Thursday, October 31, 2013

Psychomania (1973)

          Produced in the UK and originally titled Psychomania—but rechristened The Death Wheelers for American audiences, the better to capitalize on the popularity of biker flicks—this oddity blends tropes from half a dozen different genres into a truly unique hybrid. Psychomania is an action-biker-horror-comedy that also touches on cults, suicide pacts, and the supernatural. Oh, and demonic frogs, too. In fact, the most bizarre thing about Psychomania is how well all of its component parts fuse together; the picture inhabits a parallel universe all its own, somewhat like Death Race 2000 (1975) or The Warriors (1979), two other ultraviolent stories that are presented like live-action comic books.
          Swaggering Brit Nicky Henson stars as Tom, leader of a UK motorcycle gang called the Living Dead. Sporting absurd helmets with cartoonish skulls painted onto the visors, the Living Dead get their kicks terrorizing normal folks with destructive mischief, often causing fatal accidents just for thrills. Tom is preoccupied with suicide, largely because his mother, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), and her mysterious manservant, Shadwell (George Sanders), have some mysterious connection to the netherworld. Tom is convinced that if he can steal the secret of his mother’s power, he can kill himself and return to life as an invincible immortal. Eventually, he does that very thing. Then he celebrates his rebirth with a series of murders before convincing other members of the Living Dead to follow his example. The tension of the movie stems from Tom’s quest to persuade his girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), to kill herself, an overture she repeatedly refuses. There’s also a throwaway subplot involving the cops who investigate murders committed by the Living Dead, though the cops never pose much of a threat.
          Psychomania is quite funny, although the humor is so pitch-black the movie borders on dementia, and the cool thing about the picture is that it’s less of a horror-themed comedy and more of a tongue-in-cheek horror movie. The distinction is subtle but important, since Psychomania is laser-focused on pushing its grim little story forward. Running a brisk 85 minutes, the movie is as wonderfully efficient as it is wonderfully nasty. More than anything, the picture has attitude to burn. Scenes of mayhem are set to acid-tinged Brit-funk, which suits the campy nature of the narrative. More importantly, Psychomania commits wholeheartedly to its blasphemous nature—in addition to a comedic suicide montage (!), there’s a scene implying the murder of a baby just for kicks.
          Director Don Sharp frames the material well with his stylish photography, and screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet never miss a wicked beat. Psychomania is immoral and ridiculous, but the playful tone of the piece never wavers. And if the acting is mostly perfunctory, that’s all to the good, with the performers subsuming themselves to the diseased overmind of the story in the same way the characters become supplicants to nefarious forces. As a case in point, consider the presence of Hollywood veteran Sanders, the urbane thespian known for playing derisive upper-crust types. This was Sanders’ last movie, because in 1972 he killed himself and left behind one of history’s most famous suicide notes: “Dear world, I am leaving you because I am bored . . . I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.” Sanders phones in his performance, but he can’t completely suppress his signature acidic glee in the following exchange with the film’s leading man, upon the demise of a supporting character: After the leading man exclaims, “She’s dead,” Sanders replies, “You must be so happy.”

The Death Wheelers: FREAKY

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

          Noteworthy as the most commercially successful Canadian film in history, at least at the time of its initial release, and as the vehicle for Richard Dreyfuss’ first leading role in a movie, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz both merits and suffers under close inspection. A briskly paced blend of comedy and drama, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz represents a thoughtful inquiry into the soul of a character. Furthermore, the movie—like its source material, Mordecai Richler’s novel of the same name—comprises a rumination on what it meant to be Jewish in North America during the 1940s. Yet while the project’s intentions are noble, the execution is erratic.
          Adapted for the screen by Lionel Chetwynd and directed by the nimble Ted Kotcheff, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz has a peculiar texture. The movie feels rushed, since the filmmakers obviously wanted to include as much of the novel’s plot as possible; many scene transitions are abrupt, with optical wipes and/or sudden bursts of music shifting the tone from droll to dour in jarring ways; and the filmmakers seem unclear about their perspective on the protagonist. The title character (played, obviously, by Dreyfuss) is a born hustler who uses lies and schemes and tricks to move up the economic ladder, leaving broken friendships (and worse) in his wake.
          At times, the filmmakers seem highly judgmental of Duddy, presenting him as a callous prick who’ll do anything for money; at other times, the filmmakers seem amused by Duddy, as if he’s a playful scamp to be admired for his manic single-mindedness. Similarly, the filmmakers can’t decide whether they’re making a comedy with an undercurrent of pathos or a drama with an undercurrent of frivolity. Nearly every scene in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is interesting in some way, but the whole enterprise comes across like the highlight reel for a larger, more coherent endeavor. Set in World War II-era Montreal, the movie tracks Duddy’s slow rise from high-school graduate to self-made businessman.
          The son of a humble cab driver (Jack Warden), Duddy begins his working life with a job as a waiter at a resort. Quickly discerning that strivers who grease the moneyed class with special treatment do well, Duddy out-maneuvers his peers, making fair-weather friends of various swells. Duddy then embarks on a long romantic relationship with a Catholic girl, Yvette (Michceline Lanctòt), and hatches the idea to buy a lake upon which he can build an empire of hotels and other businesses. Clever and relentless, Duddy commences his next outrageous business venture by hiring an alcoholic ex-Hollywood film director (Denholm Elliot) to make bar mitzvah and wedding movies for wealthy Canadian Jews. And so it goes until a series of reversals—including brushes with criminality and a horrific traffic accident—halt Duddy’s ascension.
          That the preceding description includes only some of the movie’s plot should indicate how densely the film is packed. If not for the skill of the principal actors, in fact, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz simply wouldn’t work, since the hurried pace leaves so little time to linger on individual moments. Dreyfuss, whose acting style is fairly manic anyway, keeps pace with the movie’s frenetic momentum, adroitly charting Duddy’s progress from innocent to cynic to battle-tested survivor. (Dreyfuss’ innate amiability is also the only thing that keeps Duddy from coming across as a complete asshole.) Warden fills his own scenes with energy and warmth, while Randy Quaid provides folksy counterpoint in a supporting role as a young American who enters Duddy’s orbit. Joe Silver (as one of Duddy’s patrons) and the always-entertaining Elliot are similarly strong. Alas, while The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is filled with highly watchable elements, it’s ultimately a bit of a mess—as demonstrated by the picture’s final scene, which wobbles indecisively between tragedy and whimsy.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: FUNKY

