actor in cheesy horror films. Presumably the idea was to express that life is an illusion, man, so we make the world we want—or something like that. At its most disjointed, the movie spins into pointless farce, plus a dream sequence and an oh-so-’70s tragic finale. In many ways, Fools epitomizes the ridiculous extremes of with-it late ’60s/early ’70s filmmaking, so it’s possible to consume the picture as an unintentional comedy. After all, Fools overflows with cutesy events, bogus emotion, stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Approached less cynically, the movie has virtues. It’s a handsome-looking picture that tries to engage in relevant ideas, and the acting is generally quite good. Ross, as usual, is more luminous than skilled, but she commands attention with her sincerity, and Robards, working his familiar A Thousand Clowns groove, was singularly adept at making wild-eyed dreamers seem appealing, as he does here.

Fools: FUNKY

Friday, March 17, 2017

Blackjack (1978)

Utterly forgettable but basically competent in its storytelling and technical execution, Blackjack tells the humdrum story of an ex-con staging an elaborate heist in Las Vegas with the help of several fellow criminals. Despite the presence of B-movie icon William Smith in a supporting role, always a shot in the arm for any project, Blackjack was doomed to fail the moment hopelessly bland actor Damu King was cast in the leading role. He’s sufficiently formidable to put across the visual concept of a badass crook out for a payoff and/or payback—one gets the vague sense of a revenge angle—but he’s not interesting to watch. Neither are his exploits, because movies about ripping off casinos in Vegas are nearly as old as Vegas itself. The story begins with Roy (King) exiting prison after having acquired and/or sharpened his blackjack skills behind bars—because, of course, most penologists encourage inmates to participate in high-stakes gambling during their incarceration. Roy organizes old allies for an ambitious scheme to rip off casinos that are operated by the mob, and word of the impending crime reaches Andy Mayfield (Smith), the top security guy at one of the mob’s casinos. He has some sort of history with Roy, though parsing the details isn’t worth the trouble. Andy joins forces with a fellow enforcer, Charles (played by Tony Burton, familiar to fans of the Rocky franchise as Apollo Creed’s corner man), and they strive to prevent Roy from pulling off the heist. Events churn toward the inevitable showdown between Andy and Roy. Whatever. It’s all so familiar and pointless and unimaginative as to be painfully boring, even with a soundtrack powered by slick R&B/funk music.

Blackjack: LAME

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Russian Roulette (1975)

          The only unique aspect of this Cold War espionage thriller is that it takes place in Vancouver and features an officer of the RCMP as its protagonist. In every other respect, it’s the usual murky stuff about conspiracies and double-crosses and last-minute efforts to prevent a politically charged assassination. Adapted by a cabal of screenwriters from a novel by Tom Ardies and directed in a perfunctory style by Lou Lombardo, previously an acclaimed film editor known for his work on pictures by Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah, Russian Roulette stars the appealing George Segal as the aforementioned RCMP officer. At the beginning of the movie, he’s on suspension, so a representative of the RCMP’s intelligence arm, Commander Petapiece (Denholm Elliot), offers a way back to active duty: Corporal Timothy Shaver (Segal) is to find and illegally detain an Eastern European named Henke (Val Avery), now living in exile in Vancouver. Only it turns out Russian operatives also want the man, so intrigue unfolds as various parties converge on Henke’s last known whereabouts. Before long, dead bodies accumulate and the intrepid Shaver discovers that Henke plans to kill a Soviet leader during an official visit to Canada. Also pulled into the escapade is Shaver’s on-again/off-again lover, Bogna (Cristina Raines).
          The first half of Russian Roulette is quite terrible, all confusing stakeout scenes and mystifying confrontations, because even though the setting of a gloomy winter in Western Canada lends visual interest, it’s virtually impossible to understand (or care) what the hell’s going on. Segal’s character is little more than a stereotype, the smartass cop who resents authority and wantonly breaks rules. The second half of the picture is markedly better, because once Russian Roulette resolves into a straightforward race-against-time thriller, Lombardo the skilled editor picks up the slack for Lombardo the inexperienced director. (Although Richard Marden is credited with cutting the picture, it’s likely Lombardo was never far away from the post-production process.) Almost by happenstance, Russian Roulette contains a couple of fairly good scenes, including the final action climax and the enjoyable throwaway bit during which the hero patiently explains to an old woman the complicated message he needs for her to convey by phone to authorities. Supporting actors including Avery, Elliot, and Richard Romanus do respectable work in nothing roles, but Raines flatlines as the female lead, and Segal’s innate charm can’t make up for the lack of an interesting story. At best, Russian Roulette is passable action/suspense slop. No wonder Lombardo returned to the editing room, directing only once more seven years later.

