Friday, November 30, 2012

Silent Running (1972)

          Special-effects mastermind Douglas Trumbull has only directed two features in his long career, and they’re both fascinating. His first picture, Silent Running, is one of the most deeply felt statements within the small but noteworthy genre of ecology-themed sci-fi dramas, and his sophomore effort, Brainstorm (1983), is a problematic but provocative examination of what might happen if technology allowed us to experience other people’s thoughts. Obviously, the fact that both films are rooted in man’s complicated relationship with machines means that Trumbull didn’t stray far from his strong suit of special effects and technological themes—but there’s a lot to be said for any artist operating within the idiom he or she finds most comfortable.
          Silent Running takes place entirely in space, specifically aboard the scientific vessel Valley Forge. The setting is a future date when plant life has disappeared from the surface of the Earth, so the Valley Forge tugs geodesic domes in which the planet’s last forests are lovingly maintained by botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern). Lowell has a tough time getting along with the other humans aboard the Valley Forge, partially because of his antisocial nature and partially because they don’t share his passion for preserving plant life. Instead, his main companions are three robots, whom he dubs Huey, Duey, and Louie (borrowing the names of Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck’s nephews). When the Valley Forge receives orders to destroy the geodesic domes (including their precious cargo) and then return to Earth—a decision’s been made that greenery isn’t worth sustaining anymore—Lowell takes extreme measures to protect as many of the plants as he can.
          Some viewers might find this storyline bizarre, either because they can’t imagine anyone prioritizing plants over people or because the film’s conservation message is too overt, but the perfect casting of Dern in the lead role both accentuates and justifies the strange premise. On the most obvious level, Dern built his career playing unstable characters, so it’s not hard to accept his drift into idiosyncratic behavior. And yet on a deeper level, Dern’s intensity underscores Freeman Lowell’s self-perception as a reluctant savior—he sees the prevention of plant extinction as a higher calling. This aspect of the film pays off wonderfully in the finale, which has a strong emotional hit that’s grounded in the offbeat colorations of Dern’s exceptional performance. And though the most memorable quality of Silent Running is the humane nature of Dern’s acting—ironic, given Trumbull’s background and directorial inexperience—the special effects don’t disappoint. Using some of the same technology he brought to bear on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Trumbull creates outer-space environments with genuine dimension, all the while ensuring that visual gimmicks never overwhelm the offbeat story.

Silent Running: RIGHT ON

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Underground (1970)

          While the prospect of a tough World War II thriller starring velvet-voiced Broadway and TV star Robert Goulet might not be enticing in the abstract, Underground is actually quite palatable. Featuring a clear story, a handful of decent surprises, and a steady stream of effective suspense scenes, the picture gives Goulet all the ammunition he needs to deliver a respectable performance, and while it’s true he does a bit of preening here and there, he makes an okay (if somewhat wooden) action hero. When the story begins, mysterious American commando Lt. Dawson (Goulet) breaks into an airbase and slips onto a plane that’s departing for a secret mission. He then subdues the man who’s supposed to jump from the plane into enemy territory and makes the jump himself, joining up with a group of French resistance fighters led by the chrome-domed Boule (Lawrence Dobkin). It seems the American whose place Dawson took was slated to attack a convoy delivering Nazi Gen. Stryker (Carl Deuring) through France. Further, not only does Dawson have history with Stryker, but Dawson’s task is to kidnap rather than kill the German officer.
          While executing his mission, Dawson engages in a battle of wills with Boule, who doubts the American’s credibility from the moment they meet, and has a steamy tryst with Yvonne (Danièle Gaubert), a member of Boule’s team. Although the basic story of Underground is uncomplicated, a few unexpected dimensions give the film texture. For instance, Stryker is in disgrace following a major strategic error, so he’s on a de facto suicide watch by his fellow members of the Third Reich; similarly, Dawson’s haunted by nightmares stemming from a past episode of imprisonment and torture. Since Goulet is the definition of a whitebread entertainer, it’s a kick to see him playing rough, though another actor could have done more with the role. (Dobkin and Gaubert are well-cast and efficient.) Still, TV-trained hack director Arhtur H. Nadel presents the story without adornment, giving the movie a grungy edge even though the production values are slick, and reliable composer Stanley Myers puts some blood in the flick’s veins. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Underground: FUNKY

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hester Street (1975)