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Payday (1973)

          Payday takes no prisoners. Treating the excesses of one fictional country singer’s life as a symbol for the extremes of anyone who believes his or her own hype, this little-seen drama stars Rip Torn as Maury Dann, a monstrous megalomaniac who mows down everyone who stands between him and glory or self-destruction, whichever comes first. The irony that Dann succeeds in the folksy realm of country music is utilized for maximum effect, as are subtle parallels to real-life country singers whose substance-abuse issues were common knowledge. (The movie implies a tip of the Stetson to George Jones’s boozing, for instance, although Dann doesn’t come across like a direct stand-in for any particular individual.) Zooming out from the film’s perspective on country music specifically, the choice of music in general makes all sorts of sense, not only because popular entertainers get cut more slack for bad behavior than most mere mortals, but because the tension between fans and the lucky people whom fans elevate to star status is so rich. After all, the very people whom Dann treats so badly—the compliant groupies who buy his music, the underappreciated sidemen who make his shows happen, and so on—are the source of the power that he abuses.
          On one level, Payday is a simple story about a man who damns himself by biting the hand that feeds, but on a deeper level, it’s about the fine line between ambition and avarice, because the same single-mindedness that fuels Dann’s more-is-more rampaging is, presumably, what pushed him through obstacles and rejections on the way to success.
          Torn, whose real-life troubles prove he grasps the concept of personal demons all too well, gives one of the finest—and most frightening—performances of his career, his energy level keyed up to superhuman levels from the first frame to the last. He plays Dann as a sort of tornado whipping through bars, concert halls and studios, leaving bruised and confused victims in his wake. (The title refers to Dann’s ferocious pursuit of the bottom line, because he uses everyone he meets to further his own success, no matter what shape they’re in when he’s done.) Director Daryl Duke, whose career mostly comprises middling TV projects and one other fine ’70s movie (the twisty 1978 crime thriller The Silent Partner) films Payday unobtrusively, letting Torn chew through the pages of Don Carpenter’s unflinching script at a rapid pace. Plus, intentionally or not, the effect of Maury Dann living on a plane above everyone else is compounded by the use of a supporting cast featuring unfamiliar actors; it’s as if Torn’s characterization consumes so much oxygen that no other name-brand actor would be able to breathe in the same space.
          That said, minor characters in Payday serve their functions well, conveying a believable vision of Nashville and the surrounding area as an industry town that’s as reliant on working stiffs as it is on visionaries. (The filmmakers also illustrate virtually every imaginable dimension of the lead character, showing his relationships with friends, foes, family and everyone in between.) Payday is a ’70s movie to its core, dark and probing and unglamorous, so while it cannot be described as a fun movie to watch, it’s a prime example of the type of nervy character study that give the boldest ’70s cinema its unique flavor.

Payday: GROOVY

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Hard Ride (1971)