Russian Roulette: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Centerfold Girls (1974)

High and low narrative instincts collide with dismaying results in The Centerfold Girls, a misogynistic thriller about a psychopath preying on women who appear in nude magazine pictorials. The picture has a somewhat arty story structure, and the closing credits divide the film into “The First Story,” “The Second Story,” and “The Third Story.” Presumably this was the filmmakers’ workaround for the problem of killing off a protagonist every 30 minutes, since the psychopath (Andrew Prine) is mostly shown ogling nudie pictures and terrorizing his intended victims with phone calls prior to killing them. There’s even a touch of artiness to some of the actual filming, and The Centerfold Girls contains one very stylish kill—when the psychopath swipes a razor blade across a woman’s throat with terrific force, the resulting blood spray splatters across a windowpane positioned between the victim and the camera. Throughout its running time, The Centerfold Girls has a high level of technical polish, at least compared the usual woman-hating grindhouse fare. Having said all that, the movie is, at its core, clunky and ugly. The scenes with Prine create a modicum of continuity, but otherwise the picture flops from one meandering sequence to the next, burning screen time until the stalker music kicks in and the razor blade emerges again. At its most directionless, the picture drifts into a wholly separate storyline, with a nurse taking refuge in a mountain cabin only to get menaced by hippie cultists who rape her. Yet another unpleasant narrative detour involves a character played by B-movie regular Aldo Ray. Introduced as a Good Samaritan, the fellow is revealed as a would-be rapist who gets frustrated because his intended victim doesn’t put up enough of a fight. Ugh. Loaded with excessive bloodshed and gratuitous nudity, The Centerfold Girls is among the better-made films of its type—but there’s not much glory in being the best of a bad bunch.

The Centerfold Girls: LAME

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guess What We Learned in School Today? (1970)

          Though he later become synonymous with inspirational movies, thanks to his success with Rocky (1976) and The Karate Kid (1984), director John G. Avildsen dabbled in edgy sex comedies during the early ’70s, making this offbeat picture and the heinous Cry Uncle! (1971). Combining mockumentary and narrative elements, Guess What We Learned in School Today? ostensibly explores the impact of progressive sex education on the hypocritical residents of an uptight bedroom community. It’s the old satirical notion that folks who complain about sex are actually freaks at home. On some level, this sloppy and uneven movie’s politics are in the right place, since Avildsen and his collaborators portray open-minded intellectuals as forces for positive social change, while depicting hateful censors as villains who need their attitudes adjusted. The problem is how Avildsen and his collaborators express these ideas. Much of Guess What We Learned in School Today? comprises naughty vignettes with nudity and simulated sex, so there’s more than a little sensationalism sprinkled into the mix, and scenes of right-wingers getting their jollies are so perverse as to be cruel. Plus, it’s difficult to justify elements including the sexy, grown-up babysitter who nurtures a teenage boy’s nascent sexuality by reading him pornography while giving him handjobs. One suspects the filmmakers were trying to be outrageous, but more often than not, Guess What We Learned in School Today? is simply vulgar.
          The all-over-the-place storyline mostly follows three people. Roger (Richard Carballo) is a creepy cop who entraps women for solicitation arrests. Lance (Zachary Hains) is an insane ex-Marine who crusades against sex education, calling it a communist plot. And Dr. Lily Whitehorn (Yvonne McCall) is a sex educator with a clothing-optional institute. As various episodes unfold, Lily directly addresses the camera with remarks about the need for people to overcome inhibitions, while Lance and Roger engage in crazed antics. Lance has trouble getting it on with his wife until they convince a family friend to service their teenage son, at which point Lance mounts his wife from behind and drives her to climax while she watches her son have sex and moans her son’s name. Similarly, Roger seems averse to sex until a black transvestite goes down on him. You get the idea. Some of this is mildly interesting, but most of the camerawork is garish and ugly, the physical-comedy bits fall flat, and the satire is painfully obvious. Yet somehow, the picture develops a cumulative effect. The actors playing the rational characters are appealing (including a pair of attractive blondes who frequently appear topless), and, every so often, a throwaway scene gets the picture’s point across without lurid excess. The vignette of Lydia explaining the word “fuck” to schoolchildren accomplishes more than all the movie’s over-the-top carnal encounters put together.