          Although Hollywood films including The Fixer (1968) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) explored the experience of European Jews, Joan Micklin Silver’s debut feature, the independently made Hester Street, was among the first mainstream pictures to explore the experience of Jewish immigrants in America. For that reason alone, the movie is noteworthy, and it was added to the National Film Registry in 2011. Yet instead of being the stuffy museum piece one might expect, Hester Street is a tonally varied movie featuring comedy, drama, romance, and sociopolitical commentary. It’s not the smoothest film, since Silver was still finding her way as a storyteller and since she was hemmed in by a tight budget, but it’s quite rewarding.
          Based on a novel from 1896 and set in that year, the movie re-creates the economically challenged milieu of European Jews who relocated to lower Manhattan and formed a tight community in and around Hester Street (which is now part of Chinatown). The film’s lead character is Yankel Bogovnik (Steven Keats), a Russian immigrant so thoroughly Americanized he calls himself Jake and conducts many of his conversations in English. Jake is a smooth-talking striver, even though he’s got a nowhere job in a sweatshop, and he has romantic designs on the beautiful and comparatively well-off Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh). The other figure in Jake’s world at the beginning of the story is Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), a kind-hearted boarder in Jake’s apartment who spends his time consumed in Talmudic study. Although Jake has accepted a significant sum of money from Mamie as a premarital dowry, he failed to tell her that he’s already got a wife and child back in the old country. So, when Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and their son arrive on Ellis Island, Jake’s got some explaining to do.
          Once this fraught situation is established, Silver explores the complicated ways that Jake and the people in his life try to balance their obligations to traditional Jewish orthodoxy with their aspirations to U.S. modernism. Some of the best scenes feature Gitl emerging from her shell, because when she arrives in America, she’s a mousy foreigner afraid to speak her mind; later, after exposure to progressive ideas, she endeavors to escape a bad situation.
          The look of the movie is appropriate and interesting, since Silver shot the picture in hazy black-and-white images that recall turn-of-the-century photographs, and Silver’s tonal missteps are relatively minor. (The montage sequences that evoke silent-cinema comedy, for instance, are an acquired taste.) Keats is hard to take, committing to his character so wholeheartedly that he becomes repulsive, and it takes a bit too long for Kane’s character to find her strength. Still,  the last 40 minutes or so of the picture are delicately orchestrated, and Kane’s characterization gains subtle power. No surprise, then, that Kane received an Oscar nomination.

Hester Street: GROOVY

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Savage Sisters (1974)

          Narrative dissonance is often a hallmark of sloppily made grindhouse flicks, thanks to producers’ capricious melding of incompatible genre elements, but Savage Sisters is especially discombobulated. Part part heist movie, part military adventure, part prison picture, and part sexploitation, Savage Sisters has everything except coherence. The movie is strangely watchable simply because there’s no way to guess which direction the story might take in any given scene, but it’s not a satisfying viewing experience. However, the movie isn’t exactly traffic-accident horrible, either, since it sometimes seems as if director Eddie Romero and his collaborators are trying for intentional humor. So the best way to classify the movie’s appeal is to say that if watching semi-attractive women seduce and slaughter their way through South America while delivering lame one-liners sounds like fun to you, then you belong to Savage Sisters’ intended audience.
          The story, which is far too convoluted to describe in detail here, follows revolutionaries Mei Ling (Rosanna Ortiz), an Asian, and Jo Turner (Cheri Caffaro), a Nordic glamazon, as they battle an oppressive military regime represented by the comically preening Captain Morales (Eddie Garcia). When Morales’ men capture Jo and Mei, the women are entrusted to Lynn Jackson (Gloria Hendry), a black stripper-turned-warden who digs torturing people. Then, when the three women hear that an evil bandito named Malavel (Sid Haig) has purloined a briefcase filled with $1 million in U.S. currency, the multi-culti ladies join forces to bust out of jail and seek their fortune. Also thrown into the mix is an American hustler named W.P. Billingsley (John Ashley), who ends up becoming lovers with all three women. Oh, and lest we forget, there’s a scene in which a prison guard threatens to rape Jo with a giant wind-up dildo, a running gag involving a sidekick named Punjab who only speaks in grunts, and a “comedy” scene in which two men are buried neck deep in a beach just before high tide.
          Savage Sisters packs a whole lot of nonsense in to 86 fast-moving minutes, and the tone of the movie is all over the place—Haig plays all of his scenes so broadly that it seems as if he’s acting in a farce, while Caffaro and Hendry strut around like they’re in an action picture. And then there’s Ashley, the workaday feature and TV supporting player who also co-produced the movie. One can almost understand the vanity of Ashley wanting to repeatedly appear on camera while exercising, slipping into bed with women, and wearing bikini briefs, but, still, Ashley’s casting as a second-tier supporting schmuck represents a strange exercise in behind-the-camera power. Yet that’s the meager fascination something like Savage Sisters provides—every decision that went into making the movie seems so loopy that half the fun of watching the thing is imagining what went through the filmmakers’ heads during production. Okay, make that more than half the fun, because genuine audience enjoyment is not something Savage Sisters provides in abundance. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Savage Sisters: FREAKY

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hornet’s Nest (1970)