          For long stretches of screen time, The Hard Ride seems like the gentlest biker flick ever made, because leading man Robert Fuller and leading lady Sherry Bain spend a whole lot of the movie either riding peacefully through such picturesque locations as Yosemite National Park or enjoying romantic idylls at scenic roadside encampments. Furthermore, the movie’s overarching narrative is inherently contemplative, because Fuller plays a Vietnam vet who honors a fallen comrade’s last wishes by taking care of the dead soldier’s motorcycle, nicknamed “Baby,” and by gathering the man’s friends for a funeral ceremony. The Hard Ride occupies a peculiar space between the normal excesses of biker flicks and the more ruminative qualities of character-driven drama. That said, The Hard Ride is amateurish on many levels, so perhaps it’s best to think of the picture as a noble but unsuccessful attempt to invest an exploitation movie with something extra.
          Fuller, a veteran TV star who preens and scowls through scenes in the mode of a soap-opera actor, plays Phil, a recently discharged Marine. Returning to the West Coast home region of his late pal, Terry, Phil is bequeathed “Baby” and instructed to arrange Terry’s funeral. Phil connects with Terry’s girlfriend, Sheryl (Sherry Bain), and they begin a long quest to find a biker named Big Red (Tony Russel), because Terry requested Big Red’s presence at the funeral. Predictably, Phil and Sheryl get romantically involved, and hassles ensue with Big Red’s gang and other hog-riding outfits, as well as troublemaking teenagers.
          Written and directed by Burt Topper, who enjoyed a long career in schlock cinema, The Hard Ride opens and closes like an art film, with enigmatic shots cut quickly while Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers) sings a funked-up version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on the soundtrack. In between these vivid scenes, The Hard Ride treads water. Although the spunky Bain boasts a womanly appeal that’s a refreshing change of pace from the bimbo types normally hired to decorate biker flicks, Fuller is such a mannequin that the movie never generates emotional heat. Worse, The Hard Ride wobbles indecisively between genre-movie pulp and straight-drama seriousness. (It’s a relief whenever the picture settles into colorful biker-flick rhythms, as when Big Red riffs thusly: “If we start tangling asses, there’s gonna be a lotta heads and machines busted.”) Ultimately, The Hard Ride is admirable and disappointing at the same time—in trying to do something more, the picture ends up doing something less.

The Hard Ride: FUNKY

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shampoo (1975)

          Here’s just one of the many fascinating details about Shampoo: Although it’s rightly considered a pinnacle achievement for the New Hollywood, the principal creative force behind the picture is very much a creature of Old Hollywood. Warren Beatty, the film’s leading man, producer, co-writer—and, according to gossip that’s surrounded the project for decades, uncredited co-director—was groomed for greatness by the studio system, even though his star didn’t truly rise until the counterculture era. And, just as Beatty is an inherently complicated Hollywood persona, the vision of late-1960s America he and his collaborators present in Shampoo resists simple classifications.
          On one level, the story of a lothario hairdresser who gets away with screwing his female clients because their husbands think he’s gay is a satire of social mores during a period of shifting sexual identities. On another level, Shampoo is a savvy political story examining various attitudes toward Richard Nixon at the time of his 1968 ascension to the White House. And yet on a third level, Shampoo is an ultra-hip study of Me Generation ennui, because nearly ever character in the film experiences some degree of existential crisis. Furthermore, the execution of the film is as classical as the content is brash—director Hal Ashby relies on elegant camerawork and meticulous pacing, rather than the flashy experimentation associated with many New Hollywood triumphs, even though the brilliant script by Beatty and Robert Towne breaks one taboo after another. (Let we forget, one of the film’s most memorable scenes involves costar Julie Christie drunkenly slurring, “I want to suck his . . .” Well, you get the picture.)
          Beatty, who often cleverly capitalized on his personal reputation as a Casanova, plays George Roundy, a Beverly Hills hairdresser beloved as much by female clients for his way with their bodies as for his way with their tresses. At the beginning of the story, he juggles relationships with his long-suffering girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and with a rich housewife, Felicia (Lee Grant). Eager to open his own shop, George uses Felicia to get to her husband, Lester (Jack Warden), a wealthy businessman—who has a mistress of his own, Jackie (Christie). Smart and strong-willed, Jackie beguiles George, who somehow imagines he can have everything he wants—Felicia’s support, Jackie’s affection, Jill’s devotion, Lester’s patronage.
          Woven into all of this sexual farce is a bitter thread of class warfare, with Lester representing the arrogance of financial power and nearly every other character representing the desperation of financial need; Beatty and Towne draw provocative parallels between the cynicism of Nixon’s politics and the way various characters pursue skewed versions of the American Dream. The people in Shampoo are players and strivers, right down to Lester’s adolescent daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher), who has been taught by the unforgiving world to embrace her sexual power at a young age.
          Shampoo has moments that some find screamingly funny, such as the scene in which Christie makes the aforementioned startling declaration, but this is character-driven comedy of the most brittle sort, riding the fine line between humor and pathos. And that, among so many other things, is what makes Shampoo endlessly interesting—the film captures myriad facets of a confusing time. How appropriate, then, that the unobtrusive score is by pop star Paul Simon, one of the most important musical voices of the ’60s.

Shampoo: RIGHT ON

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Au Pair Girls (1972)