Guess What We Learned in School Today?: FUNKY

Monday, March 13, 2017

Cat Murkil and the Silks (1976)

          This bizarre juvenile-delinquent melodrama tries to be several different things at once, causing regular instances of narrative whiplash as the picture shifts from a bummer character study to a moralistic cautionary tale to a violent exploitation flick. Yet the whole discombobulated experience is sufficiently lurid and zippy that the movie becomes enjoyable in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. For instance, the casting of fair-haired and slight actor David Kyle in the leading role is perplexing, since he’s about as intimidating as the average math-club nerd. The scene of his character squaring off against a trio of enormous African-American crooks decked out in ’70s pimp regalia—while they hassle teenagers on the grounds of their high school during class hours—can only be described as an unintentional comic highlight. Conversely, the scene during which Kyle’s character presses a gun to a woman’s crotch and then pulls the trigger is so extreme, especially compared to the rest of the film, that it rightly indicates the filmmakers didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Yet Cat Murkil and the Silks isn’t a mess, per se, because the characters behave consistently and the story makes sense. It’s a matter of taste. The folks behind the picture didn’t have any, so nearly every scene tips into self-parody.
          Eddie “Cat” Murkil (Kyle) is part of a teen gang called the Silks in modern-day Los Angeles. He’s a mixed-up kid who worships his older brother, Joey (Steve Bond), a former JD now serving time in jail. Eddie and the Silks are obnoxious small-time crooks whose idea of fun involves breaking into cars, partying with slutty girls, robbing stores, and rumbling with rival gangs. In other words, this movie’s idea of youth-run-wild behavior is laughably old-fashioned. The gist of the piece is that Eddie spins out of control after clashing with Joey, who warns his younger brother against a life of crime. Eddie kills the leader of his gang and usurps the command position, only to lead the Silks into disastrous clashes with a Latino gang. Hangups about sex lead Eddie further astray, because his attempts to make time with Joey’s hot wife culminate in tragedy. By the end of the picture, Eddie has become a full-blown psychopath, so one gets the feeling that the uptight filmmakers meant to portray youthful irreverence as the gateway drug for ultraviolent anarchy. Social-problem stridency combined with overwrought music and terrible acting—always good fodder for camp.