          Despite some egregious miscasting and a terrible title, Hornet’s Nest is a solid World War II action thriller with an offbeat angle—the guerilla group at the center of the movie is composed entirely of teenagers and children. Set in Italy, the story begins with a horrific scene during which Nazis under the command of the ruthless Captain Von Hecht (Sergio Fantoni) slaughter the women and seniors in a small village because the area’s young men, who are hidden in nearby woods, are insurrectionist partisans. Led by the hot-tempered Aldo (Mark Colleano), the surviving youths swear to exact revenge. Then, when a U.S. parachute drop goes awry, resulting in the deaths of nearly all the paratroopers, Aldo’s gang recovers one American commando, Captain Turner (Rock Hudson), and drags him back to their remote lair. Since Turner is unconscious and requires medical attention, the youths kidnap a Nazi physician, Bianca (Sylva Koscina), and force her at gunpoint to care for Turner. Once the American recovers, he reluctantly agrees to help Aldo’s group attack the Nazis occupying their village before pursuing his own mission of blowing up a strategically important dam.
          As does the 1972 John Wayne picture The Cowboys, this Italian-U.S. coproduction explores the fraught dynamic between a veteran killer and young men pulled into bloodshed by circumstance. The storyline is clean and linear, steadily moving toward a climax in which both Aldo and Turner must face the consequences of their violence, and the filmmakers show Bianca suffering badly for the poor luck of ending up near animalistic males. In fact, Hornet’s Nest is such a tough picture that it represents one of Hudson’s boldest departures from harmless-heartthrob territory. The picture is also made quite well, with nimble camerawork and vivid lighting complemented by a plaintive Ennio Morricone score. One big problem, however, is the use of Italian actors in nearly every role—the Germans in the movie sound like they’re straight outta Sicily. Furthermore, Colleano’s performance borders on camp because he’s so overly emphatic, and Koscina is competent but unmemorable. Still, this is a nasty little picture filled with dead children, rape, and throat-slashings, so it can’t be accused of pulling its narrative punches as it seeks to depict the horrors of war. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Hornet’s Nest: FUNKY

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Front Page (1974)

          Item No. 1: Vienna-born writer-director Billy Wilder made his name co-writing delightful screwball comedies such as 1941’s Ball of Fire. Item No. 2: Adapted from the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page, Howard Hawks’ 1940 film His Girl Friday is one of the unassailable classics of the screwball-comedy era. Item No. 3: If anyone had the qualifications to remake His Girl Friday, it was Wilder.
          Well, qualified or not, Wilder botched the job.
          One of the key elements of His Girl Friday (and great screwball comedies in general) was the clever use of euphemisms to slip outré material past censors. Wilder’s remake of The Front Page dumps the subtle approach in favor of tiresome vulgarity. Worse, Wilder’s remake ditches the best contrivance of His Girl Friday—Hawks’ movie flipped the gender of one of the play’s leading characters, transforming the original Hecht-MacArthur story about feuding frenemies into a crackling love story. Sure, Wilder had at his disposal two leading men with whom he’d achieved great results before, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but dropping the battle-of-the-sexes angle was a bad call.
          As in the original play (Wilder’s movie retains the Hecht-MacArthur setting of the late ’20s), the story concerns gruff newspaper editor Walter Burns (Matthau), who wants his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (Lemmon), to cover the impending execution of a political revolutionary. Alas, Hildy has picked this day to quit the journalism business and get married, so Walter unscrupulously manipulates events to keep Hildy working. Meanwhile, the revolutionary escapes and seeks refuge in the courthouse newsroom, so Hildy shifts from covering a story to hiding a fugitive.
          In any incarnation, the Hecht-MacArthur script is filled with wonderful zingers, but Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond dilute their adaptation with pointlessly crude additions. For instance, journalists remind a hooker (Carol Burnett, miscast and terrible) that if she hits the streets for money, doing so will cause “a lotta wear and tear on your ass.” She replies with equal sophistication, calling them “shitheels.” Elsewhere, Hildy excoriates Walter by saying, “The only time you get it up is when you put the paper to bed,” and Walter says that if Hildy takes a job writing ad copy, he’ll be a “faggot.”
          One cannot impugn the film’s technical execution, since Wilder uses limited sets effectively and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth gives the picture a fine polish; similarly, the Lemmon/Matthau bickering-buddies routine was among the smoothest in the business. But so what? All of this good effort was put in the service of a poorly conceived and totally unnecessary retread of material that, in at least two previous incarnations (the original stage play and the Hawks film), was already considered classic.