First, a word about the above poster—although this UK sexploitation film did indeed hit American screens bearing its original title, Au Pair Girls, the schlock merchants at Cannon Film Distributors apparently assumed that the titular phrase referring to young women who trade domestic services for lodging with a host family in a new country was too opaque for the intended audience. Thus, Cannon marketed the picture as The Young Playmates, even though people buying tickets for The Young Playmates actually saw Au Pair Girls, title intact. Anyway, the picture was helmed by UK director Val Guest, and his signature handsome production values are put in the service of a silly storyline peppered with leering shots of women and wan attempts at comedy. At the beginning of the flick, four ladies from around the globe report to the offices of a staffing agency. Next, each is sent to an assignment somewhere in the UK. Thereafter, the movie toggles between the resulting subplots, each of which is a variation on the sex-comedy theme. The two sleaziest threads of the movie involve Anita (Astrid Frank), an uninhibited Nordic type who eventually ends up in the bed of a super-rich sheik, and Randi (Gabrielle Drake), who spends most of the movie riding naked in the passenger seat of a horny bloke’s car. Concurrently, Nan Lee (played by the dubiously named actress “Me Me Lay”) is hired to look after a rich twentysomething so sheltered he’s never even kissed a woman, and Christa (played by the mind-meltingly sexy Nancie Wait) ends up running with fast company including an obnoxious pop star. Every scenario in Au Pair Girls is designed for optimal ogling, so there are lots of scenes with women in miniskirts climbing ladders and/or ladies changing their clothes in plain view of others. The dialogue is as juvenile as the rest of the film, so upon seeing gorgeous babes naked, male characters say things like, “Now that is a wunderbar plus!” and “Come on, you shattering creature!” If one felt the need to identify praiseworthy elements, it could be said that the culmination of Christa’s storyline comes dangerously close to respectable drama, the cinematography is glossy from start to finish, and the movie is never mean-spirited.

Au Pair Girls: LAME

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Beast Must Die (1974)

          Made by the UK production company Amicus, a second-rate competitor/imitator of Hammer Films, The Beast Must Die is a truly strange amalgam of pulpy story elements—it’s a monster movie presented in the narrative mode of an Agatha Christie tale, and it features both blaxploitation flourishes and a ridiculous gimmick straight out of the William Castle playbook. Plus, the whole thing’s slathered with that noxious brand of pseudo-funk music that appeared in the worst UK horror pictures of the period, representing a failed attempt to make decidedly un-hip movies sound hip. To say that The Beast Must Die tries to be everything to everyone is an understatement.
          Bahamanian actor Calvin Lockhart stars as Tom, the owner of a gigantic country estate in the UK, which he’s rigged with an elaborate network of hidden cameras and microphones. Turns out Tom is a big-game hunter preparing for his most dangerous prey yet—a werewolf. Toward that end, he recruits six acquaintances for a weekend visit, knowing that one of them is the lycanthrope. (Never mind the unanswerable logic questions raised by his convenient possession of this knowledge.) Upon their arrival, Tom tells his guests that over the next three nights, when the moon is full, he will identify and kill the werewolf. During hunting scenes, Tom, who is black, gets duded up like he’s auditioning for a sequel to Shaft (1971), wearing a tight leather jumpsuit and a gun belt while he races through the woods aided, via radio, by his security technician, Pavel (Anton Diffing). During non-hunting scenes, Tom struts around dinner tables and smoking rooms repeatedly announcing, with absurd theatricality, “One of you—is a werewolf!”
          The actors playing Tom’s guests, including respectable UK performers Peter Cushing, Michael Gambon, and Charles Gray, try not to embarrass themselves when delivering the movie’s goofy dialogue. Alas, any hope of retaining dignity disappears when the picture reaches the “Werewolf Break,” a 30-second onscreen countdown giving viewers one last chance to ID the monster’s human guise. The Beast Must Die is outrageously stupid, but it boasts solid production values and a quick pace, while lovely costars Marlene Clark and Ciaran Madden provide eye candy by wearing low-cut dinner gowns in most of their scenes. And, to be fair, a couple of the werewolf attacks generate half-decent jolts, so it would be ungallant to deny that The Beast Must Die generates at least a few moments of cartoonish entertainment. Overall, though, what holds the attention here is the (morbid) curiosity factor of watching a laughably misguided film self-immolate.

The Beast Must Die: FUNKY

Thursday, October 24, 2013

September 30, 1955 (1977)

          A minor work by writer-director James Bridges—whose more impressive credits include The Paper Chase (1973) and The China Syndrome (1979)—September 30, 1955 revolves around a bold premise that sounds more interesting in conception than it is in execution. The titular date is when movie star James Dean died in a car wreck, so Bridges focuses on the reactions of several Dean fans in small-town Arkansas. The idea, so promising in the abstract, was to convey why Dean’s incarnation of angst-ridden teen rebellion spoke so deeply to a generation of postwar adolescents. Unfortunately, Bridges stretches this already-thin material way past its breaking point, and he features characters whose behavior is so extreme (and inexplicable) that he leaves recognizable reality far behind. Perhaps Bridges would have been better served tackling this topic with a short film.
          In any event, the central character of September 30, 1955 is Jimmy (Richard Thomas), a high-strung youth afraid of the life that awaits him after he graduates high school in a few weeks. Having fallen under Dean’s thrall after seeing East of Eden (1955) four times, Jimmy is more than eager to demonstrate that he, too, can be a rebel. Hearing about Dean’s death gives Jimmy license to release his id, so the picture depicts the misguided mischief Jimmy creates along with friends including Charlotte (Deborah Benson), Frank (Dennis Quaid), Hanley (Tom Hulce), and especially Billie Jean (Lisa Blount), who’s an even bigger Dean freak than Jimmy. The youths steal booze from a store, run away from cops, hold a séance, terrorize classmates at a lover’s-lane spot, and eventually trigger a near-tragic accident. While it’s easy to believe that Jimmy’s friends are bored kids looking for laughs, accepting Jimmy’s characterization is nearly impossible—whether he’s stripping down to undies and slathering himself in mud or claiming he’s receiving signals from Dean’s spirit, Jimmy comes across as a lunatic. He’s also a boring lunatic, especially in the film’s interminable climactic scene, which features Jimmy giving the dullest monologue imaginable in an utterly absurd circumstance.
          Thomas, who enjoyed a big ’70s TV career on The Waltons, wears out his welcome here, reaching for but not seizing the kind of intensity that seemed to come effortlessly for better Dean-esque actors (e.g., Martin Sheen, etc.). Thomas’ castmates fare better, but they can’t fully surmount the iffy material, and an atrocious score by Leonard Rosenman only makes things worse. Only the great cinematographer Gordon Willis contributes something unassailably special to September 30, 1955, with moody imagery dominated by shadows and silhouettes, although whether his dark style is actually “right” for this story is anybody’s guess.