Cat Murkil and the Silks: FUNKY

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stranger in Our House (1978)

          As did his peers John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven made a pit stop in telefilms between his early independent efforts and his later success with big-budget movies. Yet while Carpenter made the respectable biopic Elvis (1979) and Hooper directed the passable Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot (also 1979), Craven marked time with this silly supernatural thriller starring Linda Blair. Reflecting none of the gonzo excess of his earlier pictures and none of the playful wit that made him famous in the ’80s and beyond, Stranger in Our House—also known as Summer of Fear—is wholly unimpressive from an artistic perspective. Yet because the movie is coherent and technically proficient, it demonstrated Craven’s ability to phone in a hack job as effectively as the next guy. Happily for horror-movie fans, Craven found his voice with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, blending the polished filmmaking he demonstrates here with the out-there qualities of his earliest endeavors while also introducing the crucial element of humor.
          Stranger in Our House revolves around the middle-class Bryant family, parents Carol and Tom plus kids Peter and Rachel (Blair). When Carol’s sister and her husband are killed in a car crash, the Bryants take in their newly orphaned niece, Julia Trent (Lee Purcell). She’s overtly wholesome, with her Ozarks accent and shy politeness, but Rachel spots trouble immediately, because—cliché alert!—an animal, specifically Rachel’s beloved horse, reacts badly to Julia’s presence. (As in all mediocre movies of this sort, nobody finds the animal’s reaction noteworthy except Rachel.) Things proceed very much according to formula. Julia steals Rachel’s boyfriend, Rachel finds weird artifacts among Julia’s belongings, and Rachel consults the neighborhood occult expert. (Wait, your neighborhood doesn’t have an occult expert?) Things move along at a fair clip, though nothing truly frightening or suspenseful happens. As for the acting, Blair is insufferably whiny, and Purcell’s adequate work gets undercut by the goofy final scenes.

Stranger in Our House: FUNKY

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hot Tomorrows (1977)

          Made as his MFA thesis film while Martin Brest studied at the American Film Institute, Hot Tomorrows has many of the silly hallmarks one associates with student films, such as an angst-ridden protagonist and pretentious flourishes reflecting the influence of classic European art cinema. However, the picture also demonstrates many of the things that Brest did so well in his subsequent Hollywood films of the ’70s and ’80s, notably offbeat characterizations and sly humor. (Let’s not talk about Brest’s dubious latter-day pictures, because if you’re a fan of 1992’s Scent of a Woman or 2003’s Gigli, we probably don’t share the same taste.) Shot in grungy black and white at unusual locations throughout Los Angeles, Hot Tomorrows is a dark comedy about a transplanted New Yorker trying to make it as a writer. Fixated on death, he spends a strange evening escorting a buddy from back home around the city, eventually landing in such unlikely places as a nightclub featuring weird performance artists and a mortuary that serves free coffee to the after-hours crowed. The plot also involves a cranky little person played by Hervé Villechaize and the life-sized figure of death—a skeleton in a black robe holding a scythe—that the protagonist uses for decoration in his living room. At various times, Hot Tomorrows is deep, funny, tragic, and weird.
          Michael (Ken Lerner) is a gloomy youth preoccupied with memories of his dead aunt, so he spends his time writing depressing stories and taking night classes exploring Eastern theories about death. Louis (Ray Sharkey), just in from the Bronx, isn’t having any of this. Protesting in his loud dese-dem-dose accent, Louis says it’s time to ditch the heavy stuff and party. Unfortunately, both guys are broke, so they best they can do is bum around town and hope to stumble into something fun. Michael takes his pal to a club called the Paradise, where a strange musical troupe (played by an early version of nerd-pop band Oingo Boingo) performs. At the club, Michael and Louis befriend fellow Bronx guy Tony (Victor Argo) and his diminutive friend Alberict (Villechaize). Peculiar misadventures ensue. Considering his inexperience at the time, Brest does a remarkable job pulling naturalistic performances from his cast and unifying them into a cohesive style. This movie’s at its best during simple scenes of people talking, whether they’re bonding or fighting, and this movie’s at its worst whenever Brest gets arty with flashbacks, musical numbers, and narration. As gifted as Brest is behind the camera, it’s telling that he’s only written two of his subsequent features, adapting the wonderful Going in Style (1979) from Edward Cannon’s story and crafting the not-so-wonderful Gigli by himself.

Hot Tomorrows: FUNKY