The Front Page: FUNKY

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Obsession (1976)

          Director Brian De Palma borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking style for Sisters (1973), a perverse story about murderous twins that featured a score by Hitchcock’s best composer, Bernard Hermann. So it was no surprise that a few years later, after the box-office failure of De Palma’s audacious musical fantasy Phantom of the Paradise, the director returned to the crowd-pleasing milieu of Hitchcockian suspense. In fact, De Palma took homage even further with Obsession, which borrows key themes from the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo (1958). So, by the time De Palma layered in old-school glamour photography (by the great Vilmos Zsigmond) and another moody score by Hermann, Obsession became a virtual copy of Hitchcock’s style, updated for the ’70s with a heightened level of sexual transgression and technical sophistication. Thus, while Obsession is an arresting movie, any appraisal must be somewhat muted given its overtly derivative nature—it’s merely a fine achievement in emulation.
          Written by the formidable Paul Schrader (from an original story he and De Palma concocted together), Obsession tells the tragic tale of New Orleans businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberts0n). During a harrowing prologue set in 1958, Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. Bending to advice from police, Courtland delivers blank paper instead of the cash the kidnappers requested, so the kidnappers flee with Courtland’s loved ones. A police chase ensues, at the end of which the hostages and the kidnappers are killed. The story then cuts to the present day, when Courtland has rebuilt his life but never forgotten the traumas of the past—quite to the contrary, as the movie’s title suggests, Courtland is preoccupied with his dead wife and child. So when he encounters a young woman named Sandra (Geneviève Bujold) who is a living replica of his dead wife, Courtland seizes a chance at reclaiming happiness—he woos Sandra and tries to mold her in the image of the wife he lost. Alas, history repeats when Sandra is kidnapped under circumstances recalling the earlier crime. How Courtland responds to this crisis, and what he discovers while doing so, takes the story down a path only De Palma and Schrader would be nervy enough to explore.
          As in most twisty thrillers, the plotting of Obsession isn’t necessarily the strong suit—the storyline is predicated on people making foolish decisions, after all—so what makes the picture effective is its insidious mood. Zsigmond imbues images with haze and shadows that embody the story’s psychological implications, and nobody uses music to create a menacing environment better than Hermann. De Palma contributes elements including elegantly probing camera moves and an appropriately suffocating degree of nonstop intensity. (De Palma also showcases supporting player John Lithgow, in one of his first major film roles.) Bujold and Robertson wisely underplay early scenes depicting their characters’ modern-day courtship, since each character hides dark secrets, and later, they both do well portraying people subject to the cruel vicissitudes of fate. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

Obsession: GROOVY

Friday, November 23, 2012

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

          At the time of its release, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses was probably the most sexually explicit film ever made for mainstream audiences—although it’s a serious drama filled with provocative psychological and sociopolitical concepts, Oshma’s movie features enough close-ups of genitalia and penetration for a porno flick. In fact, it’s impossible to discuss the film without addressing the question of whether Oshima’s hardcore scenes overwhelm his intellectual aspirations.
          Based on events that took place in 1936 Japan, In the Realm of the Senses tells the story of real-life former prostitute Sada Abe. While working as a maid in restaurant, Abe became the mistress of the restaurant’s owner, a married man named Kichizo Ishida. They enjoyed sexual encounters at hotels and other locations, their rough play escalating to include erotic asphyxiation. Abe took one of these strangling adventures too far and killed her lover, then severed his genitals and kept them for souvenirs.
          Writer-director Oshima tells this lurid saga in a linear fashion, using the real names of the people involved, and his camera lingers on every graphic detail, right up to the bloody climax—one of the most notorious moments in all of ’70s cinema. It’s important to note that from beginning to end, there’s no mistaking In the Realm of the Senses for anything but serious-minded artwork. Oshima uses colors, rhythms, and textures to evoke a contemplative mood, so even during the most brazen sex scenes, the focus is on observing behavior rather than generating erotic heat. Leading actors Eiko Matsuda (as Abe) and Tatsuya Fuji (as Ishida) give committed, persuasive performances, bringing the same level of naturalism to scenes inside and outside the bedroom.
          Oshima creates a magical cocoon around the protagonists, all silk kimonos and sliding paper walls, so the characters seem insulated not only from prying eyes (except when they’re indulging in exhibitionism), but also from the crass mechanization of the modern world. The sociopolitical implications of the story are less obvious; Oshima introduces such concepts as gender inequality, ostracism, and subservience to create a framework in which dominance transfers back and forth between two lovers as their intimacy alters their societal roles. All of this is complicated by the implication that Abe is mentally unbalanced.
          Yet even with the film’s laudable subtext, the surface of In the Realm of the Senses is suffused with images that call Oshima’s directorial taste into question. Was it really necessary, for instance, to include a close-up of Matsuda fellating Fuji until ejaculate gurgles out of her mouth? Was there no alternative to the scene of Fuji inserting an egg into Matsuda’s vagina and then forcing her to expunge the thing like she’s a hen? Obviously, sex is intrinsic to this tale, but Oshima plays the shock-value card so many times the movie ends up becoming monotonous. Plus, there’s a deeper question of whether this story was worth telling in the first place. Still, In the Realm of the Senses offers those with the fortitude to solider through the entire movie ample fodder for analysis (and argument).