September 30, 1955: FUNKY

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Inserts (1974)

          The first hurdle to get over when approaching writer-director John Byrum’s strange little movie Inserts is trying to understand how the thing got made. Setting aside the presence of leading man Richard Dreyfuss, who was on the rise in the early ’70s thanks to American Graffiti (1973), everything about Inserts screams “uncommercial.” The piece unfolds like a play, with real-time interaction between a small set of characters sprawling across a single location for 117 minutes; the dense dialogue occasionally tips over into pretention; and the film is filled with sex on every level, so even though the depiction of physical encounters is not explicit, Inserts borders on porn just for the sheer amount of sexual content. (The MPAA slapped the picture with an X rating during its original release.) Put succinctly, Inserts is a North American movie that feels like a European art-house picture, and on top of everything else, it’s dark as hell. Therefore, asking how the movie came into being is futile. It was the ’70s, man.
          Byrum takes viewers on a unique journey, although chances are many viewers give up before the trip reaches its destination—the weirdness factor is undoubtedly a turn-off for some. That said, Inserts is full of intellectual and visceral rewards for those who lock into Byrum’s bizarre frequency. Inserts is a movie about movies, but it’s also about ambition, artistic hubris, emotional paralysis, manipulation, and power—all of which are viewed through the prism of carnal knowledge.
          Set in the 1930s, Inserts takes place in the mansion of Boy Wonder (Dreyfuss), a movie director whose career peaked in the silent era. Boy Wonder drove himself out of the film business with diva behavior, so now he makes his living by shooting stag reels in his own home—a nice arrangement, seeing as how Boy Wonder has become a virtual recluse. Then as now, the porn business attracts damaged souls, so Boy Wonder’s cast members for the shoot depicted in Inserts are Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), a heroin-addicted former mainstream movie actress, and “Rex, the Wonder Dog” (Stephen Davies), a dimwit stud with violent tendencies. Underwriting the whole affair is Big Mac (Bob Hoskins), a crude gangster who hits the scene accompanied by Cathy (Jessica Harper), an intense striver determined to break into movies no matter what it takes. As the story progresses, Boy Wonder plays mind games on his actors to get work out of them. Later, when tragedy strikes, Boy Wonder himself becomes the victim of mind games.
          Even though Inserts is in many ways a film of ideas, giving away too much of the plot would be a disservice to the piece, because the layers of character that get revealed with every plot twist add to the richness of Byrum’s deranged tapestry. Every character is a lost soul of some kind, so watching them grasp for solid ground makes for fascinating sport. Not everything in Inserts works, and the perverse nature of the material ensures that cynical viewers will find the piece more credible than optimistic ones. Still, this is singular work fueled by passionate acting.
          Carwright nails a poignant mixture of naïveté and world-weariness, while Harper presents a character who seems like a skin-trade riff on All About Eve’s Eve Harrington—the hungry young thing without a conscience. Hoskins is effectively boarish and frightening, while Davies personifies the confusion of a man unable to grasp the full dimensions of his own circumstances. As for Dreyfuss, he’s incandescent, the complicated and precise nuances of his performance mitigated only by the actor’s overpowering self-satisfaction. (Few stars seem to relish their own skills as obviously as Dreyfuss does, though a strong argument could be made that arrogance was the perfect choice of emotional though-line for Boy Wonder.) Overall, Inserts is a deeply odd movie, given the juxtaposition of its lofty literary style and its sleazy subject matter. Grim and insightful and macabre and stylish and surprising, it’s a high-wire act performed in a sewer.

Inserts: FREAKY

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Girl from Petrovka (1974)

Goldie Hawn’s career took some odd turns between her late-’60s breakout period as a goofy starlet and her late-’70s ascension to A-list status in light comedies. For instance, around the same time Hawn made a credible dive into dramatic material with The Sugarland Express (1974), she toplined this unsuccessful attempt at blending comedy with drama. It’s not difficult to see what might have appealed to Hawn, since her role requires a foreign accent and the character she plays exerts a profound influence on everyone she meets. Unfortunately, Hawn is wrong for the role on nearly every level. Her accent is amateurish (and sometimes completely absent); her hippy-dippy persona makes the film’s central notion of a free spirit in a totalitarian state far too literal; and the fact that she’s 20 years younger than her main love interest, costar Hal Holbrook, gives the whole enterprise a seedy quality. In Hawn’s defense, however, The Girl from Petrovka is so poorly assembled that better casting wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Adapted from a book by George Feifer, the movie takes place in Moscow, where American journalist Joe (Holbrook) meets a community of artists including flighty ballerina Oktyabrina (Hawn). Blonde and giggly and unreliable, Oktyabrina worms her way into Joe’s life, taking advantage of his apartment and his expense account while she operates outside the Soviet legal structure. (She has no papers.) As the turgid storyline progresses, Joe inexplicably falls for Oktyabrina while she directs her affections toward a young lover and an elderly sugar daddy. Eventually, the Joe and Oktyabrina attempt couplehood until her scofflaw status creates problems. Even though The Girl from Petrovka has admirable qualities, such as atmospheric location cinematography (Austria subs for Russia) and mature performances by Holbrook and costar Anthony Hopkins, the failure of the title character to command audience attention derails the film. Worse, the movie’s attempt to shift into quasi-tragic mode at the end clashes with the lighthearted vapidity of what’s come before. Many great stories were told during the Soviet era about the complexities of finding love in the U.S.S.R., but The Girl from Petrovka is not one of them.

The Girl from Petrovka: LAME

Monday, October 21, 2013

Tourist Trap (1979)

Although films about colorful psychopaths have been around virtually since the beginning of cinema—Lon Chaney Sr. played madmen throughout the silent era—the “slasher” genre largely began with the success of Halloween (1978). Yet while Halloween imaginatively exploits primal fears, most of the film’s countless imitators simply borrow the device of a maniac with a distinctive signature menacing young people. Tourist Trap, released in 1979, is exemplary of where the slasher genre was headed, which is to say it’s ugly movie with a moronic script. Oddly, however, Tourist Trap avoids two elements prevalent in both Halloween and most of its knock-offs—gore and nudity. Yes, Tourist Trap is a PG-rated slasher flick, and yes, that’s as pointless an endeavor as it sounds. Produced by schlockmeister Charles Band, who never met a penny he’d rather not spend, the picture begins when a carload of teenagers encounters an old roadside waxworks run by kooky redneck Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors). One by one, a killer stalking the waxworks murders the kids, eventually leading to a long sequence in a torture dungeon, during which the killer encases one of his victims in wax. Tourist Trap shamelessly cops from The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953), both of which are unvarnished pinnacles of cinematic achievement compared to this silliness. Although co-writer/director David Schmoeller tries to add a smidgen of psychology by giving the killer long speeches explaining why he does bad things, across-the-board terrible acting makes it impossible to care about anything that happens in the flick. Connors is so self-consciously “weird” that he’s never believable, and the attractive young actors playing the victims—including future Charlie’s Angels sexpot Tanya Roberts—whine and whimper their way through scenes of maddeningly stupid behavior. Adding insult to injury, the filmmakers hired composer Pino Donaggio, whose score for Carrie (1976) began a long series of collaborations with Brian De Palma. Donaggio bludgeons Tourist Trap with his usual overbearing sounds, giving this very small movie a hilariously grandiose sonic attack.

Tourist Trap: LAME

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

          An intriguing film loaded with offbeat characters and stylish moments but lacking a clear storyline, the crime drama Electra Glide in Blue was the first and (to date) last directorial endeavor by successful rock-music producer James William Guercio, who oversaw the first several years of the band Chicago’s ascension. Starring diminutive Robert Blake as a Southwestern motorcycle cop who dreams of becoming a plainclothes detective, the movie tracks a murder investigation connected to stolen loot, hippies, and crazy old hermits. There’s also a subplot involving a swaggering detective whose confidence disguises embarrassing inadequacies. This characterization epitomizes this film’s modus operandi, because Electra Glide in Blue is about the gulf between how people present themselves and what they actually have inside them.
          Blake is cast perfectly here. Setting aside his subsequent real-life legal troubles, Blake was a unique onscreen force back in the day, a muscular badass crammed into a tiny body. The role of Officer John Wintergreen fits the actor beautifully not only because Wintergreen has a massive inferiority complex but also because the role allows Blake to convey innocence and sweetness, qualities that later disappeared from the actor’s screen image.
          When the story begins, Wintergreen is a by-the-book beat cop who won’t let any violator get away without a ticket, and who barely tolerates the poor work ethic of his partner, Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush). When Wintergreen discovers a dead body that’s arranged to look like a suicide, his ambition compels him to find clues suggesting murder. Identifying a crime scene gets Wintergreen a gig as the temporary sidekick of Detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), a grandstanding investigator with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and an ever-present cigar. In a strange way, the introduction of Poole is both the moment when Electra Glide in Blue gets really interesting and the moment when the movie runs off the rails. The middle of the picture gets lost in a morass of meandering character scenes, all of which are filled with insights and surprises, but the murder mystery becomes hopelessly obscured. Then, once the movie drifts into a final act defined by multiple tragedies, Electra Glide in Blue assumes the shape of a Big Statement but doesn’t actually make a Coherent Statement.
          Still, the ride is worthwhile, partially because of the vivid performances—Ryan is especially good, conveying the fragility hidden behind a he-man’s façade—and partially because of the spectacular cinematography by Conrad Hall. A master at creating both evocative indoor environments and sweeping outdoor panoramas, Hall runs away with the movie, since his photographic style is more consistent than Guercio’s scattershot directorial approach. Fans of world-class movie imagery can happily groove on this film just for the compositions and movements that Hall applies to every scene. There’s also something to be said, no surprise, for the eclectic rock-music soundtrack, which culminates in a powerful original song, “Tell Me,” which plays over the final scene. Unfolding in tandem with one of the most fabulously pretentious closing shots in all of ’70s cinema, the tune features orchestral sweep and a titanic vocal by Chicago’s Terry Kath.