In the Realm of the Senses: FREAKY

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973)

          Like its amiable leading character, The Thief Who Came to Dinner neither contributes much of anything to society nor aspires to do so—this is simply a lightweight caper flick with attractive leading players, an eclectic supporting cast, and a winning sense of humor. Ryan O’Neal stars as Webster McGee, a bored computer programmer who quits his job when he realizes that in a consumerist society, everyone’s stealing from everyone else—so why not just become an actual criminal? Targeting the jet set, people whom he figures can afford to lose some of their extravagant wealth, McGee starts breaking into homes, and the movie has fun demonstrating his not-always-successful methods—for instance, he carefully cuts a perfect hole in a second-story window, only to have the entire window shatter when he extracts the portion he’s cut.
          Eventually, Webster purloins incriminating documents from a corrupt executive (Charles Cioffi), and then blackmails the executive into introducing Webster to other wealthy people during a dinner party (hence the movie’s title). In addition to helping Webster target potential victims, this move connects Webster with Laura (Jacqueline Bisset), a gorgeous heiress. During one of the movie’s most enjoyable dialogue exchanges, Laura reveals that she’s just as impressed with Webster’s looks as he is with hers. “You’re too beautiful to be any good,” she says. “Any good at what?” he replies. “What else is there?” she retorts. Zing!
          Based on a novel by Terrence Lore Smith, The Thief Who Came to Dinner was scripted by Walter Hill, generally known for his terse action stories, and this is by far the best-realized pure comedy in his filmography. Rather than trying for big laughs, he opts for gentle situational humor and soft-spoken running gags, although his gifts for manly-man storytelling serve him well in terms of driving the narrative forward with ticking-clock tension. And even if the cat-and-mouse game that arises between McGee and an insurance investigator is rather trite, the playfulness of the storytelling and the grumpy charm of Warren Oates’ performance as the investigator make the subplot highly rewarding. Pulling all of these disparate elements together into a seamless whole is producer-director Bud Yorkin, a TV-comedy veteran best known as Norman Lear’s longtime producing partner; Yorkin employs unhurried pacing to showcase the ample charms of the cast and the screenplay.
          It helps that composer Henry Mancini gives the movie a smooth lounge-music patina with a jaunty score of the type he regularly generated for Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther movies. It’s also noteworthy that O’Neal gives one of his best performances, slipping comfortably into the skin of a man who refuses to get stressed out by life, and that Bisset complements her remarkable beauty with a deft touch for banter. Plus, any movie with the good taste to feature Ned Beatty, Jill Clayburgh, John Hillerman, Michael Murphy, Austin Pendleton, and Gregory Sierra in supporting roles is obviously doing something right.

The Thief Who Came to Dinner: GROOVY

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Which Way Is Up? (1977)

          The same year their far superior collaboration Greased Lightning was released, funnyman Richard Pryor and director Michael Schultz unveiled this peculiar project, a quasi-blaxploitation comedy that was adapted from an Italian art movie. While the source material, Lina Wertmüller’s 1972 film The Seduction of Mimi, blended left-leaning sociopolitical commentary into its satire, Which Way Is Up? features a middling combination of crude sex humor and shallow take-this-job-and-shove-it posturing. One element of the original movie, a poignant exploration of the challenges faced by a blue-collar man who’s trying to navigate a white-collar world, survives the translation more or less intact, but this worthy theme is surrounded by so much stupidity it loses much of its intended impact. And though a great deal of blame must fall on the shoddy screenplay, which is designed to showcase farcical setpieces that never achieve comedic liftoff, Pryor is a major culprit for the picture’s mediocrity, since he plays three roles and therefore dominates the movie from beginning to end.
          Pryor is best as the protagonist, Leroy Jones, a poor everyman swept up in absurd circumstances. Specifically, he’s a farm worker who inadvertently becomes a poster boy for unionizing efforts and gets exiled from his small town. Relocating to L.A. and subsequently mistaken for a labor-movement hero, Leroy starts a new life with beautiful activist Vanetta (Lonette McKee), even though he’s got a family back home. Eventually, Leroy returns to his small town for a middle-management job and tries to maintain two homes—keeping Vanetta and the child she had with Leroy secret from Leroy’s wife, Annie Mae (Margaret Avery). This balancing act works until Leroy discovers that a local preacher, Reverend Lenox Thomas (Pryor), is sleeping with Annie Mae. Despite himself being an adulterer, Leroy becomes enraged and upsets the fragile life he’s built for himself. Undercutting the promising aspects of this storyline, Schultz spends way too much time on insipid sequences like Annie Mae’s attempts to get Leroy sexually excited. (She tries everything from S&M gear to vibrators.) Similarly, Pryor’s foul-mouthed rants lose their shock value quickly, especially when he’s dressed up in old-age makeup to play Leroy’s salty father. Having said all that, Which Way Is Up? has a few small insights into the black experience, the lives of the working class, and the vicissitudes of the labor movement. Yet as a whole, the picture is as unsatisfying as its “comically” downbeat ending.

Which Way Is Up?: FUNKY

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Lords of Flatbush (1974)

          Were it not for the presence of two actors who later became famous, ’70s TV icon Henry Winkler and perennial action-movie star Sylvester Stallone, The Lords of Flatbush would have long since faded into obscurity, because even though the film is sincere and thoughtful, it’s simply not that memorable or well-made. A nostalgic story about a (mostly) nonviolent street gang in ’50s Brooklyn, the picture presents trite themes related to the transition from adolescence to adulthood, as seen through the interconnected journeys of four friends. The principal characters are David “Chico” Tyrell (Perry King), a smart-ass lothario who juggles multiple girlfriends, and Stanley Rosiello (Stallone), a none-too-smart bruiser whose hulking frame disguises a sensitive soul. As the film progresses, Chico tries to seduce a pretty girl from the suburbs, Jane Bradshaw (Susan Blakely), only to find that she’s a player as well, manipulating various men for her benefit. Meanwhile, Stanley gets his girlfriend pregnant and wrestles with the choice of whether to do right by her. Receiving much less screen time are the other two members of “The Lords,” Chico’s and Stanley’s gang—secretly smart Butchey (Winkler) and self-descriptively named Wimpy (Paul Mace).
          Much of the picture comprises scenes of the quartet getting into trouble while running around town in their matching leather jackets, and although the actors don’t make convincing teenagers (Stallone, for instance, was nearly 30 when he made the movie), co-writers/co-directors Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona obviously drew from personal experience to re-create the rhythms of life in ’50s Brooklyn. The problem, unfortunately, is that the narrative is inconsequential. Nothing makes these characters special or unique—they’re exactly the same as any other teenagers who mess around before growing up—and the storytelling is amateurishly blunt. Sure, a few moments connect, like Stanley’s pathetic attempt to save face while pricing engagement rings, but nothing really soars. That said, Stallone is quite good in the picture, running laps around his less dynamic costars, with King suffering badly by comparison—King’s swagger feels contrived, whereas Stallone’s posturing seems fueled by relatable anguish.

The Lords of Flatbush: FUNKY

Monday, November 19, 2012

Midnight Express (1978)

          The hard-hitting 1978 prison drama Midnight Express shares dubious qualities with another acclaimed film of the same year, Michael Cimino’s Vietnam saga The Deer Hunter. Both pictures feature unflinching depictions of inhumane treatment during incarceration, and both pictures are bullshit. In the case of Cimino’s movie, the famous Russian roulette scene used to depict the savagery of the Viet Cong had no basis in reality. Similarly, the most brutal sequences in Midnight Express are fabrications, even though Midnight Express was directly adapted from a book by Billy Hayes, the unfortunate young man whose odyssey in a Turkish prison is depicted in the movie.
          So, while Midnight Express is unquestionably arresting (and sometimes riveting), the movie has a distasteful undercurrent. It’s as if the film’s producers, together with screenwriter Oliver Stone and director Alan Parker, felt Hayes’ real-life travails weren’t sufficiently harrowing, which is nonsense. Therefore, it’s impossible not to wonder at the filmmakers’ agenda—was the point of goosing the content simply to make Midnight Express more exciting, or was something else involved, since nearly every Turk portrayed in the movie is a sadistic monster?
          Anyway, the story begins when Billy (Brad Davis), a cocky young American, straps two kilos of hash to his body before departing for the Istanbul airport. He’s caught with the drugs and thrown into a prison straight out of the Middle Ages, where physical abuse and rape are rampant. While ineffectual forces including Billy’s family and the U.S. consulate try to arrange Billy’s release, Billy makes friends in jail. His pals include hotheaded American Jimmy (Randy Quaid), who’s forever formulating escape plans; drug-addled Englishman Max (John Hurt), who knows secrets about the prison’s layout; and Erich (Norbert Weisser), a European with whom Billy forms a quasi-romantic bond. Meanwhile, Billy suffers the torments of grotesque jailers including sleazy trustee Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli) and vile head guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith).
          Midnight Express is torture porn made before that term was coined, because the film’s “entertainment value” comes from watching how much abuse Billy can endure. There’s an old-fashioned escape flick built into the picture’s DNA, of course, since the real Billy did indeed flee Turkish incarceration, but Parker and Stone seem more preoccupied with cataloguing horrors than in truly developing Billy’s characterization. Make no mistake, Midnight Express is an expertly rendered movie, with Stone’s script racing forward at a relentless speed while Parker creates grimly beautiful tableaux and composer Giorgio Moroder adds otherworldly textures through his Oscar-winning electronic score. The acting is also quite good, with Davis using every bit of his limited skillset while slicker actors including Hurt and Quaid offer subtler work for balance.
          But particularly when the movie slips into hard-to-watch scenes that spring from the filmmakers’ imagination, like a vicious moment in which Billy rips the tongue from another man’s mouth, it’s hard to discern authorial intention. Is this a thriller or a horror movie? And if it’s a cautionary tale drawn from life, why so much fakery? No matter its peculiar contours, however, Midnight Express is highly memorable, as seen by one of its oddest echoes in the pop-culture universe—the scene in Airplane! (1980) during which a creepy pilot asks a young boy, “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