Electra Glide in Blue: GROOVY

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Girl Most Likely To . . . (1973)

          Long before she evolved into her current role as a tart-tongued fashionista, Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking female stand-up comic who briefly dabbled in Hollywood features. Not only did she direct and co-write the theatrical release Rabbit Test (1978), she co-wrote this darkly comedic TV movie. Starring Stockard Channing as an ugly duckling who transforms into a beautiful murderess, The Girl Most Likely To . . . plays out like a revenge fantasy for women who are undervalued by society because they’re not conventionally pretty. At the beginning of the story, Miriam (Channing) is a chubby college coed with blotchy skin and ghastly eyebrows, so she’s treated like a worthless troll by attractive classmates. Even childhood friend Herman (Warren Berlinger), a plumber whom Miriam figures eventually will propose to her because he’s no prize either, fails to appreciate Miriam’s bright mind and sharp wit. After suffering a series of indignities, culminating in a nasty prank staged by medical student Ted (Fred Grandy), Miriam tries to kill herself in an auto crash. Instead, she survives and receives extensive plastic surgery, which morphs her into a hottie. (The effect is achieved by freeing Channing from her ugly-girl drag and slathering her with such sexy signifiers as glamorous makeup and slinky dresses.) Newly emboldened by her ability to turn men’s heads, Miriam goes on a vengeful killing spree, staging elaborate murder scenarios to get back at everyone who treated her badly.
          Obviously, this is meant to be broad satire rather than anything based in reality, so director Lee Phillips presents everything in a breezy, farcical style. Some actors hit the darkly comic vibe better than others, with pros including Ed Asner, Jim Backus, and Joe Flynn finding the right campy groove, while lesser talents—notably Grandy, who later achieved fame as a Love Boat crew member and a U.S. Congressman—opt for over-the-top mugging. Channing, no surprise, is the best thing about The Girl Most Likely To . . . Her cheerfully acidic line deliveries make even the lamest lines connect. (The jokes here are strictly middlebrow, so they’re never laugh-out-loud funny but they’re plentiful enough to create a jovial atmosphere.) The Girl Most Likely To . . . also benefits from a droll ending, and because the whole movie runs its course in 73 minutes, the wicked little piece never overstays its welcome.

The Girl Most Likely To . . . : FUNKY

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Wild Child (1970)

          Despite being inextricably linked with the French New Wave, director François Truffaut’s was much more of a classicist that some of his peers—notably provocateur Jean-Luc Godard—so it’s unsurprising that a handful of his films are drawn from obscure historical events. Clearly, Truffaut was just as comfortable looking backward for subject matter as he was looking forward for stylistic innovations. The Wild Child—originally titled L’enfant sauvage—represents his eclecticism well. The film’s story is set in the 18th century, and Truffaut utilizes many tropes associated with early cinema, such as black-and-white cinematography and the in-camera effect known as the iris. Thematically, however, The Wild Child is a thoroughly modern piece, since the narrative explores questions related to the comparative values of contemporary “civilized” society and primeval nature-based existence. (Although the film is not overtly presented as an allegorical commentary on the flower-child movement, such implications can be inferred.)
          Based on a real-life event, The Wild Child tells the story of a preadolescent boy who was discovered living the woods of rural France after an unknown period of years, and then taken into the home a humane scientist who attempted to teach the feral youth basic communication, as well as basic morality. Truffaut never puts anything in front of his camera that isn’t essential to understanding the unique dynamic between student and teacher, making the brisk 85-minute picture a study in economy. For instance, the dialogue—largely comprising the scientist’s instructions to the boy and/or the scientist’s voice-over observations about the boy’s progress—is wonderfully sparse. On many occasions, Truffaut slides into laser-focused montage scenes set to exuberant Vivaldi music, and these scenes accentuate the challenges and joys of attempting something that outsiders might view as impossible—the socialization of a young human who, through circumstance, has become as much animal as man. (For quite some time, it appears the boy is deaf and mute, but therapy improves his hearing and, to a lesser degree, his speech.)
          Shooting in black-and-white accentuates the clinical nature of Truffaut’s filmmaking, making The Wild Child seem like some lost artifact from a long-gone time; cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ naturalistic lighting cements the documentary-style verisimilitude. Truffaut himself plays the role of the scientist, Dr. Itard, and he gives a clean performance bereft of preening or vanity. This allows the focus to remain, as it should, on the wild child himself, whom Itard names Victor. (Playing the role is Jean-Pierre Cargol.) A fragile compendium of bizarre behaviors and nervous tics, Victor comes across as a beast in a cage—the cage being the “normal” world. This iconography contrasts effectively with the freedom the boy demonstrates during the film’s opening sequence, the only time he’s shown in his (un)natural element prior to being captured. One could argue that The Wild Child is both too restrained and too self-explanatory, but the touching ending and the compassion running throughout the film compensate for the remove that’s ingrained within Truffaut’s observational camerawork. Others have told similar stories with more intensity, but few done so with such intelligence.