Midnight Express: GROOVY

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Travels With My Aunt (1972)

          Based on a whimsical novel by the revered British author Graham Greene, this offbeat comedy was originally conceived as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Director George Cukor, a studio-era giant who helmed several of Hepburn’s classic films, enlisted the iconic actress participation, but MGM nixed Hepburn partly because she was too old to convincingly play her character in flashbacks. The star was replaced by Maggie Smith, who interprets the lead role so broadly that the character becomes surrealistic. This otherworldly flavor is exacerbated by Cukor’s use of over-the-top costuming and production design. Smith’s character comes across like a refugee from glamorous MGM productions of the ’30s, all flowing dresses and opulent headgear, making her an extreme anachronism within the otherwise realistic milieu of the movie. Obviously, Cukor envisioned an arch culture-clash comedy, and the effect probably works for some viewers. To these eyes, however, the movie is merely garish and shrill.
          The story begins at a funeral, when uptight British banker Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen) oversees his mother’s cremation. During the service, he’s distracted by the wailings of a strange-looking redhead in flamboyant clothing, Augusta Bertram (Smith). She introduces herself as Henry’s long-lost aunt, and then she pulls him into her eccentric world. Augusta lives with pot-smoking African psychic Wordsworth (Louis Gossett Jr.), but she’s romantically linked to a string of European men with whom she shared adventures in the past. One of her ex-lovers has been kidnapped, so Augusta agrees to transport stolen goods as a means of raising cash for ransom. This odyssey is intercut with flashbacks depicting Augusta in her glory days as the mistress for various wealthy men. Emboldened by Augusta’s freethinking ways, Henry enjoys a chaste tryst with American hippie chick Tooley (Cindy Williams), who travels on the famed Orient Express at the same time as Augusta and Henry.
          Travels With My Aunt goes on rather windily through myriad episodes, some of which are amusing but none of which is remotely believable. And since the movie never reaches laugh-out-loud levels of absurdity, it ends up feeling quite pointless. One problem is Smith’s over-the-top acting, and another is McCowen’s bloodlessly competent performance: The movie cries out for a brilliant comic foil, like Dudley Moore or Gene Wilder, but Smith’s energy is not returned in kind. However, Cukor’s stylization is the most distracting aspect of the picture, because all the directorial flourishes in the world can’t obscure the film’s lack of substance. Improbably, the picture received several major nominations, though its only significant win was an Oscar for Anthony Powell’s costumes. (Available at

Travels With My Aunt: FUNKY

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

          Decades before he became known as a reality-TV madman, Gary Busey was a promising young talent with irrepressible energy, thriving in a broad variety of projects and even scoring an Oscar nomination for his best performance, playing an ill-fated ’50s rock star in The Buddy Holly Story. Directed by first-timer Steve Rash, The Buddy Holly Story is a thoroughly ordinary piece of work that depicts key events during Holly’s ascent from obscurity as a Texas roller-rink performer to international fame as a chart-topping tunesmith. This is awfully clean-cut stuff by rock-movie standards, since Holly’s biggest professional obstacles were ambition and perfectionism, rather than the standard rock-god foibles of substance abuse and womanizing, so the level of drama in the picture never rises particularly high. Still, The Buddy Holly Story is rewarding, largely because of Busey’s impassioned performance.
          Stripping his gigantic frame down to slimmer proportions, burying his blonde locks in brown dye, and hiding his eyes behind Holly’s signature Coke-bottle eyeglasses, Busey slips into his character’s skin while still retaining the vivaciousness that makes Busey so interesting. Whether the actor actually captures the real Holly is a question better left to experts, but there’s no question that Busey’s work in this picture is consistently dynamic and naturalistic. Better still, Busey absolutely kills during the musical scenes, since he not only did all of his own singing but also performed the movie’s myriad tunes live during filming—there’s a good reason why most of The Buddy Holly Story’s 113 minutes comprise full performances of classics like “It’s So Easy,” “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and “True Love Ways.” Whenever Busey is on stage, with hard-working supporting players Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud playing, respectively, Holly’s bass player and drummer, the movie sizzles.
          And if some of the surrounding narrative bits fall flat by comparison—for instance, Maria Richwine’s performance as Holly’s wife is amiable but forgettable—the problem is surmountable, since a theme of The Buddy Holly Story is that Holly was a workaholic who felt most alive while creating music. Plus, the movie can’t really do much with the circumstances of Holly’s sudden death in a plane crash at the height of his fame, since it’s hard to make capricious fate seem organic. Nonetheless, Rash’s loving evocation of the ’50s is appealing—all tidy surfaces and simmering youth-culture tension—and the best parts of the movie work just fine. As the kids on American Bandstand used to say, it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