The Wild Child: GROOVY

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blackenstein (1973)

A movie whose appeal begins and ends at the title, Blackenstein should not be mistaken for as a companion piece to Blacula (1972), which is a sophisticated masterpiece compared to this low-budget clunker. Alternately titled The Black Frankenstein—for those too dim to translate the hipper one-word moniker—Blackenstein literally features an African-American dude wearing replicas of the makeup and outfit Boris Karloff wore in old Universal screamfests. Yes, the monster in Blackenstein has the abnormally high forehead, the head-to-toe black ensemble, the heavy boots, and even the zombified walking-and-grunting persona one associates with Karloff. Aside from the presence of an Afro instead of straight hair and dark skin instead of light skin, the monster in Blackenstein is a shameless and unimaginative rip-off. Oddly, however, the story of Blackenstein bears little resemblance to that of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. In this flick, pretty young scientist Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) enlists the help of her mentor, Dr. Stein (John Hart), after Winifred’s boyfriend, Eddie (Joe De Sue), loses limbs fighting in Vietnam. Dr. Stein uses specially formulated DNA to repair Eddie’s appendages, but Dr. Stein’s assistant—Malcolmb (Roosevelt Jackson)—tinkers with the formula because he wants Winifred for himself. Thus, Eddie becomes a monster, lumbering around Dr. Stein’s castle and the neighboring area for a nonsensical killing spree until the requisite showdown with his maker in a laboratory. Written and produced by Frank R. Saletri, Blackenstein is terrible on every level. The story is moronic, the editing is choppy, the music features moments of over the-top silliness (like the gigantic horror cue that accompanies a nothing scene of Winifred looking at a staircase), and the acting is excruciatingly bad. Oh, and the movie’s crude gore scenes were obviously achieved by throwing messy animal guts onto actors. Yuck. Worst of all, every satirical opportunity suggested by the title is completely missed. Whereas Blacula embraced its blackness to great effect, telling a story that sprawls from Africa to the inner city, Blackenstein lacks any distinctive flavor. In fact, the title probably should have been Blandenstein.

Blackenstein; SQUARE

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Murder by Decree (1979)

          Presumably inspired by the success of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer about Sherlock Holmes teaming up with Sigmund Freud—and by the favorable reception for the terrific 1976 movie adaptation of Meyer’s book—this ambitious mystery film pits Holmes against a real-life murderer, Jack the Ripper. That’s where things get a little complicated. First off, Meyer was not involved with Murder by Decree, but he made a wholly separate 1979 movie about Jack the Ripper called Time After Time. Furthermore, Murder by Decree is based on two separate books. They are Murder by Decree, a 1975 tome that Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd adapted from their own 1973 BBC miniseries Jack the Ripper, and Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, a 1976 book by Stephen Knight. Oh, and neither of those books features Sherlock Holmes. Confused? Me, too. Moving on!
          Murder by Decree is predicated on two gimmicks. First is the novelty of pairing Holmes with a real-life mystery, and second is the conspiracy theory detailed in the books upon which the film is based. Without giving away anything that isn’t hinted at by the title, the theory holds that Jack the Ripper was a member of the British aristocracy who had official sanction for his horrific crimes. Murder by Decree has many fans—deservedly so, since it’s a consistently intelligent and sophisticated film—though one wishes the producers had demonstrated more confidence in the source material, since the Holmes contrivance makes the whole picture feel a bit fluffy. After all, it’s hard to buy into a conspiracy theory when it’s presented in tandem with one of world literature’s most famous fictional characters. In other words, the story can only be so persuasive since it contains a made-up protagonist. Anyway, notwithstanding the credibility gap (and an overlong running time), Murder by Decree is solid entertainment for grown-ups.
          The cast is terrific, with an urbane Christopher Plummer playing Holmes opposite a snide James Mason as Dr. Watson. Supporting players include Frank Finlay and David Hemmings as policemen, plus John Gielgud as the British PM. (Geneviève Bujold and Donald Sutherland also appear.) Orchestrating the whole film is eclectic director Bob Clark, who at this point in his career had just escaped the ghetto of low-budget horror pictures; appropriately, he cloaks Murder by Degree with enough shadows and smoke to fuel a dozen frightfests. The movie comprises lots of skulking about in dark places, as well as interrogating suspects in ornate rooms, so the contrast between posh and seedy locations serves the story well. Still, it’s all a bit long-winded, and Plummer’s quite chilly, making it difficult to invest much emotion while watching the picture. Accordingly, how much you dig Murder by Decree will depend on how intriguing you find the central mystery—and how satisfying you find the ending, which might tie things up a bit too neatly for some tastes.

Murder by Decree: GROOVY