The Buddy Holly Story: GROOVY

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hell Boats (1970)

How exciting is the World War II thriller Hell Boats? Well, let me put it this way: Watching the movie took me four different sittings, because each time I started the flick, I fell asleep. Allowing that the picture may have fallen victim to my busy schedule and corresponding fatigue, I’ll be generous and say my head-dives weren’t entirely the film’s fault—but, still, “lively” ain’t exactly the right word for Hell Boats. Part of the problem is the meandering storyline, which tracks an American-born British Naval officer’s efforts to blow up some sort of Nazi encampment near Sicily, and part of the problem is the hopelessly bland persona of leading man James Franciscus. Handsome, lean, tan beyond reason, and suitably emphatic, he sure seems like he’s giving a performance, whether he’s quarreling with subordinates about strategy or romancing the cynical wife (Elizabeth Shepherd) of his superior officer, but every note Franciscus hits is painfully obvious. His brand of bad acting is particularly unfortunate, because he comes across as lacking not so much talent but imagination—it’s as if he can’t inhabit a moment without striking a pose he’s seen some other actor strike in another movie, so even though he always steers clear of embarrassing himself, nothing resonates. And so it goes for every other aspect of this movie, which throws together familiar elements--friction among soldiers that sorta recalls The Dirty Dozen; high-adventure military espionage in the mode of The Guns of Navarone; wartime romance reminiscent of From Here to Eternity; et cetera. Plus, the villains are interchangeable, the supporting characters are one-dimensional ciphers, and the technical execution is mediocre, with cheap-looking process shots taking the luster off otherwise adequate location photography. In sum, Hell Boats is that rare movie it’s possible to forget during a viewing. But, hey, we all need a nap sometime, right? (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Hell Boats: LAME

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Seizure (1974)

          It would require someone more invested than me in the career of cinematic provocateur Oliver Stone to explain how the director’s first movie, Seizure, fits into a filmography that’s dominated by serious-minded dramas—because while Seizure certainly isn’t funny (at least not intentionally so), it’s a misguided, ridiculous mess. Seizure is ostensibly a horror film, complete with a few gory murder scenes and other shock-cinema signifiers (creepy musical score, knife-wielding psychos, morbid storyline). Yet Stone also tries for something more edifying, a probing journey into the torrid mental state of a doomed novelist (Jonathan Frid). Somehow, though, good intentions yield bad results, because Seizure is filled with laughable images: Picture a menacing little person (Hervé Villechaize) wearing some sort of court-jester costume while he knocks over normal-sized people with karate moves and goads a bikini-clad woman (Mary Woronov) through a knife fight with the aforementioned writer. And we haven’t even gotten to the Queen of Evil (Martine Beswick), an otherworldly temptress who slinks around with her cape draped across her outstretched arms, as if she’s channeling Bela Lugosi.
          Had the underlying story been strong enough to support such extreme images, the picture might have worked. Similarly, the picture might have worked had Stone simply made every scene frightening. Alas, Seizure feels like several mediocre movies stitched together. The simplest level of the film involves Edmund Blackstone (Frid) inviting several weird friends to a weekend getaway in the country. The next level involves Edmund’s recurring dreams of three strange creatures—the Queen, the Jackal (Henry Judd Baker), and Spider (Villechaize)—who threaten to hurt Edmund and his loved ones. And still another level involves these creatures coming to life and causing bloody mayhem. Think Fellini crossed with Ed Wood, then add a dash of obnoxiously overwritten dialogue about destiny and the soul, and you’re close. One suspects this material meant a lot to Stone, at least as an artistic/intellectual exercise, because he co-wrote and co-edited the film, in addition to providing voices for supernatural characters, and one hopes he learned a great deal from the failure of this project about how to channel his obsessions more effectively. As a viewing experience, however, Seizure is uniquely unsatisfying.

Seizure: LAME